Christian readers and reviewers often portray themselves as “discerning.” Being discerning is a good thing. However, if we’re not careful, “discernment” can become an exercise in nit-pickiness and hyper-criticism. Especially when it comes to Christian fiction. Sometimes we’re so busy straining at gnats that we swallow camels.
Case in point.
The Christian Manifesto (TCM) is one of the few Christian review sites that appears willing to give honest ratings. I’ve been reading their reviews for a while now and appreciate their approach. However, in a recent review of Jim Rubart’s Soul’s Gate, one TCM reviewer slipped into Theology Police mode and as I watched, horrified, proceeded to swallow said camel. Rubart’s book received a Below Average rating, not because it was poorly written or boring, but because it contained the word “magic.”
Michelle Black writes:
The first problem in the book comes from the word magic. When I read C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia it bothered me that Emperor’s power was referred to as magic when the word power would have worked just as well and from my point of view, made the stories stronger.
Rubart also uses the word magic instead of the word power in his book, but he’s not writing about a separate time and place the way that Lewis was, he’s using that word to describe the power of the Holy Spirit in our world and in context of believers accessing it. The first time it happens on page 23 as [the protagonist] states what he is going to be sharing with the rest of the team are Things in the Bible that most followers of Jesus would dismiss as magic.
This is highly offensive. I’m a follower of Jesus and would never, ever, in a million years ever call the work of the Holy Spirit magic. (italics in original)
For the record, I have not read Soul’s Gate. However, there appears ample indication that book is a work of… fiction. Speculative fiction, at that. From the book description:
What if you could travel inside another person’s soul? To battle for them. To be part of Jesus healing their deepest wounds. To help set them free to step boldly into their divinely designed future.
Thirty years ago that’s exactly what Reece Roth did.
Apparently, we are not in Oz. Especially as Reece trains a group of “soul warriors” to travel inside someone’s soul and literally battle their demons. Lest readers be confused about the possibility of supersonic soul travel, Rubart includes this Author’s Note at the end of the novel:
“With regard to our spirits traveling inside the souls of others, no, I don’t believe that’s possible.”
Apparently, this didn’t stop other reviewers from joining in the gnat-straining.
Commenter Amanda wrote:
“It’s scary sometimes how authors can slip dangerous doctrine into fiction books!”
Commenter Gee insinuates Rubart’s story is potentially “sacrilegious” before lecturing us on how to correctly write about “the Truth”:
“…many authors, even of supposedly Christian novels, do not ground their narratives in orthodox theology. It is sacrilegious, to my mind, as it is to yours, that Rubart refers to the power of the Holy Spirit as ‘magic’ or ‘magical,’ a term associated not with Christian history, belief, or practice, but with pagan religious doctrines, rites, and rituals. When writing about the Truth, an author should be true not to his own ideas but to the Word of God.”
And commenter Katherine goes so far as to call the author to repent:
“It is my prayer that James Rubart will listen to your comments with fear and trembling in his heart and repent. The Bible is NOT a speculative book of fantasy but the holy, God-breathed, words of the Creator of the Universe to mankind. This fact alone should make fantasy writers tremble in awe and NEVER want to cross the line between fantasy and Truth.”
Reading and reviewing with an eye of discernment is an important thing. I don’t for one second want to downplay that. However, this book reviewer and the ensuing comments seem more indicative of a lack of discernment than anything.
Being “discerning” about theology is different than being “discerning” about art. How I approach a novel or a film should be different than how I approach Scripture, a self-help book, or a lecture. Simply quoting biblical injunctions against magic or sorcery does little to get to the heart of fictional, especially speculative, stories. (You can see a more detailed discussion in Thoughts on “Magical Hedges” and the Paradigm of Potter Objectors and Can Christian Theology and Speculative Fiction Coexist?)
Furthermore, the reviewers’ approach seems to contain a superstition all its own. As in suggesting that
- Using the word “magic” is evil
- Using the word “power” is not
To me, this approach is as problematic as the issue they’re addressing. I mean, does swapping words really make our stories less sacrilegious?
The fact that Soul’s Gate contained an Author’s Note explaining that a fictional mechanism is actually fictional, is embarrassing. It reveals the kind of eggshells many Christian authors are forced to walk on to sell to the Christian market. In their attempt to be “discerning,” many Christian fiction reviewers are straining at gnats and swallowing camels.
Memo to Christian reviewers: Perhaps we should be more discerning about what we call “discernment.”