Analyzing Literature from a Christian Perspective

Christians who take their faith seriously try to apply biblical principles to every facet of life. It’s not always easy to maintain a balance, and this inconsistency is the basis for a lot of the criticism—some deserved, some not—that comes our way.

How do we choose literature—including books, movies,
and television— that we believe is appropriate
for ourselves as well as for our children, and consistent
with the practice of our faith?

graphic image thumbnail, analyzing literature from a christian perspective, a book on a desk with a pair of glasses

There are some common pitfalls when we try to assess the quality of media. Let’s start with what not to do:

  1. View every instance of sinful behavior as an objectionable element and dismiss the entire story.

  2. Christianize the story in an effort to “redeem” it, regardless of theme or authorial intent.

  3. Assume “classic literature” means “wholesome literature”.

  4. Leave teaching literature and movie ratings to the “experts”.

None of these approaches are particularly useful, and they represent some faulty methods of literary criticism:

  • Permissivism: tolerant and uncritical to an unhealthy degree

  • Exclusivism: dismissive of any idea that seems to contradict one’s own closely held beliefs

  • Pragmatism: evaluating truth and meaning based on the success of its practical application

  • Naïveté: overvaluing “innocence” and lack of experience as being more genuine or wholesome

  • Relativism: the belief that truth and morals are determined by one’s culture; there are no ‘absolutes’

I think the worst thing about these attitudes is they represent a lost opportunity to use your God-given brain and develop your conscience. If you have kids, it’s also a lost opportunity to be a parent.

Everything Is Wrong

I understand the desire to shield ourselves and our kids from evil. We don’t want to experience fear and pain, and we are certainly expected to protect our kids from anything that might scare or harm them. But declaring something objectionable simply because it contains depictions of people doing wicked things eliminates the news, biographies and memoirs, and the Bible itself. Whether its violence, betrayal, or loss of control, the important thing to focus on is how these acts are being portrayed, and whether or not characters experience consequences for their actions. Seeing characters grow and change is one of the reason we love stories, and the journey a character takes, whether it is toward redemption or destruction, can be illuminating and informative.

Everything Is Redeemable

A common practice is trying to force spiritual themes onto literature when the author didn’t intend to teach spiritual truths. While authorial intent isn’t the be-all end-all, it is important to take into consideration when interpreting a story. I think it’s disrespectful to declare the purpose and motivations of an author completely irrelevant, and apply interpretations that fit our agenda or our faith.

To be clear, I’m talking about taking the words the author put on the page, twisting them, and then putting them back in the author’s mouth. If the foundation of the story is not founded on or consistent with Biblical truth, then it’s useless to wedge in some spiritual lesson because we want to rehabilitate the story. Story structure and themes are not so malleable that we can make books and movies mean anything we want.

That said—literature, once released into the wild, becomes its own animal, and can take on a variety of meanings to different people. Our background, culture, knowledge, and experiences change the way we view the world. We are going to interpret what we read and watch based on those things. But we need to be careful about saying, “This is what the author really meant” unless the author has revealed that in some way—and we also need to think about what the story means to us, and why.

If It’s An Oldie, It’s A Goodie

Why is ancient literature viewed as more wholesome? Old English sounds so enlightened and sophisticated. We revere anything that is ‘old-fashioned’ and long for ‘the good old days’.

Have you ever thought that the reason we think archaic language is so poetic and virtuous is because we don’t understand what they actually said?

Who knew The Canterbury Tales were so naughty, thoroughly sprinkled with sexuality and crude humor? Maybe because our exposure in school to classic lit was limited to the excerpts and abridged versions in our literature textbooks, which excluded the more colorful and objectionable passages.

If you don’t know how to parse ancient and classic literature, then a resource like Spark Notes will help you understand the good and bad of ‘classic’ literature.

I’m a Nobody, So I Have to Trust the Experts

I appreciate the time and effort it takes for someone to become an expert at anything. The title of professional whatever is usually well-earned. But that’s not a reason to check our brain at the door, or be a lazy parent. You are the expert when it comes to your own mind, and dedicated parents are the experts on their own kids.
We should not completely abdicate our choices about something as meaningful and formative as literature to experts, whether the expert is in the shape of a teacher or a textbook.

You’ve Got Mail is not one of my favorite movies, but there’s something that rings very true when Meg Ryan’s character talks about books:

When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.

Are you sure you want to totally depend on someone else to be choosing books and explaining them to your kids?

We are all responsible for our own actions, and while learning from the experts is valuable, we still need to develop our minds and build the character necessary to make good choices, and that includes the literature we look to for information and entertainment.

For Example

As a Christian, my goal is to approach stories from a biblical worldview, and teach my kids to discern truth and meaning from the text and the context. Because the Bible isn’t what we would typically think of as exhaustive, (“Thou shalt not watch Game of Thrones”) it does give us enough explicit commandments and guiding principles to form a pretty good filter for us to use to make good choices.

So what are some principles we see in Scripture that are reflected in the stories we watch and read?

  • Great men are not always wise. (Job 32:9)

  • Good people can do bad things. (Genesis 20:2)

  • Wicked men don’t always receive their just desserts in our lifetime. (Psalm 37:35)

  • Innocents suffer and are victimized through no fault of their own. (Exodus 1:22)

  • Actions ripple to create unexpected and unintended consequences. (2 Samuel 13)

Please note: While this post is addressing how Christian parents approach choosing books, being a caring and involved parent is not exclusive to religious families, and many parents and teachers use similar principles to make good choices. Understanding how and why religious families make choices can help us communicate better about these issues with others.

Why Use Stories At All?

Teaching children the hard truths of life is difficult—but when kids connect with a character, they can experience many things through the mind and emotional journey of that character. Parents who take the time to learn a little bit about analyzing literature can use stories to help their kids internalize many profound and complex truths. Through stories our children can also learn coping skills, empathy, and the nature of sacrifice.

What We Did

Most parents, whether religious or not, struggle to find a balance that isn’t too permissive, too exclusive, or too pragmatic. What we tried to do was choose stories that illustrated universal truths. We observed the role objectionable elements played in the story, how they were portrayed, and what purpose they served.

When our kids were young, we didn’t shy away from stories with violence, sex, substance abuse, etc—but of course we avoided depictions we felt were gratuitous. We wanted our kids to see positive role models, but we also wanted them to understand the motivations of realistic and complex villains, the consequences of making choices—both good and bad, and the many faces of courage.

Kidlit isn’t always helpful in this area. You’d think that more children’s books would actually be written, with, you know, kids in mind. What’s up with The Little Mermaid who basically sells her soul to get the guy, and they live happily ever after? I really detest that story. Sometimes we didn’t let our kids watch popular children’s movies because we felt they were trite and insipid; the laughs coming from stupid gags like burping and farting. Some jokes are a wink-wink nod-nod to adults and not at all appropriate for a kid’s movie. Why is so-called “adult humor” in a kids’ movie anyway? Do we as adults need some dirt in our Cheerios in order to enjoy them?

Getting off the soapbox now. . .

As our kids matured, we continued to allow the underlying message to take a measure of precedence over scenes with objectionable elements. For example, while we wanted them to see depictions of healthy relationships, we also wanted them to see the fallout from manipulative and abusive ones. We noticed popular but troubling character tropes, such as the anti-hero. We used these stories to have many difficult discussions about the ramifications of poor choices illustrated in the stories we read and watched.

The Point Being. . .

This is one of the tremendous advantages good stories offer; they let us explore many hard topics from a safe distance, without finger-pointing or sermonizing. Our kids can see the wide ranging ripple effects of greed, vanity, lust, and loss of self-control. We can talk about the ways that yielding to harmful influences eventually blossoms into chaos and ruin, and deal with the fact that bad guys don’t always lose and the good guys don’t always win, especially not without pain and sacrifice.

On a positive note, we can also fully explore the nature of courage, generosity, and what it means to hold on to your integrity. Dystopian and apocalyptic stories are particularly useful for watching character development through a worst-case scenario.

You Are The Expert—On Your Child

I know what some of you are thinking—most parents don’t feel equipped to teach and analyze literature, especially if they didn’t enjoy reading as a child—but this is where we have to step up as parents. The teacher at school knows how to teach the nuts and bolts of story structure and plot analysis, and the textbook can explain enough meaning so your kids can answer the reading comprehension questions at the end of the chapter. But stories give parents an amazing window into a child’s heart and mind, creating bonds of trust and memories of shared experiences. You don’t have to have a fine arts degree to be a good parent, or to choose stories that challenge your kids intellectually, morally, ethically, and emotionally, giving you the opportunity to fine tune their conscience and prepare them for the real world.

Resources That May Help:

A Christian Approach to Literature by Jim Hendry at His Image Ministries. This is a free downloadable .pdf that briefly but thoroughly covers pertinent aspects of the Christian using and enjoying literature.

Literary Criticism and Postmoderism, part of a series by Robin Phillips. Mr. Phillips discusses the influence of German hermeneutics, French philosophy,  American social sciences, and the postmodern trend of dispensing with authorial intent.

Literary Criticism and the Biblical Worldview Part 1 by Robin Phillips. Here Mr. Phillips further explores the topic and outlines three ways we engage with literary texts.

A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements in Christian Education is excerpted from Chapter 4 of Christian Education: Its Mandate and Mission, ©1992. It is a very comprehensive treatment of the subject. (Article link used with permission of BJU Press.)

Redeemed Reader clearly states that their goal is to help “parents and teachers help the children they love to read discerningly and redemptively“.

Kids in Mind is not a religiously-affiliated site, but it is hands down the most practical movie rating website on the internet.

So what do you think about analyzing literature from a Christian perspective?
Share your POV in the comments or on Facebook.