In my article, “All Art is Christian Art,” I proposed that any beauty in art must by necessity find its traces in the order of the world God created. My three main goals were to show that art is essentially objective, being grounded in God’s original design; to prove that secular literature can still give us an incredible understanding of God and his creation; and to help Christians evaluate literature and be savvy in their reading choices.
I thought my case rested there, but through certain conversations, I began to realize that I had failed to cover a precept that was vital to the Christian approach to literature.
I had a serious problem because I was up against a Bible verse:
“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Philippians 4:8, NKJV).
Based upon what I already knew about the foundation of art in Christianity, I was certain that even books with faulty themes could impart loads of good and noble things to meditate on. But the issue was deeper than that. I will refer to it as a Mental Trespass (MT for short).
I’ve chosen the word trespass because of an analogy in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. During one scene, Christian blunders by leaving the King’s highway and entering the domains of Giant Despair. This is significant because the second path seems to lead in the same direction as the highway. After he is captured, however, Christian learns that it is dangerous simply being on forbidden ground.
We as readers face a similar predicament. Sometimes we read books where the author gives us a taste of something forbidden—it doesn’t even have to be that serious—and we fall for it, thinking that we are wise, impenetrable philosophers and can handle it. So we take a bite.
Perhaps we come across a graphic scene, but a friend has assured us that the ending is amazing, so we keep plowing through, suffocating our conscience by telling ourselves that theme is the only thing that matters. Or perhaps we read a book that’s so swamped with terrible worldview that we can hardly discern right from wrong anymore, but we continue reading because we love the characters. Perhaps we love the characters so much that we don’t even notice the toxicity of the worldview and thereby go down without even fighting. Thus we are allowing evil to enter our minds and violate Philippians 4:8.
Don’t be dismayed, because I’m not suggesting that all darkness¹ in fiction is wrong. Fiction, if it is to have a powerful theme, cannot be effective without evil—unless the conflict is merely physical (an island survival story) or if none of the characters ever sin but they have a difficult moral dilemma to solve. Evil cannot be overcome without first existing. If anyone believes it is still wrong to include evil in fiction, I will simply point to the parable of the Good Samaritan, where two men did evil, but only one did good.
If we look at this from a casual view, we’re in a quandary. How do we focus solely on those things which are pure, when the presence of evil (even in small doses) is essential to most fiction? That’s getting ahead of ourselves though. For now, it’s important to understand what an MT is and how it works.
The Two Types of Mental Trespasses
An MT is when an author (whether intentionally or unintentionally) plays with the emotions of a reader to get him to form an emotional connection with something he would never approve of intellectually.² Although there are technically two separate types of MT, throughout this article I will use the general term MT to refer to both, unless I specify otherwise.
The first type of MT is the worldview MT, which happens when an author (often as a subconscious outflowing of his worldview) represents a sin as not all that bad. For example:
- The protagonist is immoral, but because he/she is young, attractive, the underdog, and the antagonists are jerks, the audience is beguiled into overlooking the protagonist’s flaws. (As seen in every Hollywood movie ever. Well…at least many of them.)
- A character commits a rebellious act in a spirit of anger. Later, the same character commits the same rebellious act, but this time the act is portrayed as justifiable. Readers are so supportive of the character’s motives in the second instance that they are tempted to excuse him for his foul behavior earlier on. (As seen in The Burning Bridge.)
- A character battles perpetually harsh circumstances and eventually develops a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. The emotion of victory and overcoming obstacles is used to promote a life without rules, restraint, or God. (As seen in The Call of the Wild.)
The second type of MT is a content MT. These occur through the depiction of darkness itself, regardless of the worldview held by the author. To summarize the difference between the two MTs, worldview MTs trick our intellect, while content MTs overpower it.
Stories don’t just consist of the worldview presented. Content can be damaging in and of itself—especially if it’s strongly sexual, occultic, or morbidly bizarre. It could even be something as simple as a character who habitually lies. Any sin has the potential to appeal to our sin nature. Therefore, all literature contains MTs. Maybe you can’t fathom how something as mild as a lying character could be an MT, but consider how entertainment affects little children. You can show them a squeaky-clean Christian movie, and somehow they’ll gain inspiration from it to go around beating each other up.
If we are bound to encounter MTs in literature, is it possible to abide by the commandment of Philippians 4:8 and not meditate on that which is impure (even if the impurity is mild)? Is fiction a doomed art form? Should we burn all our novels?
Handling Worldview Mental Trespasses
I understand those who would rather be safe than sorry, but let’s not run away from this dilemma by shunning fiction altogether. If we do that, we’re still going to run into temptations of some sort in other aspects of life. The answer is not to flee but to face the problem head on.
I’ll address worldview MTs first. Since the Bible consistently points out false worldviews,³ it must be acceptable to study those worldviews to some degree (otherwise we could not recognize that they are wrong) and it seems that exposing false beliefs would classify as profitable according to Philippians 4:8.
Handling Content Mental Trespasses
Do letters suddenly grow fangs and leap out to attack us when they are arranged on a page in a certain order? Of course not. But books laden with sensual scenes affect people adversely—the descriptions overpower them, break down their defenses, and linger in their minds as an uninvited guest. We could say people meditate on it, even though it is not an intellectual meditation. Note that they are not meditating on the book’s worldview, but on the content itself. Sound pure? Sound profitable? Nope. Obviously a violation of Philippians 4:8.
To tone things down, suppose our content MT is simply a guy scowling at someone and expressing anger. Will we as readers automatically start meditating on this? Are we going to absorb the character’s anger via osmosis whether we like it or not? Are we helpless victims against the overwhelming power of the content MT? Let’s review our definition of an MT: when an author (whether intentionally or unintentionally) plays with the emotions of a reader to get him to form an emotional connection with something he would never approve of intellectually. MTs usurp our intellect via our emotions. But what if it’s the other way around? Is it possible for the intellect to trump the emotions?
I think the Bible clearly indicates that the intellect can trump emotions. Ecclesiastes 7:21-22 instructs us to quell our sinful instinct to respond angrily when someone speaks badly of us. James 4:7 also urges us to resist the devil, and he will flee from us. Finally, it should be evident that Scripture assumes we can use our reason to subdue knee-jerk reactions. Otherwise, portions of Scripture like Song of Solomon (which isn’t that graphic) could potentially lead some people to lustful thoughts.
I realize that my examples of content MTs have been on the extreme end, so now I want to broach a subject that’s more in the middle: violence. Some people might immediately classify that as graphic and therefore harmful. However, the Bible does not directly define the word “graphic.” Many of us have a tendency to create “bad” content categories and “okay” content categories. We might view rape as bad/graphic, but not a scene where a character gets peeved and snaps at someone. Why is the former unacceptable and the latter acceptable? Both are wrong. Both are visual. The second scenario could even be more disturbing than the first if it were depicted in heavy detail and the other barely described at all. What determines whether something is graphic? The only factor is our reaction—how the equation of our intellect and emotions play out.
Suppose we were to assign bad content a percentage for “badness.” We might say content A is 10% bad and content B is 40% bad. In this case, we might expect readers to react to content B four times as strongly, but in reality it doesn’t always result that way. Readers often experience very personalized responses. To one reader, content B might not even faze her, whereas content A could completely shake her. Everyone has a unique intellect, unique emotions, and unique life experiences, so content that is graphic for one person may not be graphic for the next. Of course there are some absolutes everyone should be cautious about, but in most cases, content one reader should avoid like the plague may never affect another reader.
Therefore, although it is not wrong to read a book that contains MTs, risks are still involved.
The Three Dangers of Mental Trespasses
The first danger is the unstoppable MT. We all have weaknesses, and we won’t have the fortitude to resist certain MTs. In these instances, we need to shut the book as soon as we encounter the MT no matter how attached we are to the story. Although I do recommend weighing the cost vs. benefit of reading a book, unstoppable MTs nullify any other positives a book may possess.
The second danger is immaturity. This is when books contain worldview MTs which are too intricately disguised for the reader to detect. We are all in the developing stage and each year we surprise ourselves with the lies we used to fall for. This isn’t something to be paranoid about, but it is something to be wise about. Even if we stopped reading fiction altogether, we would end up getting infused with lies from other sources. Our best defense is to seek advice from those with greater wisdom than ourselves and to actively study how to spot new worldview MTs.
The third danger is overexposure. Experts identify counterfeit money by studying the real thing. We should apply this principle to our own reading habits. I have found that spending too much time combatting lies can leave me confused about the truth. This does not mean that we should read Christian books exclusively, because, as I covered in my previous article, sometimes secular books are so artistic that they can teach us more about truth than a Christian book (even though the theme may be inherently faulty). What should concern us is when we struggle to wade through the thickness of the lies, which is a sign that we are not familiar enough with the truth.
Meditating on the Good
I’d like to show you the side of Philippians 4:8 that we haven’t examined yet. I hope I’ve convinced you that this verse does not mandate that we should avoid fiction (or even secular fiction), but it is hazardous to prove only why a verse does not mean what we had assumed. It’s more crucial to understand what the verse does mean.
Philippians 4:8 states that we are to meditate on what is good. It is not enough to make a mental note that something you notice in a book reflects God, his nature, and the beauty of his creation. A better model would be David’s consuming passion and awe-filled wonder at God’s work. When evaluating fiction, the focus should never be on the bad. As soon as you recognize that the reasoning is faulty, there is nothing left to ponder except those emotions which will inevitably bog you down into that faulty reasoning itself. If we meditate on the good, however, we will receive great profit and be better able to spot evil when it appears.
If the spirit of Philippians 4:8 is truly to focus on the pure, then it seems there are fundamental flaws in the way many Christian circles approach literature. I hope you will join me in uprooting these misconceptions so that they cause no further damage.
The first flaw is assuming that discussing the moral discrepancies in books will somehow inhibit content MTs from corrupting the mind. This is frankly naive, especially with young children. The poison of content MTs is immediate and triggered by emotions, not intellectual argument. The only “cure” is to judge maturity before reading. Combatting content MTs with intellectual arguments is like swallowing an insufficient drug too late. To be fair, I doubt that teachers and parents have any ill intentions in this regard; they’re simply not aware how different one student can be from another, thus they end up hitting developing readers with content that is beyond them. This is why curriculum is problematic, because it can never be one size fits all.
The second flaw is concentrating too much on refuting worldview MTs. While it is profitable and necessary to expose errors, the heart of Philippians 4:8 is to focus on pure and unadulterated truths. We should test for poisonous brooks, but when we find a pure spring, we should spend our time there and enjoy it.
In this article, we’ve concluded that it is not necessarily a violation of Philippians 4:8 to encounter evil in fiction. It’s unwise to stop there though. The important thing is to dwell on what is good, pleasant, etc. How about starting right now? The world is chock-full of wondrous stuff to contemplate. Look around you. See what’s there.
¹ I will use this term several times in my article, so I want my definition to be clear because the word can be misleading. When I say darkness, I am referring to any sort of wrong action that is mentioned in a novel (e.g. German soldiers hauling a child’s parents away to a concentration camp). I do not mean that Christian novels should convey a feeling of darkness.
² Of course, sometimes authors will try to brainwash readers through repetition, but since that is mainly an artifice of nonfiction (or at least not a form of deception fiction specializes in), it will not be dealt with here. Still, many of the same principles would apply to that problem as well.
³ See Acts 17:16, 22-23, where Paul observes the pagan system surrounding him and then proceeds to correct it. Or consider 1 John 4:3, where John categorizes the beliefs of the antichrists.