/ Features E. Stephen Burnett

The Most Challenging Objections to Story Violence

“If you make life too antiseptic, you discredit how difficult it is to be faithful.”
| Mar 5, 2019 | No comments |

While I’m preparing for Fort Worth’s Great Homeschool Convention, enjoy this excerpt from the spring 2018 issue of Lorehaven Magazine.

3. What is the most challenging objection to story violence you’ve heard?

Andrew Winch: “You’re gonna make somebody stumble” (Rom. 14, 1 Cor. 8–10). Stories are very tricky. Because whose hands are they going into?

“You ought to read a story you’ve researched and are sure you’re ready to read.”
— Andrew Winch

But you ought to read a story you’ve researched and are sure you’re ready to read. You don’t just pick up a book and start reading. Same thing with a movie. Someone will look at a movie and say, “This probably isn’t something that’s good for my heart. I shouldn’t watch this.” They shouldn’t just say, “Oh, this got great reviews, I’m going to watch this.” They’re being irresponsible as a consumer and as a creator. In that respect, I think the burden falls on the person consuming more than the person creating.

Travis Perry: I’m going to disagree with you a little bit. I think authors should ask: what will somebody think you approve of, by what you portray?

Similarly, I feel responsible as a soldier, because people think I know what war is like, and I think I do know what war is like. And I think that I am therefore obliged to portray it in a certain way, and I can’t just portray it in a way that I think is fun.

That’s not so much really the classic stumbling-block objection. But I don’t want people to think that I approve of something that I don’t. That, I think, is an important factor.

E. Stephen Burnett: The apostle Paul says, “Do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil” (Rom. 14:16). That’s a good principle to keep in mind.

“If you make life too antiseptic, you discredit how difficult it is to be faithful.”
— Carla Cook Hoch

Carla Cook Hoch: The objection I’ve gotten is, “Well what does light have to do with darkness?”

Here’s the thing: if you make life too antiseptic, you discredit how difficult it is to be faithful. You do a disservice to everyone who works very hard every day to be the person that God wants you to be, and let the Holy Spirit work in their life.

Read all of Lorehaven Magazine’s spring 2018 issue free online, or download the PDF!

You can also subscribe and get access to every issue for free.

Lorehaven serves Christian fans by finding biblical truth in fantastic stories. Book clubs, free webzines, and a web-based community offer flash reviews, articles, and news about Christian fantasy, science fiction, and other fantastical genres.

This is the Strangest Timeline

It’s dangerous to mess with history, Barry/Doctor/Hermione/McFly!
| Mar 4, 2019 | No comments |

Have you ever paused just to look around and wonder if the universe has entered an alternate timeline?

As if someone, perhaps Barry Allen or The Doctor, has gone back to make too many changes?

Consider these bizarre 2019 events:

  • Politics are beyond insane (no matter your viewpoint).
  • Legitimately crazy people (from all parties) are seeking elected office.
  • This includes leaders publicly endorsing or ignoring legal infanticide–a longtime old evangelical doom forecast.
  • We have handheld devices that are more powerful than university computers a generation ago.
  • If people wanted to, we could travel to the moon or Mars, any time, but they don’t want to.
  • Serious and decent people now believe there are more than two genders.
  • But every single story of any mainstream popularity keeps presuming otherwise.
  • Against all odds, orthodox, biblical Christian churches have survived and thrived.
  • Most recently, this includes the United Methodist denomination.
  • Which is staying biblical about the sexual revolution (whose nonsense would have blown the minds of anyone a generation ago).
  • Which is also staying biblical not because of American leaders but faithful African leaders.
  • Meaning the United States is being occasionally called back from apostasy by faithful non-U.S. church members.
  • Meanwhile, fringe folks are celebrating the actual, bold, sexualization of children–another dark prediction by evangelicals, come to life. It won’t stay fringe for long. This will make some nasty messes to clean up in a decade or two.
  • On the popular cultural front, Star Wars movies are being made again–at one point, one new film a year.
  • But fans revolted, with reactions arguably more negative than the old prequel backlash.
  • A film version based on Aquaman became DC’s most top-earning movie ever so far.
  • Marvel is about to finish(?) a shared-universe film series that broke ground and outpaced anyone else who tried it.

On a more personal side:

To be sure, I could do with more of that timeline and less of the sex-and-heresy nonsense.

But if the world’s going to get this bizarre, we’ll surely need stranger stories. Especially stories that explore holiness, humanity, wonder, and magic in light of the gospel’s epic truth.

Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians About Social Justice Work

Older Christians: “Ministry work is the holiest!” Younger Christians: “Social justice work is the holiest.”
| Mar 1, 2019 | 2 comments | Series:

Weaker brothers1 may not mean to boss other Christians.

Series: Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians

  1. Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians about Music, Food, or Fantasy
  2. How Weaker Brothers May Begin to Boss Christians about Social Justice Issues
  3. Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians about Social Justice Work

Maybe they mean only to share their own opinions2 about food, popular culture, or holidays.

Maybe they just need to share their own struggles and hear other Christians empathize.

Or maybe they even need to hear other Christians say, more wisely, “Hmm, I understand your struggle, and I’m glad to help, but have you considered that this is your own struggle and not everyone else’s?”

Often, at least at first, the weaker brother’s weakness is based on vulnerability to particular temptations. He/she can’t hear certain music or eat certain foods without associating these with evil.

Leveling up: The weaker brother boss

Other times, they are not really struggling with temptations. I fear they’ve grown past being a struggling weaker brother, and have been promoted to the position of a weaker brother boss. Sometimes the person promotes himself. And/or at other times, Christians end up saying to weaker brothers, “Here, you seem to be an expert on this. You seem passionate and Called to This Ministry. You’ve just been promoted to the level of boss!”

Either way, this person begins to believe his own views about “holiness” are biblical commands.

He or she says “thou shalt,” when God has not said this.

He or she behaves like a Pharisee, and makes up laws around God’s actual Law, while implying or stating outright, “Thus saith the Lord.”

This happens with music, food, and fantasy. But more recently, newer weaker brothers have begun to boss Christians about social justice issues (which I abbreviate here as SJI ).

Weaker-brother bosses impose SJI rules on other Christians in at least three areas: work, language, and doctrine.

Weaker-brother boss: ‘Follow my social-justice work!’

For this I must reference an example. Not long ago, I encountered a chap who had just gotten hold of a particular religious cause. Our conversation started with this article about “millennial burnout.” I remarked about how the writer simply assumed several “doom” scenarios for not only individuals, but the entire planet.

I asked, “How much of this recurring burnout is due to these rather Godless and anti-eternal false beliefs we keep internalizing?”

In response, someone asked me if I could really be so callous about all these people suffering. We need to do something! Now!

Later I realized that this is weaker-brother bossing. We’ve seen this before.

Christians have acted as if “ministry” jobs, such as pastors or missionaries, are the only godly jobs. These jobs are all about saving souls for eternity. These jobs make you an upper-tier Christian.

Other jobs, such as banking or construction, are maybe okay. But they’re not as spiritual. They’re all about this world, earning profit and supporting your family. These jobs make you a lesser-tier Christian.

The SJI weaker-brother boss follows the same pattern. He associates “regular” jobs—oddly enough, including pastors and missionaries!—with sin, hypocrisy, or shallow spirituality. Instead, the weaker-brother boss insists everyone become a full-time justice advocate. Everyone must effectively have the same job. Because our situation is that drastic. Because otherwise, more people will suffer or die because you didn’t care enough.

Resist the weaker-brother boss’s legalism

This assumption about a Christian’s work is plain legalism.

It ignores the plain teaching of Scripture: that God created humans to steward the Earth in many ways.3

In this instance, I replied to this person4 by saying that if we took this posture to its rational conclusion, this leaves no time for anything else. Not exchanging comments on Facebook or creating art. Nothing but miserly and minimalist living. No parties, no rest, only constant self-abasement.

And we haven’t even gotten started about how Jesus has called Christians as the Church to their primary mission of discipling others. (This Great Commission restores, and in some cases supersedes, the earlier mandate for humans to make culture.)

In other words, the weaker-brother boss has (accidentally?) taken the exact posture of a sort of medieval Christian monk. At best, he provides only contemplation and care for the poor, at the expense of human flourishing. Or at worst, he gains the perks of spiritual influence and control over others, leading to fulfillment of a messiah complex.

All Christians are called to relieve Pain and Suffering in the world wherever we can. But our callings differ. If [name of perceived global problem] is real, then yes, I decline the implication that if I’m really a good person, then I ought to be concerned about it, and/or Do Something About It, and when I make this rejection, I equally reject any attempt at legalistic guilt-tripping. . . .

Someone else’s stewardship calling is not identical to mine. When it comes to Mega-Global Earth Issues, about the best I can do is recycle. Nobody should be coming along and deciding that, over top of my previous commitments to Christ, my family, my local church, and the global Church, and my job, and my other job, and my other job, and my other other job, that I also need to take a monk-like vow of Particular Planet Care.

Frankly, I think this is the only kind of basic response to offer a weaker-brother boss (about work or anything else). It starts with some measure of happy, biblical conviction. Unless your work involves actual sin, you can say:

  1. I have an important calling from God.
  2. You may have a different calling from him.
  3. If you associate my calling with some kind of sin, you are wrong and legalistic.
  4. With some exceptions, I am very happy in my work, and know that it pleases God.
  5. I will not accept the burden of this guilt that you, perhaps by accident, try to impose on me.
  6. This boss behavior will not make you happy, and does not please our God who gives his people different callings.
  7. Please see how your behavior resembles the very legalism you may want to avoid, and stop demanding we all share the same work.

Or, as the apostle Paul said, when early Christians accused one another of having less-spiritual gifts or callings:

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.5

Next: Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians About Social Justice Language.

  1. And sisters. Greek adelphoi in the New Testament refers to both.
  2. I avoid using the term “conviction” about things that Christians consider adiaphora, that is, matters that aren’t essential to the faith. The term “conviction” seems best suited to explicit gospel matters. For instance, my conviction is that Christ died and resurrected. But it’s not my “conviction” that Christians should dress a certain way for church services.
  3. See Genesis 1:28; theologians call this God’s “cultural mandate.” This calling means we practice agriculture and creature care. It also means we reflect God’s image by our creative works, which can include stories, songs, and beyond.
  4. Note that I did not provide a lot of Scripture in my replies. The person seemed to be basing his views on reactions to the “bad guys,” rather than proactive faithfulness to God’s word.
  5. 1 Corinthians 12:14–26.

Screwtape Wants You to Think Only Horror is Real, but Joy is Sentimental

“We have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word ‘real.’”
| Feb 28, 2019 | No comments |

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis’s head demon shares a strategy to trick people into redefining reality.

I’ve found the satirical Screwtape’s advice a blast of cold water on my face. And maybe yours too. Especially if you, like me, feel tempted to insist that only gritty, darker stories reflect the real world. And to insist that lighter, “inspirational” stories—with their religious experiences and music in lighted rooms—are always unrealistic.

For those who would also redefine “realism” in fiction as only showing sin’s nasty effects, please take heed.1

Screwtape addressed his demonic nephew, Wormwood (“you”), and Wormwood’s human “patient” (“he”).2

Probably the scenes he is now witnessing will not provide material for an intellectual attack on his faith—your previous failures have put that out of your power.

But there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried.

It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is “what the world is really like” and that all his religion has been a fantasy.

You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”.

They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “Real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had.

On the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness.

Either application of the word could be defended; but our business is to keep the two going at once so that the emotional value of the word “real” can be placed now on one side of the account, now on the other, as it happens to suit us.

The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are “Real” while the spiritual elements are “subjective”; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist.

Thus in birth the blood and pain are “real”, the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view; in death, the terror and ugliness reveal what death “really means”. The hatefulness of a hated person is “real”—in hatred you see men as they are, you are disillusioned; but the loveliness of a loved person is merely a subjective haze concealing a “real” core of sexual appetite or economic association. Wars and poverty are “really” horrible; peace and plenty are mere physical facts about which men happen to have certain sentiments.

The creatures are always accusing one another of wanting “to eat the cake and have it”; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it.

Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment . . .

  1. Some of this story is adapted from my original 2013 article on SpecFaith, “Screwtape on Redefining ‘Realism’.”
  2. I’ve added a few extra paragraph breaks to simplify web reading. I also added some boldface for emphasis.

Newbie Christian Media Critics: Your Complaints Are Cliched

Really? Christian books, movies, and music are all terrible and preachy and stupid? Never heard that one before.
| Feb 27, 2019 | No comments |

Do newbie Christian media critics know their complaints can be just as sentimental and hackneyed as some of the stuff they condemn?

Yes, newbie Christian media critic. We know how terrible/preachy/stupid/dumbity stupid dumb dumb you suddenly realize a lot of “Christian” media is. Glad you figured it out. No, really. It’s not unimportant to memorize the multiplication tables.

But. You must be new here.

Of course, plenty of stories, movies, and music by Christians is plenty dumb. Or preachy. Or even (this is less popular to say) plain doctrinally incorrect, or else straight-up heretical.1

But, whenever people say this stuff as if it’s some revolutionary discovery, I’ve often written countless little micro-essays that attempt dual purposes:

  1. Empathize with the person who has suddenly woken up and complains, hey, some of this stuff is really terrible.
  2. Challenge the critic to mature in his response and realize that, really, such complaints are really basic, 101-level stuff.

Sure, we’re all learning. We’re all in process, all on our own journeys.

But: the quicker you can figure out that these complaints are (1) cliche; (2) basic; (3) a very early part of maturing as a Christian creative voice—the better.

Perhaps I can help get this started. Perhaps the newbie Christian media critic simply must begin to feel that all his or her clever criticisms have all been said before, thousands of times, in the great circle of Christian Creative Life.

So this time I’m foregoing my usual micro-essay responses, links to previous articles, etc.

Instead, I’ll just share a few modified quotes. Then I’ll share a few brief replies. Very brief. In fact, they’re mostly animated GIFs.2

After all, newbie Christian media critics often repeat an amazing new concept: “Show, not tell!”

Please note: I’m not making fun of newbie Christian-media critics. My intent is only to challenge them to think beyond the cliches. Try to be more biblical and less reactionary in your criticisms. And also: keep growing.3

1. ‘I don’t read/watch/listen to “Christian” media because it’s all terrible.’

2. ‘Christian stories never show really real life in reality!’

3. ‘God isn’t against sex!’

4. ‘Great stories need to include more swearing!’

5. ‘No one likes preachy stories!’

Let’s go beyond the cliches.

If I missed a newbie Christian media critic cliche, let me know. And I’m curious what your short or animated GIF response would be.

  1. Some Christians who are so embarrassed by Christian stories/movies/music fail to realize this general axiom: The less biblical the media’s creative minds, the lamer the story becomes.
  2. If I think of more basic-level Christian media criticisms, I’ll add them here, and make this article a single repository of my replies.
  3. It also wouldn’t hurt if newbie Christian media critics learned to practice what they proclaim. “Christian media is too preachy!” they exclaimed, pounding their pulpits. “Christian media beats people over the head!” they demanded, in their fiercely worded internet comments void of nuance. “Christian media keeps telling instead of showing!” they insisted, ignoring attractive examples or winsome images, and instead wielding their words as blunt instruments. “Christian media is moralistic and makes people feel unwelcome, so no one should enjoy it ever, and anyone who does is an idiot!”

Three Reasons Why Pure Flix Needs to Make R-Rated Movies

The upcoming film “Unplanned” just got an R rating! Here’s why that’s a sign of growth for Christian movies.
| Feb 26, 2019 | 2 comments |

Over the weekend we learned Pure Flix’s latest movie, Unplanned, will be rated R.1

Here’s the story from The Hollywood Reporter:

Pure Flix Entertainment, the family friendly label known for distributing God’s Not Dead and a few dozen other movies aimed at Christians, will release its first R-rated film next month, and it is none too happy about having to do so.

The film, Unplanned, tells the true story of Abby Johnson, who defected from Planned Parenthood to become a pro-life activist. While the filmmakers were certain they were making a PG-13 film, the MPAA has informed them that it will, in fact, be rated R unless all scenes of abortions are removed or altered.

The filmmakers are refusing to change anything, putting Pure Flix in the awkward position of having to open an R-rated movie on March 29. The company’s other releases, roughly two dozen movies, were all rated G, PG or PG-13.

“A 15-year old girl can get an abortion without her parent’s permission but she can’t see this movie without adult supervision? That’s sad,” said Ken Rather, the executive vp of distribution for Pure Flix.2

At first I wasn’t sure whether to be happy about this or simply amused. After chuckling a bit at the irony, I realized this is a good sign of growth for Christian movies.

In fact, I think Pure Flix should intentionally make more films that could be rated R. So should other Christian filmmakers.

Here are three reasons why.

1. Unplanned‘s R-rating is for good reason.

Not all R-rated movies get that rating for the same reason.

They’re not all full of explicit or gratuitous images of sex and violence. They’re not all nihilistic or exploitative.

Christians already “practiced” viewing at least some R-rated films redemptively in 2004. That’s when Mel Gibson released his film The Passion of the Christ. Yes, it was intense. It had a lot of violence, especially during the (often arguably overdone) scene of Roman soldiers scourging Jesus. But most Christians reacted with maturity. They understood that if any visual story required portrayal of violence, then it’s the story of Christ’s brutal torture and execution—the very means of God reconciling his wrath against sin and his mercy toward humans.

I think many Christians also understand that humans sometimes need to see violence. Even culturally separatist Christian leaders don’t usually condemn Christian soldiers or emergency room nurses for seeing torn-apart bodies, either in images or in real life.

Most Christians also make room for soberly facing the truth about a socially approved evil, such as lynching, povery, or abortion.

So far, Unplanned‘s social media folks offered a similar mature response. They rightly presume that not all R-rated movies are nihilism– or slash– or sex-fests. Instead, they offer chances for spiritually strong viewers, such as Christian parents, and spiritually growing viewers, such as children, to see and discuss the story together.

2. ‘The world is rated R, and no one is checking IDs.’

By the way, N. D. Wilson will appear at next month’s Great Homeschool Convention in Fort Worth, Texas. I’m also going there to aid the Realm Makers Bookstore and represent Lorehaven Magazine.

The phrase comes from fantasy author and poet-theologian N. D. Wilson:

The world is rated R, and no one is checking IDs. Do not try to make it G by imagining the shadows away. Do not try to hide your children from the world forever, but do not try to pretend there is no danger. Train them. Give them sharp eyes and bellies full of laughter. Make them dangerous. Make them yeast, and when they’ve grown, they will pollute the shadows.3

If the real world is rated R, and Christian-made movies intend to show the real world, then it makes little sense to emphasize only movies that can be rated G (or only PG, or only PG-13).

Otherwise, at best, we really are trying to be “more spiritual than God.”

What if we (understandably) argue that Christian movie audiences won’t support this kind of truth-telling-with-violence? In that case, we are dangerously close to accepting a kind of “bribe” to ignore injustice.4 No, it’s not a de facto bribe from those who commit injustice. But it is a kind of “bribe” from other people who’d just as soon not confront the real-world consequences of the injustice.

3. Christ’s people are no longer corrupted by dead bodies; instead, we can help resurrect them.

Resurrection Sunday

Ezekiel 37’s image of God resurrecting a valley of dead bones shows perhaps the most beautiful image of resurrection in all the Old Testament.

Some biblical Christians are more thoughtful and less reactionary about the concept of violent images or content.

At the back of their minds, they may remember biblical prohibitions against touching dead human bodies.5 Or they may remember plenty of other ceremonial laws against handling animals, food, or objects God deemed “unclean.”

Christians like to debate about how and why God made these distinctions for Israel. We must note, however, that Jesus Christ, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s Law,6 literally touched dead bodies on several incredible occasions. But what happened when he did? Instead of Jesus becoming ceremonially unclean, these people returned to life. Death did not ceremonially corrupt Jesus. Instead, his life flowed out and (temporarily) resurrected the dead persons Jesus touched.

This truth helps remind Jesus’s people that we experience Jesus’s fulfillment of the Law. We are no longer bound to follow the Law’s ceremonial aspects, including its division between “clean” and “unclean.”

This means that Christians can work in nursing, funeral homes, or crime forensics—washing to avoid germs, but without need to avoid ceremonial uncleanness.

This also means that as Christians spread the gospel to every part of the Earth, we take part in Jesus’s long-range spiritual resurrection project. Every day we encounter members of the spiritual walking dead, that is, persons dead in their trespasses and sins. Yet through the work of the Holy Spirit, through the gospel shared by redeemed saints, we get to see people come to life in Christ.7

If we feared touching dead people, we couldn’t do a lot of God’s work on Earth.

If we still spiritually feared touching spiritually dead people, we would end up disobeying Jesus’s Great Commission.

Finale: To see light best, you need to consider the darkness

“Violence [in fiction] has to have a very specific reason: to show the result of evil.”
— fantastical thriller novelist Robert Liparulo

“If you make life too antiseptic, you discredit how difficult it is to be faithful.”
— storyteller Carla Cook Hoch, FightWrite.net

For more about the biblical place of violence in stories, see “Roundtable: Engaging Fictional Violence in Our Real Worlds,” Lorehaven Magazine (spring 2018).

But notice this: We wouldn’t find delight or relief in ministering to (spiritually) dead people if we didn’t first know about the Law. First we had to know how hazardous dead bodies could have been before we could find joy in the life of Jesus.

Similarly, people can’t know about the wonders of saving faith unless they also face the horror of death.

That’s why I hope this film commits to showing, at least somewhat honestly, what actually happens in abortion. And I hope this company, as well as other Christian filmmakers, will understand the reasons to attempt other material that could become rated R.

Not to be “edgy.” Not to indulge in violence for violence’s own sake. And not just to try to “get people saved.”

Instead, stories that show evil darkness and death can help us better see Jesus Christ’s light and life.

Just like the Bible does. Just like the testimonies of people who had killed their children, and/or “lived” in spiritual death until Jesus saved them. And just like the best human-made stories that thoughtfully explore evil villainy so we can rejoice when a good hero finally defeats it.

  1. Clarification: Pure Flix did not produce Unplanned, but is only distributing the film. It was not originally planned to be rated R.
  2. Paul Bond, “MPAA’s R-Rating for Anti-Abortion Film Disputed by Distributor Pure Flix,” The Hollywood Reporter, Feb. 22, 2019.
  3. N. D. Wilson, Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World.
  4. Scripture implicitly forbids this kind of bribe-taking, and explicitly forbids this in texts such as Deuteronomy 16:19.
  5. See Numbers 9: 1–14; 19:13.
  6. Matthew 5:17; see also Hebrews 1.
  7. Ephesians 2: 1–10.

‘How to Train Your Dragon’ Shows Man’s Good Stewardship

In the How to Train Your Dragon series, man must reconcile with and actively train wild creation.
| Feb 25, 2019 | 1 comment |

Half a lifetime ago, I would have been nervous about How to Train Your Dragon.12

I would have thought: Why does this story attempt to show that “evil” creatures aren’t always evil? Or what we think is good isn’t always good? Why do they show mankind as bad and nature as good? Isn’t this story trying to subvert traditional concepts of right and wrong?

Some stories do attempt this.3

But thanks to Biblical theology, I no longer have that objection to all such stories. That’s because I believe that in the real world, we often find a third party between pure good and worst evil. If our view of the True Story includes only God (good) and man (bad), we’ll be confused when stories explore how this third party—the creation itself—plays in the story.

How to Train Your Dragon: bad humans versus good dragons?

If you go into How to Train Your Dragon or its two sequels, expecting binary categories of right and wrong (man is good/bad, dragons are good/bad), you will be confused.

Is the story’s “bad guys” the humans, such as the Vikings?

An older Hiccup, from How to Train Your Dragon’s 2014 sequel.

That doesn’t make sense. If this series wants to say “humans are bad,” why does this story also want us to love these heroes, especially spunky dragon-trainer Hiccup?

Is the story’s “good guys” the dragons? If so, why does the first film show that wild dragons are genuinely dangerous?

And why would the second film and third films show human villains who manipulate or abuse dragons? As opposed to our heroic Vikings who befriend and train them?

In any case, the first film’s victory comes after estranged father Stoick and son Hiccup both admit their human wrongs and reconcile. Near the end, Hiccup even rides his new dragon Toothless into a spectacular battle against a gargantuan, fire-breathing, traditionally evil dragon.

In the first How to Train Your Dragon film, man and creation must reconcile. By the story’s end, Vikings and dragons have learned to work together and find redemption. Yet man has not simply become “at one with nature,” as if wild nature is superior. Instead man has stopped sinning against nature and become a better nature-steward. The meaning is right there in the title: it’s not “how to be trained by your dragon,” but “how to train your dragon.”

Even in How to Train Your Dragon 2, when we find that a heroine has been living wild with dragons, the story doesn’t leave her there. Without a thought, she is invited to rejoin civilization and take her place in a dragon-training society.

Echoes of groaning Earth

I don’t know the intentions of the How to Train Your Dragon creators. But I do know their subversions of traditional “villains” like evil dragons need not be seen as attacks on biblical morality. In fact, they echo the biblical truth of creation’s redemption:

  1. Mankind sins against God (Genesis 3). It’s man’s fault.
  2. God curses the ground (Genesis 3: 17–19). But it’s not creation’s fault.
  3. Ever since, mankind has had a love/hate relationship with creation.
  4. Jesus Christ comes to redeem His children.
  5. And someday even “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

Until that day, “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22). Groaning creation lashes back at mankind. Dragons in ignorance or fear blast our homes and even kill us. But just these stories end in hope—with the fearful dragons now friendly and tamed—so Jesus Christ will make his redeemed world where man’s and creation’s groaning turns to singing.

And in that day, perhaps for real, the dragons will return.

  1. This article remixes my original 2014 article at Speculative Faith, Dragons, Maleficent, and Echoes of Groaning Earth. I’ve added a few elements to reflect the second and third films, especially the trilogy’s newest conclusion, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.
  2. The ongoing Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians series will continue tomorrow.
  3. If stories do try to subvert right and wrong, a disciplined Christian can see them for what they are. Such a wise Christian can even subvert the subversion, by showing how the evil-thing-isn’t-really-evil stories still show that something is absolute evil. Even “subversive” stories must show absolute evil in some way.

How Weaker Brothers May Begin to Boss Christians About Social Justice Issues

Some Christians teach about social justice, based on Scripture, but also based on their personal conflicts.
| Feb 22, 2019 | 2 comments | Series:

Yesterday I explored how weaker brothers have tended to boss other Christians.1

Series: Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians

  1. Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians about Music, Food, or Fantasy
  2. How Weaker Brothers May Begin to Boss Christians about Social Justice Issues
  3. Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians about Social Justice Work

In so many words, I said weaker brothers ought not do that. That’s because weaker brothers are, you know, weak. They deserve special love and consideration—not authoritative leadership about the thing they struggle with.

Weaker brother bosses have wielded the most authority in these areas:

  • Music. This includes the anti-“rock beat” examples I cited yesterday. Or weaker brothers might insist that certain instruments or music styles be required in/banned from church services.
  • Holidays. Weaker brothers can insist they must celebrate versions of original Jewish holidays (as in Romans 14). Or they may insist that Christians not celebrate newer sacred/secular holidays (such as Christmas).
  • Food. Weaker brothers may try to enforce Old Testament dietary law (real or imagined). Or, in a less “spiritual” version, they might have legitimate (or perceived) food allergies, and insist all others (1) have similar weaknesses, (2) follow the same prescriptions.
  • Popular culture. Weaker brothers may associate evil motives with genres or media devices. They may confuse their own weaknesses or opinions/traditions with biblical “rules” against different kinds of popular culture.

As I said yesterday, I’ve seen less weaker brother bossing about these issues. Maybe I have better friends now. But I’m certain weaker brother bossing still happens. However, I still see plenty of weaker brother bossing around Christian circles. And I want to explore, very carefully, one field in which Christians are doing this all over again.

Weaker brothers are bossing us about social justice issues.

Yes, this is a sensitive area.2

Here, a few specific names and situations do leap to mind. But I’m not thinking mainly of specific individuals. This is more of a ethos, almost an aesthetic, that I think I’ve detected.3

But I think it’s worthwhile to attempt an explanation of what I’m discerning today.

This starts with a very hypothetical story. It presents a possible, typical example of weaker brothers who have grown into social-justice-issues “bosses.”

Birth of a new form of weaker brother boss

Childhood to teen years

  1. Our brother is born in an evangelical Christian family.
  2. This brother grows up evangelical environments, such as churches and schools.
  3. He’s also exposed to a lot of evangelical popular culture, such as Sunday schools, radio dramas, and videos.
  4. As a result, this brother learns a particular form of very church– and explicit-missions-centric faith.
  5. When our brother learns about the extra-church world, he mainly hears about conservative social and political causes.
  6. Our brother hears vaguely about racism, poverty, and other issues. But he perceives his church/family leaders associating these only with anti-Christian and leftist causes.
  7. Our brother remains fairly certain the gospel is true, but (vaguely?) wonders what he might be missing.

Teen years to young adulthood

  1. In later teen and college years, our brother discovers plenty of educational material that he missed before. (This can include church history, Reformation doctrine, or missional viewpoints of human culture.)
  2. Brother gets a spiritual second wind. It may almost feel like a “second blessing.”
  3. This time can renew our brother’s faith. He’s not just “riding on his family’s coattails.” He’s wrestling, making the faith his own.
  4. Brother may also experience the first of several “cage stages.”4 (This term originally referred to a person who accepts Reformed theology and turns obnoxious. People, however, often have cage stages about lots of things.)
  5. During this period of questioning, our brother can’t help wondering: How did I miss all this? Why didn’t I learn it earlier?
  6. Unfortunately, a sense of irritation, or even blame, may now set in. Our brother begins to question his evangelical forebears, including parents and pastors. Why did these people ignore or even reject these truths for so long?
  7. On a doctrinal level, our brother re-evaluates (perceived?) standard evangelical tropes about other ethnic groups, other nations, and people in poverty.
  8. On a personal level, our brother begins to feel empathy with marginalized persons. He might have been marginalized in the past, or is being marginalized in the present. Or he perceives either marginalization.

Adulthood: the new boss wields spiritual authority

  1. If our brother attends an evangelical college or seminary, he gets legit training about preaching, teaching, and leadership.
  2. At such an institution, he gets exposed to many growth opportunities.
  3. But he also gets hit with many frustrations with evangelical power structures and/or just plain humans being human.
  4. Very possibly, he feels increasing detachment and resentment against older evangelicals. Why didn’t those people get it?
  5. Twitter occurs. Our brother can’t help sharing his thoughts aloud. People agree. People disagree. Either way, his thoughts get instant results.
  6. The Trump election occurs. Thinkpieces and blameblogs multiply like radioactive rabbits. Our brother sees even more hypocrisy among older evangelicals. They seem to have switched. They no longer say, “A president’s character matters.” Instead they say (at best), “He’s a scumbag, but he’s our scumbag,” or else say (at worst), “He’s God’s chosen leader like David/Cyrus of old.”
  7. All along, our brother also inherits (without challenging) some impulses from conservative and seeker-friendly Christianity: Thou shalt do whatever thou must to win souls to Christ Jesus. But whereas previous generations enlarged churches, simplified sermons, and invested in professional bands, such Baby Boomer–attracting strategies now seem as retro as hymnbooks and organs. Where now is the new way to attract seekers and show that Christians aren’t like those dullard hypocrites of old? That’s right—social justice issues (SJI).
  8. It all fits: SJI is not doctrinal compromise, but is in fact a plain teaching of Scripture that Christians have missed. If you advocate SJI, you are not like previous politically dominating evangelicals, because this time you’re fighting for people the Church has ignored. And SJI is not just a megachurch trick to attract non-Church to the gospel, because advocating for SJI in fact invites criticism (from within the Church)—right?5
  9. From here, the brother goes forth. He goes forth on social media. Into life. Into churches.
  10. If he’s rising in the leadership ranks, he networks at conferences and evangelical websites.
  11. When he speaks on this, he gets pushback. Rudest, nastiest responses rise to the top. These persuade him he’s on the right course.
  12. By contrast, the more rational, kinder pushback gets lost in the clamor—or he can’t help but fail to hear it among the louder replies.

Next week, I’ll resume this series. Very carefully, and without name-naming and with plenty of speculation, we’ll explore the hazards of SJI weaker brother “bosses.” Then I’ll attempt some suggestions about how stronger Christians can be sensitive to these weaker brothers.

  1. “Weaker brothers” includes sisters because the Greek term adelphoi is inclusive. As I also mentioned yesterday, the phrase weaker brothers comes from Romans 14. Here, the apostle Paul urges Christians to be welcoming and sensitive to concerns of “the one who is weak in faith” (verse 1). This person believes he must celebrate certain religious holidays. See also 1 Corinthians 8–10. Here, Paul refers to “the weak” (1 Cor. 8:9) person who believes she can’t eat meat sacrificed to idols.
  2. Disclaimers for the phrase, “Weaker brothers are bossing us about social justice issues (SJI)”:
    • No, this doesn’t mean all Christians who are concerned about social justice issues (SJI).
    • This also doesn’t mean all Christians who merely behave badly and/or are wrong about SJI.
    • Nope, I don’t imply that any Christian concerned about SJI is motivated by a tragic testimony about their temptations.
    • Plenty of Christians are just as nasty, if not more so, against SJI. They may often conflate “pure religion” (James  with politics.
    • Plenty of Christians wrongly conflate legit SJI with leftist definitions. So they “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
    • This does not single out Christians who belong to a particular ethnic group or race.
    • This does not mean I advocate “color blindness.” Yes, I know that many Christians mean well by the phrase. No, I don’t think the phrase is useful any more. A Christian who says this may mean, “I don’t care what you look like.” But a minority brother or sister can’t help only hearing, “I don’t care.” In this case, even if the minority family member is (hypothetically) a weaker brother about this phrase, we must follow the apostle Paul and be sensitive and loving!
    • Some Christian leaders are simply too new to the issue that I doubt they’re technically qualified to speak to it. They don’t count as weaker brothers. They’re just weak sources. In my very tentative perception, they are not (yet) qualified to speak on the topic. For instance, David Platt at last year’s Together for the Gospel conference tried to explore some SJI. He confessed he spoke as a “white” individual who had just begun to discern how “white” evangelical institutions can be. However, Platt also confessed he felt inadequate to speak about the topic because he was so new to it. When I listened to his message, I couldn’t help thinking in a compassionate sense, “Well then, do you need to leave the stage?” I have gained a lot more about social justice issues from Christian leaders who have spent much longer wrestling with these issues in ministry. So far, the best leaders on this issue have already proven they can help reconcile, not just general “groups,” but actual humans in actual communities.

    If other disclaimers occur to me later, I’ll add them here.

  3. Previous weaker-brother bosses about music/food/and so on have been more easily discerned years later. So this problem may become a lot more clear in the future.
  4. R. C. Sproul Jr. defines it this way: “’Cage-stage‘ describes an all too common phenomenon wherein a believer comes to embrace the doctrines of grace, and for a time becomes an obnoxious lout in defending the doctrines to all comers, whether they are interested or not.” See “Cage-Stage Calvinism: What Is It and What Causes It?“, Ligonier.org, Aug. 22, 2015.
  5. For now, we’ll dodge the seeming contradiction. I think some Christian SJI “bosses” believe they’re advocating “unpopular” views, solely because some conservative Christians oppose them. But this perception only works if you focus on response from (relatively insular) Christian cultures. Outside these cultures, versions of SJI are all the rage among powerful political leaders, corporate marketing teams, popular culture creatives, and young activists. I’m not necessarily judging here; I only point out that the Christian SJI boss can’t really act as if these views are universally “unpopular.”

Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians about Music, Food, or Fantasy

Why have Christians let people who are most vulnerable to certain sins teach about them to the rest of us?
| Feb 21, 2019 | 2 comments | Series:

When I was a child, Christian weaker brothers1 had authority to boss you about all kinds of things.

By weaker brothers, I mean Christians who, by their own admission, were vulnerable to certain temptations.2

Series: Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians

  1. Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians about Music, Food, or Fantasy
  2. How Weaker Brothers May Begin to Boss Christians about Social Justice Issues
  3. Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians about Social Justice Work

In one case, Christian leaders held up one specific weaker brother boss: a (possibly apocryphal) witch doctor, and/or former African tribal worshiper, who had converted to Christianity. One version of this anecdote was printed in a booklet from a (nastily legalistic) outfit called the “Institute in Basic Life Principles” (IBLP). The booklet’s title: “Ten Scriptural Reasons Why the ‘Rock Beat’ Is Evil in Any Form” (underline in original).

In April 1990, a Christian from Zimbabwe, Africa, arrived for his first visit to the United States. He is a native missionary under the Awana Youth Association. When he turned on a Christian radio station and listened to the music, he was shocked. Here is his report:

“I am very sensitive to the beat in music, because when I was a boy, I played the drums in our village worship rituals. The beat that I played on the drum was to get the demon spirits into the people.

“When I became a Christian, I rejected this kind of beat because I realized how damaging it was.

“When I turned on a Christian radio station in the United States, I was shocked. The same beat that I used to play to call up the evil spirits is in the music I heard on the Christian station.”

Stephen Maphosah, Zimbabwe, Africa34

It wasn’t long before I realized the absurdity of this story:

Hey. Who put the witch doctor in charge of Christian moral practice?

This goes double if you heard, as I did, that the (apocryphal?) witch doctor was actually a new convert to Christianity:

With all due respect, why should new converts be the boss of Christian moral practice?

Scripture, in fact, specifically warns against letting a new convert become a church overseer. Paul says that if we do that, “he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.”5

But what if the witch doctor wasn’t a new convert? What if the account is true?

Then it still makes little sense for Christians to let him become a music boss:

  • By all versions of the account I heard, the witch doctor wasn’t even trying to boss. He only made the observation about the music similarity. And/or a concern that it sounded like rhythms he and his witch-doctor friends used to try to summon spirits. It was someone else who later “weaponized” his words, as if they marked universal concern for all Christians.
  • By the account’s own terms, the witch doctor had his own personal history with similar music. In his past, he had used certain sounds or rhythms alongside sinful behavior. In the present, he couldn’t help making the association. His story doesn’t apply to everyone else.
  • Even if his story did apply to others, this does not overrule the path that God can redeem pagan practices and things—starting with us.
  • The person’s opinions are not the same as revealed Scripture.

But Christians keep letting weaker brothers boss them about things.

Plenty of Christians keep going along with this weird tendency. They keep entrusting “weaker brothers” with unique authority over particular practices. Those relate to music, as we’ve seen. But they also related to things like food and popular culture:

What sorts of foods can we eat or avoid?

Let’s all listen to a person who has terrible food allergies, and/or terrible stories about what happened to her when she consumed a certain thing.

What kinds of fantasy stories can we enjoy or avoid?

Let’s all listen to a person who has a terrible backstory about being drawn into the occult and Satanism.

Are certain types of Christian music acceptable or too worldly?

Let’s all listen to a person who has a terrible backstory about being drawn into the occult and Satanism.

That last one is a particularly bizarre trend. Some Christians, historically, keep deciding to let Satan-worshipers be the best authority on the Devil’s powers and dangers. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter whether the Satan-worshiper has since received the gospel. I have heard Christians cite (apocryphal, anecdotal, or actual) current New Age or pagan teachers as authorities about spiritual warfare.

Shouldn’t we, you know—follow strong Christians instead?

The apostle Paul doesn’t venerate weaker brothers the way some Christians have.

He doesn’t say they’re strong. He says they’re weak. Weak means not strong. It means, “These are the people you should help.” It does not mean, “These are the people who have the inside view, so you should follow whatever standard they must follow.”

In fact, the very truth that Paul speaks openly about weaker brothers means he wants all the church, strong and weak alike, to adopt these categories.

Paul does not want stronger people to meet together and whisper about how legalistic the weaker brothers are. He doesn’t want weaker brothers to gather secretly and whisper about how the others keep compromising with the world. Instead, Paul wants the issues openly discussed. After reading his letters (probably publicly!) to the Roman or Corinthian church, everybody could meet together. They could figure out their strengths and weaknesses.

“Ah yes. I grew up in this particular Athenian cult. I can’t go near market so-and-so without feeling a compulsion to rejoin my old people.”

“Fascinating! I never have that issue. So I suppose if you need anything in that market, I could head out there for you.”

Stronger brothers and sisters have rarely if ever been tempted to sin by particular foods, holidays, popular culture, or more. Or they were once tempted to these sins, but through Scripture study, prayer, and hard holiness work, have achieved victory over those sinful temptations.

Weaker brothers, precisely because they’re weaker, don’t (yet?) have such victory. So they require special care.

By default, Christians should put the stronger believers in positions of authority. Because they’re, you know, stronger.

By default, Christians should not put the weaker brothers in positions of authority. Because they are weaker.

Maybe Christians have made progress in this area. I no longer see a lot of these anecdotes spread about. Whether because of more biblical teaching, or better sharing of information, believers seem more resistant to these weaker brother bosses. At least in the areas of food, holidays, and popular culture. If anything, we’re more vulnerable to acting like we’ve beaten back these gifts’ associated sins, rather than actually achieving this kind of victory, or following stronger Christians who have.

But nowadays, I think there’s one vital area in which weaker brothers are taking over Christian leadership.

Tomorrow, I’ll continue by explaining what area this is. Please pray that I can write with clarity and sensitivity. Because now we really get into thorny territory.

  1. And sisters. As my study Bible is fond of pointing out, the Greek term adelphoi, translated brothers, is a catch-all term that refers to men and women.
  2. The phrase comes from Romans 14. Here, the apostle Paul urges Christians to be welcoming and sensitive to concerns of “the one who is weak in faith” (verse 1). See also 1 Corinthians 8–10. Here, Paul refers to “the weak” (1 Cor. 8:9). Weaker brothers are not following a higher standard of holiness. They are weak precisely because they cannot help associating some behavior with sin—possibly because of their own background.
  3. I’ve copied the wording from this website. However, it credits only “guest article.” It does not give a date and does not mention the original source: the IBLP booklet “Ten Scriptural Reasons Why the ‘Rock Beat’ Is Evil in Any Form.”
  4. One commentator provides another version of the “witch doctor” story on the Recovering Grace website: “Bill (that is, disgraced IBLP legalistic seminar leader Bill Gothard) repeated (sic) stated in his seminars that the origin of rock music was from African voodoo type of music. He usually gave the story of an African witch doctor that was visiting and heard ‘rock music’ and stated that this was the kind of music that the former witch doctor used in his practice of witchcraft and voodoo. He (Gothard) had serial variations of this story that he used in the seminars.” Source: Comment dated June 8, 2015, from “rob war,” in response to “The Phony Consequences of Rock Music,” RecoveringGrace.org, Nov. 14, 2011.
  5. 1 Timothy 3:6.

March 7–9: Meet Me at Fort Worth’s Great Homeschool Convention

At this event, I’ll help with the Realm Makers Bookstore and represent Lorehaven Magazine.
| Feb 20, 2019 | 4 comments |

Next month, I’m headed to Fort Worth, Texas, for the Great Homeschool Convention.

Specifically, I’ll help with the Realm Makers Bookstore‘s booth at this big event.

Great Homeschool Convention lasts from Thursday, March 7, through Saturday, March 9, at the Fort Worth Convention Center.

Headlining this event are several big names, including:

  • Douglas Gresham, the world’s top Chronicles of Narnia fan, who is also stepson to C. S. Lewis;
  • Singer-songwriter/fantasy author Andrew Peterson;
  • “Read-Aloud Revival” podcaster Sarah MacKenzie.

The Realm Makers Bookstore showcases the best in Christian-crafted fantasy, sci-fi, and other fantastical novels.

Lorehaven Magazine, winter 2018In Fort Worth, the booth will also offer print copies of Lorehaven Magazine.

You can also meet novelist Gillian Bronte Adams, who will sign copies of her Songkeeper Chronicles series. For the magazine, we reviewed book 1, Orphan’s Song, and our reviewer loved it.1

Look for Realm Makers Bookstore in booth spaces 906–908!

  1. Orphan’s Song is “a classic medieval fantasy setting populated with archetypes that somehow feel fresh and vigorous.” See Lorehaven‘s debut issue (open for non-subscribers) to read the full review.