When I was in Louisville for Together for the Gospel I bumped into Russell Moore and had a few minutes to speak about reading fiction. I quickly saw that he has done a lot of thinking about fiction, about the morality and responsibility of reading it. I was eager to learn more and he was kind enough to answer my questions.
In recent months I have been reading and listening to more novels than is typical for me. I’ve enjoyed this a lot, but have found that many of the good, popular novels contain some measure of what I would deem immoral or sinful—profanity, sex outside of marriage or violence, for example. How much or what types of profanity or sexuality can be in a novel and it still be spiritually edifying? What guidelines do you use in your own reading?
Yes, this is especially true when it comes to the writings of contemporary artists such as John Updike or Phillip Roth and so on. When it comes to novels, I have a similar rubric that I have with music or film. Violence and profanity and shocking content in Schindler’s List is different than violence or profanity or shocking themes in American Pie or Faces of Death (I’ve seen neither of those, in case someone wonders, but I can get the gist from a distance). In some films, there is a context to dealing with dark themes that doesn’t seek to enflame dark tendencies within the viewer, but rather to show reality for what it is.
The Bible does the same thing. The Bible depicts such dark material as murder, incest, adultery, and so on, but never in such a way as to glorify or arouse such tendencies.
Someone who is a converted and reformed ex-Nazi Party member shouldn’t watch Schindler’s List, if such would prompt in him a vulnerability to his violent idolatrous old ideology. And, for that matter, a former pantheist might not be able to watch Disney’s Pocahantus for the same reasons. There are certain things no one should watch or read, but then there are other things that wisdom and prudence would decree different sets of standards based on different sets of vulnerabilities.
Two questions come to mind. First, what are those things that no one should watch or read?
When I say some things would be out of bounds for any Christian, I am thinking of, for example, the kind of literary pornography that now abounds, especially in e-book form (because it allows for the privacy to read it). The top selling e-book in the country right now, according to the New York Times, is Fifty Shades of Grey (which, I’m quick to note that I haven’t read!), which is a pornographic fantasy about sadism and masochism.