Houston, We Have A Problem

I’ve noticed an interesting trend in recent weeks. One that seems to rear its ugly head on a regular basis in Christian circles. For lack of a better term, I call it the I Haven’t Read It But… syndrome. It usually presents itself in discussions about what some consider to be questionable books and it starts like this.

“I haven’t actually read it, but I think…”

It’s not a new phenomenon. When I was a TV news producer I sat through a meeting of all the producers as we were preparing for sweeps week. The station manager and the news director wanted to hear what we were all planning for sweeps week. At one point one of the higher-ups said we should run an exposé on the Harry Potter novels because, “…the most recent one describes five horrible murders in graphic detail, and do our kids really need to be exposed to that kind of so-called literature? Especially literature that touts magic as a solution to our problems.”

Everyone was so excited because Harry Potter was hot and that meant ratings. As the discussions progressed and the discussion turned to when we would run the resulting series on our respective shows, my turn came and I simply said I wouldn’t be showing it.

I was less than popular at that moment and the station manager demanded an explanation. And rightly so. So I obliged. When I asked how many people in the room had read the books, only one hand went up.

“The fact is,” I said, “the book simply states in a single sentence that people were killed in the house. There are no graphic descriptions. No eviscerated corpses hanging on every chandelier. And as for the message of the books, the author is a Christian who has planted in some very not-so-subtle ways that it is not magic that rules the day. It is love, loyalty, self-reliance, courage, faith, and self-sacrifice that are the true determining factors in our lives. Not spells and magic wands.”

We did not go through with the “exposé. ” In fact, our show did a three-part series on The Power of Prayer.

And while that is in some ways ancient history, let’s look at a few more recent episodes. Take for example a recent lengthy discussion on The Hunger Games that started on a Christian writing-related email loop with a full-blown case of the “syndrome.”

I haven’t read The Hunger Games but I disagree with it because…

The resulting conversation was eye-opening and made essentially two prevalent points. (1) a number of people hadn’t read the book (or the series) but they didn’t agree with it either, and (2) even in the secular publishing world there are those novels which speak to important societal issues  and should not be dismissed simply because they are not published under the banner of Christian publishing.

In fact, I was recently excluded from a book-related event because of the genre in which I write (supernatural suspense). The reason? One of the coordinators, while admitting that he/she did not read Christian horror, felt such stories could have no positive, redeeming message. I wanted to write back and remind them that people have said the same thing about Christian romance, science fiction, thrillers, and all other genres currently under the Christian umbrella. But I am in such good company, it didn’t seem to matter.

And in fairness, I will not name the person (nor the one who started the previously mentioned loop conversation), because this column is about an idea, not about individuals. And while organizations certainly have the right to include/exclude whatever they deem appropriate, I would caution us all to at least be intellectually honest in the evaluations. Because “the syndrome” points to a larger problem in the Christian universe.

Tunnel vision.

If it isn’t stamped Christian, we want no part of it.

The problem is often propagated by relying on verses that are either almost in the Bible, or taken out of context. We hear the exhortation to, “be in the world, not of it…” as a rationale for closing out all but the most obvious of Christian influences. But what the verse (John 15:19) actually says is: “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.” Taken in context, this is a reminder from Jesus to the disciples prior to the events leading up to his crucifixion that it is a blessing to know and love God while surrounded by others who also love God. “However, the church is not to be an isolated hothouse, but a garden in the midst of the world.” (IVP NT Commentaries: John)

In short, Christ was telling the disciples that even though they were despised and misunderstood by society, that was not the deciding factor in the legitimacy of their message. God is still God. The gospel is still the gospel. And it is the duty of each Christian to make that gospel message a part of who they are…regardless of where they are.

Another verse on which we sometimes hang our exclusivity hats is Matthew 10:16. “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

Too often we see snake and think evil. But what Jesus was telling the disciples through the illustration was to use their intellect. To evaluate the situations they encountered; to be perceptive and careful about how they deal with the situations in which they found themselves. In short, to be wise in their evaluations and act accordingly. Again, not an admonition to steer away from all but the holy.

And as Romans 12:2 reminds us: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” This too is not an admonition to turn away from anything that is not obviously Christian, but a call to be transformed so that, in those encounters, we can be advocates for Christ. Because God’s will is God’s will everywhere…not just in church and the Christian bookstore.

There are valid ideas outside the realm of Christianity. Justice is justice. Peace is peace. The consequences of a dystopian society is the same whether portrayed in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games. And lest we become too haughty, there are plenty of Christians writing for the secular market and Christian inspired works that didn’t come from a Christian film distribution company.

So, am I saying just go out and be indiscriminate in our actions? Of course not. But what I AM saying is, be informed. Know what else is in the world. In this world of electronic reading devices, smart phones, and old-fashioned libraries (it’s a building where they keep actual books and will let you read them free), take the time to download a free sample or read a free book. and if you find it to be something that goes against your standards or is decidedly unchristian, then by all means act accordingly. Don’t be afraid to talk with people who like the work to see what they like. Then,be prepared to offer them a Christian (or even an appropriate secular) alternative.

Don’t slam the door in their face. Invite them in.

And when it comes to your kids, Charlene Harris had a great idea in her Hunger Games endorsement: “[The Hunger Games] is a great book, and very thought-provoking. Read this along with your teen and discuss it.”

Just don’t fall to the temptation of saying, “I haven’t read it, but…” If you haven’t (or can’t bring yourself to) read it, it’s OK not to comment. Or to say, “I haven’t read that one. Tell me about it.”

You see, even our paraphrased be in the world not of it, implies we have to be out there with the rest of society. We just have a better message.


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