Choosing what we read: a spiritual warfare?

It’s a dark, dull, rainy day today; and I am steadfastly refusing to notice.  Because I don’t want to let the rain influence my mood.  So far, it’s working!

We all do the same, I know.  But why limit it to the weather?

Yesterday I saw, on an American Christian site, Reviewing School Book Lists, Part Four: Reading is Spiritual Warfare, which begins with the following words:

A child. Curled up in a couch. Nestled in an old oak tree with a book. What could be more bucolic? In a church I visit frequently (which doubles during the week as a school), a picture on the wall shows a prepubescent boy—no more than 6th grade, if that—holding The Hunger Games.  He grips the book, looks up into our eyes, and smiles as if he is eating a strawberry sundae.  Would you like to hear what he might have just read?  Here’s one sentence from the first few chapters: “He falls to his knees and halves the brief remainder of his life by yanking out the arrow and drowning in his own blood.” (p.33) Not too bucolic, is it?

Every time I see that picture, I have to fight feelings of anger. And NOT because the kid is reading a possibly age-inappropriate story.  No, what makes me frustrated is that the picture illustrates a gaping disconnect between our perception of reading and its reality.

This young man is not merely having a fantastic, mind-expanding adventure as the brochure-like picture implies. With a book like The Hunger Games, he is involved in grave spiritual warfare.

That doesn’t necessarily mean he shouldn’t read the book. It certainly doesn’t mean the book should be banned by the government. But if reading generally is spiritual warfare, it changes everything. What we allow our kids to read and when. How they read, and the kinds of support they should receive. In short, it changes the most fundamental ways Christians ought to relate to books.

Nor is this limited to Christians, nor is it really about children, vulnerable as the latter may indeed be.  The article goes on to discuss various issues, probably of limited relevance here; but it caused me to think about the question: what do I want to read?

That I have just ordered the Loeb Petronius is relevant here.  I want no porn in my head.  Indeed I have taken pains to purchase the original 1913 edition, in the belief that the nastier elements should be bowdlerised in it.  What I want is the portrait of ancient life.

We all know that what people read influences their outlook, and the sort of people they become.  Of course this was widely denied in the 60’s and 70’s, as a pretext for removing the censorship of obscene books; but those who led those campaigns are now quite happily erecting a censorship of political opinions far more intrusive than anything the old Lord Chamberlain’s office used to do.  I think we can believe their actions, rather than their words.   Everyone knows that books and reading change minds.

What do we allow inside our heads?  What effect does it have?  Does it make us happier?  Healthier?  And, if not, can we get it out again, or will the images be seared into memories for life?

The answers to this will vary for each of us, Christian or not.  All of us remember the books of our childhood, even if we didn’t know what they were at the time.  Many in later life try to track down those books which left images in their minds, and I confess that I have done the same.  We know, even if we don’t acknowledge it, that what we read affects us greatly.

So what should we read?  Reading anything and everything that interests us is perhaps something that most people reading this site do.  But should we limit it in certain directions?

At the moment at bedtime I am reading Paupers and Pig Killers: the diary of William Holland, a Somerset Parson, 1799-1818.[1]  This I read because it consists of short entries, and is rather soothing really.  That isn’t likely to affect my mood or outlook greatly in any direction; although his consistent hostility to “Methodists” does highlight the poor reputation that the “Ranters” or Primitive Methodists had in the period, which is something that I had not known.

No book will leave us unmoved, you see, if we love it and read it repeatedly.

I shall leave out of my life books dedicated to cruelty and obscenity.  Indeed I have become stricter on this, in the last couple of years.  I do not wish to experience either, nor to enjoy the depiction of it as entertainment, nor to become dead to it if I happen to witness such evils.  I prefer my faculties to remain acute and unmarred.  I wish to remain capable of appreciating ordinary things, and milder sensations.  So do we all, in our saner moments.

But it’s not just what we avoid.  What do we choose?

The proponents of the English classics would step forward at this moment and recommend a course of reading.  (I do not, of course, refer to whatever rubbish has been advanced since 1970, but to the real classics).

There is merit in this.  To learn how the best writers expressed things, to learn to enjoy what the best of men enjoyed… these are good things.

Yet even here we may divide.  Dickens may be a classic, but the portraits of Victorian misery do nothing to cheer my heart.  I avoid them for that reason.  Jane Austen is more to my liking.  Walter Scott is something I can handle in small doses.

What should we read?  With that, I am reminded of Philippians 4:8 (ESV):

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.[2]

I’m not sure whether that takes us to anything specific; but it’s a great starting rule.

  1. [1]Ed. Jack Ayres, Alan Sutton publishing, 1995.
  2. [2]I was rather cross to discover, when I looked up the exact text, several “translations” of the bible which rendered this “brothers and sisters”.  Shame on those who can’t tell the difference between translation and interpretation!

13 thoughts on “Choosing what we read: a spiritual warfare?

  1. As a Christian, I am convicted that anything that portrays something evil as good, should not be read by Christians. (Which would include so-called “Christian” books such as Narnia and Lord of the Rings, which portray sorcery/magic (which is something God is going to judge people for all eternity) as being good. And something that does not tend to focus someone’s thoughts on the essence of Christianity — which is the sermon on the mount.

    “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

    I think Tertullian’s treatise “On the Shows” is not obsolete. Movies and videogames of that type are no different, and Christians should preach against them in the same rigorous vigor as done by that man (or more specifically, the vain heart that delights in them).

  2. What is called “magic” or “sorcery” in this world is either a deception or else diabolical. In either case it is repulsive and damaging, and, as you say, condemned.

    The magic in Narnia and the Lord of the Rings is not of this kind. Rather, it is something that never existed in this world, and is found in the fairy-tales of the past.

    I do not think we should confound the two. Two things may be called by the same English word, but not be the same.

    Certainly the modern movies and videogames do have points of contact with the Roman shows. I hope not to the extent of actual murder; but certainly in diminishing our sensitivity to the suffering of others.

  3. Gandalf uses the sorcery type of magic that is condemned by God, using incantations and such, just like witches, etc. do today. So does the magic in Narnia, such as in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. (Where Asylan’s is all buddy-buddy with an evil wizard, and when rebuking Lucy for using spells — which is exactly the type of magic condemned by God in this world — simply says its wrong to use magic for selfish gain, but never condemns the practice itself.)

    Narnia also has that twisted ‘Muslim’ justification at the end of the Last Battle, where a ‘muslin’ boy, who in essence worships Allah/Satan is justified. It also uses that sick myth of Adam’s first wife Lilith, stating that the white witch is Adam’s first wife. It has Prince Caspian marrying some angel girl (not to mention that there are no female angels, and intermarriage between angelic beings and humans is one of the reasons humanity was so corrupted into sorcery and fornication and warring with one another before the flood).

    Not one of the characters in Lord of the Rings or Narnia actually lives a lifestyle even close to those of Christians. They do not pray to God for help. They do not ask for forgiveness of sins. They do not promote God and his gospel throughout the world. They do not teach the teachings of Christianity in any way shape or form.

    Both of them also do not have a problem with the so-called ‘heroes’ using physical weapons to overcome enemies, which is something directly in contradiction of the teachings of Christ and his apostles and all Christians until the perverted reign of Constantine and twisted teachings of the pseudo-christian Augustine. And according to Jesus himself in his sermon on the mount, doing good to your enemies and not resisting ANYONE who is evil is a requirement to being a son of God.

    Neither of them can be used for any examples anyways, even if they did do right things, because none of those characters are real and so they can’t be used as examples. And none of the things Asylan says or does can be used either, because God never said those things, putting words into God’s mouth that he did not say is pure blasphemy. There’s enough real stories of actual Christians doing things, why waste time and emotions and your mind with things that don’t exist and never happened?

    Lord of the Rings especially teaches polytheism (in vain of Tolken’s strange theology with it being okay to sin against God by praying to dead people). And Eru, who is apparently the true God in Lord of the Rings world, is not even mentioned in the actual book itself, not by the evil wizard Gandalf, nor any of the other pseudo-righteous characters.

    There is not one single shard of anything even remotely Christian related at all in Lord of the Rings (and barely in Narnia — though anything that is in Narnia is a terribly corrupted and watered-down version of it). Not one non-Christian would have any clue that either Narnia or Lord of the Rings has anything to do with Christianity at all. Hence why worldly people are drawn to Lord of the Rings and not the bible. If either taught the plain truth of God, the world would not be able to stand them.

    So, basically, God made a world where sorcery and magic is evil, but we yearn to bathe in that type of stuff so much, that we create in our minds a world which is contrary to the laws of God and where that stuff is ‘okay’. What we are really saying by doing such is: “God, I don’t like the way you made this world. I don’t like that you said that magic and sorcery is wrong. I want to indulge in a world where what you said is wrong, is actually acceptable and where we can do things that you won’t let us do.”

    Narnia and Lord of the Rings are what I call “gateway drugs” for Christians into the occult.


  4. Tolkien was a man deeply learned in medieval Christian literature. His great work as an academic was to point out that Beowulf was not a pagan or anti-Christian poem, but that it was a poem written by Christians about pagan things that put them into Christian perspective, and showed that their ancestors were not wholly evil but rather pre-Christians who received some light from the Holy Spirit. Pagan legends from their own countries were therefore just as useful as “spoils from the Egyptians” as Virgil and Homer, and worthy of being used and remembered. A lot of medieval writers engaged in this study of “prophecies of the Gospel,” particularly the Irish.

    The Hobbit is pretty much a fairy tale written for his kids, but Lord of the Rings fully moves into pre-Gospel mode. All his books are written from the Christian standpoint of virtue, and all his characters believe in God and the angels in Valinor because they are factual and historical. They do not know Christ because he won’t be coming for thousands of years, but they sense that there is something going to be done about mortality and the Fall.

    I will admit that LoTR is a gateway drug for studying Old English and genealogy, for learning poetry by heart, for noticing variants in fairy tales, and for paying attention in church. But any occult yearnings someone finds there, they brought there.

    Here be spoilers for The Silmarillion, the appendices of Lord of the Rings, and lots of stuff that makes sense later:

    Gandalf is a good minor angel, one of five sent to Middle Earth from the angelic stronghold across the sea. He is running around doing angelic good works and guiding travelers down the road while looking like an ordinary human traveler, just like Raphael. (And even if Tobit isn’t in your Bible, it still counts as edifying Jewish literature.)

    Gandalf is part of a group of good angels associated with fire, light, and the Sun. (Tolkien’s fantasy Sun is an angel, in keeping with the Biblical association of stars and angels.) Sauron was also a minor angel in this group, who fell and ran off with Morgoth (Tolkien’s Lucifer version) to run around Middle Earth doing evil. Gandalf is out to stop him, as is the traditional task of good angels vs. bad angels.

    So basically, Gandalf doesn’t have any magical powers. He knows command language that works on the world, because he was part of God’s construction crew for making the world. But most of his fire magic appears to be like most of his fireworks – made with ordinary chemicals, although augmented by angelic levels of craft and power.

  5. You don’t have to like Tolkien and Lewis, and you don’t have to approve of their work; but saying there’s nothing Christian in their fantasy stories is either an objective lie, or said in ignorance of Christian literary history. (There’s no shame in the latter, as modern society is always hiding and forgetting Christian history. But it’s a shame to be fooled when you needn’t be.)

    Tolkien and Lewis both engaged in bringing back common medieval Christian genres of literature. Lewis liked allegory, talking animal fable, journeys to Purgatory/Hell, and knightly romance. Tolkien despised allegory and any sort of explicit explanations of Christian meaning, but he also liked talking animal fable, journeys to Purgatory/Hell, and knightly romance. Tolkien did a lot more work on the Germanic and Old English sagas and ballad cycles, love stories, quests, and tragedies. They also both liked all the old fairy tales and poems they could get their hands on.

    Obviously they needed to do this, since you can manage to read even the totally medieval Christian (or modern Christian) non-pagan, Gospel-drenched story elements, and not see them as Christian at all. (Much less understanding their use of “the spoils of the Egyptians.”) You might easily meet Gandalf and not know you were meeting angels unawares, but Lewis is pretty darned explicit about Aslan being the Lion of Judah, and much flak he gets from atheists to this day. It’s a bit hard to have atheists persecute you for being a Christian, and then have Christians persecute you for being a pagan.

    Now, mind you, I appreciate that many Christian traditions do not approve of any fictional use of magic whatsoever. (Although Greek Orthodox guys who hate Harry Potter still tell tons of fairy tales with real fairies, and Greek fairies are pretty much nymphs with a modern update. They’re even called naiads, for goodness’ sake.)

    But even the most extreme view, even the idea that “I don’t approve of fictional magic, and actually I kinda go with Plato about all fiction and poetry being lying, and all of you fellow Christians who don’t believe the same are misguided idiots and heretics” is not the same as “All you other Christians are really pagan occultists and idolaters, not just misguided idiots and heretics.”

  6. Finally, if you have ever read Grimm’s Fairy Tales in one of the more complete editions, you should know that there are a good number of stories where Jesus is wandering around the world with St. Peter, helping and judging, or where people are apt to run into the Devil and his grandmother. Jesus and St. Peter do not have special powers because they are magic, or because they are evil.

    The medieval Christian did not believe that miracles had ceased, or that they were particularly uncommon. If your faith wasn’t enough, somebody with enough faith might be sent, or an angel might drop by. And if an ordinary Christian had the faith to move mountains, mountains would move; and you could command them to do so as well as pray for God to move them, without it being deemed to cut God out of the picture. Humans were supposed to have dominion over the earth and its creatures, and the New Adam was in the process of getting back humanity its Edenic powers as well as giving us the new powers of a co-heir of God and a body part of Christ’s Body.

    A huge number of medieval saints had animal friends who did what they told them, or which would not pounce upon their natural prey or flee and get eaten by their natural predators. This was a sign of Jesus’ redemption of humans and the rest of Creation. If God wanted you to walk dryshod across a river with your monks to start a mission, or to stop a storm to save a ship, or to stop a lava flow to save a town, or to call down an earthquake of judgment on your persecutors — none of that was magic. Whether the saint just exercised dominion and commanded the elements, like Jesus did; or whether he prayed so that people would see it came from the Father, like Jesus did — that was largely immaterial to the medieval mind. Either way, you thanked God and paid attention to the sign.

    All of Gandalf’s “spells” are simple commands, like “Open! Open!” They are not occult incantations.

    The story about Lilith in Lewis is told by an obviously unreliable narrator (IIRC, a wicked witch). You are supposed to understand that it’s bad information or an outright lie. I was surprised when I grew up that anybody believed that junk, because Lewis had vaccinated me early.

    Re: Lewis and the Tash thing, the young man was obviously a “virtuous pagan” trying to serve God as best he knew. This did not “justify” him all by itself; but when he upheld his confused but virtuous idea of God to the point of martyrdom and trying to help other martyrs who were Christian, he got to the point of receiving “baptism of desire” and “baptism of blood;” and he was also repenting his sins. Going to Heaven was explicitly shown as a special mercy by God and not the normal procedure one could presume to happen with someone.

    I have no idea why you think that nobody in Narnia repents their sins. Seriously, that is the most repentant set of books in all of children’s literature. People are repenting every five minutes, it seems like!

    All the kids end up preaching the existence and goodness of Aslan to the people of Narnia (and Calormen, etc.) I’m sorry you didn’t notice any of the huge number of soliloquies to this effect.

    Re: marriages with angels, elves, etc., Lewis and Tolkien took advantage of the large number of folklore stories about such marriages. There were a lot of medieval theologians who believed that there were intermediate levels of beings which, like humans, were partly spirit/soul and partly matter, or which were other species that counted as human and had souls (like dogheaded men, monopods, and the rest of the crew). If you ran into somebody of another species existing on the same rung of Creation’s ladder, and there wasn’t anything explicitly forbidding marriage or any weirdness with the reproductive parts and process, there would theoretically be nothing wrong with it.

    Since the ex-star had a daughter, and angels don’t have kids, he couldn’t have an angelic, pure spirit body anymore and neither could his daughter. So they were basically angels who had been reduced to fairies by God for trying to stay neutral in the fight between the good and bad angels, as per the Irish and a lot of other medieval folks. And it’s folklorically okay for humans to marry fairies, even if they’re star-fairies.

    Obviously little kids don’t know all this stuff explicitly. But then, neither did I know what a lot of words in fairy tales meant, when I first read them. Sooner or later, you come across what the author was thinking; but until then, you just stow it away as a handwave for story purposes, or “chryselephantine is something that’s fancy and expensive, whatever it means.”

  7. So yes, humans know they’re supposed to live in a world where the stars dance and sing, and the mountains come when you call. They know it so well that they tell stories about it that have more obvious visuals than the stars and mountains in our universe, which also dance and sing, and occasionally come when called.

  8. Andy, I respect your point of view, but I don’t agree. We must certainly reject the occult; but I don’t think that the works to which you refer are such. As I said, they belong to the genre of folk-story, in which marvellous things happen.

    Tolkien had a strong dislike for the occult. Lewis had an early experience, as an atheist, in which he met a man who had delved into the occult, who became mentally ill because of it. Lewis resolved at the time to stay well away from anything of the kind.

    However I would rather not argue about this. Let us agree to differ. It is far more important to follow scripture than to praise any human book; and if these books are wrong to you, then I’m not sure that I should try to convince you otherwise.

  9. I posted a comment over there.

    Briefly (I’m not sure the host will post it – which might be my fault, since, sometimes, as you’ve noticed, I can digress a bit) I argued that “Hunger Games” encourages spiritual warfare against the villains of “Hunger Games”, who are clearly decadent hipsters – a satire of our own establishment. This gets clearer as the series goes on.

    In other words the book is fighting alongside us.

    I do wish Christian thinkers would recognise, more often, where certain aspects of popular culture aren’t anti-Christian.

  10. Just “discovered” your blog (via your page on Josephus mss!); lots of interest here, so thanks of the time and thought you’ve clearly invested in it.

    I share your caution and care in what we put into our minds. You might (or might not!) enjoy my Victorian favourite, Anthony Trollope. He was a remarkable “psychologist” of his characters, and I invariably feel enriched for reading his better works. Among those, I would include his two well-known “series” (the Barchester Chronicles, and the Palliser series) and some one-offs, including notably The Way We Live Now. In fact, Trollope’s account of the gospel in the mouth of Mr Crawley (an embittered rural cleric in The Last Chronicle of Barset) struck me as a profound and true.

    Trollope isn’t the “crusader” that Dickens was, nor is his prose so pyrotechnic. But Trollope is my favourite “curl up on the sofa” author, so thought I’d mention him here … for what it’s worth!

    For what it’s worth…!

  11. Thank you so much for commenting – interesting to know how people come here.

    I did read “The Warden” many years ago, because others have said what you do. Unfortunately I disliked it, so never read further. (I felt the same about Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”, although for different reasons). But thank you anyway for the recommendation.

  12. Thanks for the reply. Given The Warden as a starting point, I don’t blame you. I’ve actually read it a couple times, but for some reason I don’t really warm to it.

    If ponder dipping in again at some point, my suggestions for “what next” would be the Phineas pair from the Palliser series (Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux), or, one of the non-series novels, Orley Farm. FWIW!

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