There is No Such Thing as “Just a Book”

Whenever I review popular books on this blog, I receive a few comments from people who feel that I shouldn’t attempt to read theological or philosophical concepts into works of fiction. They generally argue that books like The Hunger Games or Twilight are simply stories, meant for entertainment purposes.

There is no such thing as a book devoid of the author’s worldview, though. Every book, big or small, well-crafted or terrible, contains elements of the writer’s beliefs. Even if the author does not consciously intend to communicate philosophical ideas, such concepts have a way of creeping into the story nonetheless. Every book is written by a human being with particular ideas about the world, humanity, and God. Nobody is capable of writing “just a book” without including in it his personality and understanding of the world.

It’s possible, of course, that my understanding of a particular book is incorrect. It’s also possible that the author communicated poorly and left the wrong impression of his or her worldview. It is not possible, however, that the book is merely a story. As readers, we need to practice critical thinking. Those who argue that a book is “just a book” are no less influenced by the book’s worldview than anybody else. In fact, they’re more susceptible to being shaped by the worldview of the book, because they’re unaware that it’s there.

The Hunger Games trilogy is an interesting example of the point I’m making. The author, Suzanne Collins, has explicitly stated in interviews that her books are intended to make certain statements about war, violence, and government. Again, she may or may not have effectively accomplished that purpose, but there is no doubt that she intended to write more than mere entertainment.

Even books that appear on the surface to contain mere entertainment value contain more than that. For example, the astute reader of a John Grisham novel can pick up on Grisham’s personal beliefs about justice, poverty, and religion.

Past generations understood this concept better than we do, because they were accustomed to reading and evaluating books. Nobody truly believed that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “just a story,” for example. In fact, Abraham Lincoln is said to have called Harriet Beecher Stowe “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Books and words have power. Denying that power does not diminish it, but in fact increases it. Only by conscious awareness of what we are reading can we determine if the worldview of a book (or television show or website, for that matter) is consistent with Scripture.

That’s why I periodically discuss the relationship between popular literature and Christianity. As a Christian, I believe that every aspect of life ought to be subjected to the Lordship of Jesus. My thoughts about war, government, wealth, relationships, and everything else need to be viewed in light of God’s Word. The books I read and the media I consume will generally contain elements that either support or contradict God’s values. At the very least, we can be aware of those elements and make an attempt to frame our lives in light of those concepts that are consistent with Scripture.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think I’m being overly analytical when it comes to literature? Is there such a thing as “just a story” or does every story present elements of the author’s worldview? 

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The Less Obvious Evil in Twilight

I watched the first Twilight movie on an overseas airplane flight a few years ago, a fact that I figure slightly mitigates my responsibility for watching it at all. I found the movie disturbing for a number of reasons.

To my surprise, though, the vampire motif wasn’t the most troubling aspect of the story. While it does bother me that the most popular heroes of today’s youth culture are blood-sucking human parasites, there is something more sinister lurking behind the obvious occultism of Twilight.

Edward the vampire is a metaphor for the type of romantic “love” the story promotes. He’s a lover who consumes his beloved — yes, he nobly resists sucking Bella’s blood, but he does consume her. Without him, her life has no meaning. Without him, she might as well die. Her mind, heart, life, and soul are swallowed up in Edward.

They seek togetherness despite the costs; no consequences are too great. Edward and Bella are willing to endanger their families, separate from their friends, and even risk their very lives to be together.

To many modern readers (perhaps especially the target audience of teen and pre-teen girls), all of this sounds romantic and endearing. Who doesn’t hope to be swallowed up in an all-consuming and eternal love? But it’s the way that Twilight interacts with that hope that reveals its true darkness, which many Christian reviewers have missed.

Twilight takes a legitimate, God-given hope and badly misdirects it. In the process, I think the story ends up damaging the perception that young people have of romantic love and distracting us from the truly eternal love offered in Christ. It’s particularly upsetting to me that pre-teen girls are being encouraged to believe that happiness is really found in the right boy, the slightly dangerous one who loves you so much that he just might kill you.

I have two daughters, and one of my greatest desires is that they learn that healthy romantic relationships are grounded in a much deeper love than the flimsy substitute offered by Twilight. The love of Jesus will last forever and ought to truly consume us. Human relationships (or human-vampire relationships) will never measure up to that — and they aren’t designed to do so.

This will sound sacrilegious to those raised on romantic comedies and dark love stories like Twilight, but there really is more to life than romantic love. My love for my wife is motivated partly by romance, but also by other factors: she’s my close friend, the mother of my children, my sister in Christ, and my partner in ministry. And what’s more, my relationship with her is meant to open my heart and mind and spirit to God and others, not to close me off to the rest of the world (Ephesians 5:22-33; Prov 31:10-31).

I pray that my kids won’t become involved in romantic entanglements that consume them, distract them from Christ, and ruin their relationships with friends and family. I pray instead that their spouses will reflect the love of 1 Corinthians 13 — a love that is patient, unselfish, and doesn’t seek to possess or control others.

In all my years working with college students, I’ve never met one who crept around after midnight looking for necks to suck. I’ve also never met a person who genuinely believes that vampires are literally real.

However, I’ve met many students who seem to believe that finding their “one and only” will solve their problems, conquer their fears, and make them valuable. It won’t. You need only to look at the high divorce rate in our country to see the results of that attitude. When I believe that romance will meet all of my needs, what happens when it doesn’t? I leave on the quest to find my next “one and only,” right?

So if you watch Twilight and other films with similar themes, don’t buy into the lies it’s selling. Marriage and romance are great, but let’s be consumed instead with the faith, hope, and love offered to us by Jesus.

What are your thoughts or questions about the Twilight story? Do you agree with my assessment?

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