Reading and Discernment – Part One

The newest Harry Potter movie released this summer. Truth be told, I’d love to go see it. But my husband loathes all things Harry Potter and I really don’t like going to the movies by myself, so I’ll wait until I can convince a friend to go with me.

I mention this because I had an interesting conversation with a friend about Harry Potter recently. A friend so close I consider her family – a unique blend of sister, mother, and aunt. I adore her. And yet we don’t always agree about which books Christians should, or should not, read. My friend thinks that Harry Potter definitely falls in the “should not” category.

On one hand I think she has some valid reasons: heavy subject matter, focus on the occult, homosexual undertones (or so says the author – I didn’t detect that theme when I read them).

But I disagree on the overall blanket statement that the books are “Bad.”

And it got me thinking about why Christians don’t read certain books. And if we don’t read a book, can we really have an honest opinion about it?

I, for one, love the Harry Potter series. They sit on my bookshelf right next to the Narnia Chronicles. As an author I live and minister in the world of publishing. I read many things that don’t support my world view or affirm my faith. And yet I am able to recognize great writing, great premise, and great content even in books that some would find offensive. If I want to authentically share my faith then I have to take an authentic interest in what others read and write. That’s what it means to be in my world.

I love books and I love the people who write them, even if they hate Jesus.

So what is a good reason NOT to read a book?

A dear friend of mine has chosen not to read romance novels by Nicolas Sparks because they create unrealistic expectations in her marriage. Her marriage. She made that decision after reading a few of his books and realizing that they created discontentment. Yet she does not place value judgments on the books or the author. They simply are not good for her. In my opinion, that is a good reason not to read a book.

I made a new friend several weeks ago who has chosen not to read the Harry Potter books because her mother got pulled into the occult and she witnessed first hand the damage that occurred. She has a deeply personal reason for not reading those books. In my opinion, that is a good reason for not turning those pages.

Yet I also have a friend who will not read any books that challenge her faith out of fear they will entice her away from Christ. I don’t think fear is a good reason to do, or not to do, something. Doubts should serve to strengthen our faith, not weaken it, as George MacDonald says:

“If perhaps your belief is but the shallow absence of doubt, then you must ask yourself a question: do you love your faith so little that you have never battled a single fear lest your faith should not be true? For what are doubts but the strengthening building blocks toward summits of yet higher faith in Him who always leads us into the high places? Where there are no doubts, no questions, no perplexities, there can be no growth into the regions where He would have us walk. Doubts are the only means through which He can enlarge our spiritual selves.”

As a discerning reader, I do not fear books or authors that challenge my worldview. Nor do I fear the doubts they may create should I tarry a little too long. I fear God, and that is the beginning of wisdom.

Yet, in all things, there is a balance. I choose NOT to read books, myself. Sometimes out of principle, sometimes out of preference. But do I have a right to place judgment on a book I have not read? Is it intellectually honest if I do?

So how do reading and discernment blend? How do we take a look at a words on a page and separate the wheat from the chaff? Ernest Hemingway was a master wordsmith. He played with words in a way that few people can. And yet I disagree with his worldview and have been troubled by the content of his stories. I can appreciate his writing without becoming obsessed with death the way he was. I can read the Harry Potter series and have no interest in the occult. I can read the DaVinci Code without it threatening my faith in the deity of Christ. And in the process of all that reading I can have an honest discourse with others who read them. I can read them (all of those books sit on my shelf right now) but I don’t have to. And neither does any other Christian.

I think it is perfectly fine not to read a book. But we must evaluate our motives: conviction or fear. And even then, personal preference comes into play.

How do you think reading and discernment blend? What are the reasons you have chosen not to read a book?

Let me know by leaving a comment, and we’ll pick up this conversation later in the week with part two of Reading and Discernment.

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is the author of THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS (2014), FLIGHT OF DREAMS (2016), and I WAS ANASTASIA (2018). Her books have been translated into numerous languages and have been Library Reads, One Book One County, and Book of the Month Club selections. She is the co-founder of SheReads.org and lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her family.

15 Responses to Reading and Discernment – Part One

  1. SHIRAH September 10, 2009 at 10:17 pm #

    Dear She Reads,

    This article is well balanced and covers the angles for debate with fairness.
    Given the choice to read what we enjoy, I ask myself, "Will it feed my fears or strengthen my hopes?" There is a goal hidden within every book.It may reflect a challenge,or a needed change that confronts me in which I've never considered. I desire that my choices will ironically bring me to a new place of reality. 🙂

  2. Dawn September 10, 2009 at 10:17 pm #

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post.
    I read mainly for entertainment, yet every now and then I may read some historical or self help type books. Personally, I feel that I am able to be opened minded about the books I read.
    Whether it be the Harry Potter/Twilight Series to Max Lucado/Frank Peritti's books.. I think for me, its all based in the knowledge and fact that I know who I am, and what I believe and thus..what works for me. (Hope that made sense)

  3. Susanne Scheppmann September 10, 2009 at 10:17 pm #

    Wonderful post. Can't wait to read the next post.

  4. PatriciaW September 11, 2009 at 10:17 am #

    Reading opens windows of understanding. Not necessarily agreement but an opportunity to see another place, another culture, another point of view. Much of what I know and have learned over the years has come from books.

    So I don't like to shun any books outright without having first explored enough about them–the author, the topic, the controversy, whatever–for myself. Then I make up my own mind. I loved the Harry Potter books when some were labeling them demonic. I don't read erotic romance by choice, but I also don't knock those who do. What is a point of fear, temptation, or offense for one person may have no effect on another.

  5. Leah Gillen September 11, 2009 at 10:17 pm #

    Wonderful post and so well written! I, too, have been guilty in the past of placing judgment on books in which I have never turned a single page. Taking the comments and opinions of others and making them my own was simply unfair without investigating the books first-hand. I have learned to either read the book and then offer an opinion or simply CHOOSE not to read the book but keep my opinions to myself.

    Books that I choose not to read are those that may cater to or ignite a personal weakness of mine. Until I am stronger in my defense against any weakness, I am careful not to read books, listen to music, or lay my eyes on things that could enter my eyes, ears, and mind and take up residence in my flesh. I recognize that fleshly weaknesses and battles do exist from time to time and vary from person to person, so I choose to be a little more self-protective at times.

  6. Rachel September 15, 2009 at 10:17 pm #

    Great Post!!!
    I read for enjoyment. I read each night as I get in to the bed. I also read blogs and devotionals. I read Christian books for inspiration and a deeper relationship with God. For me what determines if I will read a book are several factors.
    Number one, I do not tolerate ANY book which takes the Lord’s name in vain. I have thrown out books with excellent stories because I have been convicted that I will not support an author who uses God’s name in vain.

    Another factor for me has at times been out of fear. Fear that by allowing myself to see or read something that unnerves me, that it could get in to my mind and I could not get it out. Some people struggle more with fear than others do and unless fear is not a problem one has to deal with… then they cannot understand why another would allow fear to stop them from picking up a book. However… In my case, I begin to read a book but if I see that it unsettles me or interrupts my sleep with unpleasant dreams, then I will put it down.
    I will admit that I was afraid to read The Twilight Series out of fear. Fear not because I thought it was scary, but because I think of vampires as evil, human, bloodsucking killers with no soul and it just didn’t sound like a pleasant reading experience….I was unsure of how it was written and did not want to go there. After MONTHS and MONTHS of debating, I finally caved and borrowed the first book from someone. I ended up reading all four books within a month and a half and then went and purchased each one. I loved them! Turned out that I was wrong…yes, there was evil…but good triumphed and love was way more prevalent than evil. HOWEVER, if I had of been right in my assumption, I would have instantly put it down!!!
    Lastly, Leah took the words out of my mouth with the last paragraph that she posted and I feel the same way.

  7. Carol Poortvliet September 16, 2009 at 10:17 am #

    I’d be interested in hearing people’s thoughts on whether to allow a child to read the Harry Potter books (or similar books). My 8-year-old will be reading on this level soon. Her cousins LOVE the books and I’m sure the issue will come up. So far, I’ve only allowed her to read things which do not counter Christian teachings or the values we set as parents. While I’ve kept her away from any knowledge of occult matter so far, am I doing her a disservice by not letting her read great literature? Her mind is so impressionable right now. I don’t want her to get fantasy and real life confused.

  8. ariel September 16, 2009 at 10:17 am #

    Carol,

    I read the Harry Potter books (as an adult) and loved them. My recommendation would be to consider your daughter’s spiritual maturity level. If you don’t think she is spiritually or emotionally mature to handle the subject matter, then I’d hold off a few years. Also, with Harry Potter, it is important to remember that the books get darker as the series goes along. The first few are fairly benign but they change as Harry gets older.

    Whether we like it or not, Harry Potter is now considered a classic and these books will be part of our culture going forward. So another option is to read them to your daughter (if you decide she’s ready) and then discuss the content with her at the end of each chapter. Don’t move forward unless you feel she can handle it.

    As parents, we will not always be able to filter what our children read. So one of our main goals is to teach them to be discerning readers. (If you’re interested on some pointers, you can read a blog post I wrote in conjunction with this one: http://themoabclub.blogspot.com/2009/07/how-to-raise-discerning-readers.html ) We protect our kids but we must also prepare them. And there is a great deal of tension in that process.

    I do plan on letting my children read the Harry Potter series – one day. But I will most likely wait until they are at least ten, if now twelve, and I will read it to them. We will talk a lot about what’s in those books. But long before we ever get to that point, I will introduce my children to other books that are not as controversial: The Narnia Tales, etc. I will teach them to love reading and to filter words in the process.

    More than anything I encourage to to pray and seek God on the issue of what to expose your children to and when. The answer varies from child to child. Know them. Love them. Create a love of reading in those little minds, and as you teach, teach them to discern good literature from harmful. It’s a skill they will need every day of their lives.

    Blessings,

    Ariel

    PS – Got more questions? Keep them coming!

  9. Missy September 16, 2009 at 10:17 pm #

    A friend of mine told me about this site. Thank you so much for this post. I’ve been following God’s calling on my life to write fiction. My biggest struggle has been that I’m called to write for the secular market–to present God’s truth and wisdom through fiction, to a world ignorant of His ways. The books God used to clarify my calling was The Twilight Saga. The books are not Christian and I took issue with some elements, but it was great to read books about love, that admitted the presence of physical attraction without premarital and gratuitous sex. Reading them reminded me what it was like to fall in love with my husband.

  10. Staci Medendorp September 16, 2009 at 10:17 pm #

    I was so impressed by the timeliness of the topic of your discussion as it’s a subject we’ve encountered just this summer within a group that I’ve been attending.

    The Harry Potter books are such a tempest it seems: so many opinions and so many differing viewpoints. Personally, I read the books years ago (when there were only 4 or 5 that had been released). I did find the premise anti-biblical at the time, but didn’t see much harm in them given that I was an adult and aware that they were, indeed, fiction. However, the more time that has passed, I have found that I have a stronger sentiment about them now. I feel like — for myself and my own children (they are age 9, 7, 4 and 3) — that we shouldn’t open doors to anything that does not exemplify God’s teaching. I believe that there is so much spiritual warfare that takes place in our world, there is no sense in purposefully allowing anything into our minds that is not necessarily going to produce fruit. Basically the whole premise of guarding your “eye gates and ear gates” and the “garbage in/garbage out” philosophy. Also, when I read Revelation 21: 7-9 (NIV), it really spoke to me anew about the whole Harry Potter issue given that it directly addresses the magic arts.

    I feel the same way about the Twilight books. In my mind, there is nothing about vampires that could be considered godly. Please understand that I am coming from a standpoint of having regularly read different series of vampire/romance novels several years ago and enthusiastically enjoyed them at the time. However, I received conviction from the Lord about a year and a half ago about reading or watching anything that does not edify or bring me closer to the Lord. For that reason, within our family, my husband and I are very careful about the influences we allow into our home. It is not fear that motivates that decision, but an effort to be very intentional and to use the Bible as a litmus test, if you will, regarding everything in our lives. We also homeschool our children, partly, for this reason.

    I realize that we are probably considered extreme, religious, conservative fanatics but it’s served us well thus far. I find it much easier to keep my eyes focused on the Lord this way. The Bible says, “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-15) Please understand that I quote this, not in judgement of those who have differing opinions, but just in support of my family’s own discernment and decisions about this issue.

    Thank you for opening up the discussion to such an interesting topic. I enjoy hearing the various opinions about things like this. It’s invigorating and I enjoy the opportunity to broaden my understanding of other people’s viewpoints. Blessings to all…..

  11. Heatherly September 16, 2009 at 10:17 pm #

    Thank you, thank you, from one book lover to another.

    I am enjoying reading everyone’s input and I will post my response later. 🙂

  12. Missy September 16, 2009 at 10:17 pm #

    When I started writing my very first manuscript I told my best friend that I was praying about writing a Christian Vampire story. Her voice became high and squeeky as she said, “I’m going to pray for you too, cause God doesn’t want you to do anything you shouldn’t do.”
    I’d just read Twilight, the first mainstream fiction I’d read in a decade. I’d heard about it, got a day away from home and went to a book shop to sip coffee. My plan was to put the book down as soon as there was a hint of anything vulgar or satanic. What it turned out to be was a story about a family who chose to live different from everyone else they knew–to do right when all their insticts pointed to doing wrong. They could not help what had happened to them but they could choose what to do from that point on.

    The book, not being Christian, had aspects I did not agree with, but I walked away compelled to write a full story about what it would mean if a Christian was attacked by a vampire in a world where God was still God. I spent hours on my face asking the Lord what the rules would be?

    I ended up with these rules:
    It would be a misunderstood disease. Satan cannot steal the soul of a saint. It would be a physical change only.

    No blood drinking

    God would have a plan to use the circumstance for the good of the Christian attacked.

    What I ended up with was a story about a young man who out of ignorance preaches and teaches a prosperity gospel. He thinks only good things can happen to the good Christian. He sells bad goods and one night it comes back to bite him, litterally. He spends many years in a dark place, sure God’s abandoned him, thinking, “if the good people around me knew this secret, they’d run from me.” He comes to realize he’d tried to reduce the Christian life to a predictable formula. He also comes to see the difference between the power of light and dark. It’s dark when something small comes between us and the light, but the sun never leaves. When light comes, it doesn’t hide darkness, but destroys it.

    Anyway, my dear friend has become my biggest fan. So, yes I do believe God can use fictional creatures to teach us about His nature.

    I get the skepticism about vampires. What if I told you I was writng a book about kids who travel to a land using magic (a word that cannot be used in Christian Book Association books) to a land with mythical animals and a witch (another word that cannot be used in CBA books), where an animal scarafice is used to satisfy the laws of Deep Magic? Christians today might bash such a story without cracking the book. C.S. Lewis could not be published today in Christian Publishing and yet when we Christians want to give readers something magical to compete with Harry Potter, Lewis is all we’ve got where as next season, the secular publishers will have the next Potter or Twilight waiting.

  13. Betsy Brown September 17, 2009 at 10:17 pm #

    Several years ago I was an operator in a Christian chat room in Talkcity. After the Harry Potter books came out, alot of teenage girls would come into the room who had become involved in witchcraft. I checked the room names and tons of wiccan rooms had sprung up overnight.
    I feel that the Harry Potter novels, as well as the Twilight novels, are leading these young children into the occult and witchcraft. I think the books are a tool satan is using to entice this generation, so I think Christians should avoid them.

  14. Rachel September 17, 2009 at 10:17 pm #

    I do agree Betsy, children and teens are very impressionable. It is a time in life when you are looking to find “who you are” “where you fit in” and “soul searching.” It is important to guard the minds of youth during this time.

  15. Missy September 18, 2009 at 10:17 am #

    I too agree that children and teens should be protected and guided.
    I cannot comment on Harry Potter because I’ve not read it, but I do not see how Twilight would lead a young person to the occult or wicca. I base that on having read them.

    I think this article is about that, we as Christians will jump on a preconceived idea and react before we know anything about it. Like when churches and Christians feared contemporary Christian music because it sounded like Rock-n-Roll which is about sex, drugs and all things bad. Then as people listend they realized neither a drum nor an electric guitar were evil. They could be used as intruments of either, just like a gun.

    I take issue with some things in Twilight when it comes to young people. Bella is too obsessed with Edward. Our world revolves around God alone, never another person. They spend time alone cuddeling in her bed, fully clothed without going any further. Real teens would most likely go too far. Things like that, should be pointed out to teen readers. I don’t think a teen should read it without a parent reading it and discussing these issues. It could be used to teach.

    Now, with all those problems, why read it at all. I love Gone With the Wind, but Scarlett is a terrible example, still I learn what a life of selfishness comes to and how it hurts those around that selfish person. Twilight had many good examples.

    In Twilight there are lessons I learned that did put me on my knees talking to God. Edward is a vampire, it is his nature to desire the blood of humans, but he resists. I am a sinner, it is my nature to be attracted to sin, but I am to resist. When Edward and his family ban together to help each other resist temptation. When it becomes too much for Edward, he runs to his father who gives him a way to run away from temptation. I go to church and spend time with other believers help each other resist sin. When temptation becomes too much I run to my Heavenly Father who makes a way of escape. Edward had become quite arrogant about how easily he could resist temptation and looked down on Jasper, the weaker brother in the family. Jasper had come to them after living like other vampires who don’t try to resist. The day Edward is looking down on his weak brother, Bella walks by, smelling like warm brownies to a hormonal woman. He’s able to resist because he doesn’t want to let his father down, his family helps him, and he’s practiced self-control for a long time already. When I look down on my brothers and sisters, I end up in the same place soon-there-after. Edward battles his vampire attraction to Bella by talking to her, moving her from object to person. A good way for a human boy to move an attractive girl from object of lust to a person to care about. In that process, Edward realizes he loves who Bella is more than he wants her blood. A moment of pleasure would destroy her future and he’d have to live with that. Also a good way for a boy to think about a girl he’s interested in. Deciding to resist does not stop Bella from being a temptation for Edward. In him lives a man and a monster but he lets the man rule. Maybe I will always want to eat the whole pan of brownies, snap back at ugle words, and so on. I have two natures too and on earth will always be tempted to do what I do not want to do.

    I’d have missed all these lessons had I skipped reading because the word Vampire was used. The story is not about deamons. Deamons are real. Vampires are pretend, like Spider-Man. A vampire is like a gun, its purpose lies in how it is used.

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