Fiction fits into that gray area of unanswered Adventist controversy that seemed super important in high school. An apparent brick in the dividing wall between conservative and liberal camps, the topic gained importance whenever a young adult novel got adapted into a movie, causing parents to remember that children can read. With the ever-polarizing Harry Potter series celebrating its 20th anniversary, it’s a good time to address the dividing topic of a Christian’s relationship to fiction, which starts with addressing the two differing sides.
In one camp lies those who oppose fictional literature. They assert that untrue stories (aside from the parables of Jesus, Bunyan, Aesop and Uncle Arthur) are lies no matter how they are dressed up. Even though there may be a message or “lesson” found at the end of a novel, the end does not justify the means. This view is backed by Ellen White’s commentary in Messages to Young People, which declares, “Love stories, frivolous and exciting tales, and even that class of books called religious novels—books in which the author attaches to his story a moral lesson—are a curse to the readers. Religious sentiments may be woven all through a storybook, but, in most cases, Satan is but clothed in angel-robes, the more effectively to deceive and allure” (272).
In approval of fiction, readers of differing opinion point to the portion not covered in the “in most cases” as a justification. Though mainstream fiction admittedly has its flaws, the lessons found in the aforementioned parables are available through other authors as well. The religious allegories of Narnia, good/evil dichotomy of Tolkien’s stories and the contextual insight that historical fiction prove that the category of “fiction” isn’t all vampire romance and wizarding plot conveniences. Even darker and morally dubious pieces like The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones can be gleaned for their social commentary—warning readers of what not to do while illustrating why it might be tempting.
The problem that both sides face in saying “fiction is good” or “fiction is bad,” is that it places a rule where a brain should be used instead. In her colorful warning against novels, Aunt Ellen doesn’t say that fiction should be avoided because it simply isn’t true and could be deceiving someone or breaking the 9th commandment. Instead, her cautions are against the content of the stories and how they affect the devotional process. It could be that a fictional story like Pilgrim’s Progress or The Shack helps strengthen spiritual understanding, while a very true war story or Kardashian autobiography could do just the opposite. When it comes to literature, “good” does not mean “real,” and “bad” does not mean “fictional.”
Of course, there are fields of writing, such as science, journalism and theology, where such sentiments are true. Here, things are good when they are factual and bad when they are fictitious, and where the Christian’s focus eliminating them should be placed. No matter how problematic steamy pulp fiction or a novel about supernatural teenagers may be, a greater danger occurs when infractions on the truth infiltrate religious doctrine, scientific writing, historical analysis and news reporting. I believe this is the Christian’s most important relationship to fiction—to spot its damage not only when it is marked in the “fiction” section of a bookstore or library, but also when it sneaks into things that are supposed to be factual. To quote Proverbs 14:15, “The simple believe anything, but the prudent give thought to their steps” (NIV). As problematic as the Harry Potter series was for the Christian community, it pales in comparison to the damage done by “The Origin of The Species.”