Rolfing Unshelved

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Christianity, Game of Thrones, and Reading Objectionable Content

The concept of story is as old as time itself. Everything in existence tells a story. We can dig into the ground and find evidence to construct a history of ancient civilizations. History itself is a story, a high-story, a narrative of past events. Humans have been telling stories since before the introduction of writing in the late third millennium BC. Today we’ve refined storytelling into an art. And since the printing press, storytelling has become a massive commercial market.

The Shadow RisingWe all enjoy a good story. A good story engages you emotionally, and really good stories can pull you in so far that the world around you seems secondary to this other narrative. I remember reading The Shadow Rising (book four in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series), and I had nearly finished the second half of the book in one sitting before I realized that the next day was dawning. Good stories captivate us immensely. The medium doesn’t matter: big screen, TV, smartphone, radio, e-reader, newspaper… they all relay stories. Story is everywhere in our lives. But in regard to Christians and fiction genres — particularly those with so-called “objectionable content” — lines have been boldly drawn between what is appropriate and what is not. As a fan of literature, this has caused me some frustration and concern. So I pose the question: Must we, as Christians, protect ourselves from objectionable content by abstaining from these fictional works, regardless of their other benefits?

What is “objectionable content”? In researching this post, I saw the term thrown about almost everywhere, although few sources actually defined it. For the sake of my discussion, three categories sum it up: gratuitousness (material that is over-the-top, unwarranted, and lacking good reason); explicitness (explaining or stating something in a detailed and graphic fashion); and amoral tone (indifference to what is right or wrong).

Culturally, we are sensitive to this sort of content. Movies, television, music, and video games all have The Blind Sidecontent ratings. Christian bookstores have taken this a step further by actually censoring and banning publications. For example, Rachel Held Evans writes that LifeWay Christian bookstores banned the Academy Award-winning movie The Blind Side (available at Rolfing on DVD) because it contained, according to the Southern Baptist Convention, “explicit profanity, God’s name in vain, and racial slur.” In another example, Jeff Gerke’s experimental imprint Hinterlands — designed to publish Christian sci-fi and fantasy books with mature content — was considered controversial, despite the extreme popularity of its first publication (and Christian novelist Mike Duran has plenty to say about it). We can reasonably conclude that a fundamentally conservative brand of Christianity is opposed to most content that is even remotely objectionable, especially within the Christian market.

Today, virtually every mainstream genre has an alternative Christian sub-genre that intertwines these genres with conservative theology, while omitting any edgy material. In a Library Journal review, Melanie Duncan notes how Christian fiction is criticized as simplistic storytelling that can’t compete with the mainstream publishing market. Even when the Christian market has endeavored to expand into edgier genres, it still holds to some basic principles: Christian morals, inspirational themes, and family values. However, it is undeniable that there are a plethora of great stories that aren’t Christian and that occasionally lack the aforementioned principles. So, how do Christians approach these stories that contain “objectionable content”?

A game of thrones book coverConsider the epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, more commonly known as Game of Thrones. The first book was published in 1996 and it, along with every succeeding book in the series, won numerous literary awards. The television adaptation on HBO has become that network’s most successful series to date. The series’ success is not surprising, as George R. R. Martin has written a true epic that is incredibly complex yet relatable.

HBO’s adaptation, like the books themselves, does not shy from violence, sexuality, crude language, and a very raw depiction of a depraved human nature. The popular series has sparked much discussion about how Christians should interact with stories that contain such content. In an interview with Michael Trimmer, Christian science fiction author Simon Morden responds to several inquiries regarding the series’ more graphic material. Morden points out that certain attractive, rich elements of story-writing are present in the series, and considers these benefits in relation to the “objectionable content” in the same books.

As Christians, do we draw a line? Do we dismiss a series like this due to its “objectionable content” or do we say, “Enjoy the story, but please read/view responsibly”? As consumers of literary material, we have liberty to choose what we want to read; as Christians, we need to make a responsible choice. What do we do?

Allow me to offer some guidance. Amy Becker argues in Christianity Today that Christians should be reading non-Christian fiction because these novels challenge us to see things about our culture through a different lens, purporting perspectives that can educate us about our culture and how we can engage it. They also challenge us to realize the humanity that we “share with everyone else, in our common brokenness and our common beauty.” In a similar vein, Alan Noble says, “Sometimes we have to read hard, ugly, offensive, depressing things to understand our world, and thereby love our neighbor.” The point here is that sometimes there are hard truths found in non-Christian fiction that are valuable, even from a Christian worldview.

Game of Thrones on HBOHow do A Song of Ice and Fire and the Game of Thrones TV series measure up? In a Christianity Today article from last year, Jonathan Ryan states that Game of Thrones is too dark to be realistic, refuting George R. R. Martin’s claim to hold a realistic view of humanity. But then again, Martin’s world in Game of Thrones is amoral at best, says Morden. Furthermore, there is no great good versus evil struggle in Martin’s books, a theme to which Christians readily relate. Is there any benefit, then, for Christians to read this series and others like it?

One benefit is that the broken world in Game of Thrones can shake us out of apathy. It is easy to forget that we live in a similarly broken world, one that increasingly requires the efforts of Christians to improve and protect it. There is also an element to Game of Thrones that I — and many other Christians — can identify with. Martin’s fictional land of Westeros is caught up in endless conflict, yet there is still a subtle resurgence of hope for resolution and redemption. That is very much a Christian theme! It’s beneficial to us to remember that Christian faith and hope is forward-looking and teleological. I think that non-Christian fiction often depicts worldviews that share desires similar to ours, even in the face of a raw-nature’d humanity.

Finally, can a Christian university library have series like A Song of Ice and Fire in their catalog? Absolutely! Rolfing even has Game of Thrones. I think that as students, library patrons, and avid readers, we ought to be committed to a good story — and good stories don’t always come with a “PG” rating. We can appreciate such literature for the art that it is. It’s not just entertainment; it engages our minds and imaginations.

Grey MattersI don’t think that there are lines that we must draw when it comes to “objectionable content” in non-Christian fiction. Ultimately, what one does and doesn’t read is an individual choice. (If you do need some direction, Brett McCracken’s Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism & Liberty offers a helpful model of discernment.) However, when we do read books with “objectionable content,” we have a responsibility to be critical of their themes and worldviews. As Christians, we should challenge ourselves to read these stories responsibly and critically.

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July Book Displays

God-of-LibertyI was immediately drawn in as I began reading the introduction to Thomas Kidd’s God of Liberty. The Baylor University history professor has written an exceptional volume that’s received a number of very positive reviews. If the religious dimensions of  America’s birth as a nation are of interest to you, this is a well-researched and very balanced presentation of all the complexities involved and, I think, without the agenda typically seen in contemporary discussion. It is written at a level accessible to all readers and not encumbered with overly-academic language. There are 47 pages of notes that include a number of primary sources. If you’re researching or like to utilize a book’s index, unfortunately you’ll have to track down the printed edition since the page numbers are absent from this e-Book (at least they were for me).

Modern-Just-War-TheoryMichael Farrell’s Modern Just War Theory is a must-have if you’re interested in the ethics debate on violence and war. It is a robust research guide with several hundred pages devoted to a detailed annotated bibliography. Split into two parts, the first part contains a comprehensive introduction to the entire topic, complete with detailed definitions of terms and examples of the different ethical positions used in contemporary debate. The second part is your tool for research as you can browse hundreds of pages of annotated bibliography and find the resources you need. Whether you’re reading up on just war theory or doing your own academic research, this is a great and comprehensive starting point.

world of the NTThis last book I cannot recommend enough! Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald are the editors of The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts, published in August 2013. It is widely recommended for New Testament studies and includes a host of experienced and emerging scholars in its 641 pages. This volume is rich in research but not exclusive to the academic community. I highly suggest that, at the least, you consult this book for your sermon preparation or New Testament courses. Since we so often place a high value on context in Biblical Studies, this is an opportune resource!

 


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June Book Displays

The summer is ripe with opportunities both relaxing and fun. I can think of few better things to do in the summer than sitting outside (usually at a Starbucks) on a  sunny day with a good cup of coffee and one of these great e-books on my Kindle. If only I had the day off to do it! Whether you’re taking summer courses, working, or exploring the great outdoors, check out an e-book from Rolfing to enjoy in your free moments.

porter_how we gotStanley Porter’s How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation is worth a read, especially during these summer months. It is based on a series of lectures from 2008 at Acadia Divinity School. At just 241 pages, it is a reasonably readable length for students and educated laypeople and the complicated material is written in understandable language. It is introductory in scope and offers a broad yet thorough understanding of the text, transmission, and interpretation of the New Testament. However, reading this volume will require familiarity with New Testament Greek and textual criticism.

Schreiner_King in his beautyThomas Schreiner’s The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments is a hefty 735-page volume — but don’t be intimidated! It’s a book-by-book biblical theology of both the Old and New Testament, so the page count is actually low considering the subject! Schreiner’s argument is that, although no one theme adequately captures the entire message of Scripture, “Kingdom of God” is fitting as the Bible’s central theological theme. You can learn more about this book by checking out a brief interview with Dr. Schreiner or reading Josh Hayes’ review.

detwiler_iGodsIf you’re up for an interesting read on tech-giants Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook, and want to consider your spiritual life in the omnipresent technological age, then dig in to Craig Detweiler’s iGods: How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives. He tells the creation narrative of these companies using theological labels and discusses how these “iGods” can become major distractions. It received a mixed review in Christianity Today but has also received national praise for its address of emerging cultural issues wrapped up in technology.


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May Book Displays: Summer Reading

The semester has wrapped up and hopefully your stress levels have subsided and you are looking forward to some rest as the summer begins. But what a fantastic opportunity to use some of your extra time and grab a book or two to pour over at your own pace! The best part about these e-books is that you can borrow and return them from wherever you are conveniently residing this summer. Grab your laptop or e-reader, a cold coffee drink (if it ever warms outside!) and settle down with some of these good reads.

9781441213594Creation Untamed by Terence Fretheim is an excellent book for those with the “big” questions about the unstable, often violent, and unforgiving environment that pervades our world. But it is also a sobering call to realize our role in creation. The author says, “Ultimately, the creation is in God’s hands, yes, but in the meantime, human beings are called not to passivity but to genuine engagement.”  He gives a thorough analysis of creational themes in the book of Job as well as the matter of suffering. It is a responsible academic, yet still very practical work. Fretheim’s sensitivity to the contemporary issues, as well as to how Scripture speaks to the matter, is laudable.

 

Berg_AllWorkNoPay_comp

All Work, No Pay by Lauren Berger is something that I would encourage anyone at any level in their education to pick up, but especially if internships are an academic requirement. When my wife had recently told me that she had applied to some fifty or more internships, I was not really impressed, I was aghast! That’s a lot of applications! I think we are all familiar to some degree with the seemingly grim prospect of opportunity in the job market. With internships being a popular trend in both education and the job market, getting internship experience is as competitive as ever. All Work, No Pay gives you just about everything you would need to know about internships from an experienced professional.

 

Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more summer reading reviews!


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April e-Reading

The semester is drawing to a close and for many that means papers, projects, and final exams. Spare time is likely to be a luxury over these next several weeks, as is any brain power that hasn’t been exhausted over long hours of study. But if you do have some spare time and brain power left over, here are some fantastic titles on Easter and urban missions. Some of them I’ve reviewed below. These are titles that are not physically shelved here at Rolfing, but are readily available in electronic form. If you’re like me and you’re conditioned to think that legitimate sources are only printed on paper and placed on the shelf, allow these electronic gems to change your mind!

jesus and the demise of death

Jesus and the Demise of Death by Matthew Levering is not a light read. It is a thorough study on resurrection and eternal life, both of Christ’s journey post-cross as well as the believer’s. Surprisingly, the author manages to put all of this material together in just 129 pages (plus an extra 60 pages of extensive notes). I highly recommend this for seminarians, as it is not only an informative read but it would certainly be a useful source for papers.

the resurrection of the messiahThe Resurrection of the Messiah by Christopher Bryan is an invaluable resource on the resurrection. Bryan takes a unique approach, primarily dealing with what he calls “historical certainties” following the crucifixion events. What I like best about this volume is the “bonus material.” From pages 191 to 416, Bryan packs in extensive end notes, extra notes organized topically, and a navigable selection of sources organized by subject material. This would well serve Masters- and Doctoral-level students who are doing research in this field.

justice project

The Justice Project makes the claim that the world has never been in greater need of Christians who “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” I like this book for two reasons: its subject material and its accessibility. Like a growing number of Christians, I am increasingly interested in the topic of justice. For those with that shared interest, this is an informative resource. It’s a compilation of short chapters authored by a variety of writers who are professionals in their fields, offering a good mix of scholastic thought and practical theology. This is a resource open to readers at all levels.

 

the ghettoThe Ghetto is an intriguing sociological work that challenges popular culture’s conceptions of the “ghetto.” It addresses the lack of a unified urban theory for cities and seeks to move the discussion to a global context. There is a historical element explaining from whence “ghetto” was originally derived and much discussion on contemporary urban research. This is suitable to college level readers whose interests involve social work and/or ministry in an urban context.


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March Recommended Reading

As you may have noticed, another set of topics are on display on the recommended reading shelves. Hopefully you’ve had a chance to do some browsing in the foyer. I’d especially recommend taking a look at the larger selection of titles in Professional Ethics. There are some interesting reads there that I had fun picking out this month. As always, if your schedule doesn’t often allow you to visit us here at the library, I also selected several e-books. I’ve identified a few of these that I thought were particularly interesting and posted them below to give you a taste of what is available. Enjoy!

Johannine Studies

Encountering John – Andreas J. Köstenberger
The Revelation of John – James L. Resseguie
Christology and Discipleship in John 17 – Marianus Pale Hera
Retelling Scripture – Ruth Sheridan

Professional Ethics

Bioethics and the Christian Life – David VanDrunen
The Ethics of Research Biobanking – Jan Helge Solbakk (Editor)
Obstacles to Ethical Decision-Making – Patricia H. Werhane
Research Ethics – Gary Comstock

Colossian Virtues

After You Believe – N. T. Wright
The Peacemaker – Ken Sande
Defining Love – Thomas Jay Oord
Practicing Our Faith – Dorothy C. Bass (Editor)


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February Recommended Reading

Have you got the cold winter blues yet? Perhaps your anguish was somewhat assuaged with our two recent “snow” days and you enjoyed a long four-day weekend.  Well, assuming that winter will not relent this month, let me recommend some books that you could enjoy reading inside the comfort and warmth of your own place. Add these to your reading list for the next time a polar vortex swoops in and shuts everyone inside with record subzero temperatures (not that we’re hoping that will happen again!).

For February we have some great titles in the lineup. Celebrate African-American Heritage and read up on the theologians and theology of the African American church. You can also check out books on the many different facets of life and work in Family Ministry. In addition, we put together a collection of books in correlation to the undergraduate “Belief” chapel series beginning this month. Here are some e-books on these topics available at Rolfing; find more on our Recommended eReading library guide. And don’t forget to take a look at the displays in the front of the library for some print options!

African-American Heritage
The Black Church and Hip Hop Culture: Toward Bridging the Generational Divide
The Color of Christ: The Son of God & the Saga of Race in America
The Reemergence of Liberation Theologies: Models for the Twenty-First Century
This Side of Heaven: Race, Ethnicity, and Christian Faith
Honoring the Ancestors: An African Cultural Interpretation of Black Religion and Literature

Family Ministry
Adolescence and Beyond
Family Ethics
Marriage and Relationship Education
Parenting Is Your Highest Calling
Teenagers Matter
Working with Families

Belief Chapel Series
The Christian Atheist
Generous Justice
I Am Second
One.Life
A Public Faith
The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective