A few years ago I recommended a book to a friend. I liked the story and the characters. I appreciated how even the flawed characters were likable. My friend, however, was offended by the book. The main character, who was agnostic at best, had not lived a morally upright life. Though there were consequences for the character’s choices, my friend didn’t think they were serious enough.
While I respect my friend’s opinion, I don’t share it. I don’t expect non-Christians to act like Christians do. The conviction the Holy Spirit brings on believers is a foreign concept to the unbeliever. And besides, anyone who is still walking around breathing has not gotten what they deserved.
But that experience has made me cautious. We have a responsibility to our fellow believers to not cause them to violate their consciences (Romans 14:1–4). Christian fiction is one option, but don't think it's always the answer. Yes, some of it is good, but some of it is propaganda. Besides that, I’ve encountered books that promulgated some horrible theology.
I don’t think there are cut and dried answers here. I have no rubric that will tell you what is okay and what is not. I also don’t consider myself an expert, just someone who has gotten this wrong a few times. I have some suggestions, though, based on situations I’ve encountered.
I have a friend who once told me she had stopped reading a book I had enjoyed. It focused on a dysfunctional family similar to her own. She worried that the story would be too real for her, and she didn’t want to relive that time. Other people may not have such a problem. In fact, seeing a situation through the eyes of a fictional character may help them process things in a helpful way. My friend knew herself, and she decided she would rather miss a good book deal with painful memories.
I’m cautious when I recommend a book (or movie, or TV show) to someone else. If someone has lost a child, I wouldn’t recommend a story where a child died. Love stories may make someone who is deeply unhappy in their marriage more bitter. I try to stay mindful of that person's situation.
If in doubt, don’t read
The world is full of stories, and few (if any) need to be read by everyone (except, perhaps, Pride and Prejudice). Put it down and move on to the next one.
I don’t think any story is safe. I’ve heard people use the Old Testament to justify sinful behavior. If the situation is right, even the noblest hero story can make a person long for a different sort of life. But we do need to guard are hearts, especially when we’re lost in a story and our guards are down.
Other blog posts that have covered similar ground:
Evangelicals and Hollywood Muck
6 Reasons Men Should Read More Stories Than Men's Books