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The Best of LHP – Freedom’s Burden and Bondage: Avoiding Legalism and License

This post was previously published in March of this year. After several months of writing this post, I am still learning the same lesson I have reflected on below. Even if you are not a Christian, I hope you consider other people’s tastes and convictions when it comes to art and culture as we seek to enjoy this world together. 

Legalism. The sin many Christians desire to avoid any association. No one wants to be remembered as the self-righteous taskmaster who rigidly binds his actions and attitudes—and usually those of others—to a set of absolute values and standards often based on a perverse interpretation of Scripture. Indeed, some of Christ’s main critics were legalists as were many false teachers in the early church. Christ and Paul address their stiff adherence to standards and their motives for these standards. They did not want to adopt a strict lifestyle because they wanted to please God; rather, they only wanted to compare themselves to other people, puffing up their outward spirituality when in reality they were as dead as tombs.

A couple of months ago, I have heard and read many sermons and articles about legalism and the dangers it imposes on the Christian faith. Interestingly, some of these sermons and articles also caution against license, the polar extreme of legalism. Both hinder the Christian walk as the former restricts our freedom in Christ to a set of rules more narrow than the Scriptures while the latter allows for unchecked freedoms to the point of being broader than the Scriptures. Many Christians swing to one side of the other on certain issues out of their response to these issues. Perhaps they grew up in a home dominated by alcohol abuse and gambling, so they refuse to allow liquor and playing cards in their homes and deem such activities as sinful. Others have been told wearing certain articles of clothing (pants on women comes to mind in the circles I grew up in) is sinful, so they dress rather distastefully when they find their new freedom.

Thus, I have been meditating on the subject of legalism, searching for its meaning and implications on the state of the church and even my own personal life. Recently, I have been reading Philip Ryken’s commentary on Galatians, and a clarification on my own personal issues with legalism became clearer. As a person who loves and studies art, my problem is not with legalism–my problem is with license.

I have grown up in conservative Christian circles and have seen legalism leveled at music, film, and literature. During middle school and high school, I heard many a sermon about the evils of rock and all contemporary Christian music, the dangers of movie theaters, and the sinfulness of reading books like the Harry Potter series. They told me avoid these things because they avoided these things. It made them more spiritual not to participate in them, I guess.

Yet, not all of these people have selfish motivations for their strict lifestyles. Many have sought with the same attention to thought and prayer as I have, and my own responsibility to love those who did not necessarily conclude the same things I did about art. For instance, many conservative Christians place personal boundaries on art based on their spiritual convictions to avoid falling into sin.  Our freedom from sin to Christ to participate in cultural products he has redeemed for his sake also includes a new sensitivity to certain areas of culture, which some Christians believe might cause them to stumble. Thus, they place boundaries on cultural products, art included, to prevent the wounding of their conscience. I, then, show love to them by respectfully acknowledging their conclusions and restricting my participation in those activities that they find will hinder their walk.

The trouble occurs, however, when some extend their boundaries on other people. A pastor friend of mine compared this image to fence building, and analogy I will now adapt. For instance, I have built fences around my convictions, personal fences that I know I cannot cross because I know I will not enjoy it or will hinder my walk with Christ. I do not place fences around areas that I know that I am free to enjoy or participate in without compromising my walk with Christ. However, if I tell my neighbor to build his fences where I have built fences, then I have crossed into legalism.

Conversely, if I do not set up fences in certain areas of conviction and encourage my neighbor to abandon caution and do the same, then I have committed license. I mainly struggle with this issue. While I have sought the Lord’s wisdom and conviction in choosing which standards to adopt and have thrown off this rather burdensome yoke of unscriptural standards of life and art and have now embraced a life true Christian freedom, I often swing too far in the opposite direction of the legalistic standards I have been forced to adopt for most of my life, and I ignore the fact that sensitivity to certain cultural products still exist even within those who embrace Christian liberty.

For example, I remember my friend cautioning me after I recommended Pan’s Labyrinth to someone. She told me, “I don’t know, Stephen, I think that movie’s rather violent. I don’t think I could recommend it to a Christian.” At first, I was confused. Of course it was violent; it was a war film. Upon reflection, I realized her wisdom and my error. I had committed license, offering my convictions without thinking about others who do not share my convictions. While many people with conservative convictions only possess them to compare themselves to other men, a good number of them have those convictions because they truly want to please God. Therefore, I must exercise love and restrain the proclamation of my own liberty in conviction to those who do not hold these same standards.

Therefore, license can be just as binding and burdensome as legalism. Both ignore love of God and neighbor and the freedoms we have in Christ to participate or not participate in cultural products that he has redeemed for us to enjoy or avoid for his sake. Christ has called us to a life in which his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Paul also reminds of the wonderful new freedom we have in Christ through his grace and love. No set amount of rules or works can lead us to a closer relationship with him and with our neighbor apart from his matchless grace. Yet, this new freedom can become a new type of burden and bondage if Christians do not hold convictions for God’s or for their neighbor’s sake. Like Michael Horton encourages in his article, we need to ask the Lord for wisdom to demonstrate our Christian liberty in such a way that illustrates the love of our God and our neighbor.


Value in the Difference of Media: A Primer on Poetics

Hello again, everyone! So last week was a bit of a break from the ruminating on media and adaptations, but as this is my last week for posts this month, I wanted to add some thoughts to my post, Value in the Difference of Media: The Hobbit, hopefully giving some answers to the questions I raised, mainly:

  • How can we most objectively evaluate adaptations from novel to film (or at least not feel so lousy when someone butchers our favorite book)?
  • Are there elements that transcend media, or are books and film completely different?

My answer (I don’t presume to call it the answer) revolves around a literary concept: Poetics, or as I describe it, the aesthetics of literature.

We’ve Got More Than Poems Now…

Note: I’m not an authority on the subject of poetics, which is a heavily academic subject; I’m merely attempting to show how this concept is important in evaluating cross-media literature. This is a very complicated subject, so if you have more to add or think that I missed something, feel free to comment below.

This stuff get complicated, yo.

This stuff get complicated, yo.

Everyone has their own idea about what makes art beautiful. Is it the colors? The shapes? The use of materials? The subject matter? Even if you’ve never stopped and consciously asked yourself why you like a painting or a sculpture (or more informatively, why you didn’t), you have underlying assumptions about what art should be, or do. This is called aesthetics – “a particular theory or conception of beauty or art : a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and especially sight” (, definition 2). This term deals almost exclusively with visual arts, but the idea of aesthetics can also be narrowed further to address literature specifically.

Have you ever wondered what exactly makes people enjoy some books, but not others?

I know, I know. The thought of Twihards even accidentally doing something literary makes my head spin too.

I know, I know. The thought of Twihards even accidentally doing something literary makes my head spin too.

What’s the deal with that Twilight craze? I read the first two (before they became the spastic teen girl favorite) and they’re not too bad, but certainly not good enough, in my opinion, to elicit mass hysteria. While psychological and sociological explanations are probably more useful here (marketing, hype, peer pressure, etc.), there was obviously something about these books that really connected with what these readers view as good literature.

We all have these inclinations (although perhaps not as zealously), to respond to what we conceive of as good literature. Even when we recognize that what we’re reading or watching isn’t well executed, sometimes a book or movie just does something for us. This is what happens when a story approximates our idea of poetics – “a particular theory of poetry or sometimes other literary forms,” in this case, novels and film (, definition 1b). However, a more useful definition for me, as I stated above is: “the aesthetics of literature,” or to attempt to combine these definitions:

Poetics: a particular theory or conception of beauty or art in literature: a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and stimulates the mind.

aristotle bustThe word “poetics” comes from the title of a collection of Aristotle’s lecture notes about how his students should classify, discuss, and write poetry in ancient Greece. It is considered the first organized attempt to create a framework of analysis for poetry (which would include Homer‘s epics, the tragedies, and comedies, which are much closer to stories and films than, say, a poem like “The Red Wheelbarrow”). When Aristotle was discussing these concepts, it’s important to note that novels and film did not exist, and therefore his concepts of how to evaluate literature cannot always be directly applied to these relatively new forms of media.

Since Aristotle, however, writers, playwrights, philosophers, and whoever else had a mind to, have discussed and framed new forms of poetics, spanning every artistic period to our current day. Many literary critics base their approaches to literature on a specific poetics (although there can be a very distinct difference between literary criticism and poetics, but I won’t get into that here). The point of all this is to demonstrate that there is actually such a thing as a structured approach to opinions to novels and film, and, depending on how that structured approach evaluates literature, different media can be held to the same standards. But on the other hand, depending on how finely tuned your approach is for individual forms of media, you may not be able to apply those standards to others.

So, if we’re going to be fair to these movies, we need to use a poetics that can include both film and novels so that we can compare apples to apples, and then we further need a way to compare one adaptation to another; in short, we need a poetics for adaptations.

What Does All of This, I Don’t Even…

“Adaptations” of novels to film are supposed, by marketing and consensus opinion, to take what’s great about the book and faithfully translate that to film with as much accuracy as possible. First, we need to identify some key elements that exist in both film and novels in equal degree. Some examples would be:

  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Pacing
  • Tension
  • Scene

If you wanted a poetics for adaptations, your framework for evaluating whether or not a film like The Hobbit or Harry Potter is successful as an adaptation would look something like:

  • Do aspects of characters in the film match those of their analogue (if it exists) in the film?
  • Is the literal manifestation of setting in the film an adequate representation of the descriptions in the text?
  • Compared relatively to the pacing of the book, does the film take enough time where required to adequately represent important parts of the story?
  • Is the tension of the narrative from the novel translated to the film?
  • Are scenes from the book represented adequately, and given enough time and development so as to capture their importance to the story?

You might have noticed from these examples that while this would be a good way to tell if a film was a good adaptation, it doesn’t leave much room for the film-maker to be original or creative. While you might argue that the point of an adaptation is exactly not to be original, you might see the rub when it comes to changes made between media that actually improve the narrative (e.g. Dr. William’s example of the Aragorn not carrying The Shards of Narsil, or changing the tone of The Hobbit to better fit with the trilogy).

It is also very different in intent from deciding if the adaptation is itself a good film.

So Where Does This Leave Us?

It leaves us with a choice: to decide if we should come to movies like The Hobbit and judge them by a poetics of adaptations, or if we should just let them be movies instead. Personally, I’m ok with doing both. I can look at The Lord of the Rings and call it a “bad” adaptation, and then look at something like Life of Pi and call it a “good” adaptation, but then turn around and say the first is a good movie and the second isn’t. But I’m doing so based on two separate systems of poetics, and that’s an important thing to remember.

I hope this discussion has been useful to you, and helped you to see how this isn’t such a simple issue. There’s a lot of room for debate here, but that’s only because it’s part of a larger discussion. If you have any questions about my approach, or just plain disagree with me on something, let me know in the comments below!


One of C. S. Lewis’s most interesting contributions to Christian apologetics is the Argument from Desire:

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists.  A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food.  A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water.  Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex.  If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world”  (Mere Christianity 120).

I was interested to discover a respondent on an internet forum who denied having any unsatisfiable desires. He admitted that certain desires had never been satisfied perfectly, but maintained that they could be in theory, or that the satisfactions he could find in this life were good enough. How does one respond to this line of argument?  It’s rather like trying to convince the dwarfs in The Last Battle that they aren’t in a stable!

One conclusion might be that the argument from desire just doesn’t work with a certain type of person. Some of us are just too emotionally undeveloped- -or jaded–to be susceptible. But I would suggest that we make a mistake by taking such people’s statements at face value. Solomon tells us that “God has set eternity in their hearts” (Eccl. 3:11). Either Scripture is wrong or the denial of transcendent desire is a smokescreen, a defense mechanism designed to protect dwarfish atheists from reality.

A person who is still human is not in fact satisfied by the temporal and physical, however hard he tries to convince himself that he is. But you probably can’t argue him out of his position. You can only try to arouse the desire, to fan it to the point where he cannot ignore it any more. And the best way to do that might be to talk about the foretastes of fulfillment we have already been granted in Christ, or just to live a life of transcendent openness to Joy before him.
If you can get him to read Thomas Traherne’s Five Centuries of Meditation, it wouldn’t hurt. “Things unknown have a secret influence on the soul, and like the center of the earth unseen violently attract it.  We love we know not what, and therefore everything allures us. . . . Do you not feel yourself drawn by the expectation of some Great Thing? . . . You never enjoy the world aright till you see how a [grain of] sand exhibiteth the wisdom and power of God. . . . You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars. . . . Infinite wants satisfied produce infinite joys. . . . You must want like a God that you may be satisfied like God.  Were you not made in his image?”

Lewis learned the argument from desire from Augustine’s Trinity-shaped vacuum and his heart that was “restless until it rest in Thee,” as developed by Traherne, Herbert, and MacDonald. The argument will have a certain logical cogency for those in whose hearts Desire has been sufficiently aroused. The best service those earlier writers–and Lewis himself–may do us is to fan that flame. In it, let us burn.

Donald T. Williams, PhD

Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00) or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at


Beauty: Eye of the beholder?

The question was raised on a C. S. Lewis listerv I belong to, “What is beauty?”  One answer, from Lewis scholar Jim Prothero, was that beauty is “holiness made visible.”  Another correspondent questioned the adequacy of that formula: a Prostitute may be beautiful but is hardly holy; Jesus’ mangled body on the cross was holy but hardly beautiful.  How do we sort through all this complexity?  It would be impossible to attempt an answer in a short essay that anyone would be willing to plough through.  But I will attempt to steer my way between the Scylla of adequacy and the Charybdis of silence by offering a few random thoughts, inadequate (this I know) as they are tantalizing (this I hope).

Truth is the reflection of God’s mind, Goodness of His character, and Beauty of His glory, as they are found in the world He has made.  Thus I try to summarize the matter in my longish scholarly essay on the topic, “A Tryst with the Transcendentals: C. S. Lewis on Goodness, Truth, and Beauty,” now published as a chapter in Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).  Because the world is cursed and our minds fallen, we can be mistaken about all three.  But it hardly follows from this either that they are not real or that we are utterly incapable of recognizing them truly.  In the case of Beauty, our minds can be, as I put it in one of my poems, “abused / By surface prettiness the eye can see” (Stars Through the Clouds 353).  Even the surface prettiness partakes of some faint hint of the real thing, however twisted.  For, as Augustine teaches us, Evil is always a parasite on the Good.  But true Beauty in its deepest form must be consistent with Truth and Goodness.  The surface prettiness of the Prostitute is thus a perversion of Beauty, related to it by the real presence of good form and proportion, but not partaking of its fullness.  And the surface ugliness of the Crucifixion hides the beauty of God’s holiness from those who do not penetrate deeper to see the meaning of His love.  Instead of that they see only “cosmic child abuse.”  Thus they miss the Beauty of Christ’s sacrifice precisely by missing also its Goodness and its Truth.

Prothero wants us to pursue “something higher and more beautiful than beauty, which, like joy, is not an end (a frequent mistake made in our culture) but a sign of higher things.”  Yes; I see what he means.  I think I agree, though I would not say it quite like that.  I would put it this way:  We only see Beauty in a partial and distorted way unless we see it as related to Truth and Goodness and see their unity as abiding in God.  The Prostitute’s beauty is not unreal but it is partial and therefore distorted; physical only.  Because Beauty in its fullness is related to Truth and Goodness, it cannot be seen with the eye alone, but only with the mind—and only fully by a mind renewed and enlightened by grace.  The Prostitute still has the part that the eye can see—but only that.  And the mind enlightened by grace can see the deeper Beauty in something like the Crucifixion where the eye’s part is missing.

So Prothero’s formula, “Beauty is visible Holiness,” is I think true in an ultimate sense, but it is not a truth that we can hope to see on first inspection, and never when the inspection is made by the eye alone.  I don’t ever expect to see Mother Teresa’s face gracing the cover of Cosmo; but I’ll bet she was very beautiful to the poor of Calcutta, and I’ll bet they saw that beauty even in the specific features of her face: the compassion in her eyes, the love in her smile.

Inadequate?  Surely.  Tantalizing?  We shall see.  You can always read the larger discussion in Reflections from Plato’s Cave.

Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00) or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at

Donald T. Williams, PhD