In Which I Pretend to Know Literary Criticism Terms

I don’t know if you’ve heard about this or not, but [a book or movie] came out [sometime recently], and there’s all kinds of controversy within the Church because of [theological issues].

I’m being as generic as possible here, because if we wait another month or so, this post will be applicable to something completely different. There’s always some piece of entertainment being deemed deeply flawed or dangerous. Numerous blogs and articles pick the piece apart, showing just how heretical it is, and just as many blogs and articles beg people to give the piece a chance and think about what they can learn from it.

It’s interesting hearing arguments (or reading them, if you make the mistake of going to the comment section) about the controversial thing du jour. They go a little like this:

“I can’t believe Christians are eating this up. It’s clearly endorsing [insert heresy here].”

“What? That’s not what it’s saying at all!”

“Well, [insert list of plot points, direct quotes, and the Bible verses they contradict].”

“That’s not what I took away. I got [insert theologically sound point, often the complete opposite of the proposed heresy].”

I’m fascinated by people’s takeaways from entertainment. You can have two people experience exactly the same piece, in exactly the same culture, at exactly the same time, and they can come away with radically different interpretations.

In cases like this, I think the disagreement boils down to how people in the Church read stories. When a piece of fiction divides people so sharply, the camps are strongly defined by whether they interpret the story allegorically or metaphorically.

Side note – I just pulled those terms out of the air. There may be an actual literary criticism term for this stuff, but my education is in how to talk to microphones. Forgive me.

It’s usually the allegorical interpreters who have theological problems with whatever the controversial thing is. To them, every detail represents something. The characters, the plot points, the way things are phrased…all of it says something.

Your metaphorical interpreters tend to be a little more forgiving. To them, there may be some things meant to symbolize concepts and themes, but there are others that are only there to serve the story. To them, if you want to figure out The Point, you need to zoom out and look at the piece as a whole.

Just reading each of those, you can probably see the strengths and weaknesses of each.

When you read allegorically, you’re going to pick out all kinds of great details. Artists agonize over tiny details, and when you really pick them apart, you can find a lot more richness in a story. However, the more you allegorize something, the more you find things that don’t line up properly. The more detailed the analogy, the more fragile it becomes.

When you read metaphorically, you’re less likely to get bogged down in trivial details. You’re able to get the big picture, and you can acknowledge when the main character’s shirt is black just because it had to be some color. But the more you zoom out, the more you run the risk of imposing your own interpretation on a story.

I don’t want to say one of these is right and one of them is wrong. Like I said, there are strengths and weaknesses with each. I will note, though, that I tend to get a lot more allegorical if I want to have theological problems with something, and I’m more metaphorical when I want to give something a chance.

Art is tricky business as it is, and when you add religion to the mix, it only gets trickier. So much of art depends on the subjective reaction of an artist’s audience, and Christianity – for all its mystic, mysterious wonder – is based on the objective truth of the Artist himself.

I don’t get to choose what’s true about my faith. I can, however, choose what I take away from a piece of art. Even if the meaning I find was unintended, it could change the way I live my life, for better or for worse.

So if you really get down to it, the “danger level” of a piece of entertainment has less to do with the piece itself than it does with the people consuming it.


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