C. S. Lewis, in the little-read book I mentioned last time, An Experiment in Criticism, tried to imagine a perfectly bad book. He was talking about books, but the same holds true for all types of story telling.

A story can be good or bad in two different ways. The message of the story, what is being communicated, and the execution of the story, how it is told. A bad story badly told, and a good story told well, are relatively easy to deal with–though not as easy as we might prefer. I’ll touch on that later.

But the other two types,  a story can be good in its message, but badly told; and the story bad in its message, but well told, are serious problems.

Add to that, some tales that appear to be wholesome or at least positive in their message, may not be. Others that sound bad may be just fine. Finally deciding which stories contain good messages can be both a matter of degree and a matter of judgment. It is even possible–I believe it is in fact true–that some stories might be good for some people, and not good for others. All this sounds very muddy and difficult to deal with. To some degree it is, but not impossibly so. But deciding which books, movies, etc. are worthwhile and which ones are not requires considerable effort.

In an effort to safeguard our children, and ourselves, we like to come up with rules, with criteria, with standards–if you will–that make all this evaluation easier.

So, for a time in my life, at least, I was told, “No movies, no fiction.” Those rules have at least the virtue of simplicity. The problem is that they do not hold up under the slightest examination. There are works of fiction that are wholesome, inspiring, and worthwhile. There are works of non-fiction which are vulgar, degrading, and pernicious. The same holds true for films.

I knew a family some years ago that forbade their children to read fiction. As long as it was true, in the sense of factual, it was OK. And so these children, as they grew, could read about horrendous murders, so long as the book was nonfiction. The most gruesome historical events were fine, too. Things I would never want to even think about, these young people were reading.

So that’s the first problem with rigid, simplistic rules: they simply don’t accomplish what we want them to. The second problem with these absolute, rigid rules is that, once they are found to be imperfect, they get scrapped.  And, because they created a vacuum, they ’emptied the house,’ once those rules lose their power, there is no fallback position.

If we simply say “No movies, no fiction,” and the individual discovers a truly wholesome movie, or work of fiction, they will abandon the rule. And having never learned any other means for determining the good from the bad, they throw open the door to all fiction, and all movies. The house, emptied by well-intentioned prohibitions, quickly fills up with whatever seeks entry.

More on this soon…