Is it okay to read explicit books?

Written by Michelle Watson

August 29, 2023

Well, I closed out my summer by reading a very long, very popular book.

Yes, I’m talking about Fourth Wing.

Fourth Wing is a BookTok sensation. I only know this secondhand because I deleted TikTok after having it on my phone for a couple of weeks. #forgotitwasthere

Fourth Wing gained popularity among fantasy enthusiasts, especially dragon lovers. It’s a mashup of Harry Potter, Divergent, and The Hunger Games but written for an adult audience. (Check out my review if you want to see how Fourth Wing overlaps with these mega-bestsellers.)

Fourth Wing is entertaining in many respects—very readable, well-paced, likable characters—and Rebecca Soler’s spunky audio narration is spot-on.

But the book is explicit. Foul language, violence, and detailed sex scenes. These, I’ll admit, aren’t my thing. I live in cuss-free homeschool mommyland. When I’m not hanging out at the playground with other mountain mamas, I’m at church. I couldn’t watch The Terminal List or The Man in the High Castle because they were too graphic for me. I blush easily and have been known to clutch my pearls. I say this to give you some perspective on where I’m coming from. You may have a much higher tolerance for this kind of content than I do.

Fourth Wing is the sort of book that I normally quit.

But the hype.

I was too curious not to finish, and, as I mentioned, the book is incredibly easy to read. What with the super-simple writing and entertaining action, it’s a “zero-resistance” book, meaning it goes down smooth and easy with very little required of the reader.

I get why it’s so popular!

But when I was done, I was GLAD.

So, what do we do with books like Fourth Wing?

What do we do with books that contain an overabundance of explicit content?

Do we avoid them? Self-censor the R-rated parts? Read them cover to cover, because what’s the big deal?

Here is my somewhat messy answer to the question is it okay to read explicit books?

Reading in the gutter

Should we avoid books that contain R-rated content?

If we did, then we’d have to avoid scripture. And Shakespeare. And a huge number of worthy classics and edifying memoirs.

But books like Fourth Wing are completely different.


First of all, no book can equal the word of God. It’s in a class by itself, so I’m removing it from this discussion. But what about all the great books that people have read and loved that DO contain what you could term “garbage”?

Well, by and large, these great books don’t revel in the R-rated stuff. It’s there to serve a specific purpose. It’s not there to achieve the R rating that signals “this book is for an adult audience.” They don’t draw out sex scenes so they fill whole chapters. They don’t overuse foul language at the expense of solid words that mean something real.

Most of allplease don’t skip this partthe “garbage” is there to show us how bad evil is. The sharp contrast between the evil and the good has a purifying effect on the reader. It doesn’t lead the reader to a gray place of confusion. Instead, it shows the reader a complex picture of true things, a mix of good and bad, coexisting in a fallen world that wasn’t created to be this way. It’s not an easy picture that we can understand at a glance. It’s hard to grasp, but when we reach out and try, our fingers brush against something clear and pure.

Alright, let’s bring this conversation back to earth.

Using the Escapist Test to decide if it’s okay to read explicit books

We want to read books that are worth our time. For the most part, we steer clear of escapist books that don’t offer anything good in return for the time we invest in them. Hyped-up books like Fourth Wing have a reputation for being escapist time-sucks. Is this always true of BookTok titles and celeb book club picks?

How do we know if a book is escapist? We apply the Escapist Test.

Professor Leland Ryken coined the test in his book ​Realms of Gold​, and here it is:

“Does reading such literature unfit a reader for dealing with everyday reality, or does it send a reader back to life with renewed understanding and zest?”

I’d say that Fourth Wing (mostly) does NOT pass the escapist test.

Yes, there are wonderful themes of resilience, persistence, loyalty, and independent thinking.

But, the overabundance of explicit material was 1.) a huge component of the book and 2.) more sensational than meaningful. So, all the cussing, sex, and violence could’ve been completely omitted or toned down without affecting the book’s meaning, which isn’t exactly deep. It provides shock-‘n’-awe at best and fans the flame of lust at worst.

Downloading foul language, unrealistic sex scenes, and scary images into my mind doesn’t outfit me with the tools I need for life. Again, I highlight the cussing, the sex, and the violence because these are on every page, not just little sprinkles here and there.

We’re all adults here—what’s the big whoop?

Recently, I read a little blurb—for the life of me, I can’t find the exact quote—but it went something like this: “We are adults, so it’s okay to read adult content. This is so obvious. How could anyone question it?”


Is it FINE to read explicit material? Am I being a PRUDE?

Maybe. But I like to employ another simple, one-question test here. It’s called The Golden Rule Test. (Not coined by me.) Goes like this:

“Would I be happy if my spouse read similar material? Would I encourage it?”

Explicit books don’t pass The Golden Rule Test.

And they most certainly don’t pass the ​Philippians 4:8​ test.

Using scripture to decide if it’s okay to read explicit books

Let’s use God’s word to shed light on this dilemma, shall we?

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

–Philippians 4:8

Is this scripture saying that we should be like 🙈 🙉 🙊 and live in a bubble?

No. We don’t want to sanitize our reading material of all truth. In order to portray the virtues listed in this scripture, it’s impactful to show the opposite so we can more clearly see the contrast.

We want to read books where goodness shines like a light in the darkness.

Let’s keep going…

“Guard your heart with all vigilance, for from it are the sources of life.

Remove perverse speech from your mouth; keep devious talk far from your lips.

Let your eyes look directly in front of you and let your gaze look straight before you.

Make the path for your feet level, so that all your ways may be established.

Do not turn to the right or to the left; turn yourself away from evil.”

–Proverbs 4:22-27

Jesus wants us to be women who turn our hearts, lips, eyes, and feet away from evil. If a book helps us to do this by showing us the face of evil, then fine. But if a book offers up evil for us to consume it, then…well, we’ve been warned.

So, does that mean it’s okay to read explicit books as long as they’re condemning evil and upholding good?

Let’s look at a few more bits of advice.

“…give no opportunity to the devil…And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God…”

Ephesians 4:27, 30

I don’t want to read books that open the door for the devil to step inside my heart. I don’t want to give the Holy Ghost grief. That’s a recipe for inner turmoil, not rest and growth.

This is good counsel from scripture, and I want to follow it when I’m deciding what to read next.

Why am I sharing my long-winded opinion with you?

Because when it comes to reading, we make mistakes from time to time. We choose a book that exposes our mind to trash. The book may have some redeeming qualities, but overall, we know that it wasn’t the best choice.

And I’m saying: Making mistakes is part of being human.

These mistakes give us information about the kind of books that work and those that don’t.

We can’t be so afraid of reading the wrong sort of thing that we don’t read anything outside our bubble.

But when we realize we’re reading something unworthy of our time, let’s be quick to follow God’s prompting, aiming for sanctification, not sanitization.

So, now tell me.

What did I say that rubbed you the wrong way?

What have I not considered?

Have I been too harsh?

Not harsh enough?

Let me know your thoughts.

More along these lines…


  1. JessicaB

    Appreciate this!! And totally agree. 💯 Using the living Word of God to come to a decision about something we’re unsure about is wise. Proverbs 4:23: “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.”
    Appreciate you tackling this topic!

    • Michelle Watson

      Thank you, Jessica!

  2. Caitlyn Haner

    This is something I’ve thought a lot about in all forms of media and I agree with you. I also think that people don’t realize how much this stuff actually affects them.

    • Michelle Watson

      I agree with you Caitlyn that it applies to all media. I was just talking to my husband about how we become more and more desensitized as time goes on.

  3. Beth Gross

    Michelle, thanks for such a thoughtful treatment of a real problem that I wrestle with continually!

    One conclusion I’ve come to is that the beliefs of the author matter.

    Another thing I look for is how immorality is treated in the book. Certainly there are immoral people in the world who use bad language. To scrub them totally from our novels would be an unrealistic picture of human nature. (Not to say that creating a fantasy world without them is all bad, either. Sometimes we read to take a needed break from reality.) But, in the midst of characters like that, are there redemptive elements? Does the book include righteous people, good role models or heroes who are out to fight evil and redeem victims? Or is the immorality celebrated and normalized?

    These are the questions I ask. I find it’s no easy feat and certainly not black and white.

    A book that comes to mind is John Grisham’s A Time for Mercy. The novel outlines quite a bit of human depravity. However, the main character, Jake Brigance, is a family man with a strong moral compass. He’s a lawyer who fights for underdogs. Not all of John Grisham’s books follow this formula and it was nice to find a recently published book that did.

    My experience has been that it’s easier to find novels portraying traditional values if the book was published more than 50 years ago.

    When I find a well-written novel like that I add it to my list of Commendable Lit.

    Since reading a book is an investment of time, I’m so grateful for the book reviews on this blog that can steer me to books that I won’t regret reading!

    • Sara

      I was going to say this too! When in doubt, pick an old book. 😂

  4. Michelle Watson

    Thank you for your well-thought-out response Beth!! I love your idea of commendable lit. I agree that I’m more likely to enjoy books written in the past. I also connect with your idea that it’s MORE about what the book is praising or lifting up? What is it condemning or putting down? That is often where I find the sticking points that help me discern.

  5. Sara Hollar

    This is great. Thank you Michelle. I tend to think (and be guilt of) not taking sin very seriously. I wonder if we are generally not harsh enough against sin in our lives. There is freedom in Christ (praise God!) but we need to throw off the sin that so easily entangles us, not accept it into our lives. Honestly, I return to the WWJD mantra. As cheesy as it can be made to seem, it’s a good measuring stick! Would I be confortable if I were sitting next to Jesus who knew what I was reading? Would He read this?

    Thanks for this article!

    • Michelle Watson

      Sara, I can’t agree more. God doesn’t look upon sin with the least degree of allowance, and neither should I. When a book offers me sin like it’s something good to consume, I should give it a firm “No thanks.” But thankfully there’s grace and forgiveness when I don’t make a great choice. Thanks so much for sharing!!!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *