What You Watch

Mar 25, 2009 |Bob Waliszewski

Whether you enjoy it or not is not the point.

I was hanging out with some Christian friends a while back, and as so often happens, the conversation turned to movies. Because I review movies for Plugged In Online, my friends know that I have strong opinions about a lot of the media we see in our culture today.

When the topic turned to an objectionable R-rated movie, a person close to me told me to plug my ears so that he could offer his positive perspective on the film. Because they were concerned about what I thought, I reassured — and challenged — them by noting that, "It doesn't matter what I think, it matters what the Lord thinks."

Fortunately, this person took this comment in the spirit in which I intended it — not cutting or condemning, but thought-provoking. He would later tell me that my words helped him make significant changes to his viewing habits.

That's the purpose of this article. My message is simple: Our thoughts about the media should be determined by God's thoughts, not the other way around.

Although this idea is straightforward and uncomplicated, my experience tells me that living it out can be tricky. Those who try to align their media consumption with a biblical worldview will find that their choices tend to run countercultural. Even well-meaning believers often have difficulty going against the culture.

Finding the Starting Point

We all make media decisions, and most people do so with only one question in mind: Do I think I will enjoy this movie, show, video game, CD?

But what if that's the wrong place to start? I think it's important to realize that our enjoyment of something is not necessarily God's highest priority. He's much more concerned that we love and obey Him. Jesus said, "If you love me, you will obey what I command" (John 14:15, NIV).

Although Jesus never said, "Thou shalt not listen to gangsta rap," or "Thou shalt not watch slasher films or anything in the Harry Potter series," it seems as though much of His purpose in coming to earth was to teach us to walk as He did. We are to try to live "pure and blameless" (Philippians 1:10) lives in order to glorify God, so we probably shouldn't be clamoring to watch people on screen do the things we know we are to avoid. So, in these instances, loving Him means avoiding something. So, the place to start is caring about His opinions and making them ours. We won't be focused on pleasing God with our entertainment options if it's an area we don't consider important.

Once you're convinced that God does care about your media choices, you may still struggle in this sphere if you don't understand the answers to the following questions:

Why does it matter anyway?

If there's a line to cross, how do I know where it is?

If I refuse to consume certain types of entertainment, won't I become completely irrelevant to this culture?

Why Does It Matter?

For the sake of discussion, let's choose an entertainment type and talk it through. Let's assume you're wrestling over whether or not to watch a popular PG-13 movie with a friend. This particular movie contains a lot of sexual content, language and innuendo (think He’s Just Not that Into You). So you think to yourself, I know where I stand on morality and a film isn't going to change any of that. Well, is that true?

I believe strongly in the concept of incremental influence over time. Rarely does a single media exposure lead a person to do something completely off the wall. More often, the negative messages need a cumulative effect to take hold. I recently read about a community with a much higher than normal cancer rate. Adults in this town tell stories about how, as children, they would often wade through a certain factory's chemical-waste ponds (the various colors were alluring). The point here is that every one of these adults regrets swimming in those chemical dumps.

Although even one dip most likely had some negative effect, it was really the repeated chemical baths, week after week, month after month, year after year, that resulted in a populace battling with an incurable illness.

Likewise, I believe certain entertainment ponds today look like great places to swim. But despite the "fun" they offer, they're simply not worth taking the plunge — not even once. Those who ignore the danger and jump in repeatedly face an even greater risk — a spiritual risk.

A lot has been made of the concept "garbage in equals garbage out." Occasionally we hear warnings about desensitization. Sometimes even the culture worries about media influence (cigarette advertising, for instance). Although these concerns are valid, I think it's more than that. I believe that during repeated exposure to problematic media, a follower of Christ could find his or her fervor for God dwindling.

I have an e-mail from a young adult who explained how this happened in his life, dampening his spiritual excitement and stunting his spiritual growth. His lack of passion wasn't due to dabbling in drugs. It wasn't because of sexual compromises. It wasn't rebellion. But for him, it was his poor entertainment decisions. Sadly, this is the story for many Christians.

Fortunately, he made significant changes, including getting rid of several hundred dollars worth of CDs. And because he was challenged in this area by the Plugged In staff, he concluded his correspondence with, "And I would like to say thanks for helping to start a fire for God in my life."

Let me ask you: Is there a fire for God inside of you? If not, could it be somehow related — even in just a minor way — to the media you consume? And are you willing, like this young man, to make the changes necessary to begin growing again?

Where's The Line?

Although I realize there are still some factors like age appropriateness, Christian maturity, personal weaknesses and "gray areas," I like to think that the lion's share of media choices can be made "Christianly" if we would simply ask the question popularized a decade ago by the WWJD? (What would Jesus do?) bracelets. Although the fad is now passé, the principle behind these bracelets will never fade. So I suggest we all ask ourselves an expanded version of this question, something like this: If Jesus were walking the planet today with His 12 disciples, how would He respond if Peter, John or Matthew came up and asked, "Can we go see or listen to [fill in the blank here]?"

I don't believe our Lord is anti-entertainment. In fact, I believe there are films, television programs, CDs, video games, and so on, that He would be happy to enjoy. But I would also guess that he wouldn't approve of many of the music and movies available to us today.

None of us know what Jesus would do or say in every situation, but if we desire to think biblically about media choices, it's our job to be wise about what we watch and listen to.

Culturally Irrelevant?

Shouldn't I be a consumer of all types of entertainment so that I can be a better witness for Christ? I'm sure you've heard this. You may have even asked it yourself.

Let's get to the bottom of it. Typically, when we think of how James described "true religion," we only think of caring for widows and orphans, but this is only partially correct. Here's how James worded it: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (James 1:27, emphasis mine). The "widow and orphan" part stands out so notably that it's easy to overlook the latter admonition.

Frequently, well-meaning Christians excuse their poor entertainment decisions and purposefully pollute themselves, arguing that it gives them more of a common ground with unbelievers to share their faith. These individuals have re-written the pollution part of James 1:27 (at least in their minds) to read: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to ... keep oneself from being polluted by the world unless, of course, exposure to evil presented in a positive light allows you to evangelize.

Although I risk being labeled legalistic and a hindrance to reaching the current culture, I think they've not only missed the boat, but tried to sail from the wrong dock. They seem to advocate consuming anything, anytime, anywhere, except the really, really, really vile stuff (usually meaning porn and NC-17 movies). Sadly, I believe we have many among us who use the excuse of becoming culturally relevant to justify their unhealthy media consumption. These are Christians who claim that their knowledge about movies, TV shows, albums, and so on, helps them to witness. But does the exposure to pollution really enhance witnessing abilities?

Along that line, we at Plugged In recently received an e-mail from a young man whose story may be helpful here. He began by admitting that "perhaps one of the hardest scripture passages in the Bible is John 17, Christ's mandate to be in the world and not of it." He went on to explain why he made the decision to stop inhaling the pollution: "As a young man I fell into a lifestyle of lust — not justified but easily explained by the shift in culture. I found that to feed my lusts I didn't need to purchase Penthouse, Playboy or frequent evil places. I only needed to look as far as the nearest movie rental store."

So how did he find victory? He broke the sin cycle by cutting "all sources of this [lust] fuel out of my life." In other words, once he said no to Hollywood's sewage (and, he added, got into God's Word more deeply), he found freedom. What's more, his knowledge of media didn't suffer.

Prudent Picks

Choices about media consumption can sometimes be challenging when approached from a biblical worldview perspective. After all, it is not something John the Baptist had to deal with. It didn't tempt the Apostle Paul. But in our world, in the time and age in which we've been placed, entertainment is something we deal with every day.

How we deal with it is the issue. It doesn't matter what you think about entertainment. It doesn't matter what I think. But it does matter what the Lord of lords and King of kings thinks. And I for one want Him to be pleased more than I want to be entertained.

Copyright 2009 Bob Waliszewski. All rights reserved.

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