Minding Our Media

Dec 03, 2010 |Carolyn McCulley

Is it possible to "keep your heart with all vigilance" when it comes to our entertainment choices?  

As a boy, Ken idolized MacGyver. He had a standing date with MacGyver every Monday night at 8:00 p.m., as well as daily appointments at 7:00 p.m. for the re-runs. He carried duct tape and a Swiss army knife everywhere he went, on the off chance it could be as handy for one of his 9-year-old escapades as it had been for his television hero. Life was good as long as he got his daily MacGyver dose.

But one day, his parents cut him off. They notified him that he was only permitted to watch one episode per week.

"It was a crushing blow," Ken recalled with a smile. "My mind immediately began to race. 'How am I going to continue on? Choose only one episode? Impossible!' It was one of the first times in my life that one of the idols in my little heart was revealed — and I was not giving it up without a fight."

Two decades later, this story — and a related anecdote about Ken (as MacGyver) duct-taping his sister's mouth closed — are humorous fodder for a "break the ice" story swap among new friends. Or so it seems. But if we do a little poking around our own media consumption habits, we may find we're just as undiscerning about the effects of TV, movies, and music on ourselves.

Just Looking

Have you ever walked into the kitchen with nothing on your mind except the project you're working on? You're not even hungry, but there on the counter is a luscious, sugary treat. One glance and your defenses crumble. Desire that was previously dormant is now in a five-alarm frenzy.

What we gaze upon affects our desires.

When I was younger, I had a housemate who never wanted to watch romantic comedies with me. Not just the R-rated flesh-fests, but even the classic British period pieces. She preferred science fiction or adventure movies. I was initially surprised by her preferences — after all, what's a girly evening at home without someone getting the guy?! But Susan had discerned that after watching romantic comedies, she felt a gray cloud of discontentment muffling her passion for God.

There was nothing wrong with these movies themselves, but Susan wisely gauged her heart and realized that this optional activity had a negative spiritual effect on her. So she stopped watching. Her peace before God was more important.

A few years down the line, I better appreciate why she wasn't regularly snacking on romantic comedies in a prolonged season of singleness.

Susan is now married, but she hasn't let down her guard. A few weeks ago she told me how she was watching a movie and found the leading man quite attractive. Distractingly attractive. As she watched, she realized that her attention was directed in the wrong place — she was finding herself drawn to this actor in a way that would compete with her affection for her husband. So she turned off the movie and never saw the end of it.

"I love my husband and I don't want to watch anything that makes me wonder about another man," she said. "It's not worth it. Entertainment is optional. Protecting my marriage is not."

Several years ago, my pastor gave a series of messages about media consumption. I remember how he laid out a challenge for our viewing habits: At the end of a movie, could we thank God for how we spent those two hours? Would we be able to say the TV show we watched was glorifying to God?

Well, I recently failed that test. I had settled in to watch an action movie (skipping that romantic comedy for the sake of wisdom), a movie I assumed would be like others in its series — a battle of wits and cyber-hijinks. It turned out to be a very violent movie. I went to sleep troubled by the some of the scenes and I knew I had failed the "thanking God" standard. There was no way I could thank Him for the creation of this movie, nor the time I had squandered in watching it.

The next day, I had to confess to my accountability partner that I had been undiscerning in my choice and lazy in not turning it off earlier.

White Noise

Sometimes minding our media consumption is not just about overt idolatry like Ken's MacGyver days, or the temptation to discontentment or comparison like Susan faced, or even blatantly sinful junk like I watched. Sometimes it's just about the white noise — the constant assault of sound and sensation that renders us deaf to God's still small voice.

Andrew always said he couldn't concentrate on his work if he didn't have music on. His iPod was an ever-present accessory, even for the 5-minute drive to lunch. Then one day he decided to undertake a music fast. His original intention was to see how it would affect his songwriting. He certainly wasn't expecting it to make him hungry for God's Word. But that's exactly what happened when he was no longer filling up on iTunes.

"Look at these pages," he said excitedly, holding out a well-marked Bible. "I've never read Proverbs like this before. I saw all kinds of stuff in here last night — it was crazy, like I had never even read the Bible before!"

For six hours one night, God's Word had held Andrew captive. He didn't want to stop reading and praying. That was the result of two weeks of fasting music and taking time in his commute to pray and think about eternal things. Absent the musical din, Andrew found that he hungered for the time to study and meditate upon the Bible — a benefit he was not expecting when he first started. Now he's thinking a 2-week music fast is not enough.

"I feel clearer mentally when I have some time to be silent and think and pray," he said. "It's been good for me to turn off the music for a while."

Junk In, Junk Out

True wisdom, as celebrated in the Bible, is deliberately cultivated and jealously preserved. Proverbs makes it very clear that we should be discerning about the company the keep, the choices we make, and the words we hear. Even though it was written in an age where entertainment choices were limited, the principle remains: what goes into our hearts comes out in our lives. Even if it's not real, we still absorb the stain into our souls — a stain that will eventually overflow from our hearts in our thoughts, words, and actions.

My son, be attentive to my words;
incline your ear to my sayings.
Let them not escape from your sight;
keep them within your heart.
For they are life to those who find them,
and healing to all their flesh.
Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life.
Put away from you crooked speech,
and put devious talk far from you.
Let your eyes look directly forward,
and your gaze be straight before you.
Ponder the path of your feet;
then all your ways will be sure.
Do not swerve to the right or to the left;
turn your foot away from evil. (Proverbs 4:20-27 ESV)

What kind of crooked speech are we listening to in movies, shows, or music? What crooked things are we gazing upon, instead of looking at the "straight and narrow"? Are we fleeing evil or are we lingering to gaze upon it? What are we storing up in our hearts that will come out later, for better or for worse? In Proverbs, we are commanded to ponder our steps so that we will know for certain that we are living wisely and securely. The companions we keep in the form of television and movies can influence us for good or for bad.

You Are What You Eat

I think there's a very good reason why we refer to our entertainment patterns as "media consumption." All that we see and hear, we ingest. It feeds something that takes root in our ideas, thought processes, and our attitudes. We may have the "right" to enjoy various forms of entertainment, but the discerning Christian should take the counsel of the apostle Paul and ask whether this right, or any right we claim, is actually beneficial or constructive (1 Cor. 10:23).

Ken's parents were wise to limit the time their son devoted to a TV show — they were training him to be a better steward of his time. Susan was discerning to understand the effect of vicarious romance on her own desires, as either a single or a married woman. Andrew learned that his steady diet of otherwise good music dulled his appetite for the eternal.

Please don't misunderstand me — I am not saying media is bad. If I did, I would be out of a job. I spend my days producing video and my evenings writing and blogging. I consume and produce media. I studied media in college. The tool or the medium is not the problem. The content or the message — and the way our hearts respond — is the problem.

So much of our media consumption is like a thoughtless snack popped into our mouths on impulse. Mindless entertainment has the predictable result of making one ... well, mindless. Given that one day we will have the honor and privilege of standing before our Lord and giving an account for how we used the time He gave us, I'm simply advocating that we mind our media, instead of letting it make us mindless.

By examining our entertainment choices, we can be fulfilling the command in Proverbs to keep our hearts with all diligence.

Copyright 2007 Carolyn McCulley. All rights reserved.

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