[This was published earlier this year in the Student YMCA's The Good News Magazine].
If you’re anything like me, you’re counting the days until the cinematic release of Katy Perry’s new biopic, ‘Part of Me’, in 3D. Exciting times.
Having seen the TV promo, I could relate to Katy-and-siblings’ reminiscences about their upbringing – how their Christian parents wouldn’t allow them to eat Lucky Charms (because ‘lucky’ comes from ‘Lucifer’, the Devil), or to watch The Smurfs. Back home my family had that attitude to luck and Smurfs too.
Katy’s brother and sister aren’t able to hide just how nuts they think their parents were, and over-protectiveness seems not to have done dear Katy much good. It’s easy to mock people for fearing The Smurfs, but how nuts were they? Now a parent myself, I want to protect my kids from a lot of things in this world, including morning cartoons. I think I’ll let them use the internet unsupervised around the same time they get a driver’s licence.
But it’s not just the emotional scarring of our kids that we have to worry about. All Christians are called to be holy and our consumption of entertainment media can be a threat to our holiness. But how do we determine when exactly we’ve crossed a line?
There are two extreme approaches that you could adopt.
The first is to completely avoid everything ‘worldly’, to completely remove yourself from non-Christian culture. Certain groups of monks and nuns have taken this as far as it can go, and the Amish are extreme in their own quirky way. Perhaps Katy’s folks could be classed as moderate avoiders.
People in this category seemingly have the support of the Bible behind them:
Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable… think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)
For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. (Ephesians 5:12)
If we’re supposed to think only pure thoughts and speak about only respectable things, it might mean that our entertainment choices are limited to Little House on the Prairie or movies starring Kirk Cameron.
But there are a number of problems with the avoidance strategy.
Incest, rape, sodomy, gruesome violence, death, deceit, child abuse, witchcraft. These are exactly the kinds of disgusting things that the Bible is full of, often in graphic detail. So when Paul says in Ephesians 5 that we must not even mention what people do in secret, he is also well aware that, among other horrors, the Bible mentions a husband cutting his dead wife into twelve chunks because men had gang-raped her to death, only after having been prevented from raping him. Whatever Paul means, it’s not that we are forbidden to think about and discuss sinful acts altogether, otherwise we would not be allowed to read the Bible.
Secondly, avoidance is virtually impossible to practice. It is easy to say ‘I won’t participate in anything too sexy or violent or vulgar,’ but how do you actually do that without being utterly arbitrary?
Let’s take dramatised violence for example. If one end of the continuum is kids playing The Three Little Pigs and the other end is, say, Ichi the Killer, how do we decide when we’ve crossed the line into morally corrupt territory? Is violence fine if there is no death, such as in the A-Team; or death but no blood, like in Narnia movies? Why?
Or what about nudity? Most find the nudity on the Sistine Chapel acceptable even for church, but nudity in movies wrong. Why?
So what about the other extreme? Can Christians completely immerse themselves in popular media?
When we consume entertainment media we’re usually passive; and we’re just engaging with ideas: stories, lyrics, images. They aren’t even our ideas. Does it matter what ideas we engage with as long as we do the right thing?
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-32), Jesus teaches that even thoughts are open to judgment, because what we see can produce attitudes in us (such as lust) that are opposed to Godly relationships. Holiness is firstly an internal state before it ever becomes outward practice. So it does matter what we think and not merely what we do. Ideas have the power to influence our inner life, and that is as important to God as our behaviour. It’s what we are inside that makes us unclean (Mark 7:17-23).
Clearly, some forms of media are ruled out by Jesus’ words in the two passages mentioned above. But as soon as we try to become more moderate, we’re stuck with the same problem of making arbitrary decisions about where lines should be drawn.
Should we just follow our feelings? Is being slightly more moral than the average citizen good enough? Sometimes we just follow the rules of our preacher, which at least spares us having to think, but may mean an end to eating Lucky Charms while watching The Smurfs. Can we lay down rules, and if so, what is the principle according to which we do so?
The moral principle
The trouble with describing a Christian approach to entertainment media is that we tend to demand rules to govern our behaviour, and in the case of something as broad as the arts, it simply isn’t possible to make practical rules that will do for every situation, or that can be the same for every person. So although the following isn’t as comfortingly defined as rules, here’s what I’d suggest:
The basic principle, I think, is to avoid content that provokes immorality within you. This idea is derived from Matthew 5:27-29, in which Jesus teaches us to recognise whatever causes us to sin and cut it out of our lives. We don’t have to avoid the content on screen that would be sinful if we were doing it; we have to avoid the content that produces sinful attitude or behaviour in us by watching it.
Being violent is generally immoral, but watching someone on screen be violent is not necessarily so, because you are not always thereby being caused to sin. Sex and nudity are different, however, because they usually only work if there is audience participation on some level. They are meant to cause lust.
This principle places some responsibilities upon us as media consumers:
#1. Know your weaknesses
You have a responsibility to know your own weaknesses. One of my favourite films is The Big Lebowski. It contains a breath-taking amount of swearing, none of which affects me in the least. But there is also about 10 seconds of toplessness, which is much more of a stumbling block. I can’t therefore decide that you also shouldn’t be bothered by swearing, or that everyone must avoid all nudity always. You need to know the gaps in your own armour, not mine.
If fashion magazines or shopping malls or the latest Apple brochure provoke envy or covetousness in you, you should be ruthless; avoid the things that cause you to sin. If your girlfriend is easily susceptible to bogus views of romance in movies, then you have a godly reason not to ever let her make you watch Twilight.
We need to be self-critical and honest about our weaknesses, and courageous enough to avoid problem-content.
#2. Know the purpose
Be aware of purpose, the function of media content. For example, violence is bad behaviour, but in stories it can perform a valid role, such as symbolising justice or judgement or evil. But some violence may intend for the audience to enjoy the cruelty or goriness of it. Enjoying cruelty is an attitude that crosses a line, in my opinion, even if the viewer doesn’t leave the cinema and actually hit someone for fun.
#3. Know the threat
Finally, it is important to know what is truly threatening about the content you are consuming. I find Christians to be remarkably bad at analysing their entertainment. We tend to look out for the censor’s big categories (SLVNP) as if those markers of offensiveness-to-children are the only possible moral categories. Twilight has no explicit sex in it, but it has a terribly warped view of love and romance. Harry Potter is accused of glorifying witchcraft, but far more people will learn rebellion and distrust of authority from its main characters than magic.
We often forget that our entertainment is communicating ideas and attitudes to us, and some of these can be far more threatening than the means by which they are communicated. We’re often outraged by gritty content but asleep to the messages that have far more influence.
Entertainment shapes the way that all of us think. It tells us all sorts of ways to find hope and happiness and salvation and prosperity. But how will we avoid the dangers to our thinking in the media if we are unthinking consumers? And how will we help our friends away from those dead-ends and towards Christ if we fail to notice those ideas and attitudes for ourselves? If we’re to become God-honouring consumers of entertainment, we need to be more awake and really watch what we’re watching.