Consider a day in the life of a typical American adult. The waking moments begin with the radio alarm reporting weather, traffic, and headlines. Breakfast is gulped down with a side of business news and features from the morning newspaper.
Then the commute to work, where the companion for the drive is a radio talk show host lathered into a political frenzy, or a shock jock whose tongue releases a barrage of crude humor.
At the office, checking e-mail presents opportunities throughout the morning for a bit of extracurricular web-surfing to shop for a birthday gift, check out a favorite blog, and catch up on the latest celebrity news. Lunch in the breakroom is spent connecting with a favorite sports magazine, while a TV talk show blares overhead, showcasing the latest claimants to fleeting fame. Back in the cubicle’s afternoon boredom, virtual adventure can be found on an Internet video game offering a quest for world domination.
When the work grind ceases, the drive home provides a reprieve from thinking and a nostalgic unwinding as the oldies stream in on satellite radio. The trip down memory lane is interrupted by a stop at soccer practice to pick up a young daughter, who eagerly buckles up and warmly greets the Disney character coming to life on the DVD screen that descends in the backseat.
After a welcome-home kiss from the wife—and a friendlier kiss from the dog—comes the irresistible beckoning to collapse into the La-Z-Boy, grab the remote, and scan all three hundred digital cable channels to take the edge off the workday weariness. Following dinner, the TV illuminates the family room as all gather to enjoy the hottest sitcoms, reality shows, and crime dramas. The day concludes with a drift into slumber to the soothing voice of a newscaster recapping headlines on the bedroom TV.
Surrounded by Media
For most Americans, media is the omnipresent backdrop of life. Even if you don’t find yourself in every scene of the previous day-in-the-life scenario, you’re nevertheless surrounded. Whether at home, in the car, at the store, in a restaurant, or even at the gas station (I’ve seen CNN piped in via a small screen built into the pump), the perpetual media lifeline continues. We’re never beyond its ubiquitous reach. We’re so engulfed that media seems like a second atmosphere; in fact, one author terms our cultural surroundings the “mediasphere.”1 We give no more thought to it than we do to the air we breathe.
But give thought to it we must. As followers of Christ, we cannot afford to take lightly the media’s pervasive presence in our lives. Think about the power of video entertainment, for instance. Whether viewed on computer, a portable player, or a traditional TV set, television and film are without peer in their cultural influence. Ken Myers, an astute Christian observer of popular culture, notes that television is not only “the dominant medium of popular culture”, but also “the single most significant shared reality in our entire society.” He compares television’s impact to that of Christianity centuries ago, when “Christendom” defined the Western world:
Not all citizens of Christendom were Christians, but all understood it, all were influenced by its teaching…I can think of no entity today capable of such a culturally unifying role except television. In television, we live and move and have our being.2
Similarly, pastor Kent Hughes offers this alarming appraisal:
Today the all-pervasive glow of the television set is the single most potent influence and control in Western culture. Television has greater power over the lives of most Americans than any educational system, government, or church.3
But it’s not enough to acknowledge the dominant, nearly godlike authority exercised over our culture by TV, the Internet, and the rest of the media. We must evaluate the content of media messages and the consequences of their influence.
We begin by recognizing that the media’s messages are nothing new. Essentially, our world puts forward the same allurements that the apostle John’s world did some two thousand years ago: “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions” (1st John 2:16). Christians in John’s day didn’t have the Internet, cable television, or iPods, but the desires of the flesh have been around since the fall. To be sure, the packaging and delivery of the world’s offerings have advanced technologically, but their substance has remained as primitive as a talking serpent.
Christians of all ages have been required to soberly assess the temptations found in the surrounding culture and to respond in a God-glorifying way. We are no different. Our calling as Christians involves resisting the seduction of a fallen world.
Although this article is focused on television and film media, the principles are relevant for evaluating all forms of media, all of which, to some degree, embody values of our fallen world. If we’re faithful to resist the ever-present “desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions,” we’ll need to sharpen our biblical discernment and wisely evaluate our media intake, for the glory of God.
Many of us don’t think about actively filtering our viewing. As long as we avoid the obvious traps such as pornography, we don’t consider deliberate evaluation necessary. Though we may faithfully apply the Scriptures in other areas of life, we may not consciously think about how God’s Word applies to our entertainment choices.
All too often, we think about neither what we watch nor how much. Our watching is just inevitable. We watch by habit. We watch because we’re bored. We ‘unwatchingly’ watch as the TV stays on for background noise.
We watch alone or with others. We gather with friends on Friday night and rent a DVD because there’s nothing else to do. We watch because others watch. Everyone at school or at work is talking about a popular movie or TV show. It’s a must see—so we must see it. Without researching its content, without thinking about its effect on our hearts, without comparing an evening at the movies with other options, we go, and we watch.
Please don’t misunderstand—I’m not saying it’s wrong to watch television, rent a DVD, surf the Internet, or spend an evening at the cinema. The hazard is thoughtless watching. Glorifying God is an intentional pursuit. We don’t accidentally drift into holiness; rather, we mature gradually and purposefully, one choice at a time.
In the Christian walk, we can’t just step onto the right path and figure all is well. Christian discipleship is a lifelong journey consisting of a series of countless steps. Each step matters, and thus our viewing habits matter.
A lifestyle of careless viewing should concern us. At best, careless viewing reveals an ignorance of the media’s power of temptation. It probably indicates a degree of laziness as well—and we can’t afford to be lazy in what our minds absorb. Biblical discernment involves critical thinking, which often leads to costly action.
It’s true that we grow in sanctification by God’s grace, but this doesn’t deny that our growth involves work. To mature, we need engaged minds asking biblically informed questions about the media’s messages and methods. What’s more, we need perseverance to travel against the cultural current.
To change the metaphor, detecting and avoiding temptation is a battle; every time we pick up the remote or glance at the movie listings or go online, we take up arms. Ken Myers describes this battle in strong terms:
I believe that the challenge of living with popular culture may well be as serious for modern Christians as persecution and plagues were for the saints of earlier centuries…Enemies that come loudly and visibly are usually much easier to fight than those that are undetectable.4
It may seem that Myers exaggerates the danger. Pop culture as deadly as persecution and plagues? But I think he’s right. When it comes to waging the war of sanctification, severe trial usually alerts us to battle, rousing us to our need for God. Popular culture, especially entertainment media, often lulls us to ignore our battle with the flesh.
In this conflict, how many Christians are waving the white flag of surrender by disengaging their discernment when it comes to media? But passivity is no option. We’re called to live purposefully. That means we must watch on purpose and resist the lifestyle of passive viewing.
Watching with Immunity?
Unlike those who watch thoughtlessly, many Christians recognize the tempting influence of media, yet assume they’re immune from danger. They end up watching just like everyone else.
“After all,” they’ll argue, “I’m not going to watch a murder on TV and then go out and murder someone.” This misses the point. Our sanctification aspirations should be loftier than avoiding murder. Just because we don’t instantly mimic all we see doesn’t mean our hearts aren’t negatively affected by the programs or films we watch. Tugging like a subtle undertow below the surface, the media can tempt us to drift toward love of the world.
The drift toward worldliness may be slow, its symptoms not immediately apparent. This drift is usually a sign of a dulling conscience. The conscience doesn’t function like a light switch—one moment the lights are on, then everything is dark with a flip of the switch. Instead, the sensitivity of our conscience dulls over time as it is resisted or ignored. Paul charges young Timothy to “wage the good warfare” by holding on to a good conscience, and warns him that rejecting a good conscience can lead to shipwrecking one’s faith (1st Timothy 1:18-20). Over time, a good conscience that once was sensitive to the holiness of God and the conviction of the Spirit can become seared (1st Timothy 4:2), losing all feeling.
The drift toward worldliness is subtle, gradual, and internal. And if we assume we’re immune to it, that’s a sure sign the drift has begun. The media has great power to influence, but most people—both Christians and unbelievers—presuppose that their worldview, desires, and opinions are safe from media sway. We’re convinced we’re beyond reach. How revealing, then, that advertisers spend $215 billion annually just on television commercials. These marketing dollars are not charity gifts; our thinking is influenced by what we watch, and advertisers know it.
We also tend to think of ourselves as minimally exposed to media, especially compared to everyone else. In a Roper survey that reveals as much about human nature as it does about media consumption, 96 percent of people polled claimed they watched less television than the average person. You don’t need a sophisticated statistical analysis of that survey to realize a lot of us don’t have a clue about our viewing habits.
These examples illustrate what the Scripture teaches about our hearts. They’re sinful, and as a result, we’re prone to self-deception. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). We’re more easily tempted than we know or are willing to admit.