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May 18, 2009

Christians and entertainment: Open thread

Tv_house_tilt_small On Friday, in Diane's thread on Castle (which was starting to turn into a thread on Nathan Fillion's previous show, Firefly) Andy made an interesting comment:

OK, people, time out. So Tim is OK with watching a show by admitted atheist Joss Whedon, that includes scenes like Kaylee doing the nasty with a mechanic in the engine room, and other characters that include a courtesan and Christian minister that would do the Unitarians proud. But Tim says that's OK because it's not a stumbling block for him. Firefly only "pushed the envelope a bit." If it had aired in the sixties, it would have gotten some network folks arrested. Not to mention that the premise of the show is that East and West have melded, with Buddhism as much or more practiced as Christianity.

This is not meant to be concern trolling, because I am glad that so many Christians share my enjoyment of Firefly, (best show ever.) But for a subculture that prides itself on "in but not of the world," you guys seem a tad co-opted on this one. Not that I see anything wrong with that.

In order to get things back on-topic, I promised a separate thread on Monday morning to deal with this subject, which deserved a thread of its own anyway. So what say you, Pointers and Pointificators? How should Christians set their standards for entertainment? What role should our faith and our morals play? Where have we gotten our ideas about this, and are they valid or do they need to be rethought?

This is a topic to which I've devoted a lot of thought and writing, but I'm going to stay out of it for now, though I may jump in later. I'm more interested in hearing what everyone else has to say. So have at it!

(Image courtesy of DesignStudios)

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I feel like breaking this topic down into a hierarchy, a la Aristotle, into entertainment for the sake of information (as in knowing what is going on in the culture; a job requirement for most Point bloggers, I suspect) and entertainment for the sake of enjoyment. Enjoyment can be further broken down into that which is intellectually stimulating and that which is emotionally satisfying; watching Discovery Channel specials on plastic surgery may be mentally engaging and at the same time emotionally revolting. Emotional satisfaction may be divided into enjoyment of high-quality work, and enjoyment of plot lines,...

But then the rhetorician in me rises up and says all of this hierarchy is hokum; people don't choose their entertainment in this way. (Hat tip to Robert M. Pirsig.)

So what I'd like to know (and can't fully answer at the moment) is the distinction between all the media with which I interact, and that portion of it that is entertainment. I know people who watch the nightly news as entertainment, and others for whom it is torturous but seen as a necessary evil to find out tomorrow's weather forecast.

So are we talking about all input, or just that which I use to derive emotional satisfaction? I.e., that which I'm leaning back, passively taking in, or also that which I'm leaned forward, taking notes?

(As an aside, what I know of Andy's background causes me to not be surprised that he would raise this as an issue. I am a bit puzzled, however, that so often we scratch an atheist/agnostic and find a raging rule-bound fundamentalist just below the surface. Just a bit ironic, that.)

Glenn Sunshine

I enjoy films or shows that raise the big philosophical and worldview questions. These days, those mostly come up in sci-fi and fantasy, though I'm seeing them in other places as well (e.g. House). I'm willing to put up with things I don't approve of if the show is raising the questions in an intelligent way, one that I can use to engage in conversations with my family or friends. It also helps to have clever dialogue and well developed, distinctive personalities (e.g. Firefly).

OK, I admit that I also like to watch the occasional action movie, though not as often as I used to. Those are a bit harder to find a good intellectual reason for (there are only about 2-3 plots, the dialogue and plausibility is usually weak, frequently there are sections that are overly sexual, etc.), though in my case part of it is because I used to be a martial arts instructor and I enjoy the fight choreography and the shear physical agility demonstrated in some of the stunts.


Lee: "...scratch an atheist/agnostic and find a raging rule-bound fundamentalist just below the surface..." Dude, you really don't know me at all. From my earliest days sitting in Kingdom Hall thinking "this stuff is craziness" to now, I am the most laid back, do-your-own-thing-so-long-as-you-don't-meddle-with-me guy you'll ever meet. But back to the issue:

I can understand why Evangelicals might watch a show like Firefly once, but I would have thought that some of the elements I mentioned might have precluded following the show, let alone lauding it. But as I have said on other posts, I am happy to recognize the contradiotory nature of the human species. It's part of what makes us fun.


OK, "Once More, with Feeling," but it's hard to know where to start: How about, whatever a person's personal stated beliefs may be, he's still human. Since I (as a Christian) believe humans are made in God's image, they are imbued with creativity and a desire for transcendance. Anyone familiar with Whedon's shows knows themes of redemption and metaphorical salvation, rebirth, resurrection, come up over and over again.

If the only standard we were going to judge a "text" on was the morality of literal/surface incidents, no one would read the Bible--adultery! incest! mass carnage! fratricide! theft! (etc!)---but of course, those things are not what the Bible is ABOUT. I don't mean to suggest that the Bible is fictional, but that events are presented within a larger context for a purpose. By analogy, a fictional TV show (or a novel, or a movie) is not meant to be taken literally. If you're only responding to the literal/surface level, you're missing the larger context. Sure, Firefly is entertaining, but why are the heroes "outsiders," rather than "insiders"? Sure, Book's brand of "Christianity" is pretty vague, but doesn't his character raise significant questions about faith that more defined Christians can take seriously?

There's more, but this comment has gone on too long already.


Andy wrote: "I am the most laid back, do-your-own-thing-so-long-as-you-don't-meddle-with-me guy you'll ever meet."

OK, and it's true that I don't really know you (although I've known other former JWs, and I sense a pattern). I meant no offense by way of being overly familiar. On the other hand, you and other atheists/agnostics are very interested in whether or not we Christians follow our own rules. I have a suspicion that this derives from experiences in the formative years with religion-as-rules versus religion-as-relationship; my father reacted this way to being raised Seventh Day Adventist. I'll also note that atheism/agnosticism is all about having no rules that are generally applicable; hypocrisy only exists where there are rules - or even guidelines - that one *should* follow.

But as you point out, this is discussion about the discussion, not discussion about the topic. (Gina, I'm going to buy you an electronic ruler that you can use to smack my wrists when I start typing off-topic.) So,...

There are those who would claim that Christians should only consume Christian entertainment. This is patently ridiculous; even St. Paul was familiar with unbelieving poets and philosophers of his day, and used that knowledge to reach out to unbelievers. But that is distinctly different from deriving pleasure from unbelievers. And, is it wrong to derive pleasure from unbelievers who are skilled at their craft, and especially from unbelievers who unwittingly glorify the One in whom they don't believe?

Rolley Haggard

I think for many of us, of the male persuasion especially, a decisive factor is or ought to be, not so much whether we like or approve of the content, but whether we are able to imbibe and keep our consciences unsullied (cf “doing the nasty”).

I’ve decided, for better or for worse, to risk a degree of cultural irrelevance by forgoing movie and TV watching unless it is first vetted by a reliable source and declared to be non-toxic enough for me to view. I know that sounds old-fashioned and prudish, and I am as brow-beaten as anyone by the charge, but I also know what it is to deceive oneself (“if everyone else can handle it, so can I!”). And thank the Lord I’ve still got my “Great Books”, for I love art as much as the next person.

I don’t think anyone will disagree that if entertainment continues its downward moral slide, at some point NO ONE who names Christ will watch any movies. Someone has made the point that what today is labeled PG not that long ago was R or X. It’s one thing to say, “so and so committed adultery”. It’s quite another to display the details. Ratings may change, but hormones do not.

I guess for me the question is, “what price cultural relevance?” Hopefully, not conscience.

Andy, your point was right on.

Jason Taylor

If Paul was fammiliar with pagan poets then he was fammiliar with Homer which is the romanticism of barbarism and piracy. Some might argue that this could be far more harmful then Firefly. Indeed one could argue that considering that Alexander the Great identified himself as wishing to identify with when he went off to destroy an empire and kill a lot of quiet folk. Besides the fact that Achiles who was a selfish, full-of-himself, lout who ought to have been court-martialed. And indeed in St Paul's day Achiles would have been treated in a manner more recognizable to us then in Homer:"Legionary, I don't care if you think you are Achiles, or if you think you've been robbed of your slave girl. You're going back to the line or you're going to feel my rattan. MOVE IT!"

Amusing speculations aside, I suppose the line(about entertainments that are not specifically forbidden) is whether it causes oneself or another to sin. I would be safe watching Firefly simply because the Courtesan does not tempt me to lust, simply because I am(like many "INTPs" according to Myers-Briggs)less tempted by such things because of my psychological makeup. And because as a side note, I simply don't find The Profession, very appealing. I don't know what my chief temptation is. Either anger or possibly sloth(which sin makes for boring TV.

If it will cause others to sin, it is a sin against charity. If you do something that tempts others to either do something that they were taught was wrong(thus, in their minds choosing to sin), or tempts them to anger towards you for your "priveledge" then you have sined. For that reason I would never, say, watch Master and Commander among Amish both because it is about war and because it is a movie(both of which are against the Ordnung). I wouldn't drink Coffee around a Mormon. If I had a Catholic friend I would not eat meat on Lent in his sight(this is more complicated: presumably he doesn't think not keeping fast is a sin but it is good friendship to support him).

As far as parents making decisions, I would suggest that these decisions should be made, taking the individual child into account. Different children have different personalities and decisions must take that into account.

Finally, after a certain point, it must be admitted that decisions regarding entertainment will necessarily have a certain arbitraryness to them. The same arbitraryness that traffic laws have. For the good reason that they are not there because the violation of them will be "cause traffic accidents"(sin), but that they will increase the liklihood.

In anycase, the modern world, which has increased the amount of permissability in entertainment has compensated by making it possible to avoid temptation with a minumum of self-denial. This magical means is known as a fast-forward button.

Jason Taylor

As to the answer of "what price cultural relevance" Evelyn Waugh once said, "No indeed. I should think it a great crime to make a boy relevant to the modern world."

He was an old curmudgeon of course. But it is amusing. The demand to become relevant, often sounds to me suspiciously like Xerxes demand that Leonidas become relevant to Persia.


Great thread. It's the middle of a workday, so my time is limited, but a few of my thoughts regarding watching TV and movies:
I don't have a problem with depictions of violence or sorrow, so long as it doesn't glorify those things. Saving Private Ryan for instance, here, learn what war is.
Tv homogenizes society, individuality and courage are diminished.
I don't allow TV in the house for a number of reasons, one being a theory about how well made it is. They hire pros: the lighting, choreography, and stimuli, are about fictitious events, or compressed at best. My theory is that it makes ordinary life seem boring.
So you just watched a show with a car chase scene, a man and woman rendezvous scene, and a half cup of shootout thrown in. It ends, and your first thought is: "Hey everyone, I have a GREAT idea, let's go do some woodworking (blacksmith forging, art, etc)"
Yawn city for most folks, when in fact, those things can be very engaging.
I've pondered the idea of limiting distilled, refined things in one's life. Be it sugar or movies,I limit this stuff.


Most of what I had been thinking about over the weekend has been addressed already and far more eloquently and thoroughly than I would have. Just a few points I wanted to address, though.

Andy, on Friday had questioned why I - or any Christian - would consume entertainment produced by an admitted atheist and also questioned my use of the phrase "pushed the envelope a bit", noting that had Firefly aired in the 60s the network folks would have been arrested. As to the first point, I see no reason why the religious (or not) affiliation of anyone in and of itself should be cause to reject what they produce; the content of what they produce is what matters. As to the second point - my fondness for understatement aside - I was thinking of Firefly as compared to other shows like NYPD Blue (which was quite explicit in it's first season) and Nip/Tuck (which I've never seen and have no desire to). There is still a point, as Rolley notes, where an entertainment is so degraded that "no one who names Christ" will watch it.

Last point before ending. I was convicted over the weekend by something I read in "Secret Believers" by Brother Andrew, founder of Open Doors. His question basically was how we thought our witness (specifically to Muslims in this case - but applies to anyone) might be damaged by the way we may live our lives contrary to what we profess with our mouths. It's a consideration not to be taken lightly and has me praying about some of my choices.

Jason Taylor

One of the teachings of Jewish Rabbis is that one should build what might be called a "buffer zone" around the Law to avoid violating that law. I don't know the technical term for it. Because it is a buffer zone and not the Torah it is flexable but must still exist. Thus an Orthodox Jew would theoretically not think he has sinned if he ate a cheeseburger(milk and meat improperly swallowed, albeit so chared as to eliminate the blood)to save someones life(don't worry about how that situation would come up). He would however not eat a cheeseburger under normal circumstances lest he be tempted to eat a calf boiled in it's mothers milk. I know "yuck". But being a Jew is like being a Marine and the purpose of not eating cheeseburgers is also like the purpose of close-order drill which is to make a point that one is different and special even though close order drill is tactically obsolete and looks magnificent but slightly absurd to one who does not know how devastating it once was. And likewise while the temptation to eat a calf boiled in it's mother's milk is gone, the memory remains. And because of the memory and because Jews are supposed to be a peculiar people, Orthodox Jews don't eat cheeseburgers.

The flexable firewall teaching is certainly something to be learned from. And making a point about one's difference is too: being a Christian is also like being a Marine.

Jason Taylor

"milk and meat improperly swallowed, "

Typo. That should be "improperly slaughtered."


I think that I agree with Andy on this issue.

Where in the Bible do you (anyone) find leading to take it easy, relax and go participate in or observe some questionable (potentially tempting) activity?

2nd Thessalonians addresses the attitude about sitting around and (passively) waiting on Christ to come back.


Cultural relevance has been poo-poohed by some here for excellent reasons but to me it seems ultimately a matter of conscience. For my career I read a great deal about things that don't settle well with me -- genocide, rape, religious conflict, death, disease, sexual indiscretion, racism, violence, and sexism are a few of them -- but my goal has always been not to entertain myself but to understand the world and to better it. I really don't think I can be a valuable part of solving what's wrong with the world until I understand what happens, and more importantly, why. This is, for me, often depressing work, the attitude with which I approach even entertainment means that critical filters are in place and I am analyzing things to death and often finding discouraging things all over.

I think there is room in the Christian experience to understand what has happened and what continues to happen without being tempted to sin. But, I would say that more than Hollywood media, I often get blindsided by music -- who hasn't ever found a catchy song from the radio stuck in their head that has an ungodly message, to say the least? Music has a way of undercutting my defenses, because as a musician, I often listen to music for its technical merits, and can miss the garbage that's streaming unchecked into my brain. I often have to stop and ask myself what I'm listening to and remind myself I don't believe anything I'm hearing. I can't run away from the use of music in our society, and I'm not sure that I should, but I need to be conscious of what I'm hearing, and I need to be critical of it.

I believe that any Christian who recognizes an area of temptation ought rightly to flee from it. I also don't believe that everyone suffers the same temptations. For me, the deeper temptation is to fall into a state of hopelessness about society and stop engaging with people who don't see things the way I do than it is to emulate the ungodly people around me. The struggle, then, is to remain in hope and be assured that God surely will let me know what I am meant to do, since I feel I am meant to engage this way with culture and society.


In Gina's quote of his original comment, Andy wrote: "But for a subculture that prides itself"

But as we all know, pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. The fact that we struggle with issues like this, rather than being able to point to an unblemished record of never ever looking at anything questionable, is proof that we are humble.

So no one can validly claim that they were kept from becoming a Christian due to a rule that says they can't ever watch objectionable material, even with a valid excuse (like being a Point blogger and therefore being expected to know what's going on in society). Christianity does not have arbitrary rules; it has guidelines that are defensible both in terms of the impact on an individual (the person watching the junk) and on society (everyone who interacts with the person who watches the junk).

I don't follow absolute rules about what I can and can't watch. Instead, I have in mind the faces of those I would hurt by watching something in particular, including the face of Jesus. And I have brothers like Rolley who sharpen me like iron-on-iron, making me better even if sometimes sparks fly from the friction of my rough edges.

TimS wrote: "I was convicted over the weekend" and "has me praying about some of my choices."

Conviction, prayer, repentance and restoration never happened to me when I was an atheist. Nor was I all that concerned about the societal impact of television. When not long ago my favorite show "Numb3rs" started to include sexuality as a feature, I not only considered never watching it again, I also worried that this show was being used to inspire many children to pursue mathematics - and apparently, other pastimes as well. Never would have crossed my mind as an atheist. (I still watch "Numb3rs", but with my guard up and with subdued enthusiasm for recommending it to others.)

The bottom line is that we Christians have no choice but to interact with unbelievers, particularly in the hope that some will come into (or return to) the fold. That means that we need to put up with a certain amount of garbage, and make routine efforts to get clean again - while not shoving it in the face of the unbelievers that contact with them can be toxic. I need to remind myself that I, too, was once highly toxic. (You-all have no idea.) And, that I can easily become toxic again. But, antiseptic is readily available, as are latex gloves and even universal precautions. Sometimes, though, you just gotta reach out and touch that leper.

We all have purification practices, like Gina's daily devotional from which she sometimes quotes for us. Problems arise for us when purification becomes a mere ritual, or, worse, optional.

Andy's right; we're "a tad co-opted on this one". But then if we weren't, we wouldn't be interacting with (the likes of) him - in which case we'd all be immeasurably poorer. Thank you, Andy, for having the courage to bring this up. I wish we could honor your courage by a display of our absolute integrity and fidelity to our principles, but the nature of situation precludes it. (Kinda like being a doctor or nurse means you have to expose yourself to germs to be able to help someone become healthy. Ever shake hands with a bacteriologist, then think "Ooh!"?) It's a good thing, though, because this way we're not doing anything to exclude you from our community. Please stick around.

Jason Taylor

Lee, pride has more then one implication in the English language. Pride as in "obsession with one's position" is clearly wrong and is primarily what is meant by the priveledged position pride holds in the seven deadlies(and presumably pride is proud of it's priveledged position, but of course that is a word-game).

When one says one is "proud" of his family, his country, his etc, that has different connotations although of course the later connotation can easily be twisted to becoming mere fuel for the former. So being a "subculture that prides itself on thus and so" is a little different. Not to mention that besides the language nuance, it is on the whole less bad to be proud of one's group then oneself.

As for those who say they are kept from becoming Christian due to a rule against watching objectionable material I am temped to say "good riddance". If someone is not at least theoretically willing to sacrifice he hasn't become a Christian, he has only become a Churchmember. And in any case, the least strict sects have a distinct shortage of new converts for what that is worth. However saying "good riddance" to anyone is forbidden and in any case anyone who claims he didn't have at least partly self-interested motives for becoming a Christian is being absurd, not to mention insufferable.

I suppose there is a case for being aware of popular culture in the same way that a missionary should be aware of the local culture. Like everything else such things are a balence. But a Christian should always accept that he will be in some ways an odd man out.

In any case, I still say that the rule for "dubiousities" should be that if the Bible forbids it or forbids it's obvious corralary(I.E. slavery is not forbidden specifically; oppression is), then the guideline should be that self denial should be for a few purposes. To avoid temptation to yourself or others. Or to exercise your capacities. But it shouldn't become it's own end. And which indulgence you deny yourself should be decided with reference to your own situation.

Steve (SBK)

I agree with Jimmo_D in many ways. For one, this is a great thread.
Loved his line: "Tv homogenizes society, individuality and courage are diminished."

I agree that not only does it homogenize us, it also prescribes "normalization". (The very basic idea of which is: "We don't see fat, ugly people on TV, or if we do, we make fun of their hillbilly ways").

"My theory is that it makes ordinary life seem boring."
I'm going to have to disagree Jimmo, crunching numbers is, I think everyone agrees, intuitively more exciting than interstellar space travel. Just kidding... I'd explain more but I have some vampires to kill instead of doing homework.

Furthermore, I agree that TV tends to make us passive rather than active. I think there is a lot of intellectual joy (learning) to be had watching TV, but it can easily become a trap. (If you start watching... generally, you *have* to finish the series...)

And a lot of comments have discussed, essentially, the tension between engaging, resisting, and creating culture. I feel that tension. Sometimes it seems easy to create our own sub-culture (Christian bookmarks) or ban cultural artifacts (movies, alcohol) or point out flaws in a godless culture.

Put another way: What are we supposed to do with our time here?

We need God's creative grace to love people where they are, and on average, I think television helps us to ignore people.

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