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If previous generations of Christians returned and lived with us for one week, they might be surprised by two things: how little we pray and how much we enjoy being entertained by sin. They would be shocked that an award-winning, evangelical book on godliness contained a detailed discussion of a sexually explicit scene from an R-rated movie. The author included the story to warn readers to avoid the misplaced desires of the lead character, but his lengthy reference also implicitly suggests that Christian virtue is unaffected by our choices of entertainment. His students get the point: they may view movies filled with violence, profanity, and sexual immorality as long as they watch with “discernment”—which often is code for “watch whatever you want as long as you spot the Christ figure or the tortured soul yearning for redemption.”

The question of entertainment is particularly pressing for parents who must nurture their children’s vulnerable hearts and minds. Forms of entertainment come and go, yet our concerns remain the same. My parents monitored what my brothers and I watched on television. Now I monitor what my children do online and whether they are spending too much time there. No matter the form of entertainment that we are consuming, finding biblical wisdom for our entertainment age must involve answering two questions: when and how to engage.

when to engage

Regularly: Our heavenly Father wants His children to enjoy life. Even when God urges us to sacrificially share our wealth with others, He reminds us that He “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). Enjoyment invariably involves entertainment, and Scripture approves of many of its forms. Psalm 45 celebrates exquisite poetry, fragrant perfumes, and harp music wafting through ivory palaces. Jewish weddings, including the ones Jesus attended, were weeklong feasts with wine and dancing. King Solomon discovered that such earthly pleasures cannot provide ultimate satisfaction, yet he also attests that they are appropriate in their place (Eccl. 2:1–11, 24–25). And the Apostle Paul, whose single-minded mission was to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth, had attended enough athletic contests to use running and boxing as metaphors for the Christian life (1 Cor. 9:24–27).

Christians are not masochists. Even poor and persecuted Christians enjoy a festive party, a well-told tale, and a hard-fought game that goes into overtime. We don’t shrink from suffering, though neither do we search for it. All things being equal, we seek wholesome pleasures whenever and wherever they appear. We may consume explicitly Christian music, movies, and books, and we also are free in Christ to unwind with secular or less explicitly Christian music, novels, or films. Jesus is the Creator of all things, and His common grace enables unbelievers to produce—and Christians to enjoy—non-religious forms of good entertainment (Col. 1:15–20).

Selectively: But we must consume wisely. As Paul told the Corinthians, not everything that is lawful for me is helpful or liberating (1 Cor. 6:12). When it comes down to it, life is essentially a series of moments. We may dream about the future, yet we live moment by moment. If we fritter away each moment staring at a screen, we are gathering our priceless lives and investing them in what is fleeting.

A friend spent every evening glued to the television for hours on end. When we learned he had leukemia, we feared for his life but hoped he might awaken to use his time more productively. God answered our prayers and healed him, yet he squandered his new lease on life by promptly resuming his regular viewing schedule. What a waste.

Leisure is a quick way to discover our highest values, for what we do on evenings and weekends we tend to do for its own sake rather than for something else. What we do when we don’t have to do anything reveals something about what we’re really living for. We should invest some free time in entertainment—because life should be enjoyed—but we must not become merely passive consumers of other people’s work. Jesus does not intend for us to be lazy (Matt. 25:30).

Besides the amount of time spent on entertainment, we must also consider its location. Solomon says there is “a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted,” and so on (Eccl. 3:1–8). There is a time to create and a time to consume what was created. Let’s not give our most creative moments to passively consuming entertainment. I am most productive in the mornings, and I guard that time from videos, websites, and even books that don’t require my best. I try to devote my peak periods to creating content—I’m writing this sentence in the morning—rather than consuming what someone else has produced.

When are you most fresh? Protect this time, and its regular structure will supply space for your creativity to flourish. Use this time to produce things and to serve people for the glory of God and the benefit of your neighbors. Create until you run out of steam, then refresh yourself with a song, story, or other creation that someone else has produced.

Perhaps the largest risk with consuming entertainment is that maximum pleasure requires turning down our critical faculties.
how to engage

Perhaps the largest risk with consuming entertainment is that maximum pleasure requires turning down our critical faculties. We won’t fully enjoy a basketball game if we dissect every play, a symphony if we analyze each section, or a movie if we continually evaluate the lighting and camera angles. There is a place for such critical judgments, just as there is a necessary place to theologically evaluate the hymns and choruses sung in church. But just as it can be hard to become “lost in wonder, love, and praise” when all we’re doing is analyzing each line in depth every time we sing it, so it can be difficult to appreciate a work of art while rigorously critiquing it.

Entertainment only works its magic when we immerse ourselves in it. When we watch a movie as a critic, evaluating every scene, bit of dialogue, and editorial decision, we keep the movie at arm’s length.  We look down upon the movie to judge it rather than allow ourselves to fully enter its story. And so we fail to fully enjoy the movie and perhaps even fail to have our thinking influenced by it in appropriate ways. But therein lies the rub. The majority of movies are rated R. Even children’s movies may contain suggestive dialogue, lingering shots of sexual scenes, or an ungodly message. If we drop our guard and immerse ourselves in a movie, we may open ourselves to sin or being conformed to a secular worldview.

Consequently, godly parents keep their children’s entertainment under their control. They limit their children’s access to the Internet and monitor what they do there. They read movie reviews beforehand and prefer to watch films at home, where they can fast-forward past sexual immorality, violence, and profanity. They remain composed when their child is exposed to a non-Christian message, and use the incident to explain why Jesus offers a better way. Godly parents are not afraid to be different. They realize “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:14). So they privately are sometimes glad when their child is invited to an inappropriate movie, party, or concert, because the invitation supplies an opportunity to teach the narrow path of salvation.

God declares His higher standard in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” These qualities address what philosophers call the three transcendental properties of being: truth, goodness, and beauty. They are the essential questions when considering whether to consume a particular form of entertainment.


is it true?

God starts His list with this criterion because it is most important, and perhaps because falsehood more easily slips by our Christian radar. We are readily on guard against nudity, vulgarity, and violence, yet we don’t always realize that even G-rated entertainment can implant a pagan worldview. Whitney Houston’s  song “The Greatest Love of All” is considered safe enough to be played on elevators. I’ve caught myself singing along with the line, “Learning to love yourself / It is the greatest love of all.” But I have to catch myself, then speak aloud that this is self-idolatrous rubbish. If the greatest love is to love myself, then I am doomed to hell.

Our greatest need to believe in ourselves regularly shows up in popular music. Notice Mariah Carey’s “A Hero Lies in You,” Josh Groban’s “If You Just Believe,” and R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” Kelly sings, “There are miracles in life I must achieve / But first I know it starts inside of me / If I can see it, then I can be it / If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it / I believe I can fly.”

Even though I know these lyrics are false, when I sing along, the melody sidesteps my intellect and buries the message deep in my heart. It’s now impossible ever to fully eliminate. The best I can do—and this is essential—is to vocally proclaim the error whenever the tune comes from my mouth. It’s better to catch falsehood sooner, before it has a chance to stick like mildew to our minds. Let’s pay attention to the lyrics before joining in. What story is this song telling? What is its view of God, humanity, and the world? How does it say we attain salvation?

The same criteria apply to sports and movies. A championship game will be marketed as an epic showdown. Will this quarterback or that defense go down in flames or stake its claim as one of the greatest of all time? Will they redeem last season’s failure and finally find football immortality? Christians refuse to buy the hype. We remember it’s only a game, and in five years few will remember who won. The NFL and ESPN will have moved on to the next shiny quarterback, as they have a product to sell.

Likewise, films with little morally objectionable content may nevertheless tell lies: the afterlife is whatever we want (What Dreams May Come), the divine is an impersonal force that inhabits all things (Pocahontas, Star Wars), or death is merely a natural part of the circle of life (The Lion King). Christians may disagree about whether and when their children may watch such movies, but wise parents won’t miss the opportunity to process and counter the message afterward.

is it good?

It isn’t necessarily wrong for movies, video games, and music to depict the existence of sin. After all, the Bible describes lust, adultery, incest, treachery, and murder. Scripture contains so much sinful material that one of the earliest filmmakers, Cecil B. DeMille, used the Bible’s stories to titillate his viewers (for example, the Israelite orgy before the golden calf in The Ten Commandments). DeMille figured he could portray such sensuality as long as the participants received divine judgment in the end. Other filmmakers accused DeMille of creating “immoral morality plays” that used the Bible as an excuse to undress women. To the extent that DeMille was more concerned with titillation than he was with revealing God’s judgment, his critics were right. It’s wrong to use Scripture’s stories to undermine its morality. God never depicts sin to tempt but only to warn of its destruction.

God is passionate about purity because He is passionate about love. He commands us to be holy in our creation and consumption of entertainment (1 Peter 1:16) because He wants us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31). He tells us to “abstain from sexual immorality” and lust not merely as ends in themselves but so “no one [will] transgress and wrong his brother in this matter” (1 Thess. 4:3). He says “love is the fulfilling of the law” because love does not commit adultery, murder, steal, or covet. In sum, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Rom. 13:8–10).

Purity and love are two sides of the same coin. When we lust after musicians or movie stars, we dehumanize them. We dismiss their value as image bearers of God and reduce them to objects for our sexual gratification. But God says His children must be known for both righteousness and love (1 John 3:10). So Christians love these celebrities too much to lust. We seek to give them more respect than some apparently give themselves. We aim to never take advantage of other human beings, even if they beg us to do it.

Using entertainment to stoke the embers of lust should be unimaginable to Christians, for we know sin is the cause of death. Have you stared into the casket of a friend or family member and realized that you hate sin? Sin is not our friend, something to dabble in and try not to get burned. Sin kills everyone and everything we have ever loved. Let’s stop celebrating the fall. Let’s hate sin and refuse to be entertained by it again.

Can you offer a sincere prayer of thanksgiving to God before, during, and after engaging this song, show, or sporting event?
is it beautiful?

Every Christian can produce art that is true and good, though many of us lack the ability to create a story, painting, or song that is beautiful. That is OK as long as we cultivate an increasing appetite for what is aesthetically pleasing. We worship a beautiful God who does beautiful things, and our entertainment should reflect this (Ps. 27:4; Isa. 61:3). We may enjoy art that contains dark themes as long as the darkness does not dominate. We believe the world is fallen, so we may honestly address the problem of sin. But sin does not have the last word in God’s world, and neither should it have the final say in ours.

We may still view dark videos for their educational value, to better understand the world we seek to reach for Christ. John Stott watched every new Woody Allen movie with a group of students. He thought Allen had his finger on the pulse of culture, and he learned much about the world’s hopes and fears from watching his films. But it’s easy to fool ourselves. We may claim we are watching to become better informed, yet we turn down the lights and cuddle on the couch with a bowl of popcorn. Are we still watching for educational purposes or are we now merely being entertained? It may be hard to tell.

can i thank god for this?

Some readers may think I’ve placed too many limits on entertainment while others may think I’ve been too permissive. This difference of opinion implies that the question of entertainment will always belong at least partially in the realm of Christian freedom. Some Christians may overlook a lot of sin in a song, video game, or movie because they believe its redeeming qualities outweigh its fallenness. Others cannot get past the sex, violence, and profanity and decide it isn’t right for them.

Wherever you land, remember that the defining question of Christian freedom is gratitude to God. Paul says we must avoid judging others but rather give thanks to God for our own decision. “The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Rom. 14:1–6). Here is the ultimate test: Can you offer a sincere prayer of thanksgiving to God before, during, and after engaging this song, show, or sporting event? If so, go ahead and enjoy your freedom, being careful not to flaunt it before others who might stumble. If you cannot utter such a prayer, then at least for you, it is sin.

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From the July 2017 Issue
Jul 2017 Issue