Sitting at home some weeks ago, I came to the conclusion, along with the rest of America, that “this COVID-19 may be a big deal after all.” By the grace of God, I have a job that transitioned to telework with little difficulty, but multitudes of others are not in the same boat. Additionally, both public and private schools at every level have closed their doors, leaving students at home to “continue their studies.” Perhaps most distressing, especially in times such as this, is the ban on church gatherings as well as the limitation on guests in personal residences ruling out even mid-week small group meetings.
All of these scenarios lead to increased anxiety and an excess of time to fill, but with what? Never fear: streaming services are willing and ready to entertain you for endless hours (for a small fee).
Stories fundamentally shape our beliefs and worldview.
“Let me tell you a little story…”
According to the BibleProject, 43 percent of the Bible is narrative. That is to say, nearly half of the Bible is comprised of stories. As an adult Christian who has spent the majority of my life in close proximity to the scriptures and Biblical teaching, that fact comes as a bit of a shock. Until only a few years ago, my understanding of scripture was that the stories were simply there as connective tissue for law and teaching. I needed to know what to do (or not do) in order to be saved. If the most prevalent literary style in the Bible is narrative, there must be more to it than I had originally appreciated.
As knowers, created in the image of God, we intuitively love stories. We have an innate desire to learn, to see what happens next and to understand ourselves and the world around us. We may never explicitly express these desires, but they are deeply rooted nonetheless. More importantly, stories fundamentally shape our beliefs and worldview. In his book, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, Wayne C. Booth argues that making a distinction between stories intended for art or entertainment and stories intended for instruction is misleading.1 He further asserts that
anyone who conducts honest introspection knows that ‘real life’ is lived in images derived in part from stories… Indeed, our imitations of narrative ‘imitations of life’ are so spontaneous and plentiful that we cannot draw a clear line between what we are… and what we have become…2
Embedded in narratives, there are characters with which to identify, goals with which to relate, and tensions with which to empathize. Booth underscores the transformation one undergoes when he says, “Whenever I work my way into a narrative… I succumb — I begin to see as [the implied author] sees, to feel as she feels, to love what he loves, or to mock what she mocks.”
The literal definition of ‘entertain’ is to ‘hold among’ or ‘hold together.’ Stories hold our attention, keeping us in place until the very end so that we can satisfy our curiosity as to how they unfold. As a story entertains us, we, in turn, entertain the ideas presented by it (either actively or passively). In giving audience to a narrative, we make ourselves much more open to information. Whether new to us, old hat or contradictory to our currently held beliefs, stories present ideas to a willing and receptive audience insofar as we are uncritically engaged. When listening to a podcast or the news, we are generally actively involved in evaluating any truth claims being made. With narratives, however, we are much more likely to simply go along for the ride.
Being thirsty does not justify drinking from the toilet.
How shall we then watch?
So, we have time on our hands and more content to watch than we could get through in 10 lifetimes. What are we waiting for, right? Not so fast. Those of us who do have more free time in these days of isolation should be thankful for the gift that it can be and use it as wisely as possible.
First and foremost: read more. Read more books. Actual books. The Bible should be the first book on that list. Do not simply fill your hours binging television and movies as you will find relatively little nourishment in these mediums when compared to the infinite riches of God’s self-revelation to humanity.
Having said that, we all watch and will continue to watch television. In the time that you would normally allot toward shows and movies, be discriminating. Several years ago, a popular pastor gave an exceedingly practical piece of advice that I have not forgotten: being thirsty does not justify drinking from the toilet. Plenty of content deserves to be outright avoided. This is obvious.
The more nebulous decision comes in the distinction between our individual conscience and the determination of what is lawful (biblically) and what is profitable. The content I can watch may not be the same as the content my neighbor can watch, and vice versa. You know (or should know) the areas in your life where you are tempted to sin and you should avoid them. Do not begrudge your neighbor the right to watch a particular movie or show from which you must personally abstain. In the same way, do not look down on someone who does not participate in watching “The Tiger King” on account of their conscience. If anything, use that as an opportunity for continued introspection regarding your own viewing habits and how to worship Christ well.
As far as interpreting stories is concerned, asking several questions will help you understand whether the ideas being presented are worthwhile or should be rejected:
- What is the context of the story and what does it say about the theme?
- Who are the characters and what do they want?
- How do they go about achieving their goals?
- How are their goals ultimately achieved (or not)?
- What are the truth claims made at pivotal points in the story?
- What are the ethical assumptions inherent to the characters and/or events of the film?
There are certainly more questions to ask, but these will go a long way in assessing quality in a piece of entertainment.
At the end of the day (and the beginning and the middle, for that matter) we are worshippers created in the image of God and are subject to His will in our lives. The good news is that our rebellion against God has been overcome by God incarnate, Jesus Christ. Our lives and the lives of everyone who ever has or ever will live are part of that same story. The stories we consume either resonate with that story or oppose it.
Streaming video has made an ocean of content available to us at the touch of a button. It is imperative that we actively contend with entertainment to at least the level of depth advocated here. Of anyone who has trusted Christ as a result of engaging with the greatest story, John 7:38 says “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” Conversely, Proverbs 25:26 gives a warning: “A righteous person who yields to the wicked is like a muddied spring or polluted well.”
1 The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction by Wayne C. Booth (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1988), p. 151-152
2 ibid p. 228-229