Christian, What Are You Watching?

Sound Familiar?

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 websurfing 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” (1 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 faithfully 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.

Watching Unwatchingly

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. 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.

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.

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 (1 Tim. 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 (1 Tim. 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 televi sion 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?” (Jer. 17:9). We’re more easily tempted than we know or are willing to admit.


C. J. Mahaney

Worldliness equips readers to avoid the dangers of being shaped by the subtle influences of the world and offers practical help for pursuing godliness through the grace of the gospel.

The Bible teaches that the battle is not “out there.” The real monster isn’t Hollywood or a beast residing in a plasma screen. He’s not lurking behind the curtain in the movie theater. He’s much closer. He’s us. Our battle is with the flesh. “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal. 5:17).

If we watch, we must watch with this in mind: our hearts are deceitful, and our flesh will be tempted. Paul’s warning to the Corinthians is fitting: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).

We’re commanded to “not be conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2), but such conformity is the inevitable pathway for those who watch freely with the delusion of immunity.

The L Word

No discussion of media standards gets far before someone cries, “Legalism!” Any teaching that advocates some level of viewing standards will be stereotyped in some quarters as a compromising of Christian liberty.

Such stereotyping works both ways, of course. The one advocating higher standards can just as easily broad-brush all detractors as “worldly” or “licentious.” Meanwhile we conveniently place ourselves in the center: all those with stricter entertainment standards than ours are legalistic, while anyone who’s more lenient is worldly.

Legalism, however, is not a matter of having more rigorous rules. It’s far more lethal than that. It strikes at the very core of our relationship with God. As C. J. Mahaney explains:

Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God. In other words, a legalist is anyone who behaves as if they can earn God’s approval and forgiveness through personal performance.5

Do we risk legalism by establishing personal viewing standards? Absolutely! But the risk doesn’t lie in having standards; it lies in our motivation. The question is not, “Should we view selectively?” but “Why do we view selectively?” We must not seek to earn God’s favor by watching or not watching certain programs. Our forgiveness from God and acceptance by God are based upon the gospel—we’re already approved because of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, our obedience springs from gratitude for the gospel.

Legalism is a heart condition that can easily affect our media viewing (or lack of viewing) just as it can color any other activity. Legalism can taint our Bible reading, praying, witnessing, eating, sleeping, lovemaking, working, recreating, joking, shopping—we can be legalistic about anything! The solution is not necessarily lowering our standards. It is necessarily raising our understanding of and response to the glorious grace of God.

We can be legalistic about anything! The solution is not necessarily lowering our standards.

Another objection to setting viewing standards is a fear of isolationism. Some will argue that our evangelism is compromised when we detach ourselves from our culture, and that we’re called instead to engage it. There’s truth to this claim; but when “engage the culture” is a euphemism for “watch whatever everyone else is watching,” our witness is weakened, not strengthened. It’s foolish to think the gospel will spread more powerfully if we hide its transforming effect in our lives. While we should celebrate any genuine concern for reaching out to the lost, we should be suspect of any approach advocating broad cultural accommodation when it comes to entertainment.

Recently, a lady in our church communicated to me her resistance to the idea of curbing media consumption; she believed that viewing current TV programs and movies enabled her to better relate to the lost. But she came to question her own reasoning: “Am I lowering my standards to stay up with our culture while not really reaching anyone by doing so?” I respect her for her humility and honesty. She asks a discerning question.

In reality, it isn’t necessary to be a media glutton to share the gospel effectively. We can meaningfully relate with people in our culture without immersing ourselves in the latest entertainments. We can be aware of popular culture without being captive to it. Our personal and corporate relevance and witness won’t be hindered at all by applying biblical standards to our media intake.

This leads us to explore a grace-motivated approach to media consumption. We begin, most appropriately, with God.

Living Coram Deo

Coram Deo is a short Latin phrase packing a potent punch: “before the face of God.” All aspects of our existence—from private thoughts to public words and actions—are lived out before his face. Properly regarded, living coram Deo arouses our fear of God. The person who’s aware that God is seated front-and-center and watching everything will fear the Lord. And that’s good, for “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7).

The fear of God is our starting place; it’s not the graduate school of Christian discipleship. Fearing God is where we begin in our search for knowledge and wisdom. The fool, by contrast, is one whose governing mindset excludes the reality of God (Ps. 14:1).

What does all this have to do with our media use? Put bluntly, it means we surf the Internet, listen to the radio, watch television, or rent a DVD in God’s presence. We make our choices—all our choices—with God’s holy face in view. It’s not the gaze of our pastor, parent, fellow small group member, or unbelieving neighbor that matters most. We’re accountable to God in all things, including our entertainment.

Wayne Wilson brings home this sobering truth: “We are accountable to God, and the label of ‘art’ on human expression does not remove this accountability in the slightest way.”6

God is holy, and we are not. Coram Deo, we realize we’re in trouble—our eyes have lusted, our imaginations have trespassed, our time has been squandered. We must run to the cross where God’s holiness and mercy intersect decisively.

Coram Deo, we find grace. Grace that forgives. Grace that empowers us to change. Grace that leads us to desire and pursue obedience. Any discussion of biblical obedience, including entertainment guidelines, must spring from a robust understanding of grace.

1. Dan Andriacco, Taming the Media Monster (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2003), 5.
2. Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1989), 160.
3. R. Kent Hughes, Set Apart (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 51.
4. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, xii–xiii.
5. C. J. Mahaney, The Cross Centered Life (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2002).
6. Wayne A. Wilson, Worldly Amusements (Enumclaw, WA: Winepress, 1999), 73.

This article is adapted from Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World edited by C. J. Mahaney.

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