Quiet on set!” In an instant, the chaotic set, once crowded with shouted orders and frantic footsteps, falls into silence. As the cameras start to roll, the main actor convincingly assumes his fictional identity. The entire crew watches in anticipation of the moment when they too forget that the actor is not who he says he is. Reality pauses while the imagination offers a refreshing escape from it.
But while this crew temporarily steps out of our world and into the screenwriter’s reality, traffic continues to pass outside the studio. Shoppers check off grocery lists and pick up laundry. Children do math homework and play at the park. The world as we know it persists in subtlety, providing a warm home to return to after the thrill of imagination passes.
Films, books and magazines remove us from everyday life by drawing our minds to fictional times and places. If only fleetingly, we can lay aside our worries and fall into a world outside our own. While fictional stories often lead us to a greater understanding of human nature, we must receive them with discretion. As Christians we are called to be “in the world but not of it.” Therefore, we must be especially sensitive to the messages that we receive from the media. Many Christians try to avoid the influence of modern culture altogether by refusing to read provocative novels or watch controversial films. This is not the answer. Avoiding culture will only stunt our growth and create a unhealthy judgmental gap between ourselves and the world around us. If we want to influence the world for Jesus Christ, we must be aware of the other influences that affect both us and those whom we are trying to reach with the Gospel.
While fictional stories often lead us to a greater understanding of human nature, we must receive them with discretion.
Media messages are bold and varied. Magazines give us flawless women and chiseled men who, between workouts and cocktail parties, still find time to hold stable jobs and volunteer at soup kitchens. Up and down the Pinterest homepage, consumers find themselves longing for the ideal lifestyle they are invited into. One popular online bumper-sticker reads “Pinterest: Where women go to plan imaginary weddings, dress children that don’t exist, and decorate homes we can’t afford.” Television commercials have the uncanny ability to convince us that Magic Bullets and Snuggies are absolute necessities and good old-fashioned blenders and blankets are obsolete. Every eight minutes, we are invited into these glamorous worlds that tempt us with luxury and impossible ideals.
In theory, we know that these mediums do not portray reality; yet, we buy into them. We turn to the media as a retreat from our own lives, but often forget to acknowledge it as simply that—a retreat. Over time, the media has become adept at convincing its consumers that the world it portrays is standard. We want to live in this retreat because it is paradise. We want to prolong the thrill. This lust for everlasting paradise however makes it difficult to separate our own world from that which we have experienced in books, movies, magazines and television shows.
C.S. Lewis, a 20th-century Christian scholar and author of The Chronicles of Narnia, comments on the entanglement of these two worlds in his book Mere Christianity. He writes “Our experience is coloured through and through by books and plays and the cinema, and it takes patience and skill to disentangle the things we have really learned from life for ourselves.” After becoming aware of the media’s subtle influence, we must learn to sift through its messages and consider them in light of biblical truth.
In a word, we need filters—ones that encourage us to determine truth and falsehood for ourselves without resigning this authority to magazine editors or Hollywood producers. The media should not form our beliefs; it should simply inform them. Books and films have the power to convict us with honest truths about humanity, but well-written novels and good films also have the power to convince us of just about anything. The right angle on any topic can cause people to question their convictions. Without developing filters for media messages and advertising agendas, we can easily fall into skewed mindsets and ideologies.
Even so, this is not to say that we as believers have access to a worldview that is void or separate from modern culture. On the contrary, our culture, whether we realize it or not, shapes the way we read the Bible and think theologically. Pure, culture-less Christianity does not exist. It can’t. We live in society and will consequently, both subconsciously and consciously, be impacted by its messages. With this in mind, we must find effective ways to understand Christianity as embedded within our own culture. Our faith is informed by culture; the two cannot be neatly separated. Even so, we can gain wisdom by looking at modern culture from a Christian perspective.
In light of this, we must consider several questions when we encounter a media message. What aspects of my faith does this message challenge or complement? If it appears to be in complete opposition to my faith, how can I still glean wisdom from it? Why do the ideas explored in this novel make me uncomfortable? Should my response to this movie be different from that of my non-believing friend? Asking these simple questions can lead to discussions and thought processes that keep us aware of biblical truth in the midst of a primarily secular medium. To answer this basic template of questions, we must look at a specific message.
Take film, for example. Consider Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a gritty and brooding contribution to the Batman series. This film explores several issues, including sacrifice, purpose, fear, vengeance, selfishness, and depravity. It challenges conventional ideas of morality, encouraging the audience to discern good and evil for themselves through witnessing an ongoing battle between the two. For a believer seeking truth in controversial media messages, the filtering begins with the recognition of this battle. After recognizing the battle, we can consider the moral system that Nolan creates in the film.
In The Dark Knight, Nolan blurs the line between good and evil. The Joker serves as a chilling embodiment of pure evil, bluntly affirming many skewed moral messages by finding thrill in doing evil and rejecting authority for the sake of self-advancement. In an attempt to understand the Joker’s criminal mind, Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred states “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” While the Joker’s character is heavily contrasted with that of Batman, Batman is by no means portrayed as a pillar of supreme goodness. In his efforts to protect Gotham City, he often brings great affliction upon its citizens. Thus, without a plain standard of perfect goodness to look towards, the audience is left to question the existence of true benevolence.
Part of having filters means knowing our limits and protecting ourselves from falling into temptation.
So how do we as Christians respond to this complex message of confused morality? What aspects of the faith does this message challenge or compliment? What does the Bible tell us about righteousness and moral living? The fact that true righteousness cannot be found in the depraved Gotham City highlights the need for something greater than human morality. No single man’s effort to do good in the world will result in lasting righteousness unless that man’s name is Jesus Christ. In his letter to the Romans, Paul the Apostle writes “The righteousness of God… is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (3:21-22). The film forces us to consider the value of truth by giving us a confusing and unsettling understanding of it. Even the honor of Bruce Wayne’s self-sacrifice in the final scene is tainted by an awareness that Wayne is unrightfully taking on the weight of somebody else’s crime. Ultimately, the film leaves us disappointed in man’s inability to avoid or overcome evil.
Thankfully however, Scripture does not let our story end with depravity. God relieves us from it and offers hope in Christ. In light of this realization, how can we glean biblical wisdom from this film? By being challenged to consider the nature of good and evil, and referring to Scripture as a means through which to make sense of the two. The film poses the question and gives the audience space to answer it for themselves. This leads to yet another consideration: How does the film influence our reading of the Bible to show us things we had not seen before. Often times, we think of ourselves as working in a direct, linear movement from Scripture to thought and thought to action; it is important, however, to also consider how much we bring to Scripture when we read it. In one way or another, the entire Bible is about the battle between good and evil. Therefore, being offered different frameworks through which to consider this tension can help enhance our understanding of Scripture.
There are many more themes worth exploring and many more questions worth asking about this film, but they cannot all be covered in this one article. These topics are pervasive in our society, and conversation about them should arise often and naturally. Suffice it to say that a valiant and careful search for biblical wisdom in the media will surely be rewarded. Craig Detweiler, in his book Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century, writes, “The same God who spoke through dreams and visions in the Bible is still communicating through our celluloid dreams—the movies.”
Part of having filters means knowing our limits and protecting ourselves from falling into temptation. At some point, it becomes my responsibility to evaluate my intentions behind exposing myself to a certain media message. Ours is a culture of excess and overindulgence. While it is important to engage with this culture, we should approach it with moderation. Completely dismissing our inhibitions for the sake of gleaning wisdom from unexpected sources would be, for lack of a better word, unwise. There is also wisdom in identifying an overtly inappropriate film or novel and knowing that exposure to it will not be edifying. For example, a movie with more sexual content than verbal dialogue is not likely to convey a profound and vital moral message that could not also be more appropriately explored through an alternative medium. Read novels and magazines. Watch films and television shows. Enjoy them. Interact with them. Learn from them. But know when to use the wisdom you have gleaned from the media, Scripture, and personal experience to establish boundaries.
After sifting the media through these filters, we may notice that the charmed world it presents loses some of its luster. We are awakened out of an illusion and, quite frankly, this can be disappointing. Once the thrill is gone, we are left with our thoughts. Even so, our encounter with the media does not end with this disappointing loss of thrill. When commenting on Christian love, Lewis writes, “it is just the people who are ready to submit to the loss of the thrill and settle down to the sober interest, who are then most likely to meet new thrills in some quite different direction.” God calls us to both contentment and joy. Combining the two creates a sober and lasting passion that will not fade.
The moments that define our lives won’t be dramatic clips from romantic comedies and they likely won’t run on national television. They may not be glamorous or extravagant, but they will be our own, and they will be real. There’s a great deal of adventure in our lives that is waiting to be realized. To find it, we must give ourselves time to settle in the silence and find thrill in the subtlety of God’s mysterious plan.
The moments that define our lives won’t be dramatic clips from romantic comedies and they likely won’t run on national television.