The conversations are pretty predictable. They happen at least a few times a year. I’ll be talking to a fellow believer, and we’ll ask each other what TV shows we’ve been into lately.
And then the awkward part—the other party will recommend some show that I’m familiar with, and am aware is full of explicit content—sex and nudity, graphic violence, etc. Sometimes the recommendation will be accompanied with a caveat, like, “I’m not sure how you feel about watching shows with nudity, but …”
I always feel the same sense of awkwardness. Most of the time, I try to shuffle my way out of the conversation without asking what I really want to ask—how can you watch that? Maybe it’s better that I keep my mouth shut. I don’t want to appear judgmental. After all, does the Bible explicitly say, “Thou shalt not watch TV shows with more than X number of violent scenes, curse words, or sexually explicit images”?
It raises the perennial question about Christian engagement with pop culture, specifically artifacts like movies, TV shows, and music. How should Christians engage these things? While the Bible doesn’t directly answer these questions, it is sufficient to guide us into holiness, and it gives us the wisdom we need when considering whether to push play.
Engage pop culture with an eye toward holiness.
Jesus has high standards for purity. “If your right eye causes you to sin,” he said, “gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29).
His brother, the apostle James, carried on this high view of purity by including in his definition of “true religion” the call to “keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). Likewise, the apostle Paul urged the church at Ephesus to “not become partners” with the world, and the Corinthian saints to “be infants in regard to evil” (Ephesians 5:7; 1 Corinthians 14:20).
Our engagement with pop culture should be informed by Scripture’s consistent emphasis on holiness. The Bible may not tell us the maximum number of curse words allowed in a song or the extent of sexual content allowed in a movie, but it does tell us to keep ourselves unstained from the world and to be infants in regard to evil.
So, when considering whether to turn on that show your friends have recommended, ask yourself, Will this contribute to my holiness or detract from it? Is the entertainment value worth the temptation? Can I glorify God in watching this? I suspect questions like this will give us many of the answers we need.
As you ask and answer them, do so trusting that it’s better to err on the side of caution, and that it is better to miss out on the world’s goods for participation in Christ, than to participate in the world’s good and miss out on Christ.
Engage pop culture with an eye toward beauty.
If we stop at point 1, we may end up only consuming “Christian” media. But that would fail to take into account other important biblical truths related to the doctrines of the image of God and common grace.
The Bible tells us God made humans in His image (Genesis 1:26). There’s an essential, ontological element to this (the image is something we are), a relational element, a capacity for meaningful relationship with God, one another, and the world (the image is something we have), and a functional element (imaging God is something we do).
Because of this functional element of God’s image, even unbelievers have a marvelous capacity to create in a way that reflects God’s glory, beauty, majesty, love, compassion, and creativity. All beauty is God’s beauty, even when it comes from surprising sources.
This is related to a second doctrine, the doctrine of common grace. While saving or special grace comes only through the gospel of Jesus Christ, God gives common grace to all of His creation: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
Common grace includes skill, artistic ability, wisdom, insight, and more. It certainly includes the ability to create beautiful music, inspiring film, enlightening podcasts, and more. Christians should keep this in mind when consuming media, keeping an eye toward holiness, yes—and also toward beauty.
Engage pop culture with an eye toward growth.
Media and pop culture should not be seen as mere entertainment. It’s after your soul.
The ideas you imbibe shape your thoughts, and the art that moves you shapes your affections. That means we shouldn’t be passive consumers of culture, but active consumers, engaging thoughtfully, with an eye toward growth.
Two examples come to mind for me, both related to media that was hard for me to consume.
The first was the 2018 film Hotel Mumbai. This was the most challenging movie I’ve ever watched, based on a true story about a terrorist attack in a hotel. I still am not sure, to be honest, if it was worth watching! Yet, it did inspire me to courage, to hope, to seeing the image of God in all human beings. I walked out of the theater shaken, drying tears, but resolved to love, to sacrifice, and to be the courageous man God created and called me to be.
The second was Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. This post-apocalyptic novel about a father and a son is absolutely gut-wrenching. I read it shortly before my wife and I were expecting our first child. Next to the Bible, nothing has more prepared me for fatherhood.
I knew that parenting would be hard (and I know many hard days are ahead—our daughter is still not yet a year old!). I also knew my own tendency to withdraw at times from hard things. This book inspired me to pack up for the journey, to keep moving no matter the obstacles, and to be willing to lay down my life for my children and family—in ways big and small.
Sometimes we’re afraid to engage the hard movies or hard books, the things that make us sad or ask big questions or stir up emotions we’d rather not feel. We even use the first point above to justify not watching or reading or listening, when we’re really just afraid of the emotions that might be pulled to the surface.
Don’t let this be the case. Be willing to get angry or sad or convicted by the media you engage. God just might change you through the process.
Advice for Pastors
What should pastors do to foster this kind of thinking among their flocks? Though we may never get where we want to be on these things, and individuals must be responsible for their own decisions, I can think of a few easy things pastors can do to foster the right kind of thinking.
Apply the text, but don’t moralize.
The worst thing pastors can do is use the time they have in the pulpit—time for unfolding the glories of God in the gospel of Christ—to instead moralize about music and movies. I’ve been on the receiving end of this. I specifically remember time being used in a sermon to denounce a particular movie, including absolute statements about how no Christian should see this movie.
I was not discipled in that moment! I would hate to give an account to God as a preacher and say that instead of preaching the gospel of Christ from the Spirit-inspired Word, I told people not to watch a particular movie.
Nonetheless, if you exposit God’s Word, working methodically through books of the Bible, you will come across passages that can be appropriately applied to these issues. I’ve listed half a dozen or so already in this article. Don’t force the issue and don’t preach legalism. But do apply God’s Word to the lives of your people.
Give guidelines, not rules.
As I mentioned above, Scripture doesn’t speak directly to what elements of pop culture we should engage, because the artifacts of pop culture in the Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman worlds of the Bible were much different.
Pastors can and should, however, give biblical guidelines for helping people think through these things. I’ve already mentioned several of them. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, spoke in drastic terms about avoiding that which causes us to sin. Paul emphasized avoiding partnership with the world. He warned his hearers to flee from sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18). He told the Philippian saints to dwell on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable … moral excellence and … anything praiseworthy” (Philippians 4:8–9).
Pastors should give their people these kinds of guidelines from God’s Word, and let the Holy Spirit, working through individual consciences, lead in personal decision making.
Bring conversations into the light.
Pastor, the reality is that most of your church members spend more time each week consuming pop culture than they do at church. Most of them consume more pop culture than they consume God’s Word. In fact, Lifeway Research found that only one-third (32%) of Protestant churchgoers say they read the Bible daily. Make no mistake about it: The media we consume are discipling us, shaping our minds and our hearts, to some vision of the kingdom, some vision of the good life.
The worst thing we can do in this area is to say nothing, to assume everyone is making perfectly upright decisions about what to consume and how to engage pop culture. Rather than leaving these conversations in the darkness, where people fumble and feel their way through decisions without guidance or direction, we should bring them into the light.
There are several ways pastors can do this. Again, I don’t recommend using pulpit time unless there is a direct application from the Word, but you can have events or conversations at your church. Each summer, my church has a discipleship study on some topic or issue. We’ve done four-week studies on issues as varied as technology and discipleship, the history and nature of the Bible, cultural issues like work, race, and politics, and a study of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
These sorts of events, along with podcasts, blogs, or a weekly or monthly list of recommended resources from the pastors or staff could be great ways to point people toward biblical wisdom on this subject.
In the end, Christianity is about heart change, not behavior modification. But heart change leads to behavior modification. Christians are those who have had their hearts changed by the good news that God is bringing his kingdom to earth through the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and future return of Jesus Christ.
We are kingdom citizens, which means we live differently than citizens of the world. Our engagement with popular culture should be evidence of those differences.