Some Thought Experiments
Imagine the scene with me for a moment, if you would. You’re standing with a group of friends, and someone makes an obscure reference to The Office. You get the reference, and acknowledge your familiarity with a chuckle. Then you see your friend’s reference and raise him one. Now you’re off to the races. Before long, several minutes pass by in laughter and direct quotes and descriptions.
I have watched—and participated in—this scene by appreciators of The Office (of whom I am the foremost) more times than I can count. For the most part, it is pretty innocuous. Most often, the humor we celebrate is the essential humor of the show: the comic reality of the awkward. At its best, this kind of humor teaches us to be the kind of people who don’t take ourselves seriously, and that is a good thing. If we can come to think of our foibles and serendipitous mistakes (like spilling over an entire pot of chili and then slipping all over it, for example) as the punchline to a joke—ourselves being the faithful characters of a brilliant comedy Writer—we will be the better for it.
But suppose at the end of a really long TV quote-a-thon, you notice one friend uncomfortably looking at his shoes, waiting for the whole thing to conclude. You ask him if he watches The Office and he says no. Upon your pressing and prodding, he reluctantly gives you his rationale: “I have a really addictive personality, and it’s hard for me to watch TV without watching it in excess. Besides, I’ve watched a couple of episodes and the humor seems to me to be in bad taste. I just don’t think it would do much to increase my affections for Christ.” What’s your response in that scenario? Apart from the agonizing desire to lighten the mood, to which your friend just added unbearable poundage, you may feel a bit of admiration for his zeal. You may even feel a little bit of—dare I say—conviction.
But then you don’t, because wait just a minute! Isn’t this a conscience issue? And what about that very spiritual paragraph I just wrote about not taking yourself so seriously? And you don’t watch the show in excess like your friend is prone to do. And “common grace” and what not. And to each his own. And your conscience just isn’t as tender as this poor brother. And before long, you are assuaging your conscience and feeling piously sorry for your friend who is enslaved to his legalistic tendencies.
Okay, this internal self-defensiveness may be an exaggeration. But suppose the scenario is slightly different. Suppose this non-TV-watching friend comes over to borrow a power-drill while you’re watching TV. Suppose also he comes back two hours later and finds you exactly where he left you (five episodes deeper into the season of whatever you were watching). Suppose then that this friend, days later, asks you about the Netflix binge he interrupted, and tells you—furrowed brow and somber voice—of his concern. What then? Hold that thought.
Last scenario. Suppose you are analyzing the most recent Hollywood blockbuster with another group of friends. Let’s say it’s a really potent artifact of social commentary, with profound redemptive themes. And yes, it has some tawdry sex scenes, but they exist within a story-arch that exposes the vanity of sexual licentiousness, so at the end of the day, they are truth-telling pieces of a realistic and redemptive story. Suppose there’s another friend politely nodding, waiting for the conversation to transition into something of relevance to her. You ask her if she’s seen the movie, and she says no.
No problem, you think. You love the movie so much that you suggest the group go watch it again right now! She declines, saying something about demands at home. Except you happen to know that she made plans to spend the afternoon with you and your friends, so upon your urging, she surrenders up her explanation: “That movie sounds pretty interesting, but I just don’t like the idea of spending money to watch actors pretend to fornicate.” Didn’t she just hear what I had to say? you think. You assure here that the movies conclusion actually vindicates her objection, and that she just needs to appreciate it as a whole—a stand-alone work of art. “I understand,” she says, “but if I were an actress, I would never feel right about exposing my nakedness—intended for my husband and no other—to a camera. I don’t want to be entertained by watching others do what I would be rightly reproved for doing.”
Quick, to Romans 14!
As difficult to believe as it may seem right now, I have no desire whatever to start a modern pharisaical movement within the ranks of Reformed Evangelicalism. I merely suggest that we haven’t thought as carefully or critically about how we consume entertainment as we ought. The standard-fare script for “culturally engaging” Christians on this topic is to place the entire conversation within the context of “conscience.” So, we go to Romans 14. We talk about meat. We talk about not stumbling the weaker brother. And we resolve not to crack The Office jokes around some, or talk about movies with nudity around others. We then dust our hands off and move on, congratulating ourselves of our strong consciences.
Now, the conscience is most certainly relevant in this discussion. And it is entirely possible for tender consciences to stumble over very little objects because their legs are wobbly as is. They must not take in the entertainment that hurts their conscience, even if there is nothing objectively sinful about doing it. Even if their conscience is wrong to accuse them, and there is nothing intrinsically sinful in the act, the act would be, for them, sin. Not because “God really did say,” but because they truly believe that “God really did say,” and their indulgence reveals a heart postured in opposition to God. That’s what a weak conscience does. So, this kind of thing happens.
But I don’t think we should assume the basic suggestion (i.e., that Christians shouldn’t indulge in worldly entertainment in the same way as the rest of the masses—either in sheer quantity or in content) is evidence of a weak conscience. When I was in high school, my taste in entertainment was very different than it is now. I could stomach a lot more gutter humor, ruthless violence, and sexually explicit content than I can now without my conscience accusing me. What happened between high school and now? What transition took place? I would like to suggest that my weakening stomach is not evidence of a weakening conscience. I don’t believe that my ability in high school to watch hours of Family Guy without the sting of conviction was a benchmark of spiritual maturity.
And this is just the point: maturity. I think “Netflix binging” shouldn’t be as commonplace among evangelical Christians as it is today. And I think this, not because I am out to suck the resilience from healthy consciences like a leech. On the contrary: I want a strong conscience–one that is entirely in service to the lordship of King Jesus.
What Is Worldliness?
As we march taking every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor 10:5), we will at some point come up to thoughts on entertainment. What does it look like for those thoughts to be taken captive to obey Christ? “Worldliness,” I trust we all may grant, is a category that extends beyond fornication and illegal drugs. How far does it extend, though? Surely there is a worldly way of consuming entertainment. “Worldliness” in such terms must look like… something. If it doesn’t look like indulging in entertainment with no discernable difference from the rest of the world (in terms of quantity and content, specifically), what does it look like?
Maybe we’re fooling ourselves with all our talk of exegeting the culture. Maybe what’s really happening is not cultural engagement, but just good ‘ol fashioned cultural assimilation. Maybe we’re not thinking about running our race with intensity because we are entangled by unnecessary weight (Heb 12:1). Maybe a dogged desire to please the Lord with a critical economy of time isn’t works-righteousness, but simple worshipful adoration. Maybe an insatiable thirst for Christ will create an earnestness that compels us to consume entertainment differently.
Or, maybe not. But I think these things are worth pondering.