Monday, January 31, 2011

Christians And "Unsterilized" Entertainment, Part 1 (Language and Sexuality)

In anticipation of my two-part interview with Brent Weeks, we're going to take a brief topical detour and come back to the book of Romans two weeks from now.

Many Christians have grown up with the understanding that some forms of entertainment should be off limits and are sinful by their very nature. And it's certainly true that there are forms of entertainment that stimulate sin in us virtually by nature, such as pornography. (Matthew 5:28)

But what about other forms of “unsterilized” entertainment that have had fingers wagged at them for decades? Role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, violent video games, movies and books with coarse language or sexual humor, or fiction with dark supernatural themes. The Bible seems to be nearly silent on the topic of fictional entertainment. Is there anything in scripture we can use to help us navigate this issue and avoid problems while not hindering the freedom God intends us to have?

There's actually more than you might think! And God wants us to take this kind of time to discern the difference between what is harmful and what is not, rather than just assuming based on tradition or cultural influence.

1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 “but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”

The Greek word for “form” here means “appearance, fashion, shape or sight.” Paul is not saying to avoid anything that LOOKS like evil. (Good luck with THAT!) He’s saying to determine what is good and what is not, and then abstain from evil, no matter what it looks like or how it shows up.

Before we dive in, I first want to point out that the application for much of what we discover in this look at the Bible is only for "grey areas" of scripture. If the Bible identifies something as sin in black and white, it's sin, no matter how you or I may feel about it. But hopefully passages like these will help us navigate other waters more safely and confidently.

We should also be careful that we don’t try to use what we look at today as a smokescreen to get people off our backs so we can continue to live unexamined lives. My hope is that if nothing else, this will act as a conversation starter. As Christians we've got to get better at talking about what we believe, whether it’s with Christians or non-Christians, in a way that is humble and even -tempered.

First let's take a look at the issue of language. Although most Christians seem to have developed a list of words that are "bad", the Bible never gives us a list of words we should avoid using. But it does have a lot to say about our speech. Just a few examples include:

Proverbs 4:24 “Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you.” (The Hebrew words for "crooked" and "devious" here mean "deceitful" and "willfully determined to do what is unexpected or undesired")

Colossians 4:6 “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”

Ephesians 5:4 “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.“

The Greek for "filthiness" here means "that which brings shame" or "intending to stimulate sexual appetite or lust". The Greek for "foolish talk" here means "speech that demonstrates the lack of character in a person". The Greek for "crude joking" here refers to joking that intends to stimulate sexual appetite or lust.

In these verses we see that our speech shouldn't be manipulative or deceitful. We shouldn't say anything that validates a lustful mentality. We should speak with the intention of being favorable to the sensitivities of others. Beyond that, we have a lot of freedom!

You might notice that all of this is instruction about what we, personally, should or shouldn't do. They are not immediately related to fictional entertainment we might create or enjoy. In this regard, there are some other verses to consider:

1 Corinthians 10:31-32 “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.”

In Greek, the phrase "give no offense" as used here can mean either "do not offend" or "do not cause to stumble". So as we tell stories (or run role-playing games), we should aim to avoid offending those our fiction is intended for. We should also avoid creating anything that validates sinful thoughts or behavior, since this can cause someone else to "stumble". However, within these guidelines, there is still a wide variety of "unsterilized" content we can and, for the sake of good fiction, sometimes SHOULD include. (After all, there is nothing "glorifying to God" about boring, poor quality fiction.)

When it comes to the kind of language we should allow ourselves to ingest in fiction, this is entirely based on the effect it has on our lives.

Luke 6:45 “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”

As established before, we want to avoid offending others. And certain language can be offensive to others when used in conversation. So if enjoying certain kinds of fiction with certain types of language causes us to "slip" more often and offend others with our words, we should avoid that kind of fiction, or make sure it doesn't affect the control we have over our speech.


But in a room containing only people who will not be offended or "tripped up" by rough language, there’s no sin in using it. I can't find any scripture that argues otherwise.

In my own life, I avoid most words that the average Christian would consider offensive… when I’m around the average Christian. But alone with my wife or a friend I know won't be the least offended, I’ll use the occasional “rough word”, for effect or emphasis.

Even the prophet Isaiah and the apostle Paul, being inspired by God to do so, used some pretty rough language as they represented God to others.

For example, in Philippians chapter 3, as Paul compares his "praiseworthy" background with what he has gained through Christ, he says he thinks of it all as "rubbish". The Greek word here for "rubbish" means “refuse, such as the excrement of animals”. So Paul was saying nearly the equivalent of the word “crap” and if we’re honest, very possibly the equivalent of a stronger 4-letter word. (Rhymes with "grit")

In Isaiah 64:6, the prophet says that our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment, or filthy rags. The Hebrew here refers to menstrual cloths. Yes, those kind. We're talking about the equivalent of a used tampon or maxi-pad. A pretty vile image.

As a side note, if you’re not accustomed to looking into the original language meaning of words in the Bible, you can make sure I’m not “pulling a fast one” on you by using a concordance and Greek/Hebrew dictionary (very easy to find) or a site like to verify the information I’m presenting.

My point is not that all language is appropriate at all times around all people. But clearly, we can’t assume that there is a list of “bad words” God unquestionably wants us to avoid at all times. Nor should we expect that “good Christians” will have that kind of view about language and four letter words. And when it comes to enjoying fictional entertainment with some rough language in it, even less immediate judgment should be made.

It may be a valid strategy to ban “4-letter words” from our homes until our children are old enough to understand when these words should and shouldn’t be used. But to teach our children or other Christians that these words are all “bad” by nature is to teach something unsupported by the Bible.


Doesn't the Bible say not to "curse"? What does that mean?

Here are two examples of how the Bible commonly uses the word "curse":

Ecclesiastes 10:20- Furthermore, in your bedchamber do not curse a king, and in your sleeping rooms do not curse a rich man, for a bird of the heavens will carry the sound and the winged creature will make the matter known.

"Curse"= (Hebrew) qalal- (in negative relational contexts) to make despicable, to curse, to treat with contempt, bring contempt or dishonour

Romans 12:14- Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

"Curse"= (Greek) kataraomai- to curse, doom, imprecate evil upon

The Biblical usage of "cursing" has to do with wishing evil on someone or bringing contempt on someone. The word "damn" can be used in this way, which IS sin. And when used with the intention of actually wishing someone to be eternally "damned", it's also presumptuous and judgmental, since a person's final judgment is not our call, but God's alone. (For example, saying and genuinely meaning "Damn you".)

But most times "damn" is not used this way today, and is instead a thoughtless exclamation. Much like hitting my hand with a hammer and saying "crap!" is not a command for myself or someone else to actually poop. (Or a shocked observation that I have just seen poop.) In this way, "damn" is often a figure of speech that is not an expression of someone's desire to (as the Bible defines cursing) have evil or contempt come on someone else. So I have to conclude that, provided it doesn't result in offending anyone who hears it, the use of the word "damn" or even the exclamation "damn it" is often times not sinful.

It should also be mentioned that the same level of "cursing" can be committed (and most often is) without using a word like damn. Any verbal expression of contempt for someone without the use of four-letter words, is just as much a "curse" as an expression of contempt that does use a four letter word.


Exodus 20:7- You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.

The Hebrew word for "name" here refers not just to God's proper name, Yahweh. It refers to his entire reputation. The Israelites were being commanded not to speak of or mention God in a thoughtless or disrespectful way.

And although we are not bound by Old Testament law, a similar idea is expressed in Mathew 5:33-35 and is naturally included in the greatest commandment, to love God with every fiber of our being. (Mark 12:28-30)

To use references to God(God, Christ, Jesus, Yahweh) as slang or exclamations could be strongly argued to be disrespectful.

Some may also argue that words like "gosh" and "jeez" are disrespectful as well, since they find their origins in an effort to substitute for words referring to God. But I don't see a good argument here, unless we can prove that when someone says "gosh" or "jeez" they are really disregarding or making light of a name that refers to God. "Gosh" and "jeez" are nonsense words. Even their origins (which have no relevance I can see to their actual use) are an effort to avoid offending God, rather than making light of him. So if anything, the natural intent in using "gosh" and jeez" seems to lean toward respecting God, rather than secretly disrespecting him.

I'm inclined to think we need to give people the benefit of the doubt on this one since mind-reading is not a spiritual gift. But I'm open to changing my position in light of a better argument.


In similar ways, we can apply some of these verses to sexuality/nudity in fiction. Most of the time, nudity in fiction is portrayed by people with beautiful bodies and easily results in temptation. I don’t see how one could argue that portrayals like this do not involve serious risk of lustful thoughts, which Jesus speaks against.

Matthew 5:28 “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

In rare instances, nudity can be non-sexual and unattractive or un-tempting for various reasons. (Several scenes in “Schindler’s List” come to mind.) Some may be in no danger of lustful thoughts in these situations.

It’s also very common in visual fiction for attractive people to have clothing (or lack of clothing) that draws attention to their physical attractiveness. People will have various degrees of sensitivity to temptation in these kinds of scenes. Individuals should not assume that others have the same degree of strength or weakness against temptation in this area. (More on this in Part 2) This is a realm that many will have to judge for themselves, as lust is often an internal, mental temptation. But let's also use caution here and not allow ourselves to use "it's a personal judgment call" as a smoke screen for unexamined living.

There are certainly forms of entertainment with sexual subject matter that many will find no temptation in. For myself, I can say that the typical kind of sexual humor on a show like “Everybody Loves Raymond” does not stimulate lust in me. If anything, the sexual humor I’ve seen on that show tends to take the fantastical Hollywood shine out of sexuality and showcase the funny, awkward realities of human sexuality through a married couple that, despite their issues, loves each other.

So what about other kinds of questionable content? Violence, gore, the supernatural, or material advocating false ideas about God or the spiritual world?

We'll take a look at those in PART TWO!

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