Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Christians And "Unsterilized" Entertainment, Part 2 (Violence, Gore and the Supernatural)
God is the ultimate storyteller. Throughout the Bible, we see metaphor, poetry and graphic symbolism. It's natural that we would see some evil, distasteful things in the historical accounts of the Bible. But even in the parables, poetry and artistically symbolic words of the Bible, we see graphic and unsettling images.
Ironically, mainstream Christian culture has abandoned these elements of storytelling, opting for a "family friendly" philosophy that takes higher priority than dynamic communication of truth. We've decided that realistic or intense depictions of violence or evil behavior in a fictional context are almost always inappropriate. But in God's "fictional" writing, he often used elements that we would find offensive by these standards.
“Wait a minute. God didn't write any fiction! Are you saying the Bible is fictional?”
The Bible is not a work of fiction. Although it does contain fictional stories and artistic, metaphorical language. For example, Jesus often told stories called "parables". These were not stories about historical people that Jesus knew. These were fictional characters that Jesus created and put in a story in order to communicate truth. And some of his stories were pretty intense!
God also used one of his prophets as an "actor" in a sort of "street performance art". God had him do some strange and disgusting things in his performance to make a point about something in real life.
We usually wouldn't approve of this kind of storytelling in modern Christian circles and you likely wouldn't see it being sold in Christian Bookstores.
Imagine a man comes to your church. He stands out in the parking lot. Or maybe he goes to the parking lot of a Christian bookstore. In any case, he goes to where Christians will see what he's doing. (Ezekiel 4:3) He takes a few common items and starts building a little model of a city. He's tied up with ropes and lying on his side in front of the model.
This guy also takes time now and then, in front of the model of the city, to bake himself some bread. And he bakes it over human poop. At least, that was the original plan. It got toned down a little. Not to avoid offending God or spectators. The human poop was actually God's idea. But God decides to go easy on this "performer" and let him use animal dung, since cooking over his own poop was a little too "intense" for him. (Ezekiel 4:1-17)
Jesus told a story that ends, not on a happy, positive note, but with a guy being handed over to torturers until he could come up with the money he owed. (Matthew 18:34) And this wasn’t the only violent story Jesus told with a dark edge. (Matthew 21:35, 38-39, Matthew 22:6-7)
Some might use Philippians 4:8 as an argument against enjoying any fiction that isn’t constantly smiles and rainbows. It says:
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
First of all, even in dark, disturbing fiction, there is much of artistic excellence. And artistic excellence is worth praising! We shouldn’t assume that because something is dark and disturbing, or even promotes ideas counter to scripture, that there are none of the above elements present to enjoy. Even the apostle Paul validated the positive and truthful points of poetry from non-Christian sources. (Acts 17:28) He would have to have read a lot of untruthful parts by the same poets to find the nugget that he did, so we can't assume we should always avoid entertainment that sometimes promotes bad ideas.
Notice, in Philippians 4:8, the repeated use of the word "whatever" and the words "any" and "anything". God is the originator of ALL creative excellence and EVERY creative talent of EVERY person in existence was brought about by God. We shouldn't compartmentalize our appreciation of creativity to only Christian artistic endeavors, as though gaming experiences like "World Of Warcraft" owe nothing to God. "WHATEVER is commendable" we can and should think about and then recognize God as the source! (James 1:17)
For me personally, role-playing games (paper and pencil or video games) and fantasy novels are exciting partially because they allow me to explore a completely different reality without any of the real danger and pain I would face if I were in those worlds for real. (The world of "Fallout 3" is captivating to explore and try to survive in, but I wouldn't want to REALLY live there!) Comic books and superheroes are exciting to me because they help to temporarily satisfy my hunger for justice in the world, and for the wrong things to be set right. Or they let me imagine for a moment what it would be like to never fear pain or harm. All of these elements of satisfaction I feel from enjoying these forms of entertainment are actually a shadow, a foretaste of what God will bring about and what those who place their trust in him will enjoy for eternity! These are all ideas that God has implanted in the human psyche and that point us back to a desire for him!
Secondly, the command in Philippians 4:8 instructs us on what we SHOULD think about. Not what we shouldn't. The meaning of this verse can’t possibly be that we should never think about anything that is evil, or terrifying. Otherwise God wouldn't have spent so much time talking to us about evil in his word and Jesus wouldn't have discussed hell so frequently with such vivid, terrifying imagery. (Matthew 5:29-30, Matthew 10:28, Mark 9:43)
We can’t assume that fiction should always be light and positive and leave us with good feelings, without ever exposing and reflecting on the reality and nature of evil. Jesus sure didn’t. Someone might argue that the imagery conjured by the words of the Bible is never as intense as some of those on a movie screen, and I would agree. My argument here is not an effort to validate every depiction of violence or gore in movies. My argument is an effort to prevent them from being unquestionably considered harmful. I don't know of an internally consistent view of scripture that will allow us to assume that.
Often in fiction, a victory is felt so much more deeply when the obstacle is greatest. Salvation and justice shine much brighter when the horror and injustice before it is severe. And even fiction that ends on a darker note can lead to contemplation of the fallen nature of our world, and stimulate in us a desire for the world to be saved from evil. Not only can we freely enjoy “unsterilized” fiction, but in many cases it can be a means of OBEYING Philippians 4:8.
Still, this isn’t always the case. Fictional entertainment is a mixed bag with both good and bad elements. Some fiction can result in temptation or emotional trauma for one person, while having no negative effect on another. Some fiction dealing with the supernatural or promoting false worldviews can unknowingly guide the thinking of one person, while another enjoying the same entertainment doesn't have their worldview influenced at all. What should we do, then? Avoid all forms of entertainment that affect anyone negatively, anywhere, "just to be safe"?
I think 1 Corinthians chapter 8 and Romans chapter 14 are two very important chapters for us as we navigate these areas of life that scripture does not specifically comment on, such as entertainment fiction. These passages are not specifically about entertainment fiction(if you find any that are, please let me know), but I believe the same principles can be applied.
“Idol meat”, as discussed in 1 Corinthians 8, and entertainment fiction with dark, violent or otherwise severe elements have something in common: They are both centered on ideas that are not real, but can do harm if someone embraces them as truth. The idol meat promotes belief in false gods, and entertainment fiction presents an imagined reality we're asked to "suspend disbelief" to enjoy. Idol meat, is actually the more severe issue in question since for many, it was involved in the worship of actual false gods, possibly real demons! Entertainment fiction only asks us to temporarily suspend disbelief for the experience being presented, and never assumes that we will actually believe that the events on screen or on the page are real. (Unless you're the confused aliens from "Galaxy Quest", you know that "Star Trek" was not a documentary.) So whatever the Bible has to say about eating meat sacrificed to idols, we can certainly gain a safe "buffer zone" from (maybe even more safe than needed) by applying it to entertainment fiction.
At the time Paul wrote 1st Corinthians, Corinth was a city filled with idol worship. Animals were sacrificed to pagan gods and the leftover meat was often sold in the general marketplace. Jews and the young Christians of Corinth fell into two camps on what to do. One side said that eating the meat was of no harm to anyone, since the gods it was sacrificed to are not real. The other side said that eating the meat was in some way participating in pagan worship. Paul agreed with the thinking of the first group, but not their application of it.
THE PERSONAL EFFECTS OF UNSTERILIZED ENTERTAINMENT
In 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, Paul makes it clear that these pagan gods receiving sacrifices are not real. At best they're fallen angels, (1 Cor. 10:20) but they have no power compared to the one and only God. For this reason, those eating "idol meat" weren't taking part in any kind of worship just by eating the meat. It’s what was happening in their hearts, not their stomachs, that was the real issue.
In verse 7, Paul says that those who think of the idols as real gods, defile themselves when they eat the meat. This idea is supported by Romans 14:14, where Paul says "I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean."
In other words, if I think an action I’m about to take is wrong, even though it isn’t, but I do it anyway, I may have not technically sinned by that specific action, but I DID show a willingness to do something against the will of God, which IS sin. That action became something that made me “unclean” by doing it.
In areas of life where the Bible has no specific teaching or principle, our default should be freedom. In fact, Paul identifies freedom in these areas to be an indication of personal strength. Added rules in these areas are an indication of weakness.
Romans 14:2 “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables.”
In these areas on which the Bible is silent, like entertainment fiction, we need to avoid passing judgment on each other. This is the focus for much of Romans chapter 14. If someone is able to enjoy “unsterilized” entertainment that you believe will cause them to sin, consider for a moment that maybe what you need to admit is that it may cause YOU to sin, but not everyone else. There is a huge, silent element of pride we have to face in ourselves when navigating issues like this. It may be unthinkable for us to admit that we are not strong enough to enjoy some forms of entertainment without it negatively affecting us, while others have no trouble at all.
For example, I'm weak when it comes to watching sad, realistic dramas. I have vowed to never watch “The Notebook” again. (And not for the reasons you might think.) The Alzheimer’s plot thread was extremely sad and depressing to me, and I noticed that for a long time after the movie was over, I had a dread inside me over the thought that me or my wife might suffer a similar fate. I began worrying over the future, something that Jesus taught against. I was susceptible to being manipulated in a negative way by this completely fictional story. So I do what I can to either avoid stories like that or trust in God rather than fixate on those kinds of thoughts.
I’m probably missing some good movies because of my weakness. So I hope to overcome it more as time passes. But that’s where it is for now.
Rather than passing judgment on those who like those kinds of movies and saying “we shouldn’t spend time thinking about the terrible things that might happen to us in life”, I want to try and say something more like “Oh, no thanks. In my experience those kind of movies aren’t good for me.”
Someone also brought to my attention that the Bible teaches that we shouldn't be fearful and suggested that watching scary movies might be in violation of that teaching. Again, horror movies don't expect us to believe that they are real. They are sort of like a practical joke between the producers and the audience that we agree to set ourselves up for when we buy our ticket. I don't know how someone can demonstrate that this kind of "fun fear" or "entertainment fear" is what the Bible is talking about. However, if I stay scared of the dark after the movie is done, I need to either stop watching those kinds of movies or learn to not be afraid of the dark no matter what movies I watch.
THE RELATIONAL EFFECTS OF UNSTERILIZED ENTERTAINMENT
Now let’s look at the other side of the issue. Say you’re a person enjoying “unsterilized” fiction that causes problems for others, but it doesn't cause problems for you. Kind of like some of the Christians in Corinth who were just fine with eating “idol meat”, while others thought it was harmful or wrong.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8 that if someone who is weak (who thinks idols are real gods) sees a Christian eating idol meat and concludes that idol worship and following Christ are compatible, or “not a big deal”, they'll be in a serious mess. They'll either join in and begin to believe things that will take them away from the truth and into any number of harmful lies, or they will silently fume and judge their fellow Christian. So Paul allows for eating "idol meat", but cautions those who understand the truth to not let the freedom their knowledge gives them become a point of confusion, misdirection, or temptation for someone else. (The temptation being to either disregard God or to judge others.)
So we’d be wise to avoid obligating others (who are susceptible) to participate in our “unsterilized” entertainment and to try to get on the same page and strengthen their knowledge and faith so that they will eventually be able to enjoy it as well.
Paul says that "if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, that I might not cause my brother to stumble." (1 Cor. 8:13) This is something to weigh carefully, but not apply rashly. Paul is not making a command here. And by comparing his words to Romans chapter 14, we see that Paul commands Christians to communicate with each other about what they believe is evil and what they believe is not.
Romans 14:15-16 "For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil."
That’s right folks. We have to actually learn how to talk about what we believe, in a humble, even-tempered manner.
In other words, if a Christian friend sees you enjoying “unsterilized” entertainment and says "isn't that evil?", but you believe it’s not, don't just shrug and keep going. This could lead to your friend misunderstanding the truth! They might think that good and evil aren't really important to the Christian life! Or they might internally fume and pass judgment on you. Either will result in sin in their life, and if we love each other as we should, that should concern us.
In reality, what they need to know is why you believe eating your “idol meat” is not evil. Why, in fact, it is a perfectly good thing! (For example, protein is good for the diet and meat is delicious!)
So, is there a “bottom line” or a “filter” we can pass things through that scripture doesn’t specifically comment on, to help us determine if they're good for us or not? Well, it’s not quite that simple, but it would be good for us to look again at 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.”
What kind of things are we “treasuring”? As we follow Christ, and aim to lead lives with the purpose he intends, we have to be willing to examine ourselves and even let others tell us when we're off target. If our lives begin to produce habits that are counter to God’s will, we need to stop and consider what influences we are “treasuring” in our lives that may be feeding into those habits.
Creativity is a characteristic of God that he allows us to imitate and enjoy. But some forms of creativity, if we are susceptible and allow them to, can stimulate anger, lust, selfishness, or wrong thinking. What we produce in our day-to-day lives serves as an indicator of whether or not our “treasure” is influencing us negatively.
This is another reason why the Christian life is not meant to be lived in a vacuum or as social hermits. Flawed though it may be, the local church is what God uses to help us grow into the people he wants us to be. And though not a replacement, other communities of Christians can be helpful as well. (Shameless plug in 3…2…1) So consider this an invitation to come and lurk or strike up conversation in our online forums at spiritblade.net/forums. We’re having a blast geeking out, and being creative. There’s also opportunity there to connect with me and others like you about the really important issues of life and faith.