Christian Worldview: The Christian & the Media
by Michael Penfold
British journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990), writing before the dawn of the internet age, observed that, “The media in general, and TV in particular, and BBC television especially, are incomparably the greatest single influence in our [British] society today, exerted at all social, economic, and cultural levels. The influence, I should add, is, in my opinion, largely exerted irresponsibly, arbitrarily, and without reference to any moral, or intellectual, still less spiritual, guidelines whatsoever.” One wonders what he would say today, now that the average teenager’s non-school screen time exceeds 50 hours a week. Is it any wonder, when cable TV and the internet offer them a near infinite number of movies, music tracks, games, and social networking updates 24 hours a day?
The 20th century technology has evolved into 21st century “technopoly,” where technology dominates one’s life. Concerned observers have highlighted this new disease’s numerous harmful side effects, from shortened attention spans and moral corruption to texter’s thumb. Some are claiming that the generational shift from the script to the screen – from a written to a visual culture – is actually changing the way we think, read, and remember. The fear is that our brains are being rewired. Seemingly, neurons that fire together wire together. Whatever the brain does repeatedly and frequently, it gets good at and becomes addicted to.
Until the latter half of the 20th century, parents used to slowly build up their children’s cognitive abilities by giving them building blocks to play with, singing nursery rhymes with them, and reading story books to them. Today’s parents allow their children’s brains – from their very earliest years – to be negatively impacted by the overwhelming power of the widest screen they can afford. At 100 or more frames per second, the frenetically paced, ever-changing, high definition, technicolor, 4D, surround sound, music-accompanied content of movies and video games assaults the minds of two-year-olds and ruins them for life. Compared to the widescreen’s delights, reality seems dull, books are boring, and focused learning becomes difficult.
During the second half of the 20th century, as our word-based culture gave way to an image-based culture, Western civilization took a giant leap backwards. The technological advance did not represent real intellectual progress for society as a whole. Neil Postman rightly criticizes the assumption that “a new medium is merely an extension or amplification of an older one; that a [car] for example, is only a fast horse, or an electric light a powerful candle. To make such a mistake … is to misconstrue entirely how television redefines the meaning of public discourse. Television does not extend or amplify literate culture. It attacks it. If television extends anything, it is of a tradition begun by the telegraph and photograph in the mid-nineteenth century, not the printing press in the fifteenth.”
Then there’s the issue of distraction. A new e-mail message announces its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. A few seconds later, our feed reader tells us that one of our favorite bloggers has uploaded a new post. A moment after that, our mobile phone plays the ringtone that signals an incoming text message. Simultaneously, a Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter alert blinks on the screen. In addition to everything flowing through the web, we also have immediate access to all the other software programs running on our computers – they, too, compete for a piece of our mind. Smartphones have only served to make the problem of distraction exponentially worse.
On the back cover of Maggie Jackson’s acclaimed book Distracted – The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age we are asked: “How did we get to the point where we keep one eye on our [iPhone] and one eye on our spouse? We can contact millions of people worldwide, so why is it hard to schedule a simple family dinner together? How did we get to the point where we tweet on holiday, text during family dinners, read e-mails during meetings and classes, and learn about our spouse’s day from Facebook?”
Technopoly has thrown up a number of ironies. What was meant to be a tool for becoming more clever and wiser has, for the most part, had the opposite effect. The internet is making young people increasingly ignorant about almost everything serious. What should be a time saver has simultaneously become the world’s biggest time waster. Instead of looking at the news as a way of discovering important events, we’ve ended up looking at endless “cat videos.” We’re connected to hundreds of friends on Facebook, but have become disconnected from the real world. We’ve “plugged in and tuned out.” Instead of learning about others, we use media to promote ourselves. Narcissism – excessive absorption with self – has flourished through the internet. As advertising mingles with news content across modern media, the seriousness of life has also been trivialized: “We’ll be right back to the crisis in the Middle East after a word from Burger King.”
Aldous Huxley accurately predicted much of this fallout in his 1931 novel Brave New World. Neil Postman makes a thought-provoking comparison between Huxley’s work and George Orwell’s book 1984 (written in 1949), novels that predicted equally bleak but very different futures. “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.”
A picture is worth a thousand words. What makes the screen so desirable and addictive? Fast moving, rapidly changing HD color images are going to win hands down against boring small black print on a white page any time. Viewing is less taxing than reading. A picture is worth a thousand words. A moving picture is worth a million.
Satan is well aware of the power of the visual. How did he tempt Eve in the garden of Eden? “When she saw that the tree … was pleasant to the eyes … she took of the fruit” (Gen 3:6). Note the progression: saw, pleasant, took. How did Satan try to tempt Jesus Christ? He gave Him a vision of the glory of the world’s beautiful kingdoms. If Christ would just worship Satan, He could take the kingdoms for Himself (Luke 4:5-7). How does Satan work today? Through the “lust of the eyes,” he tempts people with the attractive delights of “this world”(1John 2:16). Lust, when it has conceived, brings forth sin (James 1:15).
This is how modern advertising works. Paul Mazur, a Lehman Brothers Wall Street banker from the 1930’s said, “We must shift America from a needs, to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” In the documentary series The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis explains how American citizens were deliberately turned into consumers by the introduction of Freudian psychology into advertising. How does Apple sell its iPhones and Macs? The seductively portrayed product design is intended to solicit a “Wow, how cool is that! I have to have one!” from its open-mouthed customers. If this kind of power is wielded by oft-repeated, 30-second-advertisements, what influence must wall-to-wall music video be having? Bob Pittman, founder of MTV, said: “The strongest appeal you can make is emotionally. If you can get their emotions going, make them forget their logic, you’ve got them. We don’t shoot for the 14 -year-olds at MTV, we own them.”
The populations of 21st-century western liberal democracies view themselves as free agents. Compared with their forefathers, who were slaves to the Church, the Monarchy, and to the cultural traditions of the patriarchal, hierarchical societies of old, Generation Xers, Yers and Zers are free. Really? The worldwide 50-hours-a-week-addiction to the screen – movies, games, social media, music, sport, pornography – is surely the worst case of mass enslavement in world history. This captivity is all the more terrible because the chains are invisible to the slave. Indeed, the slave thinks he is free. What a devastatingly damning deception!
Surrounded by a corrupt enslaving culture, what should Christians be doing? Three basic options have been suggested:
1. Conform to culture and go with the flow
Is this what the Bible had in mind when it warned: “Love not the world” (1 John 2:15) and, “Be not conformed to the world” (Rom 12:2)? Clearly not.
2. Convert culture
Can we not Christianize culture and turn it into a force for good? No. This world system, the culture all around us, which grew up out of our first parents’ disobedience and rebellion in the Garden of Eden, has been judged and condemned by God as a result of the rejection and crucifixion of Christ (John 12:31). Ours is not to rearrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Though Christians are certainly called upon to be “salt and light” as they bear testimony to their Lord in a world that rejects Him, Christians have not been given the mandate to disinfect the dunghill of the world’s culture. Individuals may be redeemed and delivered from this present evil age (Gal 1:4), but the system, which is under the control of the “god of this age,” Satan, is irredeemably “under judgment,” awaiting its final destruction at the return of Christ.
3. Confront culture
Well-taught Christians from the first century onwards have been aware that their task is to swim against the tide. Our task is to be different to the world. To come out and be separate from it (2Cor 6:17), to walk a godly path in the midst of ungodliness. This unavoidably means making hard choices, especially in the realm of media. So, let’s be intensely practical and ask, for example, if Christians should engage in movie watching – one of our culture’s major preoccupations? Consider the following four issues.
The vast majority of Hollywood, Bollywood, and the rest of the film industry’s content is sprinkled, if not saturated, with infidelity, impurity, vulgarity, violence, and blasphemy. Why? Sensationalism gets noticed; sex sells. So, the envelope has to be constantly pushed, and the ratings have to keep slipping. Content for 12-year-olds is now off the scale of Biblical sanctification. “Oh, I can handle it. It doesn’t affect me.” Really? Do Downton Abbey and Titanic’s immoral scenes not defile their viewers? Psalm 101:3 says “I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes.”
Perhaps even more dangerous than the directly defiling content in movies is the worldview being subtly pushed through their story lines. Bearing in mind that 86% of Hollywood directors seldom or never go to church, what kind of philosophy will their movies be likely to promote? The briefest of research will uncover the corrosive anti-Christian mindset of the world’s leading movie producers. James Cameron promotes shamanism in Avatar. Quentin Tarantino pushes postmodernism and a world without absolutes in Pulp Fiction. George Lucas is less than subtle in his depiction of a New age ‘force’ in Star Wars. Occult messages and themes permeate everything from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones. The philosophy of existentialism lies at the heart of a host of modern movies.
Though movie audiences may not have studied or even heard of these potent philosophical ideas, they are nonetheless being subliminally brainwashed into accepting them. In a speech at the USC Entertainment Law Symposium in 1988, British film producer Baron Puttnam (Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields, The Mission), perceptively reminisced about his own childhood, growing up in the United Kingdom but watching American movies: “Movies are powerful. Good or bad, they tinker around inside your brain. They steal up on you in the darkness of the cinema to form or confirm social attitudes … . To an almost alarming degree, our political and emotional responses rest for their health in the quality and integrity of the present and future generation of film and television creators … . I remain entirely convinced of the law of cause and effect. I also firmly suggest that the images of the filmmaker are responsible, frighteningly responsible, for the attitudes and behavior of the young and overly impressionable.” Whether Christian viewers realize it or not, Hollywood will always tend to weaken their understanding and appreciation of holiness, of separation, and of Biblical truth and authority.
The Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, gives clear warnings to God’s people about “separation from the world.” Paul, in his letter to the Ephesian church, describes the immoral and idolatrous citizens of the Roman Empire and tells Christians not to associate with them (Eph 5:7-12). Consider the associations Christians enter into when watching movies. Sir David Frost, OBE (1939-2013), an English journalist and media personality, once humorously but perceptively remarked that “Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your house.” Thus, though the leading actors and directors of our generation need to hear the gospel and are part of a world that God has loved to the point of giving His Son to die for, we must ever remember that they are the Canaanites of the 21st century and should have no place in the affections of the Christian.
Professional acting is not an honorable profession, looked at from the Bible’s perspective. Why? Because pretending to be what one is not, assuming the counterfeit persona of a minister of religion one day and of a serial rapist the next – and making big bucks out of it – is clearly not a noble, respectable or principled way of making a living. Addressing the United Nations in September 2014, leading Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio said bluntly, “I pretend for a living.”
The entertainment, celebrity, sport, music and movie culture of the world has nothing to offer the Christian. It’s time for Christians to end their adulterous love affair with Hollywood and serve MTV, Netflix, and HBO with a bill of divorcement. A clear break is required (James 4:4). It is time to stand up and be counted, to stop pretending “It doesn’t affect me.”
The following principles from the Word of God will provide guidance for living out a Biblical separated walk with God in the midst of a confusing, corrupting, and compromising culture. As you consider your media choices ask yourself:
1. Is there any glory for God in it? (1Cor 10:31)
2. Does it grieve the Holy Spirit? (Eph 4:30)
3. Is it a good use of my time? (Eph 5:16)
4. Does it please the Lord? (Heb 11:5)
5. Is it worldly? (1John 2:15-17, James 4:4)
6. Is it a good example? (1Tim 4:12)
7. What impression does my involvement with it give to the world? (2Sam 12:14, Rom 2:24)
May each reader be encouraged to develop and maintain the godly dedication and wisdom needed to apply these Biblical principles consistently in the battle with the world’s supremely challenging, rapidly evolving, and ever deteriorating media culture, for His glory.