A Biblical Approach to Pop-Culture Entertainment
By LESLIE LUDY
If I become entangled in any inordinate affection; if things or places or people hold me back from obedience to my Lord, then I know nothing of Calvary love.
– Amy Carmichael
The movie theater lights grew dim as a quiet expectancy fell over the audience. I relaxed in my plush stadium seat and eagerly awaited the opening credits to come onto the screen. It had been a long, emotionally exhausting week, and I was ready to be distracted from my worries for a couple of hours while being entertained by the latest romantic comedy. Eric and I had been married for a few years and were in full-time public ministry — a job that came with many incredible pressures and demands. We had developed the tradition of going to a movie theater every Friday night and watching whatever half-way decent romantic comedy happened to be playing, just to escape from the weights and stresses that we had carried all week long. It felt great to be pulled into a completely different reality for a couple of hours and forget about the many worries we carried on our shoulders.
I grabbed a handful of popcorn as the first preview came on. It was the teaser for an obnoxiously crude movie full of bathroom humor and sexual innuendo. Disgusting words and images filled the screen and the people around me laughed in response. I felt a pang of discomfort in my soul. As a Christian, should I be watching and listening to something so perverse and ungodly? But as quickly as the thought entered my mind, I dismissed it. Surely God knows that I didn’t come here to see this preview, I reasoned. It’s not like I’m choosing to watch that particular movie — I came to see a sweet romantic comedy!
The next preview that came onto the screen was the teaser for a horror movie. I tried to look away as images of violence, darkness, and death filled the screen. But it was impossible to avoid seeing and hearing it. A sense of uneasiness filled my heart as I realized that what I was watching and listening to was evil and demonic. Should I be exposing myself to such darkness?
Once again, I justified my position. I didn’t ask to see all of this! I came to see a completely different movie! God knows I don’t agree with what’s in these previews … surely I’m mature enough to see them and be unaffected spiritually.
Finally, the romantic comedy began, and I quickly put all thoughts of unease out of my mind. The movie was enjoyable, and there was nothing particularly graphic or offensive in it. But as Eric and I drove away from the theater that night, I was unable to shake a the feeling of conviction that hovered over my soul. That movie was the opposite of everything that Eric and I stand for and believe, I reluctantly admitted to myself. It was the opposite of God’s pattern for honor and purity. So why did I so eagerly drink in its message? Why did I delight in its humor and wit?
I was almost afraid to grapple with these questions. Watching movies every week had become a lifeline for me; it was something I needed in order to cope with the many stresses my life held. I knew Eric felt the same way. We couldn’t imagine living life without spending some rehabilitation time on pop-culture entertainment. In addition to our Friday night movie theater tradition, most of our “down time” at home involved watching DVDs or renting television dramas and comedies. In many ways, this form of entertainment had become something we lived for. Of course, we wouldn’t have said that out loud. We honestly believed that God alone was what we were living for. As Christian leaders, our exhortation to other believers was that Jesus should be our everything, our “All in all,” and the One we built our lives around. But now I found myself wondering — does my daily life truly reflect that principle?
During the early years of my relationship with Christ, I had understood what it meant to be consecrated to Him. Instead of spending time on frivolity, I had spent time in prayer and in the Word of God. Instead of chasing after popularity, I had learned how to put others first and serve those in need. In our pre-marriage days, Eric and I had spent the majority of our time on eternal things, not temporal ones. We weren’t consumed with pop-culture, but with learning more about God and growing closer to Him. We’d studied Christian biographies and gleaned wisdom from the lives of great men and women who had gone before us. Scripture was alive and powerful. Our spiritual fire had burned bright and strong.
But as we grew older and became Christian influencers, something had begun to subtly change. Public ministry was grueling. We felt entitled to a break from being in “ministry leader mode” all the time, and believed it was our responsibility to stay in touch with the culture by being “clued in” to society’s trends in music, media, and professional sports. We felt we were spiritually mature enough to separate the good from the bad. We didn’t think a few worldly pastimes would harm us, as long as we were careful to put reasonable boundaries around what we listened to and watched.
The Subtlety of Compromise
At first, we had fairly high standards for which movies and shows we would watch — only G-rated and a small handful of PG-rated. But there were only so many family-friendly movies out there, and we had seen them all several times. So we lowered our standard to include PG-13 and even some R-rated movies, as long as there wasn’t anything “really bad” in them, such as graphic sexual content. We excused a bit of profanity, crudeness, sensuality, and violence here and there. After all, we reasoned, it was still a lot better than what most people were watching.
Soon, ungodly messages, images, and attitudes no longer bothered us like they used to. But because the desensitization happened so gradually, we didn’t even notice that we were growing spiritually dull. Spending so much time in front of movies and TV paved the way for other shallow, worldly pastimes to enter into my life. Trivial activities began to consume much of my free time. Instead of reading my Bible or inspiring Christian books, I often turned to novels and magazines. Instead of cultivating meaningful relationships with others, I wasted hours surfing the Internet for the latest fashion trends and beauty tips. Instead of taking time for personal worship or Scripture meditations, I downloaded the latest music from iTunes. Though I was in full-time ministry, I became more in tune with pop-culture than with the Word of God.
None of the Christian leaders I knew would have expressed concern over these activities. They themselves regularly participated in the same things. In fact, more than one respected Christian had advised Eric and I to engage in these pastimes as a way to decompress from the pressures of being in public ministry.
“You can’t be spiritual all the time,” one pastor friend had told us, “otherwise you’ll just burn yourself out.”
Those seemed like wise words. We lived a demanding life. What was wrong with escaping every now and then, and enjoying the pleasures of pop-culture for a while (within reasonable Christian boundaries, of course)? But as I evaluated our lifestyle in light of the set-apartness and spiritual passion we’d once had, I knew I had lost something sacred. I still believed all the same things, but my spiritual fire had faded to a flicker. I had lost my hunger for more of God. I no longer had a sense of closeness to Christ. I had to admit that I would rather spend an evening curled up on the couch in front of the TV than on my knees in prayer or studying God’s Word. I felt more at home surfing the Internet for new fashion trends than searching the Word of God for priceless nuggets of truth. And I was far more inclined to open a Grisham novel than an inspiring Christian biography.
The more comfortable I had become with the world’s messages, the easier it had become to allow subtle sins into my life. Self-pity, laziness, and selfishness had become familiar companions, along with many other “small” compromises. And because they had crept in gradually, it was easy to excuse them and allow them to remain.
THE MORE COMFORTABLE I HAD BECOME WITH THE WORLD’S MESSAGES, THE EASIER IT HAD BECOME TO ALLOW SUBTLE SINS INTO MY LIFE
I felt deeply convicted and ashamed as I realized how far from center I had strayed, even as a Christian leader. I had traded spiritual passion for mediocrity. I was only loving Christ with part of my heart, rather than with my entire being.
Without even realizing it, I had exchanged an eternal focus for a temporal one. With my mouth, I proclaimed that the things of God were most important to me. But with my time and daily choices, I was placing much higher value on the things of the world.
Seeking an Undivided Heart
God’s message to my soul was unmistakable: “Remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first…” (Rev. 2:5 NASB). He was asking me to exchange mediocrity, compromise, and worldliness for something infinitely more beautiful and fulfilling — unhindered fellowship with Jesus Christ. He was reminding me of the consecrated, Christ-centered life I was called to live. He was ready to purify me from the inside out and ignite my spiritual fire once again.
The words of Psalm 86:11 gripped my soul: “Give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name” (NIV).
With a bit of fear and trembling, I dared to ask God for an undivided heart. In all honesty, I was afraid of what that might mean. I had become so entangled in “inordinate affections” toward pop-culture entertainment that it was hard to imagine purging this addiction from my life. But more than anything, I wanted the close, unhindered walk with Him that I used to have.
I read the following words in a book by Amy Carmichael and knew they expressed exactly what God wanted to do in my life: “Comrades in this solemn fight … let us settle it as something that cannot be shaken: we are here to live holy, loving, lowly lives. We cannot do this unless we walk very, very close to our Lord Jesus. Anything that would hinder us from the closest walk possible to us till we see Him face to face is not for us.”
Over the following months and into the next couple years, a profound transformation took place within my soul. Eric was walking through a similar awakening, and we began to talk for hours about what God was doing within each of us. We repented of the worldliness and compromise we’d yielded to. We allowed God’s Spirit to shine His searchlight deep within our souls and purge away the dross of selfishness and sinful habits. We became broken over our sin and hungry for His righteousness. The worldly pastimes that had once seemed so important now held no attraction to either of us. We pressed into God with more fervency, even more than in the early days of our conversions.
As I drew near to God, He drew near to me. Trivial pastimes and pop-culture distractions were no longer attractive as I experienced the sweet presence of Jesus. I began to wonder how I ever could have sought satisfaction in anything outside of Him. Eric and I exchanged our movie nights for powerful times of prayer. Instead of mindlessly surfing the Internet during our spare time, we began studying Scripture and reading inspiring Christian biographies as we had done earlier in our marriage. We spent a great deal of time talking about what God was doing in our hearts and what we were discovering in His Word. Our lives became centered around eternal things once more.
AS I DREW NEAR TO GOD, HE DREW NEAR TO ME
Something amazing happened as I began to spend my time on Christ-centered activities instead of frivolous ones. Jesus became my All in all, not just in theory but in reality. My relationship with Him began to satisfy all my needs. At the end of a long week of ministry, I no longer craved a mind-escape. I discovered that time with Jesus was the only thing that could refresh my soul. Prayer and time in God’s Word gave me renewed energy and strength unlike movie marathons had ever done. Temporal pastimes seemed meaningless compared to time spent on His priorities.
I began to experience the words of Psalm 16:11, “In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” By seeking pleasure through pop-culture preoccupations, I had settled for a counterfeit peace and temporary joy. But as I built my life and my time around the eternal instead of the temporal, I discovered a true peace and lasting joy. My life has never been the same since.
It’s not that I’ve never watched a movie or read a novel since that season of shifting my priorities. But my approach is far different than it used to be. I’ve learned to not turn to worldly entertainment to find the rest, joy, peace, rejuvenation, and fulfillment my soul needs. I have come to realize that the only place where I can find those things is at the feet of Jesus. If I turn elsewhere for comfort, I’m settling for a cheap counterfeit of the soul-level satisfaction that Jesus desires to give me.
The code by which I now evaluate my entertainment choices is simple: If it isn’t edifying my soul or leading me closer to Christ in some way, it doesn’t belong in my life; and if I’m finding my satisfaction in this activity instead of Christ, it doesn’t belong in my life.
Exposing the Counterfeit
Leonard Ravenhill once observed that American Christians have settled for a counterfeit peace and a counterfeit joy, and their names are Entertainment and Professional Sports. As American Christians, it often seems perfectly normal for us to build our lives around worldly entertainment; to let movies, TV, music, magazines, novels, social media, and professional sports consume the vast majority of our free time. But when we become entangled with the inordinate affections of our culture, it is impossible for us to seek Jesus Christ with an undivided heart. God makes it clear that we cannot love both Him and the things of this world:
Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (Jas. 4:4).
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — is not of the Father but is of the world (1 Jn. 2:15-16).
Spend five minutes watching a modern TV show or a series of commercials and you realize that worldly entertainment is built upon the Gospel-choking pitfalls warned against in Scripture — the lust of the flesh (“Here’s a new way to indulge your physical cravings!”), the lust of the eyes (“Look at this beautiful new car; don’t you want one?”), and the pride of life (“It’s all about ME!”).
Yet we constantly justify our preoccupation with these activities, thinking that we are somehow immune to God’s warnings against them because we are mature enough to separate the garbage from the good. We come up with wise-sounding excuses such as, “God knows I don’t agree with everything in this movie. I’ll just ignore the immorality and enjoy the amazing artistry of this film.” Or, “I have to watch TV or else I won’t be in tune with where the culture is at.” Or, “My friends and family members all build their lives around these activities, and participating with them is the only way I can show my love to them.”
When we reason this way, we end up corrupting our hearts and minds by idolizing our “right” to be entertained and catered to by pop-culture. We often start to idolize the icons of the world — professional athletes, movie and TV stars, musicians, and so on. A lot of us would rather spend an hour backstage with our favorite musician than an hour sitting at the feet of Jesus. We buy into the larger-than-life image that celebrities exude, and think of them as “gods” deserving of our devoted affection and special attention. Sadly, we often care far more about their opinions than we do about God’s.
When it comes to worldly entertainment, we must be extra guarded against idolatry, both toward becoming addicted to pop-culture and in becoming enamored with worldly icons and celebrities. We must learn to view the shallow, ungodly attractions of this world the way God sees them — as worthless, meaningless, and empty. No matter how much glitz and artistry Hollywood may use to dazzle our senses and draw our attention, if it does not glorify God and draw us closer to Him, it is dangerous to our souls. May our attitudes toward pop-culture attractions echo that of the Psalmist when he said, “Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things, And revive me in Your way” (Ps. 119:37).
It might seem that living a life that is not built around worldly entertainment would be dull, or that not watching TV regularly and following everything that happens on social media would cause you to become out of touch with the culture and unable to impact the world for Christ. But I have discovered that the opposite is true. Once I removed my entanglement with this “inordinate affection,” I suddenly had time to pursue Christ with all my heart; I became free to live the exciting adventure He had planned for me each day. And once I stopped assaulting my spiritual senses with the ungodly messages of the culture, I became much more in tune with the voice of God’s Spirit and far more equipped to make a lasting impact on the world around me.
I BECAME FREE TO LIVE THE EXCITING ADVENTURE THAT HE HAD PLANNED FOR ME
If you desire an undivided heart toward Christ and deeper intimacy with Him, I encourage you to prayerfully consider any areas of entertainment that have become unhealthy addictions in your life such as music, movies, social media, TV shows, sports, novels, and so on. Ask God to show you what activities need to be removed from your life, and what activities might need to be put in their proper place. (For instance, watching an edifying movie every once in a while, instead of watching movies two or three nights a week.) Ask Him for the grace to change your habits in order to be consecrated to Him in this area of your life. Make these decisions out of love for Him, not out of legalism, obligation, or a self-righteous “statement” toward other Christians in your life who might not share your same standards.
Remember, this life is but a breath (see Psalm 39:5). In light of eternity, what will matter more … whether you saw all the latest Hollywood productions, or whether you kept your eyes fixed solely upon the unmatched glory, loveliness, and majesty of Jesus?
Once you exchange the cheap counterfeits of this world for what is real, lasting, and eternal — you’ll never look back. In His presence is the fullness of joy!