When I was ten, my friend told me he’d seen a hilarious movie with his older brother, and that we should rent it to watch together. The sheer fact that it was rated R was enough to convince me. So I asked my mum if she could rent the movie for me, with the convincing line that “my friends had watched it”. I’m not sure whether it was the pressure of wanting to be as cool as the other mums, or whether she never checked the rating, but to my surprise she came home that day and handed me the movie.
Bursting with excitement, I invited all my friends from school over for a sleepover. We gathered around the TV, popcorn in hand, and listened to expletive after expletive, most of which I had never heard before. The next day, my buddies and I told all the other kids the crude jokes we had heard—and from that moment onwards swearing and crude jokes became a regular part of my vocabulary.
I tell this story because I think it illustrates the remarkable influence entertainment can have on us without us even realizing. We love movies and music and books, but as western culture moves further and further from its Christian foundations, the entertainment we engage in is becoming more and more hostile towards the holiness of God. As Christians, we need to think about how we can apply discernment to the media we engage in so that we remain holy and distinct, and that our gospel proclamation isn’t undermined by our worldliness.
When I talk about this need for discernment, the first reaction I hear from Christians is often something like: “Hang on! All entertainment has sin in it. Are you telling me that we should not enjoy anything? That is just unrealistic.” The same people often then appeal to a right rejection of legalism. Legalism is the enforcement of prohibitions that are not derived from the Bible or do not reflect the grace God has shown us in Christ. Legalistic thinking leads to one of three outcomes: pride as we look down on others for failing our standards; guilt because we fail to live up to those standards; or hypocrisy because we tell others to adhere to standards while secretly breaking them ourselves. Legalism fails to understand God’s grace in that our relationship with God is eternally secured through trusting the person and work of Christ on our behalf, not on any merit of our own.
The flip side of legalism is licentiousness. The attitude of many Christians I talk to seems to be essentially: “I’ve been saved by grace therefore it doesn’t matter what movies I watch or what music I listen to”. However, Paul wrote:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Rom 6:1-2)
In giving ourselves over to a lifestyle that enjoys what is sinful, we are in danger of forgetting that Christ died so that we might not be ruled by sin’s power anymore. Paul exhorts us, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). We are not to be passively conformed by the world’s standards or narratives, but we are to be actively transformed as our minds are renewed by the gospel, so that we test and discern what we choose to be entertained by, and why. This is the promise of the new covenant: new hearts that choose to obey God and shun evil (Ezek 36:26-32; Jer 31:33).
It is important to discern the world view that undergirds entertainment so that we don’t unwittingly adopt its values. In Romans 1:32, the chief expression of mankind’s rejection of God is seen in their normalizing of sin as they approve of those who practice the very things for which they know God's judgement is due. While most entertainment comes from a non-Christian world view, not all entertainment seeks to celebrate and normalize sin. For example, a book may portray an atheistic world view and at the same time promote themes that God’s law likewise esteems, such as justice or forgiveness or monogamy. However, movies like Fifty Shades of Grey or Deadpool, shows like Game of Thrones, Family Guy and Rick and Morty, and video games like Grand Theft Auto 5 celebrate and normalize sin so strongly and overtly that it would be almost impossible to enjoy them without delighting in sin. If God’s “heart delights in good and hates evil” how can a Christian love God and at the same time enjoy watching something that celebrates what God hates?1 To encourage others not to watch such things is not legalistic, but is the application of wisdom for those who desire to guard their heart (Prov 4:23).
In 1 John 2:15, John warns us:
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.
Here we see the real danger of thinking too lightly of what we engage in. If we care so little about God’s law that we are led to love this world, could it be that we have not truly grasped the gospel? A genuine love of God means to “abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Rom 12:9 cf. 2 Thess 2:12). For we can be assured that "a crucified Saviour will never be content to have a self-pleasing, self-indulging, worldly-minded people".2
While we must seek to build rapport with non-Christians, we should be careful to do this in such a way that we do not love, approve, or celebrate what the world loves but rather, "cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God" (2 Cor 7:1). If we become just like the world then we undermine our proclamation of the very gospel that we have been sent to preach. As DL Moody once wrote, “The place for the ship is in the sea, but God help the ship if the sea gets into it”.3 That’s why Christ calls us to obedience in every aspect of our lives, that we might be cleansed from our sin and made useful to our master who bought us, our lives adorning the gospel that rescues people from this present evil age (2 Tim 2:21; 1 Cor 6:20; Gal 1:4).
Do you think you’re more likely to fall into the trap of licentiousness (“It doesn’t matter what I watch or I listen to, I’m still saved”) or legalism (“If I watch or listen to anything made by non-Christians then I’m not saved”)? Whichever it might be, the first step is to turn to God in prayer, acknowledging that it is Christ’s sacrifice that saved you and his goodness that he wants you to enjoy. Ask God for forgiveness for trivializing or distorting his word and his grace, and ask him to make you like David, someone after God’s own heart, aiming to please him in every aspect of your life (1 Sam 13:14; 2 Cor 5:9). Tell a Christian friend to keep you accountable about what you need to avoid in the future.
As you do this, may God help you to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:22-24).
1. Cited in C Morgan, Jonathan Edwards And Hell, Mentor, Fearn, 2004, p. 116.↩
2. JC Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Luke, Vol. 1., Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 2012, p 237.↩
3. Cited in T Tchividjian, Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different, Multnomah Books, Colorado Springs, 2012, p. 82.↩