What Not to Watch

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What Not to Watch

We've heard of "what not to wear."  What about, "What not to watch?"

An attender at our church emailed me the following:

Recently, myself and some people close to me have been wondering what the Bible says about what is OK to watch or read as entertainment.  These questions stem from a couple of different things.
First, TV shows like Dexter on Showtime and True Blood on HBO that center around topics and ideas that are clearly non-Christian.  In Dexter, the main character is a forensic scientist that kills serial killers.  True Blood is a show about vampires, so there are the usual themes of lust, blood, and murder.  If you nitpicked the themes of TV shows, you would probably be hard-pressed to find even a handful that do not center around one of these themes.
Second, the future release of a film which disturbs me, entitled Antichrist.  The film appears to be after some audience shock value, but nonetheless it poses the question of would it be OK for a Christian to view such a film?
Does the Bible give us any information regarding these questions, or can you offer any guidance?
I find myself watching a movie or reading a book sometimes, and asking myself, "Is it OK to be entertained by these things?"

Great  question.  So what does the Bible say about all of this?

First, the Bible tells us that we should be careful what we ingest.  In the 101st Psalm, the Bible says:  "I will set no worthless thing before my eyes..."
(Psalm 101:3a, NASB).

 "Vile thing" (which is the way the NIV translates the Hebrew) is a difficult translation.  There is little doubt that it is associated with evil, but its meaning is obscure.  It suggests associating yourself with the netherworld (cf. Canaanite mythology), and the goal is to steer clear of any such associations.  It goes beyond avoiding evil, and intimates setting before our eyes something that draws us into evil, or brings evil into our lives in ways that should have been avoided.  Calvin translated it as, "I will not set a wicked thing before my eyes."  Leslie C. Allen's translation is: "I have set before my eyes no wicked purpose."  Willem A. Vangerem translates it as "I will set before my eyes no vile thing." 

Let's offer a cultural translation:  I will set before my eyes nothing that is obviously evil for evil's sake, or cultivates evil in my heart.  Or as Theodoret of Cyr wrote in the early centuries of the Christian movement on this verse, "I walked in the innocence of my heart in my house."

The upcoming release of Antichrist by Lars von Trier has raised the question of "what not to watch" for more than just Christians.  When passed as fit for general consumption by the British Board of Film Classification, an article in London's Daily Mail ran the headline:  "What DOES it takes for a film to get banned these days?"  The film plumbs grotesque new depths of sexual explicitness, excruciating violence and degradation, causing even the most mainstream of critics to wonder if there is a line of decency that should not be crossed.  In the article, Christopher Hart writes

"You do not need to see Lars von Trier's Antichrist …to know how revolting it is.  I haven't seen it myself, nor shall I - and I speak as a broad-minded arts critic, strongly libertarian in tendency.  But merely reading about Antichrist is stomach-churning, and enough to form a judgment.  As Ernest Hemingway said of obscenity in a justifiably disgusting image, you don't need to eat a whole bowl of scabs to know they're scabs."

Many times this is an easy assessment, such as rejecting pornography, or even mainstream offerings such as Zack and Miri Make a Porno.  And I agree with Christopher Hart - I do not intend to watch Antichrist.  But what of significant films such as The Reader, or The Wrestler, both filled with nudity and sexual situations?  What of the violence present in such valued films as Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan?  Or, as the email asked, critically-acclaimed cable shows as True Blood or Dexter?  Like the Bible itself, evil is often presented in view of a larger story of redemption.

So what to watch?   The Psalmist suggests that it is a question of our motivation for watching certain things, coupled with what it does to our souls.  If our motivation is not what it should be, it would not be wise to watch; if it affects us in evil ways, opening our hearts and minds to things that we have no business opening them to, then it is clearly wrong.  If it has no redeeming value, but exposes us to much that is not, why would we spend time with our one and only life on such things?  Which means this is a deeply spiritual issue that must be resolved by each person individually through prayer and reflection, and often on a case-by-case basis. 

I have often felt the Holy Spirit prompt me, when wanting to watch something on TV, through Netflix or in a theater, whether my purpose was worthwhile or wicked.  What is my heart's intent?  That is, without a doubt, one of the most revealing of questions.  We have a choice to make about what we take into our hearts and minds.  Often that choice depends less on a hard and fast biblical rule than it does our life of prayer, and our sense of whether viewing something will help us speak the Kingdom of God into the world.  And there is much I watch, and read, and listen to, for that very reason - it helps me speak into the world for the sake of the Kingdom.

But there is a second biblical idea, found in the writings of the apostle Paul in the book of Philippians:  "...this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best" (Philippians 1:9-10, NIV). 

The Bible would encourage us to think carefully and deeply about whatever it is that we do end up watching.  Far too often we simply allow ourselves to absorb media messages without thought, much less critique.  We are intellectually and spiritually passive when we should be intensely active.  In talking with a group of women about the movie He's Just Not That into You, we agreed it was cute.  But then I pressed them on the story, which was deeply vacuous.  Not a single decision by a major character was satisfying, much less God-honoring.  Upon reflection, they agreed.  But that is the key - to learn to discern.  This is why watching something for mere entertainment is never a reason to watch; media always affects, always presents, always engages; which means we must never be passive in our engagement.  And this goes beyond film; there is as much rank evil in a 90-second commercial break during a football game as there is in the latest Seth Rogen farce.  But do we see it?

So what not to watch?  We are told to set no worthless thing before our eyes; the larger question is whether we know what is truly worthless.


John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Vol. IV (Baker Books), p. 89.

Leslie C. Allen, Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms 101-150 (v. 21), p. 1.

The Expositor's Bible Commentary, "Psalms," p. 745.

Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament VIII, p. 206.

Christopher Hart, "What DOES it take for a film to get banned these days," MailOnline, 20th July 2009, www.dailymail.co.uk.  Direct link (if still active):  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1200742/CHRISTOPHER-HART-What-DOES-film-banned-days.html

What Not to Watch