“You are what you eat.”
It’s an adage that contains a lot of truth. No doubt many Christians could stand to think more about what they eat, but Christians could also stand to think more about the entertainment they consume. For many Christians, entertainment has become an activity that is essentially thoughtless. (After all, aren’t we looking for a break from the physical and mental stress of work?)
We might recognize that we shouldn’t spend an inordinate amount of time on entertainment, but as long as we’re not doing anything that’s outright immoral, what does it really matter how we entertain ourselves? The morality question is itself part of the rub. But when Christians argue about whether it is immoral to watch a particular movie or listen to such and such a song, they often miss a bigger picture of the good, the bad, and the ugly in our entertainment choices.
The Bigger Picture
Entertainment is a form of recreation. Adam and Eve were created to work, but they weren’t supposed to work 24/7, and neither should we. Israel’s calendar included rhythms of work and rest as well as times of celebration and feasting. As image bearers of God, recreation provides an opportunity to explore our God-given ability to create and delight and enjoy the good world He has created.
Interestingly, early cultures apparently had differing and complementary strengths—Genesis 4:20-22 speaks of some who raised livestock while others seemed to specialize in music or craftsmanship. It’s not a stretch to imagine that our heritage and talents and personalities might also be reflected in the forms of recreation we most enjoy. We aren’t all required to be equally entertained by bulky athletes who can put a leather ball through a round hoop, nor are we all required to loathe a large woman singing in a high-pitched voice in a language we don’t understand. Rather than fight excessively for our own entertainment preferences, we should marvel at the diversity of delights and enjoyments produced and experienced by image bearers of God.
But as with all the good in creation, the fall intruded and still persists in every area of our lives, including our entertainment values. We think too highly of ourselves if we think we can plunder the Egyptians without eventually being tempted with the desire to return to Egypt. When we immerse ourselves in the entertainment ecosystem of a culture that largely stands against Christ, we will become too adapted to a way of life that finds a comfortable home in the present age—an age that is passing away.
If I was an unbeliever who had several Christian friends who were adoringly conversant in every popular Netflix series, I might not think much about it one way or the other. But if those same friends lamented how much they felt like “pilgrims” and “strangers” in this world in the wake of a Supreme Court decision, I wouldn’t find such claims convicting—I would find them highly entertaining!
The problem is not that we visit the movie theater. The problem is that we feel more at home in the movie theater than we do with the gathered church on Sunday. The problem is not that we have Taylor Swift on a guilty pleasures playlist. The problem is that when a relationship crumbles, our gut instinct is not to turn to the Psalms, which are inspired by the Holy Spirit (the same Spirit that we claim is dwelling inside of us), but rather we try to quiet our souls by turning to a pop singer whose own relationship history would suggest that she is not the wisest and most reliable counselor.
When we become obsessed with aping the entertainment appetites of the world, we shrink our own souls and deface the beauty of the bride of Christ. It’s very disconcerting to hear a young boy speak with admiration about something obscene he has watched, using course language that he hardly understands. But you also recognize what’s behind the curtain—that boy has heard that kind of language associated with certain images, and he wants the approval and acceptance of those who speak that way. And so he begins to singe his entertainment palette, even though he doesn’t initially find such fare particularly rejuvenating.
The same rationale explains why college students can exhibit such massive groupthink when it comes to the appraisal of leisure activities, television shows, and coffee shops. No one wants to be the first one to say that a popular coffee shop is dreary and dreadfully macabre, and no one wants to be the first person on campus to petition for a crochet club. Unfortunately, we never completely grow out of the impulse to let the world set our entertainment agenda.
When a Christian businessman spends time hanging out with his unbelieving colleagues after work (not a bad thing), he should obviously avoid doing and saying things that are explicitly unbiblical. However, the subtler danger is that he may begin to tolerate and, eventually, adopt what the others think and say about the weariness and boredom of family life. And if you participate in an unbelieving entertainment system long enough and mindlessly enough, you will eventually adopt the mindset and tastes of that recreational system, even the tastes that are not pure, lovely, and admirable (Phil 4:8).
James speaks very plainly: friendship with the world is enmity toward God (James 4:4). James does not provide a list of acceptable and unacceptable entertainment activities. He does something far more challenging—he asks us to flee the pride of life, a craving for worldly affirmation that is far too often reflected in the way we go about entertaining ourselves.
The Church’s Identity Crisis
We rarely ever make our entertainment choices as raw and isolated individuals. Even the communities of faith to which we belong are susceptible to the ugliness of entertainment idolatry. There is an identity crisis in many churches that have (to this point) stood firm against the pressure to conform to fashionable views on sexuality and gender. These churches still crave an identity that can be measured and affirmed with worldly entertainment metrics—that’s why they put a style of music at the top of the marquee and make sure to have a colorful preacher in the pulpit and highlight a gluttony of niche programs that can rival the local community center. They reject some aspects of worldly thought but they still want to be loved and accepted by those around them.
So when it comes to entertainment, how can we avoid both the hypocrisy of a worldly mindset and the isolationism that retreats from entertainment and thereby denies God’s common grace? We can start by recognizing that God gives his people more grace. Left to ourselves, we would turn all the way back to Egypt. But churches under Christ, at their best, can be homes where we are refreshed in the gospel, and then sent out into a world that is rife with shards of sin and shafts of beauty, a place where we can sing and eat and laugh and rest, so long as we have the mind of Christ.