Movies/My Culture/Teen Culture

Discerning Media: What You Watch Matters

I think flying on planes is wildly exciting. I feel the same way about watching movies. So you can imagine the sheer giddiness I felt when I sat down to an eight hour flight back from Europe, with an extensive array of movies at my disposal on the seatback in front of me. I think I might have watched some corny rom-coms and dorky kids movies on that flight, but what stuck with me was not any of those movies — it was the incredibly explicit scenes I saw on the screen of the person sitting next to me.

The movie they were watching included a lot of nudity, sex, and drug use that I didn’t particularly care to see, but still, a few years later, those images are really vivid in my brain. And although I wasn’t actively seeking those images out and receiving those messages intentionally, I can’t deny that scenes I saw did make a lot of sinful activity look glamorous and fun and that stuck with me and continues to linger as a temptation as I try to navigate living a life of holiness in a world of brokenness.

Why Discerning What we Watch Matters

The messages that we receive, especially the ones we seek out intentionally, and especially visual ones, are incredibly formative to who we are as human beings. Whether we like to admit it or not, the things we expose ourselves to in media can affect the way we think and act; so it’s important that we, as Christians, expose ourselves to messages that will help us on our journey to virtue and holiness.

That doesn’t mean that we need to tune out everything that doesn’t explicitly communicate the truth of the Gospel. It doesn’t even mean that we shouldn’t expose ourselves to opposing viewpoints. It does, however, mean that, we need to be attentive to what we’re watching and thinking critically about how it could be affecting us.

We’re told in Scripture to think about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious” and things that are excellent and worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8). We’re told to keep our minds on these things because these are things that reflect the glory of God. When it comes to consuming media, we need to adopt this approach, so that we continually see things that reflect God’s goodness, rather than perversions of His goodness.

How to Discern What’s Good to Watch

So what are some practical things we can do when it comes to choosing what movies to see or what shows to watch? I think it starts with asking three really important questions before deciding to consume something:

Does this story and/or these characters reflect God’s goodness?
When we ask this question, we’re asking if there’s a clear distinction between what’s right and wrong. Certainly, all movies will have villains and bad circumstances that don’t reflect the goodness of God, but the best ones will reflect some aspect of God’s goodness, whether that’s in themes of true love, self-sacrifice, overcoming obstacles, fighting for what’s right, etc.

Does this story and/or these characters celebrate sin?
On the opposite end of the spectrum, when we ask this question, we’re asking if what we’re thinking of watching actively celebrates sinful choices. Sin is everywhere, there’s no getting around that — all of humanity is sinful, so of course sin will be represented in movies and TV shows. However, there’s a distinction between a movie like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which celebrates sex outside of marriage thru the lens of violent sexual behavior and a movie like “Juno,” which acknowledges that sex outside of marriage happens (and the consequent new life that comes from it). Unlike Fifty Shades, Juno doesn’t celebrate it as the end all, be all, purpose of one’s existence and it is honest about the consequences and effects of having sex outside of marriage and coping with teen pregnancy.

If it’s a movie or a show that’s celebrating and normalizing sin, without depicting at least some of sin’s consequences, be aware of how that message could affect you. It’s so easy to buy into messages where sin is celebrated because sin is easy and virtue is hard. Don’t expose yourself to stories that will tempt you to believe that a life of sin is a satisfying life. It can be easy to buy that message when we’re watching it on a screen with beautiful actors, but learning the hard way that that isn’t the case is a really difficult experience that can draw us away from God, who longs to be our true fulfillment.

Is this a well-crafted piece of art that I really want to spend time watching?
Finally, is this an objectively good creation that you want to invest time in consuming? There’s an endless amount of stories out there and you only have so much time. Consider the objective value of the art you’re taking in before you watch a movie or sit down to binge on a new show. There’s something to be said about watching a great and objectively beautiful piece of cinematic art like the film “La La Land,” rather than something a little less sophisticated like “Why Him?” Be selective about what you’re watching because all movies and all TV shows are not created equal.

Think, Don’t Hide

We don’t need to hide from secular media and live in fear of the messages portrayed in TV shows and movies. We can’t hide from sin that’s presented in culture because sin exists in all of humanity. We simply need to think and determine which messages will help us on our journey to holiness avoid the messages that will harm us on that journey.

When I saw those explicit scenes depicted on the screen next to me on that flight home, I didn’t put a sleep mask over my eyes, demand a different seat, or give in to watching everything that was portrayed in that movie. I made the decision to look away, to focus in on whatever dorky chick flick I’d decided to watch, because I knew I would much rather watch a cheesy romance than scenes that graphically celebrated sin. By simply assessing the situation and thinking about it, I knew, in the long run, a corny romance would have less of an effect on my pursuit of holiness than scenes that essentially suggested that a life of sin is worth abandoning everything I know to be true about holiness, love, and Jesus.

Hiding from media won’t get us anywhere, but being intentional about what we consume and what we don’t will lead us to truly engage with the world, but not be affected by distortions of truth that are out there. You’ve been called to the most full life of holiness so don’t let deceiving messages about what it means to be fully alive change your mind. Think on the good things of life and let those messages guide you in your pursuit of an eternal relationship with Jesus.

About the Author

Leah Murphy

As a graduate of John Paul the Great Catholic University, with a background in video and a passion for that wild place where faith and culture meet, she lives to tell God's love story to the world, in the digital space. Dwelling in California, she spends all her free time doing all the things with her friends, enjoying the best music out there, and going on every adventure that comes her way.

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