Christians vary widely in what they consider objectionable material.
On one side are those who don’t restrict themselves from reading or watching just about anything. Any suggestion that some material might not be appropriate is met with accusations of legalism and censorship.
On the other side are those who, if they applied their preferences to everything they read, would not even be able to read their Bibles.
Most of us are somewhere in-between.
The difficulty is that the Bible doesn’t give us specifics such as: these words are okay, these words are not, these words are tolerable up to three times. Only this amount of skin is acceptable. These sins are okay to read about, but these are off limits.
So we have to draw from other truths and principles in the Bible. But we have to make sure we’re not pulling one thread and disregarding others.
Some would immediately go to Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” A great verse. Our mental health would be much better if we followed this verse.
But is this verse saying we can’t watch war movies? Or murder mysteries? Or any book that has sexual sin in it?
The Bible contains a great deal of violence. Here are just a few samples:
And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out (Judges 3:21-22).
At that time Menahem sacked Tiphsah and all who were in it and its territory from Tirzah on, because they did not open it to him. Therefore he sacked it, and he ripped open all the women in it who were pregnant (1 Kings 15:15).
So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia (Revelation 14:19-20).
The Bible tells us about sexual sin. Judah visited a prostitute, which was bad enough; but then he discovered she was his daughter-in-law. Amnon was guilty of both rape and incest when he assaulted his half-sister, Tamar. David called for the wife of Uriah, one of his mighty men, while Uriah was away in a battle. After committing adultery, impregnating Bathsheba, then trying to cover the whole affair up, David had Uriah put in the hottest part of the battle so he would be killed. Then David married Bathsheba. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.
And the Bible shows us an array of deception, injustice, and just about every kind of sin imaginable.
Some might say, there you go. All of this is in the Bible, so it’s okay to watch or read it in other venues.
Well, before we jump to that conclusion, we have a couple of things to consider.
The Bible is honest in reporting people’s sins because none of us is without sin. This honest acknowledgment of sin shows our need for a Savior.
But no sin in the Bible is there gratuitously, just for scintillation and excitement. Only the bare minimum of details is given to convey what happened. When sin is portrayed, it’s shown as wrong.
God often cites violence as one reason for His judgment. Have you ever noticed, for instance, that one reason for Noah’s flood was that “the earth was filled with violence”? (Genesis 6:9-14).
We don’t see details of David and Bathsheba or Amnon and Tamar in the bedroom. The warnings against the “strange woman” of Proverbs are enough to show her danger but not enough to cause one to lust just from hearing about her.
So just because a sin is cited in the Bible doesn’t mean it is okay. If you read the whole counsel of God, you see what He thinks about each one.
But because people do sin, the Bible tells us about it.
I heard someone say once that they didn’t read a certain book because two characters committed adultery.
Personally, I would not toss a book or movie just because there was adultery or murder in it. It would depend on how it was handled. Is the author presenting the sin as okay or wrong? Are there disturbing details that put negative images in my head? Is the need for forgiveness and redemption shown?
I don’t really care for books or shows where adultery is the main story arc. However, I have read books that show the devastating effects of adultery on the wife and children who were left behind in a broken marriage. I’ve read some that showed the hard work needed to come to a place of forgiveness. And I have seen redemptive stories where the broken couple worked through their issues and the marriage was restored. These things happen to real people in our world today. They can help us empathize with what people in such situations go through.
And the same could be said of most other sins in literature or shows. A murder mystery is more about figuring out the puzzle of “whodunnit” rather than glorifying murder. Most portray murder and violence as wrong: the whole purpose of the plot is finding the offender so he or she can be brought to justice. But there are shows and books that play up the violent part of such a story, seeming to delight in the gore or the perverted thinking of the perpetrator.
After the success of the 1985 film version of Anne of Green Gables, starring Megan Follows, a TV series called Road to Avonlea aired based on some other books of L. M. Montgomery. A friend was telling someone how much she enjoyed the series, when her companion said she didn’t watch it because of some characters’ tendency to gossip. I did not see the series. I know from reading many of L.M.M.’s books that gossip was a besetting sin of many characters in her stories. But gossip wasn’t presented as admirable or acceptable. In fact, innocent characters suffered due to gossip. So whether or not the author spelled out the wrongness of gossip, she showed it. On the other hand, if watching this program caused this woman to be tempted to gossip or to think lightly of it, then she was right in avoiding the show.
1 Corinthians 10:6 says, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” Paul then warns against the practices of some in the OT: idolatry, sexual immorality, putting God to the test, and grumbling (funny, but we don’t see people objecting to the latter in modern literature). Then he says in verse 11, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” Just as the Bible teaches from both good and bad examples, so can stories in film or literature.
So how do we determine what’s acceptable or not in reading or viewing? How the wrong is handled is one factor. Is it written in a way to glorify the wrong, giving more details than necessary, showing no consequences? Does it cause me to sin in watching or reading? This is my objection to “steamy” scenes even in Christian fiction, not to mention secular works. Even if I can discern between right and wrong in the work, does the wrong lure me or put wrong words or images or desires in my head?
These principles guide me as well:
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up (1 Corinthians 10:23).
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12).
If a show or book is tearing me down rather than building me up or bringing me under the power of wrong, I need to step away from it.
Another guideline is conscience. Conscience is not a perfect guide and needs to be trained by the Word of God. But we shouldn’t ignore conscience lest it become seared or numbed.
Of course, this topic could be expanded exponentially. We haven’t even touched on wrong philosophies. Reading the Bible and other books helps us develop discernment. But we don’t have to restrict our reading to what we agree with. We read everything with Christian eyes even if what we’re reading isn’t Christian. We evaluate as we go along. But if I sense a wrong philosophy is filtering into my thinking, it might be time to pull back.
Though I’ve been discussing secular books and shows, these same principles guide in Christian viewing and reading as well. Once I picked up a book aimed at helping teen guys battle lust. I scanned the first few pages to see whether I might bring the book home for my then-teen boys. But then I put the book back down. I felt if they didn’t have a problem with lust before they started, they would before they finished. The authors were way too explicit in describing the kinds of problems and situations they wanted to counsel guys to avoid.
These are some of the guidelines I use in evaluating what to watch or listen to. What are some of yours?
I’m thankful to Dr. Ronald Horton, chair of the English department of my college when I was there and my Literary Criticism teacher, for a lecture on this topic when I was a student. What he taught formed the foundation of my thinking. Some years later, his lecture was turned into a booklet and sold in the university bookstore. When I was about 3/4 of the way through this post, I decided to see if he had posted his notes online anywhere. I found them here on A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements in a chapter from a larger volume titled Christian Education: Its Mandate and Mission. If you’re interested and have time, this is an excellent read. He goes into a lot more detail and nuance than I can here.
(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)
I leave it to the Holy Spirt to prick my spirit. Obviously, there are some things that I always avoid but at other times I may need to see/hear something “weird/icky” so that I understand the needs of hurting people.
Does that make sense?
Yes. We watched a WWII movie recently (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) that had a scene of men being herded into a gas chamber and the gas concoction dropped in. Horrible. But these things really happened, and we need to remember.
That’s a very emotional movie but we’ll worth watching
This was one of the best topics I spent time on during teaching juniors and seniors. Great principles, Barbara.
These kinds of discussions would be so helpful for teens.
Barbara, I love this post and the Biblical guidelines you give. How to deal with objectionable thing in film and books is something I have long struggled with so this post gives me some excellent ideas. Thank you!
I agree it’s a contentious topic Barbara. But the Holy Spirit soon prompts what is & isn’t appropriate for us when we are walking in Him. Because it will be different for each person.
Visiting from Anita’s today.
Wise teaching. There are no simple rules for choosing our entertainment, but we must be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading while applying the broad principles in God’s Word.
Well-formulated, balanced piece Ms. Barbara. I’ve struggled with much of the same things in my life, and while I recognize sin exists in many forms in this life, I find that I try not to dwell upon it too much. Yes, I’ll watch war movies (especially those with any sense of historical accuracy) now and again, I love good clean comedy (even some that isn’t all that clean), and family shows like “Heartland”, etc. If I’m honest though, I watch only about two hours per week. Not because I’m being self-righteous, but because even with those shows I find that if I expose myself to too much of it, it can begin to affect me spiritually. Television has become a huge “time bandit” in many lives, and I find there’s much better ways to invest the days God has given me. Books on the other hand though; when well-written, a great book is hard to put down. 🙂
That’s true, the time factor is a big consideration. Someone has said it’s not always a choice between good and bad, but between better and best.
I agree we all have to use our individual discernment on what inputs we allow into our minds and hearts. I also try to avoid graphic violence in movies, shows, books, etc., as “entertainment” when possible because they disturb my sleep whereas other people can watch with no issues. Our personal experiences and temperaments and temptations have to be taken into account as we evaluate what is helpful and what is harmful for our soul’s flourishing. I’m thankful God in us helps us discern what to handle and what to leave alone.
That’s true, different people will be more sensitive to different things. I’m more sensitive to bad language, but my husband is kind of numb to it because he hears it at work all the time.
As you mentioned, bad language is something I’m sensitive to. I just cringe when I hear it on TV, etc. And it’s interesting that not everyone is, but may be turned off by something else. I do think we need to keep our consciences … sensitive? to God’s leading.
As has been commented above, it can depend on the individual. Some people are very sensitive to certain subjects or scenes or language. Others can read or view it and it makes no impression. I believe that the Holy Spirit will tell you if something is not good for you. Overt violence or graphic sex scenes that are there simply to titillate or shock are, in my mind, way out of the scope of things I should see or read about. These days you have to have a discerning mind with all that is out there!
A very well written post, Barbara. The guidelines you use definitely have a balance to them. I know it’s a topic you and I have discussed before and our thoughts are the same on the matter.
Barbara, thank you for this post. It is a topic that needed to be addressed and I’m glad you did. This message is reflective of people in their everyday lives, and is real. I agree with what others are saying, What might be viewed as acceptable for some may not be acceptable for others. I too, “screen” what I watch or read. I’m not okay with swearing or sexual scenes or reading. I think if we’re watching or reading something that is glorifying sin it is not suitable. But if the story line depicting the sin is bringing sin out in the open, teaches a lesson, speaks of forgiveness, grace, reconciliation and does not cause us to back slide or give us intrusive thoughts it may be okay after given thought and discernment. I usually try to read and watch things that have a clean lighthearted side.
i’m pretty much like you Barbara. War movies don’t thrill me but some (like the one you referenced in a comment above about the boy in the pjs or the movie with Corrie ten Boom) are important for us to remember that YES the Holocaust DID happen. If a movie is filled with pure sexual references or scenes, i tend to turn it off. because MOST of today’s movies are NOT about sex in marriage and that’s what God has intended for us. but the occasional scene if brief doesn’t bother me. It really depends on what the Holy Spirit is whispering to my soul. I’ve seen some bad Christian literature out and some very good ones just like in the secular genre. I love mysteries and as long as the “F” word isn’t abundant i will read many secular fiction books.
Great handling of this topic, Barbara, and thanks for sharing your professor’s publications.
Barbara, Wonderful article. I work as a makeup artist in film and television and I am hyper-aware of the often-anti-Christian messages in productions. It is quite painful at work sometimes and often I do not take work because of the content. And if I am there and it is questionable, I walk off while filming, and pray. Also, it can be a distraction from God. There are wonderful films, programs, and books and they are important but we need to use godly discernment. So, your article is perfect to help us with this. I am very careful with my input of media and books. For me, a story, whether secular or faith-based, needs to have cause and effect, redemption, and hope.
Thanks for this thoughtful piece on something I struggle with.
Thank you for bringing this thought-provoking discussion to the #SeniorSalonPitStop. As someone who works in Digital Media over the last few years, I have seen how the world is denying the presence of God or pretending it doesn’t exist. How they are pushing God out of School and even leadership. It pains me yet all I can do is my bit. So I Pray over it and I keep on doing what I hope is in alignment with my inner Man/Woman.
Julie Syl – Pit stop Crew
The Bible was inspired by God, and the aim is to point to Christ. Movies and books are written by people who have their own belief system and even if they seem to be good, they might not be good. For example even if they show the bad to be bad and promote good moral values, if it is not from a gospel centered view, it is not a good message. Most “good” movies and books tell you you can be good by yourself and change by your own strength and that message is contrary to the Bible. So maybe it is not a good influence and not a good way to spend our time.
Most Christians spend way more time watching movies or reading books than studying the Bible. And that’s sad. It shows what is more important and also, if that’s the case, how could they discern the philosophy in the movies and books when they don’t even know the teachings of the Bible?
I agree, the Bible is the only book inspired by God. We need to read it and know it first and best and read everything else in light of it.
But I don’t think we are restricted to reading only the Bible or Christian literature.
Man was created in God’s image, and some of that imagery remains, even though it’s marred by sin. Even though we have to be aware of wrong philosophies while reading secular fiction, we can often see truth about human nature and culture in it. Paul even quoted from secular literature sometimes as a bridge to convey truth (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12; “Bad company corrupts good morals,”quoted in 1 Cor. 15:33, is thought to have come from a play).
Reading broadly provides information, tells about other people’s experiences and other points of view,helps us develop empathy as we experience things outside what we’re familiar with, broadens our horizons, helps us gain perspective, helps us understand ours and other cultures better.
Here are some quotes from others:
“Some Christians view fiction as the opposite of truth. But sometimes it opens eyes to the truth more effectively than nonfiction,” Randy Alcorn, https://www.epm.org/resources/2011/Sep/12/why-do-many-christians-tend-avoid-visionary-storie/
“It might be expected that such a book would unfit us for the harshness of reality and send us back into our daily lives unsettled and discontent. I do not find that it does so….Story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous [speaking here of The Wind in the Willows] sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual” –C. S. Lewis, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, p. 1.
“Stories give children the opportunity to think about morals, lessons, and conflict resolution. With practice, children begin to search for the moral at the end of the story, and some will even structure their own stories around a specific message. Children who listen and tell many stories begin to recognize trends in human behavior. Their perspectives expand, and they become more critical, observant thinkers. They begin to consider in broader terms what it means to be helpful, mean, practical, hopeful, spiteful or considerate. Creating characters – which teaches that multiple perspectives exist at every moment – gives children invaluable tool for understanding others and for finding their way in the world,” Emily K. Neuburger, Show Me a Story: 40 Craft Projects and Activities to Spark Children’s Storytelling, (page 13).
“The best way to begin the cultivation of moral character is to immerse children in great stories where virtues are rendered attractive — not in a sticky-sweet or preachy sort of way, but in a way that captures and feeds their imagination,” Daniel B. Coupland, https://www.nationalreview.com/2013/11/it-takes-pirate-raise-child-daniel-b-coupland/.
“In His common grace, He has allowed many non-Christians to have amazing insights into the human condition, given them tremendous literary gifts and fantastic storytelling abilities. If you’re not reading a little more broadly, you might be missing out on something really interesting,” Aaron Armstrong, https://aaronarmstrong.co/branch-out-three-reasons-to-diversify-your-reading-in-2012/
I didn’t say we should only read or listen to Christian stuff or that there was a problem with getting to know what others believe. Yes, Paul also knew other philosophies, but he did not enjoy them. When he was in Athens and saw all the idolatry he was very upset. But Christians are not upset at the things they watch, they watch and read for entertainment, not because they are trying to reach out to others.
Whenever the topic of entertainment comes up, most Christians get defensive and want to explain and protect it, as if they needed it, but they have no time to read the Bible. In reality, you don’t need to read other books, but you do need to read the Bible. That does not mean that’s all you can read but that should be the most important and the others should only come if you have time and if it really helps.
I do think our heart and goals are important. We should find rest and fulfillment with God and if we read or watch something from non-believers, it should be intentional. Like watch the news and pray about it. Read about something in another culture and pray about it or do something about it. Read about another philosophy and try to reach out to people who believe in that.
And when we consider what we read and watch we should consider verses like do everything to the glory of God and to care about the things that are eternal not those that are temporary and worldly. To love God above all else and deny ourselves and follow Jesus daily.
I agree that reading the Bible should be first and foremost. That’s one of my main themes with this blog: applying ourselves to the Word of God and applying the Word of God to our lives. That was the whole point of this post: to apply Scriptural principles to what we read and view.
Barbara, this is a very good post. As a writer, I was called to write Christian romances–I love romance, but I want my stories to glorify God in what I share on the page. I love to read, but the more closely I walk with the Lord, the pickier I am about what I see on the page. Plus, with limited reading time, I tend to choose my friends’ novels over others. I also know my triggers–mental, emotional, and spiritual–when it comes to what I watch on TV. Sadly, it’s getting more and more difficult to find clean TV shows and movies.
Great post, Barbara. I have learned to listen to my gut with shows and books. I don’t think twice about setting aside books when I hear the Holy Spirit nudging me to do so, no matter how popular the book. And we’ve walked out of or turned off movies that were making us convicted for what we were consuming either with situations or language. One thing I cannot stand is the use of the Lord’s name taken in vain continuously. And I agree with Lisa Jordan above, it’s getting harder and harder to find decent things to watch on TV.
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