I’ve never been a television junkie. Five years ago a lightning strike took out our dish. We never replaced it. I don’t have a Netflix subscription either. I tend to be very selective about what I watch.
Every summer my wife and I spend most of August at a secluded cabin on Cape Breton Island. We have a small television set there and a $30 DVD player. Most of our “media” consists of a steady diet of summer reading. However, we have allowed ourselves the indulgence of catching up on popular television series and movies. Based on recommendations of friends and Internet movie reviews, we will rent or buy a half-dozen DVDs to watch on rainy days or late nights. In one case, I was preparing to preach a series we were calling “Modern Family,” so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to watch a few episodes. I expected the show to be insipid. Instead I found it smart and funny.
Claudia and I also watched a handful of movies together. Two of the best movies we screened were R-rated. Both provided deeply intricate analysis of the pervasive loneliness experienced by twentysomething millennials in this supposed age of super-connectedness. Both recognized the increasing complexity of human interactions with technology. Both delved into believable and artistically beautiful explorations of our growing disconnectedness—with God and with our fellow humans.
While “restricted” to audiences ages 18 and older (mostly for language and mature themes), both movies were exceptional, beautiful, and thought-provoking predictions of the way humanity is heading. Both were sharply observant of the way we interact with technology and each other. As the plots slipped into an inevitable melancholy, they became less about transhumanity and more about, well, humanity. Their non-Christian creators dealt honestly and critically with a world where anonymity reigns and porn, phone, and chat sex are prevalent. And they did so better than most Christian commentators.
The issue of how much exposure Christians should have to books and movies in the cultural mainstream has been widely debated. Some will disagree with me, but I’m of the persuasion that believers should read more than just Christian books or view only Christian movies. Honestly, I’d be hard-pressed to define what exactly makes a book or film “Christian.”
Good novels and movies can teach us empathy. They invite us to see the world from someone else’s perspective and help us realize we are nevertheless connected.
Christians may be tempted to shy away from the secular topics handled or presented by mainstream culture. But if we ignore them altogether, we are the losers. Engaging with characters in these books and films can help us understand and love people who do not share the same convictions about faith and life as we do. If you want to understand the people around you, and why they think the way they do, you will do well to know the books they read and the movies they watch.
I’m not suggesting we throw discernment to the wind. I am saying that good secular literature and art often deal with human problems in a way that affirms our sense of right and wrong and truth. Not by preachy moralizing, but by a gripping story.