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Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Es of Entertainment -- Introduction

What kinds of movies, television, music, novels, games, etc. can a Christian enjoy, and still be honoring to God?  No other issue has been the source of more friction between Christians in our media-soaked, pleasure-worshipping society, and no other issue has given rise to as many legalistic rules in an attempt to keep us from being “contaminated by the world.”  Some Christians say we should avoid movies altogether, others say only G-rated ones are acceptable.  Some say no secular music is good to listen to, others add “Christian contemporary” as a taboo because it sounds too much like what unbelievers are producing.  On every issue in this general category, there are many examples of Christians who are far too “loose” in their practice, but on the other hand many over-react to the dangers of modern media by going “beyond what is written,” and are therefore susceptible to all the dangers described in this book.  So how can we understand this issue in a way that avoids the extremes and maintains a biblical balance?

First, we need to understand that the Bible offers very few specific rules about this issue, if any, and therefore we should not expect to find easy answers that apply to everyone.  It is mostly an individual matter of “the heart”—a term which in the Bible means our “inner man,” where we think, desire, worship, and make choices (“mind” and “will” are aspects of the heart).[1]  In Mark 7:18-21 Jesus says that “whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him,…that which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man.”  He then goes on to say evil comes “from within, out of the heart.”  What we take into our eyes and ears can certainly tempt or influence us, as we will discuss, but it cannot necessarily cause us to sin.  So the response of our hearts to what we see and hear is the ultimate issue in morality.  This is very important to understand, in order to avoid legalism in this matter.  An activity that might be wrong for one person might be right for another, depending on what is happening in their hearts.

Some Christians, either in creed or merely in practice, advocate a rejection of any kind of artistic expression and enjoyment.  But that approach is clearly inconsistent with Scripture.  As T. M. Moore points out,

Anyone who reads the Bible, paying careful attention not only to the words of the text but also the forms of God’s revelation, will be struck by the widespread and varied use of the arts for communicating God’s purposes and will. The Old and New Testaments alike make abundant use of the arts: visual arts (the Tabernacle and Temple and all their decorations, the pillar of memorial stones on the banks of the Jordan); musical arts (psalms and spiritual songs); literary arts (story-telling, poetry, perhaps even drama, all kinds of metaphors and images); and a wide variety of abstract and visionary art forms (the first chapters of Ezekiel and Revelation, for example).[2]

We could add to that list the fact that the apostle Paul seems to have enjoyed reading the Greek poets, because he quoted from them in his message on Mars Hill in Acts 17:28.  And to mention a different but related issue, he also seems to have been a spectator at the Greek Olympics and other sporting events of his time, because he makes frequent reference to them in his letters (e.g. 1 Cor. 9:24-27; Heb. 12:1-2).[3]

So there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the art forms that people enjoy today, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying them, even as “mere entertainment.”  This is important to discuss because some Christians point out that the Bible does not mention “entertainment,” and therefore infer that it is somehow a questionable concept.  But of course the Bible does not mention pizza or toothbrushes either, and that does not make those things bad.  And the Bible does contain the idea of entertainment, if not the word itself.  One of the themes of the book of Ecclesiastes, for instance, is that God wants you to “enjoy life” (Eccl. 9:9) when it is centered on Him.  He tells us to “eat, drink, and be merry” several times in the book (5:18, 8:15, 9:7), and says that you should “follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes” (11:9).

The reference to eating and drinking is especially helpful in understanding how God wants us to enjoy ourselves (in moderation, of course).  Some of the food and drink He has given us, and some of the eating and drinking we do, are merely for utilitarian purposes, to nourish our bodies.  But beyond that He has blessed us with enjoyable food and drink, and we partake sometimes merely for the pure pleasure of it, not simply to keep ourselves alive.  And this is according to His design—just as He has designed the arts for our enjoyment, as well as for our edification.

Most Christians will admit that modern forms of entertainment are not sinful in themselves, and that they can be used by believers for godly purposes.  But many have a problem with anything produced by unbelievers, because it almost always contains ideas that are contrary to God’s Word and depictions of behavior that God has forbidden.  Plus unbelieving artists often live very ungodly lifestyles.  We must remember, however, that unbelievers can indeed produce things that are acceptable and helpful to Christians.  This is obvious in the scientific realm, of course, because we benefit from the medical and technological skills of unbelievers all the time.  But it is also true in the realm of the arts, as evidenced by Paul’s use of the work of Greek poets, which I mentioned above.  Most Christians can appreciate the music of Mozart and Tchaikovsky, for example, even though one was a libertine and the other a homosexual.  So why can we not enjoy the good work of modern-day artists, even though they may not be godly themselves?

The book of Ecclesiastes is again helpful in this regard, because it says that to His people God “has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give to one who is good in God’s sight” (Eccl. 2:26).  The abilities that unbelievers have, including their cinematic, musical, and literary skills, have been given to them by God so that they can produce art that can be beneficial and enjoyable to Christians.  This does not mean that all the art or entertainment produced by the world is for Christians to enjoy, but it is certainly reasonable to assume that some of it is.

Those who tell believers to stay away from various forms of “worldly entertainment,” however, often quote the Bible to support their point of view.  So it might be helpful to look at a representative example, and examine the scriptural reasoning that is frequently used by such teachers.  The following is an excerpt from Dale Kuiper’s booklet The Christian and Entertainment:

That movie attendance and television viewing are out of bounds for the Christian, are incompatible with the godly walk of those who are called to be saints, is clear beyond any dispute.  Is it not true that movies and television exalt that which is base and depraved, and debase that which is exalted and good?  Is it not true that watching the entertainment of the world, its sexual presentations, its violence and bloodshed, its blasphemies against the holy God, makes a person guilty of the sin described in Romans 1:32, “Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them”?  Psalm 101, which I encourage you to read right now, is a psalm of David, the man after God’s own heart.  He says, “I will walk within my house with a perfect heart.  I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes.  I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave to me.”  And a little later in the psalm, “I will not know a wicked person.”  Although he may be tempted, were he alive today, David would not attend movies nor watch television![4]

First of all, it is certainly true that the popular arts are often motivated by wicked intentions and filled with sinful content.  That is why Christians need to be careful and discerning, as I will explain later in this chapter.  But do either of the passages mentioned by Kuiper demand that we abstain from all such “worldly entertainment”?  Let’s take a closer look at the two passages he quotes.

Romans 1:32.  Kuiper asks, “Is it not true that watching the entertainment of the world…makes a person guilty of the sin described in Romans 1:32?”  The answer is no—not necessarily.  Notice that verse says that we are sinning if we commit the sins described in the previous verses, or if we “have pleasure in them that do them” (or “give hearty approval to those who practice them,” as the NASB says).  It is not merely “watching” those things that is wrong, but approving of them.  And is it not possible to observe someone’s sin without approving of his sin?  Certainly it is; God Himself does it all the time!  Likewise, I can watch a movie or listen to some music that has wrong ideas in it, or wrong behavior depicted in it, without rejoicing in that evil.  In fact, I can honestly say that in most such cases I am appalled by the objectionable content and wish it was not in there!  Sometimes I end up hating the sin more when I see or hear it in the modern media—especially when I am reminded of the consequences of that sin. 

So if Romans 1:32 proves anything about the issue of godliness in entertainment, it proves that it is primarily a matter of the heart.  Whether we mimic the sin of the world, and whether we like it, is the issue according to the apostle Paul.

Psalm 101.  Does this passage indicate that David would never watch movies or television, if he was alive today?  Only a woodenly literal or biased reading of the text would yield such an idea.  I know that many Christians have quoted verse 3 (“I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes”) as a reason for avoiding the popular arts, but I am afraid they are quoting it out of context.  That statement does not mean that David would never look at anything evil, any more than “I will know no evil” in verse 4 means that he refused to learn about his enemy, or would not talk to an unsaved person.  Likewise, when David says in verse 6 that his “eyes shall be upon the faithful of the land,” he doesn’t mean that he will be literally gazing at them.  It is an expression that means he will approve of them, support them, pray for them, etc.  In the same way, “I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes” is understood by its literary imagery and its surrounding context.  The rest of the verse says, “I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not fasten its grip on me.”  So David is saying that he will not look upon evil with approval or pleasurethough his words do provide a warning that pertains to what we allow ourselves to look upon.  Charles Spurgeon, in his Treasury of David, captures the sense of the verse well:

“I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes.”  I will neither delight in it, aim at it, nor endure it.  If I have wickedness brought before me by others I will turn away from it, I will not gaze upon it with pleasure.  The Psalmist is very sweeping in his resolve…no wicked thing:  not only shall it not dwell in his heart, but not even before his eyes, for what fascinates the eye is very apt to gain admission into the heart, even as Eve’s apple first pleased her sight, and then prevailed over her mind and hand.[5]

So Christians are wise to be very careful about what they take in through their eyes, and discerning about the truth and error depicted in movies and television (more later on this).  But to say that we can never observe evil behavior without remaining holy is going beyond what is written in Psalm 101, or any other passage in the Scriptures.

Again, the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.  Remember two of the passages we have learned about earlier in this book, both of which are related to issues like this, and both of which indicate the ultimate importance of what goes on inside of us:

One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike.  Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.  He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God….So then each one of us shall give account of himself to God. (Rom. 14:5-12)

Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men's hearts; and then each man's praise will come to him from God. (1 Cor. 4:5)

Kuiper says in his booklet, “Every man will be judged according to his work, and according to his play.”  That is certainly true, but notice the basis of judgment mentioned in those verses:  When it comes to issues not directly addressed in the Scriptures, God will be looking primarily at the reasons and responses of the heart.  And since what goes on inside of us is the most important factor in issues like entertainment, we simply cannot make hard and fast rules that every Christian must follow.  But though the Bible lacks such precepts, it is filled with principles that can lead each individual toward greater godliness, and away from the dangers posed by the modern media.  The following posts will explain seven of the most important and helpful principles to apply to this part of our lives, which I call "the Es of Entertainment."  (If you would like to read all of them at once, see Chapter 9 of my book Who Are You to Judge?)

[1] One of my seminary professors referred to the heart as the “mission control center” of our being.  It represents the immaterial part of man, with special emphasis on the fact that it is the source of our “thoughts and intentions” (Gen. 6:5, cf. Prov. 4:23 and 23:7).
[2] T. M. Moore, “Why Art Matters,” article on the BreakPoint website, posted February 27, 2004.
[3] Most of what I say in this chapter could also be applied to a Christian’s involvement in sports, another issue that is sometimes the occasion for judging and legalism (Kuiper is an example).  If you would like to consider that issue further, I recommend an article by Dr. Lee Smith entitled “Sports—A Biblical Perspective,” which is posted on his church’s website at 
[4] Dale Kuiper, The Christian and Entertainment is posted on the web at in the articles section.  Kuiper is a minister in the Protestant Reformed Church.
[5] Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Volume II (Peabody, MA: Hendriksen Publishers, n.d.), p. 240.

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