Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it Prov. 4:23
Lunch with Christian friends, and the subject of TV came up. Or at least, a particular TV programme. Game of Thrones. And I found myself in a dilemma.
The dilemma was this. Kevin de Young has recently published an article on the programme, not only saying why he does not watch it, but why he thought other Christians ought not to watch it either. He moved the line from his personal choice, to what others should choose.
For some of my friends around the table, that in itself was the issue. But not for me – I am a preacher, and I make that judgement call every time I open my mouth and apply the bible to today. I have to, if I am to do my job. So I defended what he did – but I also defended the article, and said I agreed with it. Like him, I have never seen an episode. And like him, I think Christians would be very, very wise not to watch it either. I don’t think I need to have watched it to say that. It’s not difficult to imagine, if you read the reviews and have a sin-prone imagination like mine.
Because my dilemma is this – how do we engage with cultural artefacts which we know we will find spiritually damaging? Maybe you’re a good Christian with a clear, strong conscience, and you can watch GoT and can delineate between its worldview (which you analyse) and its sin (which you identify and refuse to take part in). Well, I’ll bet you draw the line somewhere, don’t you? Fifty Shades? Tarantino? Torture movies?
We are biblically wise to do so.
Just because something’s art, doesn’t stop it being sin-shaped.
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: no immoral, impure or greedy person – such a person is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible – and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. (Eph 5:3-13).
We could pull up the drawbridge, I suppose, but it is hard to do. Suppose you said,’I will never take pleasure in a cultural artefact in which breaking one of the Ten Commandments is central.’ Leaving aside the ‘taking pleasure’ point, because we don’t always get to choose what tickles our fancy, can you identify many cultural artefacts which would pass that test? Pretty much all of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Verdi and Mozart are off the list. Spin it round: it is hard to think of one where breaking one isn’t one of the principal plot engines. Suppose you said, ‘I’m never going to enjoy something where there is swearing or blasphemy.’ I think you’d be reduced to watching mid-seventies comedy on iPlayer – and then you’d be offended by the casual racism and sexism.
We’d be left with enjoying ‘wordless’ artefacts, like music, dance, or abstract painting. That is itself problematic for us, because Evangelicals have been curiously resistant to engaging in stuff that doesn’t have words, because we don’t know how to do it. We are quite a utilitarian breed, British Evangelicals, and don’t tend to have much time for the stuff on BBC4.
No, we must engage. But this is not simple.
Taking it further, the line we must draw is obviously a moving line. Culturally, what is generally acceptable has shifted. I watched a recent movie with one of my sons over the weekend, and the amount of swearing in it was astonishing – and it was a 15. Time was, when strong language was reserved for special occasions. It is becoming harder for TV programmes to shock enough to get ratings, and that’s only partly because they up against an unrated internet. It’s also because as a culture (and Evangelical sub-culture) we have become much, much harder to shock.
As God said through Jeremiah, several times, ‘they do not even know how to blush.’
Do we Christians know how to blush, or is that now passé?
Do we Christians know how to blush, or is that now passé? Evangelicals a few decades ago would never have read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, whereas today it would scarcely raise an eyebrow. They protested nudity in the West End, now it goes without a murmur. We look at the debate around the casual blasphemy of A Life of Brian, and we think that the Christians who protested then now were thin-skinned Philistines. (If you were around them, allow yourself to be appalled at your contempt – Malcolm Muggeridge a thin-skinned Philistine?). I too have never read Lady Chatterley, for the same reason I have never watched Game of Thrones, and that I switched off Heath Ledger as the Joker. But I realise that I have started to feel very out-of-place. And I’m a hypocrite too, because I’m sure I watch stuff that would make you blush, if you knew about it. I’m not immune either. And yes, I know there are a squillion other sins I condone or am blind to, or don’t care about, like slavery, and greed, and, oh, there’s long list.
But come back to the issue, and answer me this.
Are we really so sure? Were they the Philistines? Or are we the ones who have become so used to a sexualised, violent, idolatrous culture, that we scarcely notice the Philistine in us, and how far we have travelled?
I was brought up to believe that cultural engagement was a good thing – which it is. I still believe that reading books, watching films, listening to music and looking at paintings is a valid form of pleasure, as well as a way into a worldview. My mentors taught me that it was OK to watch grown-up stuff, even 18 movies, and critique them. But I wonder what they’d say to us now. Can you imagine C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, or Francis Schaeffer watching Game of Thrones, for pleasure?
I imagine them watching us, with concern.
Are we really so sure that we are so much more sophisticated in our reading of culture, so much more safeguarded in the knowledge of our sin?
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality.