Monday, November 06, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, November 5

Hi all--here is the sermon preached yesterday, titled "Does Jesus Care What I Watch?" It's based on Philippians 4:8 and Luke 15:8-10.

Christians have always had a difficult relationship with entertainment. Even in the modern world, Christians have been thought of as people who have a hard time having a good time. There is perhaps a Puritan impulse in many Christians, unsure of when entertainment might be pulling us away from the important things we have been called to as Christians. There is a fear that the time we spend on entertainment could be used for spiritual development, or for service. There is a fear that the money we spend on entertainment could be used more profitably to care for the poor or to create a more meaningful life for our children.
And there is the question of the impact the entertainment itself has on our spiritual development. It’s not just the time and money we spend on entertaining ourselves that causes us concern; it’s also the nature of the entertainment itself. It’s one thing to take money and time away from positive things to do something neutral like entertainment; but what if our entertainment choices are not even neutral, what if they’re negative? What if our entertainment choices hurt us, and so we pay lots of money and take lots of time to do something that actually stunts our spiritual growth.
These questions are not new; Christians have had an uneasy relationship with entertainment for a long time. Evangelical Christians in the nineteenth century were often adamantly opposed to the theater, seeing it as a breeding-ground for all kinds of vices. In fact, the college where I went was founded during the nineteenth century, and the founders were adamantly opposed to the theater. When they built a new chapel in the mid-twentieth century, they built it with a deep stage, but the curtain is not at the front of the stage like in a theater. The curtain is in the middle of the stage, and mostly behind the curtain is just a storage area. It was designed this way so that the stage could never ever be used for theater. Now, it’s kind of ironic, because today they have at least a small theater program, and I acted in plays all the way through my time at school. But that old idea about theater was so important that they even built it in so that it could not be done. This concern about theater transferred to movies in the twentieth century, and many Christians of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation grew up believing that good Christians simply did not go to movies.
This stuff goes way back–way back. In the earliest days of Christianity, in fact, entertainment also was viewed with suspicion. In those days in Rome, the primary form of entertainment was the theater, which was considered quite lewd (and, in fact, was quite lewd by today’s standards); and sports, which often consisted of animals fighting each other to the death, sometimes animals fighting armed humans; sometimes unarmed humans being fed to animals; and sometimes, it consisted of two humans fighting each other until one was beaten pretty badly. After the fight between the gladiators was over, the crowd had a choice about whether the losing fighter would live or die. It was sort of the ancient version of American Idol; the audience chose who stayed around and who went to their eternal home. This form of entertainment was rightly considered incompatible with Christianity. And the early Christians insisted that if you were going to become a Christian, if you were going to join the church, you had to give those things up. You were not welcomed into membership, you were officially excluded, if you were connected in any way to those things. You could not sell popcorn at the theater, you couldn’t sell tickets at the colosseum, you couldn’t make your living profiting off of that kind of entertainment.
Today, broadly speaking, there are two sorts of Christian views on entertainment. On one side there are people who still approach entertainment with a lot of suspicion. They may limit their music choices to Christian music only; or they may not own a TV; or they may not go to R-rated movies. These folks generally believe that the right approach to entertainment is to separate themselves from anything outside of a certain-sized box. I like to call these folks separators; they are defined by what they separate from.
The other group, I like to call sophisticates. And these folks are Christians who believe that they have kind of grown beyond that childish way of thinking about entertainment. It doesn’t really matter what you watch on TV, or what music you listen to; the important thing is how you live. Do you love the poor like Jesus loves the poor? As the prophet Micah says, do you “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” If you are doing that, then it really doesn’t matter what you watch or listen to.
I have to say that each of these camps leaves me very cold. The first camp, the separators, I just find unrealistic. Maybe seventy-five years ago, separating from the world of entertainment was a viable option. But it’s just not today. Not in a wireless internet age, where you can be in the middle of nowhere and get celebrity news and gossip. Not in an age where the line between entertainment and the rest of life is blurred. Right? When you watch the news now, is it the same hard news that you may have seen fifty or sixty years ago? Not a chance. It’s personality-driven; it’s entertainment. Short of becoming a hermit, I just don’t think it’s realistic to separate yourself completely from entertainment.
But the other group, the sophisticates, I just can’t connect with them either. To me, they think they are sophisticated but they are very naive. If you say, “It doesn’t matter how I entertain myself, it matters if I’m a good person,” I think you don’t realize how entertainment can change you. For instance, psychologists tell you that repeated exposure to violent acts has the potential to desensitize you to those acts. In other words, as you watch murder after murder on a movie screen, or as you shoot person after person in a video game, you become more numb to murder. Does this mean you’re going to go out and kill someone? No, not usually. But it does mean that murder upsets you less than it did before–you’re less shocked, less outraged by it. Murder seems less like the ultimate crime against a sacred creation of God, and more like something that just kinda happens in life. If we really want to become more like Jesus, we need to care about the things he cared about; if we become numb to murder, we are becoming less like Jesus, not more. The same goes, frankly, for sex. We might think we’re sophisticated if we say, “I can watch anything I want, not like those repressed conservative separators,” but the more we see sexual activity that is not in keeping with how God created us, the more numb we are to it, and the less we are like Jesus.
It’s very important to me that Christians begin to think beyond these two camps. Separation is not a realistic idea, but sophistication is not the answer either. How do we begin to think about a third way, a better way, of approaching entertainment? This morning, I want to begin to sketch out just such a third way of thinking about entertainment, one that’s informed by two Scriptures and reflects the importance of thinking like Jesus.
I think the first part of this third way is to realize that I cannot lay down legalistic rules for everyone. What I am most concerned with is that each of us makes entertainment choices that make us more like Jesus instead of less. There may be something that you can watch that doesn’t impact you negatively that might impact me negatively. There may be music that I can listen to that doesn’t impact me negatively that you need to stay away from because it leads you down a bad road. I wish it was easy enough to say: watch this, this, and this; don’t watch this, this and this. But the fact is it’s different for each one of us. And each of us are ultimately responsible for our own decisions here, so it’s up to each of us to really look at our lives and our choices and say, “Is this leading me down a good path or a bad path?” So I cannot give you hard and fast rules.
There are two Scriptures which are helpful for me in illuminating this question of what we should watch. The first is Philippians 4:8: Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and anything worthy of praise, think about these things. When Paul is writing to the Philippians, he encourages them to think about good things. The reason is sort of like I was talking about before when I mentioned how watching violence can desensitize us to violence.
When Jill was pregnant, she had an incredible sense of smell. I had a real love for this certain kind of Chex Mix at that point, and I’d often have some at lunch time at the office. Now, I’d come home, sometimes late at night, and Jill could always tell if I’d eaten that kind of Chex Mix, even if it had been ten hours before, even if I had eaten something else in the meantime or brushed my teeth, she always seemed to know! She’d say, “You’ve been eating that Chex Mix again, haven’t you?” I began to smell like what I was putting into my body.
In the same way, Paul is concerned that we are putting into our minds true things, honorable things, pure things, commendable things, excellent, praiseworthy things, because Paul knows that as we put those into our minds, we will begin to “smell” like those things. Our lives will give off the fragrance of those things as we earnestly try to input them into our minds.
We should be aware that we learn to love the things we surround ourselves with. Think about our baby girl Gracie. I never was much of a baby guy; I always told Jill that if she could get our kids to age 5, I’d take ‘em from there because I really like kids, just not babies so much. But when I first saw Gracie, I was smitten. But I’ve gotten more smitten because I’ve spent so much time with her. The first few months of life are so intense–Gracie and I are rarely apart for more than a few hours, and for Jill it’s even moreso. Those first few months are just God’s way of cementing you together as a family; it’s God’s way of re-wiring your brain and your spirit to love each other in a whole new way than you did before.
Thus, if we surround ourselves with truth, our brain and spirit gradually are re-wired to love truth. If we surround ourselves with lies, we are re-wired to love lies. If we surround ourselves with images of purity, we are re-wired to love purity. If we surround ourselves with images of inpurity, we become re-wired to love purity. One of the most terrifying passages of Scripture is one we were looking at in Sunday School last week–it’s in Romans 1. Romans 1 is talking about how people choose to reject God. And it concludes that after people made choice after choice to reject God, “God gave them up.” God gave them up to the things they wanted, the choices they had made.
That might sound harsh, God gave them up. But it really is not harsh at all–it’s just an illustration of human free will. We get to make choices; God’s going to let you make choices. And if you want to make choices that will take you away from God, God’s going to let you do it. God will give you up to the results of your choices. Don’t be surprised when your character begins to look like the things you surround yourself with.
Regarding entertainment, then, we have tough choices to make. Because, again, the line is different for each of us. For example, I will be honest with you and tell you that I am a big fan of 1980s old-school rap music. Preachers and rappers both make their living with words, and I just listen with sheer delight at the lyrical cleverness of a lot of rap from that time. People are often surprised that old-school rap appeals to me, or any preacher, because the subject matter is often not pure and lovely. It’s often gritty and profane. Now, for me to listen to old-school rap means that I need to be constantly watching myself to see how I am spiritually. And if there comes a day where my life starts to reflect the profanity and other issues in rap music, I need to love God and myself enough to let it go. As long as I sense that I am not going down a bad road, I can enjoy it. But I acknowledge that art has the power to re-wire my brain, so I constantly have to be monitoring it to make sure I’m not becoming a person I don’t want to be.
Think of the entertainment decisions you make today and how they are shaping you. If you are not the person you want to be, it could be related to the entertainment choices you are making. Enjoy those entertainments that are not leading you down a bad road, but please–for your own sake–keep a watchful eye on your spirit, and please, please, please let go of any entertainment that is making you become a person you don’t want to be.
The other Scripture I want to lift up is perhaps kind of an odd one; it is the parable Jesus tells about the lost coin. Jesus says that if a woman has ten coins and loses one, she’s going to look for that one until she finds it. In the same way, God treats us as precious and is vitally concerned for the lost. It is a picture of how precious, how vital, how special, each of us is to God.
I think this passage is important when considering our entertainment because of the way some entertainment turns people into objects. We want to see other people the way God sees other people–precious, vital, lovely, special. Sometimes, entertainment stops us from seeing people as people and makes us start seeing people as objects.
The most obvious example of this is pornography. Often, people wonder what the big deal is about pornography–it’s kind of a victimless crime. The women aren’t forced to take part in it, they’re well compensated, men gain a measure of sexual release they often can’t in real life, so what’s the big deal? Nobody gets hurt. But the fact is that people are hurt in pornography; the main crime in pornography is not that it’s sexually explicit, but that there is a fundamental lie at the center of it. The lie is that this woman or man on the page or on the screen or on your computer is not a living, breathing person with dreams and hopes and aspirations of their own. Rather, this person now exists only as an object that you can enjoy and then throw away when you’ve had enough of that person. They are no longer people, but objects.
Do you see how far away that is from the God of the lost coin? People are precious to God simply because they are people. Each is unique, special, worthy of love; to take a person and reduce her or him to an object is to stand against God who loves that person and has bigger dreams for them than to simply be an object.
Now, it’s easy for me to sit up here and rail against pornography, because pornography obviously does this. But other kinds of entertainment can do this too, respectable entertainment, and we must be on our guard when we partake of this kind of entertainment. Sports are certainly like this. One of the scariest things for me is my reaction if I’m watching a football game, and someone on the other team gets hurt. Now, I don’t cheer and jump and yell when someone gets hurt; but I do think, without meaning to, “Ooh, this is good; now there’s an advantage for the Eagles.” I don’t think about that player as a person, the physical pain he’s experiencing, the emotional pain as someone who makes his living with his body has to worry about how he’s going to feed his family if he can’t put. This also turns a person into an object. It says, “This person has no intrinsic value for me; it’s only how he fits into the game that I care about.” This is a dangerous way to think. Now, don’t get me wrong; I do think there’s a difference between pornography and football. I don’t think we need to abstain from football completely, but we do from pornography. This is because it is possible to enjoy football without turning people into objects; it is impossible to enjoy pornography without turning people into objects. Nonetheless, we should be careful that the entertainment we enjoy helps us to worship the God who loves people enough to search for them no matter what; our entertainment should never exploit or belittle the entertainers.
For me, there is a third way to approach entertainment. I am not a separator; I am not a sophisticate. Instead, for me, the third way is to be spiritually savvy. By this, I mean that we are tuned into our spiritual lives enough that we know it when our entertainment is driving a wedge between us and God. We are aware of our own shortcomings, the danger zones for us, and we avoid those because we know where they will lead. At the same time, we enjoy that which doesn’t lead us down the wrong path. When we are choosing entertainment options, we need to choose those that do not harm us in our pursuit of purity; and we need to choose those that help us to love others as God loved them, instead of exploiting them or belittling them.