When Tim (not his real name) mentioned he had not seen many movies but was interested in good recommendations, I became quite excited. I began describing the ins and outs of some favorite movies; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, In America, Sunshine Cleaning. I told him about pain and loss and memory and joy and family and healing. I told him that these and other movies had played an important part in developing my faith and sense of self. And then something hit me and I blurted, “Oh wait… you guys won’t watch movies with sensual scenes in them, will you?”
“No, not really,” he said. And that was that.
Falling in love with the truth and beauty of God’s creation in all its complexity and mystery is one of the most Christian things we can do. Each time you or I experience more of the world’s fullness, be it the sound of trees in the wind or the intentional wrongness of a misshapen figure in a painting, our view of God is stretched a little further and we are made a little more complete.
I saw this just the other day, when my wife finally got around to reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I laughed with her when she chuckled at Jim and Huck’s debate over the French language. I shared her joy when Huck concluded he would go to Hell if that’s what it took to save Jim. And with her I threw my hands in the air in frustration as Tom’s boyish games frittered away Jim’s life and freedom.
She experienced something quite profound in those moments. Though Twain was no Christian artist, his portrayal of truth and beauty in that American classic drew her closer to God. Twain’s art made her more fully aware, more fully alive, and more fully human, and in so doing it made her more of who God intended her to be.
Those of us who love this capacity of media to extend our senses and enrich our lives cannot help but want to share it with others. In the same way we simply had to tell someone about our first crush or what it feels like to ski down a mountain, we want to share our experiences in the world of art and culture. Thus Rich bugs me constantly to try out his video games, and I buy used books for all my family members on the off chance that one might be read, and after we saw The Dark Knight we ran out to grab some friends so we could take them back to see it again.
But living life rightly is not just a joyful exploration of emotion and philosophy. We all need boundaries, too, to help us honor God by carrying out his law. Personal rules for conduct are an important part of our expression of faithful submission to His authority, and those rules vary somewhat for each depending on life location, maturity, strengths and weaknesses, and so on.
For guidance in this sometimes uncertain area, Christians rightly look to Scripture. While I do believe Scripture is very supportive of engagement with the noble beauty and deep emotion of this world, it is also true that the pleasures of this world are fraught with danger. For every time the Bible celebrates God’s beauty, it cautions us against allowing the physical world to become the object of our worship and an opportunity for sinful indulgence.
Many people feel that the dangers inherent to this problem (as well as the thoughtfulness required) make it worthy of total avoidance. They find security in condemning the gray areas and tightening the requirements of the law. Some do this in a heavy-handed, self-righteous way but there are also others who are trying to be faithful and God-honoring and wise.
And this is what brings me back to Tim. How should I, as someone in a position to make recommendations, handle his sensibilities? How should any of us who are regarded by our peers as knowledgeable in a particular area think through the weight of their trust in us?
First, know your hermeneutics. I know that sounds like a geeky seminary word, but all I mean is that one great way you can serve those who trust you is to have thoughtfully and thoroughly considered your views on media consumption in light of Scripture. This will be important when people dispute with you, suggest that you are engaging in sin, or accuse you of corrupting or misleading others (this is especially dangerous if you are making recommendations to young people with protective parents!). The more you know about God’s Word and how it teaches us to live, the more trustworthy your interpretation of what things are noble and worthy of interest.
Second, study up on alternatives. By that I simply mean that when you make recommendations, it will go much better for you if you know of many items that can accomplish or teach similar things, though they may not do it quite as effectively. So perhaps instead of throwing The Lord of the Rings at someone who dislikes reading, I could begin with The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Rather than expecting a friend to slog through Jane Eyre I could start by having them watch the movie. And perhaps before someone can take joy in the community experience of Dungeons and Dragons I need to introduce them to Settlers of Catan first.
Third, ask good questions. The problem with many movie and video game reviews is that they assume a certain moral stance, and then make their recommendations accordingly. By knowing the person or audience you are making recommendations to, you can shape your ideas to help them. If my friend cares more about characters than symbolism, I’ll know not to choose a book with characters they find distasteful no matter how insightful a commentary on humanity it is. If they hate long descriptions of internal conflict, maybe I’ll leave Dostoevsky on the shelf in their case. And if they struggle with lust or an unhealthy attraction to violence, be respectful of that when you decide whether to tell them how great a particular movie is.
Fourth, be patient! Opening yourself up to the possibilities of art and media can be a long process. Perhaps it was a quick trip for you, but for many it is not. There’s no need for your friend to read all the great books and see all the wonderful movies you love in the next year. Give them some time to fall in love with or at least learn to enjoy things that till now they may have seen as wasteful or boring. Remember also that their areas of strength and weakness in regard to sin are certainly different than yours, and you don’t want to take them somewhere they should not be.
Finally, follow up. After people read the books or watch the movies you recommend, ask them about it. Find out how well they understood it, whether they enjoyed it, how it made them feel. Find ways to affirm their ability to understand the point being made when they are correct (most people are somewhat insecure and self-conscious about this), and ask gentle questions to open new ideas to them when they miss things. Whatever you do, learn as much as you can from their experience so you can get inputs to help you give better recommendations in the future.
I think there is great value in a friend who will thoughtfully help you grow as a person by giving good recommendations, rather than having an, “each to his own,” view of life. You can be that friend. Just keep in mind that even as you joyfully rush ahead, it takes wisdom and grace to draw people toward God in a constructive way without accidentally pushing them off the straight and narrow.