More than Mere Suggestions

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.

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.

  • David Dunham

    Fantastic writing and thought, Ben!

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T Hahne

    This is something that kills me. I’m friends with a bunch of high school aged kids who are easily intelligent enough to appreciate some of the better books and movies out there, but I don’t have the liberty to make such recommendations. First of all, I have to fear where their parents’ boundaries might be and second of all, church-raised kids are generally very legalistic (not yet having a solid understanding of legalism vs. licentiousness vs. grace).

    I so want to share the magnificence of movies like Snow Falling on Cedars or books like Never Let Me Go, but I can’t. At least not til they’re older. And I’m impatient.

    You offer a lot of good advice Ben. I might add one thing.

    Encourage Maturation in Fellow Believers
    Paul talks in Romans about giving grace to the weaker brother (in his example, the one who abstains from meats) and bearing with their weaknesses. This of course is a temporary solution and Paul does not hope that these weaker brothers would remain in their weakened state. As these believers continue to grow in faith, being built up by the power of the gospel, one would presume that their former weaknesses would slough off, that their consciences would no longer burn under the weight of that which is not sin.

    The same holds true for the engagement of cultural product that contains things that might injure the weaker brother’s conscience. They, of course, should not be encouraged to take part in that which they believe to be wrong. Yet still, we might continue to build them in their faith, edify them in the grace of Christ, and help them to grow strong and healthy under the gospel’s warmth.

    Even as Christ was privy to blasphemy yet without sin or the unhealthy darkening of his soul, so too many Christian believers behave the same. Even as Christ encountered gratuitous violence, lives built upon immorality, public nudity, and every filth imaginable, he emerged from each with conscience unscathed. So too can believers do the same.

    It is not something that the weaker brother should test himself upon, both those who have overcome particular areas of distraction or temptation have little to fear so long as their sight is affixed upon the gospel of their salvation.

    It is to this end (one end among many) that we should seek to build our brothers and sisters in Christ. And such a change will not be the product of a single conversation but a long term effort, an investment of our time and patience.

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T Hahne

    Noooooo! </b> where are you when you are most needed??

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    I don’t disagree with you, Dane. Maturation is of course a good goal and you remind us that it is not loving to affirm those who have bound themselves up into a legalistic, immature understanding without desiring that they experience the freedom that life in Christ can and should be.

    At the same time, keep in mind the vast spectrum of REASONS people struggle with that maturity in this area. For instance, I know girls whose fathers divorced their mothers and ran off with someone else; as a result they have an extremely hard time watching movies that have (and often centralize and glorify) unfaithfulness. Someone with abuse in their background might have an especially hard time with violence. And someone raised by very strict but loving parents may have had a more conservative view reinforced so many times (both in teaching AND in the perfectly happy and successful lives of their parents) that to do otherwise feels like a repudiation of the good things their loved ones stand for.

    Being pastoral, being a shepherd to those under you does mean knowing when to push or pull, but it also means knowing when not to. A person can still be a wonderfully successful, God-honoring, and joyful person without much interaction in media like movies or books or art. Is it really so important that I, an often sad and certainly flawed person, draw them into the things that I love? Sometimes I say yes. But sometimes I also say no. I think true love for the brethren requires both.

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T Hahne

    Absolutely. The number of reasons we become uncomfortable with things of particular natures are myriad. Especially when the weakness has been crafted out of some terrible or painful experience we must exercise tact, understanding, and above all patience as we help people to grow. And not to the end that they might enjoy some piece of fantastically evocative art, but for the sake of their own soul’s well-being. Enjoying the art is just a happy by-product.

    Still for the woman stricken sick by the portrayal of infidelity, growth is necessary—if only to be able to read and appreciate the pictures of infidelity and motivations for it and forgiveness and completion presented in Scripture. Also, to be able to confront depictions of infidelity can lead to empathy, which in turn can lead to love for one’s enemies.* It seems to me that while we should be happy to take the slow road to healing these difficulties, healing them should be an essential ministry amongst the body.

    *note: I just finished reading a truly fantastic two-volume Japanese comic called A Distant Neighborhood in which a middle-aged father of two falls asleep on a train and wakes up in his fourteen-year-old life, just months before his father was to inexplicably abandon his family and truly and deeply damage them, eventually leading to his former wife’s death of brokenheartedness. The now-fourteen-year-old man sets out to do what he can to stop his father from leaving. The entire time, the horror of the father’s departure is in plain view, but over the course of the story, we are given a glimpse into the man’s reasoning (whether we approve or not—not many readers will). It was an especially well-crafted story and could even offer some sense of catharsis for a reader who had him/herself been similarly abandoned.

  • peter bartlett

    I think Ben felt justified in writing this article since two people finally read the books he gave them for christmas. So Becky and I take full credit for the inspiration.

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