Fending off near occasions of sin

Late last week, Xanthate asked:

I got to ask, as a Christian, how do you feel comfortable watching media which frequently glamorises violence, non-married sex, and other sins? I’m a recent convert, and I’ve chosen not to watch/read this sort of stuff, so I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

I don’t watch much TV, just The Thick of It (for the vigorous and inventive invective) and Switched at Birth (for the ASL practise).  So I don’t run into much sex on either show.  (Plenty of wrath-as-humor on The Thick of It, though).  Since I’m a pretty unromantic person, this isn’t the kind of temptation I spend much time worrying about.

People’s mileage may vary, but here’s the kind of bad media consumption that I try to curb (and haven’t really done enough): reading people who annoy me and who I don’t expect to learn anything from.  I’ve made some attempts to purge Google Reader of feeds (religion-related or political) that just tick me off.

I don’t think these authors have something interesting or worthwhile to rebut, and they haven’t made critiques I find thought provoking.  Sometimes I justify their inclusion on the grounds that it’s defensive reading — maybe they’ll slam one of my posts and I’ll want to know, but this isn’t a sufficient reason.  After all, I can rely on Google Analytics to tell me if I’m suddenly getting a lot of incoming visits from a takedown piece (or just count on one of you to notice I haven’t replied and comment).  And anything sufficiently interesting will probably get picked up by one of the bloggers I like and respect.

Reading dumb stuff I disagree with is practicing contempt and complacency.  It doesn’t spur me on to curiosity; it just gives me an opportunity to tsk tsk boring arguments and feel superior.  And keeping them around to rebut is just puffing myself up — the world will keep spinning whether or not I reply to everyone wrong on the internet.  Better to focus on questions where I have some weird/helpful reframing than wasting time answering dull questions posed in bad faith.

The other category of reading I tend to avoid is writeups of people’s problems that I have no business knowing.  Anything related to Charlie Sheen falls into this category.  Basically anything where I’m not going to do something practical with the information, the information isn’t inherently beautiful (like smallpox trivia is), and the subject of the information is in pain that I’m not acting to mitigate.


(Oh, and one of the big reasons I wanted to reply to Xanthate’s question is that I haven’t done as well I should in cutting myself off.  Writing this post shamed me into dropping five bad feeds from Google Reader).

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  • Lukas Halim

    Related, this is an interesting lecture that discusses the effect of music: http://www.instituteofcatholicculture.org/music-the-soul-restoring-or-destroying-the-inner-man/

  • deiseach

    That’s something I’m guilty of: I read things that I know are just going to send my blood-pressure skyrocketing and have me pounding out an outraged and snarky comment, so why do I do it?

    Trying to avoid that a bit more, but definitely not as good as I should be.

    • George

      “That’s something I’m guilty of: I read things that I know are just going to send my blood-pressure skyrocketing and have me pounding out an outraged and snarky comment, so why do I do it?”

      This, in a nutshell, has been the past year and a half election cycle for me. This fall I had to completely cut myself off from domestic news sources and almost all blogs to save my productivity and blood pressure. I only allow myself to watch the debates and read BBC News (and only BBC news) on the weekends.

  • Xanthate

    Thanks for anwering my question, and cutting off bad feeds is definitely something I need to work on too. I was referring to battlestar galactica in the original question, but you would have been an atheist when it came out, and I guess it was too useful as an example to pass up? Lukas, thanks for the link.

    • leahlibresco

      I don’t think BSG glorified sex or violence.

      • Well, I don’t know about that. I think BSG certainly uses sex and violence as selling points, which might count as glorification. That is, the producers knew perfectly well that two of the reasons people might keep watching the show were the fight sequences and the sexy Cylon ladies.
        I would absolutely say the plot rather clearly laughs with disapproval at Balter for his philandering (and pities Starbuck for hers). Ultimately, violence seems like a sometimes necessary evil, too; violence in BG is not a good thing, but a symptom of a sick situation or personality. But as much as we can say with confidence that the plot does not advocate promiscuity or violence, the fact that it showcases so much of it, in ways designed to tintillate, means that both attitudes towards sex-and-violence are present. If a person struggled with lust or the glorification of violence, and if that person thought that watching sexy Cylon ladies or gun fights was a bad thing if one had those struggles, then I could understand if that person thought watching BSG was a problem, because BSG does have a lot those things. (But notice how many components that syllogism has; I’m not sure I am down with all of those premises myself.)

        • Xanthate

          While in some circumstances it does present violence as a necessary evil, there are some times where it just goes straight into cool space battles mode-possibly to give viewers a respite from the moralizing and grimdark (the glamorized ones are the ones where the humans get the easier wins-eg the one where boomer turned the cylons’ virus back on them, letting the viper pilots shoot up defenceless raiders), but still. And I agree with you about starbuck’s philandering, but not Baltar’s. I can’t think of any times when it’s caused him real problems.

          • Ted Seeber

            “And I agree with you about starbuck’s philandering, but not Baltar’s. I can’t think of any times when it’s caused him real problems.”

            Well, except for the obvious one in the first episode where it caused a cylon nuclear attack……

          • “While in some circumstances it does present violence as a necessary evil, there are some times where it just goes straight into cool space battles mode” — That happens to be my point; BSG both moralizes against violence and presents it as a cool thing viewers want to watch.

            A film (or other text) does not have to punish a character to express disapproval for their actions. If it had to, it would never exceed the subtlety of Aesop. When Baltar is around women, he usually looks pretty foolish (I’m talking about facial expressions, not just decisions) and he usually acts in ways that are undignified (having sex in a bathroom stall) or completely predictable. As much as he does not get punished very often for his philandering, he nevertheless appears to be a slave to his passions/appetite, and he winds up being very manipulable as a result (Tori). And the harem-cult? That strikes you as being glorifying? I don’t think BSG wags its metaphorical finger at Baltar, but I’d say it laughs at him, not with him. However, it’s the same with the fight scenes; there’s plenty of moralizing, but there’s also plenty of fanservice.

    • deiseach

      I didn’t watch the new BSG, but not for reasons of custody of the eyes. I liked the old one (cheesy as it was, and yes, even though it was Mormons In Space) and I saw no reason for an updated version, particularly as it was touted to be ‘darker and grittier’ (and I got enough of that with comics in the 90s, thanks very much).

      I suppose my only advice is that if you are afraid it will titillate you (rather than having you sit there rolling your eyes and going “Oh, for the love of Mike, cut the kissy stuff and get back to the action!”), then you should avoid it. Of course, it’s hard to know in advance what that is going to be, but if the publicity stills are full of leggy blondes in short red dresses, that might be a clue (leggy blonds in short red capes, on the other hand, might be more of a temptation).

  • Erick

    Let’s be honest; sex and violence sells. While BSG engaged in a lot of gratuitousness, I think it was a lot more balanced in its presentation of sex and violence than most TV shows geared towards the “mature” audience.

    I don’t think there is a “one size fits all” solution in regards to this issue. Some minds are simply more mature and can handle the sex and violence. Some minds are not. If you feel you aren’t mature enough in your formation, then you should avoid such shows. If you feel you can handle the sex and violence, then you can go ahead and enjoy.

    Personally speaking, I’ve used the “don’t get bogged down in the details” approach to such shows. Much like interpreting the bible, each episode has truths and lessons to tell and one shouldn’t let the every little detail distract and get in the way of finding those truths and lessons. BSG, in particular, had some very good lessons and posed some very good questions on the human condition. The sex and violence did not detract from those.

  • I think it’s also important that we don’t make judgements on what things are ‘near occasions of sin’ for others as well. I had an online fight with a traddie who was trying to argue that priests shouldn’t be on Facebook or go to bars – Facebook being filled with scantily clad women and bars obviously being bad environments and thus both being near occasions of sin. My argument was that priests (unless they particularly struggle with lust in the case of FB or alcoholism in the case of bars) ought to be in these places because that’s where the ‘sinners’ are. That’s where they will have the biggest impact on their communities.

    I got out of that forum for many of the reasons Leah says she dropped those feeds.

  • …here’s the kind of bad media consumption that I try to curb (and haven’t really done enough): reading people who annoy me and who I don’t expect to learn anything from.

    That’s wise.

    A lot of commentators have inverted Popper’s teachings regarding falsification. Whereas he might recommend reading the best of one’s opponents in order to challenge one’s theories they seek out the worst in order to affirm them.

  • keddaw

    Does any of this include watching magic shows? Or taking part in ‘the occult’*? Or Sabrina, Buffy, Twilight, zombie films etc.?

    Your new religion has quite a lot of baggage with this stuff…

    *Please not how I’m avoiding the obvious here.

    • leahlibresco

      BtVS is tremendously life affirming, and it’s sure not the supernatural that makes Twilight poisonous.

      • Alan

        So is two homosexuals confessing eternal love for one another in front of their friends and family – doesn’t eliminate the baggage your new religion has with this stuff

        • Ted Seeber

          In front of friends and family isn’t what we have a problem with. Even the profession of love isn’t what we have a problem with.

          Pretending to be for creating a normal human heterosexual family with progeny is what we have a problem with- thus the redefinition of the word “marriage” being the issue, not the actual love itself.

          But somehow I’m not surprised *at all* that you would be utterly blind to this subtlety, the homosexual mind having many of the same problems as my own mind in understanding subtlety and discretion. Which is why I’m rather sure that Dr George Weinberg was bribed and his research biased and suspect.

          • Alan

            Actually, you have a problem with the entire relationship – just because you try to isolate the sexual part doesn’t change that. You don’t just have a problem with homosexual marriage (as if that weren’t enough) but you have a problem with homosexuality.

            And frankly, the only homosexuals who pretend to create a normal heterosexual family are ones who, because of pressure for the outside, are pretending to be heterosexual. On the other hand, there are many who do have normal families with progeny in a way far closer to the actual definition of the word marriage than your usage of rape approaches its definition.

            And Ted, I’m not a homosexual so your utter ignorance as to what differentiates the minds of homosexuals and heterosexuals is irrelevant here. But somehow I’m not surprise *at all* that you can’t comprehend that your ignorance and absurdity is apparent to those of all sexual persuasions.

          • Erick

            Charity, Ted, Charity….

      • Resolved: Gay marriage debates are spontaneously generated from decaying blog comment threads.

        • Alan

          Sorry, I didn’t mean for this to be a debate on gay marriage only to point out that ‘life affirming’ is not a criteria often used by Catholics to excuse content or actions that are otherwise viewed as verboten.

        • leahlibresco

          “Egad!” said the scientist, “if only we could harness the exothermic power of the decay chain, we could power the whole world for a year just from the third page of Reddit”

          • best. comment. ever. (or at least today).

      • jenesaispas

        I don’t think Twilight is really that bad, but it goes downhill sharply from there…

    • deiseach

      Almost the only thing that drives me into a frothing fury of wanting to form a torch-bearing, pitchfork-wielding crowd of revolting peasants to burn the castle down around the nobleman’s ears with him inside* is when the films/tv shows have characters who can’t pronoune the word “Samhain”. That’s because I’m Irish, though and the mispronunciation (never mind the misappropriation) of a Celtic holyday drives me nuts. Otherwise, I’m easy.

      I did derive great amusement from an episode of “Supernatural”, though, where they wanted to show a witch’s grimoire (not called by that name) and the glimpses of the pages shown onscreen revealed that the ‘mystic Celtic spell’ text the production unit or whomever used was actually phrases from the Irish language version of the “Our Father”. Of course, they obviously grabbed the first thing they found online and didn’t worry themselves too much about Irish-speakers (or readers) being able to tell exactly what was being shown. 🙂

      *In 1494, Gearóid Mór, Gerald Fitzgerald, the Great Earl (8th Earl of Kildare) burned down Cashel cathedral. When asked why he had done so, he replied “Because they told me the Archbishop was inside.

      • leahlibresco

        How do you pronounce it?

        Also, hee hee.

        • deiseach

          The wrong pronunciation is to split it into two halves and say it as though it is in English: “Sam-hane”. The correct pronunciation is a bit trickier – “Sow (as in ‘female pig’) – ann”. Emphasis on first syllable. In Modern Irish, the month of November is Samhain (or Mí na Samhna ‘Mee nah Sow-nah’, literally Month of Samhain).

          Hallowe’en itself is Oíche Shamhna, literally “Night (0f) Hallowe’en”,and is pronounced “Ee-ha How-nah”. You can hear it (in an Ulster Irish, that is, Northern pronunciation) audio clip here.

          There you go – your blog is every bit as educational as Sesame Street! 🙂

          • I’m a sucker for this sort of thing – Do you know of any online resource for systematically learning Irish?

          • deiseach

            Sorry, can’t of my own experience recommend any thing online. Just try googling and see what comes up! There are three major dialects (Munster, Connacht and Ulster) so there will be small differences; for instance, online guide from our national radio and television broadcaster, RTÉ, is in the Connacht dialect, as you can tell from the opening greeting.

            Saying “How are you?” is ‘Conas atá tú?’ in the Munster (Southern) Irish I learned at school (and have, alas!, forgotten since), it is ‘Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú?’ in Connaught (Western) Irish, and ‘Cad é mar atá tú?’ in Ulster (Northern) Irish. This is probably why the Irish greeting for “Hello” is “Dia duit”, response “Dia is Muire duit” (literally “God be with you” and “God and Mary be with you”) since that’s the same all over 😉

            What I can recommend is look for evening classes near you if there are any; there’s no substitute for hearing and speaking with a real person. Also, what I can recommend for everyone is this online poetry reading of the poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill reading her poems (in the original Irish and in English translation) for a taste of how the Munster dialect sounds.

          • kenneth

            The only thing better than “Sam Hane” is the old Jack Chick canard (sometimes repeated by “spiritual warfare folks even now), which has us performing human sacrifice on that night to an evil god by that name!

  • Side note. I love The Thick of It for exactly the same reason, Leah. The characters are interesting, sure. The political intrigue is fun, true. I have to admit (pace my Irish ancestry) that I have a soft spot for lots of English things, including (God help me) Downton Abbey, despite my best efforts to dislike it and cast it as a mere soap opera.
    But the real reason I watch The Thick of It? To watch people get bawled out like no other.
    That’s probably symptomatic of something wrong in my soul. Oh, well.