The Good, the Bad, and the Useless

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The Good, the Bad, and the Useless

Approaching media with wisdom, grace, and common sense.

Edited by Don Schwager

© 2000 by Word of Life Community
Unless otherwise noted, scripture passages in this article are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1952 [2nd edition, 1971] by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The media—television, movies, music, radio, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet—has very high impact. It influences our thinking, our behavior, and our emotions. It is an influence we cannot simply ignore. We need to understand how the media affects us as Christians. The use of media is an important area for Christians to handle well. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with media, it has a great potential for damage and disorientation. Some of the difficulty comes from the content, which is often immoral, worldly, and ideologically loaded. The media is normally high-impact and a lot of it often amounts to “a near occasion of sin.” Media can motivate us to do wrong or to live less dedicated Christian lives. It can shape our outlook on life in a way that leads away from a Christian vision and perspective.

The scriptures give us a clear command: “Do not model yourselves on the behavior of the world around you, but let your behavior change, modeled by your new mind.” (Romans 12:2) We need to understand what kind of models and behavior are being portrayed in the media. Much of the media nourishes a certain non-Christian way of looking at life. A key question to ask is, “What view of reality is being presented here?” Depending on one’s view of reality, a person will think certain actions are right and others wrong; he will see some issues as important, others as trivial; he will tend to be fearful or confident.

The media also causes difficulty because of the time it absorbs (Americans spend upwards of 45 hours per week watching TV) and the way it interrupts social activities. It substitutes passive entertainment for active entertainment. The media has a way of intruding on our lives, inducing us to use or be affected by it without a conscious decision to do so. As Christians we want to take an approach to media and entertainment that maximizes the benefits and minimizes the harms to our Christian life.
The “Religious” Character of Television
We need to be aware that every society inevitably develops cultural institutions. These serve a primary role in defining reality, shaping values, influencing attitudes, and guiding lifestyles. In our society the cultural institutions that have performed these functions have primarily been the home, the church, and the school. Television must now be reckoned as a cultural institution as well. It has become a parent, a priest, and a teacher. It has reoriented and changed the formative roles of the home, school, community, and church. Some have gone so far as to claim that television has now assumed the role of a “new religion” for Western civilization. For example, George Gerbner, a prominent communications researcher, says:

It is a religion beyond the dreams of emperors and priests because its ministrations are subsidized by a levy on the price of all goods and are invited to entertain in every home in the land.”

The social functions of television suggest its religious character. These social functions include:
Status Conferral: The media bestows prestige, enhances authority, and confers status on issues, people, organizations, and movements. What would it mean for a TV crew to show up at a meeting you are attending?

The enforcement of social norms: What society deems acceptable is reaffirmed; the deviant is put down. As Harvey Cox says:

The media culture becomes a kind of touchstone for one’s own worth and even one’s own perceptions...People begin to distrust their own ideas and impulses if they are not corroborated by the media. The signals begin to prescribe not only what is good and true, but what is real.”
The “narcotic effect” (narcotizing dysfunction): A vast supply of media output, rather than energizing and producing action, tends to cause passivity and inertia. Television may be the new “opiate” or narcotic of the masses. A leading cause of over-weight children is TV passivity: little exercise and the effect of food advertising on TV.
The “popular culture” portrayed on television: Television presents a picture of reality that influences us more than an overt message could. As Todd Gitlin has described it:

Television’s world is relentlessly upbeat, clean, and materialistic. Even more sweepingly, with few exceptions, prime time gives us people preoccupied with personal ambitions. If not utterly consumed by ambition and the fear of ending up as losers, these characters take both the ambition and the fear for granted. If not surrounded by middle-class arrays of consumer goods, they themselves are glamorous incarnations of desire. The happiness they long for is private, not public; they make few demands on society as a whole, and even when troubled they seem content with the existing institutional order. Personal ambition and consumerism are the driving forces of their lives. The sumptuous and brightly lit settings of most series amount to advertisements for a consumption-centered version of the good life, and this doesn’t even take into consideration the incessant commercials, which convey the idea that human aspirations for liberty, pleasure, accomplishment, and status can be fulfilled in the realm of consumption. The relentless background hum of prime time is the packaged good life.”

Form and Content
The form of television is intimately related to the content. Relationships are as brittle and shifting as the action of the camera: Most people turn out to be unreliable and double-dealing. Where strong commitments are portrayed, as in police dramas, they are only between buddies, and the environing atmosphere, even within the police force, is one of mistrust and suspicion.
There are two characteristics of this “popular culture”: (I) Television shows us people who are, above all, consumed by ambitions and the fear of ending up losers. (2) The portrayal of vivid personal feeling: Television is much more interested in how people feel than in what they think. What they think might separate us, but how they feel draws us together. Successful television personalities and celebrities are thus people able freely to communicate their emotional states—we feel that we “really know them.” And the very consumption goods that television so insistently puts before us integrate us by providing symbols of our version of the good life.
Values Portrayed in Movies
People go to movies to be entertained. Rarely, however, do people use critical judgment in selecting what they watch. They are often not even aware of what movies are doing to them. If we attend movies passively, if we do not use critical judgment in selecting what we watch, and if we fail to evaluate what we have watched, we lay ourselves open to forces that will affect us and form us even as we sit there thinking we are just being entertained. Good movies are like good books: they can ennoble us; they can show us a side of the human condition we may have not considered before; they can cause us to think and reflect on life and its meaning.

David Puttnam, producer of more than 30 movies, including Chariots of Fire, comments on American media habits and the impact that TV and movies are having on people (interview in Time Magazine 5/1/89):

The American film audience lives on a diet of television that is something like McDonald’s hamburgers—nobody asks how nutritious they are; they taste good. Without any lack of gratitude, I remember thinking after Chariots of Fire won the Academy Award that it was the kind of film audiences should expect every single week and shouldn’t be accounted the best film of the year.
I think television has far more impact on society at large. I think a movie can have the most impact on the individual. Cinema is insidious in a way. You’re on your own in the theater, seeing images that are bigger than life. It almost steals into your subconscious. Like a great teacher, cinema can provide something you refer back to year after year.
At the end of the day, the media have the effect of leveling society up or leveling society down. If I make a film the net effect of which is to make people within my society less likely to be the kind of people I want to live hand in glove with, I’ve unleashed forces within my own society that I don’t want to contend with.
The Language of Popular Music and Youth Culture

Rock’s message, audio pornography, and MTV
Music is a means of communication and a means of artistic expression. These two functions, communication and art, enable people to use music to convey feelings and carry information.
Since music has the capacity to bypass the intellect and target the emotions, it has become a popular means of conveying religious truth (and error), confirming and challenging values, disseminating political propaganda, and influencing public opinion surrounding controversial issues.

Music is probably more influential today than in past cultures. For one reason, it is ever present. Music is the language of today’s generation. What is the message being conveyed in contemporary music? With the message also comes a world view. Recognize that the music you and your children listen to is a mirror to your souls.

Mike Keating, an experienced youth director for many years in the Sword of the Spirit, has given an excellent seminar on music and youth culture. Here are some excerpts from an article he wrote for Pastoral Renewal (May & July, 1987):
One primary youth culture carrier is the electronic media. Most recently in the partnership of rock and TV, rock music became characterized by sensuality and self-centeredness by brutality and barbarity, the predictable consequences of atheistic humanism. It became what it has remained ever since: the music of youth culture.

We can identify at least six roles that music plays in young people’s lives. Let’s look at them and at their effects.

  1. Music as a Bearer. This is the role we most readily think of. Music bears messages to the listener, partly through lyrics, but also through the artist’s behavior, dress, image, and expressed values. These latter cultural messages are of special importance in the youth music world, where musicians are super-heroes and work hard to project images that correspond to their music. Through music, young people get a steady diet of images, emotional stimuli, ideas.

  1. Music as Catalyst for Casting Off Restraints. Many young people, when they talk of going out with their friends, will say things like, “Let’s get wild,” or “Let’s go nuts.” They are looking for high-pitched excitement.

  1. Music as Identity Former. Music is a symbol of identify for young people, a lot like their style of dress. The rule is, listen to the music that is acceptable to the peer group you want to identify with. Most young people do not have the confidence to transgress these unwritten but powerful laws of peer group pressure.

  1. Music as Emotional Drug. All music has some emotive dimension. This is especially true of rock. Rock is designed to produce and heighten emotional states. There is rock music for feeling angry and rebellious, for feeling romantic, for feeling nostalgic, for feeling depressed. Some young people develop a kind of emotional dependence on their music that is not easily broken.

  1. Music as Passive Escape. Walk around campus, and you will see students wearing headsets on their way to and from classes. It is their way of saying “I’m tuning out from life.” It fosters a passive approach to life’s problems, a passive attitude to dealing with whatever enters the mind. (Editor’s note: since this article was published small cassette players have been replaced by Mp3 players and cell phones, and headsets by ear buds. The dynamic of tuning out, however, remains much the same.)

  1. Music as Medium of Transcendent Experience. Music is a spiritual thing. The vast majority of secular rock glorifies sin. Most secular rock musicians promote sinful behavior on and off stage, in and out of their music. Rebellion, sexual promiscuity, drunkenness, drugs, suicide, the occult—these are major rock themes.

We need to keep an eye on the changing Christian music scene and to be discerning in our choices. Because young people identify with the performers, not just the music, we need to examine not only lyrics, but lives. Are the musicians living as Christians? Are they good models of Christian adult behavior? Do they evidence a grasp of Christian truth? Do they demonstrate bonds of fellowship with other Christians?

Aliens in CyberSpace

Computers, Video Games, the World Wide Web, Chat Rooms,

and other aliens to watch out for
Using Computers
Computers are marvelous tools for educational purposes, and for fun and games. But, they can easily be abused as well. Parents have a responsibility to supervise their children’s use of the computer and to set definite boundaries. Arthur Pober, Ed.D, former head of Hunter College Elementary School for gifted children in New York City and the current head of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, writes:
The thing that’s so enticing about computers is that they offer a simulated environment. Characters that kids know from literature or TV come alive. And the computer allows kids to react and interact at their own pace. It’s not judgmental and it allows endless repetition. Kids love repetition and the computer can do that very easily. That is very appealing for kids—and for Mom and Dad.” (Source.’ PC Family Magazine, March, 2000.]
Tim Seldin, M.Ed., President of the Montessori Foundation, cautions parents that children using the computer, like watching the television, is a passive activity that can be unhealthy if not moderated properly.
It appears that some kids are spending great gobs of time sitting in front of tubes—computers or TVs. This may be affecting their ability to do normal things. We are finding that increasing numbers of children are showing up with poor motor planning and poor neurological integration.” (Source: PC Family Magazine, March, 2000.]
The Internet and Cyberspace

The Internet is here to stay. It can be a great tool for educational purposes, for communication with family and friends, and for games and entertainment. But, we cannot ignore the fact that there is an underside that is addictive, harmful and abusive, and spiritually dangerous for all. The Internet is designed to capture attention, and it works. Web sites, email, chat rooms, and online gaming all have a strong draw for young and old alike.

The Internet you know is probably not the same place your children visit. The Internet has become second nature for most kids. Many kids today spend hours online chatting, texting, and visiting social network sites. Pornographers and predators prey on unsuspecting youth and adults. Keeping yourself and the family safe on the Internet is a commonsense procedure. Just as parents need to keep a watchful eye on the kids while they play in the neighborhood, so parents need to keep a watchful eye on what their kids do online. The best protection is not having and not using the Internet. Safe, filtered Internet access by a service provider is the next best protection. Software programs, such as CyberPatrol and NetNanny offer good, but limited protection with parental controls.
Online Pornography—the new red light district
Because of the difficulty of regulating the Internet, pornography is easily available online. Many get hooked on it because it is a secret area or activity that eludes accountability. Pornography is not only gravely sinful, but addictive and harmful to relationships. It distorts and damages God’s intention for human sexuality. The scriptures give a clear prescription for dealing with it: “Flee sexual immorality!” (1 Cor. 6: 18). Job made a covenant with his eyes to not look lustfully at a woman (Job 31: 1). When Joseph in Egypt was tempted by his boss’s wife, he fled instantly rather than yield to temptation (Gen. 39: 12). By God’s grace we can and must choose to live chastely and purely. If you are unable to control using the Internet without being drawn to pornography, do not use it—or subscribe to a safe filtered Internet access by a service provider.

Some Guidelines for Different Types of Media Use

God has called us to be holy men, women, and children who belong to him and not to this world. Given the consecration of our lives to God, we want to keep ourselves unstained from the world (James 1 :27). Our approach to media should be shaped by Scripture’s concern for our interior life and growth in Christian character.
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Phil. 4:8)
Present your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice. acceptable to God... and do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
Along with the psalmist, we should not set before our eyes anything that is base (Psalm 101:3). We want to exercise and teach our children spiritual discernment in our use of the media, recognizing that most media carries with it the savor of worldliness and is out of accord with the life in Christ. We want to reap the positive benefits when it is prudent to engage the media. At the same time we want to minimize the harm to our Christian lives. Furthermore, in our discernment of the use of the media we want to use objective criteria (is the material itself good or bad), rather than subjective criteria, such as “whether it affects me or not.”
Given these passages and other sources of Christian wisdom, we can define some general principles for shaping our use of media:

  1. Make conscious, informed decisions about use of media.

  1. Seek to avoid media that is immoral or harmful.

  1. Put limits on use of media so that it can actually be helpful in our lives: for entertainment, inspiration, education, and socializing.

What follows is some practical wisdom for different types of media use:

A. Television

  1. Limit the number of hours per week and be cautious about the content—a very good application of “quality not quantity.”

  1. Plan ahead—have a family discussion each week about what the various family members would like to watch.

  1. Pay attention to the content—violence, ideology, morality: children are affected.

  1. Look for edifying shows that can leave you thinking according to Philippians 4:8.

  1. Limit “vegging out:” escaping from relationships or responsibility should not be mistaken for relaxation.

  1. Engage the spirit of self-control; gradually you will experience more conviction and insight.

B. Movies/Videos

  1. Select movies for a positive reason; not just “let’s go to a movie.” Christian movie reviews are helpful (as is the weekly local newspaper review). Be wary of rationalizing “it’s not so bad.” This can be a slippery slope into being gradually conditioned to tolerate worse and worse stuff.

  1. Make movie-going an occasional event, not a culture of “seeing the latest.” Be cautious about the latest box-office hit; do you want to spend money to pay actors to act out sin on the screen?

  1. Be overly scrupulous about recommending movies to other brothers and sisters. Be honest about what was not good, whether you rationalized sitting through the whole thing, and whether there was anything genuinely positive (lessons, inspiring plots, good character studies, good humor, etc.)

  1. The movie screen is bigger than reality for small children. For all of us, it call leave memories that flash back at odd limes. Some can plant fear and lies that can be very convincing.

  1. Limit using videos as a “baby-sitter.” Make the sacrifice to do projects, build relationships, and read to your children.

  1. Horror genre: Avoid whenever possible. Why be entertained by gore, fear, and weirdness? Many of these movies plant fears and speculation about spiritual matters (i.e. witchcraft, twisted theology; speculation; lies and wrong thinking about heaven and hell.)

C. Radio and Popular Music

  1. Time and quality are important. Some music can help us think according to Philippians 4:8. Some music can make us unhappy, stimulate romantic desires, deaden our thinking, or stir up negative emotions. And, some music can be great to dance to, soothe our spirits, or make us laugh.

  1. Lyrics can stick with us and affect us spiritually: even silly, musical jingles from advertisements.

  1. There are good talk shows, good Christian stations, and plenty of good music. We have no excuse for choosing poor programming.

  1. Beware of the rationalization “I’m not listening to the lyrics.” The lyrics still get into our subconscious minds and can plant evil desires and thoughts that come back to haunt us.

  1. Sit down and listen to what is being played by your children. Talk about what is okay and what is not okay in a song and why. Establish rules for your children, e.g., “You may listen to Christian music, classical music, and show tunes; you may not listen to…”

D. Books

  1. Read to your children a lot (this is one constant for your kids to do well in school). Read the kind of literature that is well written, positive, true, humorous, etc., (variety and quality, education and inspiration.)

  1. Some should read less fiction and more truth; some should just learn to read. It is a great alternative to television and movies. You can learn much more and usually find truth more easily than from the stage, TV, or movies,

  1. Choose books for entertainment and relaxation (humor, adventure, mystery) that inspire Philippians 4:8 and Romans 12.

  1. Remember the growth wheel: we should allocate some of our time to spiritual reading.

E. Magazines

    1. There are many worthwhile types of magazines: Christian, historical, sports-related, news, trade journals, professional journals, etc. Again, we have no excuse for choosing magazines that appeal to the flesh and fantasies.

    1. Most of what is at the supermarket checkout line is inappropriate for Christians.

    1. Some might do well to read a magazine or two; some may be spending too much money on subscriptions.

NEWS: An individuals’ needs for news can vary according to a person’s station in life. Be aware that truth is not the highest value for reporters; getting a story, editorial policy, and ideology are often more important to them. Be a critical thinker and look for truth by reading good sources and limiting news intake to what is reasonable for your life situation.

INTERNET: The Internet can be addictive and a secret area of activity. It can also be a good source of information. It is not going to go away.

  1. With children and teenagers, keep the computer in a well traveled room so that the temptation to “check out junk” can be kept at bay.

  1. Self-impose a limit and have a family limit on internet use. It can be a greater thief of relational time than the TV.

  1. E-mail, texting, and social networks can be a blessing if they build relationships or a curse if they becomes a means to gossip.

  1. As with TV, the Internet is not essential. One can still go to the library to look something up.

  1. It has been a terrible pornography trap. For many, the risk is great. Do you trust yourself, let alone your children? At least get a good, Internet filter.


  1. Garbage in-garbage out; choose the good ones.

  1. Playing a character that is excessively violent is probably not good for your thoughts or spirits.

  1. Many games feature large amounts of witchcraft, occult, and spiritual speculations. Avoid these games because, as temples of the Holy Spirit, we are to honor the Lord.

Don Schwager is a former senior coordinator of the Word of Life Community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Currently he resides in London, England where he is the editor of Living Bulwark, an online magazine, and is the host of, an web site that helps people read a portion of scripture every day.

Family Night:

maintaining traditions that counter

the trend towards pulling families apart

by Howard Distzelweig
One of the great challenges parents face in our society is maintaining family cohesiveness in the face of the many influences that tend to pull families apart. Besides the forces that are directly hostile to family life, there is a hidden danger in the multitude of activities available for people of all ages.
Even activities that are good in themselves often damage families, thereby upsetting God’s plan for human life. A family with several children can find themselves so busy with sports, clubs, lessons and meetings of all sorts, that they spend little time doing things together. And the older the children get, the greater the demands. In order to combat this tendency, my wife and I adopted a pattern we saw others using and made every Saturday evening “Family Night”.
We begin with our main meal of the week, which we consider the beginning of the Lord’s Day, and then we play games or have some other entertaining activity. When we started this tradition, our first child was a toddler and we had several single adults living with us. Over the years more children came and we no longer had extra adults, but after almost 20 years, Saturday night is still Family Night.
During this time we have tried many different kinds of activities. Some work better than others. Sometimes we play cards, letting younger children be on teams with adult if necessary. Occasionally we play board games, such as “Chutes and Ladders” when the children were younger; “Clue” is a more popular choice today. At times, especially if we are all exhausted from the week, we rent a video, often from the Classics section. (We have seen all the Abbott and Costello films our local video store stocks). What we enjoy most, however, are activities that require a little more creativity.

Bible charades was probably our most frequent choice for many years and it is still a favorite. Instead of movies and books, we use categories such as biblical persons, events and quotations. The story of David and Goliath was acted out many times when our children were little. “Machines,” in which one or more people mime some kind of machine, is a very entertaining variation on charades. We found that the younger children enjoyed working with older children or adults to portray mixers, pianos, and even computers.

One of our most ambitious and creative activities is “Grab-Bag Dramatics”. One person gathers bags of common household objects; a group of three or four participants shares one bag. Each group prepares a short skit using all the items in their bags as props. This activity requires a fairly large number of people and a high percentage of adults or older children, but it is a lot of fun.

The local Christian bookstores have provided us with games which we simplified slightly and have enjoyed immensely. “Bible Pictionary” is one of our all-time favorites. The essence of the game is to make the other participants guess the biblical person, place, object or event you have in mind by drawing. Speed, not high art, is the goal. We use a large newsprint sketch pad and crayons instead of the small pad that comes with the game. “Bible Baseball” is another game we modified and simplified. There are several books of Bible quiz questions available. These books are supposedly divided into levels of difficulty, but we found some of the “simple” more difficult than some of the “difficult” ones. All these Bible based games have the additional benefit of increasing interest in and knowledge of the Bible.

We have also enjoyed a number of seasonal activities that have deepened our appreciation of the liturgy and liturgical year. During Advent we made Jesse tree symbols and Christmas ornaments. One year, for variety, we made an advent mobile instead of a Jesse tree.
We have spent some Lenten family nights decorating Easter candles—family-sized versions of the Paschal Candle—which we then light for our Saturday dinners from Easter until Ascension Thursday.

We have enjoyed many other activities in the 20 years we have been doing this, but these indicate the range of activities we have found helpful. Our minimum requirement in choosing an activity is that everyone is able to participate, but not everyone has to be enthusiastic about the activity. A willingness occasionally to do something that one does not especially enjoy is essential for Family Night to work—indeed, for family life to work! The ability to accept others’ limitations does not seem to be inborn in our children, so we had to do a bit of training. Another problem we have had to deal with, especially when our children were younger, was competitiveness. We do not generally have teams when we play games like charades, and we keep score as little as possible. Noncompetitive activities He still our preference.

The biggest obstacle we face in maintaining our tradition of Family Night is the attraction of other activities. Our children’s friends do not have the same Saturday night obligation our children do. As our children become old enough to drive, the pressure to skip Family Night or to let a family member go out instead of participating has increased. We have never been completely rigid in observing this tradition, and we do let the older teenagers not participate on rare occasions. More often we let them go out afterwards, but this can result in very late nights. We are helped in dealing with this tension by the fact that our children have grown up with Family Night and really like it.
We have seen many side benefits from our Family Night activities, such as greater creativity and increased knowledge of the Bible, but the overriding reason we maintain the tradition is simply to be a close family. Almost always we have a good time, but even when our time together is not of the highest quality, our familial relationships are strengthened. Years of Family Nights store up fond memories and forge bonds of love. The saying, “the Family that prays together stays together,” is indubitably true, but we have found that there are blessings when the family plays together too.

This article originally appeared in The Family Magazine, Vol. 43, No. 8, September 1995, published by St. Paul Books & Media, Boston, MA. Howard Distzelweig is a long-time member of the Word of Life community in Ann Arbor, MI.

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