Media choices and parenting can prove a challenge when separate. Where they intersect, however, the stakes seem to increase exponentially.
For just the latest example in my home, this past Sunday was the most-watched entertainment event of the year – the Super Bowl.
The San Francisco 49-ers lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in what turned out to be a well-played, evenly-matched game where it wasn’t certain which team would come out on top until the last couple minutes.
One website says over 103.5 million people tuned in at peak, 9:45-10PM EST. The halftime show saw just a slight dip in that at 103.2 million.
And on that point in particular, no small degree of controversy has surrounded this year’s halftime show featuring Jennifer Lopez and Shakira singing and dancing, moving their scantily-clad bodies in a highly sexualized manner.
Did my family watch the game? And if we did, did we turn off the TV during the half-time show?
Before I tell you, let’s take a look at how we make the entertainment choices we do. And if we need to reassess, adapt, and overcome some shortsightedness in our approach, we can do that.
Read A Book?
But first, let me be clear. We really do have it all. Amazon Kindles, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, laptops, desktops, smart TV’s; video games, computer games, Facebook Messenger for Kids, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, high-speed internet – all of these are in my house, and my wife and I and our children make regular use of them.
We also have a great many books. And to house these, my house has more bookshelves than any other kind of furniture. Yet we always seem to have a shortage of shelves relative the volume of books we need to put away.
But which is better: a house full of electronics, or a house full of books? Though I know many intelligent, supremely confident people who would not hesitate to insist books by far the superior medium, the answer really depends.
Which electronics and which books? And why do we want or have them?
If these questions are not all-important, they are close enough. And though I love my friends and family who are strongly biased towards books and against video games and movies, I feel like they’re being old-fashioned for the heck of it, and missing the forest for the trees.
How then should we choose to be entertained?
As a father of seven, I am constantly being asked by my children if they can have this book, watch that movie, or get that game. How do I make the calls? What is my decision-making paradigm, and how can I be consistent over time and in varied situations?
I’ve been giving that deeper question a great deal of thought lately as I consider where my children are at in their gradual development into young adults. Allow me to share some observations with you.
Less Than All, More Than Nothing
For one thing, I do not believe my children should have unfettered access to anything and everything that catches their attention or interest all the time.
Whatever the medium we’re talking about, some content is not age appropriate. Period.
Besides being age-appropriate, though, some content has near-enough to no redeeming value however old you are. It is vacuous, amoral, and a waste of time and attention. Because I don’t want my children to grow comfortable and familiar with meaninglessness and frivolity, books, movies, and games which are defined by these qualities are not the best investment.
Here I will add, however, that the habit of some parents to be strict to the point of prohibiting electronics and entertainment is unwise and unnecessary, in our view.
There would be a kind of intellectual laziness to my reasons if I were to tell my children they could have no electronics, or near enough, as a general rule. Just so, though from an opposite direction, it would be irresponsible to say they could have all the electronics all the time.
But besides questions of age-appropriateness and frivolity, there are other criteria relevant to exercising discernment and good stewardship in these things. So how do we decide when and whether? First we must ask why. Why do our children want to give their time and attention to a given book, movie, or video game? And why should we want them to?
More than anything, the chief aim of parenting must be to cultivate good character in our children. Therefore, we should also use entertainment to form good character in our children and ourselves. Entertainment, after all, is a form of education. We all, but especially children, learn from playing.
Now in order to form good character, it’s not necessary that a work be completely free of negative elements. A story of good versus evil necessarily will involve portrayals of villainy. If I were to set up criteria which said the presence of evil or bad choices in a work was enough to invalidate the legitimacy of it, logical consistency would at some point have me keeping even the Bible from my children.
Yet it is important to consider whether the level of complexity in the portrayal of good versus evil, and wisdom versus folly is too great for the viewer to discern between an objective presentation and the glorification of wickedness.
And on that point, the glorification of evil is not the same thing as merely portraying vice and foolishness. For that matter, merely portraying these things is not the same as glamorizing them.
Who reads of the sins committed by men and women throughout both Old and New Testaments and fairly concludes that God is promoting those sins by telling us they happened?
On the other hand, it’s obvious the glamorization and glorification of sin and folly work against forming good character. That’s true with our children, and it’s true with us. The only real escape is when we recognize that such portrayals are in and of themselves corrupt, and their distribution is itself an outgrowth of sin and folly on the part of the content creators.
Concerning Meat & Altars
All this being said, there is a value in being culturally literate. It facilitates dialog with the wider world.
Think of the Apostle Paul not only quoting but being able to quote due to familiarity Greek poets when in Athens. Consider how Paul read the inscription on the altar to “the unknown God,” and then used it as a segue to presenting the gospel. Cultural literacy opened the door for Paul telling Gentiles about Christ.
Yet Paul also writes in the epistles to the early church about eating meat offered to idols. And he says that some believers have consciences which prevent them from being able to, while others have consciences which are unperturbed.
Some early Christians felt that partaking of food that had been blessed by a false god meant participating in idolatry. Other Christians were persuaded fully that they were not complicit and could, in good faith, consecrate food to the true God even if it was bought at market from a pagan vendor.
Interestingly, when Paul writes about this question, his preoccupation is with how disagreeing believers treat one another in their disagreement.
I believe we find ourselves in a similar situation with regards to entertainment. Each of us should be fully persuaded, and we should not violate our conscience or disobey God. We should not participate in sin and folly. And we should keep ourselves undefiled.
Yet even so, if someone is stricter than I am for reasons of conscience, I do not have a license to mock their convictions. And if I am more lenient than another brother, that does not give them the right to look on my Christianity with contempt.
Stewardship of Time and Attention
If we claim to be Christians, by God’s grace we ought to live according to the Scriptures. In them we are charged to “study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
Also, each of us are to live as wise, not as unwise. And we are to make the most of the time we have, particularly if the days are evil.
Yet the details of how exactly that plays out differ for each of us.
To say it is okay to disagree with one another and come to different conclusions is not the same as saying anything goes. There is a standard. Yet God’s Word tells us we have liberty.
Let us not forget that we do have freedom in Christ. And if we employ our freedom as stewards of the gifts God has given us, we should make our decisions according to focus rather than fear, except where the Scriptures tell us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
What is the best use of our time? Sometimes it is reading a book, or going for a hike. Other times it may genuinely be watching a movie or playing a video game.
Yet only so much time in a book, movie, piece of music, or video game produces a benefit in the real world. Beyond this, we see both diminishing returns on our investment, and also an opportunity cost.
Our time spent in a screen might have been invested elsewhere. Yet it does not necessarily follow that our time would have been better spent in that other place. Yet knowing when and not requires wisdom, so we should evaluate on a case-by-case basis.
For Everything a Season
The iconic song Turn! Turn! Turn! was released in 1965. But it wasn’t The Byrds who came up with the idea of everything having a season and a time. Indeed, as King Solomon wrote, there is no new thing under the sun.
Similarly, it was King Solomon who wrote Ecclesiastes 3.
“For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven.”
Where it pertains to a balanced media diet, I would interpose here:
- a time to read a book, and a time to watch a movie;
- a time to play outside, and a time to play a video game.
To increase my capacity for thinking strategically, should I read Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War, or play Civilization VI?
Is it better to learn about ancient Greek culture by reading Homer’s Iliad, or watching the movie Troy and playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey?
Why choose? It does not necessarily follow that I must choose the book over the game or movie when I can have all of the above, and thereby engage the subject matter in a more robust, comprehensive way.
Perhaps we’ll hit up a museum in Denver to look at some ancient artifacts. Or maybe I’ll take my sons into the hills with airsoft or paintball guns, and we’ll test our strategic ability in the real world.
But let’s not treat everything that comes through a computer monitor or television screen as inherently less beneficial for the purposes of education and character formation. Such a prejudice would have us missing out on many opportunities which we now have unprecedented access to.
For further reading on this subject, you can read another article I wrote back back in February of 2018, titled The Unrealized Potential of Video Games as Character Building Exercises.
All of that said, let’s return to the subject of this year’s Super Bowl.
A third of the population of the United States tuned in. Vast sums of money were spent on advertising to reach over 100-million people. So was it really about which man or team could carry an odd-shaped ball across a certain 100-yard field more times? No, the Super Bowl at it’s core is as much about that as a book is about ink and paper.
The soul of man was the real subject of the night. What is in the soul of a team of men that either enables them to win or keeps them from winning? That’s what the game was really about.
Similarly, the half-time show wasn’t about music and dancing. It was about what is in the soul of woman, at least this year.
But we learn what is in the soul of men and women not only by tuning in and watching the performers. We learn also by watching the watchers.
What does it say about the soul of our culture that the show was such as it was this year? Why did we watch what we watched?
And which came first, the sometimes questionable, controversial content, or the appetite and tolerance for such content on the part of the audience? This is a chicken and egg dilemma, to tell you the truth. Both feed into one another in a cyclical fashion.
But to answer the earlier question of whether my family tuned in, we did. We don’t watch football the rest of the year, but we were invited to watch. And we did. Yet to anyone who would judge me for that, I would refer again to the question of why.
Anthropology and Football
According to Wikipedia, Anthropology is:
“The scientific study of humans, human behavior and societies in the past and present.”“Anthropology,” Wikipedia
Now laugh if you will, but I am indeed suggesting my family and I watched the Super Bowl – warts and all – with an attitude not far removed from that of an anthropologist.
Why should we confine ourselves to studying human behavior and societies of the past only, or of only foreign places in the present?
In some sense, this country – the United States of America – though it is our native land, is more and more a foreign place. And the cultural divide between roughly two halves of the country sometimes results in strange phenomena. This is true on both micro and macro levels.
But I am not for ignorance about wrong-doing any more than I am for complicity in wrong-doing. On the contrary, in order to confront effectively we must first listen and watch well.
In other words, if I want to be like the Apostle Paul, or if I want my children to be, that requires study. And, yes, we must study the Scriptures first and foremost. Yet in order to reach our countrymen who are lost and godless, we must be at least loosely familiar with their poets and altars to unknown gods.
But this leads to yet another essential point. When answering “Why” and talking about forming good character, we cannot be successful if we lose sight of the needful answer. The needful answer is love.
We must love God and love man who is made in God’s image. “This is the whole duty of man,” as Ecclesiastes 12:13 says.
Yet we cannot love our fellow countryman if we insist on being ignorant concerning his condition and frame of mind.