The large-looming church father St. Augustine famously stated, “Once and for all, I give you this one short command: Love, and do what you will” (Sermon on 1 John 4:4-12).
In asserting as much, Augustine pays implicit tribute to the same priorities Jesus emphasizes: love of God and love of neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40). Yet, we sometimes neglect applying the rule of love to our entertainment choices, particularly to Netflix, network TV and premium cable—especially the shows labeled for “mature audiences.”
When it comes to grayer areas like determining what TV is suitable for Christians, our consciences, traditions and tastes lead us to a variety of convictions and comfort levels. And the last thing that will help us here is to create extra-biblical and likely legalistic lists of “watch” and “do not watch.”
But that doesn’t mean that Christians should indiscriminately consume whatever entertainment options are out there.
So, keeping with the idea that love comes first, here are three questions each of us should ask before setting our DVRs for the next episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Why Do I Want to Watch This Show—to Glorify God or Self?
As the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches, man’s purpose is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. This includes during your weekly scheduled primetime dramas.
This does not mean that we expect networks to produce self-consciously God-honoring content, but the type of content we enjoy does say a lot about us.
Sure, not everything is squeaky clean and appropriate for Nick Jr., and so there’s bound to be content that makes light of sin or perhaps even glorifies it. We’re more than kidding ourselves if we expect any type of art made between Genesis 3 and this side of Revelation 21–22 to be completely biblical in its outlook.
Further, programming would not reflect the actual world in which we live if it didn’t contain elements of fallenness, both good and evil. Hence the “TV-MA” rating does not automatically rule a show out of bounds. (In case you were wondering, North American ratings boards do not grade content on a scale of most biblical to least biblical.)
What matters most, however, is to ask ourselves about why we are drawn to a certain show. Do we watch something to see echoes and reflections of our Creator’s character and beauty and His grand story of redemption, no matter how densely veiled they might be? Or do we watch because we prefer a different reality, a world where the triune God of Scripture is seemingly nowhere to be found and thus the sinful attitudes or pursuits we subliminally treasure are free to be pursued?
As with any activity, in our television viewing, we participate either to run toward or away from the God who judges and redeems. For better or worse, we are what we watch. But the “why we watch” underlies the “what we watch.” We’re either cultured lovers of God longing for eternal life in the Kingdom or entertained idolaters amusing ourselves to death and damnation.
How Could Watching This Show Detract from My Growing in Holiness and Make Me More Susceptible to Sinning?
“If your Roku causes you to sin, tear it off and throw it away, lest your entire body be cast into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30). OK, so Roku wasn’t a popular device during the time of Second Temple Judaism. But Jesus’ warning nonetheless applies to this very subject—and it goes beyond forbidding us from what constitutes as porn (though it certainly does do that, at least). Jesus says we should go to the utmost extremes to prioritize our love for God and cultivate holiness in our lives.
In seeking to love God and neighbor in all that we do, we must consider the effect that a show might have—or is having—on us psychologically, emotionally and relationally. Are there images on a show that prompt me to lust and objectify women? Is the violent content causing me to become numb and complacent to human suffering? Is it breeding selfish attitudes in me? Is crude speech becoming a pattern for me because of this show’s strong language? Or am I subtly beginning to condone adultery and the hook-up culture in the name of 21st-century romance?
These and others might all be valid questions, and different types of content will affect each of us differently, so it is probably healthiest that we do not create “one size fits all” catalogs of sanctioned TV series for Christians.
How am I Keeping my Christian Community Informed about My Viewing Habits?
This question supplements the previous one. It’s not enough merely to ask yourself in isolation how a show might affect you. Just because one TV show size doesn’t fit all viewers, that doesn’t mean others shouldn’t involved in what we watch. Rather, we need others to hold us accountable for TV viewing habits. Who would know if a show were having a negative effect on you? For shows that might be questionable, have you worked out your rationale for watching them in the context of Christian community?
It takes a church to rear a Christian, and we need the Spirit-indwelt community of our risen Messiah to draw us out and see ourselves for who we are—simultaneously sinners and saints. Accountability and encouragement in accordance with the Gospel extend beyond routine Bible reading and avoiding Internet pornography. We need people in our local churches or among our circles of friends who are aware of what we’re watching. Then we ask, “Am I intentionally withholding this sort of information in fear of rebuke or correction from them?”
What structures do you have in place to ensure, as humanly possible, that an evil, unbelieving heart does not lead you to fall away from the living God (Hebrews 3:12-13)?
There are, of course, legions of further questions to consider regarding what is permissible for Christians to watch. Nonetheless, these three will do us well in pursuit of loving God and loving neighbor with our entertainment choices.
If we take proportional diligence with questions like these, it suffices for us to paraphrase Augustine in saying, “Love, and watch what you will.”
Josh Hayes is an editor for 'The Gospel Project' and a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He lives in the Nashville area with his wife, Sara, and their two children.