“You have to be careful when you watch movies,” he says, “because you might think, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad. It’s just a little bit of sex.’ But you really don’t know how it will affect you in the long run.” For the next 10 minutes, our class of 22 students watches me go back and forth with Matt as we attempt to articulate our points of view and get to the heart of the session’s topic: discernment.
I feel a little badly for picking on Matt, but he’s saying what most of the other students in the class are thinking. Though I’ve heard this argument dozens of times, I’m never quite sure how to dismantle it gently and effectively. In part, Matt is right, but I have a strong sense that focusing only on those kinds of ideas distracts us somehow.
After class, I debrief with my husband, Rob, who teaches another section of the same course. “The problem is that our students don’t know how to talk about discernment,” he says. “They only know how to talk about discretion. ”
Aha, that’s it, I think. Discretion versus discernment.
Along with about 45 others at the Christian college where I work, I teach a required one-credit course for first year college students. In the process of exploring the mission and vision of the college, we have a class on cultural discernment. As we attempt to learn what discernment is by listening to music and watching film clips, this particular class session tends to reveal the ways in which students have been absorbing language and ways of thinking from various spirits of our age.
One such spirit threatens to derail a cultural discernment discussion every time. I’m not quite sure what to name it, but it comes in the form of lots of tsk-ing and head shaking about how Hollywood is out to get us with its representation of sex, violence and bad words. Each class seems pre-scripted. “We can say we don’t listen to the words of the music, but they do affect us in subtle ways” or, “The more we expose ourselves to violence in films, the more we get desensitized.” There’s a bit of truth in what they say: Our environments can affect us deeply long before a recognizable cognitive or behavioral effect reveals itself. My concern, however, is that such a fear-based approach leads to perpetual spiritual immaturity and, ultimately, isn’t really discernment at all.
I think we’re right to consider how something—a film, a concert, etc.—will affect us in both obvious and subtle ways. Every piece of art contains assumptions about the big questions of life—who we are, why we’re here, where we’re going—and we need to be aware of that fact, both in a specifically moral sense and a bigger worldview sense. However, I don’t think the personal effect of a film or concert is a good starting point for the Christian community when we’re talking about discernment, because such an approach is not "discernment," it’s "discretion."
For example, I would be using my discretion if I resisted watching the torture scene in Syriana. Other similar scenes have made me physically ill, burning an impression into my mind that haunts me. I also would be using discretion to stay away from Syriana if I had an obsessive crush on George Clooney (OK, that’s very hypothetical). Discretion requires individual assessment, making it very personal and, indeed, relative. What I can handle might not be the same as what my husband can handle. While I may count on a community to hold me accountable to the terms of my discretion, it’s ultimately a very individual process.
Discretion is a good and necessary thing, but it doesn’t fit the classical definition of spiritual discernment. The language of discretion too often becomes jargon designed to keep us afraid of the “big, bad world” and in a constant state of spiritual and intellectual infancy. Our call is to “test the spirits,” not to hide from them (1 John 4:1). In order to do that, we need to grow up—that is, recognize our personal limitations, but also learn how to be able to witness sinfulness without changing our minds about what’s good and pleasing to God. In doing so, “we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14). Just like we can read a passage of the Bible about incest without committing it ourselves, or be friends with someone who’s exceptionally greedy while being generous ourselves, we need to be able to witness sin in art and name it as such without being converted ourselves.
Discernment, in contrast to discretion, is communal, seeking not personal standards within ourselves, but seeking to tell the difference between light and darkness. Between big-G God and small-g god. Between the spirit of God and the spirits of the age. Between the truth and a lie. This is not a task to be taken lightly. In fact, it requires us to take off our blinders and expose ourselves to some incredibly deep human suffering in order to discover whether that very real suffering is being represented in a true or a false way. Consider the film Juno, which shows, even in a very quirky and funny way, the intense emotional and physical consequences of casual sex. Or The Last King of Scotland, which is one of the most violent films I’ve seen, but appropriately breaks my heart about the devastation of human pride. There’s a difference between lying about sin and telling the truth about sin. And because the people who make these movies are both made in God’s image and corrupted by sin, every film is a tightly wound mess of truth and lies. We are discerning when we seek the Holy Spirit’s help in sorting out the mess—not when we rely on the MPAA to tell us with a G or an R rating which films are “good” and which are not.
Since no one can watch every movie, listen to every album and watch every television show (as much as some of us might like to try), we have to depend on a community in the process of discernment. We also have to depend on a community because we’re all broken people and not one of us has perfect insight into the movement of the Holy Spirit or the mind of God. Like any serious, potentially dangerous adventure, we undertake discernment with preparation, prayer and people. We cultivate the “skill” of discernment by reading, studying and then practicing what we’ve learned. We pray for the Spirit’s illumination of truth. And we experience and discuss the world around us with others who can offer insights we may not have seen and serve as anchors when we’re adrift.
My impulse to run out and see the latest blockbuster just because it’s popular needs to be re-evaluated, but so does my impulse to avoid it simply because of its rating or because of something we heard about it. “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). In loving the world as God loves it, we should seek to see ourselves without fear as we really are, sins and all, including within the art we create. Being able to see ourselves as we are is the beginning of identifying and naming both truth and lies about who we are, why we’re here and where we’re going.