Christians have long recognized the formative power of stories. An abundance of literature offers guidelines for critical thinking and exhortations to evade the snare of modern, entertainment-obsessed culture. While stories—told through film, TV, or books—are a staple in our culture, they’ve remained largely taboo within the Church. Despite the fact that, statistically, Christians watch Netflix, go to the movie theater, and read popular novels no less frequently than unbelievers, a thick sense of shame and guilt hovers over them like a cloud.
Christians are typically more willing to flood their Instagram accounts with pictures of an open (and much-underlined) Bible from their morning devotional time than with photos of their Hulu binge-athon—despite spending their time doing far more of the latter than the former. Why?
One factor is simply that Christians are, at times, reluctant to reveal the movies or shows they enjoy, many of which are brimming with explicit content or blasphemous messages. But on a deeper level, I think their reluctance and shame stems from a distrust of escapism as a whole. Wasting time with Hollywood’s trivial and diverting entertainment is not a high priority for a Christian. After all, Jesus commissioned us to go make disciples of all nations, not to go watch hours of superhero movies or crime-protocol shows! Nevertheless, the strict denouncement of escapism is largely misplaced. While the potential dangers are real and should not be overlooked, escapism actually has much to offer Christians.
Escaping from Somewhere vs. Escaping to Somewhere
To judge escapism, we must first recognize that not all forms of escape are equal. In his famous essay On Fairy Stories, J. R. R. Tolkien distinguishes between the “Escape of the Prisoner” and the “Flight of the Deserter.” While both are forms of escape, the first is praiseworthy and the other reprehensible. When Christians scorn the notion of escapism, they typically have the “Flight of the Deserter” in mind—a flight from real-world responsibilities into trivial fictions and fantasies.
Christians are right to deride this form of escapism; yet, escapism can be much more than a temporary diversion from reality. It can also be an immersive experience that positively impacts how we understand and live in the so-called “real world.” Escapism has the potential to provide a healthy reprieve from the harsh realities of our broken world and to offer spiritual, emotional, and intellectual nourishment that enables us to live with increased purpose, balance, and effectiveness once we return to reality.
Responding to Two Objections
1. Escapism Takes Time Away from More Important Activities.
Can Christians really justify watching Netflix when there are so many unbelievers still lost in their sin? Shouldn’t we pray and read our Bible instead of reading a dystopian YA novel? Is watching the twelve-hour extended edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy really of more kingdom importance than feeding orphans or clothing the homeless? Certainly not. But the same could be said of showering, vacuuming the living room, picking up the dry-cleaning, or sleeping eight hours each night. After all, a homeless man is unlikely to be concerned with a wrinkled shirt or unkempt hair, a lonely prisoner cares not about the tidiness of his visitor’s house, and six hours of sleep is surely sufficient.
Anything can be problematic if it consumes more time than it should. A shower is a wonderful thing, but standing in the shower for an hour, long after the hot water has run out, because you don’t want to face the day’s responsibilities is not. Reading scripture daily is important, but doing so alone in your room all day to avoid going out and applying what you’ve read is not. The potential for abuse or overindulgence does not, in and of itself, mean something must be avoided.
2. Escapism Distorts a Proper View of Reality
This concern is valid. Indeed, shows like The Bachelor or Disney romances have set many young romantics on a path to relational disappointment. Films are powerful mediums to dispense and normalize dangerous worldviews and secular philosophies. Christians must be vigilant and discerning.
At the same time, Christians should be vigilant and discerning in all areas of life, not just in their entertainment choices. The same power that makes escapism potentially dangerous also makes it potentially beneficial. Art can distort reality, but it can also clarify it. C. S. Lewis scoffed at the notion that fairy-stories and fantasy realms taint readers’ perception of the real world or blur the line between truth and fiction: “Far from dulling or emptying the actual world, [fantasy] gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”
There is a reason why Jesus—the greatest teacher who ever lived—communicated spiritual truth primarily through stories, metaphors, and imagery. Stories allow us to “experience” reality from an unfamiliar perspective. Leland Ryken suggests, “The truth that the arts give us is different from that of the scientific and intellectual disciplines . . . The truth that the arts give us is a ‘living through’ of an imaginative experience.” Escapism enables Christians to understand the world in helpful new ways.
The problems with escapism are not with escapism itself but merely misuse of it.
Christians should not feel guilty about watching a movie on a Saturday evening, but they should avoid habitually binge-watching Netflix at the expense of their spiritual and physical health.
Christians should be attentive to the distorted truth preached through secular stories, but they shouldn’t let this awareness rob them from the equally-as-potent benefits stories provide.
Christians must avoid letting escapism become their reality, but this potential abuse should not keep them from allowing escapism to inform their reality.
Tolkien writes, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” Indeed, there will be a glorious day when all of God’s children gather together in the splendor of heaven and escapism is unnecessary. But until that day, there is no shame in, from time to time, being drawn into an enjoyable and healthy dose of escapism.