Jesus didn’t speak directly on the topic of entertainment choices. Neither did the apostles or any of the biblical authors. Three strikes and you’re out in building a biblically based approach to entertainment it would seem.
The lack of any explicit biblical guidelines on the topic has troubled many Christians who seek to navigate a media-saturated world.
Should Christians watch R-Rated movies? The Bible doesn’t say. Neither does it tell us that we should watch only “faith-based” films. It doesn’t spell out what literary genres are permissible, and there are no “Thou Shall Not Listen to Heavy Metal . . .” commands (hallelujah).
Some more general biblical principles certainly apply, including admonitions to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16), “holy” in our conduct (1 Peter 1:15), and to think and dwell on anything “excellent” and “praiseworthy” (Philippians 4:8). These verses are helpful but leave many questions unanswered.
Does being innocent as a dove necessarily mean shunning the Harry Potter books? Can we be holy and still delight in watching Batman violently beat down Joker’s goons? Should we dwell on something excellent if it’s not also praiseworthy, such as a technically exceptional piece of music that reflects a humanistic worldview? These general biblical principles offer little guidance when it comes to specifics.
So, what should Christians do?
There is an often-overlooked guiding principle that is indispensable in the discussion about entertainment—the Law of Love.
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:13-15).
Christians Navigating an Unchristian Culture
Before looking at how the Law of Love applies to entertainment, let’s place the law in its context. While Jesus and his disciples did not talk about navigating entertainment choices, they spoke often about living as God’s called-out people in a pagan, immoral, hostile culture.
The early Christians had to navigate a sex-crazed culture (some things never change) with temple prostitution, immodest dress, and a risqué theater tradition.
They lived in a violent culture. Today’s first-person shooter video games have nothing on the spectacle of death and carnage in the Roman Colosseum, which had a final kill count that would make a Liam Neeson “shoot ’em up” action flick seem like fodder for Nickelodeon Kids.
They dealt with false spirituality and real-life pagan sorcerers, and not just the fairy godmother variety.
Today’s entertainment might mock Christians for their faith, but the early Christians lived in a culture that executed them for their faith as entertainment.
In other words, while the early Christians did not have the luxury of speaking on entertainment choices, they were required to answer the same fundamental question: How do we live a holy life in an unbelieving and antagonistic culture?
The religious pharisees attempted to answer the question by painstakingly parsing the Old Testament scriptures. Like many present-day Christians, they were looking for specific proof texts and commands: “Does the Law really say to….” They wanted a comprehensive instruction manual (or at least Jesus’ validation of the one they had already written). Yet, when pressed on the greatest commandment, Jesus replied that it was to love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40).
Jesus gave a simple two-part answer to the difficult question. How does Jesus’ response relate to our entertainment choices today?
The Law of Love
Christians are not bound by the Old Testament law. Jesus came to fulfill that law (Matthew 5:17). Instead, we are called to freedom and liberty, not to indulge and revel in our sinful flesh but to love God by loving one another (Galatians 5:13-15).
We tend to make legalistic enquiries like, “Is it biblically permissible to read . . .” or “Are Christians allowed to watch . . .” But the better question is, “What is the loving choice?”
As a husband, can I love my wife while being stimulated by a film full of gratuitous sex scenes that objectify women? I can contort scripture to try to justify my behavior, but Jesus’ law of love dictates that I should choose a different movie.
What would love compel us to do regarding a gory slasher film or bloodbath video game? No Bible verse speaks directly to this issue. Most Christians who shun such entertainment do so not because “the Bible says so” but simply because they can’t stomach it. If we apply the Law of Love, we must ask whether we can love God and our neighbor while also delighting in the desecration of life and the agony of people created in God’s image.
On the other hand, war films are also violent. But they often produce greater understanding and empathy. Rather than infringing on our ability to love God and love our neighbor, they can assist us in doing so.
Another example pertains to the ever-controversial fantasy genre. Several clear scripture verses forbid practicing sorcery. But none address imaginative fairy tales. Therefore, we must ask this question: Does watching a movie with fairy tale magic impact my ability to love God and love people?
Not all Christians will agree at all times on what the “loving” choice is, and the Law of Love may dictate one thing to one believer and something else to another. The point is simply that there is no comprehensive manual or black-and-white choice. Every time Christians enjoy today’s entertainment, they must ask themselves an important question: “What would love have me do?”
Two Final Clarifications
First, the Law of Love is a higher command, not a diminished or cheapened one. It is not a free pass to abuse Christian liberty. Rather, it is a calling to higher accountability. No longer can we justify immoral entertainment on the grounds that the Bible doesn’t specifically forbid it. Instead, we are held accountable by our love relationship with God and our love of other people. The Law of Love goes beyond what is expressly prohibited in scripture.
Second, applying the Law of Love to entertainment does not mean Christians should ignore the rest of the Bible. Scripture reveals a great deal about God’s character and what it means to love people. We may be tempted to justify our choices by saying, “There’s some pretty unwholesome stuff in this film, but it doesn’t really impact me or my love for God.” But if watching the film leads us to celebrate—or simply become apathetic toward—something scripture teaches us breaks God’s heart, then continuing to indulge in such entertainment is immoral (regardless of how we feel about it).