Friday, August 18, 2017

On Coming Out as Fat

Thoughtful blog from Trevin Wax . . . .
There are many today who believe a person's sexual orientation is fixed from birth and revealed later in life, often through the decision to "come out" to friends and family. Increasingly, in culture and in law, people identify themselves by their sexual attractions.
A growing number of people also believe that gender is fluid--that is, gender is a social construct that goes beyond the binary of "male" and "female" and includes various expressions that fall outside traditional norms and do not correspond to a person's bodily form. This belief has led some to identify themselves with whatever term they believe best describes them: transgender, genderqueer, bigender, etc.
These developments should not come as a surprise. We live in a society influenced by the philosophical currents of late modernity. Our devotion to radical human autonomy intersects with a new view of freedom: we are free when we overcome nature and the body. Freedom and "equality" requires the rejection or redefinition of "norms" when it comes to sexual behavior, sexual preference, and gender.
Most likely, the next phase of this cultural shift will challenge the norms of health and beauty.
What does it mean to be healthy? What does it mean to be beautiful? Are these not social constructs, too?

Coming Out as Fat

A recent episode of This American Life, "Tell Me I'm Fat," chronicles the journey of several individuals who have struggled to come to terms with their weight and appearance in light of society's expectations.
In the first segment, Lindy West speaks to the damaging notion that thinness should be the norm and that fatness is exceptional:
"The way that we are taught to think about fatness is that fat is not a permanent state. You’re just a thin person who’s failing consistently for your whole life... So to actually say, OK, I am fat– and I have been as long as I can remember, so I don’t know why I live in this imaginary future where... someday I’m going to be thin."
Fatness is a bodily reality, and therefore, it should be embraced. According to this line of thinking, the word "overweight" is problematic because it "implies that there is a correct weight for people."

Fatness and Health 

No matter what you currently weigh, you may be thinking: Wait a minute! Aren't there medical reasons that should lead us to maintain a healthy weight? Yes, of course there are!
But in a world in which no one agrees any longer on what the human body is for, why should those reasons matter? When it comes to gender, marriage, and sexuality, we have already abandoned any notion there being a telos or goal for human existence that is given to us by nature or by God. In light of that loss, who's to say a certain weight is truly healthier or better for a person?
Do you see how the logic plays out?
  • Our bodies have no ultimate meaning or purpose when it comes to sexual intercourse. "Heteronormativity" refers to privileging sexual relations between a man and a woman designed for the reproduction of humanity.
  • Our bodies have no ultimate meaning or purpose when it comes to our gendered physical forms. How else do we explain the government’s agreement to pay for the mutilation of perfectly healthy reproductive organs in order to "confirm" one's perceived gender identity?
  • The individual parts of our bodies have no ultimate meaning or purpose. This why some people now ask doctors to amputate healthy arms or legs or blind their eyes if they believe they are "transabled.”
Why, then, should "health standards" matter for what we weigh?
If there is no ultimate purpose or meaning of the human body (apart from whatever we, as independent individuals, decide such meaning to be), then beauty and health must be created, not discovered. And what society has traditionally said is "healthy" may be radically different than how people today construct their own definition of health.
A psychology professor recently criticized doctors for "medical fat shaming" in order to "motivate people to change their behavior," because this “malpractice” is stressful to patients. "Sizeism" must be confronted, just as "sexism," "ageism," "classism" or "transphobia."
Seen in this light, Michelle Obama's fitness and food initiatives are exercises in discrimination, reinforcing the prejudiced notion that one should strive for a certain kind of physical form. According to those who come out as fat, no weight is better than any other weight. To assume otherwise is to further prejudice.

Fatness and Beauty 

No weight is better than any other weight when it comes to beauty either. No physical form should be considered more beautiful than another. Neither fatness nor thinness is objectively desirable.
Lindy West believes we should change society's expectations of beauty so that fatness will be accepted. "Fat rolls and arm fat and bellies," she says, "what if I found that objectively beautiful? What if I decided that's beautiful?" If we decide what constitutes "health," why not "beauty," too?
In the end, all we are left with is difference and diversity, where the only way to find happiness is to accept your current state and oppose anyone who would be prejudiced in some way against your appearance.

The Testimony of a Trans Fattie

I've been reading Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, a resource for the transgender community that explains the gender theories that drive the transgender movement.
Early in the book comes a testimonial from someone who identifies as a "Trans Fattie." Note how the story ties together "coming out" as transgender with accepting one's fatness:
"I am a genderqueer, trans woman. I also weigh over 400 pounds. These two realities have shaped my life in ways I never imagined, for both better and worse."
Here's how the story begins, with a little boy who feels out of place in society for reasons related to gender and weight:
"When I was a young, fat, feminine boy, my teacher was concerned that I was both out of shape and not behaving like the other boys when it came to recess and athletics. This is just one instance when my fatness and my transness came to be inextricably linked."
The first "coming out" was as transgender. But watch how the story unfolds as this person feels the implicit judgment of society due to weight gain:
"As I grew much fatter, I started to notice the discrimination and stigma from my family, my doctors, and the 'caring' friends who expressed their worries. I became much more aware of the constant fat-shaming in the media, and the push by the medical establishment to forward the notion of the 'obesity epidemic' and the need for dangerous gastric bypass surgeries."
Acceptance of this person's gender identity didn't go far enough. Discrimination and stigma remained, only now it surrounded weight not gender.
Note the quotation marks put around the word "caring." The writer implies that it is judgmental and unkind for someone to express worry for your mental or physical health. The only way to show your love for someone is to accept everything about them as good, or normal, or acceptable. (To see just how radical this notion is, imagine if this were the story of someone struggling with weight loss instead of weight gain, and the only way to show kindness to someone with anorexia was to affirm the weight loss, no matter how damaging or life-threatening!)
"But when I came out as queer and trans back in the early 1990s, I made a promise to myself: never to allow others to make me feel bad about who I am. I was sick and tired of others hating on me in a misguided attempt to puff up their own sagging self-esteem... Fatness is a benign characteristic much like being blond, or left-handed, or tall, or flat-footed. It was not being fat that was the problem, but the prejudiced society in which the fat person lives."
Few doctors would say "fatness" is benign, like being blond or tall. Still, the person here has decided that the problem is the prejudice of society, not one's weight.
"As people who are marginalized due to our bodies and our identities, the trans community should be natural allies to the fat community. Sadly, I have witnessed a lot of fatphobia in the trans community... We have learned the value of affirmative slogans over the years: Black is Beautiful! Gay is Good! Trans is Terrific! And the latest: Fat is Fabulous! In order to be a whole, healthy community, we must celebrate the dazzling diversity of everyone and stop the fat-hate once and for all."
The "coming out" as fat is the next stage in this person's self-acceptance, and then after the conversion comes the mission: rid others of the sin of "fatphobia" until they accept people for who they are.

The Wrong Turn

What is happening here?
Our society is entering the next phase that follows from our radical notions of human autonomy and freedom. There is no cosmic order, nothing essential about human nature, no objective truth, and no absolute morality. Freedom today means the individual can (and must) define his or her own reality. And, increasingly, the definition of love has been twisted into accepting an individual's self-definition.
Despite the efforts of some to show how compatible this view of human nature and freedom is with Christianity, the historic and biblical understanding of the world is very different.
First, we must recognize that gender and weight are not the same kind of thing. We are born male or female. But a number of factors can affect our body's weight, and these factors often go beyond choice and discipline.
Secondly, we must reject "body shaming," bullying, or the promotion of unhealthy social stereotypes (the beautiful Barbie is always skinny, etc.) that harm people who may be out of line with societal expectations. We believe in the dignity of all human beings because we are all made in the image of God.
Third, as Christians, we recognize that in a fallen world we all face challenges with our bodies. We are all broken in one way or another. The answer is not to normalize our brokenness, but to long for resurrection hope. As theologian Oliver O’Donovan has written:
“The sex into which we have been born is given to us to be welcomed as a gift from God. The task of psychological maturity -- for it is a moral task, and not merely an event which may or may not transpire -- involves accepting this gift and learning to love it, even though we may have to acknowledge that it does not come to us without problems… None of us can, or should, regard our difficulties with that form, or with achieving that good, as the norm of what our sexuality is to be.”
Finally, and most importantly, Christianity’s dissent from gender ideology gets to the root of what it means to be free.
We do not believe that freedom is best defined as the absence of limitations or constraints, or the escaping from societal norms. Freedom is not from our bodily constraints, but freedom for life within the grain of the universe, to live in a particular way. Freedom means to flourish within what Marilynne Robinson calls "givenness of things" - accepting certain constraints within which we fulfill the original design God has for us.
Likewise, we do not see nature as something to overcome, or the body as a tool that can or should be shaped however we please in order to fulfill our deeper aspirations or identities.
We believe there are answers to the question: What is the body for? And we do not believe that every answer someone gives to the question "What is the best way for me to flourish within my bodily form?" is equally valid or will lead to human flourishing.
Following from this, we do not seek a world devoid of all judgments, where all choices are seen as good, or where the idea of "norms" is discriminatory. Our vision of human flourishing depends on the willingness and courage to call people to live in line with God's design. We do this morally, when we discourage a person's flaws and vices, and we do this physically, when we call people to live in light of God's design for health.
Today's buzz words of "stigma" and "shame" and "judgment" would rid us of the notion that we should oppose any part of our neighbor's personality. But the Christian view is that when we oppose a person's vices or unhealthy habits, we do so because we love our friend and desire their best. And this vision of what is "best" comes from outside ourselves, not from inside.
This is the fundamental dividing line in our society. Is truth created or given?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

How to Explore Christianity Authentically

Some great thoughts on exploring Christianity by James Emory White . . .
Christianity is the world’s largest religious faith with ~2.3 billion adherents around the globe. The birth of Jesus was so monumental that it split our reckoning of history into two parts: Everything that has happened on our planet took place either “before Christ” or “after Christ.” As Philip Yancey has observed, “You can gauge the size of a ship that has passed out of sight by the huge wake it leaves behind.”
If you, or someone you know, is looking to authentically explore the Christian faith, I want to offer five suggestions to get you started on this journey.
1. Maintain an Open Mind
First, decide that you’re going to maintain an open mind. Sometimes we say we’re going to explore something when we know that we are not really open to what we might find. Having an open mind doesn’t mean blind acceptance of whatever you explore – you need to evaluate differing views, have some healthy skepticism and check out the facts.
What it does mean, however, is that you begin with an openness to what might be discovered. If you start off saying, “Yeah, I’ll check it out, but I know it isn’t true,” then you’re not exploring with an open mind. To explore authentically means that you keep a healthy balance between solid investigation and a willingness to accept what you find.
2. Determine What It Is You’re Looking For
Second, when exploring the Christian faith, determine what it is you’re looking for, and make sure you have fair expectations. Most people would say they are after spiritual truth. People want answers to life’s ultimate questions. They are looking for God and a relationship with God so they can order their lives accordingly. And that’s fair. But people don’t always stop there. Sometimes they tack on expectations that are not fair, such as, “I want whatever I find to solve all of my problems – instantly.” That isn’t going to happen. Nothing works that way.
Life is difficult, and the Christian faith never promises it will deliver a life free of such difficulty. The Bible teaches that when you give your life to Christ, your eternal destiny is altered, you experience a radical reorientation of your priorities, you find a new purpose in life, and you encounter the power and work of God in your life. But these experiences are far different from the instant removal of every problem, every struggle or every issue of pain.
Christians believe that the Bible says God can and does do miraculous, incredible things when you are in relationship with Him, but that’s not what you should look for, or what God always promises to deliver. Instead, God’s power and presence, which come from being in relationship with Him, give us the ability to go through the difficulties of life with strength and hope.
It’s also unfair to want whatever it is you find to complement your lifestyle rather than change it. Few religions, and Christianity in particular, allow for a mindset that sees spiritual faith as an accessory item that does little more than enhance one’s existing quality of life. Since your deepest needs and issues are spiritual in nature, you should expect your search to lead you to the deepest corners of your life, and you should expect what you find to change you from the inside out.
3. Check Out the Source Documents
Once you’ve determined that you’re going to search with an open mind and you’ve got a handle on what is fair to expect from your search, it’s time to begin the actual work of this process. Begin by checking out the source documents of the Christian faith. The Bible is a collection of 66 books written by more than 40 authors over a period of several hundred years. Christians call it God’s Word or God’s revelation to us. The word revelation comes from the Latin word revelatio, which means to “draw back the curtain.” In the Bible, God reveals Himself and truth about Himself that we could not otherwise know.
So start by reading the Bible, and here are two suggestions for you to keep in mind when you do: First, make sure you begin with a modern translation and, second, remember that it really is a library of books.
A bit on translation. The Bible was written in two languages: Hebrew and Greek. Hebrew was the language of the day when the Old Testament was written and Greek was the language of the writers of the New Testament. As a result, all our Bibles today are translations of those original languages. So get a good, modern translation that is easy for you to read and understand.
And then when reading the Bible remember it is a library of books, so you possess some freedom as to where to begin reading. I would suggest starting with one of the four biographies of the life of Jesus found in the books Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (named for the four men who wrote them). These books will lay a good foundation of the central message of the Bible: Jesus and His life and ministry. After that, move on to the book of James, which is a practical little book containing five chapters that will show you what patterning your life after Christ might look like. Then read the first book, Genesis, where you’ll find answers to some of the foundational questions of human existence in light of what you’ve learned about Christ.
4. Come to Terms with Jesu
My fourth suggestion involves the focus of your search. Focus on Jesus, for He is the heart of the Christian faith. When I say “focus on” Him, I mean that you need to come to terms with His identity.
Here we have a man who walked the earth and claimed to be equal to God. No other major religious figure ever made that claim – not Buddha, not Mohammed, not Confucius. Only Jesus Christ claimed to be God in human form. Was He or wasn’t He? This is the ultimate question someone who is exploring must answer when it comes to the Christian faith.
5. Find a Church That Lets You Explore
The final suggestion I have to offer is this: Find a church that will let you start exploring where you are. In other words, find a church that will let you come explore and that will help you through this exploration process. Why attend a Christian church to explore Christianity? So that you can talk firsthand with people who are Christians, listen to their stories, raise your questions, enter into a dialogue with them about their faith.
This exploration process is the most important one you’ll take for your life. In truth, there’s no such thing as a “spiritual life” – there’s just life, and your spirituality courses through its every vein.
Thus, finding the door to spiritual truth, opening it, and walking through it make up the most significant journey you can ever undertake.
For on the other side is not simply spiritual life…
… but life itself.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, A Search for the Spiritual (Baker).
Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew. 

About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Church Has Always Known Theological Controversy

From Mere Orthodoxy blog . . . 

“Not again.”
That was my first thought when Eugene Peterson’s comments on gay marriage came out.
Regardless of the retraction, I knew the next few days would be ugly online. Various think-pieces (good and bad) would come, as would the tweets, the aggressive partisans, and the aggrieved bystanders in the middle, wringing their hands.
I don’t have a ton to say about Peterson himself, his comments, or the various reactions. I was frustrated initially, glad for the retraction, and saddened by the whole mess.
What struck me during this round, though, was the sense of fatigue. Maybe life online accelerates and magnifies our sense of controversy, especially since most people aren’t on Twitter. Still, it’s easy to get the feeling that we’re in a particularly stressful or conflicted moment in the church, and that this sort of thing will only become more common.
A friend of mine summed it up, asking, “Has it always felt so embattled to be in the Church?”
To which my response is, “Yes, actually. From the beginning, in fact.” It’s valuable to remember that for a moment.

It Has Always Been This Way

The New Testament is many things but, in a very real sense, it’s a record of Church conflict. Start with the Gospels. Jesus’s fights with the Pharisees and the Sadducees were matters of Scriptural interpretation and theological dispute: What is the meaning of the Sabbath and the commands? Who is the Messiah and what will the kingdom of God look like?  
In Galatians, Paul squares off with the Judaizers (and even the apostle Peter) over the shape of the New Covenant that Christ’s work had inaugurated. In the epistles to the Corinthians we find him fighting confused, hyper-spiritual and pagan libertinism. In Colossians, he is dismantling weirdo-Gnostic Syncretism. Similar points could be made in the Catholic letters and the Revelation.
In the Patristic Era, we fought over the deity of Christ, the humanity of Christ, the unity of the deity and the humanity of Christ, the deity of the Spirit, the nature of prophecy, the unity of the Old and New Testament, the nature and goodness of creation, the nature of grace and salvation, and the purity of the Church. And those are just the biggies.
Next we experienced the Great Schism between East and West and the big ball of yarn involved in that. 
Moving quickly to the Reformation era (because Protestant), the entire Western church was in an uproar on various fronts. After the initial break, we see the Magisterial Reformers fighting to retrieve and articulate the gospel and a reformed ecclesiology against Rome’s power, as well as to preserve unity amongst themselves (with greater and lesser success), while distinguishing themselves from the Enthusiasts and Radical Reformers.
Quickly thereafter, you have the regular conflicts within the communions, such as spats between the Philippists and the Gnesio-Lutherans, or on the Reformed side, the Remonstrants and the Orthodox.
Oh, and this was with the Ottoman Empire knocking on Europe’s door.
Over the next couple of centuries you can easily jump into the conflicts in the churches precipitated by Enthusiastic popular movements, Pietism, Enlightenment Rationalists, the rise of historical criticism, or the role of nationalism and the State. Jump ahead and over to the US, after various controversies surrounding both Great Awakenings, as well as the damning, ecclesial conflict over slavery, we could always spend some time covering the fights between the Fundamentalists and Modernists over Scripture, miracles, and so forth.
Each of these paragraphs are only the smallest snippets of wide-ranging, serious, theological conflict and debate that has always been a part of Church history, East and West, Protestant and Catholic, down on into today.
So, yes, it has always been this way. As the hymn has it, to look at the history of the Church is to see “her sore oppressed/ By schisms rent asunder/ By heresies distressed,” all of which leads the saints to ask, “how long?”
The answer, apparently, is “until Jesus comes back.”

Mere, Costly Fidelity

Which leaves us with the question of how to live in with the reality that theological conflict is a constant in the Church? How do we pastor, preach, teach, write, and just go about the business of being the Church in the World under such conditions?
I have no grand solution. I do think there are a few things to keep in mind.
First, theological indifferentism isn’t an option here. I’m all for broadmindedness and having a proper sense of differently-tiered importance of various doctrines. Still, in general, decisions eventually must be made. And on indifferentism about gender and sexuality, Jake, I think, has summed up the problem:
Because the particular issue at stake here (sexuality) is central to human existence, you can’t really afford to pretend the issue isn’t important. Either it is okay to be in a same-sex relationship or it is not. Either way, your answer to that question will have enormous spiritual and existential ramifications. Because it fails to recognize this fact, indifferentism of this sort ends up doing real damage to many people.  
In any case, you can’t avoid it forever—the question will come find you.
Second, it’s important to recognize fidelity to the gospel has always been a personally costly, confusing, and tenuous thing. Looking at the debates in Church history, you realize that’s rarely been a straightforward story of black hats and hats. We think of it that way in retrospect, and sometimes it was, but often it was more muddled for those in the middle of it.
Many of the names we associate with heresies (Arius, Nestorius) were known in their congregations as respected, godly churchmen, while some of the Church’s heroes were known as ruffians and brawlers (Athanasius, Cyril, Luther). Preserving the truth of the Scriptures may end up leaving you in the company of “saints” who “give you the willies”,  against opponents who have all of your personal sympathy.
We find ironic turns, as well. Apollinarianism, the heresy that denied Jesus Christ’s human nature had a human mind, takes its name from Apollinaris of Laodicea. Apollinaris was devoted to the Scriptures and a stalwart defender of Nicaea against the Arians. It seems he pushed so hard for for the deity of Christ, though, that he ended up butchering his humanity. A hero in one conflict may become a heretic in the next.
Even worse, often the disputes were between former friends, beloved students and teachers. One of the great Cappadocian Fathers, Basil of Caesaria, had the unpleasant task of defending the deity of the Holy Spirit against the attacks of his former teacher and mentor, Eustathius of Sebaste. The man who mentored him in his own personal spirituality ended up turning against both orthodoxy and Basil, leaving his student the task of challenging someone who had been a spiritual father to him. Many of us will see that day in our own ministries.
There isn’t a clear lesson here except that our fidelity to Biblical and historic orthodoxy needs to be rooted beyond the names of admirable but fallible human heroes. History is messy. Church history seems messier.
Maybe that’s why Paul is so forceful with the Galatians, telling them that even if he himself or an angel came preaching a different gospel, a divine curse should befall them (Gal. 1:8). At first that strikes you as a bit of hyperbole—and in the moment it sort of is. But given Paul’s wise self-knowledge, his tendency to leave off judgement of his own works before God’s judgment (1 Cor. 4:1-6), it seems more like he wanted to prepare his people against the possibility he could walk away as he had seen others do in his own ministry. For Paul, his people’s commitment to the gospel, to Christ, had to be rooted deeper in their souls than their attachment to him.
The encouragement, I suppose, is that we’ve been here before. We have not, to my knowledge, entered into some new eschatological end time inaugurated by the 1970s, the Clinton years, Obergefell, Trump, or Caitlyn Jenner’s Time cover. God and his purposes for the Church are the same as they have always been.
As the same hymn has it:
The Church shall never perish!
Her dear Lord, to defend,
To guide, sustain, and cherish,
Is with her to the end.
Though there be those that hate her.
False sons within her pale,
Against both foe and traitor
She ever shall prevail.
The call, then, is to recognize this, put our hands to plough, and pray to the Lord he will preserve us as we work to serve her. Even in times such as these—same as they’ve always been.

Posted by Derek Rishmawy

Derek Rishmawy is a systematic theology PhD student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He contributes to Christ and Pop Culture, Christianity Today, and writes at his own blog, Reformedish. He also co-hosts Mere Fidelity. You can follow him on Twitter @dzrishmawy.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Christian, What Are You Watching?

From Crossway . . . 

Sound Familiar?

Consider a day in the life of a typical American adult. The waking moments begin with the radio alarm reporting weather, traffic, and headlines. Breakfast is gulped down with a side of business news and features from the morning newspaper.
Then the commute to work, where the companion for the drive is a radio talk show host lathered into a political frenzy or a shock jock whose tongue releases a barrage of crude humor.
At the office, checking e-mail presents opportunities throughout the morning for a bit of extracurricular websurfing to shop for a birthday gift, check out a favorite blog, and catch up on the latest celebrity news. Lunch in the breakroom is spent connecting with a favorite sports magazine while a TV talk show blares overhead, showcasing the latest claimants to fleeting fame. Back in the cubicle’s afternoon boredom, virtual adventure can be found on an Internet video game offering a quest for world domination.
When the work grind ceases, the drive home provides a reprieve from thinking and a nostalgic unwinding as the oldies stream in on satellite radio. The trip down memory lane is interrupted by a stop at soccer practice to pick up a young daughter who eagerly buckles up and warmly greets the Disney character coming to life on the DVD screen that descends in the backseat.
After a welcome-home kiss from the wife—and a friendlier kiss from the dog—comes the irresistible beckoning to collapse into the La-Z-Boy, grab the remote, and scan all three hundred digital cable channels to take the edge off the workday weariness. Following dinner, the TV illuminates the family room as all gather to enjoy the hottest sitcoms, reality shows, and crime dramas.
The day concludes with a drift into slumber to the soothing voice of a newscaster recapping headlines on the bedroom TV.

Surrounded by Media

For most Americans, media is the omnipresent backdrop of life. Even if you don’t find yourself in every scene of the previous day-in-the-life scenario, you’re nevertheless surrounded. Whether at home, in the car, at the store, in a restaurant, or even at the gas station (I’ve seen CNN piped in via a small screen built into the pump), the perpetual media lifeline continues. We’re never beyond its ubiquitous reach. We’re so engulfed that media seems like a second atmosphere; in fact one author terms our cultural surroundings the “mediasphere.”1 We give no more thought to it than we do to the air we breathe.
But give thought to it we must. As followers of Christ, we cannot afford to take lightly the media’s pervasive presence in our lives. Think about the power of video entertainment, for instance. Whether viewed on computer, a portable player, or a traditional TV set, television and film are without peer in their cultural influence. Ken Myers, an astute Christian observer of popular culture, notes that television is not only “the dominant medium of popular culture” but also “the single most significant shared reality in our entire society.” He compares television’s impact to that of Christianity centuries ago, when “Christendom” defined the Western world:
Not all citizens of Christendom were Christians, but all understood it, all were influenced by its teaching. . . . I can think of no entity today capable of such a culturally unifying role except television. In television, we live and move and have our being.2
Similarly, pastor Kent Hughes offers this alarming appraisal:
Today the all-pervasive glow of the television set is the single most potent influence and control in Western culture. Television has greater power over the lives of most Americans than any educational system, government, or church.3
But it’s not enough to acknowledge the dominant, nearly godlike authority exercised over our culture by TV, the Internet, and the rest of the media. We must evaluate the content of media messages and the consequences of their influence.
We begin by recognizing that the media’s messages are nothing new. Essentially, our world puts forward the same allurements that the apostle John’s world did some two thousand years ago: “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions” (1 John 2:16). Christians in John’s day didn’t have the Internet, cable television, or iPods, but the desires of the flesh have been around since the fall. To be sure, the packaging and delivery of the world’s offerings have advanced technologically, but their substance has remained as primitive as a talking serpent. Christians of all ages have been required to soberly assess the temptations found in the surrounding culture and to respond in a God-glorifying way. We are no different. Our calling as Christians involves resisting the seduction of a fallen world.
Although this article is focused on television and film media, the principles are relevant for evaluating all forms of media, all of which to some degree embody values of our fallen world. If we’re faithfully to resist the ever-present “desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions,” we’ll need to sharpen our biblical discernment and wisely evaluate our media intake, for the glory of God.

Watching Unwatchingly

Many of us don’t think about actively filtering our viewing. As long as we avoid the obvious traps such as pornography, we don’t consider deliberate evaluation necessary. Though we may faithfully apply the Scriptures in other areas of life, we may not consciously think about how God’s Word applies to our entertainment choices.
All too often, we think about neither what we watch nor how much. Our watching is just inevitable. We watch by habit. We watch because we’re bored. We unwatchingly watch as the TV stays on for background noise.
We watch alone or with others. We gather with friends on Friday night and rent a DVD because there’s nothing else to do.
We watch because others watch. Everyone at school or at work is talking about a popular movie. It’s a must see—so we must see it. Without researching its content, without thinking about its effect on our hearts, without comparing an evening at the movies with other options, we go, and we watch.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying it’s wrong to watch television, rent a DVD, surf the Internet, or spend an evening at the cinema. The hazard is thoughtless watching. Glorifying God is an intentional pursuit. We don’t accidentally drift into holiness; rather, we mature gradually and purposefully, one choice at a time. In the Christian walk, we can’t just step onto the right path and figure all is well. Christian discipleship is a lifelong journey consisting of a series of countless steps. Each step matters, and thus our viewing habits matter.
A lifestyle of careless viewing should concern us.
A lifestyle of careless viewing should concern us. At best, careless viewing reveals an ignorance of the media’s power of temptation. It probably indicates a degree of laziness as well—and we can’t afford to be lazy in what our minds absorb. Biblical discernment involves critical thinking, which often leads to costly action. It’s true that we grow in sanctification by God’s grace, but this doesn’t deny that our growth involves work. To mature, we need engaged minds asking biblically informed questions about the media’s messages and methods. What’s more, we need perseverance to travel against the cultural current.
To change the metaphor, detecting and avoiding temptation is a battle; every time we pick up the remote or glance at the movie listings or go online, we take up arms. Ken Myers describes this battle in strong terms:
I believe that the challenge of living with popular culture may well be as serious for modern Christians as persecution and plagues were for the saints of earlier centuries. . . . Enemies that come loudly and visibly are usually much easier to fight than those that are undetectable.4
It may seem that Myers exaggerates the danger. Pop culture as deadly as persecution and plagues?
But I think he’s right. When it comes to waging the war of sanctification, severe trial usually alerts us to battle, rousing us to our need for God. Popular culture, especially entertainment media, often lulls us to ignore our battle with the flesh.
In this conflict, how many Christians are waving the flag of surrender by disengaging their discernment when it comes to media? But passivity is no option. We’re called to live purposefully. That means we must watch on purpose and resist the lifestyle of passive viewing.

Watching with Immunity?

Unlike those who watch thoughtlessly, many Christians recognize the tempting influence of media yet assume they’re immune from danger. They end up watching just like everyone else.
“After all,” they’ll argue, “I’m not going to watch a murder on TV and then go out and murder someone.” This misses the point. Our sanctification aspirations should be loftier than avoiding murder. Just because we don’t instantly mimic all we see doesn’t mean our hearts aren’t negatively affected by the programs or films we watch. Tugging like a subtle undertow below the surface, the media can tempt us to drift toward love of the world.
Drift toward worldliness may be slow, its symptoms not immediately apparent. This drift is usually a sign of a dulling conscience. The conscience doesn’t function like a light switch—one moment the lights are on, then everything is dark with a flip of the switch. Instead, the sensitivity of our conscience dulls over time as it is resisted or ignored. Paul charges young Timothy to “wage the good warfare” by holding on to a good conscience, and warns him that rejecting a good conscience can lead to shipwrecking one’s faith (1 Tim. 1:18–20). Over time a good conscience that once was sensitive to the holiness of God and the conviction of the Spirit can become seared (1 Tim. 4:2), losing all feeling.
The drift toward worldliness is subtle, gradual, and internal. And if we assume we’re immune to it, that’s a sure sign the drift has begun.
The media has great power to influence, but most people—both Christians and unbelievers—presuppose that their worldview, desires, and opinions are safe from media sway. We’re convinced we’re beyond reach. How revealing, then, that advertisers spend $215 billion annually just on televi sion commercials. These marketing dollars are not charity gifts; our thinking is influenced by what we watch, and advertisers know it.
We also tend to think of ourselves as minimally exposed to media, especially compared to everyone else. In a Roper survey that reveals as much about human nature as it does about media consumption, 96 percent of people polled claimed they watched less television than the average person. You don’t need a sophisticated statistical analysis of that survey to realize a lot of us don’t have a clue about our viewing habits.
These examples illustrate what the Scripture teaches about our hearts. They’re sinful, and as a result, we’re prone to self-deception. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). We’re more easily tempted than we know or are willing to admit.


C. J. Mahaney

Worldliness equips readers to avoid the dangers of being shaped by the subtle influences of the world and offers practical help for pursuing godliness through the grace of the gospel.
The Bible teaches that the battle is not “out there.” The real monster isn’t Hollywood or a beast residing in a plasma screen. He’s not lurking behind the curtain in the movie theater. He’s much closer. He’s us. Our battle is with the flesh. “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal. 5:17).
If we watch, we must watch with this in mind: our hearts are deceitful, and our flesh will be tempted. Paul’s warning to the Corinthians is fitting: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).
We’re commanded to “not be conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2), but such conformity is the inevitable pathway for those who watch freely with the delusion of immunity.

The L Word

No discussion of media standards gets far before someone cries, “Legalism!” Any teaching that advocates some level of viewing standards will be stereotyped in some quarters as a compromising of Christian liberty.
Such stereotyping works both ways, of course. The one advocating higher standards can just as easily broad-brush all detractors as “worldly” or “licentious.” Meanwhile we conveniently place ourselves in the center: all those with stricter entertainment standards than ours are legalistic, while anyone who’s more lenient is worldly.
Legalism, however, is not a matter of having more rigorous rules. It’s far more lethal than that. It strikes at the very core of our relationship with God. As C. J. Mahaney explains:
Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God. In other words, a legalist is anyone who behaves as if they can earn God’s approval and forgiveness through personal performance.5
Do we risk legalism by establishing personal viewing standards? Absolutely! But the risk doesn’t lie in having standards; it lies in our motivation. The question is not, “Should we view selectively?” but “Why do we view selectively?” We must not seek to earn God’s favor by watching or not watching certain programs. Our forgiveness from God and acceptance by God are based upon the gospel—we’re already approved because of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, our obedience springs from gratitude for the gospel.
Legalism is a heart condition that can easily affect our media viewing (or lack of viewing) just as it can color any other activity. Legalism can taint our Bible reading, praying, witnessing, eating, sleeping, lovemaking, working, recreating, joking, shopping—we can be legalistic about anything! The solution is not necessarily lowering our standards. It is necessarily raising our understanding of and response to the glorious grace of God.
We can be legalistic about anything! The solution is not necessarily lowering our standards.
Another objection to setting viewing standards is a fear of isolationism. Some will argue that our evangelism is compromised when we detach ourselves from our culture, and that we’re called instead to engage it. There’s truth to this claim; but when “engage the culture” is a euphemism for “watch whatever everyone else is watching,” our witness is weakened, not strengthened. It’s foolish to think the gospel will spread more powerfully if we hide its transforming effect in our lives. While we should celebrate any genuine concern for reaching out to the lost, we should be suspect of any approach advocating broad cultural accommodation when it comes to entertainment.
Recently, a lady in our church communicated to me her resistance to the idea of curbing media consumption; she believed that viewing current TV programs and movies enabled her to better relate to the lost. But she came to question her own reasoning: “Am I lowering my standards to stay up with our culture while not really reaching anyone by doing so?” I respect her for her humility and honesty. She asks a discerning question.
In reality, it isn’t necessary to be a media glutton to share the gospel effectively. We can meaningfully relate with people in our culture without immersing ourselves in the latest entertainments. We can be aware of popular culture without being captive to it. Our personal and corporate relevance and witness won’t be hindered at all by applying biblical standards to our media intake.
This leads us to explore a grace-motivated approach to media consumption. We begin, most appropriately, with God.

Living Coram Deo

Coram Deo is a short Latin phrase packing a potent punch: “before the face of God.” All aspects of our existence—from private thoughts to public words and actions—are lived out before his face. Properly regarded, living coram Deo arouses our fear of God. The person who’s aware that God is seated front-and-center and watching everything will fear the Lord. And that’s good, for “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7).
The fear of God is our starting place; it’s not the graduate school of Christian discipleship. Fearing God is where we begin in our search for knowledge and wisdom. The fool, by contrast, is one whose governing mindset excludes the reality of God (Ps. 14:1).
What does all this have to do with our media use? Put bluntly, it means we surf the Internet, listen to the radio, watch television, or rent a DVD in God’s presence. We make our choices—all our choices—with God’s holy face in view. It’s not the gaze of our pastor, parent, fellow small group member, or unbelieving neighbor that matters most. We’re accountable to God in all things, including our entertainment.
Wayne Wilson brings home this sobering truth: “We are accountable to God, and the label of ‘art’ on human expression does not remove this accountability in the slightest way.”6
God is holy, and we are not. Coram Deo, we realize we’re in trouble—our eyes have lusted, our imaginations have trespassed, our time has been squandered. We must run to the cross where God’s holiness and mercy intersect decisively.
Coram Deo, we find grace. Grace that forgives. Grace that empowers us to change. Grace that leads us to desire and pursue obedience. Any discussion of biblical obedience, including entertainment guidelines, must spring from a robust understanding of grace.
1. Dan Andriacco, Taming the Media Monster (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2003), 5.
2. Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1989), 160.
3. R. Kent Hughes, Set Apart (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 51.
4. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, xii–xiii.
5. C. J. Mahaney, The Cross Centered Life (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2002).
6. Wayne A. Wilson, Worldly Amusements (Enumclaw, WA: Winepress, 1999), 73.
This article is adapted from Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen Worldedited by C. J. Mahaney.