Where to draw the line in media

I heard a Christian speaker talking about needing to avoid certain movies and TV shows. Is it really a big deal what kind of entertainment I watch, listen to or read? Isn’t it better to know what’s going on in the world than be close off?

This is an extremely important question. Not only is it pressing (we decide on our entertainment on a daily basis), but it is also deeply personal. All of us must choose how we will entertain ourselves.

Let’s clarify the importance of the situation. While we could look at this from a cultural perspective, let’s skip that and bring things a little closer to home. There is a psychological principle that has been termed “the law of exposure.” This states that the things we expose ourselves to have an effect on us. Music affects our moods. I have a friend who listens to “death metal.” He knows that it makes him angry and frustrated, but he listens to it anyway. Language affects our own language. I have another friend who finds himself swearing left and right after a “weekend with the guys.” Images affect how we see other people. I talk to many men and women who find themselves in sexual sin after viewing certain photos or videos.

To deny “the law of exposure” is to deny reality. Some people like to claim immunity, but this is simply a lack of self-knowledge. And it is not limited to people of a certain age. I don’t know how much sillier we could be than when we will turn off the TV for a child, saying, “You shouldn’t be watching this,” but then return to it ourselves. Does the fact that I am in my 30s mean that I am unaffected by these images and ideas? Certainly, I am better equipped to discern the truth, but if a movie is bad for a child, how can I be so confident that it is good for me? If it is garbage for a 12-year-old, then it is garbage for me, even if I have learned how to sort through the garbage a little better.

Just as important, we live in a free market society. We vote with our dollars. What do you spend money and time on? For example, I know a number of Catholics who went to see “The Da Vinci Code” or “The Golden Compass” even though these movies are clearly anti-Catholic. It does no good to claim, “I don’t agree with them!” The people making this entertainment don’t care if you agree or not. Your interior motivation matters, but it is not absolute. Once they have your money, you have already stated that you on their side. And if the movie is evil (or promotes evil ideas), then you just gave $9.75 to the cause of evil. (How much did you put in the collection plate? In the end, all of those numbers will be made known and there will be no room for excuses like, “It was only a movie!”).

Entertainment is never “only entertainment.” Every form of media presents some philosophy of life, a belief about the world, the human person and God. These ideas mean something, because ideas have consequences. Every great (and every terrible) movement started with an idea. Have you ever noticed that every dictatorship first seeks to control the media? Because when you control the media, you control ideas, and once you control ideas, you can lead people wherever you want.

Rather than attempt to list movies, TV shows or songs, it is more important for our purposes to have some principles that we can apply. We only have room for one in this column today. When encountering some form of entertainment, ask yourself, “Does this reveal the dignity of the human person or in some way distort or obscure it?” Another way to phrase the question is, “Does this entertainment reveal Truth and Beauty?” Some art does this in ways we wouldn’t expect. Flannery O’Conner is arguably the finest American fiction writer of the last century. She wrote about sin and grace in a powerful and truthful way, but it was not pretty. I always thought her stories were grotesque, but they were true. She revealed beauty through writing about ugly things. It is the difference between the violence and gore in “Saving Private Ryan” and that found in the “Saw” movies.

Pope Benedict once wrote, “We may never be entertained by the suffering of others.” What does this mean when it comes to “Ultimate Fighting Challenge”? Will I have to change my TV watching?

The next thing we need is conviction. If something is bad for me, then why would I expose myself to it? If I am going to be a follower of Christ, I need to be the kind of person who makes a decision.

Are you the kind of person who can make a decision? Are you willing to? If you are convicted that “this entertainment does not uphold human dignity,” are you willing to then not watch it? Seriously, to say, “no matter how funny this new ‘The Hangover’-style comedy is, it is not good for me and so I won’t watch it.” Because, in the end, all of this entertainment will pass away. What will remain, for good or for ill, is the kind of person it has fashioned me into.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.