on consuming books & entertainment.

booksA few weeks ago, I read a book called Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont. The first time I heard about this book, I heard that it was written by a young MFA student who was yet to graduate but had sold this manuscript to a publishing house for six figures (essentially unheard of). Finding it to be no disappointment, I held in my hands 330 pages that I devoured in one day, words strung together like they had always been looking for one another, like they were fulfilling their purpose in forming sentences together. The book was stunningly beautiful in its writing, heartbreaking in its content, profoundly insightful into the human experience. It also contained crass sexual language and was based on the premise of the family-shattering damage of an extramarital affair.

This book called to mind a question that I often find myself asking: what is my reason for consuming what I consume, and why have I decided that it’s my reason? More simply, how do I decide which books and television shows are appropriate for me, and what do I mean when I say “appropriate?”

I think that many of us who come from the evangelical world and/or conservative communities have decided that moral conformity is our general standard for what we consume. I get that, and in some ways, I agree with that. But I’m realizing that in a lot of other ways, I really don’t.

Let me draw this out a bit. For many in the Christian world, the decision-making metric around entertainment sounds like this,

“How much violence is in that movie?”
“Is there sex in that book?”
“Do they cuss a lot on that show?”

The goal is generally to minimize the amount of immorality by not allowing books/entertainment in that don’t conform to a certain moral standard, or at least only letting those in that err to a seemingly small degree.

On the other hand, some choose to think of entertainment as a relatively harmless thing, not filtering it through much of any kind of lens as long as the content isn’t overly explicit or gratuitous. They enjoy primetime television because it’s good television, blockbuster movies because they’re entertaining. That’s all it is really, it’s entertainment.

As I’m somewhat prone to do, I’d like to propose a third way, a third way which I will immediately admit is in no way my original idea.* My thesis statement, if you will is this: my primary reason for reading and watching television is that literature and storytelling have an unparalleled way of fostering my compassion for the brokenness of humanity and helping me gain insight into the human mind and heart. 

I don’t think this statement is a free pass to read or watch anything I want, no moral filter required. In fact, I actually experience quite the opposite. Since I am approaching my reading and entertainment choices with an intentional lens, I make decisions quite carefully, just perhaps not for the same reasons that others do, at least not every time. I consider the plot and the characters – what are they telling me about the world? I consider the quality of the writing – is this author giving me the opportunity to read the words of someone who was created to write? Whether intentionally or not, will this book, film or television show reflect the beauty of the Creator, or reveal the intrinsic need for Him?

I also focus a great deal on what leads to fear in my heart and what leads to freedom. For example, while war movies can teach us a great deal about the human condition, I can very rarely watch them. This is not because of the blood and gore, but because I’m sensitive to hatred and animosity. I spend the entire movie trying to sort through the layers of what kind of loyalties could lead people to slay one another like that and before I know it I may as well have been writing a dissertation on the film during the two hours I was attempting to watch it. After the fact, I’m shaken, thinking about the fact that those soldiers used to be little boys just like my sons and my mind is stuck in a loop that roots me in fear and does not allow me the energy to find a place of compassion for others.

Conversely, books and television shows that get into the deep, difficult places of the human search for belonging through companionship and relationships drive my heart straight toward freedom as I call to mind the hope that I have in Jesus, the gift of a great marriage that came straight from Him, and the ways that I can engage with those in my life who are looking for love in all the wrong places. I read of characters turning over rock after rock, bottle after joint after bed sheet in search of hope and I realize that these are the people all around me, in my neighborhood, my community, the world. I’m challenged and compelled to love more deeply, less fearfully.

My hope for this post is that it can be the beginning of a conversation. I plan to write more about this and would love to hear your thoughts as well. How do you determine what you read and watch? Do you find that it ebbs and flows with seasons of life? (I do.) Do you find that certain types of literature and entertainment drive your heart toward freedom, and others to fear? Do you think that certain personality types are able to consume different types of content well, while others should avoid them? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments or on Facebook!

From Him | Through Him | To Him,
signature 3

(This post was prompted by a recent update to the book nook, where I tell you about my recent reads along with reviews and to whom I would recommend each volume.)

*Mike Cosper, Director of The Harbor Institute for Faith and Culture in Louisville, Kentucky, has shaped a great deal of my thoughts on culture and entertainment. See some of his articles here and here, and his book here.

Author: Abby Perry

Abby has written for The Gospel Coalition, Christ and Pop Culture, Upwrite Magazine, and The Influence Network. She is the communications coordinator for a nonprofit organization and co-facilitates two community efforts—one promoting bridge-building racial reconciliation conversations and one supporting area foster and adoptive families. Abby graduated from Texas A&M University and currently attends Dallas Theological Seminary. She and her family live in College Station, Texas.

10 thoughts on “on consuming books & entertainment.”

  1. I understand this concept, and do think that given different backgrounds and life experiences, different people can handle content differently; although I do think we have to be cautious against becoming calloused and desensitized to certain things that really should be revolting or upsetting to us (and also that not *all* content should be consumed as I do firmly believe that some things are just truly only damaging). This past weekend I caught the last hour or so of Django Unchained that Will had decided to watch. Not sure if you’ve seen this or not, but it was written and directed by Quentin Tarrantino, and it was very evident. The over-the-top violence (I can appreciate something that is trying to be realistic, but this was beyond anything that could ever be considered realistic), and the complete hatred and mistreatment of an entire people group was so difficult for me to watch. The language was horrible as well, but did not affect me as much as the first two points. I literally cringed during certain scenes. Now, from an artistic approach, I could thoroughly appreciate how well the movie was cast, the quality of the acting, the music and cinematography, etc, but ultimately I don’t think I would ever choose to sit through that again. It was upsetting for me. Will on the other hand seemed energized by the whole underdog/good guy coming out on top and getting his vengeance in the end (sorry for spoilers!). He liked the “plot” of the movie. I had a hard time watching even the little bit I watched. Two different people reacting differently to a movie for different reasons. I don’t think either of us were right or wrong, it just affected us differently. But I also think the movie accomplished what it set out to accomplish: the viewer’s anger and disgust over the treatment of slaves, and celebration when good triumphed over evil. It just went about it in a format that was personally difficult for me to watch.

    1. Was nodding along all through your comment, Claire! I can’t do Quentin either, though I know many people who are so taken by the quality of the film that they don’t see it in the same unsettling way I do. So glad for your thoughts!!

  2. Abby, not Abbe! Hehe I’m distracted consuming my current read with my morning tea before the littles come inside from play!:)

  3. Abby, great read as always. I have a few questions to ponder as well as some things I’ve gleaned from my personal consumption.

    1. If we base our measure of “appropriate” on our personal experiences and whether something causes us fear or have freedom, is there any absolute “yes” or “no” when it comes to material consumed or is it all based on the relative answers to the initial question?
    2. What if enjoying things that encourage freedom also bring in silent seeds that will grow stealthily in our hearts, only to sprout fear later on?
    3. What about the quantity of our consumption of these “edgy” materials in comparison with the consumption of Truth?
    4. There’s a difference between consuming information and celebrating it, so how do we draw that line?

    I have found myself enjoying things that portray reality in a humorous manner (Modern Family, for example). Homosexuality is real, it’s present in this world and we will most assuredly come across it in real life. While watching the show definitely made this couple more endearing to me (which is not a bad thing to translate into real life – appreciating the humanity of people who are different than us), I also feel that it made me more acceptable of the sin. In less obvious ways, Dave Matthews did this to me too. While appreciating the music and the talent, I was drawn to the glorification of the sinful pleasures he described and I was honestly more prone to entertain the thoughts of drunkenness and sexual misconduct in my mind. As far as genres, I don’t know that I’m immune to any. While violence is not as blatantly offensive to me as sexual misconduct, I find that I slowly grow less compassionate when watching violent behavior and “cheering” it on.

    I can appreciate the most what you describe as watching people do some soul-searching. And in memoirs and biographies and personal narratives, this is beautiful and sad and heart-wrenching. It does lend to us a window into a broken world and that is invaluable. But here is where I would ask about the quantity of the content as well. Digging deep into peoples stories and struggles and search for redemption is exhausting and takes me deeper into myself unless I’m looking at it through the lens of absolute Truth that we have a redeemer and a Savior. I think the narratives of believers these days must be so careful to preach this Truth above and beyond our relative truths so that our eyesight is clear and our vision for our future is not clouded.

    The sad thing is, all entertainment, music and books have a message intended and a message received. Often the message intended is sinful (like how the sexual revolution targeted media to change the nation’s views on marriage/divorce/infidelity/etc.). I wonder, even if we receive it otherwise, what it’s doing in our hearts. Just like we preach hope and pray that it falls on ripe ears and fertile soil, others preach dismay and likewise want their audience to catch the wave and ride it with them. I guess in a world of increasing relativity, I am wondering how much we need to consume to be in the world but not of it. I feel as though it is becoming harder and harder to look like Christ in a time of pharisees, hypocrites and blatant atheists. I keep coming back to the fact that Christ dined with sinners and rested with his apostles, and the time spent building himself up in the Lord far outweighed the time he spent out in the world ministering, and yet His time of ministry was so much more effective because of His diligence to purity of mind and body.

    Love you, friend! Love discussions like this.

    1. Always love your thoughts, my friend! Lots to ponder and I’m sure I’ll be bringing up several of your questions and considerations as I write more!

  4. Abby, I haven’t read the other comments yet, so I may be repeating some of what they say, but i will plow on. I love what you have said here, and it so echoes my thoughts about entertainment, and reading in particular. I love to read fiction and much of what you say is the reason why. I belong to a wonderful Book Club, which is made up of all believers, and our choices of books might sometimes surprise other believers. But they lead to the most wonderful discussions about the human condition, and why we do the things we do.
    Funny, when we started the BC, we didn’t set out to be all believers, but God had other plans and as we have prayed each other through an amazing multitude of situations over many years, we are so grateful for His mercy in knitting us together.
    I also watch certain programs on TV that some believers might find unusual, but again for some of the same reasons you mention. They lead me to a place of gratitude, understanding God’s mercy, seeing His grace, etc.
    Thank you for stating some of the things many of us don’t know how to say, as usual.
    I look forward to reading most along this line from you in the future.

  5. Love this, Abby! Entertainment is one of the things that always trips me up. I wonder, “should I be spending so much time on this,” “should I run straight to this when my baby falls asleep,” “should I stop consuming altogether and just enjoy quiet spaces when they are allowed?” I believe we are supposed to be in the world and not of it. I believe we can use our consumption of entertainment for good. So many a conversation with a complete stranger has been sparked by a book I was reading or show I have watched.

    For me, I have found it is more about the amount of entertainment I consume, than the content. Certain types of entertainment give me life more than others. For example, I have stopped watching TV during the day because I have noticed it makes me grumpy, quick-tempered, and fidgety. I am prone to outbursts at my husband and toddler that I would not normally be if I chose a different entertainment instead. I can listen to music or a podcast or an audiobook from the library and I will feel much more grounded, refreshed, and stretched. Because of this change, I have been forced to prioritize what I consume. I have filled a certain inner quota before nap time with podcasts and stories, so I can run straight to God’s word in the quiet hours while Hudson sleeps. I don’t crave the Netflix binge the way I used to. I don’t immediately switch on Hulu to catch up on the latest Shonda or Late Night shows. Those things can come later. I get more accomplished during the day and I feel wound up a little looser and less stressed. It’s good to learn these things!

Comments are closed.