how I think through desensitization.

A few weeks ago, I shared some of my thoughts on consuming books and entertainment, and invited readers to join in the conversation. I’m delighted that many of you did, and I’m going to be blogging my way through several of the questions that were asked and themes that were raised. Keep the questions coming via blog post comments or on the Facebook page!

     In my first post on this topic, I gave my thesis statement on why I read and watch what I read and watch, which is: 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 wrote about compassion and empathy, about turning from that which breeds fear and pressing into that which brings freedom. I wrote, “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.”

     One of the questions that came up, which is a question that often comes up within my own heart is this:

What about desensitization?

     I’ll confess up front that I do not have a pat answer for this question, and that I am not working toward one. Rather, I’m working toward developing a robust, God-honoring, empathy-evoking framework that empowers me to make wise, open-hearted decisions about what I choose to consume (and what I don’t).

     With that foundation beneath us, here are a few points to consider as we think through the power of books and media to desensitize us.

     First, what do we mean when we say “desensitize?”

definition of desensitize     Interesting, isn’t it? The definition provides a bit of clarity, certainly, but it also opens up a pertinent question. When we say we have become desensitized, we generally tend to mean that we have become less likely to be distressed by exposure to harmful images, and we perceive this to be a problem, even sinful. I think that this definition is often the correct one to use, and I believe that it is invariably the one to use when we are discussing the harms of gratuitous violence, salacious sex, purposelessly crude comedy and more.

     But…or perhaps, and

     I wonder if we should explore the second definition a bit more. I wonder if, sometimes, when we say that we are concerned about being “desensitized” to something, what we really mean is that we are uncomfortable in the tension of watching or reading about a character who is lost in sin and living like it and finding ourselves having compassion on that character. I wonder if we liked being grossed out by a “type” of person, and suddenly we aren’t anymore, and now we wonder if that change is wrong. The cheating husband, the alcoholic mother, the mistress, the drug dealer, the liar, we engage them in books, in movies, and on television and we suddenly find ourselves compelled by their stories, heartbroken by their pain, understanding of their failures. We become, according to the second definition, “desensitized,” or perhaps more accurately, more poignantly, we find ourselves humanizing characters and, if art is doing its job and we are allowing it to, recognizing the intrinsic value of the people around us, the stories they share, the hardships they face.

     And herein lies the question I believe we must ask, the question that I must ask myself often.

     “Does this character compel me to compassion, or entice me to emulate?”

     Does the drug addict tempt me to numb my own pain, or does he stir compassion in my heart for the plight of those overwhelmed by suffering and desperate to anesthetize?

     Does the cheating mistress chip away at my defenses, tempting me toward a wandering eye or a lustful heart, or does she foster empathy for those whose search for love is deluded and unsatisfying?

     Does the violent warrior evoke aggression and lack of regard for human beings, or does he draw me to think more deeply about war, the sanctity of life, justice and peace-making?

     It is certainly possible for both to happen at the same time – a compelling toward compassion and an enticement to emulate. It is possible to watch a show one day and feel only compassion for the flawed character, while the next day we find ourselves tempted to dabble in choices similar to hers. And this is why one of my strongest beliefs about books and entertainment is this – our choices here should not exist in a vacuum. Our choices here are not exempt from the input and questioning of our community. I don’t think this means we need to text a friend every time we set the DVR or borrow a library book, but I do think it means that we keep the conversation about what we watch and read and why open with those around us. I think it means that we are called to be soft and receiving to insight, input, even disagreement. I think it means we confess to one another if we are finding ourselves tempted by the images or words we have consumed, and that we submit ourselves one to another in establishing gracious, loving boundaries. I think it means we push one another in our definitions, that we dig toward the root of desensitization, humanization, fear, freedom and compassion.

    Community is a critical component all of the Christian life, and our consumption of books and entertainment is no exception. This isn’t about legalism; it’s not about rules, nor about “accountability partners” having ultimate authority over what we consume. It’s about keeping conversations open, leaving no room for dark secrets growing within. It’s about the journey away from fear and toward freedom together. It’s about helping one another follow the Spirit toward purity and empathy intertwined, together.

What are your thoughts on books, entertainment, desensitization and community? I’d love to hear them! Comment on this post or join the conversation on the Facebook page.

     Next in this series: personality + entertainment (how our individual designs influence the way we consume and engage with entertainment). 

From Him | Through Him | To Him,

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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,
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(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.