Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 52. Drowning in Unreality
Ex 20:22,23 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: Do not make any gods to be alongside me
Unreal gods: A problem that constantly seemed to face Israel was that of idol worship, which was forbidden by the Lord – yet all the surrounding nations worshipped idols. So why did God forbid it and why is it relevant here? The answer to both questions is that worshiping idols is worshipping something that is unreal. The truth is that ‘gods’ don’t exist, the gods of Athens or Rome that we learn about in history are figments of human imagination, made in the image of fallen human beings. The gods of the nations surrounding Israel were expressions of superstition, unreal, make-believe. Don’t worship what is unreal is the message from heaven.
Facing Unreality: So what does our heading today mean, this ‘drowning in unreality’? It means there is a way of thinking today that is quite unreal and its very presence undermines the way Christians think and opens them up, if not to giving way to temptation, certainly to tolerating a lifestyle and failing to speak into the folly of the ways of the world. So what is the unreality that I am speaking about? It is that portrayed in films, TV ‘soaps’ and videos. There is also the unreality of ‘computer games’. I have mentioned temptation and toleration as two outworkings of this unreality (and I will go on to explain more in a moment) but within that there are two things to be observed. First, the behaviour is unreal and second, the very culture that we are looking at challenges biblical norms.
Considering ‘Soaps’ & ‘Sitcoms’: I hope you are familiar with the terms. Soaps are defined on the internet as follows, “A soap opera is an ongoing drama serial on television or radio, featuring the lives of many characters and their emotional relationships.” A Sitcom is simply a ‘situation comedy’ based on a fixed group of characters. The reason they are so pernicious is that they appear every week on TV. The ‘sitcom’ genre usually has a very much lighter feel to them and although infidelity is dealt with, it is in much more light-hearted way. Perhaps that makes it more acceptable.
Two Case Studies: Historically there have been two leading influential series, clearly aimed at the younger generation. The first was ‘Friends’ which ran from September 1994 to May 2004 (10 series) and the group being followed were described as, “not above sticking their noses into one another’s businesses and swapping romantic partners, which always leads to the kind of hilarity average people will never experience – especially during breakups.” That softening comment does nothing to undermine the culture that is conveyed which I will define in a moment. The second is the ‘Big Bang Theory’, running from September 2007 and currently to series 11 in 2018.
The Culture: There are certain characteristics that are common to both of these long-running series: a) they are very funny, b) sex has a high profile and is portrayed as normal among young people, c) sex is distinct from committed relationship and indeed both series show the horror that is experienced when one member of a couple uses the words, ‘I love you’, being seen as words of commitment for which neither of them are clearly ready, d) both series had an almost cult following, especially among the younger generations. Neither series deals with inconveniences such as STD’s, unwanted pregnancies, abortions etc. Sex is problem free.
The deceptions: I would suggest (at the risk of being called a kill-joy by the younger generation) the following follies of this culture:
i) Sex is reduced to a simple pleasure with no unpalatable outworkings (see my last comment above; these ‘inconveniences’ do in fact have a substantial negative impact on modern society).
ii) As sex is separated from love and a committed lasting relationship, such a relationship has clearly become a difficult thing to acquire and the fruit of this is clearly observed in the trials and tribulations of the younger generations, many of whom now despair of the possibility of any lasting, loving, long-term relationship, especially with the ease of divorce in modern western societies being as it is.
iii) Sex is portrayed as easy, and always enjoyable and instantly on demand, and having no negative impact on the relationship, whereas surveys indicate a) many women confess that very often sexual experience is not pleasurable but they have to do it because that is what is done, and it wins affection from the male (both untruths), and b) the realities of tiredness, monthly periods (often suppressed by the pill), feeling unwell etc. etc. mean that one or other partner, in reality, aren’t feeling like it.
iv) Sex is designed (by God and many psychologists would agree) to be just one strand of a growing relationship, friendship, growing trust and sense of security being others. Putting sex before the others (or even using it as a one-night stand) means that the likelihood of a long-term relationship developing is reduced, as is the possibility of creating a family.
v) Despite all the talk of ‘prevention’, a surprising number of (therefore) unwanted pregnancies take place, creating either the single parent syndrome (with its negatives), or a forced ‘marriage’, or a cohabiting partnership which, by its very nature, has an unstable foundation and often results in the man leaving and we are back to the single-parent syndrome again. There is also the matter of abortions often taken as the norm in this culture.
And in Church? We are often very good at accepting single mothers into the church community but in so-doing we are loath to make negative corrective comments and so our own young people see this as normal for society. It should not be; there are too many negative sides to this for both the mother and certainly the fatherless children. What I observe is an almost casual attitude to these things growing in the church. If we allow this to continue we will be helping the world in undermining the value and benefits of a committed life-long relationship, and of the family unit being a foundation for a safe and secure environment in which children can be raised. Society is very slow to link the growing number of child behavioral problems with family breakdown. If we were honest about these things, our communities would be transformed. We need to talk these things in depth within our church communities, recognizing the unreality ethos we are battling against and carefully revealing the good of God’s design.
Standards generally: So far, we have talked about the ethos to be countered, and the very folly of the lifestyle, in respect of sex and modern relationships, but I think we should be honestly aware of the impact of various other things coming out of Hollywood. In the US, (not the UK) I have observed many times an inconsistency in believers’ attitudes to certain films. Because C.S.Lewis appears to have such a following in the US, Narnia films and then the Lord of the Rings films and subsequently the Hobbit films are perfectly acceptable. Harry Potter films, by comparison, are abhorred, because ‘witchcraft is bad’. Yes, real witchcraft is, and the manufacturing industry that capitalizes on it, also is, I believe, but no more the industry that exalts in Halloween which certainly has a dark or even ‘black’ background. But actually, all of these films exalt good over bad and ‘good’ triumphs. (If you want to be really discerning, you will note the difference between the first two HP books and the last ones). And do you watch ‘vampire’ films or TV???? We need to think about this.
But then I found an acceptance in the evangelical community of ‘The Passion’ the worst example of the most extreme, shock-violence possible. Don’t say it happened; so did many other atrocities that you and I (I hope) would abhor if they were on screen. My other horror, on both sides of the water, is of the acceptance of the first of the Hunger Games films shown to young teenagers. It’s about teenagers murdering other teenagers for public spectacle! I think Paul’s “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things,” (Phil 4:8) would be an overstatement taken out of context if we try to apply it to modern watching, but there is a truth there to be pondered.
An Approach? These days I would never recommend any watching (My own may be wider than some of you, but I would never recommend it). As a young Christian I was wary, having been brought up in my twenties in a strict evangelical mould, of even watching Crocodile Dundee, and I know there are some Christians who never watch any films. Well that is an extreme, but I would prefer it to the ‘watch anything’ extreme. Paul’s advice about not putting stumbling blocks before others (Rom 14:13, 1 Cor 8:9) is worth considering. The balance is, how can I remain aware of the standards being pushed by the world? A question to be asked is, “If I watch this particular film/TV series, does it fill my mind, give me nightmares, or diminish my steadfast resolve to hold to God’s laws?” i.e. does it undermine my standards? Accepting the ethos, whether it is to do with sex or the taking of life, is the danger that I believe is undermining the standards of many Christians. Even more, because there is this ‘clash of cultures’, the ‘modern outlook’ of tolerance, I am certain, undermines both the clarity and certainty of the biblical culture, if I may put it like that, in the minds of many. If in doubt, don’t watch.
Personal Guidelines: My own personal guidelines for watching today (while seeking to be an informed commentator) are:
- Avoid explicit sex on screen which causes images to be retained and thus causes further difficulties of personal management.
- Avoid constant use of the ‘f’ word or similar for the same reason.
- Where relationships involve infidelity, remember the folly and the reality, and where there is violence (either don’t watch it or) remember this is manufactured in a studio and unreal. But don’t let it anesthetize you to the horror.
- If in doubt, don’t watch; there is plenty else to do in life!
Finally, does this aspect of life, diminish the reality of ‘ongoing redemption’ we have been considering? If yes, it’s time for a change.