How to engage today’s media without losing your soul
By Trip Lee
There are many moral issues that are black and white.
Preaching the gospel is good, and punching little old ladies is bad. But there are many other areas that aren’t so straightforward. We sometimes call them grey areas.
How do we make decisions in areas where there’s no explicit biblical command? Paul didn’t instruct the Corinthians about so-called “secular” music, so what do I do?
I want to tell you about a simple rule I try to follow in these so-called “grey” areas. I call it “the grey rule.” It’s nothing monumental or even original.
In fact, I first heard it years ago in a sermon, and I’ve heard a few people say similar things over the years. But just because something’s simple doesn’t mean it’s not helpful.
Here’s the grey rule: embrace things that lead you closer to Jesus, and reject things that lead you away from Jesus. Pretty simple, right? As an example, let’s think about how it applies to media: music, TV, movies, video games, social media, magazines, etc.
Media is good
I’ll start by reminding you that media is good. It’s not inherently bad or even neutral; it’s good. It can be tempting to condemn media as a product of the evil one because of the ways it’s often used, but we should be careful not to give the evil one too much credit.
Paul warned Timothy about those that “forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good” (1 Timothy 4:3–4). It’s not holy to call good things evil.
God created all things, including communication. He also created sound, vision, and beauty. Media is what happens when human beings, created in God’s image, reshape and reimagine the beautiful gifts God has given us to make something new. When we communicate and create, we imitate our Creator and hold up a faint picture of Him for the world to see.
Rejecting media altogether is essentially turning up our noses when He offers us a merciful gift, and it robs Him of the glory He deserves. Media, in itself, is a good thing, and we should be careful about calling things evil when God has already called them good.
We confuse the issue when we attack good things instead of the real enemy. Hip-hop is not the problem, and neither is that new video game console. Sin is the problem, and it always has been.
Media is often foul, but not because media was created by Satan. It’s because people are fallen, and this is what happens when you place good gifts into the hands of sinful people.
Imagine me letting my 2-year-old son play with my iPhone. Say he accidentally calls 911 repeatedly for 15 minutes straight. When the cops show up at my door, it would be foolish for me to exclaim, “That stupid iPhone!”
The problem wasn’t the phone, it was the person holding it. The same principle applies with media. Let’s make sure we point the blame in the right direction.
With that in mind, how can we enjoy the good gift of media without being corrupted by it in the process? Scripture doesn’t give us a list of acceptable media, thus it’s a grey area. That means we have to ask ourselves, how can we approach media consumption in a way that honors God? Grey doesn’t mean “do what you want”; it means apply biblical principles to the situation. And with those biblical principles, we can think about what draws us to Jesus and what pushes us away.
I’m not going to give you a list of what rating is permissible or which genres of music are acceptable, because that’s neither helpful nor biblical. Instead, I’m going to give you five principles.
1. Be active, not passive
We shouldn’t just let media wash over us; otherwise we may be swept away with the tide. We should engage with it. We should ask questions about it and engage with the content.
As you enjoy it, treat it like a discussion. In his book Popologetics, Ted Turnau gives some helpful questions:
- What’s the story?
- Where am I (in the world of the text)?
- What’s good and true and beautiful about it?
- What’s false and ugly and perverse about it (and how do I subvert that)?
- How does the gospel apply here?
Media most definitely influences how we see the world and awakens desires that lurk in our souls. We have to actively engage with what we’re taking in—even when we’re taking in “Christian” media.
Sometimes movies claim to teach Christian themes, but instead are nothing more than sanitized versions of worldly messages. “Believe in yourself” and “Be a self-made man” are not in the Bible. So engage with the content.
2. Know yourself
This will be scandalous for some and mundane for others, but these days I do listen to some secular music, if by secular you mean music that doesn’t talk about Jesus.
I feel no conviction when I listen to Stevie Wonder, who’s written some of the best love songs of all time. I enjoy listening to rappers voice their worldviews, while I mentally engage with their arguments.
Additionally, I know what kind of music encourages me, and I intentionally listen to that. Sometimes I want to hear biblical truth, so I’ll put on some doctrine-heavy hip-hop (or watch some sermons). Other times, I’ll search the charts and explore some new stuff I’ve never heard before.
No matter what I’m listening to, however, I proceed with caution. I will not take in media that causes me to stumble. That’s transgressing the grey rule. I know myself well enough to know what I can and cannot listen to.
3. Keep watch over your soul
Sin is nothing to play with, so if certain media causes you to sin, get away from it! Some of us need to get rid of some of our apps and erase some of our music. There is too much at stake!
Our eternities are not worth entertainment or cultural awareness. There is no amount of connectivity or relevance that is worth the health of your soul.
4. Use media in moderation
We can’t allow our every second to be dominated by media of different kinds. I’ve noticed the first thing I do when I have a free second is check my phone. I could think or go over the Scripture I’ve been memorizing, but instead I read a list about “Fifteen things that remind you of the nineties.”
Oversaturating ourselves with social media can lead to a lack of solitude and deep thought. It’s good to unplug sometimes for the sake of your soul. This is part of thinking about what brings you closer to Jesus.
5. Receive media with thanksgiving
In every expression of creativity, there is a faint picture of our Creator on display. As those who know this God, we recognize Him when we see Him. We can praise God for His creativity and thank Him for His mercy in sharing it with us.
If we simply retreat from everything instead of taking the time to navigate it, we’ll be missing out on beautiful gifts from our Lord. Not only that, but pop culture can be a huge factor in our engagement with others.
After all, media is both an influencer and a mirror; it affects attitudes and reflects them. Again, we should proceed with caution, but we should partake and enjoy to the glory of God.
Teenage me would probably rebuke present-day me. I would probably call present-day me worldly and compromising, but that’s my past immaturity speaking. Don’t be like I was. Accept the grey.
And when others disagree with you or decide to partake where you abstain, don’t condemn them. Share concerns where you have them and be gracious with them. God has been more than gracious with us.
The Bible has given us more than enough principles to work with. Grey areas don’t mean free-for-all; they mean navigating a more complex road.
The mature Christian doesn’t just ask, “What can I do?” but “What can I do to glorify God?” even when it’s not so black and white.
TRIP LEE (@TripLee) is author of RISE from which this article is excerpted. Used with permission from Thomas Nelson, 2014.