More than Entertainment
Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are a delightful convenience. The myriad of choices has us queuing up our watch lists until our eyes glaze over and, within this world of high stimulus entertainment, we become blind to the pitfalls that threaten to undercut our spiritual zeal and steadfastness.
Our spiritual enemy uses every opportunity to ensnare us. Entertainment is one of his stealthiest traps. There is no algorithm for guarding our hearts and minds; it is a moment-by-moment battle that must be fought wide awake. "Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8).
Our enemy, the devil, is crafty (Gen 3:1) and the apostle Peter would have no need to warn us about being watchful—or alert, as the NIV puts it—and sober-minded if the devil’s schemes were easy to spot. But the lure of godlessness doesn’t parade by us draped in caution tape and red flags; it is subtle and often cloaked in innocence.
Theologian Wayne Grudem makes this observation about the apostle Peter’s analogy of a prowling lion: "The metaphor is apt, for a prowling lion attacks suddenly, viciously, and often when its unsuspecting victim is engaged in routine activities."
Netflix and its companions are nothing if not routine. Our minds switch to autopilot and our thumbs instinctively maneuver to our desired program. We choose the device; we hold the remote; we play, pause, fast-forward, and rewind to our heart’s content. This sense of autonomy within the world of TV streaming creates the dangerous illusion that we are in full control of the environment and no outside forces can intrude, but we should not be so naive.
The for-profit intention of these services is to engage us in a way that keeps us coming back for more: more seasons, fuller watchlists, new picks “just for you.” Taking the form of convenience and personalization, four features of these streaming algorithms are actually well camouflaged pitfalls:
The convenience of thousands upon thousands of titles at the mere click of a button is a feast for our entertainment-hungry senses. As we frolic through rows of content, eager to unwind, the simple ease with which we can commence the vegging process leaves little room for assessment. Titles are free and they begin the second you press play. Contrast that with the days of video rental stores where careful browsing and deliberation over a movie happened before finally committing to the decision at the checkout. Streaming services have essentially attempted to nullify the vetting process to give us the sense that free and abundant content leaves no need for selectivity. Simply put: because we can watch it, we may not take the time to evaluate if we should watch it.
Browsing the home page or library is equivalent to sailing the open seas. It can feel blissfully liberating to toggle up and down, left and right, taking in every option without boundaries. But the compromise built into this free form navigation is a susceptibility to every image, sexual innuendo, and foul word roaming the expanse. It’s all there, censored only to the standards of the service provider, which slowly desensitize us to the kind of behavior and content that Paul warns us to avoid: “Let there be no sexual immorality, impurity, or greed among you. Such sins have no place among God’s people. Obscene stories, foolish talk, and coarse jokes—these are not for you” (Ephesians 5:3–4a NLT).
Yes, even our television choices should look different than the world’s, but this requires spiritual vigilance. Wayne Grudem observes that as believers, if we lack the distinct posture of spiritual watchfulness, what results is “a kind of spiritual drowsiness in which one sees and responds to situations no differently than unbelievers, and God's perspective on each event is seldom if ever considered."
Arguably the most effective ploy, the automatic continuation of the next episode makes binge-watching the default. AutoPlay means we are physically, mentally, and (depending on the genre) emotionally required to break away from what we are currently watching to do something else. It is difficult to war against the nature of our flesh and our propensity to laziness, especially when we have approximately 10, 9, 8, 7... seconds to disengage. We must possess the presence of mind to recognize when we are potentially slipping into idleness and neglecting responsibilities that require our attention. Rest is good and necessary, but biblically, rest is designed to be limited (Gen 2:2–3), so that work (which is also good) can resume.
The temptation to overindulge in entertainment often stems from a desperation to achieve an ultimate rest that can only be found in Christ. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:28–29 NIV, emphasis added). The gift of leisure has limits—it was never intended to take the place of the spiritual rest found in relationship with Christ, which transcends the burdens of this life.
Perhaps you have nothing pressing on your agenda, and a day of Netflix doesn’t seem objectionable, but consider that we are called to far more than a benign existence. Paul instructs us to “walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true) and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness … Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Look carefully how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:8b–11a, 14b–17).
Paul is calling us to actively seek a life that demonstrates Christ’s transformative work in us—namely, good works which He prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:10)! In his book Competing Spectacles, Tony Reinke wisely assesses the dangers of this media age, and also calls out the subtle destructive power of even “good” content when it is consumed unmeasured: "Feeding on sinful media will annul your holy affections. Yes. But pampering yourself with a glut of morally neutral media also pillages your affectional zeal. Each of us must learn to preserve higher pleasures by revolting against lesser indulgences" (emphasis added).
Something as decidedly action-driven and battle-minded as a revolt is absolutely necessary in the grip of modern entertainment. This is a cultural 180, though, and to turn so drastically from what has been normalized as an acceptable use of free time requires the dynamic power of God in our lives.
Reinke says, "We need God to turn our heads. Like a father gently holding his overstimulated son’s face until he can regain his gaze, God must divert our eyes in another direction away from empty things. And we have such a Father, whom we can ask to fill our hearts with what is eternally valuable."
Suggested For You
There is something so persuasive about personableness. When things are customized to appeal to our preferences and meet our needs, we feel seen and heard, and with this comes a sense of obligation. In the same way that it is difficult to say no to buying a product after we have been engaged by a friendly salesperson and “gifted” a free sample, it is hard to pass up shows that tout their worthiness based on how well they match your taste.
The deceptively personal nature of titles suggested to you with a “98% match” or “because you watched _____” lead us to depend on an algorithm as a reliable gauge for our entertainment choices. We can be tempted to wonder if an obviously questionable title may hold some hidden value as the perfect pick for us if we are willing to compromise our standards just a little and give it a chance. This is a fallacy and a slippery slope that sacrifices wisdom and discernment to the idol of entertainment.
Social Relevance: The 5th Pitfall
Entertainment through television and movies is a huge part of American culture. Keeping up with the latest titles determines a great deal of our social relevance. These days there are even movie and TV references within other movies and TV shows, meaning you have to have watched the referenced show in order to get the joke. Similarly, there is an unspoken social expectation to be “in the know” about the latest and best titles available for streaming. It is not unusual for Netflix favorites to be the topic of conversation amongst a gathering of friends. Our craving for recognition and social credibility can instill in us an urgency to experience or discover all the best new shows before our friends do, or at least, before they are no longer a topic of conversation. Fear of missing out and vain conceit are pitfalls that lead us to esteem the approval and praise of others above God. Our failure to live out characteristics of the Christian life should be a more pressing concern for us than our ignorance of Stranger Things.
Risk vs. Reward
You may be coming to the realization that to actually respond to these truths and apply them may require you to do a drastic overhaul of your media intake. Perhaps the vigilance Paul and Peter are calling for feels extreme because it leaves you with a limited number of entertainment choices. Let me encourage you: the alternative to a media-heavy diet is not boredom but transformation and hopeful anticipation. “Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming” (1 Peter 1:13 NIV).
There is a supremely satisfying, immensely valuable, and eternally relevant person and purpose to which we have been called: Jesus Christ and His Kingdom. Anything that attempts to compete with King Jesus for our gaze is a threat to our eternal reward.
Satan is in the business of knocking Christ’s followers off course, and the routine entertainment of our televisions is the perfect tool to dull our spiritual senses and distract us from things of lasting value. Rather than binge-watching, we ought to be “binge meditating” on the wonder of the gospel and the glory of Jesus. This kind of intentional thought and use of time requires a willingness to abandon what the world esteems and cling with faith to the promise that Christ is far more valuable. It comes with a promise—a promise which a life saturated in entertainment is designed to steal from us (Psalm 1:1–3).
Entertainment offers a pseudo-blessedness that fades after the credits roll. Let us be watchful so as not to forfeit the evergreen blessedness of Christ for the temporal blooms of this world.
Stephanie Smith writes at Read Cook Devour, sharing recipes and thinking deeply about God’s Word. She enjoys Florida life, marriage, and motherhood. Stephanie currently serves as a leader in women's ministry at the church she has called home for 23 years. When it comes to priorities, keeping the freezer stocked with ice cream is high on her list.