“You can’t seriously watch a show like Tale Spin,” she said. “Animals acting like people, they all look so demonic.”
Such was the types of criticism I faced as a child. My mother belonged to the ultra-dogmatic and totalitarian Jehovah’s Witnesses, which extended its controlling umbrella over our whole family. Amongst their methods of control included doctrines that shunned fellowship with non-believers (unless it was business related; they needed money after all), heavy criticism of watching or listening to “the wrong sorts” of media played a constant role. The toe line rang, “Whatever you’re listening to or watching, if Jesus were to walk in the door at that moment, what would He have to say?”
In a way, Jesus already did say it. "Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man 'unclean.'" (Matthew 15:17-20)
In context this is in reference to the stodgy food laws the Pharisee Jews over-applied before Jesus. As many Christians are aware, those food laws were expunged by God before Peter in Acts 10:15. This discourse however has the same parallel application to today’s media; while we don’t “eat” a TV show, the good ones do compel us to think about the topical message they are portraying. In some ways, they’re like high budget sermons. And when we think about that message, our response to it often comes from the heart, or the place from which our beliefs reside. Those beliefs can change of course, which is why a certain amount of caution is simply common sense; i.e. if I watch Dexter and become a serial killer, not only have I sinned and completely rejected my Christian worldview, I’ve confused the message of the show in the first place. They certainly didn’t make that show to promote homicide, apparently they did it to promote logging. (Sorry, Spoiler alert)
Recently the show Breaking Bad ended its run, and amusingly an obituary was run in an Albuquerque paper for the death of Walter White, the show’s lead character. (If this spoils the show for you, sorry, the guy had cancer… how did you think it would end?) Now fans have gathered together to put on a faux funeral for White, benefitting “Vernon's Steakhouse Walter White Endowment Fund,” a charity set up by local fan Jackamoe Buzzell, for “the benefit of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless.”
Granted from a Christian standpoint, one is certainly in the right if they wish to criticize Breaking Bad for essentially elevating a drug lord, showing a lot of murder and excessive violence and profanity, the deconstruction of the family through one man’s obsession to put himself ahead of all else… On the other hand a Christian can also look at Breaking Bad and say, “This is what happens when a man facing terrible circumstances turns to himself out of selfish ambition, rather than relying on Jesus, to get out of a real mess; you end up in a bigger one.”
The message of Breaking Bad was never meant to be a good one. But to the Christian, we hardly have room to accuse it of ever trying to portray doing evil as anything beneficial in the end. That fans of the show have gathered to set up charities reminds me of a passage out of James; “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27) Not that I am promoting Breaking Bad as a religion, but granted I have seen some artwork portraying Walter White in some famous images attributed to Jesus Christ. I certainly don’t condone that, (though I admit some of them, I can’t help but at least admire the artistic skill alone) and that is the second part of what James is saying… not to let us become polluted by the world.
I’ll give you an example. My wife loves any show with Chef Gordon Ramsay. Now I’m not ragging on the man for his habitual swearing and treating some people like dirt… I’ve seen interviews from him and I understand his context. Still, I can’t help but admit that, well for one I’m not into reality shows… but more importantly, because I’m only passively listening, somehow it becomes harder in those frustrating situations not to end up swearing myself. Accidents happen and part of a mature faith is knowing accidents happen, but at the same time it’s my fault for letting shows like Kitchen Nightmares plant a root of profanity in my heart. That’s kind of how it works, and as Christians we have to always be on guard.
To those who might argue, “Well isn’t that reason enough not to watch such shows? Isn’t your time better spent reading the Bible or in service to others?” To me this is splitting hairs, because of course you should be allotting your time to do such things. On the other hand, I also argue that these shows are useful to the Christian. When fans gather in charity as they’re doing for Breaking Bad, I would quote Mark 9:40, that whoever is not against us is for us. “I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.”
In the field I’ve actually discovered that what Greg Koukl talks about in his book, “Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing your Christian Convictions,” is absolutely correct; that the demeanor of Detective Colombo from the show Colombo is perfect for apologetics/evangelism. I even own and wear the tan overcoat, one could say I’m into “Cosplay Evangelism.” That said, it has benefited my discussions even more as a fan of the show, even if others are not. The “Colombo Tactic” is truly fantastic.
Which brought me to start writing a book on modern day Pop-Culture evangelism called “SEEDS: A Popular Culture Approach to Apologetics, Evangelism, and Presenting Christian Evidence.” As William Romanowski noted in his book, “Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture,” “To be distinctive in our engagement with popular art, we need a different kind of Christian approach – an engaged, critical, and productive involvement with the popular arts – grounded in a faith vision that encompasses all of life and culture.” While it is not my interest to highlight how “God can be found in popular culture,” the point of Seeds is to show how Christians can use pop-culture that we are all familiar with to point others to God. Such is a task I relate to 1 Corinthians 10:31-33; “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God-- even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.”