October 2010 - Vol. 43

Making Sense of the Media 
by Jon Wilson

What place should the media have in the life of a Christian? What a difficult question to make sense of! Answers can range from “No place!” to looks of incomprehension. One reason for this may be that the question is too broad, not easy to define nor answer in a single sentence. Nevertheless, I believe that how we deal with the media is crucial to our growth in Christian maturity, both individually and as families.

I believe that the starting point, as well as the finishing point, for any discussion of the media has to be a recognition that this area requires many personal decisions, decisions for which each of us needs to take personal responsibility. There is a temptation to seek a perfect manual or guide book of rules that we can all follow, and be done with it. But that would not promote a healthy relationship with the God of grace. We need to see all things in the light of our grateful love for the Lord, and his care for our lives. As disciples of the Lord, we need to seek his guidance in this area, and then decide on a healthy approach to this area for our personal lives.

And what works for some people will not work for others. As a personal example: when it comes to the venerable medium of books, I need to limit my intake because I tend to neglect family responsibilities if I get sucked into a good book. On the other hand, some people need perhaps to read more, since it is not something they naturally enjoy. With books and the various other kinds of media, one size, one regulation will not fit all.

To move forward, let me propose some definitions of different types of media. I have found it helpful to divide the media into two (somewhat broad) categories: that which is used as a tool and that which is used for entertainment. For example, movies would generally fall in the entertainment category, while the computer application Outlook Express is a tool. Some forms of media can be either a tool or entertainment, like email or an iPhone.

Given this categorization, there are a few points that might be helpful for us to consider. First, “know thyself.” Do you primarily use email as a tool or as entertainment? I generally dislike email, but my business is run through email; so, tool. On the other hand, I have an iPhone, supposedly for my business, but I really like the cool games in the App Store; so, definitely some iPhone entertainment going on here. As we bring this area before the Lord, it is important to have an honest understanding of how we are using the media, whether as a tool or for entertainment – or for both.

This categorization of media is not meant to separate the good from the bad. In fact, in my view both entertainment media and productivity media need to be limited, although  our culture has been very slow to recognize the need for limits in either area. Most of us have constant access to entertainment, some high quality, some banal, some downright evil. At the same time, we are encouraged to maximize our productivity by staying ”plugged in” at all times. We all have stories of seeing a table of diners at a restaurant, all engaged in separate conversations on their cell phones. 

The truth of the matter is, relationships should trump productivity as well as entertainment. Relationships with the Lord, family, community, neighbors, and even strangers, are what bring meaning to our lives. All the media in our lives should be used to strengthen these relationships, not to compete with them. If our entertainment isolates us from our family, it should be eliminated, or changed to include them. If business calls on our cell phone take us away from the brother or sister we are present with, we should put the ringer on silent and return the calls later.

Let’s consider a couple Scripture passages. First, Ephesians 5:8-20:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said: ?   "Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul emphasizes here the incompatibility of light and darkness. So it is with us, who have the light of the Lord, in our relation to the darkness of the world. We cannot hold both light and darkness within us. Paul goes on to emphasize the importance of our decisions, of how we choose to conduct ourselves. There is a spiritual battle raging around us, and our choices are charged with power and significance, because of the light that we bear. We need to make the most of every opportunity to serve the Lord.

Second, Philippians 4:8, a familiar verse:

Finally, brothers, 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.
This verse gives us a great test for what we should allow ourselves to take in. Paul’s ideal of excellence and beauty should be the standard for our use of media. The two passages combined urge us not to waste time on things that are not the best for us, things that do not in some way draw us to God. 

One good way  to make progress in this area is to engage in a self-assessment of the place that media has in our lives, accompanied by an openness to change. We should let our gratitude to God and our love for him urge us to apply Paul’s directions in Philippians 4:8 to our guide for media use.

Here is a simple assessment which I use for myself. First I list all the ways that I  use media, and then  categorize them as either tools or entertainment. Some might go in both categories. Next, I ask myself two questions: What are the positive things that media brings into my life and that of my family or household, and what are the negative things? 

The assessment concludes with one final question: Am I happy with the amount of media I use, and my family, and household? Some things  jumped out at me as needing some limits, even though they were not bad in themselves. One household I know of decided not to check email before morning prayer or after night prayer, creating some space for quiet and rest. One person decided  not to watch TV alone, as a way of putting more emphasis on building relationships.

I found it helpful to include others in my self-assessment, speaking to my wife and family about what I was doing, and encouraging them to do the same, and then we compare notes. Sharing my conclusions with my men’s group, and  seeking input from my pastoral leader has also been very beneficial. I believe that the more one can take initiative and give conscious thought to their decisions regarding media, the more the Lord can lead them and bring his light into more prominence in their lives.

Unfortunately, this is not something that we can do once and then coast for fifteen years. The media is everywhere, and everyday it is growing in influence. The methods of media are constantly changing and impacting us in new ways. But we cannot give in and stop taking responsibility for our decisions. We also need to give particular concern to equipping our children to cope well with the media so they can learn how to apply the principles we looked at from the Apostle Paul. Let us also together lift up this area in prayer, asking the Lord to give us his light and to make us more fully children of his light.

[Jon Wilson is a coordinator of Word of Life, a community of the Sword of the Spirit, and a member of Knox Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He and his wife, Melody and their five children live in Ypsilanti, Michigan, USA.] 

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