My twin brother and I were raised by a single mom who didn’t always have a lot of time to spend with us. We kept ourselves entertained by playing with our shiny action figures and glamorous Barbie dolls, and occasionally going outside to trade Yu-Gi-Oh! cards with our friends. But the thing that kept us most occupied was watching TV and playing video games. I was easily swept up in the many worlds that played out across the screen. Whether it was cartoons like The Powerpuff Girls, or anime that was dubbed for children in the late 90’s like Sailor Moon, or fantastical movies like Harry Potter, or later, Twilight, I was inundated with so many different kinds of stories at a young age that so many of us are accustomed to.
All stories in whatever form we consume them influence us and shape our tastes in fiction and how we see the world, whether we realize it or not. And so many of us wonder, “why?” This question is particularly important when it comes to stories that contain themes or situations we would deem morally reprehensible in the real world. Why do these stories captivate us so? Why are we filled with anticipation and excitement as we watch Michael Myers stalk Laurie Strode in Halloween, but would loathe to hear if something like that was reported on the news? In The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long For and Echo the Truth, Pastor Mike Cosper explains it by saying this:
Storytelling… doesn’t aim at our rational mind, where cultural Christian convictions like ‘we shouldn’t watch Sex and the City’ exist. It aims at the imagination, a much more mysterious and sneaky part of us, ruled by love, desire, and hope.
Cosper says we love stories because we were created by a God who tells stories. Jesus’ many parables are prominent examples. And while we tell stories of how we are capable of great evil and destruction, so many of those same stories are filled with hope and redemption and all the good things that we long to be and cry out to God for. That’s why I believe that instead of shaming ourselves for watching a story depicting something that we know is wrong in real life, we should examine fiction with thoughtfulness. As a follower of Jesus, I try to ask myself, “Is there a similar story like this in the Bible?”, “How can I see God within this piece of fiction?”, or, “How is this helping me to better relate to those around me?” “Is this show, game, or film helping me better understand my neighbors or encouraging me to label or objectify them?”
If you’re not a Christian, you may ask yourselves questions such as, “How can I relate to this story?”, “Will this be triggering to the struggles I’ve been dealing with?”, or “How do I apply the lessons I’ve learned?” Christian or not, we can all learn by asking questions about the themes, characters and content that fill the piece of media we take in. This will give us the ability to decide for ourselves whether something is helpful and adding to our lives or is instead hurting us and shaping us in negative ways.
I would like to point out that every piece of media we interact with is subjective—and therefore your mileage will vary in terms of whether you find particular stories helpful, harmful, or even enjoyable. We should be wary and think critically of everything we consume and ask why the author(s) chose to use themes of sex, violence, etc. And while some things may seemingly have no purpose with the themes they use, most fiction will depict our darkest desires to pointedly show how destructive our behaviors or attitudes, if left unchecked, can truly be.
Media that comes with warnings, ratings, and tags are vital as we navigate the fictional world. There are many of us who have past traumas that, when we see or read about that very trauma, causes us to relive those moments that we would rather not. It may also nudge you to give into a selfish impulse you’re striving to control. That’s important for us to consider and for others to respect. However, what may be unpleasant for you may not be for someone else, even if they have a shared trauma.
Take time to interpret whatever it is you’re watching, reading, or playing. What message is being conveyed? How does it relate to your perspective or experiences? I would also encourage you to remember that authorial intent matters. Hearing an author speak about the themes of their novel or watching a director speak about what they were trying to say with their film can be insightful and fascinating. We can glean more information and make better decisions for ourselves about the media we take in. I highly recommend watching behind-the-scenes documentaries of whatever you watch, and looking up interviews with the author of your favorite book. Search out the best critics of your most loved genre—thoughtful reviews, even if they are critical, can open our eyes to aspects of stories we didn’t see before and deepen both our enjoyment and the lessons we take from them.The stories that we are told and that we tell ourselves can be edifying to our lives if we think critically about what it is we’re watching, reading, and playing…
For all the ways I’ve pointed out that we can positively interact with fiction, it can in and of itself be a real addiction that hinders our lives. And while studies about consuming violent media have wielded inconclusive results, as was stated before, stories play to our imaginations, not our rational mind. We must be aware that anything we put a lot of time into is going to affect us in positive or negative ways. We must also be aware that these are also on a person-to-person basis, and not necessarily indicative of a wider majority. In any case, if you believe you may be struggling with persistent negative thoughts or may have an addiction, it’s always important to seek the help of a professional, and the support of trusted friends and family. And if you are concerned about whether the content of a given game, show, or film is appropriate for you, I recommend checking out the reviews at Common Sense Media.
The stories that we are told and that we tell ourselves can be edifying to our lives if we think critically about what it is we’re watching, reading, and playing, and by being wary of content that features things in our lives that we’re struggling with. Instead of feeling shame for enjoying horror movies or ultra-violent content, we should focus on identifying the themes and mythology of the story, motives of the characters, and if the content is going to hurt us or cause us to struggle.
“I believe that the motivation for our stories is deeply connected with the gospel, and by thinking about that connection, we can more deeply appreciate both,” Mike Cosper writes in his excellent book on the power of stories and the gospel. We seek to understand the darkness inside us and try to find ways to seek the light we so desperately crave. I love the Star Wars movies for this very reason. They uniquely explore our human nature in a spiritual way very few other media do.
God is The Great Storyteller, and because we are made in His image, we create and interact with our own stories to help us continually seek Him in our everyday lives. Our lives can be enriched by thoughtful engagement, and not be consumed with a fear that leads to shame by what we choose to enjoy just because the content it depicts may not be morally right in our real world. Instead, let’s be thankful that God made us with such beautiful and wonderful creativity, and praise Him when we see the ways our stories lead back to Him and His redemption of and love for us. Finally, let’s continue to show love to others by listening and understanding why they love the fiction they do before we judge it. We can form new bonds and friendships with fellow humans over our shared human condition.
I leave you with the wise words of the Apostle Paul, on which I hinge this entire feature, with this one verse:
“’I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive… So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:23, 31, NIV)