My friend Matthew Lee Anderson recently wrote a reflection in his newsletter with the headline “Quit Netflix.” Matt describes his decision, five years ago, to quit Netflix as “one of the single best, and hardest, choices I have made as an adult.”
But he doesn’t regret it:
I don’t know if I am any closer toward becoming a more interesting, sanctified human being than I was in my Days of Netflix. But I know the shows that captivated everyone then the way Game of Thrones has now have largely passed from the realm of discourse, such that I am none the better for having seen them. And that gives me hope that foregoing as much of the Entertainment Complex as I can bring myself to will allow me to cultivate a life that in 20 years has enough depth to supply its own stories at a dinner party.
Though Matt’s article contains some overstated claims I would quibble with (films necessarily “breed passivity”; television “actively undermines the very skills necessary to be an interesting human being”), I appreciate and respect his conclusions.
I also believe people should at least consider quitting streaming services like Netflix. I’ve written before about problems I see with that platform (“4 Ways Netflix Perpetuates Modern Anxieties”), so I won’t rehash those here. But I do have some additional thoughts.
Are You Free to Not Netflix?
Most Christians would probably agree that subscriptions to streaming-video sites like Netflix falls within the category of “Christian liberty.” Scripture obviously doesn’t speak to whether, and how much, one should watch Netflix.
But like anything we are free as Christians to do, a crucial question must always be: “Am I free to abstain from this thing?” Enjoyment of any good (or neutral) thing can easily become idolatrous, after all, if we find that we can’t live without it.
I wrote about this point a few years ago in terms of alcohol, describing my worry that post-legalism liberty to drink can morph into a new legalism: “Are we so embracing our Christian liberty to partake of alcohol that it threatens to become less a ‘liberty’ and more a shackling legalism—something we can’t, or won’t, go without?”
The same logic applies to Netflix (among many other things): In moderation it can be a good thing, but be wary if it becomes a thing you can’t quit. A good litmus test of whether something is idolatrous is whether you are willing (or able) to abstain from it.
A good litmus test of whether something is idolatrous is whether you are willing (or able) to abstain from it.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Matt suggests one of the problems of Netflix is the sheer glut of content that leads us to continually fill our time with what we’ve been told are “must-sees”:
We have been told the past few years that we are living in the golden age of serialized television. What started with The Sopranos has most recently given us Game of Thrones. The number of series in between that one ostensibly must have viewed to participate in Intelligent Conversations About Culture is mind-boggling: Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, The Office . . . and those are just the shows I can think of in my sleep-deprived state. I suspect that one could learn to speak passable French in the amount of time those series require.
I agree. It’s impossible to “keep up” with the endless array of quality Netflix content (and Hulu, and Amazon Prime, and HBO, and so on). The time it would take to watch every commendable show would indeed not be worth it. I’d rather learn French.
But here’s the thing: We really are living in the golden age of serialized television. My problem with Netflix is not that there is nothing quality to be found; it’s that there is too much quality to be found. It’s overwhelming and can be desensitizing.
My problem with Netflix is not that there is nothing quality to be found; it’s that there is too much quality to be found. It’s overwhelming and can be desensitizing.
Sure, there is a ton of bad content too: brain-dulling drivel that supports the long-held thesis that TV is mostly just a “vast wasteland.” But there are also a lot of insightful, beautifully rendered shows (and not just Friday Night Lights, though I agree with Matt that it is the best). There are countless quality documentaries worth learning from. If you want your Netflix diet to be healthy and nourishing, it’s possible. There is a broccoli to be found alongside the candy.
But sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. Overchoice is a real problem today, whether we’re talking about Netflix shows or digital music or even churches. The more options we have, the more paralyzed we can be by the weight of consumerist freedom and FOMO (fear of missing out). Will we make the wrong choice? Of the 15 shows your friends have talked about on social media, which one should you watch? This can be so debilitating that we end up surrendering, dangerously, to the algorithms that are more than happy to choose for us.
In Proverbs, the opposite of wisdom is often personified in a character known as “the forbidden woman.” She is a woman of “smooth words” (2:16–17) whose lips “drip honey” (5:3). She is loud, seductive, and sits at the door of her house, calling to those who pass by (9:13–15). A. W. Tozer describes her as “moral folly personified,” who “works by the power of suggestion.” And as Tozer puts it, many of us “are brainwashed from nine o’clock in the morning or earlier until the last eyelid flutters shut at night because of the power of suggestion.”
In today’s world, I think the “forbidden woman” is especially active in the “watch this next!” suggestion algorithms that are carefully designed to keep us hooked and unable to resist their siren songs. Always ready with new content tailored to our interests, the seductive algorithms lure us into rabbit holes of constant distraction. If we aren’t careful, we will become passive and constant consumers, just as Silicon Valley wants. When we suggest to our spouse or friends that we should turn on Netflix to just watch something (unspecified), we are just cogs in the machinery of algorithms ever more sophisticated at filling our spare moments with visual content. We are digital flâneurs, and this is a dangerous thing to be.
Responsible, healthy usage of platforms like Netflix is intentional use. It is not turning it on unless there is a specific film or series you want to watch—one that comes recommended by trustworthy humans rather than untrustworthy algorithms. Don’t open Netflix to just watch something. Open it sparingly, for a specific purpose. When we aren’t going somewhere, we’ll go anywhere—and the “anywheres” of the internet are rarely good for us.
When we aren’t going somewhere, we’ll go anywhere—and the ‘anywheres’ of the internet are rarely good for us.
If you find this sort of moderation and intentionality impossible in your use of Netflix, it might be best to cancel your subscription. There’s no shame in quitting Netflix, and you are no philistine to do so. But the misuse of something is not an argument against its proper use (abusus non tollit usum).
It’s difficult to use Netflix as a Christian in ways that are edifying and enriching. But is it impossible? No.