There’s no shortage of things to watch in our spectacle-driven, over-mediated age. The options are dizzying—hundreds of TV channels, millions of pieces of streamable content, the entire history of film and television in the cloud, waiting to be watched. The glut alone makes the question—Should I watch it?—both urgent and also overwhelming. Yet for the Christian viewer, the question also involves moral and spiritual considerations. How might this thing I watch shape my mind and heart in negative ways, inserting explicit images or toxic ideas into my consciousness in ways that are hard to undo?
Some might call these questions old-fashioned. I call them essential. Are there problems with the legalistic, most-entertainment-is-evil approach? Of course. But the worst way to respond to legalism is to swing to the other extreme, naïvely suggesting that everything is “redeemable” and nothing is off-limits for the wise Christian viewer. This libertine approach is as foolish and immature as the legalistic one.
The worst way to respond to legalism is to swing to the other extreme, naïvely suggesting that everything is ‘redeemable’ and nothing is off-limits for the wise Christian viewer.
The truth is, film and television are popular because they have unique, visceral storytelling force. They do have significant power to shape public opinion and personal morality. Among other things, the more we see certain behaviors, words, and worldviews on screens, the more proximate and palatable they become. The immersive nature of moving-image narratives means they have significant potential to evoke empathy, which is the medium’s greatest strength. But the flip side of this strength is the medium’s unparalleled knack for burrowing its images and ideas deep within us—for better or worse.
Should I watch this? is thus a valid and mature question for the Christian viewer. But it’s also a question with no easy, one-size-fits-all answer. I find the best way to process through the question is to ask yourself a series of other questions. Here are a few to consider.
1. What Makes You Ask the Question?
If you are even asking this question of a potential movie or TV show, chances are something is already giving you pause. Perhaps you’ve researched the content and learned that it contains nudity, sex, or some other problematic content. Maybe a part of your conscience unsettles you about watching it.
Pay attention to what gives you pause. It’s prudent, not prudish, to care about this stuff. If you are worried about the wisdom of watching something, err on the side of “no” unless or until you have a compelling reason to say “yes.”
2. What’s the Best Argument for Watching It?
What makes this question tough is there are often many reasons given for why we should watch something—even if it contains some hazardous content. Friends and family recommend it. Critics love it. Everyone’s talking about it. It’s by a director you admire. It’s artistically beautiful. Spiritually insightful. You’re in a group, and no one else has a problem with it. The list could go on.
Consider the arguments for watching it. Are they compelling? If not, then your answer should still be “no,” and you should feel no shame in that. Go with your conscience. If the “yes” arguments are compelling, ask yourself this next question.
3. Who Is Making the Compelling Argument?
Pay attention to whose recommendations you listen to. Do they share your values, or at least respect them? Or are they libertines who will and do watch anything—no matter how transgressive, pornographic, or worldly? If the only people giving you good reasons to watch lean toward this latter category, I’d probably stick with “no.” The truth is, there are plenty of artistically great and interesting films, shows, and documentaries that won’t compromise your conscience. More than ever before, in fact. Especially in the age of streaming, “There’s nothing else good to watch” should never be an excuse for watching something dubious.
But what if the people recommending it are wise, trustworthy, sensible folks who share your moral orientation and caution? What if there really isn’t anything else out there that contains the powerful message, delivered as effectively as this? If that’s the case, I’d ask myself the next question.
4. What Would Jesus Do?
However corny it might sound, this bracelet slogan is actually basic Christian discipleship. We are called to “be imitators of God” (Eph. 5:1), after all. To be a Christian is to follow after Christ, to be conformed to his image (Rom. 8:29). Why shouldn’t we seriously ponder “what would Jesus do?” in moments when we make a choice regarding entertainment? Jesus obviously didn’t have Hulu and never entered a movie theater, but he did listen to and empathize with people—which is sort of like what we do when we watch a film or TV show. And on this score the WWJD question is not necessarily simple. We shouldn’t think it obvious that Jesus would always avoid anything R-rated or gritty. After all, he moved toward, not away, from lots of gritty, “R-rated” people—in ways that scandalized the legalists of his day. On the other hand, Jesus called his followers to holiness (Matt. 5:48), equated lust with adultery (Matt. 5:27–28), and advised watchfulness with regard to temptation, given the weakness of our flesh (Matt. 26:41).
As is so often the case, then, “Jesus” can be invoked to defend whatever position you want to defend. That’s why the WWJD question is best explored in Christian community, with the insights of other thoughtful Jesus followers who take both art and holiness seriously.
5. What Does Your Christian Community Say?
Invoking the wisdom of your Christian community on the should I watch it? question—or any question—is always a good idea. Left to our own deliberations, it can be easy to justify almost any choice. That’s why it’s wise to process these things with other mature believers and learn to see these decisions as consequential beyond the individual. “Who cares if I watch Game of Thrones [just one of many examples] in the privacy of my bedroom?” one might say. “I’m unaffected by the show’s explicit content.” Well, even if that’s true (and I’m not sure it is—we are rarely unaffected by anything we watch), what if the show is not ok for others in your Christian community or your family? Is it not telling if you are the only Christian in the room pushing for the acceptability of something? What does your choice to watch it, in spite of their reservations, communicate? Paul seems to indicate in Romans 14 that in matters where Christians have different tolerances or weaknesses, sometimes it’s best to abstain from something that might be ok, for the sake of the community (v. 21). The goal is to “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (v. 19).
Is there room for faithful Christians to land in different places on the appropriateness of watching something? I think so. The goal of this article is not to give definitive answers on particular shows or movies so much as to suggest a grid through which you can thoughtfully process the question, preferably with others also seeking holiness and Christian faithfulness.
Some might say these questions are overkill and suck the fun out of entertainment. “Can’t we just watch The Bachelor or some random Netflix movie without thinking too much about it?” Isn’t there a risk of overthinking this stuff? I could write an entire article on these questions, but for now I’ll end by just saying this: Yes, there is a risk of overthinking our entertainment choices. But the greater risk—to the state of our souls and our witness in the world—is underthinking it.