I like to think of myself as something of a Netflix hipster. I remember when Netflix was just a pesky DVD-by-mail competitor to Blockbuster: no due dates, no late fees. That was good news for me as a nine-year-old, because I got to watch Gettysburg as many times as I wanted.
In the years between 1998 and 2018, Blockbuster shuttered and Netflix exploded in popularity thanks to its on-demand online streaming option, which makes it possible to stream entire seasons of television in the span of a weekend. The company has also released hundreds of original shows and films since 2013.
Netflix, along with the other forms of video streaming software it inspired (Amazon Prime, Hulu, etc.), has fundamentally changed the way we consume media and entertainment. With the rise of smart TVs and smartphones, thousands of movies, television shows, and documentaries are right at our fingertips at all times. We can watch more video content than ever before more immediately than ever before. But in another sense, Netflix is nothing new. Revolutionary as it is, Netflix merely forces the church to re-answer questions it has wrestled with for centuries. What is the relationship between the church and the world? What is culture? And what should the church do with it? The new technology needs an ancient apologetic.
Picking what to watch on Netflix is not a morally or ethically neutral act. We make choices each time we watch a TV show, listen to music, or scroll through our social media feeds, and those choices expose us to a wide array of perspectives on the world around us. Netflix in particular can certainly be dangerous — the normal broadcast television content regulations don’t apply to the entertainment company, meaning language, violence, and nudity are scattered throughout its original programming. Combined with binge watching, this creates what we could call the Netflix Problem.
The idea that secular culture can be dangerous is not new information to virtually anyone in the church. Many of us grew up hearing this message from the pulpit on a weekly basis. If you have been in the church since childhood, chances are you’ve been to a CD bonfire or heard your pastor warn you sternly about the spiritual dangers of rock music. Fundamentalist isolationism was the way to “engage the culture” for decades. I attended a Christian school system in which faculty and staff weren’t allowed to go to movies (for reasons I’m still not clear on).
Applying the same logic to Netflix, perhaps the answer to the Problem should be to ignore it completely. But according to Douglas K. Blount, professor of Christian philosophy and ethics at Southern Seminary, that won’t work for very long.
“One of the surest ways to be captivated by secular culture is to try to ignore it,” he says. “First of all, I don’t think you can. The culture is like the air you breathe — it’s all around you. You can do the best you can to ignore the broader culture, but I think you’re kidding yourself if you think you can pull that off. A properly Christian perspective on culture is not that we should ignore it, but that we should pay close attention to it and be distinctively Christian with respect to the way we consume it.”
The Great Hallway
From the beginning of history, humans have been telling stories to each other. Storytelling is ubiquitous — both in secular literature and didactic, religious literature. Nearly half of the Bible is narrative, and Jesus told over 30 recorded parables. Stories resonate with us, Blount argues, because we live according to the stories we tell ourselves.
Stories are not just fun distractions, but can calcify into culturally defining worldview systems. Blount calls these “metanarratives,” or grand societal stories that make sense of everything. This is where things like Netflix, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook become so potent, because — like metanarratives — everyone has them.
According to Facebook’s own reporting, the social media giant eclipsed 2 billion active users in 2017. That means approximately a quarter of humanity is on the same social media platform, constantly interacting and instantly transmitting information. While worldwide metanarratives used to be geographically confined, they are now constantly competing for cultural primacy — even in a congregation of 100 people, said Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. This makes the task of preaching and evangelism harder than ever.
“The biggest challenge for young preachers is that there’s a diversity now of people in front of you,” Keller told Towers in an interview. “When I was 20 years old, a 20-year-old in Iowa and a 20-year-old in New York City were radically different people. You were basically formed by whomever you lived near. But today, the 20-year-old in Iowa and the 20-year-old in Manhattan are almost the same, because they’re consuming all the same stuff. I just think the world is more complicated, the cultures are more diverse, and I think you have to do more reading and know more things. It’s not enough just to know the Bible, you also have to know the world more.”
Keller recommends that preachers devote more time — perhaps even a degree program — to seriously studying apologetics before stepping into ministry. The cultural context is just too diverse for a one-size-fits-all approach.
To underscore the difficult task facing the church, Blount points to an old Greek metaphor called “the marketplace of ideas.” Picture a giant room populated by dozens of booths — these booths represent all the various religious perspectives, he says. These are the various metanarratives. Now envision a hallway that runs between them. From here, you can neutrally and objectively evaluate the various metanarrative booths and pick one that seems right to you.
This picture, Blount says, is fundamentally flawed.
“There is no neutral hallway,” he says, “The only way to evaluate other religious perspectives is from within a religious perspective. So, I can evaluate Hinduism, but only from a Christian perspective, because I am a Christian. Now, we know that Christianity is the right perspective to have, and it’s only from the Christian perspective that you can get a proper perspective on all the other views. But the only way to recognize the truth of that is to become one of us and look from our point of view.”
Bridging the Gap
Every time we open Netflix, we access a host of these metanarratives. That does present a challenge for the church, Blount says, but it also provides a unique opportunity. Christians should not uncritically and mindlessly imbibe media and entertainment, as if it’s all equally true and edifying. But neither should they insulate themselves from it, because even entertainment can help us perceive the cultural factors that motivate the thinking and behavior of unbelievers around us, Blount said.
“I don’t watch Mad Men because I think my ability to probe a particular episode is somehow going to illuminate the faith for somebody,” Blount said. “I watch Mad Men because it gives me insight into the culture in which I live — which is helpful.”
The Netflix Problem is of course tricky, and finding a balance can be difficult. Keep in mind these seven principles for engaging media and entertainment next time you fire up your Apple TV:
Think well. The first step to thinking biblically is learning how to think, period, according to Blount. “Become thoroughly grounded in the faith, learn to think well, develop your critical thinking skills, then apply those skills in a way that’s consistent with the faith you’re grounded in,” he said. “Then, I think you’ll be in pretty good shape when you engage the culture around you.”
Be confident in your faith. A lot of Christians are hesitant to interact with competing worldviews because they aren’t very secure in the one they already have. This is where apologetics becomes essential, Blount says.
“How often are we encouraging younger and less mature Christians to connect with the historic intellectual heritage that is theirs in virtue of being part of the church? We can help less mature believers come to recognize that what they have in the broader culture may not be all that intellectually credible. And as a matter of fact, there’s very little out there in the culture — if anything — that you can’t find very significant and deep Christian responses to, if you know where to look. For those of us who have the training, it’s our responsibility to help them know where to look.”
Be humble. The thing that keeps you from both mindlessly insulating yourself from the culture and mindlessly embracing it is what Blount calls “confident humility” in the Christian faith.
“I’m confident that the faith is true. It is the truth, I don’t doubt that, but I also recognize that God is at work all over the world. It’s only through Christ that salvation comes, but that doesn’t mean that unbelievers don’t have things to teach me. Maybe there’s something really valuable in watching a television show that’s written from a different perspective, because maybe that perspective has something to teach us. Insofar as it conflicts with the faith, it’s false, but there might be aspects of it that are true. And even where it’s false, there might be usefulness in letting that inform my understanding of people who disagree with me.”
Read the text. I don’t mean a literal text (unless you’re reading a book … that would be a literal text). Everything you consume emerges from a metanarrative, and carries a certain message — a concept it is trying to transmit, inculcate, or normalize. The creator doesn’t always explicitly intend that message, but it’s always there. Every show and movie and song is trying to sell you something. Are you buying?
Don’t be afraid to relax. This is “unstringing the bow,” according to Mark Coppenger, professor of Christian apologetics, and it’s not a sin.
God could have made us eat food for purely nutritional purposes, Coppenger said, but he made us able to enjoy it. But know your limits, he says. “Do you work in order to finally get leisure, or do you rest so that you can recover and recuperate for your work? I think it should be the latter. I believe we will work in heaven, for example. So the question is: whatever recreation or entertainment or culture consuming you do, does it actually refresh you for your calling?”
Watch in moderation. Relatedly, binge watching is a very real danger of seemingly endless repositories of entertainment. Coppenger has a suggestion for knowing when you’re taking your media consumption too far. “If you find yourself less joyful in the Lord or are less inclined to witness or pray, that’s a canary in the coal mine that you’re spending too much time entertaining yourself. You shouldn’t make a hard-and-fast formula — like restricting yourself to one hour of TV a week — but you have to watch for signs.”
Know your triggers. Netflix in particular is filled with some highly questionable content. No show or movie is so irreplacably good that it is worth compromising your santification.
Blount: “You have to ask yourself: ‘When is my media consumption counterproductive to my conformity to Christ and my edification?’ And I think the answer is different for different people, but you need to cultivate self-awareness.”
It might mean abstaining from shows you like, but your soul is always more important than another season of whatever you’re watching.