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It was an article about a European film director, usually hymned to the skies as a master craftsman and genuine visionary. It led me to an extended synopsis of one of his more recent films. I will not go into details, but it was a blow-by-blow account of the plot, complete with spoilers. The film was a showcase for the director's usual themes, and manifested his skill in carrying his audience along. It was this latter capacity which intrigued me, yoked as it was with the thematic and visual content of the film. Reading the synopsis gave me the opportunity to consider in the cold light of day what I would have been watching, and to consider what I would have been thinking and feeling had I been watching this film.

My responses might have been, fairly crassly, divided into two categories. There would have been responses arising from my fallen-though-redeemed humanity and my remaining sin: the fascination with the perverse, the indulgence of sinful sexual desires, and the satisfaction that comes from revenge, for example. Then there would have been responses that might have been traced more to common grace and something of the image of God: anger at injustice and cruelty, grief over loss, sorrow over suffering.

But here's the thing: as I worked through the synopsis, I began to understand that there was a developing twist in the tail (not to mention the tale). Up to this point, all one's responses - more or less sinful or righteous (though you will appreciate that I am not for one moment suggesting that you want to watch this film) - were being tagged to certain persons, events and relationships, running down what you might call normal channels. Then, at the denouement, when the twist in the tail becomes a sting, there would have been this horrible moment of torsion. At the moment of the reveal your reasonably normal though not necessarily righteous responses - loathing for this character, pity for that; physical attraction to or sexual desire for the one, anger at another - would be suddenly, violently, aggressively re-ordered. It is the moment at which you realise that all the categories in which you have been working are not what they seem, that the routes down which your thoughts and feelings were running are actually carrying you to a radically different location than the one you were anticipating.

Now, I am not suggesting that every film (or any other medium) does this or does it invariably. Many films run very predictably to the outcomes you can predict from the first three minutes (think of just about any action film you wish to name). Others build a sense of tension before leaving you hanging with questions (Christopher Nolan seems to enjoy this). Others revel in this unsettling twist, this re-ordering of all your categories and expectations.

But have you ever stepped back and considered the level of mental and emotional and moral manipulation to which you are subjecting yourself? Even if there is no twist, it does not mean that you are not being trained to think and feel. Rather, you are having certain channels dug ever deeper and reinforced. This is the way to think, and feel, and act. These are the correct intellectual assessments, the appropriate emotional dispositions, the right moral judgements. Perhaps the film that leaves you hanging suggests that there are no resolutions, no right or even knowable answers.

Where there is a twist, have you wondered at the level of intellectual, emotional, even moral reorientation that might be occurring? If your sense of justice is suddenly ripped to shreds, and you realise that wronged character you have been rooting for is actually the perpetrator of the crime? If the sexual desires that have been consistently stirred up are suddenly revealed to have been directed toward someone who is not of the gender that you had been led to believe? If the person you have been horrified by as morally corrupt suddenly turns out to be, in essence, the closest thing you have to a hero?

These are not the only possibilities, but I wonder how much of this is happening, hour by hour, day by day. We complain about the ignorant bewilderment that there is in the world, at the erosion of common grace, at the confusion of moral categories, at the seemingly irresistible slide toward Sodom and Gomorrah. But - without wishing to sound paranoid - have we considered the influence of these kinds of media on the thinking, feeling and judging of the world? If these influences are being perpetrated by men and women with a thoroughly godless outlook and a very deliberate agenda, then the outcome will be entirely predictable - a thoroughgoing confusion and dissolution of thought, feeling and morality.

The same happens, in measure, among Christians. Some of us expose ourselves, perhaps thoughtlessly or even arrogantly, to what might be called a drip-feed for consistency were it not a torrent for volume, a relentless flow of the sludge of carnal attitudes and appetites. This flow threatens to overwhelm and erode all our distinctive thinking and feeling, to re-order our intellectual assessments, re-direct our emotional dispositions, and re-align our moral judgments. Isaiah made it clear: "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!" (Is 5.20). Yet how often we allow such men and women unfettered access to our minds and hearts, competing with the revelation of God for our intellectual, emotional and moral allegiance. Then we are surprised at how much like the world the church has become, as if it were a thing unexpected, despite having made or allowed the world to be our teachers. It is hard enough to hold fast at the best of times; how much more when we thoughtlessly or arrogantly surrender ourselves to such influences! Under such circumstances, it will - it must! - have an effect on us.

I am not suggesting that the answer is a wholesale retreat from every medium of communication, any more than I think that Christians should try to take over the radio stations, television stations, and Hollywood studios, and go toe-to-toe with the godless in terms of production in the hopes that we can somehow start to push back.

But perhaps the first part of the answer is real discernment. First, discernment in whether to watch at all, because the first line of defence might be and perhaps should more often be the off-switch. A healthy dose of Philippians 4.8 would go a long way in some circles. Then, discernment in how to watch: we need to be aware that these words and images that flow into us are having an effect upon us, even in matters that might at first seem negligible or innocent. We must be conscious of how we and others are being manipulated and trained, and we must resist it where - deliberately or not - it skews all our categories. We must develop our intellectual, emotional and moral faculties through the Word of God: that must be our first, fundamental and final standard. Then, whatever and whenever we watch and hear, willingly or unwillingly, let us never suspend those biblically-tuned and biblically-attuned faculties, but rather bring all to the touchstone of Scripture, viewing and listening to all through the filter of divine revelation, and continue to think and feel and judge as God intends.

Try this exercise: for yourself, your friends, your children, for whomever. Think back to what you have watched or heard or read recently. Write out a synopsis. (Perhaps some would be surprised how spiritually ugly some graphic sounds-and-images appear when reduced to black on white, when our emotions are not being carried along and we are not more-or-less willingly suspending our faculty of discernment.) Trace the development of character and plot, note the ways and means in which your thoughts, feelings and judgements are being tagged or yoked, channelled and directed and perhaps manipulated. Consider what you are being taught and how you are being taught it. And then ask, if you are a child of God, "Is evil being switched for or confused with good, and darkness for light, and bitter for sweet? Are my foundations being shaken, and how and in what way and to what ends? Is this the way my heavenly Father would have me think? Is this conforming me to Christ?"

To be sure, there may be times when you are able to say, "I can keep enough distance here: I can read this article, watch this documentary, follow this series, read this book, watch this film, hear this program, and I can discern the processes at work, and establish a filter, and guard my heart." At other times you should say, "I do not have the wisdom to discern these things, and - even if I do - I would be a fool to imagine that I have the strength to stand," and so you would flee for safety. When you can see the manoeuvres of the enemy, even where you cannot prevent combat, you can at least prevent surprise. If we learn to see the battle in these terms, we might just begin to learn to fight the battle.
Posted February 7, 2014 @ 9:04 AM by Jeremy Walker

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