Dr. Daniel Strange lectures about culture, religion and public theology at Oak Hill College in London, England. An elder at East Finchley Baptist Church, Strange’s most recent book is titled, “Plugged In: Connecting Your Faith with What You Watch, Read and Play.” He and his wife, Elly, have seven children.
How does what we watch connect to Christianity?
Strange defines culture as the stories we tell that express meaning about the world.
These stories could be conveyed through a novel, a commercial, a song, a movie, a radio segment, a podcast or a TV show on Hulu.
Culture is created and then consumed around the clock.
“We’re made in God’s image,” Strange said. “So if God is a speaker and maker like in Genesis 1, we are speakers and makers. That creativity we have is a part of being human. Culture is constantly trading stories with each other, but we have a story that explains all the other stories, which is the Gospel.”
Strange said culture communicates the very core of who we are.
“All culture we make has meaning to it,” Strange added. “Culture is the fruit of the root of the things that we worship. Culture says, ‘Look, this is my way of viewing the world, do you agree with this or not?’ Culture is religion externalized and relates to the things we worship. Everything we do and make is a reflection of those things we cherish.”
Thus, watching a show on Netflix is more than just mentally checking out on the couch to close the night.
“You watch a show on Netflix, and the writers and authors of that show are telling us how they see the world,” he said. “They’re inviting us and saying, ‘Do you see the world in the same way?’ Those things that we find most popular in culture have signs of the questions people ask. They’re moments of transcendence that are expressing people’s hopes, fears and dreams. They’re thoughts of how they would want the world to be, showing something about our deepest desires.”
What is happening within us when we engage with entertainment?
As people produce stories in many different mediums, they are trying to engage the essence of our belief system.
“It’s recognizing that we are either formed or being formed,” Strange said. “We’re never neutral. We’re moving towards or away from Christlikeness in everything we do. So when I just want to veg out, switch off, that’s not good because I’m not keeping myself from the stories that are going in.”
Whether we like it or not, discipleship is happening day and night, not just at Sunday services inside the four walls of the church.
“There are effects these stories have on us that we need to critically engage with in a good and a negative way,” Strange added. “We’re always being discipled, and we need to listen to how Netflix wants to disciple us. It’s not so much intellectual, but it’s more of the engagement of our hearts. When I’m watching a Netflix show, I have to stop myself and ask, ‘How am I processing this?’”
So, what can we watch?
Strange said the answer isn’t a blanket statement and shared the courses we tend to take when consuming culture.
> Look in: Stay in our holy huddle or Christian bubble.
> Lash out: Rant on the decline of morality and shake our fists at the garbage on TV.
> Looking like: Have the same approach as that of a non-believer.
The alternative course, Strange said, is through the lens of Scripture.
“There are these five theological chants of the Reformation, which then can ask us good questions about, ‘What does this show say about our relationship to Scripture, God’s glory, faith, grace and Christ?” Strange said. “My worry in these conversations is we’re always being quite negative. I do think we are to engage and that’s positive.”
Whether a TV show is dark or light, clean or dirty, true or false, the cultural story expressed can connect back to Christianity.
“I can’t give you a percentage,” Strange said. “It’s not a majority or minority. It’s the context of the show. Some of the greatest shows portray the reality of living in a fallen world. It’s person by person, case by case and show by show.”
Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, Strange shared four markers that help in our consumption of culture.
1. Conscience: our internal check or warning system (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8).
2. Community: others that keep us accountable, such as your spouse or close friends.
3. Church: being consistently reminded of the Gospel’s grand story.
4. Circumvention: ways to fast forward, cut out and bypass stumbling blocks such as sexual scenes, alcohol or drug use, violence or language, etc.