Catharsis or a Seared Conscience?

DowntonAbbey1I am a sucker for a good story. Strike that. I’m addict for a good story. In this age of 30 million dollar special effects budgets and two-bit writers, I will stay up, literally till 3 am to watch an entire season of a well written show. When I find a good story I am transfixed whether it be TV (Downton Abbey) or Movies (Safety Not Guaranteed), Novels (I just read 450 pp. novel in 2 days) or if my geekiness is really flaring, a graphic novel. I have never watched The Walking Dead on TV but I devoured (pardon the pun) the graphic novels.

I’m in awe of great storytellers like Chesterton, Tolkein, and Neil Gaiman. And here’s where the confession comes in: Sometimes my lust for a good story trumps my discernment. And it worries me. Recently Douglas Wilson wrote on his blog that the most important acronym in our culture may very well be: WMWJWOO. “What movies would Jesus walk out of?” I used to walk out a few movies. I used to tell my students that there are some things which, once you see them, you can’t not see them. Pauly Shore movies are like that. However I worry about my tolerance for vice and debauchery when it permeates a good story. Is is possible that nudity, violence, and crudity can serve a good story? Sure. Is it ever enhanced by it? Rarely. but it does happen. Would Les Miserables be the incredible tale of grace and self-sacrifice without Fantine and the Prostitutes singing the bawdy and heartbreaking “Lovely Ladies” or would The Walking Dead be a penetrating meditation the dangers of anarchy and the value of community without Roamers and Lurkers?

I cringe though at my own rationalization because it sounds like a up-in-coming ingenue in a producer’s office discussing whether or not she’s willing to do full frontal nudity. “Well, I’ll do it if it advances the plot but not if its, you know, salacious and tasteless.” Yeah that’s me when I’m hooked by a good story. Nine times out of ten, I do what the ingenue would do. When thinking about this, two scripture verses inevitably begin to itch under my skin:

Philippians 4:8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

1 Timothy 4:1 But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer.

The first quote from Philippians indicates that we are keep our minds on virtuous things wherever they are found. As Frank Gaebelein was famous for saying: “All truth is God’s Truth.” However, 1 Timothy tells me it is possible to sear one’s conscience as with a hot iron. This could be referring to branding or cauterizing. The text isn’t clear. However, Phillip Towner, New Testament Scholar, thinks that it signifies branding in which case:

. . . The seared conscience refers to the ineffective, scarred conscience of the false teacher. Prior decisions to depart from the faith (4:1, Titus 1:15) in which they refuse to obey their consciences, left them unable to align their behavior with their faith.

Prior decisions . . . in which they refuse to obey their consciences . . . left them unable to align their behavior to their faith. Its easy to rationalize my entertainment choices from the safety of my easy chair and covered like a fig leaf by my popcorn but such thinking is dangerous. Paul could quote authoritatively from Greek Poets who were often the Showtime channel of their generation. (though Paul’s quote in Acts 17 may well have been taken from a Jewish Apologetic text on how to reach Gentiles, according to Craig Keener). But while Paul was a saint and calls all of us saints, with regard to myself, that is definitely designation by the grace of God and not description.

Speaking of Greeks, Aristotle does have something to say about the value of watching performances of villainy and vice. He says that dwelling on such things can be a catharsis–a kind of cleansing–provided that the villain’s fate inspires pity and fear–pity for the price they ultimately pay and fear to ever walk their road. I feel that way when I look at the price Lady Macbeth and Macbeth pay for the pursuit of power. But one wonders if Aristotle’s philosophy can hold up to an age of Netflix and the 4 DVD collection of Season one of Downton Abbey. One wonders if Paul and Aristotle would scratch their heads or shudder at the thought of  us setting up the theater in our homes every single night after dinner.

If you are scanning to see if I finally give some definitive answer as to how to be in the world and not of the world when it comes to the media we consume, you haven’t been reading my posts very long. I take Paul’s admonition to “Work out your faith with fear and trembling” seriously.  And while I may invite you to do so with me in these posts, I do not possess the wisdom to impart nor the hubris to pontificate until I do. I do know this, the answer must lie somewhere between being Bill Gothard and being Bono.

 

 


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