You get invited to a movie night. Exciting! When you arrive, you’re discouraged to discover all the options the group wants are… well, let’s just say your cheeks would be burning if you watched them with your parish priest. How do you discern your boundaries for media consumption?
My husband was in this exact situation in middle school. He called his mom and asked her to take him home. I hope my kids have that strength of character too someday. Ideally our standards should not stop at Thou Shalt Not Watch X-Rated Films, but go further to seek material that nourishes and inspires our souls, as well as entertaining us. Every show or movie is an investment of our time, so we should strive to make a wise investment. To that end, I’ll use St. Paul’s words in Philippians 4:8-9 as inspiration:
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.”
As a bonus at the end of the article, I’ll provide a list of some of my and my husband’s favorite lesser-known media that you won’t be embarrassed to invite your parish priest to watch!
Whatever is True
Have you ever seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Jimmy Stuart plays an “honest Abe”-type character who single-handedly confronts duplicitous Washington, D.C. politicians. In the end, good triumphs over evil. I simply cannot imagine a film like that being produced today. Upstanding characters like Jimmy Stuart’s Mr. Smith are often mocked and ridiculed in today’s films. Heroes tend to be dark and twisted, grappling with their past hurts, rather than striving for virtue. I don’t want to over-generalize; some films can do it without glorifying sin. But glance at the rating and research in advance. Does it make vice or grave sin appear interesting- even good? Does it portray virtuous characters as one-dimensional, naïve, or stupid?
I’d like to think that as a mature, thinking adult, I’m not affected by twisted heroes. But honestly, I am. Scenes I watched last night replay in my head and color the quality of my thoughts.
Ask yourself: Do my thoughts tend darker after watching this film or show?
Whatever is Honorable
From 1930-1965, the Motion Picture Association of America was governed by the Hays code which stated no film should “lower the moral standards” of viewers and that “the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin.” (Can you even imagine a document governing Hollywood mentioning the word “sin” today? I sure can’t.) Casting aside the Hays code put consumers like you and me in the driver’s seat. When we give our time and our money to shows that uphold dishonorable values, we signal to producers that we want more of the same.
We don’t live in a Pollyanna world. Evil exists and people are complicated. Quality films acknowledge that while still upholding virtue. One such film, The Best Years of Our Lives, follows three soldiers who struggle to fit back into small town life after WWII. One of its stars, Harold Russell, was a real-life ex-soldier who lost both hands in a bomb explosion. His character’s internal agony was touchingly healed by the steadfast love of his fiancée. Evil was not ignored but looked square in the face and redeemed.
Ask yourself: What is the “thesis” of this film?
Whatever is Pure
The word “purity” can bring up justifiably mixed emotions. Purity culture has hurt some people’s understanding of how to live out God’s plan for our sexuality. With that being acknowledged, purity is still a virtue to strive for. Does that mean we have to become prudes? Limit ourselves to what we find on Formed.org or films made by explicitly Christian companies? Absolutely not! None of the films in my list at the end of this article were made by a Christian film company, and I think they’re all excellent.
When discussing purity in films, I’m referring to guarding our eyes and minds from language and images that will ultimately hurt us. As mentioned earlier, the Hays code used to do that. In 1934 the Catholic Legion of Decency was formed. It had no governing document like the Hays code, but encouraged Catholics to bond together to boycott immoral films. At that time in America, a Catholic boycott of a film would ensure its box office demise, which incentivized film producers to steer clear of subject matter to which the Legion of Decency would object.
I wish the Legion of Decency were still around today. I’d join! Instead, we each need to take personal responsibility to discern our own Code of Decency, our non-negotiables. Beware of copying someone else’s standards without question. I’ve heard well-known Catholics argue there’s nothing objectionable about Game of Thrones! I watched the first season, and I’m ashamed I watched even that much. In my opinion, Game of Thrones should shock anyone who watches it today as it would have sixty years ago. The plot line may be riveting, the characters fantastic, the acting top-notch, and it’s still never worth it if it encourages impure thoughts.
Ask yourself: What is my Code of Decency? Am I basing it on current standards or on timeless standards?
Whatever is Lovely
Discerning media consumption shouldn’t just be a Thou shalt not. You should also ask, what inspires me? What uplifts me? My third baby’s horrific four-month stint in the NICU was the hardest time in my life. It broke my heart to leave her at the hospital every day. On my drive I needed something to uplift me, and l began listening to clean comedians on Sirius XM radio. It was just what I needed to pull me out of the pain and heartbreak. The comedians’ stories and my accompanying laughter were a needed break from stress. It was then that I came to appreciate clean comedy as cleverer than crass comedy. Eliminating curse words forces comedians to be more creative in getting their point across. If you’ve never seen Brian Regan, watch I Walked on the Moon and There’s Something Wrong with the Regan Boy on YouTube. You’re welcome.
I think the healthiest life doesn’t include daily TV or film consumption. I grew up without TV most of my childhood. Apart from a short phase where I wanted to fit in with college classmates by quoting shows, I don’t regret it at all. I’m glad my parents provided us with a big backyard and lots of good books instead of screens. Seth Godin, one of the world’s most successful bloggers said, “I don’t watch TV. At all. There are so many other things I’d rather do in that moment.” I agree.
The Tree of Life, an art film by Terence Malek, is one of my all-time favorites. It brought me to deep reflection on the nature of God’s providence. If I imagine my best life possible- the loveliest, most honorable, most just, most pure, and truest life- that film would be included in it. So would others on the list I’ve included below. But watching TV in the evenings as a default wouldn’t fit into that picture.
I challenge you to imagine your best, loveliest, purest, truest, most honorable life. Would you ever ‘veg out,’ or would you seek other ways to relax and recharge? Would your evenings be spent in front of a screen, and if so, what would you choose to watch? Most importantly, would it include the show you’re currently watching?
Ask yourself: How much and what media would fit into my most excellent life?
Hard Day’s Night starring the Beatles
My Man Godfrey
Brian Regan standup shows: The Epitome of Hyperbole, There’s Something Wrong With the Regan Boy, I Walked on the Moon (also check out his brother Dennis’s standup comedy!)
The Princess and the Pirate
The Reduced Shakespeare Company
The Tree of Life- Terence Malick
The Dawn Patrol- my favorite Errol Flynn movie
The Best Years of Our Lives- Harold Russell is the only actor ever to have won two Academy Awards for the same film
Life of Pi
The Scarlet and the Black- Gregory Peck is excellent
Pride and Prejudice- treat yourself to the original BBC version
The Prisoner of Zenda
The Big Country
Follow That Dream- Elvis!
The Third Man
The Magnificent Ambersons
The Fallen Idol
Murder on the Orient Express- the 1974 version directed by Sidney Lumet
The Scarlet Pimpernel
The 39 Steps
Anne of Green Gables
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
City Lights- Charlie Chaplin
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Duck Soup- the Marx Brothers
Ruggles of Red Gap
The Court Jester- Danny Kaye at his finest!
Singin’ in the Rain