Scripture calls believers to regular, temporary cessation from our labors. It is clear, then, that in God’s economy, leisure and entertainment are as necessary as work to human flourishing.

Yet, American Christians are drowning in entertainment choices: According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, revenue within the United States, media and entertainment industry reached an estimated $546 billion in 2014. The U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American spent $2,605 on entertainment in 2012, when those age 15 and over averaged 5.3 hours in leisure and sports activities on a typical day. Clearly, we value our entertainment.

Family Friendly or Blind Consumption

Both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that Christians today tend to fall into one of two categories of entertainment consumers: either “faith driven consumers” who prefer faith- and family-friendly entertainment and use their consumer clout to demand more of this fare, or believers whose entertainment habits differ little from those of the general public.

Only decades ago, many Christians avoided “worldly” entertainment such as television, secular music, and, movies. Seen as a mark of holiness, such outward separation could easily be confused for inward sanctification.

A less superficial approach to entertainment and culture seems to prevail today, yet it’s all too easy to swing from blanket critique to the opposite extreme of blind consumption. Approaching entertainment and recreation mindfully is surely a mark of maturity in both the Church and the individual believer.

Entertainment that is mere fluff may fail this test just as much as forms drenched in self-indulgent sensation. Both extremes of entertainment — those that avoid sin and those that swim in it — discourage viewers from active engagement that goes beyond the superficial.

The thoughtfulness and care with which we consume, critique and cultivate entertainment is a reflection of our Christian character and our theology. In this respect, we ought, in some ways, to take fun seriously.

We begin by going beyond careless, surface-level criticism. To paraphrase Proverbs 23:7, as a person watches, so is she. (Note, not merely what a person watches, but as — or how.) Let us entertain (“give attention to or consider”) even our entertainment.

Hollow Criticism

The default lens of criticism for most people, especially Christians, is moral criticism, an approach that focuses on the “message” of a work, its moral content, and the presence or absence of objectionable material. A number of popular Christian resources offer reviews based on these criteria, such as Plugged In, The Dove Foundation and Movieguide. Tallies of curse words and sexually-charged scenes is, ironically, the approach used by both family-friendly guides and the Hollywood ratings system. These can be helpful. Yet, content doesn’t tell the whole story.

This is because how a story is told is often more important than what the story tells. To focus on content at the expense of form is to overlook the real impact of a work, according to Alissa Wilkinson, film critic at Vox.com and associate professor of English and humanities at The King’s College.

Wilkinson explains that “artistic mediums also connect with our guts, our emotions, our hearts through aesthetic means.” However, she cautioned, not enough Christians engage with “what’s actually on the screen: the images, the music, the narrative structure, the editing, and so on” and this lack of attention to form produces “hollow criticism.”

The aesthetic aspect of entertainment makes it an embodied experience, not merely intellectual or emotive, but captivating the whole person. Wilkinson said this understanding counters the Gnostic idea that the brain and the mind are more important than the body. She explains,

We’re made to respond to the meaning of art, film, and stories through more than just our brains. We delight in their beauty. We cry. We jump in fear. We feel pain and suffering alongside others, even fictional characters. The way art works on us is to help us to see the rest of the material world around us in a new way. So Christians ought to be good at looking at the aesthetics of a work and talking about them.

Understanding the Story

Christians must understand a story first, before critiquing it, according to Mike Cosper, director of the Harbor Institute for Faith and Culture and author of “The Stories We Tell.” This means learning some of the basics of literary criticism (which applies to all stories, including those conveyed through film and television).

“We sometimes get so lost in content that we miss basic concepts like theme, plot and character,” Cosper explained. “Understanding what an artifact says and means is the only honest way to engage it. It’s also how we understand its power over our imaginations. What is it holding out as the source of hope, happiness and human flourishing?”

Cosper said this means that many of the “squeaky clean,” family-friendly works many Christians prefer may be more problematic than they appear on the surface. On the other hand, “grittier” works with “objectionable content” that accurately depict the consequences of human sin are too quickly criticized and dismissed. Cosper advised,

Christian liberty gives us great freedom in the media we consume, but I don’t think we have the freedom to consume anything mindlessly. If you’re going to take time to watch something, you ought also to take the time to think about, understand what “the good life” is that it’s holding out, and ask yourself how that vision is pulling at your own heart. I would love to see pastors and leaders cultivating this kind liberty.

Thoughtful, intentional participation in culture is, of course, harder and riskier than either complete separatism or utter immersion. It requires wisdom and discernment, whether Christians come to entertainment as consumers, critics or creators.

Engaging the Arts

In his essay, “A Call to Evangelical Engagement in the Arts,” Barrett Duke, executive director of the Montana State Baptist Convention, acknowledges this difficulty, but issues a challenge to Christians. “The easy course is to withdraw and build our own counter-culture and watch as the culture around us dies. But such a response is wrong for a whole host of reasons.”

Duke cautions that attempts to insulate Christians from “the lure of the secularizing culture” are doomed. Retreat will simply foster further cultural decay. However, the essay continues, “If we engage, we can help our fellow Christians who embrace the culture to their detriment understand better the value of the biblical worldview for their own decision-making.”

One need not be an artist or writer or filmmaker to participate in the making of culture. Simply adopting more thoughtful and intentional approaches to entertainment — whether labeled “Christian” or “secular” — can contribute to making culture, the call Andy Crouch offers the church in his important book, “Culture Making.”

Thoughtful, active participation by Christians in entertainment is helpful not only to fellow believers, but to the entire culture. Cosper described today’s world of entertainment as “much like the Areopagus in Acts 17.” Entertainment culture is “the pluralistic religious experience of our day, and if you want to love your neighbors, if you want to understand what they believe and why they believe it, you would want to begin with the stories they’re telling and the stories they’re consuming,” he said.

Wilkinson echoed this idea in characterizing popular culture as the “common text” of our time, which suggests that it is more important than ever for Christians to be skillful consumers and critics of entertainment.

As “people of the book,” Wilkinson explained, Christians are “already trained to read stories and understand them, and to understand ourselves as part of a story.” Moreover, she said, Christians “worship a God who is the Word Become Flesh, which is a whole lot of what art does: put ‘flesh’ (whatever a particular artistic medium does) to ‘words’ and experiences.” This means that Christians “ought to be experts at looking at the whole work of art, not just the ‘word’ part. …You can’t tell me what a sunset ‘means.’”

Even entertainment has meaning. It is not something to be cordoned off from the rest of our lives as if it were only and merely “a break.” Our rest and our re-creations are part of our whole lives and reflect (whether poorly or well) the holism of the gospel.

When we thoughtfully interact with the entertainment of our day, we remind ourselves and signal to the rest of the world that we are neither afraid of the world nor consumed by it, and that we, with the power of the Holy Spirit, have the best story to tell that is good news for all.

This article originally appeared in Evangelicals magazine.

Karen Swallow Prior
Karen Swallow Prior serves as professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. She is the author of “Fierce Convictions” and “Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me,” and her writing has appeared at Christianity Today, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Gospel Coalition and Relevant, among many other publications. Swallow Prior is a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, senior fellow with Liberty University's Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement, and member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. She earned her Ph.D. and M.A. at the State University of New York at Buffalo and her B.A. at Daemen College.