It’s funny the way we vividly remember some quotes from childhood and totally forget most others. For forgotten reasons I recall my father explaining the etymology of the word “amusement.”

He said that “muse” means to think and the “a” means “not” (in college I learned that’s a privative alpha negation). In other words, amusements are non-thinking. My father’s point was probably to avoid popular entertainment, because it is thoughtless. I’ve mused about this random parental lesson and decided that there are times when I like not thinking. Sometimes I think too much.

Entertainment isn’t necessarily unthinking. Actually it can make us think old thoughts in new ways or think new thoughts for the first time. Or, it can be an opportunity for leisure that gives us a break from the intensity of brainwork in our complicated and conflicted generation.

Jesus was the ultimate thinker but quite entertaining. Most Americans would grab a ticket to hear a preacher who could keep the crowd’s attention for hours, especially if there were some miracles spliced in. Jesus caused his listeners to laugh and think at the same time when he talked about camels going through a needle’s eye or challenged his critics with innovative proposals about taxes by holding up a Roman coin. Not all in his audiences believed or followed him, but they had to be amazed at miracles healing the disabled, walking on water and catering a meal for thousands with a boy’s bag lunch.

So, our theology of entertainment should recognize that entertainment is a gift from God that was powerfully and persuasively used by Jesus. Entertainment is good if aligned with the purposes of God and provided for the benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike. But, like all of God’s good gifts there is potential for sinful abuse.

The challenge is to figure out which entertainment is good and which is evil. Hebrews were modest in dress and opposed to graven images; Greeks ran naked in their Olympics and prized naked statues in their art. Christians have changed their minds through the generations with avoidance or acceptance of alcoholic beverages, movie theaters and co-ed swimming pools. We have argued against all appearances of evil and argued for engaging the secular culture to advance the gospel. What once seemed wrong has been later adopted as right.

It comes to spiritual discernment. Individually and together we discern what is acceptable and unacceptable for ourselves, the Church and society. “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:9-10).

This article originally appeared in Evangelicals magazine.

Leith Anderson

Leith Anderson has been president of the National Association of Evangelicals since 2006, and was the senior pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, for 35 years before retiring in 2011. He regularly teaches in seminaries, addresses evangelical concerns with elected officials, and provides theological and cultural commentary to leading news outlets. He has been published in many periodicals and has written over 20 books. Anderson has a Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, Bradley University and Denver Seminary.