You know you’ve been there: it’s that time of night and you’re scrolling on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. Fifteen minutes pass. An hour passes. You begrudgingly settle on a show, only to find within the first several minutes that it wasn’t what you expected. But since you’ve already started, you decide to carry on. After all, the only way out is through … right?
Media vies for our attention at every turn. Screens greet us at restaurants, gas pumps, student unions; not to mention those mini-screens we keep in our pockets, backpacks, and living rooms beckoning us to come and drink from the ever-flowing fount of entertainment, just a click or swipe away at any moment.
I’ve frequently heard in my time with FOCUS that “everything is formative.” Everything we experience and consume forms us. Modern entertainment and media are no exception to this rule. What we view, read, or listen to affects our outlook, behavior, thought-processes, and most especially our soul.
The reality of each piece of media—news, social media platforms, entertainment, gaming, magazines—is that it seeks to convey a message.
Media has a great capacity to form the human soul for this reason. It can speak powerfully about the beauty and the truth of our existence, but it can also propagate false narratives about reality and its meaning.
The crucial question for the discerning reader, listener, watcher, etc., then, is whether the conveyed message is true.
And so, you may ask, how ought I discern what I am consuming? What should my relationship with movies, television, books, and social platforms look like as a Catholic Christian?
As is frequently the case, Scripture speaks with clarity and potency regarding this matter, particularly in the writings of St. Paul. He urges us in his letter to the Romans, “do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). And what should we fill our minds with? “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” (Philippians 4:8).
If there is truth, honor, justice, beauty, and goodness in the media you are consuming, then it could be the case that it is worthy of your attention. When media communicates elements of truth, there is a sense that the Gospel—the Good News revealed to us by God through Jesus Christ about who we are, who he is, and what that means for our lives—is present in that media. Often, media that implicitly communicates the truths of the Gospel can be more effective in our efforts to evangelize than a story that is explicitly Scriptural or religious.
Take the film A Quiet Place, for example. There’s nothing in the film that is explicitly about the Catholic faith or God, but it portrays a compelling image of sacrificial and loving fatherhood, the primacy of family, and the beauty of motherhood, pregnancy, and childhood. Watch Bishop Barron’s review on the film if you’re not sold.
And so, we need not flee from all entertainment out of fear of our hearts being turned away from Christ, but we ought not drink freely from every source of amusement we might happen across on an average Netflix or Hulu stroll.
While it’s easy to say “simply discern the good, true, and beautiful and you’ll be fine,” here are a few practical suggestions that might help us get more into the nitty-gritty:
1. Is there sin? How much is it showing and in what context?
Of course, the fall is a part of the Gospel, and so narratives actually should involve problems and messiness, but is the sin being redeemed? Is it being depicted as it is—ugly and horrible—or is it being celebrated and embraced as justified? If there is sin, how much is it showing? Depending on how the content deals with sin, it could be pushing a false narrative and getting you to believe that something that isn’t “okay” actually is.
2. Know thyself
Are you sensitive to certain genres? Is some content too much? Are you easily and unnecessarily brought to anger by certain media outlets? Do you find yourself easily jarred or moved to anxiety depending on what you consume? We need not put ourselves in occasions of sin simply to watch, listen to, or read what everyone else seems to be intaking, even if there are a few elements of the good, true, and beautiful present. It’s not immature to simply say “that’s not for me” and avoid unnecessarily troubling yourself.
(As a side note, if you’re looking for a good news source, I recommend “The Loop” by CatholicVote).
3. Why are you consuming and with whom, if anyone?
Are you merely distracting yourself and burning an hour of downtime (i.e. scrolling)? How can you make media more of an encounter and experience and less of a distraction? If you can, make it communal and draw in others for an opportunity to have a meaningful discussion on the content.
Ultimately, media and entertainment need not be an escape from God or from reality, but can, on the contrary, serve as a profound encounter with him and one more way to actively involve him deeply in our lives.