By Joseph Honescko
Storytelling has always shaped culture. But digital media has changed the way we consume stories.
Now, stories come in fully-imagined, bingeable episodes, freeing us from the need to do any work to help make the stories real. This means that we have to choose whether to actively engage with what we’re watching.
Most of the time, we don’t choose engagement. Passive consumption is so much easier. But the thing is, passive consumption still affects us. What we watch shapes our minds whether we think about it or not. It’s just a question of who’s in control.
Because of this, Christians should be some of the most active participants in media.
After all, the Bible commands us to “take every thought captive.”
The contemporary media landscape hardly consists of gospel-centered content (shocking, I know). Narratives of self-discovery, sexual exploration, and liberty from authority fill our screens and give us a vision of the good life.
But this vision does not match the good life that God offers. Now, there’s an argument for removing yourself entirely from these narratives (resistance is good). But there are also good reasons to engage more deeply, rather than withdrawing.
Active engagement allows us to better understand our current cultural narratives. We learn to read our own time and context. And this enables us to compare those stories to the gospel to show how God offers something much better.
But there’s one small problem.
We’ve forgotten how to engage.
From Active to Passive: The Evolution of Storytelling
The art of storytelling has evolved throughout history. Its earliest forms looked like cave paintings or oral traditions. Poetry and plays came next, followed by novels. These all required active participation, where listeners engaged their imaginations, listened, and even memorized.
Storytelling was a community event, making it natural for consumers to discuss the stories with one another. And these stories became a bridge between generations, bringing people together. They demanded our active, communal engagement.
Now, stories demand nothing of us.
Now, we consume stories alone. That screen competes with other screens and forms of media—Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, news apps, text messages– as we play another episode and then another and another.
Binge-watching borrows its name from similar, overly indulgent habits. But this one, for some reason, has become socially acceptable. Christians shake their heads at binge eating/drinking/smoking, but we regularly engage in binge-watching. Why is that?
Studies have shown the negative sides of binge-watching. Perhaps you’ve experienced them too, losing sleep because “one more episode” suddenly turned into 5. Or canceling plans with friends so you could watch an entire season of the Great British Baking Show. Despite our jokes and excuses, that kind of deprivation and isolation affects us.
An even more pressing concern for Christians is that binging dulls your brain, making active engagement even harder. We’re being swayed by the narratives told by the shows as they coax us to sleep or fill up the quiet spaces in our minds. The quiet spaces where God invites us to meet him.
You become what you watch, even when you’re not paying attention.
How to Actively Engage
Resisting these narratives is one way to reject their demands, but other responses exist as well. Hiding from the world around you can only get you so far. We need to relearn how to engage.
Engagement flies in the face of everything consumption has become. You can’t zone out and fade into your bed when you engage. You’ve got to lean into the content, listen to it, think critically about the message it delivers.
But how do we do that? Here are three ideas.
1. Limit your intake.
You weren’t made to handle the number of stories that compete for your attention every day. And you can’t adequately give your attention to four or five episodes in a row. As you continue to consume, your brain turns to mush (to put it technically). And mush does not generate thoughtfulness.
Limiting your intake will help you think more deeply about the content you engage with. Think of it like friendships. Robin Dunbar found that most people have the capacity for only five deep relationships at one time. We can’t intimately engage with more than that, and we can assume the same with our media intake. We cannot think deeply about or truly care for the stories we consume if we’re always reaching for more. (This goes for the number of shows you watch as much as it goes for the number of episodes). Full seasons were intended to be consumed over, well, a season, not a day.
2. Pay attention to what you watch.
This one sounds simple, but with the competition of other screens and noise going on, it’s easy to forget to pay attention to what we’re watching. Do you know the characters’ personalities, desires, and relational dynamics? Are you following how the story progresses? Can you pinpoint the larger themes happening across the series? Noticing these kinds of details will keep you engaged and allow you to participate in the story.
Don’t worry if you can’t answer each question immediately. Paying attention requires active engagement, which takes time. But the more you practice it, the more you will grow in your ability to consider how these stories shape us.
3. Make it communal.
I hear people talk about how a particular show creates a “dialogue” around some issue or another. That’s great when people actually have those conversations, but it seems that most viewers I talk to never do. What would happen if you used the media you consume as a launching point for in-depth discussion?
This is one of the best reasons for Christians to resist passive consumption. We cannot counter the cultural narratives if we don’t understand them well. And real understanding requires participation.
Once you’ve asked and answered questions about the story, bring it up to others. Look for more than “did you see the episode of ________ last night?” Try something like, “Do you think [Character A] will ever find what she is really looking for?” These types of questions have the potential for much richer conversations.
Redeeming the way we consume media requires us to pay attention to the stories that shape us. Every narrative sells you a vision of the good life, and active engagement helps you discern if that vision is true or false. Changing our consumption habits allows us to see the negative things and say, “I’m not buying that.”
We’ve got a better story anyway.
Consuming media as a Christian requires critical thinking and dialogue. Find out how what you consume shapes who you are.
Don’t miss the rest of our three-part series What (and How) We Watch Matters:
- Why I Didn’t Watch The Queen’s Gambit (and You Don’t Have to Either) (Part 1)
- How Challenging Art Teaches You to Love Your Neighbor (Part 2)
- How to Actively Engage with What You’re Watching (Part 3)
About the Author
Joseph Honescko writes about art, faith, and culture from his home in McKinney, Texas where he lives with his wife, Ginny, and their baby girl, Louella. He’s interested in the connection between cultural narratives and daily habits. In addition to writing, Joseph teaches High School English and Apologetics. He hates social media but looks for alternative ways to connect with readers at josephrhonescko.com.