Americans are being lied to every day. Popular culture tells us that deep thinking and reflective living is pointless. Instead, we must move faster. We need faster cars, faster food, and faster computers—now. We need more things, more toys, more power, and more perks. We need more hair (if baldness threatens), but we don’t need more knowledge or more wisdom. We need less wrinkles (hence Botox parties) and less pounds, but not less vices (as long as we can get away with them). Our media are dominated by celebrities who are not wise, learned or godly people. They are usually over-paid and ego-driven athletes or movie stars. Next to nothing in popular culture encourages us to slow down and cultivate a contemplative life before the God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Instead we are tempted to believe that God has nothing to do with our most valued activities and dreams. We can do fine without him. Or, we may redefine the God of the Bible and godly religion to fit our designer preferences. Either way, worldliness reigns, world applauds, and the mind is deadened.
The myriad messages of popular culture have been sticking to and deforming our souls. American men and women are not known for their reasoned convictions about those things that matter most. Polls show that Americans are very “religious” concerning belief in God and church involvement. Yet they watch an average of four hours of typically mindless and violent television per day, are terribly ignorant of basic biblical truths, seldom read thoughtful books, and are theologically confused on basic doctrines. Some of the most popular Christian teachers and writers today often lapse into heresy or aberrant doctrine. (Hence the need for The Christian Research Journal’s many articles correcting these errors). Few Christians share their faith regularly or wisely. If they do, they are often stumped when faced with skeptical questions and challenges, since their evangelism is not grounded in solid apologetic arguments (see 1 Peter 3:15-17; Jude 3). Pollster George Gallup found that many of the same people who say, “Yes, Jesus is the only way,” also affirm that “Yes, there are many paths to God.” But this is logically impossible. Jesus cannot be one of many ways—and the only way! Gallup comments, “It’s not that Americans don’t believe anything; they believe everything.” Here Proverbs give a word to the wise: “A simple man believes anything, but a prudent man gives thought to his steps” (Proverbs 14:15).
So-called “spirituality” is on the rise, but spiritual discernment—even among Christians—is languishing. Many feel free to combine ideas and practices from various religions with little or no concern for logical consistency or allegiance to any received religious tradition, let alone biblical authority. A kind of smorgasbord mentality prevails. One might, for example, consume servings of happy Christian thoughts (“God loves you”), self-effort (“God helps those who help themselves”), and some yoga for physical wellbeing and inner peace—and feel no pain of inconsistency. This is despite the fact that God’s love is not an amorphous energy that permits everything (including Hindu practices such as yoga), ratifies works-righteousness, and condemns nothing. Quite the contrary, God’s love is manifested concretely through the gracious work of Christ who alone liberates us from counterfeit spirituality and the futility of self-salvation. Yet these radical and world-changing truths are easily lost in fogs and bogs of our worldly environment.
The Media Fast: Breaking Free and Reaching Up
The Lord Jesus Christ does not want us to believe everything—only the truth (John 14:6). He commands us to love our God with all of our minds (Matthew 22:37), to know the truth that sets us free by following him (John 8:31-32) and to make that truth known to others (Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 4:15). The Apostle Paul commands us to “test all things. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (1 Thessalions 5:21). Rather than letting culture conform us to its mold, we should be transformed through the renewing of our minds so that we know and accomplish God’s will in all of life (Romans 12:2). Similarly, the Apostle Peter wrote his readers to stimulate them to “wholesome thinking” (2 Peter 3:1) and to admonish them to prepare their minds for godly action (1 Peter 1:13). In his Pensées, Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal issued a strong indictment: “Man is obviously made for thinking. Therein lies all his dignity and his merit; and his whole duty is to think as he ought.” Yet instead of pondering God and the soul, the world inclines us to think more about diversions, such as “dancing, playing the lute, singing, writing verse, fighting, and becoming king, without thinking what it means to be a king or what it means to be a man.”
How do Christians break free from the deceptive temptations of popular culture and reach up to receive with open hands all that God has for us? We need first to disengage from worldly distractions and then engage our God-given minds in constructive and rewarding ways. As the Psalmist cries to God, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
“My mind cleared. I had fewer lustful thoughts. I started to think more deeply about life. I prayed more. I spent more time with my family and friends. I want to be this way more often!” Hundreds of students at Denver Seminary offer testimonies like this after completing a required “media fast” for my class on ethics and contemporary culture. For at least one week they abstain from at least one popular medium (usually television) and meditate on various Scriptures, such as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-18). Reading their reports is a rewarding task for me, because they reveal that God is at work renewing my student’s minds and liberating them from subtle snares.
Why should anyone fast from media when they are everywhere and so easy to use? Should we become cultural hermits, who spurn all of popular culture? No. This spiritual discipline follows from the spirit of Jesus’ teachings on fasting from food. For a time, we deny ourselves something that is routinely part of our lives in order to focus more intently on God and his Kingdom (Matthew 6:16-18, 33; see also 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 for another application of fasting). In our media-saturated, self-focused, and dumbed-down culture, a media fast is often a tonic for the beleaguered and benumbed mind. Some of my students initially suffer from withdrawal symptoms. The silence roars in and the mind races after they unplug. They automatically reach for the remote control and have to stop themselves. Something must fill the “empty” time. But they soon find there is much to do that refreshes the soul and renews the mind. These principles apply to any Christ-follower, not just seminary students who are doing an “assignment.”
First, the media fast allows for—but doesn’t automatically produce—more reflection, prayer, and a deeper life before God. Instead of being yanked along at a breakneck pace by television, movies, radio, or video games, we can slow down, “be still,” and remember God in all our ways (Psalm 46:10). We can listen to the voice of conscience, repent of our sins, and seek a more godly and peaceful life (Matthew 7:7). Just as King Hezekiah had the temple purified by priests and Levites after many years of defilement and abuse (2 Chronicles 29), so should we purify ourselves from the habitual sins so readily encouraged by popular culture, since our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
Second, we discover time to pursue intellectually challenging activities, especially reading. Christian author Larry Woiwode notes that television is a “Cyclops that eats books.” Many Christians don’t read a single thoughtful book in a year because they are too occupied with a myriad of mind-numbing media. If they do read, the are often short, simplistic, or sensational and of dubious theological and intellectual substance. (Consider most Christian bestsellers.) But a deeply meaningful life in Christ cannot be experienced without consistent exposure to and enjoyment of great thinkers. The Bible ranks first in great thoughts since God is its ultimate Author, and because it is the truest and wisest book ever written (Psalm 119). Because it is God’s own word, it cuts to the quick and teaches us the truth we need to know in order to love God and others aright (2 Timothy 3:15-17; Hebrews 4:12).
We should also seek out and savor thoughtful books and articles about the Bible, theology, apologetics, history, art, ethics, literature, and so on. Great books can be good friends, and for a lifetime. The writings of C.S. Lewis are a treasury on many topics, from apologetics to ethics, to science fiction. He was a delightful and arresting writer, a dedicated Christian, and a brilliant thinker whose works stand the test of time. I have read his apologetic classics—Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, and The Abolition of Man—many times and with great profit. You can also stay abreast of contemporary culture from a Christian perspective by receiving Charles Colson’s daily “breakpoint commentary” (www.breakpoint.org) and by listening to Ravi Zacharias’s radio program, “Let My People Think”—as well as by reading their thought- provoking books.
Getting Down to Business
Compare the time you spend on entertainment with the time you spend reading and reflecting on Holy Scripture and profound books. Then compare it with the time you spend in prayer and biblical meditation. Prayerfully seek God for the necessary adjustments in thought, word, and deed. Engage in a media fast for yourself. Instead of languishing in front of the TV with your family and friends (or by yourself), read a meaty book together and talk about it. Invite your family and friends to resist the hollow enchantments of worldly culture and to instead glorify a holy God in their thinking, speaking, and doing (Colossians 3:17). But be sure to begin the process with yourself as you resist worldliness and pursue godliness (Matthew 7:1-5).