In 1903 the silent motion picture The Great Train Robbery shocked its wide-eyed viewing audiences. In the concluding frames of the picture, gunslinger George Barnes turned and fired two shots from his pistol directly at the camera and then disappeared in the smoke. People in the audience screamed and ducked down behind the seats in front of them. Because of their unfamiliarity with this riveting new medium of communication—the motion picture—they reacted as if they were actually being fired upon.

A more modern version of the same thing has occurred in some of the more remote corners of world. In the 1980s a Peace Corps volunteer to Papua New Guinea, only a hundred miles north of Australia, told of cultures there at the time whom he described as “caught in limbo between the stone age and the ice age.”

One such group assembled inside a mission where they could watch American-made movies through a generator-powered projector. Among this group Sylvester Stallone became a violent god. They viewed the actor’s exploits on the screen as literal. They had no concept of scripts or acting or stunts or outtakes. To them, it was as if the camera just happened to be on hand when these memorable events actually took place.

From the viewpoint of any developed culture in the 21st century, such naiveté seems quaint. But the makers of motion pictures have come a long way since 1903, and they capitalize on technology in various ways. Thanks to the digital combination of computers and video, images are being transformed such that we may be unsure that we can truly believe what we are seeing.

Several years ago Diet Coke® released a TV commercial that caught everyone’s attention at the time: pop star Elton John sat at his piano, performing a current piece of music. Standing next to him and joking with him was the legendary jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong—who had been dead for more than 20 years. In a companion commercial, computer-enhanced scenes juxtaposed images of yesterday’s movie stars James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, surrounded by modern-day partygoers.

Obviously these scenes were groundbreaking digital manipulations in the relatively harmless interest of selling more soft drinks. Any semi-sophisticated viewer would have inferred that. But technology has progressed much further since those Diet Coke commercials. If such manipulation were in the wrong hands, someone would be able to deceive many into false conclusions.

Even documentaries, once produced only with a journalistic basis in objectivity, have changed their style and approach to the subjective and highly personalized. Although someone who identifies completely with the message of such academy award-winning documentaries as Bowling for Columbine (2002) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006) it must be recognized that they are produced as a genre that is not completely objective, that they begin with certain premises—and that their selection as winners of that category was based on at least some subjective criteria.

But what about those who advocate isolation from popular culture—a monastic approach to the problem? Their answer is quite simple: Just tune out! Is this possible?

Even if we were to consider complete insulation from popular culture, there are times when it intrudes in our lives. Very few can honestly say that they were unaware of the Olympic Games when they were going on in London last summer. And even if someone has resolved never to set foot in a movie theater, he is still going to encounter film allusions in everyday discourse. By now, references to “The Matrix” are pretty well understood by anyone. Popular culture is producing a constantly changing matrix  of its own that affects us all, like it or not.
 
The media are a gift from God. But, like any other of God’s blessings, they can be abused. Utmost care must be taken to protect oneself from the ways in which the media affect thinking and behavior. This is what is meant in Ellen G. White’s counsel to “guard well the avenues of the soul.1 Can anyone truly claim that the media have absolutely no influence on him? Surely we don’t make a god of celebrities like Sylvester Stallone—or do we?

These are the kinds of questions to be asking in the face of the thousands of messages that the media produce every day. The good news is that there is protection against being deceived or subtly influenced. At first glance, some may wonder how the Bible—written thousands of years before television and radio and motion pictures and the Internet—could be of any help in facing the influence of these media. But the timeless principles of God’s Word will never be obsolete.

In his letter to the Philippians, for example, Paul lists some very practical ways to evaluate the messages in the media: “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise” (4:8, NLT)2.

It’s important not to overlook the underlying basis for this list. It calls for judicious use and considered analysis of what is viewed and heard and thought about. Rather than merely soaking up the messages conveyed in the media, their value—or lack of it—must be evaluated. A thinking Christian must not be a brain-dead “couch potato.”

Further, the Apostle Paul provides in his writing to the Philippians a helpful list of criteria by which to measure the impact that the media may be having on life. We are to read, view, or listen to those things that are:

            ●true
            ●honorable
            ●right
            ●pure
            ●lovely
            ●admirable
            ●excellent
            ●worthy of praise

A list like this doesn’t require much sophistication to judge the effects of the media. But neither should it be applied too simplistically. Much of what is included in Scripture itself about Abraham and Jacob and David and Samson—so-called heroes of faith—was not exactly honorable or admirable. And, sometimes, disturbingly, there is incidence in the Bible of the impure and unlovely: deceit, seduction, lust, incest, rape, murder.

Paul’s list for the Philippians—and for us—must surely have been meant to constitute a guideline by which to measure the overall quality of the information that is taken in. And this guideline is probably best expressed by the very first characteristic on the list: True. The rich choice of available Bible translations and paraphrases offers diverse variations on most of the other components of this list. But all begin with the simple but profound word “true.”

Scripture is a true, revealed representation of God and His character. To the extent that any book, film, or piece of music effectively communicates God’s love for humankind, it is an expression of truth.

1. Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ã 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
2. White, Ellen G.; The Acts of the Apostles, p. 518.

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Gary B. Swanson, is associate director of the General Conference Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department






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