How do you define quality?
One of my classes this semester is an English class titled “Great American Books.” I knew I was going to like my professor from the moment I saw him. He’s an awesome hippie with a ponytail, an earring, wearing sandals, and he says “groovy.”
No joke, like he said it completely in context. But that’s beside the point.
The first reading we had to do was by a famous literary critic named Harold Bloom. It was about how the “canon” of literature should be determined; that is, how do we decide what should be read and what should be taught in schools? The piece was mostly about the aesthetic quality of literature, which brought a topic to my mind: how do we decide what quality entertainment is?
I tend to hear a lot of statements about movies, music, or books that go something like this: “It was great, but …” Usually, it follows that the piece had in it objectionable material, such as sex scenes, vulgar language, and immoral activity (both sexual and nonsexual immorality). If that’s the case, what was so great about it?
I’m not saying that a film cannot have something worthwhile in it if it has something negative in it. On the contrary, The Book of Eli is one of my favorite films of all time despite its gratuitous violence and presence of vulgar language. What I am saying is that our standard for quality in media has departed from being about our Christian worldview and has become the same as the world’s, with an explicit label tacked onto the end in an attempt to protect ourselves from criticism.
So what should be our standard? It needs to be more grounded than a cool story, good acting, and a few plot twists.
Harold Bloom argued that literature does not change us; the argument he made was much the same as we would describe looking at a sunset: beautiful to gaze at, but in and of itself amoral.
I would call him wrong.
The simple fact is that literature, like all media, changes us. The Bible is in and of itself media, and Jeremiah spoke of those words as “burning fire shut up in my bones” in Jeremiah 20:9, referring to his urge to speak. It had changed Jeremiah from a tortured and outcast reject to a bold preacher confident in his message. We would be foolish to think that the enemy’s propaganda will have no influence on us, when it takes similar mediums. After all, God told stories. Much of the Bible is in narrative form. Aren’t movies and books stories and narratives? God inspired David (and other writers) to write the Psalms, which are poetry. Poetry is a form of media. On and on the list goes. Media affects us; God designed it that way.
The standard of measure, then, should be in how the media in question affects us. I don’t mean this in subjective terms, allowing anyone to say “well that naked girl on the screen doesn’t affect me.” If you say that, you are fooling yourself. It is not a question of if it will affect you, but rather how. Every kind of media you absorb affects you. To discern how it affects us, we must take a deep look at what the writers, filmmakers, and poets are saying to us. Everything is a message, even if inadvertently. Nakedness on-screen tells me “People are for my gratification.” Protagonists using coarse language says “There is virtue in vulgarity.”
The messages don’t have to be so bold, however.
What do plots tell us? Inception tells us truth is relative and we can never be sure of our true state. The Dark Knight Rises tells us lies often come back to haunt us. The Scarlet Letter tells us religious men are hypocrites and adulteresses deserve sympathy. Some of these are beneficial, while some are outright blasphemous.
I challenge you to look with scrutiny on how you evaluate media. Do you judge a movie or book on the basis of superficial enjoyment? Or do you consider and understand how it affects you? Just as we ought to be good stewards of what we put into our bodies, so also we must be good stewards of what we put into our minds.