Friday, February 10, 2006

Why Entertainment Fails to Communicate the Gospel

Philip Ryken shares some insight that he encountered.

This has further crystallized my thinking on the recent discussions. Criticizing the producers of a Christian movie for their failure to present the gospel sufficiently is like criticizing a bartender for serving low-grade liquor. I don't mean to imply moral equivalence, but I'm increasingly convinced that the innate spiritual value in both activities is pretty much nil.


Ryan Martin said...

Ben, I and a friend of mine have been struggling with the question What is entertainment? My tentative answer on my post the other day was,

"What is entertainment? This is certainly a difficult thing to pin down (somewhat akin to attempts to find a definition of "is" or "essence.") Entertainment is our devoting our time in a non-profitable way to more trivial things intended to hold our attention; entertainment is closely related to amusement and divertissement. A. W. Tozer once responded to someone who told him that singing a hymn was entertainment by saying,

"When you raise your eyes to God and sing, 'Break thou the bread of life, dear Lord, to me,' is that entertainment--or is it worship? Isn't there a difference between worship and entertainment? The church that can't worship must be entertained. And men who can't lead a church to worship must provide the entertainment. That is why we have the great evangelical heresy here today--the heresy of religious entertainment" (from Success and the Christian, pp 6-7, cited in Tozer on Worship and Entertainment [Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1997], 115)."

So I am working towards an adequate definition. I have enough of a sense of what entertainment is to say that it is incompatible with Christian worship. But what do you say? We should be able to speak it about clearly (unfortunately for me) if we are going to ban it altogether. What is entertainment?

Ryan Martin said...

By the way, try to square Ryken's quote with movie review on the same site!

Chris Anderson said...

I'm not sure I agree, fellas.

Is film or drama as a medium inherently incapable of communicating the gospel? Is fictional literature or allegory, like "Pilgrim's Progress"? (Apples & oranges, I know.) I'm not sure that it absolutely can't...perhaps it just didn't, and usually doesn't.

(I think) I could see where a well-done drama, say on the life of Luther, could communicate the gospel effectively, though not as effectively as preaching, of course. I certainly don't want to sound like I'm advocating Hybels' "back door" approach that avoids the mind. I'm just not sure that drama is unable to communicate gospel truth.

Seems like I saw a dramatization of the martyrdom of the 5 missionaries called Bridge of Blood (or something like that) when I was at BJ. Was I entertained? I suppose, but I was also tremendously challenged.

(Next thing you know you'll be criticizing A Thief in the Night and friends. Go figure.)

"Fire away."

Ben said...


Yeah, it's like defining art.

I don't know if I'm as willing to condemn all entertainment as you seem to be. Is it entertainment to play golf? to listen to Bach's Brandenburg Concerti? to stay up until 1 a.m. to watch the US play Japan in soccer? to shoot a gun at a target? I've done all three in the past couple months and enjoyed them all. Maybe if I were more spiritually mature I would see that they are all sin, but I don't think so. Or are you saying that corporate worship is the sphere in which worship is incompatible with entertainment? But then we have to deal with NT teaching that worship is everwhere and all the time.

Piper's essay on "Drinking Orange Juice to the Glory of God" is a good expression of where I've landed, not that I apply the principles well, and not that my thinking won't be further refined.

I'm not sure yet how that affects our final definition of entertainment, but it's something for which we need to account. I completely agree that your working definition of entertainment (and Senn's in the quote to which I linked) is incompatible with Christian worship. Under that definition, entertainment is innately me-centered; worship is innately God-centered. Maybe we need a category for activities that do not fall within the NT list of prescribed activities of the Church, but which can still be acts of worship when they are performed to the glory of God.

Did I successfully evade answering that question?

Oh, and I'm certainly not going to explain the apparent inconsistency on Ref21 between Ryken and the Westminster MDiv student who posted the review. Do you know if Ryken himself has written about it? I couldn't find anything.


I agree with you that dramas and movies are to some degree capable of communicating gospel truth. My point, and I think it's consistent with Senn's statement, is that they are inadequate of communicating the gospel message adequately. My reading of Senn is that there is a world of difference between communicating some gospel truth and accomplishing the mission of the gospel.

Ryan nailed the main point in one of his recent posts when he said that our criticisms of ETE implicitly concede the underlying belief that movies are a legitimate medium for the gospel. That doesn't mean our criticisms are illegitimate. As I've said all along, I agree with the criticisms that are being levied. ETE's strategy seems to be a classic example of the flawed new evangelical strategy.

But as I said before, criticisms that only address their message inadequacies and casting choices miss the main point, even though they are legitimate criticisms. That's the point of my bar analogy. If we got them to admit and rectify the errors that we've criticized, we would really accomplish very little because we are conceding the arguments that transforming culture is a legitimate mission and that movies are a profitable means toward that objective. I consider this approach to be a new fundamentalist acceptance of the new evangelical strategy in an attempt to correct the problems of a new evangelical strategy run amok.

I think there are other present examples of the historic new evangelical strategy that are worthy of exposure and valuable for teaching discernment. My opinion is that we ought to focus on the ones that will not put us in the uncomfortable position of implicitly affirming the spiritual value of the Christian entertainment genre. It's nothing personal against anyone who sees their responsibility differently. I just think these are issues we should not ignore.

Ben said...


I do agree that there is danger in denying God's power to work through inadequate presentations of the gospel. I have been on all sides of that one—wrongly denying it, experiencing His sanctifying work through inadequate presentations, and benefitting from His power in overcoming my own inadequate presentations. The real point is that some forms are innately inadequate. The fact that God overcomes those innate inadequacies doesn't mitigate our responsibility to lead wisely.

Ryan Martin said...

I am obviously miscommunicating if I am to be taken that all leisure activities, or even entertainment, have no place in a believer's life. I believe that some entertainment can be enjoyed for the glory of God, to be sure. I am sorry I am creating such a sorry mess of the idea.

Chris, I hope you will stop by and continue to read until I am finished with my discussion on religious movies. I am not finished yet. The point is that movies and drama are entertainment. They always have been, they always will be. If you believe that entertainment and religion go together, well, then . . .

Ben, your most recent remark gets it exactly. We can justify our churchly activities just because they seem to work. God has seen fit, in his grace, to use really bad means for his ends. If he can use a rank unbeliever such as Gamaliel as a prophet of all things (Acts 5), he can certainly use (gulp) a movie (there, I said it). This does not justify the use of movies any more than it justifies my abandoning the faith so that I can be a prophet.

Ryan Martin said...

Let me say it one more time, just to make myself as clear as I can:

I believe that some forms of entertainment and recreation can be a part of a believer's life to the glory of God. I do not believe that entertainment ought to ever be a part of worship.

Ryan Martin said...

That is, worship proper in the church.

Ben said...


I didn't take you to be saying definitively that all entertainment is wrong, but the definition you offer in the second paragraph of your first comment seems to imply that entertainment is inherently non-profitable and trivial.

Your last couple comments really point to the tension I'm wrestling with. My understanding of NT worship (based largely on John 4 and the paucity of worship terminology in Acts and the epistles) is that all of life ought to be worship, even leisure and recreation. Ecclesiastes seems to me to be instructive on this point, although I do not personally feel qualified to offer a coherent argument from that book.

I agree that entertainment should never be a part of worship in the church. On the other hand, I'm wrestling with how entertainment is compatible with a life of worship outside the church. I believe that an argument can be made to justify the prohibition of any form of entertainment in the church and the permission of some forms of entertainment outside it. I'm not capable of making that argument, however. At least not now.

Ryan Martin said...

I am with you. I think we struggle with this in part because we are unable to make distinctions and heirarchies as a result of our American equalitarianism.

Do you have the book "Give Praise to God"? Duncan briefly addresses some of our deficiences in understanding "all of life as worship" there.

Of course, if we cannot come with a good answer to this, perhaps we should do away with what I have defined as "entertainment" altogether. I am more convinced we (I) have holes in our thinking. We need some categories. Perhaps I should ask Kevin Bauder to write on this.