In the World, Not of the World: Four Questions About Consuming Content Online

How can followers of Jesus be in the digital world, but not of the digital world. Here are four questions to ask about consuming content online.

We live in a content-inundated world. 

Indians spent “10 hours 54 minutes weekly in viewing online video content on average as compared to the global average of 7 hours and 55 minutes,” according to a survey in 2020As we move forward into 2023, big streaming outfits like Netflix consider the “young adult audience as the big theme.” They plan to launch more shows and movies for this particular audience. Digital content is here to stay and its consumption is growing.

Followers of Jesus should feel rightly worried about this ever-increasing drive in content creation. Binge-watching, internet addiction, and TV addiction can be dangerously problematic. 

They can drive wedges in healthy relationships and hurt our capacity to nurture real relationships. Under the guise of “self-care,” young people can disassociate themselves from difficult circumstances. Unhealthy habits like doom-scrolling on Instagram or binging the latest show can hurt us more than we realise.

How Jesus Wants Us to Live in the World

In the gospel of John, Jesus actually offered us a posture on cultural engagement for every age. He said, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:15-18).

Jesus wants us to learn how to engage the world while living as holy, set apart followers of Christ in the world. He wants us to be “in the world, not of the world.”

Based on this paradigm, we can take four postures towards culture. These are based on four models of cultural engagement that pastor-theologian Tim Keller explores in his book, Center Church. 

When engaging with any content, it is key to understand which posture is most appropriate.

Humility: Is There Anything I Can Learn?

Jesus came into the world with humility, willing to serve broken people and a broken world. In grace and truth, he pointed everyone to the love of our Heavenly Father. Having a posture of humility means that we do not find some ungodly or arrogant pride in being “set apart.” To be “set apart” does not make anyone better than anyone else. We are saved by grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9).

When consuming digital content with the posture of humility, we acknowledge that there often is something to learn from the world around us. We can learn from documentaries that inspire the importance of overcoming impossible odds and the value of creation (Elephant Whisperers). Or we can learn from meaningful movies about the pressures of education (3 Idiots). 

Creators “in the world” can often, unconsciously or consciously, portray deeply biblical themes beautifully and movingly. So we can always humbly ask the question: “Is there anything I can learn?”

Counter-Cultural: Is There Anything I Must Avoid?

To be counter-cultural emphasises on holiness. It ensures we guard our minds and hearts by first guarding our eyes. We cannot deny the importance of ethics in watching movies, reading books, and listening to songs.

In reality, much of what we see the culture producing is movies and shows that glorify graphic violence, graphic depictions of sexuality, and graphic language. We simply must not use our gospel freedom to engage with some shows and movies, simply because their intent is either pornographic or to provoke and shock audiences with gratuitous violence.

Firstly, be mindful of children. It is always wise to check parental guidance with regard to a movie, so you know whether it is appropriate for a child to watch or not.

Secondly, resist watching alone, especially shows you know can turn into temptations for you. Watching in community, with a friend, or with a spouse can be a helpful way to keep you accountable. It will also minimise the chances of binge-watching.

Thirdly, be discerning. This should go without saying. Using a resource like Decider can help see if a movie is worth your time. It also provides guidance on Indian movies and shows.

Seeking Common Good: Is There Anything I Must Affirm?

Generally, when we watch anything, we should be inviting the Holy Spirit to ask what we can affirm. Every once in a while, you might find that there are movies and shows that a follower of Jesus should certainly support and affirm.

Movies like Taare Zameen Par, 3 Idiots, Article 15, Pink, and Udaan—which are admittedly not perfect moviesall deal with important social issues that concern all Indians.

In fact, followers of Jesus should affirm the social messages and calls for justice that these movies bring up and champion. In fact, it could be a good idea for some communities to host a movie night/Bible study. It can help people study culture in light of God’s Word.

Maintaining a Distinctive Worldview: Is There Anything I Must Challenge?

As we invite the Holy Spirit, we must also ask him to help us know what we must critique and challenge. Every once in a while, we might find that there is a popular movie that glorifies something that resists God’s design. While we must never be careful to censor films unjustly, followers of Jesus can certainly offer another point of view.

A good example of a movie that followers of Jesus can both watch and challenge is Baadhai Do. In this film, two homosexual characters pretend to have a “marriage of convenience” or a lavender marriage. They do this so they can pursue the people they truly love.

As followers of Jesus, we must feel deep love and real empathy for the main characters—Shardul and Sumi—and for people who often find themselves in difficult situations like theirs.

On the other hand, some of the ideas within the film glorify a worldview that undermines God’s Word. At the end of the movie, the couple use their “marriage of convenience” to adopt a child.

We should rightly feel uncomfortable with the depiction of marriage as a means to an end. At the same time, we should feel love and empathy for the people involved. We can always love people without necessarily affirming the choices they make or the things they do.

In fact, Indian followers of Jesus can perhaps use this movie as an opportunity to raise conversations with LGBTQ+ friends and family. It might be a great film to watch together.

As followers of Christ, we can affirm the personhood and dignity of LGBTQ+ loved ones whom we cherish and care about. We can also affirm what we loved about the film. At the same time, we can have real, honest, humble discussions about our different worldviews and values around marriage and sexuality.

In the World But Not of It

In the end, these four questions can serve us well when it comes to how we choose what content to watch:

  1. Is there anything I can learn?
  2. Is there anything I must avoid?
  3. Is there anything I should champion?
  4. Is there anything I should challenge?

In this way, we can faithfully and beautifully be “in the world, not of the world.” We can do this without pride or fear. One makes us self-righteous so that we isolate ourselves from people. The other makes us permissive and leads us to compromise.

As we do this work of engaging with the culture, perhaps we can become more effective witnesses and representatives of the one we follow. In all things, may we bless all people with the truth and beauty of the gospel.