CULTIVATING A LOVE FOR BEAUTY & JUSTICE THROUGH SCREENS
The Weekly Practice:
WEEKLY LIMIT OF 4 HOURS ON SCREEN ENTERTAINMENT
At stake in our habits of screen entertainment is not just our time management, it is our capacity for beauty and justice as well.
Remember that God made the world in a generous fervor of abundance – not because he had to, but because he wanted to invite the world into the beauty of the Trinity. All things reflect this lavish generosity of God, and thus in a pre-fall sense, everything can be savored for its beauty. God made trees whose fruit was “good for food and pleasant to the sight.”
Stories are one of the great storehouses of the world’s beauty. And because we live in a story, stories are always about someone else and about us at the same time. They signal deep truths and set unnameable norms. By framing our lives within cameras and pages, they frame our life of expectations as well. In many ways, we live within the boundaries of the stories we internalize. They train us to love good or evil in ways that classrooms cannot hope to match. They teach us what is beautiful and what is not, regardless of whether they are right or wrong about it. We must approach stories intentionally precisely because they matter so, so much.
Needless to say visual stories – read movies, TV series and really even news channels as well – have an increased capacity to form us because the medium draws our brains in so aggressively. Consider the remarkable everyday experience of walking by a screen only to find one or ten minutes later you are still standing there and you never even meant to pause.
But it is not just that we are initially drawn in. When stories are commercially engineered to make us watch one after the other after the other, and when their release timing, their carefully planned social media hype and even their plot lines are specifically targeted to encourage us to binge, we ought to at least pause.
Sure, not all stories are good stories. That is a serious matter worth considering, but it is still only half of the matter. Even with a good story, the form also matters. The medium is the message.
When we are trained to zone out, tune out and plow through a series, that is very different than cultivating the skills to work your way into and through an imaginative world. Good art requires something of us, some work to approach it and understand it. It leaves us wondering and thinking on what to do with it. We work on it and it works on us.
Something different is happening in our constant stream of stories over our ever-present devices. We may not even be able to put our finger on it even yet, but it certainly has its fingers on us.
Among the many things at stake in this new medium is our ability to savor beauty. That is, our ability to bask in the beauty of something. When the credits roll – do we jump up to be the first one out of the parking lot, or can we sit with the deep breath of applause? When the show ends, is it right on to the next, or is can we reflect on what the world we just encountered means? Even more so, does the constant stream of stories crowding our screens do something to our other capacities for beauty?
The more we become accustomed to the posture of regularly sitting in front of a screen for 4 hours the less likely we are to have the skills – whatever they are – to stare at a painting long enough to get something out of it. Or read a poem out loud and slowly enough that it is able to “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.” To watch and re-watch a famous old film to understand why it was such a breakthrough in the medium.
So we must approach stories intentionally because they shape our sense of beauty and even our capacity to engage with beauty.
But there is still more at stake in this attention economy.
The sheer amount of time that the call of a streaming series or the news cycles demands affects our ability to give attention to the other calls of the world. For example, the cries of injustice and suffering that we are being trained not to pay attention to.
The vulnerable are vulnerable precisely because they have no voice to be heard. Thus to be a people of justice means to be trained to listen closely for a voice that no one else hears.
Here again, stories actually have immense power to tune our sense of justice. Horton Hears a Who, which I read to my sons recently, is an incredible example of a story that trains us to listen for the unheard voice.
But still again, the medium is the message. What do we make of a medium of streaming stories that demands we constantly sit for another one. There is a very real and equally dangerous possibility that we spend inordinate amounts of time watching stories but never actually living out the love of God and neighbor in our own story.
The central claim of The Common Rule is to make the abstract concrete. To take our beliefs and intentions and turn them into actual habits that form us. In that spirit, we cannot be people who watch stories about the chaos of inner city streets, but never actually go out to meet the poor in our own city. We cannot be people who watch documentaries about minimalism, but never think twice before adding something else to our cart. We cannot be people who watch long-form TV series on fights for justice in complex fantasy worlds, but never take the time to cry out on behalf of the vulnerable in our own world. At some point, we must take what we have learned from Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Wire or House of Cards and go be people who beat the drum for justice in the world that actually exists.
This DOES NOT mean renouncing streaming stories. It means approaching them intentionally, which I believe requires limiting our time on screens enough to open our doors, walk outside and listen carefully – to find out if our ears are tuned to hear the silent cry of the vulnerable.
For me the weekly habit of limiting screen time is not at all about a certain hour limit – the three hours on The Common Rule is completely arbitrary, to be honest – it entirely about the discipline of tracking my time. Most of us live in an absolute fantasy world when it comes to where our time actually goes. This is well documented in fascinating research, that we compulsively over estimate our time well spent and underestimate our time wasted.
But when we start tracking our time, we light up the darkness. Tracking time on something like watching streamed stories is simply a micro-habit that keeps me honest with where my time actually goes. It helps me understanding what is controlling me and what isn’t, what I really love and what I just say I love but don’t actually spend time on.
I have come to think of time as the currency of our purpose. I cannot do anything I was made to do without spending time on it. That is what it means to embrace the limitations of being a human being. I think that this means we have to make some stewardship effort to track our time the way we track our money. And I have found that time tracking on things like this is one of those small seeds of intentionality that blossoms into a transformed life.
As applied to screen time, it boils down to being intentional. When I only have X number of hours to engage with certain mediums, I choose carefully. When I’m invited to watch a new series, I think about those eight or twelve hours. All the amazing things that could happen. Sometimes, I choose to spend it watching the series with friends or my wife. Sometimes, I decide it would be better spent reading poetry or a biography, working on a hobby, cleaning dishes or even staring at blank walls. Do I break my limits sometimes? Of course! This is a compass, not a law. Sometimes it’s a great choice to hole up with friends and watch ridiculous hours of some story together. Those are amazing moments. They’re just not the norm, they are the occasional.
For me, this has helped tear down a long standing idol in my life that I must “keep up.” I vividly remember standing before a tall bookshelf in a book store in my young twenties, and having the terrible epiphany that I would never be able to read all the books I wanted to read. My desire outpaced reality, and I was crushed. Looking back I see that deep down below the healthy desire to learn was a fantasy to be limitless, to have the omniscience of God.
I think about that now with books, podcasts, movies and TV series. I believe we are living in a renaissance of stories, a golden age of podcasts and long-form TV. It’s remarkable, and in the sweet hereafter I look forward to watching them all with you, on a big long couch with lots of drinks after the supper of the lamb.
But for now I have to honor limits, and even embrace them in the specific form of tracking my time spent. Most of these wonderful stories I will not watch. Trying to see them all would mean trading in my capacity for beauty and justice.
That’s no longer a trade I’m willing to make.