One of the most frustrating things on a weekend night is finding something worthwhile to watch on television or a computer screen. There seem to be limitless options, but I know that most of them are not worth watching. Why would I spend that time watching something that will make me a worse person the next day?
Don’t get me wrong, relaxation and recreation are a good thing, and surely there is some moral benefit to be derived from taking in a good movie, play or book.
In fiction, we can understand and explore moral situations. We see a character make a bad decision, imagine the consequences and form our consciences against these bad decisions.
We learn to empathize with other humans, by reading stories of human hardship, fiction or true. If we let it, the media we watch or read can make us better human beings, and the kind that improves us is the kind that is worth consuming.
In his theology of the body, St. John Paul II analyzed the virtue of purity of heart (General audience, Dec. 10, 1980/TOB, 50). It is from our innermost being that purity springs, and what we put into our minds and our imaginations can lead to impurities proceeding from our hearts.
Pope St. John Paul II emphasizes that purity of heart refers to living our lives according to the Spirit, as opposed to living according to the flesh and the world.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Christ desires us to live in freedom from worldly things.
In John Paul’s theology of the body section on “the ethos of the body in art and media,” he cites Blessed Pope Paul VI, emphasizing “the need to create an atmosphere favorable to the growth of chastity” (Humanae Vitae, 22). The filmmaker, the viewer and the human person who is the subject of the work of art must be conscious of the full truth of the dignity of the human body.
Art that portrays the body well is that which overcomes “the anonymity of the human body as an object ‘without choice’” and seeks “through its creative effort such an artistic expression of the truth about man in his male and female bodiliness that this truth is, so to speak, assigned as a task to the viewer and, in the widest radius, to every recipient of the work” (General audience, May 6, 1981/TOB, 63).
A sense of what is good and worthwhile has to be formed, in the same way we form good habits. One has to watch/read good things in order to want to watch/read good things and to be able to decipher what is actually good to watch/read.
Reading Dostoevsky or another classic or watching a great film off the “Vatican Film List” will allow you to learn new truths about human weakness and God’s grace. Also glean recommendations from such worthy sources as Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Neb., and Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles (see Bishop Conley’s special literature section in the Register last year and Bishop Barron’s blog at NCRegister.com).
It is hard work to seek out the good books and the good movies. It is hard work to watch and read them. But, ultimately, the hard work will be worth it. It is for the sake of your eternal soul.
And one day, as you peruse your favorite streaming service, you will realize that most of it really is not worth watching. Most of it will not make you a better person; in fact, most of it will harm your soul. And you will understand what St. Paul means when he says, “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
Susanna Spencer writes from
St. Paul, Minnesota.