Skip Navigation

Family Room

Has pop culture gone to the dogs? It sure feels that way at times. But rather than condemn the entertainment industry outright, Focus on the Family's Plugged In ministry has spent more than 20 years analyzing movies, music, TV shows and video games in order to help parents (as the old song says) teach their children well. Bob Smithouser has been a significant part of that effort. Since 1992, he has written reviews, edited magazines, led seminars, penned columns, hosted audio podcasts and even authored books on the subject of choosing media wisely in an anything-goes age. Recently, Bob discussed the core realities fueling his team's passion, and offered hope to families trying to get a healthy handle on today's entertainment.

Why do you think the area of media discernment is so important?
Entertainment affects everyone to some degree, Christian or not. Research proves it. Some of the most powerful, cautionary quotes I've read over the past two decades have been from sharp people with no agenda and no antagonism toward the media. For example, in a piece published in Billboard magazine titled "What's Behind the Subliminal Power of Music," brain expert Dr. Richard Pellegrino described the chemical reaction music triggers. Fascinating stuff. He concluded, "In 25 years of working with the brain, I still cannot affect a person's state of mind the way that one simple song can." We've seen similar statements across media, including sobering testimony from army "killologist" Lt. Col. David Grossman about the desensitizing effect of first-person shooter games. I could go on, but the point is, entertainment touches us deeply and, for better or worse, can shape how we think, feel and behave.

And not just people, but society, right?
Exactly. Beyond impacting individual lives, it shapes the culture at large. What society deems appropriate, healthy and normal is constantly evolving, due in part to the way issues are portrayed in entertainment. We can't afford to be naïve. The truth is, not all preachers stand in pulpits, not all teachers shape minds in classrooms, and not everyone with something to sell does it in a TV commercial. With very little fanfare, entertainment communicates the beliefs and agendas of those who create it. It can be a force for change. So we need to set protective hedges in our private lives and be willing to discuss it in the public square, always processing what we see and hear through the filter of God's unchanging Word.

What advice would you give to people who are just starting out on the path of media discernment?
Let's assume you're a Christian who's been soaking up pop culture like a sponge, only to realize (as Paul did in his first letter to the Corinthians) that while all things may be permissible, they're not all beneficial. You've decided it's time to break some old habits and establish new ones. Talk to God about your desire for healthier boundaries. Treat the process as an act of worship, realizing that it really is a process. I'd been a Christian for seven or eight years when I felt convicted to stop reading novels by a particular author. Other impressions arrived later. We don't have to have it all figured out at once. We just need to be obedient to those pricks in our spirit when they happen. The most important thing to keep in mind is that God loves us, understands how we're wired, and wants to protect us. He isn't out to spoil our fun, though Satan would like us to believe that. Speaking of which, expect the enemy to push back. When Satan dangles forbidden fruit in front of us online or as we're standing at a Redbox kiosk, we shouldn't let him convince us that it's "just" entertainment, or that we're strong enough to "handle" it.

What would you say to people who are wise in this area, but feel left out of the group by their friends, family or even those they know at church for their standards regarding entertainment?
It's no fun being on the outside looking in. It can sting when everyone's talking about a popular R-rated comedy and you're excluded from the conversation—or worse yet, people treat you like you're on loan from a monastery. It can feel lonely to take a stand. Still, be strong and confident that you're doing the right thing. That said, don't come across as judgmental or self-righteous. I'm afraid we can actually invite alienation by looking down our noses at those with different standards. Remember, you're not better than everyone else because you abstain from raunchy movies or explicit music … just healthier. It's a dietary choice you've chosen to make. Like I said earlier, treat it as an unselfish act of worship, not a crusade. And rest assured that your heavenly Father appreciates any lifestyle sacrifices you make in an attempt to be more like Jesus.

Should we stay away from all entertainment outside of the Christian market?
Not necessarily. I'm not big on labels. We're better off gathering as much information as possible about whatever media we're drawn to, then evaluating it from a biblical perspective. You might be surprised at how much Scripture applies to what we consume and how we're supposed to discipline ourselves in this area. For starters, check out Psalm 101:3, Colossians 2:8, Proverbs 4:23, Philippians 4:8 and Romans 12:2. The Bible may be old, but it's timeless. And it's relevant to this topic, even if guys like Paul, David and Solomon lived long before TV or the Internet. Clearly, God cares about our hearts and minds. Since both can be shaped by media, it's great that Christians are out there making wholesome music and movies that respect our Creator and address life from that point of view. But if we limit ourselves to products released under a Christian umbrella, we'll miss out on some great art that can be just as uplifting.

Twenty years ago, when you joined Plugged In and began helping parents teach media discernment, you were still single. Now you have a 15-year-old and an 11-year-old. Has your perspective on parenting in this area changed over the years?
It's funny, I remember wondering in the early '90s if moms and dads would take me seriously since I didn't have children of my own yet. But I was working with junior- and senior-high kids at church, so I had a front row seat for a wide range of culture-related challenges as they played out in other families. To answer your question, what really changed was my vantage point. But let's face it, it's a different world now. Advances in technology alone over the past 15 years have forced parents to adopt a whole new game plan. Even five or six years ago, I could deflect requests to watch a questionable TV show by simply telling my son, "Sorry, we don't have cable." End of discussion. No access meant no arguments. Now everything's available online, so parents have to work harder than ever. There's more entertainment to keep track of, more media channels making it available (most with no gatekeeper), and more ways for kids to access that content unsupervised. That can leave parents feeling outmatched. But there's no need to wave the white flag. Start young. Keep at it. Bookmark Engage in dialogue, even when it's uncomfortable. The ultimate goal is to help our children understand and take ownership of the godly media standards we're modeling for them. I could work in this field for another 20 years, and that would never change.

You say to start young. How young?
The earlier the better. Obviously, lessons should be age-appropriate so as not to rob our children of their innocence, but kids are sharp. Don't underestimate them. I remember when my wife took our 2-year-old daughter to her very first movie, The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland. It didn't go well. Apparently there's a scene where Sesame Street pals Elmo and Zoe have an argument, and one essentially tells the other, "I don't want to be friends anymore." Shelby came unglued. Monsters, no problem. Inter-muppet conflict? Total meltdown. They had to leave the theater. Later on I sat down with Shelby and explained that every good story has some form of conflict, which can be a little scary or sad, because without it there couldn't be a happy ending. That's all I said. And to be honest, I felt silly saying that much—kind of like when I catch myself giving the dog my full itinerary before I leave the house. But I awarded myself dad points for having said something. Well, a week or so later we're watching one of the old Disney princess movies, and out of the blue my 2-year-old turns to me and says, "That's the conflict, right Daddy?" She nailed it! Since then our conversations have evolved. Shelby's in high school now, and Julie and I continue to see her growing in wisdom as we examine more mature entertainment together. It's all about finding the delicate balance between protecting children and preparing them to navigate pop culture once they're on their own.

Any final thoughts?
Only that we've been focusing on the dark side of media's influence, which is mainly about being cautious and avoiding garbage. But there's another side to this, which is that all truth is God's truth. We can find it in unlikely places, including entertainment, and use it for personal enrichment, or to reach out to people who don't know Christ. Art can also hand us opportunities to expose the world's flawed ideologies and, in turn, point people to truth. When you have a minute, read Acts 17:16-34. While in Athens, the Apostle Paul addressed the Aeraopagus, a council named for the Greek god of war. Without compromising the Gospel, Paul used an inscription from a local pagan altar, "To the Unknown God," as a jumping-off point to tell the council about the God who can be known. Paul even quoted their poets back to them before calling the people to repentance and telling them about the resurrection of Jesus. Who are our pop-culture poets today? Songwriters? Bloggers? They may be saying something we can use as a bridge to a lost world. So developing biblical media discernment—learning to evaluate and process entertainment through a Christian filter—is as much about identifying treasures as avoiding trash.

Published March 2013

When Kids Stray Out of Bounds
Simple Enough for A Child to Understand
Is Your Teen Keeping Strange Company?
You Must Be This Tall to Ride