I’m not going to try to tell you what is and isn’t right for you to read and watch. You have the Holy Spirit to help you find your way and give you convictions, and everyone is different anyway. What I want to talk about is how we sometimes do a disservice to ourselves by only reading/watching/playing things that we identify with–the stuff we consider “for us,” or things we happen to agree with.
It’s easy to isolate ourselves in life, and the Internet has only made it easier. We’re living in an age when, if someone talks about an idea we’re uncomfortable with, we can just unfriend them. Or we can keep them as friends but block their posts from reaching us.
We’re filtering our lives.
And some of this is okay. I mean, I don’t want my social network newsfeed plastered with pictures of human cruelty and objectified women, or really bad memes that make fun of people from a position of ignorance. It’s nice to be able to choose the kinds of things that reach us so that we’re doing what the Bible says and setting our minds on the things that are worth thinking about.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8)
Sometimes, though, filtering out the things that we don’t want to expose ourselves to has taught us to build a safe, secure bubble around ourselves. Nothing “bad” can get in… but neither can anything that challenges us or opens up the possibility of seeing the world in a different way.
We’re building ourselves a comfort zone.
We’re comfortable here. We read and watch only the things that reinforce our way of looking at the world. It’s not just things that we see as harmful, like desensitizing violence and wanton sexuality, that we’re blocking out. Now we’re unfriending people that disagree with us, watching only the news programs that approach issues from our side, and avoiding the stories that might open us up to a different perspective.
One of my favorite quotes by George R.R. Martin is this: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.” It’s not just reading, even though I tend to talk about books here at Geeks Under Grace. It’s every story that we participate in by identifying with a character. It’s movies in which we get to step into the protagonist’s shoes and see the world through her or his eyes. It’s video games, perhaps especially so, since they are so interactive; we get to walk around in another person’s virtual skin and live another life.
Every geek knows what this is like, whether you’re curling up with the latest Patrick Rothfuss novel or watching the newest season of Sherlock. If you’re young enough to remember watching The Neverending Story you will remember the old man in the bookstore saying, “Your books are safe. While you’re reading them, you get to become Tarzan or Robinson Crusoe… Ahh, but afterwards you get to be a little boy again…” Stories have the power to transport you into another life. And while the bookstore owner may be right about you being a little boy again, you are not the same little boy. You’ve been somewhere else. You’ve been someone else. (Feel free to read that last line in the growling voice of Oliver Queen.) The problem with a world that has trained us to filter out stories and people that challenge us is that we’re making certain that we stay the same. And I don’t think God wants us to stay the same.
The apostle Paul said something I’ve always loved: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (I. Cor. 9:22)
There is something powerful about identifying with others, about being able to see things from their point of view. Empathy is becoming so rare in this world that it’s practically a superpower. I’m not talking about “being so open-minded your brains fall out.” Just because you read something challenging doesn’t mean you have to change your beliefs. I’d hope that all of us have convictions that are strong (and hopefully they are good ones). But it’s easy to get stuck, to be so busy reinforcing who we are, that we’re not capable of becoming “all things to all people.” After all, we’ve already got this down. We know who we are, we know how the world works, and if anyone sees things differently, well, they’re obviously wrong, and we can tell them exactly why.
And if we wonder why they aren’t listening to us, aren’t open to what we have to say, it’s probably because they’ve been trained to filter us out. We’ve been blocked. So that’s what that feels like. And we might say “Good riddance,” but that’s not empathy. That’s not becoming all things to all people. That’s hiding out in our comfort zone.
This right here is the anthem of our generation. If we want others to unblock us, if we want them to drop their guard and listen to us, we’ve got to show that we are willing to meet them in their own territory. We need to expand our comfort zones so that they encompass everyone. That’s not about giving up your convictions, but being comfortable and understanding of others’.
A few months back, one writer wrote an article challenging readers to stop reading books by straight, white, cis men for a year. Well, that drew quite a lot of the ire of the Internet, to say nothing of fans of Neil Gaiman. Now, I can’t agree with the idea of cutting out books (or any entertainment) because they are written from a certain perspective. That’s the kind of filtering that I’m arguing against here. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized she had a point. The fact is that, for a lot of us, such a challenge would cut out almost all of what we read. I consider the writers that I personally enjoy: David Wong (no, he’s not actually Asian), C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Rothfuss, Martin, Butcher… and I start to see a pattern forming. Even if I try to focus on my favorite women writers: Diane Duane, Madeline L’Engle, Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling… they still tend to be more similar than they are different. Most of what is offered to us has so little diversity that we don’t even need to try when it comes to filtering the stuff that reaches us. It’s been done for us.
The problem with reading (or watching, or playing) a lot of stuff from a single perspective is not that that perspective is bad or wrong, but that it doesn’t let you step in the shoes of another life. We’re still not training to become all things to all people.
Anime and manga fans might relate to this a bit. Chances are, if you’ve grown up in the “West,” you didn’t have much exposure to Japanese culture in your day-to-day life. Then someone made you sit down and watch Cowboy Bebop or Death Note and your world expanded. Suddenly, you knew things about another culture, the lives of the people who lived in it, even their faiths. You might have been shocked to realize what place Christianity has in their lives (hint: Jesus is not very popular or often well understood in Japan). As a Christian, you might even be better equipped for talking to them about God because you have an idea where they are coming from. Also, you have some common ground because you will have watched some of the same shows and played some of the same video games. Watching Japanese anime and playing video games from another culture hasn’t turned you into a Buddhist or a materialist, but you are not the same for having experienced it.
It’s not just about cultural, racial, and gender differences. It’s important to encounter stuff by people that think differently from you. For instance, I like reading Kurt Vonnegut. He was another straight, cis, white guy, but there’s something important that he and I don’t have in common. He was a passionate atheist writer, and his views come out in his books. Reading his novels hasn’t convinced me that God doesn’t exist. (It would take more than that for anyone that has truly experienced Him in their lives.) His works have not damaged my faith or convictions. What they’ve done is given me a window into a different point of view than my own. While I love the sense of purpose in life that God gives me, I can read The Sirens of Titan and see how a man might look at the idea that human beings have a purpose and not find it very comforting. His view isn’t mine, but I can step into his characters and live their lives and see what he means.
I’m saying you should read books by atheists, not to undermine your faith, but to strengthen it. It will make us better apologists and stop us from posting memes on Facebook that have Atheists rolling their eyes because they reveal how we completely misunderstand their point of view.
We should also read books by people who live in countries other than our own. Not just Japan, which is a favorite of geeks because of their thriving geek culture, but all kinds of countries. We should listen to stories from people that come from walks of life that we know nothing about, and those that believe differently from us.
Will we like everything we read/watch/play? Nope. And I know that many of us will ask, “Why should I bother with something I know I won’t like?” The short answer is the same we give kids who wonder why they should eat broccoli: “Because it’s good for you.” It will help you see more of the world. You will learn ways of thinking that might change yours, or might just make you stronger in the ones you already have. You will find yourself challenged, but also built up.
Again, I’m not saying you should play some horribly violent game just because it will give you a new experience. There are experiences that do not edify. Experiencing things just for their novelty is not what I’m recommending. I’m talking about gaining empathy. What we should do is leave our comfort zones when it comes to entertainment, which will help us leave our comfort zones when it comes to people, so that when we want to reach them, we won’t have to go very far.
A lover of Jesus and of fantastical fiction, Silas Green talks books and Christian living on Geeks Under Grace. He spends the rest of his free time trying to write stories and exploring the paradise island in the Pacific on which he is stranded.
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