“All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Cor. 10:23–24).
Parents don’t often think of their children as their neighbors, but they are. In Scripture and the Small Catechism, a neighbor is anyone who isn’t you. So “serving your neighbor” is at the heart of a parent’s vocation, including teaching the faith. Each section of Luther’s Small Catechism starts with the opening phrase “As the head of the family should teach.” In addition to providing the necessities of life, parents, especially fathers, are intended to teach and equip their children to help them make choices about what’s good and bad. Parents’ drive for what’s best for their children is always before them, informing much of their decision-making. They take great care deciding which school to send their children to and what extracurricular activities in which to enroll them. Some parents are rather hands-off when it comes to things like art, books, music, theater, TV and movies while others are very hands-on. If it’s important to make good choices about what a child eats, it stands to reason that making good choices about what children read and watch is important too. Just as parents can teach a child how to read and understand a label on a food product, they can teach a child to read and understand what they see in a media product. Parents should strive to raise children capable of discerning whether something is “helpful” and whether it “builds up.”
Movies are a unique form of media because they bring together a variety of elements: narrative drama found in a good novel; music ranging from radio pop songs to symphonic masterpieces and visual imagery that runs the gamut from the graphic punch of comic books to the sublime heights of fine art. When assembled, these elements can be overwhelming even before a viewer gets down to questions associated with the various worldviews and/or philosophical and religious ideas present in every movie. For this reason, it’s possible that, in the midst of an overwhelming film-viewing experience, such ideas can broad-side a person, regardless of age. This is particularly the case if the viewer is not clear on what he or she thinks or believes about a given topic. This is where the vocation of parent comes back on the scene.
Parents can teach their children the faith, just like they teach them their ABCs, to tie their shoes or to ride a bike. Teaching the faith, in fact, is the most important responsibility for parents and is where the Small Catechism is a useful tool. Families need not hold off on the catechism until children are 13 years old and then let the pastor teach it to them for two years in confirmation class. The catechism can be used at a very young age to help children begin learning and understanding their baptismal faith. The stronger a child’s confession of faith, the better formed is his or her identity as a Christian, and ultimately, he or she will have an easier time deciphering what he or she is looking at when watching movies or other kinds of media.
Just like teaching other things in life, the best results come from memorization. Consider this: If a child gets lost, it’s important for him or her to have things like his or her address and an emergency contact phone number memorized. So when they are sitting in a movie theatre or in front of a smaller screen, having various parts of Scripture and the catechism memorized will be a great help. Memorizing the catechism seems like a lot of work, and in some ways it is, but it can also be fun. Resources are available that set to music the first 44 pages of Luther’s Small Catechism. Just like the ABC song, children can learn the Lord’s Prayer or the 10 Commandments in a musical way. By the time they see their first movie, TV show or cartoon in which someone gets shot, they have the Fifth Commandment and its explanation memorized: You shall not murder. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.
Having a discussion with children about what they saw and what they think about it will be easier if they already know the commandment. It then becomes the normative standard that helps parents teach the faith. Take these moments as opportunities, and don’t let them slip by without comment. Children look to their parents for leadership and guidance so having a firm grasp on the catechism will help.
Be encouraged! There are some other great strategies parents can use in fostering a family’s good media consumption habits. First, they can take time to preview films before their children watch them. Watch it first, and then think about what’s in the movie. What are the major themes? The plot of Disney’s Bambi (1942) hinges on the death of Bambi’s mother. After watching the film — if parents feel it’s age-appropriate — be prepared to talk to children about death, the possibility of their own death and a death that would leave them without a mother or a father.
Let’s say the child is older and wants to watch the Kevin Bacon movie Footloose (1984). While it was originally rated R, in recent years it’s been re-rated PG. Here’s where parents will want to be careful about depending on the rating system. The more recent ratings may not be entirely helpful. It may have changed, but the film still includes the same adult themes that may not be appropriate for younger viewers regardless of its current rating. Previewing it will help decide whether to let a child watch it. An additional online help is www.imdb.com. Each film has a “parental advisory” page detailing instances of sex/nudity, violence/gore, profanity, alcohol/drugs/smoking and frightening/intense scenes. Here are the parental advisory pages for Footloose and Bambi:
If the movie in question is just coming out in theatres, websites like www.imdb.com and www.rottentomatoes.com can provide some reviews and information about the film’s content. Understanding that it may be difficult to find the time and/or the money to preview first-run films, these websites may be very helpful. In addition, Lutheran families can take advantage of movie reviews found on this website (and/or the LCMS Reporter and The Canadian Lutheran online) and the follow-up radio interviews connected to the reviews on www.IssuesEtc.org.
There isn’t time to review every new film, but there are a number of film reviews now available at www.mountolive.ca ranging from children’s movies like How To Train Your Dragon 2 to the zombie movie Word War Z to the horror film The Conjuring to dramas like The Great Gatsby and 12 Years a Slave, even fantasy movies like Maleficent and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The purpose of these reviews is not just to review the film but also to help families and individuals begin to look differently at the medium of film, to consider that movies of every genre contain more than their more obvious surface elements. While Christians are free to watch a wide variety of films, they can also be careful as they watch. We should consider if the film is helpful for teaching some aspect of the faith, whether a movie may help build up a person’s faith or if it’s challenging or even hostile toward his or her faith. Using Scripture and the Small Catechism, everyone can get more out of their media consumption. Having a firm confession of faith will help Christian viewers go beyond personal concerns and enable them to seek out the good of their neighbor, whether that neighbor is their child or a fellow adult.