No Contentment in Content

Binge Watching Has Never “Changed My Mourning Into Dancing”

Guest Contributor / 6.21.21

This article comes to us from Aaron Hayworth:

Maybe you have found yourself in a situation like this: You’re on the couch, it’s 11:07 pm, and a small box appears on your television screen which reads, “Are you still watching?” You think to yourself, “One more episode, and I’m done with this season,” and/or, “Wow, those Netflix people sure are judgmental!”

Like an alcohol bender or lunch buffet, this kind of viewing is called binge watching, defined by researchers as watching three or more thirty-minute episodes of television. Nowadays, shows are deemed “binge-worthy” by critics if they achieve the strange alchemy of being both creative and addictive. Streaming services advertise their flagship content and encourage folks to spend their whole evening “binging.” While it sounds odd to encourage binging anything, I admit that I’ve found myself powering through a few episodes seasons of The Office or Star Trek. And I am willing to bet I’m not the only one. So it is with great humility that I offer that we should probably cut back on binge watching.

Before you stop reading and denounce my pharisaic lawgiving, I want to make it clear that this is not a moral argument. Binge watching does not make you a bad person, but the research suggests that it may be making you sad, distracted, anxious, or withdrawn.[1] These are serious psychological and spiritual concerns that contradict our culture’s casual acceptance of excessive streaming.

Researchers and mental health professionals are taking the adverse effects of binge watching seriously. It’s probably time for the Church to likewise speak a word of Gospel hope and, dare I say, moderation into the content consumption crisis. We do so not out of an overbearing sense of propriety, but out of a desire to spare ourselves and our neighbors harm. I believe we can find some helpful guidance on this issue from the great Anglican revivalist John Wesley.

In his General Rules, John Wesley commended that we avoid “what we know is not for the glory of God.” While we may not attain Wesley’s level of scrupulosity and spiritual rigor (who could?),  losing all sense of space in time in front of a glowing screen isn’t exactly a “glorifying” activity (for God, or ourselves).

Researchers say that there may be healthy reasons for binging “related to entertainment, positive emotions, cognition, and spending free time.” But what happens when binge watching ceases to be an occasional activity for enjoying beautiful art and becomes a compulsive or mindless exercise? One study suggests that “people tend to binge watch to escape reality, which can lead to the decrease of other, more adaptive ways of coping with negative emotions.”[2]

This emotionally fueled binge watching is the more problematic of the two. Not because it’s explicitly immoral, but because it may be harming us in innumerable ways. If binge watching happens when we feel overwhelmed by the worries and woes of the world, so we decide we feel safer in Pawnee or Westeros, then this escapist response makes matters worse. Fleeing a hurtful world for the safety of the screen doesn’t exactly foster community (or love, for that matter).

I’m reminded of Qoheleth, who remarks, “All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing” (Eccl 1:8). This verse reminds us of the insatiable desires of the fallen human heart. The biblical authors knew about our unending appetite and yearning for meaning. Binging may give comfort, but it doesn’t provide the wisdom or joy of God.

While Wesley didn’t have the Internet (or a radio for that matter), he knew that people sought comfort and meaning in sundry places. And while Wesley got up far too early in the morning to stay up binge watching television, he saw the folly of creatures seeking happiness in other creaturely devices. Wesley commented, “While the world smiles upon and we have all the conveniences, yea, and superfluities of life — we frequently have pleasing dreams and enjoy a kind of happiness. But it cannot continue; it flies away like a shadow: and even while it lasts it is not solid or substantial; it does not satisfy the soul. We still pant after something else, something which we have not.”[3]

Wesley is right. The difficulties of our lives can’t be solved by the comforts of binging. At the end of the day, there is no contentment in content.

One may find some happiness by binge watching and escaping from worry. But digital content, whether it is your favorite television show or a classic movie, offers only an addictive comfort. One episode is never enough. One season is never enough. The joy is fleeting.

TV is a heck of a drug. So I offer a gentle nudge: our media consumption might be more trouble than its worth. It’s one of the more unfortunate lies that we believe we can escape our troubles by constantly flipping on a screen and zoning out, as tempting as that might be for us. Binge watching is a great and subtle temptation. There are many well-produced and thoughtful shows, but art is better savored than devoured.

Over the past year, which has been filled with loss, despair, anxiety, and endless stay-at-home boredom, I realized that there was no security in being entertained. There was only security in being known and loved by God. When we are sad and afraid, we don’t need to be distracted. We need to be told, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine” (Isa 43:1 NIV).

The latest Disney+ or HBOMax shows can (at best) offer a distraction and fun conversation with friends. And yes, I’ve become an evangelist for Ted Lasso. But binge watching has never “changed my mourning into dancing” and “[taken] off my funeral clothes and dressed me up in joy” (Ps 30:11). There is only one thing that can do that, and it isn’t a thing at all —it’s a person. The surest of rest and new life is only found when we commune with God. The Holy Spirit is with us, inviting us to join with all saints, angels, and archangels when we feel alone and overwhelmed.

So the next time you’re feeling the impulse to click “keep watching” and unplug from the world, when you thirst for a life-giving word, ask yourself: What am I trying to find by binge watching? And then ask: what else might God have in store for me in his gifts of prayer, scripture, and community? Whether we’re restless, listless, or running on empty, the God of rest will find us where we are. No escape necessary. God is already there in our hurt and suffering, “For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things” (Ps 107:9).

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