Since registering my deep concerns with the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” I’ve been pleased to see more thoughts from others, like Russell Moore and Trevin Wax. Non-Christian therapy and counseling professionals are likewise alarmed, and apparently there’s been enough of a backlash that Netflix has pledged to put more “trigger warnings” into the show. I think the worried response to the series is completely justified, and while it’s probably not realistic to expect Netflix to take more drastic action toward what is undoubtedly a popular and profit-driving product, I don’t think you can spend too much time talking about the dangers of such an empathetic story about a teenage suicide.
I want to say one more word about the show, and more to the point, about why so much fuss is warranted about a stupid television program. For a lot of Christians, a movie or TV show’s worthiness is measured simply in terms of number of cuss words spoken or presence/frequency of sex scenes. If a film or program is loaded with blue language, it’s a bad film or program. If it depicts sexuality, it’s a bad program (I think there’s a nuanced case to make for this, but I digress). If the violence is bloody, it’s a bad program. This is the way most evangelicals, in my experience, consume pop culture: they grind it to its constituent parts and then the parts get evaluated on a scale. If the scale tips over, we’re not consuming it.
I don’t think this is the best and most helpful way to engage art, and, interestingly, “13 Reasons” is an excellent example why. Now, a lot of parents who watch an episode or two of the show will immediately call it out of bounds. The language is explicit and harsh, and there are sexual themes and scenes. I have no issue with disqualifying a show based on those grounds, especially a show clearly marketed to teenagers. No problem then, right?
Hold on. The problem with tackling “13 Reasons” on this kind of level is that this is not the biggest problem with the show. The biggest problem with the show is not the words characters use (some may reason their children hear such harsh language in real life school) or the hookups they have (those can be fast forwarded, after all). The biggest problem with the show is that it is art that shapes its audience at a subconscious level to feel understanding and empathy with taking one’s own life. The power of art is not usually in its constituent elements, but in its whole. Teens who watch “13 Reasons Why” may come away without using those words or hopping into bed with someone, but they may still come away with a grossly distorted view of what suicide is and what happens in its wake. And you can’t mute or fast forward past this.
This is why it’s important to understanding what art is and why it affects us. Art, to use James K.A. Smith’s terminology, is a “pedagogy of desire,” a vehicle not just of entertainment but of emotional, moral, and spiritual formation. Movies and TV shows engage audiences at multiple levels, utilizing dialogue, music, visual cues, and symbols to inspire first and foremost an emotional response, not an intellectual one. The power of movies to dazzle and delight, above and beyond the parameters of rational response, is the most important way that films shape our moral imaginations.
This means that the art we consume not only can be an instrument of personal and social transformation, but that it simply is, even if the transformation does not seem immediately practical.
“13 Reasons Why” is a jarring reminder to us as evangelical Christians that misunderstanding the power of art–approaching it shallowly, comprehending it incompletely, and talking about it reductively–is a serious mistake. It’s a mistake because our stories shape us above and beyond the level of bad words and bad scenes. If evangelicals don’t try to understand culture on a deeper level, we will allow ourselves to be shaped by stories without even knowing it, and those stories may be PG-rated, but still spiritually destructive.
Regardless where you draw your boundaries, make the effort to engage culture at a deeper level. Ask what story is being told, why is it being told, to whom is it being told, and how is it being told. Probe movies, television, books, and other pop culture artifacts for their meaning, because it is meaning that molds us deeper than the things we can skip with a remote.