Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Garbage In, Garbage Out? (Part 1)

There's a cliche idea that gets passed along a great deal among Christians, especially in regards to living as Christians in a sin-permeated world. The idea comes up often as a critique for some of the film reviews I do, especially films that seem a bit more "worldly." The cliche: garbage in, garbage out. It's the idea that if I am exposed to worldly things or people, then sin will propagate in my heart and automatically lead me away from Jesus.

Here's my problem: garbage in, garbage out simply isn't biblical. Find the verse in the Bible that communicates this idea. You won't. This cliche is based on a few false assumptions:

Assumption #1: Avoiding anything "worldly" will automatically make me holy. Another word for this is asceticism. As long as I keep away from sinful people doing sinful behaviors, listening to sinful music, watchings sinful movies, etc. then I will be closer to God. The problem here is that if I truly become an ascetic, then I must become a recluse, because every person around me struggles with sin. And I wouldn't want them to drag me down, right? There's a deeper problem though: I cannot escape my own fleshly desires. To truly avoid sin, I must avoid myself. This assumption is based on sin being outside of myself, like a disease I can catch. Yet the disease is already in me. Also, Jesus seemed to spend a lot of time with sinners, only without sinning himself. But the Pharisees seemed to spend a lot of time trying to avoid sin, and Jesus had some harsh words for them. There must be something more to holiness than just avoiding sin.

Assumption #2: Created things are inherently sinful. Paul had to deal with this problem directly in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10. Christians were freaking out over eating food sacrificed to idols, calling those who ate the meat idolators and sinners. Paul calmly points out that all food is clean, that God the creator has only created good things, that the food is not somehow contaminated by sin. The same goes for other created things, such as movies, music, TV, food, clothing, cars, houses, etc. These things aren't inherently sinful and only redeemed when we slap the label "Christian" on them. Both Paul and Jesus declared them "clean." It doesn't mean that all of those things are beneficial, nor are they simply neutral. They do affect our lives, sometimes in very deep and profound ways, but the sinful or holy actions that come from interacting with creation don't stem with creation itself.

Assumption #3: Temptation is more powerful than the Holy Spirit. Garbage in, garbage out places all the power in the garbage. If I hear a cuss word in a movie or a song, then that cuss word will not only permanently embed itself in my heart, it will later come out in my everyday life, whether I want it to or not. I can't help it, right? Yet this negates Paul's exhortation to take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ. It also ignores a key fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives: self-control. This also ignores our everyday life experience (e.g. when we see an act of infidelity in a film, it doesn't tempt us to go cheat on our spouses.) The Holy Spirit is far more powerful than temptation, and God promises to give us a way to overcome temptation. This doesn't mean we need to knowingly place ourselves in situations where we'll be tempted to sin, especially if that sin is a constant struggle in our lives (i.e. a man deeply struggling with lust probably shouldn't go see a film filled with nudity or sexual situations). But it also removes the distinction between temptation and sin, which is a dangerous view to have.

Hear me: I'm not condoning sinful actions, nor am I giving permission for giving in to temptation or to consume any form of media. Yet I want to embrace the truths of Scripture and question the cultural cliches that have the appearance of wisdom, but are built on shaky and unbiblical foundations.

What do you think about the phrase, garbage in, garbage out? Do you agree or disagree with the three assumptions I've presented?

Part 2: using biblical wisdom and discernment, instead of focusing on garbage.


  1. Preach. That phrase is more rooted in fundamentalism as a doctrine than Jesus. Paul exhorts us to be light in dark places, this implies we go to dark places to bring light. Unfortunately, most Christians believe that somehow darkness will come to their church.

  2. I think #3 summarizes it all perfectly. We walk into a violent and sinful situation with the power of the Holy Spirit and darkness has to flee! We are agents of change. Jesus associated with sinners -- shouldn't we too?

  3. Thanks for this article. I came across this blog while doing some research for a workshop for parents on dealing with entertainment choices. I always cringe when I hear the "Garbage In..." cliche. We are not mindless machines incapable of discernment. I also think Hebrews 5:14 gives us a good guideline - that training people towards maturity guides us into being able to distinguish good from evil. The analogy of a filter is much better in describing how we can see/hear/read something that presents an inaccurate world view, take anything that may be "good" or accurate from it, and let the rest flow right on out.