Virtuous Reality

By David Feddes

Syndicated columnist Bob Greene wrote an excellent column about entertainment labeled “adult content” or “adult language.”

Adult content usually means that people are shown attacking each other with guns, hatchets and blowtorches; that half-naked people are assaulting other people, ripping their clothes off, treating humans like garbage; that people are detonating other people’s cars and houses, setting fire to property, bludgeoning and disembowling and pumping holes in one another. That’s adult content; that’s how adults behave.

Adult language? Adult language, by our current definition, consists of the foulest synonyms for excrement, for sexual activity, for deviant conduct. Adult language usually consists of four letters; adult language is the kind of language that civilized people are never supposed to use.

It makes you wonder what lesson we are sending—not only to children, but to ourselves. If a TV show or motion picture concerned itself with responsible adults treating each other and the people around them with kindness, with consideration, with thoughtfulness, that TV show or movie would never be labeled as containing adult content…

We are sending a clear signal to young people: the things in our world that are violent, that are crude, that are dull and mean-spirited are the things that are to be considered “adult.” The words that children are taught not to say because they are ugly and foul are “adult language.” As if they are something to strive for, to grow into.

In light of all this, Bob Greene wants more truth in labeling, but he doesn’t think it will happen. He says, “The lie of ‘adult content’ is acceptable to Hollywood; the true label of ‘pathetic, moronic content suitable for imbeciles” will never see the light of day.'” Therefore, says Greene, since we won’t see labels that tell the truth,

perhaps we should learn to read the current “adult” warning labels in a different way.  “Adult content” should be read as a warning against becoming the kind of adult who welcomes such things into his or her life.  The “adult language” label should be read as a genuine kind of warning, a warning to children against becoming the sort of adult who chooses to speak that way.

Bob Greene is absolutely right. “Adult content,” “adult language,” “adult theatres,” “adult videos,” “adult bookstores”—all this is the opposite of being a decent adult. In this kind of labeling, when you see the word “adult,” just think of it as a mispelling of “a dolt,” or as an abbreviation for “adultery.”

The Information Age

We’re living in the Information Age. We have print media: newspapers, books, fax machines, e-mail, Internet discussion groups. We have sound media: telephones, radios, cassette players, compact disks, to hear voices from all over and music of every kind. We have sight media: full-color photographs, motion pictures, TV, cable connections, VCR’s, satellite dishes, to help us see almost anything from almost anywhere, and watch it over and over, as often as we like.

Now computers and fiber optic technology are bringing all our media together and putting it literally at our fingertips. A child cruising the Internet can get every kind of information, see every kind of picture, and contact every kind of stranger. Cyberspace is a world all its own. Multimedia is becoming more vivid, more interactive, more realistic—so realistic, in fact, that some people call it virtual reality.

We have a zillion different ways to communicate. Now the only question is, What do we have that’s worth communicating?  We’re moving closer and closer to virtual reality. But what about virtuous reality? Are we in touch with things that build virtue? Or are we glutting ourselves on “adult content,” adulterous trash fit only for a dolt without mind or conscience.

Let me make one thing clear right up front. There’s a lot that I like about the Information Age. I like being able to communicate with you right now through radio. I like reading great books. I like listening to great music. I like hearing intelligent discussions on the radio. I like watching a good movie or TV program. I like being able to reach people instantly by phone and e-mail. I like having a computer to do research and write. I like the fun and learning that’s available to my whole family, thanks to high-tech communication.

New information technology offers us many good things, but the technology also offers things that aren’t so good. Mass printing gives us the Bible, John Milton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis, but it also gives us Hustler and National Enquirer. Radio gives us news and discussions, but it also gives us Howard Stern and other filth. CD players offer music that is uplifting and magnificent, but they also offer gansta rap and acid rock. TV brings us a few excellent shows but also tons of trash. The internet offers research and recreation—and also child pornography and how to build a bomb.

With so many different kinds of information coming at us,  which information is going to shape us? As we move closer and closer to virtual reality, what about virtuous reality?

Learn to Discern

Many of us are careful about what we eat. We pay attention to the way different types of food affect our body. But what about food for thought? What about the way we feed our mind, our imagination, our spirit?  In the Bible God makes it clear that we need to choose our diet of information carefully. We must learn to discern what is good for us. We must focus our thoughts on virtuous reality. When it comes to things that move us in the wrong way, we must shut them out of our life and become blind to them. We must open our minds to good things, the kind of things that move us toward virtue, things that make us strong and good. Above all we must focus on Jesus and fix our eyes on him.

Magazines, music, movies, computers and cyberspace—these things can be exciting, and they move us closer and closer to what’s often called virtual reality. But only if we use these technologies to get in touch with what is true and beautiful, the kind of things that shine with God’s wisdom and goodness and that make us more like Jesus—only then will we have virtuous reality. Only then will beauty and virtue flourish in our lives.

In the Bible, the apostle Paul says, “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:9-10). That’s virtuous reality: the love, the knowledge, the depth of insight that flow from a relationship to Jesus. To flourish in that virtuous reality, we can’t just absorb whatever’s out there. We must learn to discern. We must pick and choose what is best and feed our minds with that. Then we’ll make progress toward being pure and blameless and eager for the day Jesus returns.

“Discern what is best”—Paul says that near the beginning of his letter to the Philippians, and near the end of the letter, Paul expands on this theme, saying, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.  Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8-9).

That’s virtuous reality: focusing our minds on goodness and then making it real in our own lives by putting it into practice. This was an important challenge back when God first inspired Paul to say it, and it’s even more important now, with all the print and pictures, all the music and movies, all the sights and sounds and software that come at us from every angle.

Today it’s more urgent than ever to focus on the good and shut out the bad. And it’s more urgent than ever realize that reality goes beyond having a brain filled with information and multimedia experiences. That may be virtual reality, but it’s not virtuous reality. Virtual reality offers good and bad information of every sort; virtuous reality sticks to the good. Virtual reality tempts us to forget what is real and to become absorbed in the sights and sounds of entertainment technology; virtuous reality sticks with what is real. It insists on making virtue a reality, not just a noble desire or an item of information.

Thoughts and desires aren’t reality all by themselves. They are bridges to reality. You need beliefs and desires that connect you with the reality of God, beliefs and desires that move you to make virtue a reality in the way you live as a flesh-and-blood person. God’s message in Philippians 4 is this: First fill your mind and imagination with things that produce great thoughts and desires, and then make those things a living reality in the way you act. Think great thoughts, then put them into practice.

Mainstream Sleaze

As you do this, be alert to what you’re up against. Sleaze isn’t secret and shameful anymore; it’s gone mainstream.

Hugh Hefner started publishing Playboy several decades ago, and a bunch of grimy grubs imitated him and started publishing porn for profit. The porn business was mostly handled by a variety of small-time, low-life sleaze merchants. But now many of the world’s biggest corporations are peddling porn.

We’ve got major media companies big bosses who treat sleaze as just one more business and cash in on humanity’s appetite for evil. We’ve got major motel chains offering violence and vice on video for the viewing pleasure of clients. We’ve got telecommunications and satellite companies who make porn channels just another item on the menu. We’ve got Internet sites that offer cybersex. We’ve got movie makers and TV producers sinking lower and lower, serving up sludge from the bottom of the barrel. Once upon a time, pornography was prohibited. When it became legal, it was at first produced only by low class publishers and filmmakers. But now sleaze has gone mainstream and is pumped out by major corporations. If the people who run these companies aren’t pimps in business suits, what are they? They’re selling other people’s naked bodies, and that’s the basic definition of a pimp.

What does Jesus say about such things? According to Jesus, there’s nothing better than to lead someone to a healthy, wholesome, holy life in Christ, and there’s nothing worse than to lead someone into sin. “Whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me,” says Jesus. “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!” (Matthew 18:5-7).

There’s money to be made selling sin. If one person doesn’t do it, someone else will. Jesus is realistic about that. “Such things must come,” he says, “but woe to the man through whom they come!”  “What shall if profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36 KJV)

I’m angry at those who make money trying to corrupt our minds and lead us into sin. But I also feel sorry for them. They face severe punishment from God if they do not repent. If any of your listening to me are involved in the producing or selling garbage that is toxic to other people’s souls, I pray that even now the words of Jesus will break your heart and change your mind. Stop selling your soul to Satan. Stop corrupting others. Give yourself to Jesus. The Lord Jesus forgave prostitutes and changed them, so who knows? He can even forgive you. He can even change shameless actors and scriptwriters and corporate pimps and video store managers and motel operators and musicians and ticket sellers who have led so many people into sin. But it won’t happen if you just keep churning out filth. You must repent. Ask God to forgive you for Jesus’ sake. Change the way you think and live.

Meanwhile, what about the rest of us? We may not be producers of evil material, but all too often we’re consumers of it. After Jesus tells us that temptations and stumbling blocks “must come,” he immediately goes on to say, “If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell” (Matthew 18:9).

Now, Jesus isn’t advising self-mutilation. He’s telling us to be ruthless with the things that tempt us. Let me do a bit of translating for today. If your TV causes you to sin, unplug it and get rid of it. It is better to enter life without a TV than to have your TV and be thrown into the fire of hell. If your Internet connection causes you to sin, throw away your access to cyberspace.  It’s better to enter life without the Internet than to cruise the information superhighway all the way to hell. If your cable connection or your smartphone fill your mind and imagination with corruption, then for God’s sake, and for your own sake, get rid of them!

It would be best if you could sort things out and make the best of the various sources of information. If you can do that, great! If you can pick out what’s good and avoid what’s bad, wonderful! But if you can’t handle it, get rid of it. If you can’t resist the temptation of internet pornography, get filtering software that you can’t override, or rid of internet connection entirely. If you can’t stay away from bad programs coming through your satellite dish or cable TV, get rid of your TV. Every technology brings with it certain temptations, so if you’re not strong or mature enough to resist the temptations, then get rid of the technology.

Appetite for Excellence

Having said all that, however, we still haven’t done justice to virtuous reality.  If our only aim is to avoid what is bad,  our minds and imaginations will be empty. And that’s not healthy at all. We’ve got to stay away from poison, of course, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t eat anything. The body needs to be fed by a steady diet of wholesome food, and so does the mind. God doesn’t just tell us to avoid bad things. He says, “Think about good things.” “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Where do we find such things to think about? The place to start is the Bible. Where can we find anything more true and noble than words breathed by God himself? Where can we find anything more lovely than the Lord’s love letter to us? Where can we find anything more admirable and excellent and praiseworthy than the Jesus we meet on the Bible’s pages? Where can we encounter virtuous reality better than in the perfect revelation of God’s character and will? Here’s how the poet of Psalm 19 describes the Word of God:

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:7-11).

Since the Bible is so sweet and so precious, it only makes sense to read it daily and think about it constantly, until we can’t go anywhere or do anything without being aware of God and thinking about his Word. Psalm 1 says of the person who lives under God’s blessing, “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night…  Whatever he does prospers.”

Through the Bible, the Spirit of God makes Christ real to us, and he makes Christ’s character shine through us. That’s why God says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16). We need to take God’s Word as our starting point and fix our attention on Jesus.

Once you do that, then the next step is to sort out the bad and benefit from the good that the information age brings to you. Don’t just avoid rotten books. Read good ones. Drink in stories and poems and ideas that stretch the imagination and lift the spirit. Take the same approach to TV and movies. There are bad shows that you need to avoid, but if you can do that without getting rid of your TV entirely, then be alert for good programs, ones that tell a good story and inspire noble ideals.

If you’ve got a computer, steer clear of hazardous waste dumps on the Internet, but also be alert for some wonderful places to meet people and to explore more of God’s amazing and mysterious world. The same goes for music: Tune out bad stations, and get rid of videos and CD’s that any music that’s degrading, but then tune in music that stirs your soul and help you to praise God and to sense the wonder and beauty of life. You owe it to God, you owe it to yourself, you owe it to your family, to use whatever ways God gives you to focus on virtuous reality.

Meanwhile, to those of you who have special gifts, who write novels or poetry, who paint or compose music, who produce films or design interactive computer software, let me say this: Use your gifts. We should never be so busy attacking what’s wrong with art and entertainment and information media that we don’t encourage Christians who are gifted in these areas. God wouldn’t give the creative gifts and the technology if he didn’t want us to use them. So if you’re gifted by God, use your gift to honor him and to give people a sense of virtuous reality.

Virtue In Action

Virtuous reality is about feeding our minds the right kind of thoughts, and that’s not all. It’s also about doing the right kind of deeds, and being the right kind of person, in relation to God and to each other. Being a Christian means entering into a new way of thinking, but it also means entering into a new way of being, through the power of Jesus Christ and through a living connection with the people of God. We can’t just depend on information and technology. We need the living God, and we need the living, breathing example of people who know God.

The apostle Paul understood this. That’s why he said, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” The information age can offer words and images, and if those words and images are true and noble and lovely, they can be helpful. But words and images are never enough. Information can’t replace relationship. You need God. You need Jesus. You need people—people who know God, people in whom you can see Christ at work. As you fill your mind with the right kind of thoughts, as you fill your life with the right kind of people, as you start putting the right kind of things into practice, you’ll find that you yourself are becoming the right kind of person. The reality of Jesus will shine in you, and you’ll be a living example to others of what virtuous reality is all about.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.