Is It Really Garbage In Garbage Out?

Growing up, my parents were very conservative in the media they allowed me to be exposed to; a move that I completely resented. Looking back, sometimes this was wise and today I really appreciate it, like when I was not allowed to see movies and TV shows with some violence that I wouldn’t have been able to handle. Other times it was a little silly, like when I was forbidden from watching Pee Wee’s playhouse after Paul Reubens was arrested for… well you know what he was arrested for (did my parents think he was going to do that on the show?!?).

When I was a kid and teenager, an often repeated aphorism in my church youth group was “garbage in, garbage out”, this was meant to be the proverbial knock out punch when someone said they were going to watch a new movie or listen to the newest  hip hop/rock album. That’s not to say that God himself wasn’t invoked in support of this argument, in fact sometimes entire Bible studies were devoted to this subject.

In my college advertising class we learned that in the early years of modern advertising, people thought of advertising as a silver bullet. When people read, listened to, or view an advertisement, they had no choice in the matter, they were hit by the silver bullet and would go buy the product or service being advertised. To today’s ears, that sounds a little silly. In fact when I learned that in my class back in college, I thought, “Now only Christians believe that”.

Today, I’m a guy who loves movies and music. Moreover, I’m often struck by the gospel message in the media I consume, as well as the art and beauty of which God is the sole inventor. It seems that God has placed the idea of “story” in the hearts of human beings, and more specifically, the story of redemption: Gotham is saved from itself, the dark side is defeated, and Jack dies saving his friends with a wound made by a spear in his side.

Not all media tells that story. Last year I saw “Eat, Pray, Love”, because my wife wanted to, and because I was obviously vying for husband of the year or something. EPL is a perversion of God’s design for love, marriage, and life. Sometimes this happens in movies and TV, but when it does it’s usually ugly and revolting, the viewer isn’t suppose to like it, but in EPL the “protagonist” is guilty of these perversions with no repentence, and no redemption. The message is clear: “Unhappy with your marriage? You’re spouse isn’t all he/she could be? Leave him/her. It may be hard at time, but in the end, looking out for yourself first will make you happy.”

With all of that said, I was able to watch EPL without leaving my wife, and without her leaving me (crazy I know). That’s because media is not a silver bullet. To use the youth group terminology, we saw a lot of garbage, but the key was, we were able to identify it as garbage, and so it didn’t go in, and thus couldn’t come out.

Please don’t hear me saying that we can consume whatever we want with no unintended consequences. There is another category of media that is toxic and should never be permissible. Pornography, and hyper-violence are harmful just by being seen with our eyes and/or  heard with our ears, and is nothing but destructive. The gospel can’t be seen here, and so we can categorically abstain from these experiences. But outside of those and other toxic areas, we must be discerning and wise for each piece of media.

The reality is that it’s  just easier to teach and practice prohibition rather than discernment and wisdom. We like hard lines drawn in the sand or better yet cinder block walls erected to tell us how to live rather than listening to the still small voice. The Apostle Paul himself read pagan literature and made it known when he said “as some of your own poets have said ‘we are his offspring'”, even in Paul’s time God was making himself known and speaking through media.

I’m excited to hear your thoughts of this. This post could have been several pages long, but it’s not meant to be exhaustive. What do you have to add or take away? 

 Be Sure To Subscribe To the Email List  & Never Miss a Post or Podcast

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

47 thoughts on “Is It Really Garbage In Garbage Out?

  1. As a parent it’s easier and quite simple to say no, because I said so. It’s time consuming, challenging and seemingly more risky in the short term to engage and give some room. It seems more protective to prohibit, but then we’ve passed on what we think instead of teaching how to think. And we miss out on God in the good, pleasing, beautiful and redemptive that is mixed in with the messiness of this life.

    • Well said! On a related note, one thing I didn’t get into was age appropriateness. I do think it’s important to shield young eyes to things they’re incapable of processing. -Shane

  2. Good word. I’ve been thinking a lot lately (mainly because of my environment of a small baptist University) that parents have done so much harm with their good intentions. Of course we want our children to have good and righteous thoughts, but what will they appreciate of those things without know that there are things that are not good or righteous? It takes the messiness of life to appreciate the good things. We should be mindful in what we let into our minds, yes, and age appropriateness is crucial, but it’s so much more beneficial to teach to think and to ask why, rather than to just simply know how.

    • “It takes the messiness of life to appreciate the good things.” I like that.
      We have to be better about teaching our kids and our congregations how to think instead of what to think. At the same time I don’t want to be too hard on “those” Christian parents, the reason we think the way we do and are able to see some problems is because they taught us to think. I have every reason to believe my kids will one day realize the ways I messed them up. No parents are perfect, but mine were pretty damn close. -Shane

  3. They do deserve an incredible amount of credit. And you’re right, we’ll more than likely mess up from time to time (though, I doubt you and Kate could EVER go wrong). Isn’t that part of the messiness though? In teaching people to think for themselves, we should also teach them how to talk about how they think, right?

    I think yes.

  4. Just an off-the-hip response:

    Self-control is time consuming. Most would rather have a legion of overseers shift through the content of subject so they wouldn’t have to come into contact with it themselves. That’s terribly lazy. I personally hate drunkenness as much as I hate prohibition.
    Self-control also causes conversations after experimentation, which, for me, is the only reason to attempt or try anything. But does that mean anything? I don’t know, but I think the point is to reflect upon something before hearing how terrible it is from someone else. It’s like voting. Most people don’t believe in a party, they just vote against another one. Most want the world to be broken down into dichotomies, but it’s never, ever that simple.

    In his personal letters, Cormac McCarthy leans on the truism of “garbage in, garbage out,” but in Blood Meridian, he writes about a tree decorated with dead infants. The perspective is always odd, and in this case, unsettling. Being safe from ideas isn’t exactly the same as being to ideas.

    Also, I want the terms of “garbage” to be defined. And in what form does it leave? Does “The Simpsons” produce hatred for the family unit, or just “nasty” language? Both psychosis and serial killers have long existed before media saturation, which is neither here nor there, but a point I always think of when I hear of the dangers and possible outcomes of out hyper-violent societies what they produce: riots in the UK, movie theatre and school shootings, Katy Perry’s music. Much like those dedicated to dichotomies, most see and end result and hope for an easy-to-point-to catalyst.

    As for the Batman and “Eat, Pray, Love” comparison: I think that is why one will be remembered and one will be forgotten supermarket literature. Most people, even entertainment obsessed drones, are drawn to Batman’s fundamental underlying truths, as opposed to the vapid, self-centered thesis of “Eat, Pray, Love.”

  5. I think some people will always gravitate to the easiest course: categorical prohibition. However on the whole, Christianity would be far better served by continually asking “What is wise?” rather than drawing ever more constricting lines of demarcation on each individual expression, behavior, and practice. An honest pursuit of wisdom will generally draw the center of gravity away from the legalistic distinctions of the simple minded into the profoundly transformed minds of lifelong disciples of Jesus. These are people who strive to live in the heart of the gospel, and are aware of the nuance and wisdom required of them in the world.

    • Yes! The more I read the Bible the more I realize that Gods desire is to be known and not for us to just follow some moral principles.

  6. thanks a lot Shane. I haven’t seen lost, but was gonna watch it, but now I know the ending. thanks (sarcasm). I can’t even finish your dumb article for fear you might ruin something else.

    • Who said anything about Lost? I was talking about Jack… and bean stock. Don’t you remember the classic children’s story in which the hero dies from a spear wound in his side?

  7. ps I dont’ really think your article is dumb. But I can’t continue so after I watch the series of lost, and all other tv and movies which I haven’t seen yet, then I’ll finish it and tell you what I think.

    • ….Also you’ve had 2 years to watch the end of lost. I’m not taking responsibility for this one.

  8. We once had a student who spoke to a teacher (not me) objecting to the immorality of some scene in a novel by saying, “I just don’t want those images in my head.” The comment seemed to assume that sin had some the properties of a moral virus and that a person by reading the wrong book or watching the wrong movie could be morally infected. The Christian moderates I know would simply shrug at this and say, “If it is, so what? We’ve got our Christian faith as a virus protection for situations like that. Bring some culture into your life! God’s truth and His Spirit are stronger than falsehood.” The Christian conservatives I know would reply, “Haven’t you ever underestimated the insidiousness of evil or been desensitized by something like the violence in popular culture? You can’t be too careful. It’s better just to close the book than risk infection.” Both groups hit on truths, I guess, though my sympathies are with the first group. –Glenn Hopp

    • When Christians talk about being exposed to something they often mean being aware of the existence of something. Not being aware is not what God calls his people to. Also, we seem to be ok with over saturating our psyche with greed, selfishness and pride.

      • Right. Many of the people who complain as the student did end up complaining about something sexual because for some reason to them that has gotten to seem more wrong, more taboo than greed, selfishness, and pride.

    • Wow. I just mention her name, and there she is. What if I had said Lincoln took that picture of my shoes.

  9. Shane, this post gets back at the heart of the question that we talked about almost 2 years ago over gelato. That is, if Christianity isn’t what I always thought it was, (if my parents weren’t 100% on everything, if my morality can’t be defined by cute Christian catch phrases, etc.), then what IS it?

    Garbage in, garbage out is an easier thing to abide by for a 10 year old who can’t help but be influenced by Bart Simpson’s bad attitude towards his parents. I don’t blame my parents for saying that to me, because, like you said, that is an easy way to manage behavior before discernment really is an option. The problem is that somewhere along the way, it got tangled up with what it means to be a Christian. The teaching method became a guidestick for your level of commitment. Can you be a Christian and watch the Simpsons? Sure. But my 13-year old self would have disagreed. I thought that garbage in meant Jesus was out… of my heart.

    So, we decided at some point along the line that our thoughts were wrong and that we could listen to secular music (including Two Princes) without jeopardizing our salvation. Which is wonderful… Except that it leaves us with the fundamental question: HOW do we live like Christians if we can’t gauge our Christianness by our daily media intake?

    I still have no idea.

    • After I read this I pictured you dropping an A-bomb on my blog. In a good way!

      I hope that others interact with your comment too.

      I don’t have any easy answers but here are my thoughts.
      I didn’t get into it in the original post but you nailed precisely why this conversation is SO important. Here it is: So many of us have come from a context that said our sole expression of our love for God was in NOT doing certain things. It was a strange form of earning Gods love/favor/approval. It was also a perverted substitution of what the Bible says is the job of the follower of Jesus (caring for orphans, widows, the poor, etc.).

      So to get back to your last question: “HOW do we live like Christians if we can’t gauge our Christianness by our daily media intake?” When Jesus spilled his blood he broke the gauge and said “from now on, through me, your ‘Christianness’ isn’t dependent on you, it’s on me and my grace and it’s always at %100”

      We should be obedient, but that is not the gauge, it is simply a bi-product of our love.

      Anything to add to that?


    • I have been realizing lately that gauging our “Christianness” by our daily media intake, the amount of cursing and drinking we do, how often we go to church, etc. is 100% a human thing. Because our brains work this way, like Shane said, to cut things out of our lives to appear more pleasing to God. (Besides, I’m sure there are plenty of non-smoking, non-drinking, non-TV or movie-watching Christians who are rotten inside and aren’t right with God, but to us humans we would think differently judging them from the outside). I believe wanting to live a “moral” life is undeniably part but not the whole, as they say, it’s a Relationship and not a Religion. So I think you’re right, as humans we often resort to gauging Christianness by daily media intake. But what does God think about our Christianness? If we are covered in the blood of His Son, we are saved by grace and not saved by abstaining from movies and TV and secular music, etc.(Not that we should willfully sin because of Grace, like Paul talks about in Romans). Basically I think it comes down to, what does it mean for me to be a Christian? To love the Lord my God with everything I have, and to love others the same. To love Jesus more than my life and my desires. That’s what we should gauge our Christianness on, and if movies and media get in the way of that, then I think they are a problem. Lastly there’s a pretty good book I want to recommend called “With” by Skye Jethani. I think he goes a little far sometimes in his writing and writes in absolutes but it’s a really interesting look at how we view God: either that we live For Him-(by works), From Him-(only wanting to receive His blessings), Under Him-(just living by morals and laws, under His wrath) or Over Him-(taking His Word and trying to use it like a guidebook to get what you want and be successful). When all along, He wants us to live With Him. And when you truly love HIM for Who He is and not anything else, you can not worry about dumb TV shows and “approach the throne of grace with confidence.”

  10. I think the western church and culture often thinks about sin as some entity, something that is quantifiable that lurks somewhere beyond us, a foreign invader that permeates the membranes of our mind and being and then sets up shop, and I think the viral analogy appropriately illustrates this thought pattern. But Luther, tracing sin through Augustine, identified sin as a state of being. The act of sin comes from the state of sin. James puts it this way- “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires (or lust). Then desire, when it is conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
    Perhaps the issue is not what is outside of us that is being allowed in, but what is inside of us that is being let out?

    Jesus always went to the heart of the matter, and James, the brother of Jesus, is consistent here.

  11. I agree with your assessment. In our judgments of what is healthy vs. unhealthy media consumption, we need to factor in more considerations than a simple “one-size-fits-all” moral diagnosis. Censoring ourselves or others from artistic works based on whether or not they contain any sort of immoral content may not be the most effective approach for spiritual development. As one who has shielded myself from quite a bit of mainstream media for most of my developmental years, I can attest that simply avoiding exposure to everything that contains a not-Christian value does not necessarily lead to greater wisdom or a more complete imitation of Christ (at least not without also introducing other kinds of frustrations resulting from having to censor so much of the modern world from one’s life). I think it’s of infinite importance that we all learn to think critically and engage ourselves rigorously in a process of discernment about what will influence our hearts and minds.

    Individual differences need to be taken into consideration, and probably the most important ones are psychological and emotional maturity. For instance, it may not be wisdom for someone struggling really super intensely with the sin of lust to watch anything sexually stimulating at all. Person A might need to abstain from things that Person B sitting in the pew next to them doesn’t in order to maintain their spiritual health, because Person A does not have the internal psychological resistance to be able to separate that particular thought or image from their natural human desire to lust. It doesn’t make one brother holier than the other. It’s just that each of them has their own personal psychological predicament. And perhaps the person with the greater sensitivity will live with that predicament indefinitely, like a recovering alcoholic who decides to never have a drop to drink again. It doesn’t mean that they are “weaker” than the other person. It’s just their particular predicament, so it dictates their path in a particular way.

    So, as we are each processing all the mental stimulus the world has to offer us, and we are all at different stages of psychological, emotional, and spiritual development, I think that the best thing for all of us to emphasize is sensitivity to each individual’s particular needs. If I want to live my life at a certain moral standard, then what may be okay for another person to consume may not be okay for me. Perhaps it’s a modern-day version of Paul dealing with members of the church wanting to know if it’s okay to eat food sacrificed to idols. His answer was essentially, “Hey, just because this is permissible doesn’t mean it is necessarily beneficial.” What is important for Christians is that we imitate Christ. And I think that He would make serving one’s neighbor in love (or serving one’s own spiritual health in love) a higher priority than doing whatever one’s impulses desire at that moment. So for parents of young kids, that might mean turning off the TV after 9pm out of sensitivity to their children’s development. For myself, that might mean skipping a certain song on my Alicia Keys CD because it takes my mind to places I don’t think it should go. Having this sensitivity is better than a universal checklist, which won’t engage my heart or my mind in a constant dialogue with the divine. While the adage “Garbage in, garbage out” is logically true in the concrete world (what one puts into the receptacle is the same as what one will probably find when one returns to it an hour later), we live in a world of psychological and spiritual nuances that makes living more abstract than concrete – like a dance – something relative, active and wild, which requires our hearts’ full attention and gaze.

  12. So, I also wanted to make this remark but it didn’t really make sense to put it in my last comment so I am making a separate comment for it. In regards to Eat, Pray, Love (here is where I am going to oppose / disagree with you a little). You diagnose it as moral garbage. Even though you didn’t feel that it affected you, it did offend you, as it seemed to glorify irresponsibility in love relationships. However, I had an entirely different experience with EPL (probably due to the fact that I read the book before watching the movie, and the movie version really does put a lot of glitter on Gilbert’s actions and wraps the whole story’s events up as “happily ever after.” The book doesn’t really do this, but Hollywood necessitates it). I wouldn’t have condemned it at all because I didn’t perceive it as glorifying self-indulgence. It was a person’s story – one woman’s account of actual events in her life, which entailed unexpected turns of events, shameful feelings of failure, and a desperate desire for peace of mind . She was not a Christian and therefore it would be unfair to hold her accountable for not having a Christian standard in romantic relationships. But her honesty in bearing her soul and sharing the emotional confusion she was going through on her life’s journey (which led to her search for spiritual meaning in food, ashrams and toothless palm readers), in my mind, presents a fairly admirable example of what it means to adamantly pursue truth and right living. She understood that something wasn’t quite right, went on a mission to set it right, and regardless of whether or not she found redemption overall, she found clues to its source through the insights shared by the people she met along the way. I found a lot of very helpful spiritual insights in EPL and consider it to have had a positive impact on my worldview and my own journey towards redemption. However, if one were to simply imitate her actions rather than her intentions in the actions, one might find themselves in a lot of trouble: they would just end up repeating her mistakes. So the story, while it had a tremendously positive impact on me, might not necessarily be a very positive source of spiritual enrichment for someone like my 13 year-old niece, who just entered high school, is full of raging hormones and is about to be surrounded by a bunch of peer pressure to do things she is definitely not emotionally ready to handle (like have sexual relationships). She might not have the emotional capacity to understand the difference between Gilbert’s intentions and actions, so I would say that it would be better to guard her from exposure to that kind of media.

    (Additionally, if we were to diagnose EPL as garbage simply because of Gilbert’s actions in the story, we would have to judge the entire Old Testament of the Bible as garbage as well. Pretty stinky garbage. The history of Israel is reprehensible, abounding with genocide, polygamy, theft, murder, deceit, the offering of human sacrifices, and the like. Christians don’t view the Bible as moral trash, because we take for granted that these actions were not intended to be examples of how to live. However, many non-Christians are deeply offended by the stories in the Bible because they have simply never been introduced to the idea that the Bible isn’t just a list of rules or examples for living, or that the events therein aren’t necessarily a reflection of the character of God. To go into a deeper understanding of the overall meaning of the placement of the historical narratives in the Bible requires that we spend time thinking through and wrestling with the text and its implications. For those who dare to begin that process, it probably will never end unless they either quit or die).

    • I don’t disagree with the whole of what you’re saying. I haven’t read the book but I categorize it as a separate work, so i have no reason to believe that it has the same problems as the movie.
      For the me the difference between EPL and the detestable things in the Old Testament is that those things in the OT are called out as detestable. But for EPL (the movie), my impression was that the viewer was suppose to believe that the protagonists actions were good and “right for her”.
      To put it another way; if a character in a movie, song, or any other piece of art commits adultery, but it tears their life apart and the results are devastating, I don’t say “this work of art aknowledges the existence of adulatory, therefor it’s not suitable for followers of Christ”, I say “the message of this artwork is that adulatory is destructive and harmful” and that is a good message to hear. It’s truth.


      • I agree. You have to look not at the subject something deals with but at the attitude it takes toward that subject.

        One time in class we were discussing a short story concerned with adultery (Chekhov’s “Lady with the Pet Dog”), and I was trying to make the point that the story wasn’t immoral because of its subject matter. A student asked me “what would make it immoral, then,” which was a really interesting question. We talked about that for a few minutes and decided that to make it “immoral” (as many people would mean) you would have to take out all the passages that express the complexity of the main character’s motives and frustrations with his life and his emotional emptiness and replace all that with some kind of impersonal sex scenes. After we had revised Chekhov’s great story into something fit for Cinemax, a student named Sarah Blackburn made a great observation: “I don’t think a short story can really be moral or immoral. It can only be well written or badly written.”

        • So, a story or art or design is value neutral? Or, there is no philosophical objective referent for good and evil, only what is imposed upon it by the reader, or the observer of the art or the listener of the music?

          On the other hand, the open theists Daniel Day Williams said in a book I read some years ago – “there is a fine line between the demonic and the divine.”

          Christian wisdom can tell the difference. The world cannot.

      • Cool. Well I won’t say any more in defense of Eat Pray Love, but, I am curious, was Kate’s reaction the same as yours? Did you win the Husband of the Year Award or were your efforts in vain? If you did win, are you displaying that trophy proudly somewhere in your home?

        •  @AmandaMacLean Kate’s reaction was pretty much the same. In fact she wanted me to let everyone know that she did not enjoy it. 
          As for the award, some other husband must have done a better job. All I got was material for a blog post.

  13. This is interesting, Shane. I really love the topic. As a kid was super “sheltered’ for awhile too. My Dad wouldn’t let us watch Clarissa Explains it All because she was a “brat” to her parents, and because the neighbor boy always came through her bedroom window with his ladder. Ha! And I don’t mind that kind of prohibition parenting; in fact if I had kids now I would never even let them watch the Disney channel.And I love what you say about seeing the gospel and seeing the story of redemption in secular media. LOST of course is a beautiful example of this, and every time I watch Mad Men I just feel so sad for all of these miserable people and I love to analyze it that way.As for the Garbage In/Garbage Out, I agree. If you don’t let it come in, it won’t come out. But I have noticed recently that the closer I get to God, I just cannot stand the garbage anymore. I used to watch a lot more Hollywood comedies that I just can’t stomach anymore because I just can’t find any of those qualities in them. Like ELP, I don’t want to watch things that seemingly glorify that kind of selfish behavior, and I become kind of a stickler on that. As you said, discernment and wisdom comes through…and a lot of it is about perspective. Speaking of media, have you seen Machine Gun Preacher?

    • Rhonnie,
      All good points. Since we haven’t talked in forever I’m really glad to see your fervency for God. Also, I didn’t know you had a blog, but now it’s on my google reader and I’m excited about reading it.

    •  @HeartsOverflow I originally responded to your comment immediately after you posted it, but I’ve had problems with the comments so it didn’t show up.
      Rhonnie,All good points. Since we haven’t talked in forever I’m really glad to see your fervency for God. Also, I didn’t know you had a blog, but now it’s on my google reader and I’m excited about reading it.
      Oh and no I haven’t seen Machine Gun Preacher, but I just googled it. Is it great?

      •  @beardonabike  @HeartsOverflow Thanks for checking out my blog. 😛 It’s good to talk to you after so long and I’m excited about what you’re up to. Machine Gun Preacher just came to mind because it’s definitely worth seeing since it’s a great story, but it’s super violent and intense. It’s just a cool story to see coming out of Hollywood.

  14. I love this piece. I was sharing some thoughts with my husband not very long ago (at least I was trying to articulate my thoughts) about how ironic it is when man writes or makes movies that are essentially stories that have already been written or told in God’s word, and yet they are seemingly unaware.  Maybe the names have been changed or the story takes place in another place / time, but the themes remain the same.  I find it really quite extraordinary how they can’t seem to see the forest for the trees.
    Thank you for your contribution. I really enjoy reading your work.

  15. ELACEE  Thanks for reading. What you’re saying is exactly right. Isn’t it interesting how God writes these stories of redemption and people can’t seem get away from those stories.

  16. Isn’t it to do with age?  I don’t allow my young children to
    choose their own food diet because they haven’t yet learned discernment.
     By prohibiting certain foods AND EXPLAINING WHY then my children will
    learn to be discriminating.  As they grow older I allow them more choice
    but they now have some basis on which to base their decision making.  As they become independent they can
    then choose a balanced diet – that might include some junk – but they’re
    discerning enough to recognise it as junk.
    It’s like so many people who say “I’m not going to teach my
    children anything about faith, I’ll let them make their own mind up when they
    are older”.  But what they are teaching their children is that faith
    isn’t important and they have no benchmark on which to discern what is true or
    false, good or bad.
    Garbage in, garbage out is a guiding principle rather than an
    empirical formula.  Just like reaping & sowing, there are other
    factors – the soil, the climate, airborne seeds, and even ‘enemy farmers’! etc – that all affect the crop.
     However, there is a direct correspondence between input & output.
     You never sow wheat and only get carrots.

Comments are closed.