In a recent sermon, I addressed the problem of Christians in our time who seem to have rather large gaps in their understanding of Christian morality -- particularly with regard to the question of entertainment. You can listen to that sermon here: When Lot Pitched His Tent Toward Sodom (Genesis 13:1-13)
There is another article on this site on the same subject, which shows what the Fathers had to say about Christians and unwholesome entertainment: A Patristic Checkmate on the Game of Thrones
But in more practical terms, how should an Orthodox Christian in our times discern what entertainment is acceptable, and what should be avoided? Also, how do you deal with raising children in the context of the internet and ubiquitous access to it via various mobile devices?
The Christian life is a life of the pursuit of holiness, "without which no man shall see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14). Obviously, this is a struggle, particularly in the evil days in which we live. We have to keep a constant watch over our minds and hearts to keep them from falling back into sin. And since Christ has given us the principle that we cannot simply refrain from sinful actions, but must also refrain from sinful thoughts (Matthew 5:27-28), any entertainment that feeds the passions and presents us with temptations is not acceptable.
Since we say to God when we pray the Psalms “I have no unlawful thing before mine eyes” (Psalm 100:3), we need to make sure that we actually live accordingly. Consequently, turning on a movie that you know contains graphic scenes that can only feed the passions is completely antithetical to this.
St. Paul admonishes us in Philippians 4:8:
"Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."
And there are so many good and wholesome things for us to occupy our time with, that we could never exhaust them in a thousand lifetimes, and so why should waste any of our time feeding our minds with filth?
As St. John Chrysostom warns us:
"Do you not know that just as when we hand over money to our servants, and we demand accounts from them down to the last obol [a small silver coin, equaling 1/6 of an average man's wages], in the same way God will demand an account from us of the days of our life, as to how we have spent each day? What then shall we say? What shall be our defense, when we are requested to give our accounts of that day? For your sake the sun rose, and the moon brightened the night, and the intricate pattern of the stars shone forth. Winds blew for your sake, and rivers flowed. For your sake seeds sprouted and plants grew, and the course of nature preserved its own order. Day appeared and night followed. And all of this happened for your sake. But do you, when all creation serves you, satisfy the desire of the devil? You have rented such a home from God, I mean this world, but you have not paid the rent. And you were not satisfied with the first day, but on the second day, when you should have paused for a while from the evil that was enveloping you, you returned again this time to the theater. You ran from smoke into fire, descending into another pit that was even worse. Old men shamed their grey hair, and young men threw their youth away. Fathers brought their sons, from the beginning guiding inexperienced youth into the pits of depravity, so it would not have been a mistake to call those men child killers rather than fathers, as they surrendered their children’s souls to evil. What kind of evil, you ask. Because of it I am in agony, because although you are ill you do not know you are ill or call the doctor. You have become filled with adultery, and you ask “What kind of evil?” Have you not listened to Christ when he said: “Anyone who looks at a woman with desire has already committed adultery with her”? “What if I do not look at her with desire?” you ask. How will you be able to convince me? For if anyone cannot control what he watches, but is so enthusiastic about doing so, how will he be able to remain virtuous after he has finished watching? Is your body made of stone? Or iron? You are clothed with flesh, human flesh, which is inflamed by desire as easily as grass (Homily against those who have abandoned the church and deserted it for hippodromes and theaters).
On the other hand, one could take this so far as to assume that we should not have any leisure time or wholesome entertainment, but this would be to go to an opposite extreme, which is also unhealthy. It is not possible for anyone to constantly be at 100% productivity. Human beings cannot sustain that. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, we find this saying regarding St. Anthony the Great:
"A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, 'Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.' So he did. The old man then said, 'Shoot another,' and he did so. Then the old man said, 'Shoot yet again and the hunter replied 'If I bend my bow so much I will break it.' Then the old man said to him, 'It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.' When he heard these words “the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened" (Benedicta Ward, translator, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection(Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975, 1984 revised edition), p. 3f.).
So in sum, whatever we do in our leisure time it should ideally be of positive benefit to our minds and souls, but at a bare minimum it should at least not be harmful. When you have taken the time to watch a movie, for example, there should be something uplifting about it. Virtue and goodness should be affirmed in some way -- and even a good comedy will do that. Hopefully, you should have improved your mind in some way as well. Otherwise you are at best wasting your time; and at worse, actively harming yourself and your family.
Getting Down to Brass Tacks
I don't think having cable or satellite service in the home is a good idea. There are some good programs one can find on them, but you are paying for a package, and so supporting a lot of filth. So I would say, cut the cord. That's, of course, my opinion, and I don't state it as binding on anyone else. However, if you are not going to cancel your cable or satellite service, you should block any of the channels that contain objectionable content, so that if you are channel surfing (which is generally not a good idea), you won't even see what these channels are showing. This is especially important if you have children in the home. You can also use the "V-Chip" to block specific objectionable content... however, this typically does not block commercials which can often be as bad or worse than the actual shows themselves.
It is a very bad habit to leave a TV running for background noise throughout the day. Many people have their TV running all the time. It stifles conversations, and it is a mindless thing that is sure to dramatically reduce the average IQ of your family. The TV should only be on when their is something worth watching. You should also try to limit how much time is spent watching things on TV in general.
When it comes to movies, you should try to find out if the content is wholesome before you even think about watching one. There are Christian movie reviewers that will give you a very good idea of whether or not a movie is going to be worth your time.
There are still some occasional movies that are both clean and well done, but another option is to explore the many decades of films that are out there that were made in the past. For example, I think one of the best movies ever made is the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. Almost every actor in the film is perfect. The cinematography is amazing. The screen play was by Aldous Huxley (not a Christian, but a great writer, and one who certainly came from a much more Christian culture than our own), and it is based on one the best novels ever written in English, and even though the movie is not a Christian film per se, it is rooted in a Christian ethos, and it affirms what is good and noble.
One bad approach is to watch movies you know have objectionable content, and just plan on fast forwarding past the bad parts. You are still watching and supporting bad movies. You are exposing yourself and your family to at least some objectionable content, because you don't know to fast forward a film until you begin to see what you need to fast forward beyond. This all has the effective of desensitizing you and your family to garbage that your should not tolerate.
If you get a bum steer on a movie, and despite your best efforts you find that it either has objectionable content, or it is simple a bad movie with no redeeming qualities, be prepared to turn it off. At the very least, if you are watching it with your family, you can point out what was wrong with it, and so gain some benefit by its negative example.
Read More, Watch Less
One of the advantages to removing broadcast and cable TV from your home is that it will make it a lot more likely that you will read more. That is a good thing even if you don't have children in your home. If you do have children, read good classic books to them, and then when you are done with a book, watch a good movie version of it. This will teach them to love books. They will generally see that the books are better than the movies, but this can help them better appreciate both the movie and the book.
Play Good Music
It doesn't have to all be classical music, but it should all be wholesome. We made a point of playing classical music for our children from the time they were in the crib, and in both cases our children turned out to be very musically inclined. It could be coincidental, but I don't think so. Baroque music in particular is very good background music for reading and study.
Electronic Devices and the Internet
Obviously as your children get older, you are going to have less of an ability to control what they see and do, but you should use that power wisely while you have it. There is no reason why young children need to have smart phones, or have unsupervised access to the Internet. If you home-school your children, this is obviously a lot easier, but if you have your children in a public or private school, buck the trend, and don't give them smart phones, lap tops, or tablets. If they have any cell phone at all, get them a basic phone that only has the ability to make calls and send text messages.
We are told that children need to have all of these things from an early age so they can be tech savvy, but none of these devices are difficult to learn how to use, and if they don't have unlimited access until they are more mature, it will not hurt them. And instead, they might learn how to actually do math, write with a pen, and read books -- all of which are dying arts for most young people these days.
I would also use an internet filter, especially if you have boys. Again, the older they get, the less these things will be effective, and so hopefully they will learn self control as your controls as a parent are gradually reduced.
You are not going to be able to shield your children completely from all the filth that is so prevalent in our culture, but you should make the effort, and show them by your example how they should approach these things when they are the ones that will have to make these decisions for themselves and their own children.
Canon 100 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council states:
“Let thine eyes look aright, and keep thy heart with all diligence” (Prov. 4:25 and 23), wisdom bids us. For the sensation of the body can easily foist their influence upon the soul. We therefore command that henceforth in no way whatever shall any pictures be drawn, painted, or otherwise wrought, whether in frames or otherwise hung up, that appeal to the eye fascinatingly, and corrupt the mind, and excite inflammatory urgings to the enjoyment of shameful pleasures. If anyone should attempt to do this, let him be excommunicated."
The Rudder of St. Nicodemus then has the following comment on this canon:
"Inasmuch as some men were wont to paint or draw on walls and boards lascivious pictures, such as women stark naked or bathing or being kissed by men, and other such shameful scenes, which deceive the eyes of beholders and excite the mind and heart to carnal desires, therefore and on this account the present Canon commands that no such pictures shall by any means whatsoever be painted or drawn or sketched. If anyone should make any such pictures, let him be excommunicated, since all the five senses of the body, and especially the first and royalest one, the eyesight, is easily led to impress the pictures of those things which it sees into the soul. That is why Solomon recommends that our eyes look aright at things that are fine and good and beautiful, and that everyone of us keep his mind and heart away from the shameful objects of the senses" (D. Cummings, trans., The Rudder of the Orthodox Catholic Church: The Compilation of the Holy Canons Saints Nicodemus and Agapius (West Brookfield, MA: The Orthodox Christian Educational Society, 1983), p. 406f).