“Can this be tolerated? Can this be accepted? I want to call you to witness against yourselves.” That is how St. John Chrysostom begins his discourse, “Against those who have abandoned the church and deserted it for hippodromes and theatres.”
“Can this be tolerated? Can this be accepted? I shall not stop saying these things constantly, and assuaging my pain that way, not by suppressing it with silence, but by bringing it out into public view and putting it in front of your eyes.”
St. John Chrysostom was appalled in his day at how light-mindedly Christians would run off to the theater or horse races instead of praying to God. This subject—Christians and media entertainment—needs to be revisited again and again, especially now that violent and blatantly pornographic content is being so artfully, even hypnotically presented to the mainstream. The content that people, even Christians, are watching in films and paid television programs is sinking into ever deeper and darker abysses of inhumanity. Yet we turn it on, again and again, like the somnambulistic victims of a python. Squeezed ever tighter in its killing embrace, hour after hour disappears into its maw, never to return.
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, 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 theatre. You ran from smoke into fire, descending into another pit that was even worse.
And as if it weren’t bad enough that we ourselves spend so much time like this, we allow our children to do the same.
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.
TV viewers are becoming so desensitized to pornographic violence, that we might object to what St. Chrysostom says. What is wrong with watching a few questionable scenes if the series is so exquisitely produced; and if you dig through the filth long enough (yet one more season), you’ll find some “morals” to the story?
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 enflamed by desire as easily as grass.
We don’t think that this applies to us. Are we really such beasts that simply watching something makes us want to do it?
Do you dare to say you suffer no human reaction? Is your body made of stone? Or iron? I shall not refrain from saying the same things again. Surely you are not a better philosopher than those great and noble men, who were cast down merely by such a sight? Have you not heard what Solomon says: “If someone walks onto a fire of coals, will he not burn his feet? If someone lights a fire in his lap, will he not burn his clothing? It is just the same for the man who goes to a woman that doesn’t belong to him.” For even if you did not have intimate relations with the prostitute, in your lust you coupled with her, and you committed the sin in your mind. And it was not only at that time, but also when the theatre has closed, and the woman has gone away, her image remains in your soul, along with her words, her figure, her looks, her movement, her rhythm, and her distinctive and meretricious tunes; and having suffered countless wounds you go home. Is it not this that leads to the disruption of households? Is it not this that leads to the destruction of temperance, and the break up of marriages? Is it not this that leads to wars and battles, and odious behavior lacking any reason? For when, saturated with that woman, you return home as her captive, your wife appears more disagreeable, your children more burdensome, and your servants troublesome, and your house superfluous. Your customary concerns seem to annoy you when they relate to managing your necessary business, and everyone who visits is an irritating nuisance.
And this is not to mention the violence, about which others fathers of our Church wrote long ago:
But you will not refuse to admit that the things which are done there are not for you to look upon: the blows, and kicks, and cuffs, and all the recklessness of hand, and everything like that disfiguration of the human countenance, which is nothing less than the disfiguration of God’s own image.—Tertullian, “On the Shows”, chapter 18.
And I am inclined to think that the corrupting influence of the stage is still more contaminating. For the subject of comedies are the dishonoring of virgins, or the loves of harlots; and the more eloquent they are who have composed the accounts of these disgraceful actions, the more do they persuade by the elegance of their sentiments; and harmonious and polished verses more readily remain fixed in the memory of the hearers. In like manner, the stories of the tragedians place before the eyes the parricides and incests of wicked kings, and represent tragic crimes. And what other effect do the immodest gestures of the players produce, but both teach and excite lusts? whose enervated bodies, rendered effeminate after the gait and dress of women, imitate unchaste women by their disgraceful gestures. Why should I speak of the actors of mimes, who hold forth instruction in corrupting influences, who teach adulteries while they feign them, and by pretended actions train to those which are true? What can young men or virgins do, when they see that these things are practised without shame, and willingly beheld by all?—Lactantius (vol. 7, p. 187).
It’s as if the fathers had been reading Psychology Today, or some other modern psychological studies. Brad A. Bushman, Ph.D., Psychology Today, “Why do people deny violent media effects?:
Many people think that violent media have no effect because they’ve never killed anyone after watching a violent TV program or film or after playing a violent video game. It is not surprising that people who consume violent media have not killed anyone because very few people kill anyone… It is very difficult to predict rare events, such as murder, using exposure to violent media or any other risk factor. However, murder is the most noticeable violent event to most people; so when they don’t have “available” in memory many cases of people viewing media violence and then murdering others, they ignore the very low base rate for murder and incorrectly conclude that media violence has no effect. They do this despite the fact that one can predict less extreme and more common violent behaviors from media violence viewing. For example, in one 15-year longitudinal study, heavy viewers of violent TV shows in first and third grade were three times more likely to be convicted of criminal behavior by the time they were in their 20s, and were significantly more likely to abuse their spouses and assault others.
Watching just one hour of television a day can make a person more violent towards others, according to a 25-year study. In some circumstances, TV watching increases the risk of violence by five times. The new research indicates the effect is seen not just in children, as has been suggested before, but in adults as well…
The study confirms for adults what is accepted by many psychologists about children: viewing a lot of violence increases the likelihood that the person will behave that way.
Violence in the media has been increasing and reaching proportions that are dangerous,” said Emanuel Tanay, MD, a retired Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Wayne State University and a forensic psychiatrist for more than 50 years.
“You turn on the television, and violence is there. You go to a movie, and violence is there,” Tanay told Psychiatric Times. “Reality is distorted. If you live in a fictional world, then the fictional world becomes your reality.”
The average American watches nearly 5 hours of video each day, 98% of which is watched on a traditional television set, according to Nielsen Company. Nearly two-thirds of TV programs contain some physical violence. Most self-involving video games contain some violent content, even those for children.
Tanay noted, “Anything that promotes something can be called propaganda.” What we call entertainment is really propaganda for violence.” 
And the propaganda intensifies every year. This statement was made in 2013, before “Game of Thrones” spattered across our devices:
After examining more than 10,000 hours of TV programming between 1994 and 1997, the National Television Violence Study (Mediascope, cited in Beresin, 1999) concluded that young people view about 10,000 “acts of violence” per year. More than half of all TV programs have violent content, and this study happened before we had shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and True Blood.
But certainly Chrysostom knew without reading Psychology Today what a deleterious effect watching passionate trash had on his flock. Only he was a hundred times more troubled about it than even all the psychologists taken together, because these effects meant lost sheep—souls lost to paradise.
The cause of this is that you do not return home alone, but keeping the prostitute with you. She does not go visibly and openly, which would have been easier. For your wife could have quickly driven her away. But she is ensconced in your mind and your consciousness, and she lights within you the Babylonian furnace, or rather something much worse. For it is not tow, naphtha and pitch, but her qualities mentioned above that provide fuel for the fire, and everything is upside down. It is just like people suffering from a fever, who have no reason to rebuke those who attend them, but because of the affliction of their illness are unpleasant to everyone, reject their food, insult their doctors, are bad tempered with their families and furious with those who care for them. Just so those who suffer from this dread disease are restless and vexed, and see that woman at every turn. What a terrible state of affairs! The wolf and the lion and other beasts when they are shot at flee the huntsman. But a man, though the most intelligent, when wounded pursues the woman who has wounded him, so as to receive a much more deadly missile and revel in the wound. What is most sickening of all, is that he makes the disease incurable. For if someone does not hate the injury and does not want to be free of it, why would he summon a doctor? Therefore I lament and am in torment, because after receiving such a brutal outrage you return from the theatre, and for the sake of a small pleasure you undergo continual pain. For even before the punishment of Hell, you demand the ultimate penalty here. Tell me, does it not merit the final punishment, to nurture such a desire, to be constantly enflamed, and to carry everywhere the furnace of unnatural love and the condemnation of your own conscience? How will you climb those sacred steps? How will you touch the heavenly table? How will you hear the sermon about temperance, when you are full of such injuries and wounds, and your intellect is the slave of your passion? Why should I say anything else? From what is now going on amongst us it is possible to see the pain of your intellect… In fact I think many of those who have never sinned are beating themselves, because they suffer pain from their brothers’ wounds. Therefore I lament and grieve, because the devil is tormenting this flock.
The centuries pass, and Christians are again and again drawn to passionate spectacles. And again, Saints Ignatius Brianchaninov, Theophan the Recluse, and John of Kronstadt warned them:
Get to know God before it is too late, acquire boldness with frequent prayers, so that when you will stand before the Terrible Judgment, you might be able to ask the Judge to be merciful to you. Abandon pleasing the devil in various worldly entertainments; be obedient to the Savior, who says, “Woe to those who laugh now! Woe to those who are filled!” Against the commandments of the Son of God, the devil established balls, theaters, [HBO.—O.C.] and other entertainments; the money spent on these is offered to the devil, money that could have been brought to the Lord Jesus Christ in the person of the poor, to Christ Who gives mercy a hundred fold in the future age. Occupy yourself with the reading of divine books within reasonable measure, preserving the taste long and refining it, and increasing your heartfelt thirst for divine truth, which can be learned from these books.—St. Ignatius Brianchaninov (Letters).
Churchliness is as if the expulsion and exorcism of the darkness produced by the breath of a worldly spirit. If you should come into contact with this infection, run to church, and it will depart; or be unwaveringly faithful to the commands of the Church, and the world will not find an opportunity to infect you…
A person is drawn to what he sympathizes with. Whoever sympathizes with the works of salvation will strive for them. Whoever sympathizes with another thing will run to that. That is how it happens that when one rushes to church, others go to the theater, balls, or parties [or turn on HBO.—O.C.]… Well, you yourselves know what can be expected of the latter.
When man was united with God, he had a taste for divine things and things illumined by God’s grace. After the fall he lost this taste, and thirsts for the sensual. The grace of Baptism renounced all this, but sensuality is again ready to fill the heart. We mustn’t allow this; we must guard the heart. The most effective means for cultivating a true taste in the heart is chuchliness, in which the children we raise should be always held… We have to remember that the heart’s taste will also determine the future, eternal dwelling place, and the heart’s taste will be there what we cultivate it to be here. It is obvious that theater, buffoonery, [HBO.—O.C.] and the like are not suitable for Christians.—St. Theophan the Recluse.
Theater [and HBO.—O.C.] puts Christian life to sleep, destroys it, imparting to the life of a Christian the character of pagan life. Theater [and HBO.—O.C.] is the school of this world and the prince of this world—the devil; and he sometimes transforms himself into an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14) in order to more conveniently deceive the short-sighted; he will at times screw in a seemingly moral play so that people would acclaim theater and say that it is a morally educational thing and worth watching no less that going to church, in fact more…—St. John of Kronstadt.
No, the holy fathers of our Church were not fooled and neither should we be. Let’s be like them and call a spade a spade. If you’ve already watched Game of Thrones or any other soul-destroying thing today, just try praying. It won’t be easy at first because those horrifying scenes of incest, rape, and torture may keep popping into your mind, contradicting the gentle words of contrition and love. But don’t give up. Our Heavenly Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Most Pure Mother of God have marvelous things to offer you and can cleanse your soul from those disturbing images.
And let’s have pity on our holy father John Chrysostom, who still pains for us Christians.
For that reason I shall not cease doing and saying everything, even if I have to cause you pain or appear hateful, or tiresome, so that I will be able to stand before that awesome tribunal, without a stain or a blemish or any such thing. May it be with the help of the prayers of the saints that those who have been lost may quickly return, and those who have remained unharmed may advance towards greater propriety and temperance. In this way you may be saved, and we may rejoice, and God may be glorified now and always, and for unending ages upon ages. Amen.”