Discernment vs. Discretion

Along with about 45 faculty and staff members at the college where I work, I teach a required one-credit course for first-year students. In the process of exploring the uniquely Reformed mission and vision of the school, we have a class on discernment in the arts.

One viewpoint threatens to derail a cultural discernment discussion every time. I’m not quite sure what to name it, but it comes in the form of lots of tsk-ing and head shaking about how Hollywood is out to get us with its representations of sex, violence, and foul language.  Each class seems pre-scripted: “We can say we don’t listen to the words of the music, but they do affect us in subtle ways” or “The more we expose ourselves to violence in films, the more we get desensitized.”

There is, of course, some truth in what they say: our environments can affect us deeply, long before a recognizable cognitive or behavioral affect reveals itself.

My concern, however, is that such a fear-based approach leads to perpetual spiritual and intellectual immaturity and, ultimately, isn’t really discernment at all.

We’re right to consider how a film, a concert, or other form of art will affect us in both obvious and subtle ways. Every piece of art contains assumptions about the big questions of life—who we are, why we’re here, where we’re going.

But I don’t think the personal affect of a film or concert is a good starting point for the Christian community when we’re talking about discernment, because such an approach is not discernment, it’s discretion.

For example, I use discretion if I resist watching the torture scene in Syriana. Similar scenes have made me physically ill, burning impressions into my mind that haunt me. I would also use discretion to stay away from Syriana if I had an obsessive crush on George Clooney (OK, that’s very hypothetical).

Discretion is a good and necessary thing, but it doesn’t fit the classical definition of spiritual discernment. Our calling is to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1), not hide from them. In order to do so we need to grow up—that is, to recognize our personal limitations but also learn how to witness sinfulness without changing our minds about what’s good and pleasing to God. Just as we would read a Scripture passage about incest or obsessive greediness without engaging in it ourselves, we need to be able to witness truthful portrayals of sin in art and name them as such without being converted ourselves.

In loving the world as God loves it, we should seek to see ourselves without fear as we really are, sins and all, including within the art we create. Being able to see ourselves as we are is the beginning of identifying and naming both truths and lies about who we are, why we’re here, and where we’re going.

Consider the film Juno, which shows, even in a quirky and funny way, the intense emotional and physical consequences of casual sex. Or The Last King of Scotland, which is one of the most violent films I’ve seen but appropriately breaks my heart about the devastation of human pride.

There’s a difference between lying about sin and telling the truth about sin. And because people who make movies, like us, are both made in God’s image and corrupted by sin, every film is a tightly wound mess of truths and lies. We are discerning when we seek the Holy Spirit’s help and each other’s in sorting out the messages, not when we rely on a ratings system.

Like any serious, potentially dangerous adventure, we undertake discernment with preparation, prayer, and people. We cultivate the skill of discernment by reading, studying, and then practicing what we’ve learned. We pray for the Spirit’s illumination of truth. And we experience and discuss the world around us with others who can offer insights into what we may have missed and serve as anchors when we drift.

FOR DISCUSSION
  1. Do you tend more toward a discernment or a discretion model when approaching popular culture? 
  2. What are the consequences of not understanding the differences between discretion and discernment?
  3.  Describe a movie you’ve seen recently that displays behavior you’d considersinful. Do you think the movie was telling the truth about brokenness? 

(Resources: Through a Glass Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet and Eyes Wide Open by William Romanowski)

About the Author

Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma works in the Student Activities Office at Calvin College, where she shares the research and coordinator position with her husband, Rob. For further reading, she recommends Through a Glass Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet and Eyes Wide Open by William Romanowski.
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