Binge Culture

By Joe Boyd

I got sucked in. I’m at a busy season of my life. I have two kids in high school, a growing business, and a church plant I’m helping to launch. I will watch a little TV at night to unwind, but I’ve successfully avoided “binge watching” something on Netflix for a few months. I know how I am. Once I get locked in, I have to finish.

I don’t remember who was the first of my friends to tell me, but a few months ago someone said, “You have to watch Stranger Things on Netflix.” They described it as what might have happened if Stephen King had written The Goonies. I was a little intrigued, but I don’t particularly like horror movies. Over the weeks more and more friends told me about it.

11_boyd2_jn“It’s like Wonder Years meets The X-Files.”

“It’s not that scary, just suspenseful.”

“The kid actors are unbelievable—it’s perfectly cast.”

“It’s my favorite show since Lost.”

Lost may be my favorite show of all time. (The West Wing and Parks and Recreation are up there too.) This show, Stranger Things, had captured the imagination of so many of my friends that I knew I had to watch . . . I just didn’t have time.

Then it happened. On an uneventful Saturday night, my wife and I were looking for something to watch on TV. I told her about how everyone was talking about Stranger Things. We watched the pilot. And the second episode. Then the third. . . . Within a week we’d finished the first season. It was that great. When a story captures your imagination, you can’t quite function until you know you’ve consumed all of it.

“Hi. My name is Joe. And I’m a binge watcher.”

Do you remember when the word binge had a largely negative connotation? Dictionary.com defines binge: “a period or bout, usually brief, of excessive indulgence, as in eating, drinking alcoholic beverages, etc.; spree.” These days I hear the phrase “binge watching” much more often than “binge drinking” or “binge eating.” So, is binge watching harmful?

Story Starved

Well, anything that exceeds moderation can be harmful, but what if we are binge watching because we actually are story-starved? What if the activity is less gluttonous and more necessary for our well-being?

In her article “Why We’re Wired to Binge-Watch TV” (Psychology Today, March 11, 2014), Dr. Jordan Gaines Lewis says:

Netflix sent cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken into the homes of TV streamers to find out more. McCracken discovered that 76 percent reported bingeing as a welcome refuge from their busy lives, and nearly 8 in 10 agreed that binge-watching a TV show was more enjoyable than watching single episodes. Despite our hectic, digitally-driven lifestyles and 140-character social interactions, McCracken concluded that we’re actually craving the long narratives that today’s best television series can provide. Instead of dealing with our life’s stresses by zoning out, we’d rather become engrossed in an entirely different (and fictional) world.

This is fascinating. It’s also great news for the church, since we happen to have the most engaging and true “long narrative” in the history of mankind. The story of God, Israel, Jesus, and the church is more dynamic and riveting than any TV show. People are hungry for stories like this—not to “zone out” but to “zone in.” If this is true, we don’t binge watch so much to escape our current world but to visit an alternative one where we can make sense of this life.

Alternative Story

This only confirms what I’ve seen to be true over 20 years of ministry and business. Story is king. People need to be invited into an alternative story. Jesus called this story the kingdom of God. It’s available to all who will set aside their current story and binge on the love and grace his new reality offers.

I pray and work toward a day when the church replaces Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and the TV networks as the most dynamic storytellers in our culture. As any movie producer will tell you, it all begins with a great script. And we have the greatest one.

Joe Boyd is founder and president of Rebel Pilgrim Productions, Cincinnati, Ohio. 

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