Andres: Netflixing the story
Friends of mine who are software developers told me about online video provider Netflix’s data collection, which not only tracks everything its users watch but also every time they fast-forward, rewind, pause or abandon a movie or show altogether. Netflix uses this information to personalize recommendations as well as make decisions about what programming to feature or create.
In “How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood,” Alexis Madrigal explores how Netflix “microtags” every movie and show (from the plot, director and actors to the main characters’ jobs), incorporating that data into a system she compares to Facebook’s Newsfeed, “but instead of serving you up pieces of web content that the algorithm thinks you’ll like, Netflix is serving you up filmed entertainment.”
I find all that pretty impressive — and handy — but others are a bit more wary.
If we use Netflix, our account tells us more about ourselves than we might realize. In “The Netflix Effect,” Neta Alexander says a Netflix account provides a surprisingly intimate glimpse into the viewer’s soul, revealing desires and interests: “Share your Netflix’s password with me, and I’ll tell you who are, who you share your life with and who you wish to become.”
If a viewer’s soul is laid bare to Netflix, that leads to the potential that it might know more about us than we do, says Andrew Leonard in “How Netflix is Turning Viewers into Puppets.” It is trying “to craft techniques that push us toward where they want us to go, rather than where we would go by ourselves if left to our own devices.”
All this got me thinking not only about my own Netflix habits but also how I approach the biblical story.
Whether by a concordance, an index or Google, everything in Scripture is microtagged, making it easy for us to filter through and create a figurative “watch list” of verses, sections and stories. Like our Netflix account, awareness of our tendencies to gravitate to certain selections — or fast forward, skip or avoid others — presents an opportunity to examine what those tendencies reveal about us, our desires and our walk with God.
We need to be aware of what self-selection can do in terms of our understanding of Scripture.
Each part of Scripture is meant to be taken in context of the whole, so if we are self-selecting, that isn’t good.
“God chose to speak to us over time through many writers,” says Scott McKnight in The Blue Parakeet. “God needed a variety of expressions to give us a fuller picture of the Story.”
None of those expressions and stories, says McKnight, are final, comprehensive, absolute or exhaustive. They are held together and are informed by the larger Story.
We need the whole Story, the parts that unsettle us as well as those that comfort.
Easily finding verses and stories that speak to us in a specific situation or season of our life is a good thing. But we need to be aware of dangers in self-selecting, which can push us down a path that diminishes our understanding of the Story or even results in gravitating toward a gospel of our own inclinations or one created by others — all of which undermines our relationship with God, each other and the world around us.
Carmen Andres, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren magazine Christian Leader, lives in Alexandria, Va.
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