Music is my medium. When it comes right down to it, for me, a three-minute song can convey more than a two-hour movie can. I don’t know why I feel this way, maybe it’s just the way God made me. Music hits me on a deeper level. Whether it’s the melancholy lyrics to Pearl Jam’s Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town, or the dirty blues riffs in Bob Dylan’s Til I Fell in Love With You, music just impacts me in a way that even my favourite movie, Walk the Line, can’t match.
That said, I also enjoy movies, even though I don’t write about them as often as I do music. Nowadays, I’m much pickier about which movies I will watch. It used to be that I would watch whatever my friends wanted to watch. But after sitting through so many of their awful choices (Lake Placid 2? Aeon Flux? Seriously, are you guys trying on purpose to melt my brain?), I started to get picky. So far it’s working: I haven’t seen a terrible movie in a long time. (I’m still open to movie suggestions from friends, though. I don’t want to become narrow-minded.)
But I digress. Today I have two things to mention about movies. The first could be called a moral dilemma. Basically, here’s my predicament: for the last few months I’ve been trying to come up with a way for myself, or even for Christians in general, to determine which movies are okay to watch and which should be avoided. A sort of system or mental checklist maybe; at the very least, some reasoned and thoughtful way of determining which movies we should view and which we should skip.
Like many others, I grew up being taught that if a movie had too much “bad stuff” (an impossibly vague term) in it, then I shouldn’t watch it. The bad stuff was automatically divided into a hierarchy with three categories, and everyone knew what they were without really discussing it: sex/nudity, violence, and swearing. It was usually assumed that sex/nudity was the worst and should be strictly avoided, or at least more so than the other two. Next was violence, and then swearing last. If a movie just had lots of swearing, it was easier to convince my parents to let me see it, whereas if it contained a sex scene then I had little chance of being allowed to see it. You probably know what I’m talking about.
Of course, this system which we were taught as children is just that: childish. Counting up the number of expletives or the number of times somebody gets shot seems more like a modern-day Pharisee’s pastime than it does a thoughtful Christian’s approach to the cinema. I admit that sometimes it’s still hard to argue with someone who defends this view, but I can’t shake the feeling that this whole system just misses the point. I think the worst problem plaguing this way of thinking is that the whole process is inherently arbitrary. Who decides where to draw the line? At 20 f-words? Why not 40? Or 10? At partial nudity? Or maybe when someone gets shot in the head, but in the chest is okay? This whole system just doesn’t do it for me anymore. And why assume that certain content is somehow “more sinful” than other stuff? Sin is sin. The way I see it, you can go watch a G-rated kids movie and still be sinning, if you’re using the movie to escape (for example) the fact that you haven’t spent any time with God in prayer lately. Scanning the Bible isn’t the solve-all solution either, because if we are honest with ourselves we must admit that the Bible says nothing about watching movies. Of course it does say a lot that is relevant to watching movies. But that’s just it: to find out what is relevant and what is not, we must do our homework and not just lazily throw out an out-of-context Bible verse here and there.
We could, then, abandon this childish approach for the other extreme: we could just watch whatever. This attitude is often accompanied by the belief that what we view has virtually no impact on us. But we all know that’s false. For example, haven’t you ever caught yourself imitating the mannerisms of a friend who you hang out with a lot? Of course what we view affects us! We are impressionable; it’s baked right into our nature as human beings. What we view with our eyes has real spiritual consequences. And there are spiritual forces in this world that want us to believe otherwise. In my case, for example, sex scenes and nudity in movies have been very scarring for me in the past and so I avoid them because they have caused me a lot of sin and hurt my relationships with God and others. I know that it’s better to stay away from viewing that stuff in the long run, even though I still get tempted by the thought that I am immune to or somehow above being influenced by movies.
My point is this: neither of these two extreme options really appeals to me. I don’t know if the answer lies somewhere in the middle, or if I need an entirely new way of thinking about movies altogether. I think there are some movies that have a lot of “bad stuff” (there’s that term again!) in them that are still worthwhile to see. The world is a gritty, painful place, and watching only nice whitewashed movies only makes us fake and perpetuates our naivete. I also believe there are movies that offer nothing of value and we can know that they are write-offs without evening going to see them. I also think Christians should critically engage movies; it’s part of being in conversation with our culture, and also part of loving God will all our mind. And we can enjoy them, too; let’s not forget they’re fun entertainment. They can teach us things and they’ve started countless interesting conversations afterwards. Through a movie we can encounter an idea or a point of view that we would never have otherwise encountered. They are a powerful method of communication and a window into the human heart. Christians should, I believe, neither unthinkingly view all movies, nor unthinkingly fear all movies. Neither path honours Christ. Fear or false piety should not be our motivation, and neither should we just tolerate anything in the name of “art” or “cinema” or “expression” or “maturity”. In short, we should think carefully about films. Shouldn’t Christians, after all, want to strive for righteousness and avoid foolishness?
This is why I’m looking for some moral imperative or some operating rule to go by; just something to justify my decisions. I’m tired of arbitrarily deciding on a case-by-case basis which movies to see. To be honest, what I’d really like is some sort of neat and tidy Kantian moral principle to guide me, although that is probably asking too much. So I ask you this: How does one avoid being arbitrary when deciding which movies are okay to watch and which aren’t? Is there a screening process you go through? Is it more of a private thing, something I need to be careful about and let others figure out their own limits, or should it be the same for us all? How do you go about making these decisions in real life? Is there certain movie content which you know is particularly harmful to you and so you make an extra effort to avoid it? Or is there any advice you’ve been given that has helped you with this? Is this even an issue for you? Am I making too big of a deal out of this? Or is this an important ethical issue that Christians need to quit ignoring?
The second thing I will mention about movies is this: you may have noticed that I follow a blog by someone named Brett McCracken. He is a Christian writer who has an M.A. in film studies from UCLA, and he reviews films for Christianity Today and Relevant magazines. I think he is a very articulate and intelligent writer, not at all like typical Christian movie reviewers. He’s especially good at analyzing the themes which a movie contains. Some of the films he reviews I won’t get the chance to see (because they’re smaller, limited release pictures) or I don’t really want to see (for whatever reason), but his reviews have helped me gain a new appreciation for movies. So if you’re looking for some good movie reviews (like this one, of Inglourious Basterds), you can check out his blog.