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Views & Reviews

No. 23 Copyright (c) 1994 Biblical Horizons September, 1994

Should Christians Go to Movies?

by John M. Frame

Some Christians may wonder how a fellow believer can give any support to the _lm industry, notorious as it is for anti-Christian bias and moral relativism. I would note that there is also a view on the opposite extreme: some Christian critics of culture insist that all Christians have a responsibility to become culturally aware, to become knowledgeable about cultural trends in art, music, literature, _lm, drama and so on.

I reject both of these extremes. A more balanced position, I think, is to recognize that Scripture tells us to be "in" the world, but not "of" the world. That means that we not only may, but should, be willing to live amid secular (=anti-Christian) in_uence without ourselves compromising the faith. In this respect, it doesn’t matter whether that secular in_uence comes from _lm, or from involvement in business, labor, neighborhood, politics, or whatever. Nor, within the general realm of media entertainment, does it matter whether we are talking about Beethoven or modern rock, Jane Austen or William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway or Jackie Collins, news or business magazines, TV or _lm, Disney _lms or _lms by Martin Scorsese. To avoid non-Christian in_uence altogether, we would have to live as hermits (assuming that we could even _nd some place in the world beyond the reach of modern communications and government). In all modern experience there is a heavy component of anti-Biblical teaching and in_uence. But complete isolation is not a live option for biblical Christians. Even the Christian hermits of the ancient and medieval periods justi_ed their existence as a life of prayer, and thus a life which was, after all, in and for the world. How can we pray for a world we know nothing about? We must not seek to isolate ourselves from the world, but rather to be "salt" and "light" in our fallen culture, to carry out our Lord’s Great Commission.

That balance, of being "in" but not "of" the world, is sometimes di_cult to maintain. One’s choices in this area should be based in part upon his or her own moral and spiritual maturity. Some peo-ple, especially children, or those young in the faith, or those with special problems like alcohol addiction or unusual susceptibility to sexual temptation, should limit their exposure to secular culture in appropriate ways. But at the same time they should be trained in Christian maturity, so that eventually they can enter more fully the secular arena, not fearing that they will be compromised by the culture, but expecting to in_uence the culture positively for Christ.

I do not believe, with the Christian "culturalists," that every Christian, or even every mature Christian, has an obligation to attend art exhibits, concerts, _lms, etc. Christians should seek to in_uence the world for Christ in some way: that is the Great Com-mission. But the precise way in which they reach out to the world may di_er greatly from one believer to another. My brother-in-law is pastor of a church in the inner city of Philadelphia. He does not normally go to _lms, dramas, or art exhibits. But he is de_nitely "in" the world, the real world, and he ministers to it with all the strength God provides him. A knowledge of entertainment media would be of little use to him in his ministry, and I would be the last person to urge him to become "culturally aware."

Yet there are others (such as myself, I believe) who are called of God to devote some of their energy to Christian culture-criticism. Many pastors, as well as youth workers, scholars, teachers, writers, parents and others are in this category. For them it is not wrong, I believe, within sensible limits, to expose themselves to modern _lm or other media. The apostle Paul said that he was not ignorant of Satan’s devices (2 Cor. 2:11). For that purpose, if for no other, we may be called to learn what _lmmakers have to say to us.

Some arguments used by Christians opposed to moderate attendance at _lms are as follows:

(1) "Graphic acts of violence debase those who watch them, making the viewers more prone to violence." On this proposition there is mixed statistical evidence. Some people, especially children, do seem to resort more quickly to violence, or imitation-violent play, as the result of viewing simulated vio-lence on TV or _lm. I do advocate that parents limit and monitor the use of these media by their children. But I _nd it hard to believe that everyone should for this reason drastically curtail their _lm attendance. I have never myself (even in childhood, as best I can recall) felt the least bit inclined toward violence as the result of watching it on _lm. For the most part, viewing such violence increases my resolve toward _nding non-violent solutions to problems. I think that many other people are similar to me in this respect.

Further, if we maintain a proper critical distance from the _lms we watch (a distance which is necessary for many other reasons), we can see that _lm violence is essentially choreography. No one really gets hurt. And for the most part in _lms, even today, unjustly violent people are not rewarded or glori_ed.

It is important to maintain perspective: lack of perspective is one of the most prevalent defects in Christian thought today, in my view. And the larger perspective is that violence is all around us, unavoidable. To avoid it entirely is to depart from the world. Indeed, Scripture itself contains descriptions of terrifying, even gory violence; just read the Book of Judges. Since Scripture includes such descriptions, we must assume that there are good reasons for it – reasons conducive to edi_cation (2 Tim. 3:16, 17). It is not hard to imagine what those reasons might be. The violence of the wicked shows us what the Fall has done to us; and the violence of divine judgment summons us to repentance. On this basis we cannot deny that some exposure to depictions of violence can be edifying.

(2) "Sexual scenes in movies excite impure lusts." Again, I think this is true of some viewers, but not others. If sex scenes in _lms have that e_ect on you, then don’t go to _lms until God gives you a greater mastery over temptation. But I don’t think this is a problem for every Christian.

But some might go further and insist that, even for those who are not tempted toward sin by screen sex, it is wrong to view actors in the process of doing things which are sinful in themselves. (The same point has been made with regard to the use of unwholesome or blasphemous language in movie scripts.) I grant that some love scenes in the movies cross over that line of being "sinful in themselves." True, screen sex is usually, for the actors and actresses involved, not very "sexy." The _lming of such scenes is done bit by bit, with all sorts of technical intrusions, and usually without actual genital contact. Still, if I were married to an actress who chose to engage publicly in deep kissing and simulated intercourse with a third party, I would consider myself to have been violated. In my view that is a scriptural view of the matter.

So some movie sex is certainly sinful in itself. And one cannot, certainly, justify watching sin for its own sake. I would not go to a _lm for the purpose of watching an actor and actress in a nude sex scene (thus I avoid "XXX" _icks), any more than I would take a walk in the park to spy on kids making love behind the bushes. On the other hand, I would not stay away from the park out of fear that I might happen to observe some illicit sex. Similarly, if _lm actors wish to commit sin before the camera, that is their responsibility. I don’t believe I commit sin when I, in the normal course of my cultural pursuits, observe what they, without consulting me, have chosen to do in public.

(3) "Modern _lms promote, very e_ectively, a non-Christian philosophy of life." This is true, and it is the most profound of all arguments against Christian attendance at _lms. Sex, foul language, and violence are incidental elements in _lm, but the non-Christian world-and life-view is often at its core. That world-view does more damage in society than any cinematic portrayals of sex, violence, and ungodly speech. Indeed, that world-view is what makes the sex, violence, and language in movies unwholesome, in contrast with biblical depictions of such things.

But again, perspective is in order. Non-Christian philosophy has dominated the arts and general culture for the last three centuries. To avoid exposure to non-Christian world-views and values, we would have to avoid exposure to Mozart and Beethoven, Emerson and Thoreau, Hume and Kant, Paine and Je_erson, D. W. Gri_th and Charlie Chaplin, and so on, not to mention Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Euri-pides, Cicero, and other ancients. We tend to discount older exponents of non-Christian values, view-ing them with the halo that comes with long cultural acceptance. For that reason, these older thinkers are often more dangerous than those which are more contemporary and more obviously anti-Christian. Indeed, for similar reasons, we must beware of G-rated _lms as much as of R- and X-rated _lms. Yes, let us limit our exposure to all of these in_uences; but not to the extent of leaving the world, or to the extent of becoming ignorant of Satan’s devices.

(4) "We should not give our money to an industry that encourages immorality and unbelief." Scripture does not require believers to support only industries and institutions that are morally and religiously pure. Jesus taught his disciples to pay taxes to Caesar, taxes which supported the emperor cult, among other things. Paul taught the Corinthians to buy food in the market place without asking whether or not it had been o_ered to idols. Scripture is realistic enough to know that if we had to inquire about the religion or morals of every merchant before doing business with him, we could not buy at all.

I do not think it is wrong for Christians to boycott industries which they believe are doing social and/or religious harm in the world. They are certainly free to withhold their economic support from those industries. On the other hand, I do not believe that Scripture requires us to boycott such organizations. We really could not do that in every case without completely isolating ourselves from the world.

I conclude, therefore, that a moderate amount of movie-going is legitimate for most Christians. I don’t think we should be ashamed of that or even ashamed of enjoying it. Moderation, of course, requires careful thought about priorities. Even activities that are good in themselves can become wrong if they crowd out of our lives things which are more important. Each of us needs to do some self-examination in this area. Choices about exposure to entertainment and culture are not religiously neutral. But those who are conscientious about pleasing God and keeping his commandments need not feel guilty about moderate movie attendance.


Film and Culture

by John M. Frame

Harvie Conn has described _lm as a "cultural mirror," a valuable re_ection of contemporary attitudes, philosophies, values, lifestyles. Others, such as Michael Medved, have placed more emphasis on the idea of _lm as a former of culture.

As I see it, both emphases are true. The relation between _lm and culture is a chicken-and-egg relationship. Film is of course a product of culture, for the makers of _lms are people of their own time. On the other hand, within their own culture, _lmmakers are often atypical. They tend to be more liberal politically, less inclined to practice religion, more open to radical social attitudes and movements, than the general population. Thus their _lms tend more often than not to support radicalism and to subvert traditional, especially Christian, values. When those _lmmakers answer criticisms of the content of their _lms by saying "we are only re_ecting the broader culture," they are either being naive or dishonest. In the broader culture, there is far more interest in religion, far more family integrity, far more clean language and honest work than one would ever guess from _lms.

In any case, it is important when we go to the movies to take with us some understanding of what is happening in the general culture: both what is considered "traditional" and what is considered "avant-garde."

One cannot adequately summarize the current cultural situation in a brief essay, but I will o_er a summary here simply to show the reader where I am coming from in my reviews. As I see it, western culture has moved in the last three hundred years from a time of Christian dominance to a time of anti-Christian secular dominance. Even today, however, there is in western culture quite a bit of "borrowed Christian capital," and, every now and then, Christian teaching is heard with respect.

It is possible to overestimate the role of secular liberalism in contemporary society. From the portrayals of the 1960s in popular media, especially _lm, one would get the impression that everybody in the United States was "dropping out," taking drugs, protesting the war, supporting radical leftist causes. Perhaps that is what most _lmmakers and their friends were doing. But most Americans were fed up with all the protests, drugs, and pompous young moralizers. They elected Richard Nixon president in 1968, and they overwhelmingly re-elected him in 1972, against George McGovern, who was the voice of the radical left. Arguably, the populace continued to move rightward through the 1970s, resulting in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. During the last thirty years, the only Democrats elected president were men who persuaded the electorate of their moderation. Overt liberals, McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis were soundly defeated.

Liberal ideas, therefore, are not nearly as pervasive within the general culture as they are in the press, educational, and entertainment media. Still, they do leave their mark in important ways, largely because these media – together with the in_uence of government – have so much power.

Today the focus of the liberal movement can be summarized by the term equality. That movement especially emphasizes, in a quasi-Marxist way, equality between men and women, between races, cultures, religions, between rich and poor.

Christianity also endorses equality of all persons before divine and human law. God is no respecter of persons, and human law must not give preference to people based on wealth, gender, or race. But the liberal consensus endorses unbiblical forms of equality: identical roles for men and women, abolishment of any "gaps" between rich and poor, elimination of any moral sanction against homosexuality. Ultimately, liberal equality amounts to moral relativism. But it is a moral relativism that becomes very dogmatic, very non-relativist, in asserting its own egalitarianism. Anyone who disagrees, who is not "politically correct," must be smeared and ostracized from polite society.

The God of the Bible treats people equally in some respects, but, in other ways, he is the great di-vider. He separates the righteous from the wicked in his terrible judgments. He sets the non-relative moral boundaries for creatures by revealing forth his law. He has no interest in abolishing economic di_erences between people in this world. He establishes institutions of family, state, and church, and gives di_erent people di_erent roles within these institutions: husband/wife/child, magistrate/citizen, elder/member.

The biblical God is able to make choices among people because he is a person. One distinctive of personhood is rational choice. The problem with secular liberalism is that it has abandoned belief in the personal God of the Bible. In the secular view, the most ultimate features of the universe are impersonal, not personal. But an impersonal force cannot make choices. It must act on all other realities equally. An electrical current will shock anyone or anything that comes up against it. But a person can choose how he will respond to other persons and objects in its environment.

Rejection of the personal God of scripture inevitably brings universalism: either all are saved or all are lost. And it brings egalitarianism.

The moral relativist side of secular liberalism stems from the fact that, as Dostoyevsky noted, if God doesn’t exist, anything is permitted. But such universal permissiveness is a recipe for chaos, one which even secularists cannot easily accept. Thus they seek to replace God with another supposed absolute. (Scripture calls this process "idolatry.") That absolute is, in most cases, their own autonomous moral judgment. Hence the "dogmatic" side of secularism. But when that dogmatism fails, when the secularists’ own judgment proves untrustworthy, then they revert to relativism: "Oh, well; nobody really knows." Relativism and dogmatism: these are the Scylla and Charybdis of secular liberalism. Strictly these are inconsistent with one another. But they supplement and need one another. The secularist bounces back and forth from one to the other as on a pendulum.

Cornelius Van Til calls relativism and dogmatism by the terms "irrationalism" and "rationalism" respectively, thereby relating these themes to the traditional concerns of philosophical epistemology, theory of knowledge. Os Guinness in The Dust of Death describes them as "pessimism" and "optimism," thus relating these motifs to practical attitudes. It is important, especially in the context of _lm, that we do not see these themes only as elements of a theoretical world-view or ethical system, but that we see them as attitudes which a_ect all areas of human life. For if someone has adopted a relativist ethic, that person will likely be in despair, "pessimism," when it comes to making choices in any area of life. He has rejected God, the source of all meaning. What ground can he possibly have for optimism? On the other hand, he can become a dogmatic secularist instead of a relativist, even though these are two sides of the same coin. Then he may well be optimistic; but it will be a false hope.

In _lms, then, we must reckon with the presence both of moral relativism and of secular dogmatism. But we may also _nd in _lms traces, sometimes more than traces, of Christian ideas which, in spite of the present resistance both of the general culture and of the _lm industry, have managed to assert themselves. One will _nd large elements of Christian teaching and values in older stories set to modern _lms: Shakespeare plays, medieval legends, etc. And one will also _nd _lms of recent conception where Christian values are prominent. "Chariots of Fire," "Tender Mercies," and "A Trip to Bountiful" are recent _lms which, if not distinctively Christian in every way, nevertheless present distinctively Christian ideas in a favorable light. Sometimes, one _nds Christian themes and symbolism in _lms, even _lms which are not in themselves supportive of Christian values. Christians should be ready to be surprised when they attend _lms, and not only negatively.

Sometimes it is easy to explain these authentically Christian elements of _lms, by the Christian convictions of a writer, director, or other member(s) of the _lmmaking team. Other times it is not easy to explain. Sometimes it just seems as though the non-Christian _lmmakers were unable to overcome the dramatic, intellectual, and moral force of the Christian revelation, and so, for once, they let it have its way.

In my reviews, as I try to bring out the "messages" of the _lmmakers, I will be focusing on the themes of equality, relativism, and dogmatic idolatry. And I shall also bring out those elements in which I think God’s word has overcome cultural resistance to speak its cinematic piece.