by Trevin Wax
I grew up in a fundamentalist environment. The church I was baptized in believed it was inappropriate for Christians to go to a movie theater. To this day, my grandparents maintain this standard as a bulwark against worldliness.
The library at my Christian school had a variety of books for children, sanitized for Christian consumption. Encyclopedia Brown made the cut, but all the “goshes” and “gee whizzes” were marked out with a heavy black pen. No second-hand cursing allowed.
Films without anything objectionable were allowed at school, but looking back, I see how this analysis was applied simplistically. I still remember watching an old version of The Secret Garden - a movie with no cursing, thank goodness, but with a pseudo-pantheistic worldview that healing power is pulsating through all living things.
As a teenager, I discovered the work of Chuck Colson, Francis Schaeffer, and C. S. Lewis. These men had a different perspective on art and its merits. I began to see artistic analysis differently. I realized Disney movies weren’t safe just because they were “clean,” and PG-13 movies weren’t bad just because they had language or violence. It was possible to watch a movie with a critical eye for the underlying worldview.
I never subscribed to the fundamentalist vision that saw holiness in terms of cultural retreat or worldliness as anything that smacked of cultural engagement. I don’t subscribe to that position today.
But sometimes I wonder if evangelicals have swung the pendulum too far to the other side, to the point where all sorts of entertainment choices are validated in the name of cultural engagement.
Generally speaking, I enjoy the movie reviews I read in Christianity Today and World magazine. They go beyond counting cuss words or flagging objectionable content and offer substantive analysis of a movie’s overall message. But in recent years, I’ve begun to wonder if we’re more open than we should be to whatever Hollywood puts out.
Take, for example, Christianity Today’s recent review of The Wolf of Wall Street. Alyssa Wilkinson devotes nearly half of her review to the graphic depictions of immorality, yet still gives the film 3.5 stars out of 4. Another review counts 22 sex scenes, but can’t be sure since it’s hard to tell when one ends and another begins.
My question is this: at what point do we consider a film irredeemable, or at least unwatchable? At what point do we say it is wrong to participate in certain forms of entertainment?
I understand there are complexities to this issue. Some Christians disagreed with the praise showered on the recent Les Miserables film. I am among the number who thought Les Mis showcased the glory of redemption. It was a movie in which the sordid elements only served to accentuate the beauty of grace and the dehumanizing nature of sin.
Les Miserables is not unlike the accounts we read in our Bibles. Sexual immorality, rape, and violence are part and parcel of the Scriptural narrative. If a movie version of the book of Genesis were made, it wouldn’t be for minors. It seems silly to cross out cuss words from Encyclopedia Brown when first-graders can discover some pretty adult-themed events in their Adventure Bibles.
So, please don’t hear me advocating for a simplistic denunciation of Hollywood films. I am not. But I am concerned that many evangelicals may be expending more energy in avoiding the appearance of being “holier-than-thou” than we do in avoiding evil itself.
Yes, Paul used a popular poet of his day in order to make a point in his gospel presentation. Cultural engagement is important and necessary. But church history shows us that for every culture-engager there’s also a Gregory of Nyssa type who saw the entertainment mindset as decadent and deserving of judgment.
Is there justification for viewing gratuitous violence or sexual content?
At what point does our cultural engagement become just a sophisticated way of being worldly?
I find it hard to imagine the ancient Israelites admiring the artwork on the Asherah poles they were called to tear down. I find it hard to picture the early church fathers attending the games at the Roman coliseum, praising the artistic merits of the arena even as they provide caveats against violence.
Yet now in the 21st century, we are expected to find redeemable qualities in what would only be described by people throughout church history as “filth.”
What’s the point in decrying the exploitation of women in strip clubs and mourning the enslavement of men to pornography when we unashamedly watch films that exploit and enslave?
I do not claim to have this all figured out. But one thing I know: our pursuit of holiness must be the mark against which our pursuit of cultural engagement is measured.
If, like me, you’re conflicted about this issue, maybe it’s because we should be.