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Pictures Aren't Words

Yesterday the Resurgence blog posted an article by Greg Wright, a writer and film critic. The article was titled “Movies, Morality, and Ratings: A Hard Look at Our Opinion of Films.” He begins like this:

Consider this graphic Hollywood plotline: A man travels to Las Vegas to retrieve his cheating wife. On the way back to Los Angeles, the two stop at a rundown motel in Death Valley. During the night, a mob of sexual degenerates surrounds their cabin, threatening to sodomize the man. Hoping to appease the bloodlust, the man throws his wife outside—and when morning comes, the mob has left nothing of her but a corpse. The man cuts up her body and sends pieces of it to his friends… But that’s nothing compared to the bloodbath that follows.

No, this isn’t the synopsis for Saw IV or the latest Quentin Tarantino gore-fest. It’s an update of a not-so-familiar biblical story from Judges 20-21. But imagine if that story were made into a film. How the critics would rant, Christian and otherwise. If told without flinching, the story would earn an NC-17 rating for sure; and there’s probably no way to tell it in a fashion that would cut the rating to PG-13. Of what possible redemptive value could such a story be?

He goes on to say that we should have realistic expectations for films, knowing that they can, at best reveal only a portion of what is true. Context is everything. “No movie—no single tale in Scripture, even—can possibly tell the whole story of God’s redemptive plan.” The purpose of the article is to encourage Christians to watch movies and to do the difficult work of discernment in separating the good from the bad. “That’s no reason to shirk the task, though. We might take encouragement from the words of John F. Kennedy, who observed that we do these ‘other things’ not ‘because they are easy, but because they are hard.’”

Throughout the brief article Wright compares what is visual to what is written, the image to the word. And here is where I part ways with so many Christian film critics. I admit in advance that this article rambles a bit and that I may not even know what I’m saying. But bear with me. It seems to me that we cannot neatly separate the medium from the message. Many film critics would seem to have us believe that we can have a story in words or a story in images and it really makes little difference. We can, in other words, have the message in roughly the same way in either medium. But I disagree.

Like me, I’m sure you’ve heard people defend the violence and swearing and other ungodly behavior in film by saying, “The Bible has all of these elements!” And this is true. The Bible has many stories of violence and sexuality and just about every other manner of sin. But there is a difference.

It is all well and good to suggest that a movie based on Judges 20-21 would receive the ominous NC-17 rating. It likely would and for good reason. Yet when we read it in the Bible it would not. Why? Because words convey the story far differently than images. With words we read only what we need to know and receive little detail. We know the broad outline of the story, but the details are blessedly hidden from us. This would not be the case if the story were told in images. As film, the details would be in full view. We would see rape and bloodlust and dismemberment. We would see the parts of the story that were kept from us. If we have a high view of the Bible we have to accept that God gave us only and exactly what He wants us to know. He did not give us exhaustive truth, but did give us sufficient truth. There is a reason that God did not give us more detail about many of the Bible’s harsher scenes. There is a reason that the passages dealing with harsh sin are typically quite discreet in how they describe those sinful acts and deeds.

I suppose what I’m getting at is this: there is good reason that God gave us a book and not a movie. When we read the Book we can examine every sentence and every word. Theologians have the difficult task of picking apart the individual words, peering deep into the language looking for the most precise, most likely meaning of every jot and tittle. The written or spoken word lends itself well to this. It is fixed and constant and is well suited to examination, comparison and evaluation. Film is different. It is far different, in fact. It simply cannot contain truth in the same way that words can. It does not lend itself to evaluation in the same way. It is not as precise and, upon deep examination, muddles the truth as much as it clarifies it.

I’ve never heard a satisfactory response to this line of reasoning (and I am far from the first to suggest it). Film is a good and useful form of media, but I just don’t see that we can or should compare it to the written or spoken word. They are different. Each has strengths and weaknesses. But it seems to me that God has given the word a certain power, a certain strength, and we should not attempt to suggest that pictures can be equal. I guess this puts me in the same camp as a guy like Neil Postman believing that film and television are good at what they do best—entertainment. But they just aren’t the realm of really serious, really important ideas. We need words for that.

Wright concludes his article by saying “Discernment is obviously required, as is spiritual maturity. And when it comes to our children, parental guidance is always a necessity, whether it’s the bad theology of The Sound of Music, or the violent reality of The Passion. And guiding our children through the book of Judges—or the moral minefield that is the real world—is likely to be just as tough.” But no, it won’t be as tough. When it comes to the book of Judges we know that God gave us the story, gave us the story in a specific, perfect way and gave us the story for a very good reason. This is not true when it comes to The Passion or Evan Almighty or any other film. Yes, it will be difficult to work through Judges 20-21 with my children. But I can have confidence that God desires that I do so and that His Spirit will guide through the process. I have no such confidence when I take my children to the movies to watch Shrek III. Nor should I.