I began my post-secondary education by concentrating on the study of both English and history at McMaster University. After only a few months, I found myself increasingly frustrated with the English courses. It seemed my studies were based primarily on what, in theology, we would refer to as eisogesis. The professor would lead us in the study of an assigned story or a poem and would encourage us to read into it whatever we meaning we felt existed within. It seemed the more wild our speculations, the more satisfied the instructor would become. I eventually walked away from these courses, frustrated that instead of finding what the author had really intended to say, we pushed our agendas on their works, making these books or poems say what we wanted them to say. It was an exercise in folly.
It seems to me many Christians do this very thing with the arts, and with movies in particular. There are countless articles in Christian publications dealing with movies, exhorting Christians to engage in popular culture by watching film. Denis Haack, in an article in By Faith Magazine (May/June 2005), asks whether movies “truly help us engage our world with the gospel, or is that simply a thin excuse by Christians who want to justify watching movies?” Answering his own question, he concludes “We don’t have the luxury of ignoring the common grace expressed in film, unless we are content to be deaf to the postmodern generation.” In other words, we need to watch movies if we wish to be faithful ambassadors of Christ in this world. To ignore popular entertainment would be to ignore a God-given means of engaging unbelievers in spiritual conversation.
Haack goes on to say that, while God extends His saving grace to the elect, He also showers creation liberally with common grace that allows creativity to flourish even among those who deny God’s existence. He feels we need to seek out this common grace so we can then praise God for it. “We won’t be grateful for God’s common grace if we don’t have eyes to see it…Reformed Christians dare not be dismissive of culture, nor dare we be dismissive of God’s common grace simply because the film in which it appears is part of the cinema of Babylon.”
But what of movies that glorify sin or that portray what Christians are commanded to flee? Haack tacitly suggests that a Christian can watch anything, provided it does not fall into an area, specific to the individual, that would cause him to sin. “Certainly we must be discerning. We must discern accurately our areas of weakness so we can avoid films with scenes that will tempt us to sin.” Much of this argument seems to depend on motives. Haack says he does not watch movies in order to deliberately expose himself to scenes of depravity, but that he watches movies because he loves them. Because his motives are pure, so too is his participation. Christian maturity, it seems, is necessary to watch and enjoy films.
Through the article the author provides examples from movies that portray incest, orgies, paganism, as well as any amount of sex, swearing and blasphemy. Noticeably absent from the article is any clear biblical support for watching such movies, though he does make a couple of appeals to Calvin. “In his Institutes, John Calvin warns us not to be disdainful of truth ‘wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.’ That is a sobering idea. Just as all truth is God’s truth, so all expressions of grace and glory must be embraced as good gifts of God, even if they appear in packages that are flawed.” Yet it is folly to suppose that Calvin would be an advocate of Christians deliberately placing themselves before the graphic display of sinful acts. Haack appeals to Calvin’s understanding of common grace, but ignores Calvin’s emphasis on avoiding sin.
I often wonder if, much like my experiences in university-level English courses, the redemptive themes in movies are not merely what we read into them in order to justify watching. Do we really watch movies in order to seek out themes of common grace, or do we watch primarily for our own entertainment, or even to feed a human lust that God, in His wisdom, has forbidden us?
I read another article, published at an online periodical, that speaks specifically of The Shawshank Redemption, a movie written by Stephen King that has become something of a modern favorite for many believers and unbelievers alike. The author provides a warning for any readers who may have a “sensitive disposition.” He provides three reasons Christians should embrace this movie, despite swearing, blasphemy, brutal violence and scenes of homosexual rape (though these scenes are non-graphic).
“God is the creator and he is the author of creativity and the arts even before any efforts of the enemy to hijack proceedings.” This seems to indicate that the artist has within him the ability to create art that is good and pleasing to God, but that the enemy interferes with it and makes it something less than pure. Our job as Christians, then, is to examine this art and draw out the redemptive themes that have been placed in it, perhaps inadvertently.
“God’s omnipotence is such that he is able to use whomever he chooses to speak into the lives of whomever he decides - we are speaking of a God who raised up Cyrus to lead the Israelites back to Jerusalem and a donkey, no less, to speak to Balaam, not to mention Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor of the church to reach and revolutionize the Gentile world.” Poor reasoning, really. Though God has, in the past, used any number of means to reveal Himself, this does not mean that He will now use movies. I see no biblical support for the understanding that God desires to speak to the believer through film.
“Sometimes our rush to divide the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘secular’ mean we miss God’s attempts to address us through the world of the arts…there is gold to be mined by those with an ear to hear what the Spirit is saying to His church.” It strikes me as near blasphemy to suggest that the Spirit is attempting to communicate to His church through film, and to support this idea by quoting the words of God intended to draw us to Scripture. God communicates to His church through the Bible, and to ignore the Bible is to ignore the Spirit. We do not ignore the spirit by staying away from the theatre.
These articles are just two of the multitudes of examples. I think of the books of John Eldredge which are replete with references to movies and which use movies as the foundation for much of the teaching. I think of Bible study series based around The Matrix, Superman Returns and other popular films. Many authors, attempting to engage a postmodern generation, depend on film to provide a link to the culture.
I am increasingly concerned by the way I see Christians embracing film. While films become filled with more and more of the world’s utter depravity, Christians are turning to them for entertainment, escapism or even for spiritual reasons, in ever-greater numbers. As we have seen, there are many ways of justifying this behavior, but I think if we are honest, we have to admit that we watch movies primarily for their entertainment value. Movies are fun. They are a wonderfully effective distraction from the drudgery of daily life. They can transport us to different worlds and make us feel joy and pain that we have no reason or ability to feel in our everyday lives. Haack says “The Royal Tennenbaums allowed me to feel a bit of the brokenness and alienation the books [dealing with divorce] described but couldn’t emote. [They] have been a window of insight into a world I do not inhabit.” But mostly movies are fun.
God calls us to a high standard. God’s instruction to His people, through the Bible, is that they avoid the very appearance of evil; every form of evil. We are to embrace a higher standard of purity and godliness. According to 1 Thessalonians 5 we are to use discernment, the divinely given ability to think biblically about all areas of life, to “test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” We are a people set apart, a people who avoid worldliness while seeking to be in the world but not of the world. I see nothing in the Bible to convince me that I can and even should watch the world’s movies in order to engage the culture. In fact, I find the opposite. How can I be an effective witness if I begin a conversation with an unbeliever by proudly proclaiming that I have just watched a movie that is filled with the very acts my faith tells me I must avoid? Will unbelievers not immediately note the inconsistency between what I do and what I claim to believe? How can I have a pure heart, as God demands, when my eyes and are heart are constantly bombarded with scenes of depravity? Why would I deliberately subject myself to these influences?
A clear theme throughout the Scriptures is that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” This is as true of evil influences as it is of good. In the Old Testament, God considered something defiled when it had only the smallest suggestion of evil mixed with the good. Yet today we have turned this principle on its head, suggesting that the smallest glimmer of good, when mixed with abhorrent evil, brings redemption. We seek to redeem what we should not be redeemed. We seek to redeem what cannot be redeemed.
I am not opposed to all movies, but I do believe we need to prayerfully consider if we have allowed ourselves to justify and celebrate what God forbids. There are many movies I enjoy tremendously and with a clear conscience. I acknowledge film can be a powerful, effective medium of communication. But I believe it is of utmost importance that we use discernment when choosing the movies we watch. This is not a discernment that pushes the limits of what we can or cannot see, but a discernment that carefully examines each film in the light of Scripture and asks whether a Christian should watch it. The primary task and calling of the Christian is to glorify and enjoy God in all things. When assessing a film, we should not ask if we can watch it without falling into sin, but whether watching this film will equip or hinder our calling as we seek to bring glory to our God.