I began my postsecondary education by concentrating on the study of English and history at McMaster University. After only a few months, I found myself increasingly frustrated with the English courses. It seemed to me that the courses were based primarily on what, in theology, we would refer to eisogesis. We would study an assigned story or a poem and read into it whatever we meaning we felt existed within. It seemed that the more wild our speculations, the more satisfied the instructor became. I eventually walked away from the courses, frustrated that instead of finding what the author was really saying, we pushed our agendas on their works, making these books or poems say what we wanted them to say.
It seems to me that many Christians do this very thing with the arts, and with movies in particular. I cannot count the number of articles I have read in the past weeks 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.” He concludes that “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 want to be faithful ambasaddors of Christ in this world. To ignore popular entertainment would be to ignore a God-given means to engage 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 which allows creativity to flourish even among those who deny God’s existence. He feels that 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, nore 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 we can watch anything, provided it does not fall into an area, specific to the individual, that would cause us 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 seems to depend on motives. He says that he does not watch movies in order to see scenes of depravity, but that he watches movies because he loves them. Christian maturity, he says, is necessary for watching movies.
Through the article the author provides examples from movies that portray incest, orgies, paganism, as well as any amount of sex, swearing and blasphemy. Surprisingly absent from the article is any clear biblical support for watching such movies. He makes a couple of appeals to Calvin, but the article depends primarily on his interpretation of common grace.
But I often wonder if 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 for God, in His wisdom, has forbidden us?
I read another article, which is as yet unpublished, 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 (albiet non-graphic ones).
“God is the creator and he is the author of creativity and the arts ever 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 then 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.
“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. Just because God has, in the past, used any number of ways to reveal Himself, this does not mean that He will now use movies or any forms of art. I see no biblical support for the idea that God may 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.” This strikes me as near blasphemy, to suggest that the Spirit is attempting to communicate to His church through film. God communicates to His church through the Bible, and to ignore the Bible is to ignore the Spirit.
These are just two of the multitudes of examples. I think also of John Eldredge’s books, which are filled with references to movies. Many other authors, attempting to engage a postmodern generation, depend on movies 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 or even for spiritual reasons, in ever greater numbers. As we have seen, there is any number of ways of justifying this behavior, but I think that 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 to feel in our real lives. Haack says that “The Royal Tennenbaums allowed me to feel a bit of the brokenness and alienation the books [books dealing with divorce] described but couldn’t emote. [They] have been a window of insight into a world I do not inhabit.”
But 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. I see nothing in the Bible that would convince me that I can and even should watch movies in order to engage the culture. In fact, I find the opposite. How can I be an effective witness if I begin a coversation 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?
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 we have turned this around, suggesting that the smallest glimmer of good, when mixed with abhorent evil, brings redemption. We seek to redeem what we should not be redeemed.
I am not opposed to movies, but I do believe that we need to prayerfully consider if we have allowed ourselves to justify what God forbids. There are many movies that I have enjoyed tremendously and I acknowledge that it can be a powerful, effective medium. But I believe it is of utmost importance that we use discernment in the movies we watch – not a discernment that pushes the limits of what I should or should not see – but a discernment that asks whether this is a movie that a Christian should watch. I ought not to ask if this is a movie that I can watch without falling into great sin, but if this is a movie that brings glory to God.