Violence, Profanity and Nudity: A Dialogue (Part 4)
Editor's note: This is the fourth of a four-part series about what it means to make "good, Christian movies." In this part, the author and a friend, filmmaker Jeffrey Travis, discuss what it means to responsibly portray violence, profanity and nudity in film—even noting that all three things likely occurred at the Cross. As you'll discover from reading this fascinating conversation, there are no easy answers to the question.
As filmmaker Jeffrey Travis and I approach this subject of violence, profanity and nudity in film, we are keenly aware of our limitations. In no way do we presume to have figured it all out. Others have written more eloquently, more insightfully on what, arguably, comprise three of the most tricky decisions for a Christian filmmaker (see Jeffrey Overstreet). We come with humble hearts and a genuine desire for wisdom. As a pastor (me) and a filmmaker (Travis), we cannot escape these issues. As responsible Christians we are determined to seek out good answers.
A summary of our thoughts, though, might go something like this: There are five basic things that, when confused, create the mess of muddled thinking and angry words regarding this topic: 1) What is art, 2) What is the purpose of art, 3) The use of Scripture, 4) Context is everything, and 5) "Each man according to his own conscience." If any of these five is mishandled, the mess ensues. The following dialogue is offered then not as anything conclusive but as a continuation of a larger dialogue within the community of Believer artists. Our assumptive question is: How do we represent violence, profanity and nudity redemptively? We assume it's possible; it's just a matter of how.
Jeffrey: Didn't you get in trouble for sponsoring a discussion of Magnolia at your church, Hope Chapel?
David: Yes, I did. It was bedlam. Can we start with an easier question?
Jeffrey: Sure. Why is this such a complicated subject?
David: Woebetide oversimplifiers. But here are my two pennies: sin. Rotten, no good, wasteful sin. In general, Christians regard violence as sinful, profanity as sinful, and nudity as sinful. The Bible charges us to flee sin, and so we do. But is it really that simple? Is all violence sinful? Surely self-defense is an exception to the rule.
Jeffrey: Fine. But I don't see how you could make exceptions for profanity or nudity.
David: Shoot, you got me there.
Jeffrey: You said, 'shoot.'
David: So I did. It's a euphemism for rats! But what is profane language, really? Is all profane language equivalent to Paul's idea of "unwholesome talk" in Ephesians 4:29? I don't think so. The term, from the Latin profanes, suggests the notion of being "outside the temple." Profane space is the opposite of temple space: that space that represents the good, the ordered, the whole. By this reasoning, profane language represents the chaotic. Its function, in social usage, is to facilitate expression of dis-ordered and un-desirable experience. To speak profanely is to express a disruptive moment.
So for example, a white policeman ruthlessly beats on a black driver: a profane experience. This causes a fellow cop to bellow, "What the hell are you doing?": a profane expression. Experience arouses and demands corresponding language.
Jeffrey: Fancy footwork, but your mama would still wash your mouth out with soap.
David: Perhaps. But the socially permissive barometer for what is offensive and what is not changes with time and circumstance. In nineteenth-century America, the word leg was considered indecent; the proper surrogate was limb. The English poet Chaucer, a Christian of his times, made use of the following terms in his epic poems: ers (arse), fart, and queynt. And the 1611 KJV Bible rolled out what would now be regarded as questionable words, such as dung, piss, and bastard. Words carry a subjective quality. It's very difficult to argue that what is profane to one person or culture will also—automatically—be profane to another.