Nearly every time we run a review of a film that's rated R, we get at least one comment from a reader—email, Twitter, Facebook, or on the article itself—that asks that question, the one I've come to expect: "Why is Christianity Today reviewing an R-rated film?"
Sometimes it comes in other forms—why are we "promoting" films with objectionable content, or why do we talk about films that "glorify" sin, or why do we tell Christians to watch R-rated films—but the implicit question is the same: Why should Christians even care that these films exist, let alone read about them or write about them?
It's a question that I (and a lot of people who have written and edited for Christianity Today) have thought about a lot. It's a serious question that requires a serious answer, mostly because, as plenty of people have pointed out, some Christians—in an effort to escape legalism—have swung to the other extreme and assumed that anything is fair game to watch, that it's more important to be "cool" than to be thoughtful in our movie viewing. (Our own critic Brett McCracken has written a whole book on this subject.)
So, I'm grateful for the opportunity to try to answer the question. But I've got to warn you: this is a complex issue that a lot of people have been thinking about for years, and so it's going to take a little time to answer it. I didn't want to answer too quickly, because I didn't want you to think we approach this question glibly. Even then, I'm bound to miss something. But I'll do the best I can, and if you can, stick with me.
Why do we review R-rated films? And what is the purpose of criticism in the first place?
A Quick History Lesson
Let's briefly recall what an R rating even is. The MPAA issues the ratings for films in the United States. MPAA stands for the Motion Picture Association of America, a trade organization that represents the six big Hollywood studios. It was formed in 1922 to advance those studios' interests. It formulated the guidelines that first governed the "Production Code" (or, as it is more popularly known, the Hays Code), and now it administers the ratings system that Americans are familiar with. (Other countries have entirely other organizations that rate films along different categories; for instance, Swedish cinemas recently decided to add the category of "sexism" to their ratings schema.) Strong lobbying from studios can often change a film's rating.
The current ratings system has also undergone a number of changes over time. For instance, the PG-13 designation didn't exist until July 1984, and the first film to receive it was Red Dawn. It was instituted largely because of complaints about violence and gore in films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Poltergeist, and Clash of the Titans, which were rated PG.
But even after the PG-13 rating appeared on the scene, some of the standards were relaxed compared to today's standards. Some films that today would almost certainly receive PG-13 ratings were still rated PG—all three Back to the Future movies (released in 1985, 1989, and 1990), for instance, were rated PG. I saw them for the first time on DVD when I was in college, and I was actually shocked by the amount of language and some of the, shall we say, racy themes that wouldn't emerge in a PG movie today, especially since the rating is associated largely with films for children.