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.
Jeffrey: Granted. But just because the KJV uses these words, doesn't mean you should make your characters use them.
David: Sneaky. Haven't you made films that your kids can't see?
Jeffrey: Um, yes, well, as the dad of three wonderful little children, um … why would I make a movie my kids couldn't watch? First let me say I've made many short films that are appropriate for my kids—one of them even stars my son and has been my most successful short film to date. This kid-friendly film led to a deal I received with 20th Century FOX for a potential TV series. So "family-friendly" films can definitely be widely popular and, frankly, we need more of them.
On the other hand, it's simplistic to presume films can't explore themes that are geared towards adults. C. S. Lewis did this for literature in his science fiction trilogy. There are many books that I intend for my kids to read—but not until they are older. Themes of revenge, murder, erotic love—these are part of stories that aren't necessarily appropriate for young ones. So I make no apology for making some films that explore these issues and stories. I just think we need both.
David: This reminds me of the time I served as a judge at a rhetoric competition at a Christian private school, and a young lady made a presentation on why modern art was not art. I listened attentively, and then during the Q&A, I asked her, "What is art?" She paused, looking for the trick in the question. She scanned her notes, then spoke plainly: art is to reflect the beauty of the Creator. I wrote this down. I then asked her a second question, "What is the purpose of art?" Here she began to sweat. In her mind, I had just asked her that question. After a nervous, restless silence, she answered: it's to reflect the beauty of the Creator.
Same answer? Her basic thesis was to argue that art, or in our case movies, should represent that which is beautiful. By "beautiful" she meant lovely, ordered, accessible. Her aesthetic construct left little room to explore ugliness, a feature that suffuses the entire canvas of human experience.
Jeffrey: Like the cross.
David: Exactly. She expressly denied that the cross comprised a legitimate subject for the artist. And yet is it not at the scene of the cross that we find a confluence of violence, profanity and nudity: the brutality of crucifixion, beautifully and horrifically portrayed in The Passion of The Christ, the how-could-they-not-use vulgar language coming from soldier and criminal alike, and the fact that the crucified died naked? So for the Believer artist, the question is not whether the crucifixion of Christ ought cinematically to be portrayed but how. The answer of course is not gratuitously, as either superfluous to the story or with the purpose to titillate or glamorize sin. This is the addiction of Hollywood. The answer is fully truthfully, fully honestly, and lest we forget the great commandment, fully lovingly. The challenge for the Believer artist is to hold these three in tension.
Jeffrey: That's nice. But didn't you get in trouble for showing Magnolia at your church?
David: I did. And I learned a big lesson about pastoral responsibility—and about collective anger, humility and the evils of trying to resolve conflict over e-mail.
Jeffrey: Speaking of nudity, it's peculiar how many classic art works with a biblically based theme depict nude characters—like Michelangelo's David. In our home, sitting on our coffee table, we have a big blue book called Sister Wendy's 1000 Masterpieces. It's filled with pages of beautiful works of art from all ages. I doubt most Christians would find this book—compiled by a Catholic nun and art scholar—offensive at any level. Yet perusing the art within, you would find dozens of depictions of the naked body. As Christians, many of us seem to accept nudity to some degree in older art forms (painting, sculpture) but tend to reject nudity in newer art forms (photography, film).
David: So what's the difference?
Jeffery: For starters, the intended purpose of the artist plays a role. Michelangelo's David could hardly be called erotic. On the other hand, most nudity in films is usually associated with sexual themes—often portrayed exploitatively as eye candy to the detriment of the soul. But this does not mean filmmakers always use nudity with a lascivious purpose. Nudity that has no sexual connotations (and, indeed is even quite humorous) appears in gentle films such as Waking Ned Devine or A Room with a View. There is also nudity that is poignant, in the case of the Jewish women about to be gassed in Schindler's List. Films such as these suggest that nudity can be acceptable, even important, in telling a story on the screen.
David: I wish you'd said that to the seminar I led at the Urbana Missions conference. Its title: "A Theology of Art: Or Why It's OK to Paint a Nude." A young man quoted to me Genesis 9:22-25, where Noah curses Ham for looking on his nakedness. Therefore, the young man argued, we should never look at naked bodies, not in movies, not in books. I suggested gently that perhaps that might make the job of the Christian gynecologist difficult; that perhaps he'd wrongly turned a descriptive into a normative.
Then a female student cited Philippians 4:8 as a proscription against anything impure. Naked bodies romping around on a 20-foot screen, she felt, violated Paul's injunction to think on "whatever is pure." Over the din of "That's right!" and "No way!" I pointed out that Paul also commanded us to think on "whatever is true," and the truth was—within the larger context of Scripture—that the Bible pronounces the physical body very good, and that nowhere does it state, "Thou shalt not depict the naked human body in art."
Jeffrey: I also think the degree of realism affects our perception of nudity in film. It's one thing to see an 18th-century impressionist painting of Ruben's pink naked lady; quite another to see a perfect reproduction of that lady on 35-millimeter film. Painting and sculpture generally are more allusive to the form, while a film shows, well, exactly what our naked parts really look like. The image suddenly becomes far more powerful.
David: The context for the art makes a difference too. It's curious that Christians will allow themselves to take anatomy class and study the naked human form with the goal of becoming a good doctor, but will disallow the artist to study the nude as a way to discover the contours and beauty of the imago Dei. To the artists of the Renaissance and the Reformation periods, it was absurd to think you could become a good artist without studying the unclad body. In fact, to depict Jesus as breast-feeding, with Mary's unveiled breast, was a way for Believer artists to assert against Gnosticism the orthodox theological teaching that Jesus was "very man."
Jeffrey: So can a Christian filmmaker ever portray nudity in a movie, with integrity, the way Michelangelo did in a sculpture? I venture to say yes—while recognizing that in film, nudity is far more difficult and has far more power to be used for wrong purposes than for good.
David: St. Paul once talked about something that doesn't seem that far removed from our discussion, the eating of food sacrificed to idols. For some Christians, profanity or nudity of all sorts, written or viewed, is wrong. For others, equally zealous for the Kingdom of God, equally desirous to be poor in spirit, it is not. Not all things provoke the same reaction—incite to sin, if you will—in all Christians alike. So it's one thing to want to help a brother from falling into sin, but it's another to presume that our temptations are the temptations of others.
Jeffrey: We need to be careful not to judge another man's conscience according to our own. And yet …
David: blah blah blah
Jeffrey: fading into the horizon
David: running out of space
Jeffrey: no easy answers
David: no simple answers.
Jeffrey: I'm off to make a movie about Adam & Eve.
David Taylor is the Arts Minister at Hope Chapel in Austin, Texas, and director of The Ragamuffin Film Festival, held August 6-8 in Austin. Together, Taylor and Jeffrey Travis form Dos Gringos Productions.
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