In a recent "Ask the Experts" column, a reader asked how a Christian critic can give a positive review to a film that includes profanity. My answer apparently stirred the pot, as we've received quite a bit of feedback—some agreeing with me, some disagreeing—from readers.
My opinion on this subject has grown and changed dramatically over the years. I used to shy away from a film—to revile it, in fact—if it contained expletives. But as I became more involved as a Christian participating in the culture at-large, I realized that, yes, people do talk that way, and how could I demand that artists—Christians or otherwise—abstain from reflecting the truth of the culture, since they also represent other shortcomings, weaknesses, lapses of judgment, and misbehavior in their storytelling?
The real issue, I came to believe, was whether or not the filmmaker was recommending misbehavior. In fact, I have come to care deeply for some of the characters in films who have foul mouths, as I have come to recognize the needs in their hearts, their strengths and weaknesses, their personalities. Their sins and errors become, as the songwriter Sam Phillips writes, "holes" that can "let the light through"—opportunities for growth, grace, and redemption (which sometimes, sadly, never comes).
The reader response to my "Ask the Experts" column included some observations that showed me I should have done one more revision, and then there were some broad generalizations that left me staring wide-eyed at the screen. It's ironic—some of the respondents used very strong language, expressing that they were ready to drag me before the throne for a quick sentencing.
I'd like to respond to some of those who were troubled by the piece, hoping to clarify my points.
I observed that movies, like Scripture, often give us stories in which people misbehave severely. One writer noted the following:
"It's one thing to say someone was caught committing adultery, and another thing entirely showing adultery on the big screen, in the flesh, basically for entertainment, even if that artist is trying to make a point. I don't think Scripture says things the way moviemakers do. The motive is different. Someone is interested in turning a buck in making a movie, while Scripture is speaking a truth. Overstreet needs to search this out a little deeper."
Perhaps I do need to search it out further. Still, any artist worth their salt is motivated by something other than merely "turning a buck." Nonetheless, just as a carpenter or a plumber or an airline pilot earns wages for their work, there's nothing wrong with a filmmaker earning a buck for their efforts—unless that artist is cheating or otherwise abusing his privileges.
Responsible artists don't stoop to making indulgent entertainment to make a buck. Most moviemakers strive to create challenging art with integrity, in which misbehavior is truthfully and honestly portrayed rather than condoned. For example, see the work of Flannery O'Connor, who wrote about people behaving badly in order to jolt us awake to the reality of lives lived without apprehension of grace or love. There is a lot of good art out there that portrays adultery, burglary, murder, dishonesty, or any other misbehavior in the way of a responsible, purposeful storyteller. Just because some people tell reckless, foolish stories doesn't mean we should generalize that moviemakers in general are guilty of this.
Communicating with Culture
Another reader writes:
"I wonder … if our tolerance of more and more expressions of ungodliness in media has less to do with whether or not enjoying them is somehow biblically justifiable, and more to do with our own desensitization to sin."
Most of us would admit that we have been guilty of a rationalization or two in the name of getting what we want. I include myself amongst those who need to remind themselves daily that we should guard our hearts against such deceptions and destructive behavior.
But many are also seeking to live as Christ and the apostles did, participating in contemporary culture, attending to the expressions of our neighbors with discernment. In their culture, people told each other stories. In ours, we see expressions offered in all manner of media. Some moviemakers will reward our attention with excellence and insight. Others will disappoint us with poor storytelling, shoddy craftsmanship, or indulgence. Most films are a mixed bag.
If we hope to have a dialogue with culture, we must attend to their visions of the world respectfully, unless they abuse the privilege; otherwise, they will see no reason to attend to our vision of the world. But we must also be cautious not to be quick to anger and judgment, or we will end up focusing on smaller, superficial details and miss what really needs attention—the heart of the work and the voice of the artist.
One letter in response to the article included this statement: "If someone attempts to use this kind of language around me, I will quickly point out that I don't like it and then remove myself from the situation." I don't remember Christ rebuffing anyone because of an expletive, but he did reprove those who spoke hypocritically or who behaved sanctimoniously toward others. I don't remember the Bible suggesting we are to depart from culture and create a counterculture that is sanitized of all outward signs of sin. It was to the sick that Christ brought his doctoral skills. Those seeking him often found him in rough company rather than the community of the pious.
On the other hand, we certainly should not make it our focus to seek out sin wherever we can find it. I certainly don't find myself wanting to hear more foul language, or desiring to see more sin. Nor do I wish to lead people to be exposed to more sin. As a Christian film critic, I consider it my job to encourage people to develop greater skills of interpretation. It is my prayer that this work helps each reader become more conscientious and perceptive as they sift through cinematic storytelling in search of insight, opportunities to highlight and affirm the truth, and chances to point out flawed sentiments and misleading worldviews.
What Would Jesus Do?
"Test all things," says the author of 1 Thessalonians 5:21, "and hold firmly to what is good." Unfortunately, many believers would rather avoid testing anything, withdrawing from the world instead of penetrating it, interacting with it, and transforming it. Those who do arm themselves and engage with the culture often find God revealing himself there, even in the work of artists oblivious to the Spirit's influence.
This question—often simplified into the phrase "What would Jesus do?"—was a concern for some of the respondents.
From one of the aforementioned letters:
"Evangelicals want to make Jesus into their own image as a good-guy Messiah who would go to the movies with us and even share a few guilty laughs at the naughty, gross and demeaning jokes. I read Philippians 4:8-9 and I find it hard to find too many movies that would make it through God's filter of what we should let our minds and hearts dwell on."
Some Christians may be guilty of dumbing down their idea of Jesus, but I certainly don't picture Jesus in that way. Jesus did hang out with the rough, flawed, party-going people of his day, and Christians may go to the movies with their neighbors in a similar spirit, showing discernment and providing perspective that the lost would otherwise not have. I have encountered many who are avid moviegoers who vehemently condemn indulgent and crass work, just as they enthusiastically embrace and recommend films that are rewarding and revelatory.
Regarding Philippians 4:8-9, I think it is important to notice the word dwell. Jesus went out and talked with all manner of people in his lost culture. And he listened to them intently. While he "dwelt" on God's Word, he ventured out into the conversations and lives of those around him. Similarly, the Apostle Paul spent time in places where there were monuments to other gods. He went there, paid attention to those monuments and the various worldviews of his neighbors, and then, resisting any temptations or lies of those beliefs, he spoke about them knowledgeably. His familiarity with popular culture gave him integrity when he spoke about the Lord. We are called to be "in the world, but not of the world." We should attend to the expressions of our neighbors and respond with wisdom, but we should dwell upon what we have tested and found to be true, those things that are "excellent and worthy of praise."
It is also worth noting that different aspects of a film—its script, its performances, its score, and its cinematography—can reflect God's glory through excellence. I have been moved to prayer and uplifted to epiphanies sometimes by one inspired artistic flourish in an otherwise mediocre film. Simply condemning a film for one offensive element is a rash and narrow approach that might cut us off from revelation.
Wrong to Depict Reality?
Another person writes:
"That foul language is a part of our world is an all too painful reality, but it's a mistake to say that when an artist portrays it to imitate reality he or she has done nothing wrong."
To that, I would ask, did Mel Gibson do something wrong when he portrayed the Romans whipping Christ? Did Robert Duvall do something wrong when he portrayed Pastor Dewey beating his wife's lover with a baseball bat? These are far more grievous behaviors than portraying a character who speaks a foolish word in a moment of heated temper. And yet, these incidents are employed effectively in powerful storytelling.
Another reader writes:
"Today's movies are not so much an art form as they are a means to generate wealth. It is big business, and godliness does not sell tickets."
Does The Passion of The Christ support this point? The Lord of the Rings? Finding Nemo? These films are all about godly qualities—Christ's longsuffering, Frodo's sacrifice, Marlin's fatherly devotion to his son—and they earned their artists a fortune. Sometimes, godliness does sell tickets.
Another reader writes:
"Your argument that each viewer must attend to their own conscience and not judge another for their choice is a misapplication of otherwise good counsel. Giving a rebuke to another is not being judgmental. Rather it is an act of love attempting to pull another back from evil. Furthermore, in your case a strong rebuke is warranted because you have taken a leadership role in a sense as a movie critic."
There is a time and a place for a rebuke, yes. But just as God calls some people to minister to the lost in the inner city—where many people demonstrate foul language, bad behavior, violence, drug use, prostitution, and worse—so there are some believers who are not equipped for exposure to such volatile realities. I meant only to say that some Christians may be wounded by aspects of a work of art, and that same work of art may be a rewarding and truthful vision for another. We should attend to our conscience and be slow to judge the motives and experiences of other viewers. If we see another person spending time with work that we know to be worthless and destructive—pornography is the best example—we should indeed investigate. And if we see exposure to that work influencing them negatively, by all means, intervention is in order.
But if we insist on abstinence from any movies that include bad language, then we must also reject Shakespeare and libraries full of great literature (including the Bible) that include characters who use foul language and commit all manner of sins.
Finally, this from a reader who accuses me of "rationalizing":
"You can always rationalize that listening to bad language in movies is just hearing the real world, but I wonder what you would truly say if Jesus stood in front of you and saw you watching this trash?"
What would Jesus have said if he saw the Apostle Paul walking amongst the monuments erected to false gods? Scripture shows that God blessed such engagement with culture.
As a believer, I can assert with conviction that Jesus is standing in front of me right now. So yes, I had better weigh my words, asking for wisdom, for humility, and when I fail, for forgiveness. But I reaffirm what I have said—that we should follow Christ's example by listening and attending to the lives, the words, the stories of other people in the world.
Movies can be mere moneymaking deceptions. But they can also be revelatory illustrations of our world and its confusion. They can be visions of hope and redemption. Sometimes a film can be a cry for help. Each film comes from a human source, reflecting both the good and the evil of which each of us is capable. And we should respond with truth, love, and grace, as he and his apostles did, holding fast to what is good, and dwelling on what is worthy of praise.
Let me be clear—just as each person has their own level of maturity, their own strengths and weaknesses, so each person will find a different "comfort level" with the media they choose to experience. In no way would I suggest that everyone should be out there seeing each film that is released. I take seriously Scripture's charge that I should not lead another to stumble. But I also take seriously Scripture's exhortation that we be "transformed" by the "renewing" of our minds. It is my hope that my reviews, commentaries and my weekly Film Forum play a role in fulfilling that for its readers.
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