Is it Biblically acceptable for Christians to watch movies? Should Christians watch R-rated movies? Are we sinning, or opening ourselves to sin, if we expose ourselves to dramatic visual images of sex and violence? These issues have caused heated debate in the church for years. And it doesn't help that some abominable iniquities, once merely hinted at in the movies, are now often exposed with impunity in modern film. So where should we draw the line?
Some Christians would draw a very short one. They avoid most movies, and certainly never watch R-rated movies that depict too much sin and are tempting to the flesh. Other Christians would draw a very long line. They watch many movies, even R-rated ones, without discerning introspection of how they might be affected by them. I would say the truth lies somewhere in between. As adult Christians we can, and indeed should, watch films, including some R-rated movies, for two reasons: The Bible itself presents sins in R-rated detail in order to lead us to redemption; and we should be keen observers of our culture in order to interact redemptively with it.
The Bible Is R-rated
The Bible explicitly describes many acts of sex, violence, and profanity throughout its pages that rival any harsh "realistic" movie like Braveheart, Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan, or Black Hawk Down. Blasphemy (Isa. 36:14-20), vulgar language (Gal. 5:12), orgies (Ex. 32:3-6), cannibalism (2 Kin. 6:28), disemboweling (Judg. 3:21-22), and just about every other depraved act known to man is described in the Holy Scriptures, many times in lurid detail.
And this isn't just in non-fiction accounts of history, either. Jesus Himself used movie-like metaphors to depict the seriousness of the kingdom of God in His parables: Hannibal-like bodily dismemberment (Mt. 24:45-51), Godfather-style drowning (Mt.18:6), and human dissection reminiscent of Seven (Mt. 18:7-9). Revelation is a virtual feast of demonic brutality and gore used as symbols of prophecy. Parental discretion is advised.
Scholars of the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery point out several key passages of the Song of Solomon for which most translators, out of supposed modesty, have rendered translations less than true to the Hebrew text's explicit sexual descriptions.1 True, it is married love Solomon erotically describes, but erotic description it is. And this godly author also "shoots a film" about illicit sexuality as well. When he wrote Proverbs 7, Solomon was not merely giving a fictional warning of the wages of sexual sin. He was using a dramatic image of adulterous seduction, drawing the reader vicariously into the temptation, so that the reader will understand the seriousness of the consequences. He sets up the scenario with vividly racy images. He portrays the sexiness of the harlot, expresses the man's heart being drawn to her. We hear the intimate whisperings of seduction in his ears. We can almost touch the beautiful exotic linens covering the bed, smell the perfume and spices the tempting appeal of no consequences. We feel the man give way and give in, following the harlot to her lair imagery lucid enough to make any reader's head spin with fantasy. And then Solomon gives us the gut-wrenching plot twist: "Suddenly he follows her, As an ox goes to the slaughter Until an arrow pierces through his liver; So he does not know that it will cost him his life" (Pr. 7:22-23). Solomon makes us feel the corruption so we can experience the seriousness of the consequences. Through explicit vicarious seduction and destruction, we are scared straight. Readers under 17 not admitted, unless accompanied by an adult.
Exhortation, Not Exploitation
Of course, the depiction of evils in the Bible does not justify all depiction of evil in movies. The examples above are not intended to justify pornographic violence or sexuality. But they should challenge us to develop a more Biblical understanding of violence and sexuality in the movies (indeed, in the arts). The key to understanding whether sin is employed for immoral exploitation or moral exhortation in filmic drama is in its context and consequences.
Context: In the Bible, sin is always portrayed as sin, not as "alternate lifestyles," or justifiable pleasure. The intent of portraying evil is not to inspire imitation, but to turn people away from it. The sympathetic drama of adulterous seduction detailed above was written to ward off temptation through allowing the reader to artistically experience the ultimate end of the shallow nature of illegitimate desire. It paints the apparent appeal of evil, but also its ultimate end. If a movie makes heroes out of criminals (Bandits, Oceans Eleven, The Score), or depicts morality as oppressive and immorality as freeing (Quills, Chocolat), then it is exploitative or immoral in intent and context. But if it shows that criminals are villains and immorality is not the best way to live (Liar, Liar; Lord of the Rings; Shallow Hal; Rock Star), then its intent is moral exhortation. If a movie's intent is to incite teen sexuality as the essence of adulthood (American Pie, Road Trip) or fulfill bloodlust by showing ever more clever ways of murdering people (Scream, Friday the 13th), then it is exploitative. If a movie deals honestly with sexuality or mortality in the context of growing up (A Walk to Remember, Life as a House, Riding in Cars with Boys), then it is exhortative.
Consequences: Closely connected with context are the consequences of evil acts. If the portrayal of sin does not have consequences attached to it, then it will tend to encourage that sin. In the Bible, personal vengeance leads to the wrath of God (Rom. 12:19-13:5). The critically acclaimed In The Bedroom inspires lawlessness because it shows its protagonists as average Americans who have been abused by the justice system, being satisfied with vigilante justice by taking the law into their own hands and getting away with it. On the other hand, Training Day, a more graphic film about police corruption, inspires moral character by showing the self-destruction of vigilantism. The corrupt cop dies by the unrighteous sword he lived by and the good cop maintains moral ideals even through suffering and injustice.
When Christians quote Philippians 4:8 on dwelling on "the true, the honorable and the pure," as a rationale for avoiding exposure to sins like these in art, they neglect the full Biblical context that exposing lies is part of dwelling on the truth (Acts 5:1-11), revealing cowardice is part of dwelling on the honorable (Dt. 1:26-30), and uncovering corruption is part of dwelling on the pure (Mt. 21:12-13). One may even say, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, that God was the original Shakespeare.
Interactive Redemption with Culture
Having just laid out what I think are some ways of determining exploitation or exhortation in a movie, I now have to qualify that by saying that not all exploitative aspects of a culture should be completely avoided either. The Christian should be keenly aware of his culture's failings in order to effectively offer an alternative. Some exposure is necessary. You cannot present an effective solution if you are not acquainted with the problem. We Christians are often notorious for condemning what we are not familiar with.
In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul models the kind of redemptive interaction with culture that I am suggesting. When he addresses the pagans of his day, he does so within the arena of ideas and communications of that day: The Areopagus. In some ways, television, music, and the movies are the Areopagus of our own day. Many people, wittingly or unwittingly, are influenced in their worldview by the media and entertainment. Like Paul, we had best be informed about the mediums of communication in our culture good and bad.
As a student under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), Paul was not only aware of Greek culture and philosophy, he studied it extensively. He took time to analyze their religious altars (v. 23); He made himself familiar with their deities so he could compare and contrast them with the true God (v. 24). And then he quoted, with a certain sense of agreement, several Greek poets including Homer or Plato (v. 27), Epimenides, Aratus, and Cleanthes (v. 28).2 Of course, what he really does is deconstruct those poets in such a way as to illustrate that they reflected a twisted suppressed glimpse of God's original truth.3
And Paul's exposure to these pagan poets and culture was within the context of a stringent holy righteousness, even before he was a Christian (Phil. 3:4-6). Evidently, he did not consider it a compromise to be familiar and to interact redemptively with his culture, agreeing and disagreeing where appropriate. He neither avoided culture nor embraced it.
Even though Christians are morally allowed and even Biblically obligated to watch movies (including some R-rated ones), the issues are not as black and white as both extreme positions would prefer. Mature decisions require mutual accountability (Gal. 2:11-14) and practice in having our senses trained to discern good and evil (Heb. 5:14). And it also demands sensitivity to the "weaker brother" who may stumble because of our freedom in maturity (1 Cor. 8). But that's another whole column.
1. "Sex," Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, eds., Leland Ryken, James C Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1998), 777-778.
2. Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, ed. Robert Booth (Atlanta, GA: American Vision and Texarkana, AK: Covenant Media Foundation, 1996), 258.
3. Bahnsen, Always Ready, 260-261. When Paul quoted Aratus that we are "God's offspring," he certainly did not mean it in the same pantheistic sense that Aratus meant. But he acknowledges the shadow of the truth that God "made from one every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth." God is the Father of all mankind in the sense that He is our Creator, and we are in His image.
- Brian Godawa
Brian Godawa is the screenwriter of the award-winning feature film, To End All Wars (www.toendallwarsmovie.com). Most recently, he has been hired to adapt best-selling author Frank Peretti’s supernatural thriller, The Visitation, for producer Ralph Winter. Mr. Godawa’s articles on movies and philosophy have been published in magazines around the world. His scripts have won multiple awards in screenplay competitions. He travels around the United States teaching on movies and culture to colleges, churches and community groups. His book, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (InterVarsity Press) is in its 7th printing. His website, www.godawa.com, contains more of his cinematic, theological and philosophical musings.