Whatever is Pure: Movieguide's Faith and Value Awards

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil 4:8)

Last week, Ted Baehr and the folks over at Movieguide.org held their 16th annual Faith and Values Awards Gala. The show is dedicated to awarding the best family-friendly films of the year and the best films for mature audiences. In addition, every year Baehr, chairman of The Christian Film and Television Commission, presents his statistical analysis of the Box Office profitability of films with Christian worldviews compared to those with non-Christian worldviews.

The ten best films for families according to Movieguide were:

1. Ratatouille
2. Enchanted
3. Alvin and the Chipmunks
4. Bella
5. The Game Plan
6. In the Shadow of the Moon
7. Shrek the Third
8. The Ultimate Gift
9. Nancy Drew
10. Bridge to Terabithia

The ten best films for mature audiences were:

1. Amazing Grace
2. August Rush
3. Spider-Man 3
4. I Am Legend
5. Strike
6. The Great Debaters
7. The Astronaut Farmer
8. Pride
9. Transformers
10. Live Free or Die Hard

Films with strong redemptive themes are nominated for the awards event whose main purpose is to prove that movies with a strong Christian worldview make more at the Box Office than those with very strong atheist, agnostic, nonspiritual, or anti-spiritual worldviews. The culmination of the awards show is Ted Baehr’s statistical report on the Box Office, which “consistently shows studio executives and filmmakers that family-friendly, spiritually uplifting content can significantly increase the profitability of their movies.” In other words, Baehr has discovered that it is more profitable to present a Christian worldview in film.

What exactly does Baehr mean by a “Christian worldview”? Besides looking at the “Ten Best” lists presented at the awards events, we can get a clear sense of how Movieguide defines a good film with a proper worldview from Baehr’s analysis of what moviegoers want to see: “[They] want to see movies with very strong Christian content. They want the Savior to overcome the darkness, Truth to triumph over falsehood, Justice to defeat injustice, and Beauty to overcome ugliness: they want the Good News of Jesus Christ.” We can summarize the mission and message of the awards show like this: a film is aesthetically excellent (worthy of an award) and commercially successful if it properly portrays the theme of good triumphing over evil.

But this raises the questions, in what way is the theme of redemption the only judge of aesthetic excellence and should we try to convince filmmakers that these kinds of films ought to be made because they are profitable?

To answer the first question we should look to the Old Testament. Even a cursory reading of Psalms, Job, Proverbs, or Ecclesiastes makes evident a common truth in the Old Testament: the world is unjust. The unrighteous rule, gain wealth, and go unpunished, while the righteous are abused and go unavenged. The Bible gives us no hope for true justice in this life. To demand that all films show good triumphing over evil, or justice over injustice is to go beyond the Bible and lie about the fundamental nature of the world. When Baehr argues that a movie is only good if it properly contains these themes, he either shows an ignorance of the Old Testament, or he is advocating art as pure escapism. While watching a hero win out against incredible odds is uplifting, to claim that any other plot structure is unbiblical and unworthy of praise is nonsense. It is precisely a world where the unjust currently go unpunished that Christ came to save: a fallen world.

Movieguide’s judgment of the quality of a film is based almost entirely upon its presentation of morals and morality. Returning to Paul’s list of things to think about, it seems that Movieguide has only heard Paul say, “whatever is pure;” ignoring all the other standards Paul gives us. Is Alvin and the Chipmunks really excellent? Is Nancy Drew commendable? Is Shrek the Third lovely? The problem here is that they are willing to praise films that are pure (which Movieguide seems to have defined as being morally inoffensive and having an uplifting message), even at the expense of excellence, loveliness, truth, and justice.

As an example, we can look at the fact that Amazing Grace was awarded best film for mature audiences, while Juno did not even make the top ten. Witty, poignant, and thoughtful, Juno tactfully explored teen pregnancy and modern families in a manner that forcefully asserted the sacredness of children and family. While I very much enjoyed Amazing Grace, the truth is that the film never managed to get beyond biography. It lacks any discernible theme other than “if you believe in something, keep at it!” The movie amounts to the abbreviated highlights of William Wilberforce’s life, failing to delve much beyond his surface motivations. Although it is far from a bad film, Amazing Grace simply does not measure up to the quality of Juno, No Country For Old Men, or some of the other films released in 2007. The choice of Amazing Grace over Juno and other films demonstrates that Movieguide is willing to elevate “whatever is pure” above whatever is excellent, commendable, just, lovely, and true. Which brings us to the second question: should we try to convince filmmakers to make films with a “Christian worldview”?

Baehr’s argument goes that there is more money to be made in movies with redemptive messages. But lets consider some of the examples he gives us of “good” films: Alvin and the Chipmunks, Live Free and Die Hard, August Rush, Nancy Drew, Shrek the Third, and Pride. The average review score of the Ten Best movies for mature audiences, according to metacritc, is 60.4. Compare that to the Oscar nominees for best picture (Juno, No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Atonement, and Micheal Clayton) which have an average score of 86.2. What do these scores tell us?

They tell us that while movies with a “Christian worldview” might make more money (according to Movieguide), on the whole they lack the quality of their “secular” counterparts. Therefore, the message Baehr gives to filmmakers is that making a profit is more important than making something of excellence. Since a Christian worldview (as defined by Baehr) produces a better Box Office success, movie executives should make these uplifting films, even at the expensive of aesthetic excellence.

Here are some closing thoughts:

First, we need to always keep in mind the comprehensiveness of Phil 4:8 as we make aesthetic judgments. We are not commanded only to think on what is “pure,” and to single out this element above the others is to create a standard that is extra-biblical.

Second, while optimistic stories are good, they are not the only acceptable kinds of stories. In a true biblical perspective, justice is fallen in this world, and therefore we should not expect the “good” or “just” to always triumph.

Third, as believers we should try to encourage artists to make works that are commendable, not just works that are profitable.

By God’s grace, believers can make and support works of excellence, but we must be willing to praise what is truly worthy, not just what conforms to our definition of the Christian “worldview.”

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • http://www.movieguide.org Tom Snyder

    Alan Noble’s biblical exegesis here is poor, and he did not really look at MOVIEGUIDE®’s Annual Report, or our awards lists, fairly, carefully or even very intelligently.

    Regarding his Old testament verses, Jesus Christ has overcome the world and our duty is to preach the Great Commission and transform the world (we are ecumenical Evangelical Bible-believing Christians at MOVIEGUIDE®, so we do not buy into the doom and gloom approach of Dispensationalism, which is a controversial end-times construct that is a very recent addition to Christian theology with disputable, highly dubious connections to the apocalyptic prophecies actually recorded in the biblical documents).

    Secondly, MOVIEGUIDE® looks at family movies and movies for mature audiences. Just because the secular movie critics and secular elites in Hollywood don’t like some of the movies we pick does not mean that they are really bad movies within the categories in which we pick them. In that sense, ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS was a very entertaining, uplifting family movie that kids would enjoy. The mainstream critics trashed it, but the American audience, many of whom still have strong vestiges of their Christian heritage, even though not all of them may understand essential Christian doctrines like the sinlessness of Christ and the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, not by works, seemed to like the movie very much. Furthermore, ALVIN is not one of the movies with “very strong Christian, redemptive worldviews,” so its box office is not included in our charts showing that movies with very strong Christian worldviews like SPIDER-MAN 3, AMAZING GRACE, I AM LEGEND, BEYOND THE GATES, THE ULTIMATE GIFT, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, SEPTEMBER DAWN, THE LAST SIN EATER, and NANCY DREW averaged the best box office of all dominant worldviews, and did three times better than movies with very strong immoral, non-Christian or Anti-Christian and Anti-Biblical worldviews. The same is true if you just look at content and not just the dominant worldview of a movie. Here, in these stats, we are not only judging production and aesthetic quality plus entertainment values, but actual content and worldview. Thus, SEPTEMBER DAWN, THE LAST SIN EATER and BEYOND THE GATES did not make the cut of the Top 20 movies for families or mature audiences, which is content driven and age appropriate driven first, then quality second (for instance, I am personally not a fan of BELLA quality wise and thought other movies made similar points in a more compelling fashion and believe that LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD was more entertaining and aesthetically pleasing than TRANSFORMERS and PRIDE, but I do not look at most of the movies a second and third time on DVD as Dr. Baehr does).

    Thirdly, Alan is contradictory. He uses Old Testament verses to trash the world, but then talks about Paul’s admonition to pursue excellence as if we are judging by the world’s standards of “excellent” movies like THERE WILL BE BLOOD, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, JUNO, MICHAEL CLAYTON, THE KITE RUNNER, ATONEMENT, THE SAVAGES, THE ASASASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES, etc. Well, I am not impressed with either of the first two movies mentioned. And, we thought JUNO was a little choppy and not fully credible (the lead character was a bit too precocious for her age) but JUNO is, admittedly, a borderline case that could have been rated four stars and put near the bottom of the top ten for mature audiences. All these other acclaimed movies mentioned we rated four stars though each had some problematic negative content and worldviews.

    Finally, Alan never talked with Ted or I to find out the various pros and cons of our selections, much less about all the content and quality factors we consider when we write and edit, and mull over, our reviews and our Annual Report. If he had looked at the Report and talked with Ted and I, he would not have embarrassed himself with such a sloppy, pseudo-intellectual column with so much poor biblical exegesis.

    Tom Snyder, Editor
    MOVIEGUIDE®, http://www.movieguide.org

  • Brittany

    As believers in the body of Christ, we are called to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).

  • Michael

    This article brings up a few great points and opens questions as to the veracity of MOVIEGUIDE’s determination within its awards criteria. First of all, I have been involved with MOVIEGUIDE for several years, so while my viewpoint may not seem entirely unbiased with response to this article – the following answers to the important questions that it raises need to have some clarification and response by someone who has an understanding of MOVIEGUIDE’s mission. I do not speak for MOVIEGUIDE and I have no say with regard to award decisions. I am merely responding with the perspective of understanding MOVIEGUIDE’s goals.

    Paul said, “. . . whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” MOVIEGUIDE is not “boiling” down everything and only allowing what is “pure” to rise to the top thereby ignoring the aesthetic excellence of what Hollywood produces each year to go unnoticed. A simple glance at MG’s reviews on their website will tell you that they DO praise even the most abhorrent (from their perspective) films that contain tremendous excellence with regard to the production values, creativity, direction and the like. They do, indeed, “think about such things.”
    But the questions that this article raises seem to have missed the point of MG’s purpose.

    While production standards are changing/rising each year with respect to truly redemptive, faith-oriented films containing Christian worldviews – they still, as a whole, have a long way to go. Sure, there was “The Passion of the Christ” – but how many other such films have been given the financial backing and support to succeed in a world that seems to thirst for limitless budgeted films? The answer to this, quite simply, is few. Films that have a publicity budget of 50 to 75 million or more clearly have an advantage in reaching an audience. You notice that I did not say “their” audience because I firmly believe that “their” audience contains a gigantic number of patrons that would be “our” audience if the publicity budgets were in place to reach them in the same manner. Granted, there are many films released each year that often times do not warrant that backing (due to poor writing, non-existent direction, disconnected casting), but it would be a mistake – one that, I believe, Hollywood now sees, to categorically place all such films in that basket.

    On to mainstream films with a Christian worldview: This makes up the largest group that MG recognizes largely because this group far exceeds the number of films released each year that are primarily faith based. Let’s look at the question of. . . are these films simply given accolades by MG based on “what is pure.” When you look at what Paul said in addition to what is pure: “whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” Who judges what is praiseworthy? Who judges what is excellent? It seems from the article that you have based what is “excellent” upon the general populous of critics. This is the real question at hand. Is an unredemptive rape scene replete with high production value, solid direction and talented casting “excellent?” I have a hard time believing that Paul meant that we should think on what “we” judge as “excellent.” Thereby, the argument that MG desires to direct or encourage filmmakers to create what is “pure” and ignore what is praiseworthy and excellent – in lieu of being more profitable – is, from my perspective, silly. Of course this is not the mission of MOVIEGUIDE. With regard to the point that the Oscar nominations have received higher praise from secular critics than that of MG’s nominations – I fail to understand what difference it makes IF, clearly, the films MG nominates by comparison make much more money. While critics have the ability to sway the opinions of moviegoers – the real judge of a movie’s success as a movie for the mass audience is box office. Audiences (i.e., box office reports) are the only true score that matters. What MOVIEGUIDE does do is encourage filmmakers to understand that if they create works that are redemptive and have a Christian worldview they will be rewarded. And, believe me – the rewards go far beyond profitability.

    You are absolutely correct in that we live in a fallen world. It is because of this fact that organizations such as MOVIEGUIDE should be wholeheartedly supported. The media, in general, has the inexhaustible ability to sway the masses. Organizations such as MOVIEGUIDE provide hope in this “fallen world” and my “hope” is that it will continue this fight until it is no longer needed. That day will come. All who are Christians know this, but none of us know when that day will be realized.

  • http://lookingcloser.org Jeffrey Overstreet

    Alan,

    Thank you for your thoughtful report, for challenging us to remember that excellence — yes, even aesthetic excellence — glorifies God. I appreciate your perspective, and applaud your willingness to raise good questions.

    I also recommend that readers visit Christianity Today Movies (http://christianitytodaymovies.com) for a thoughtful assessment of the year’s best films by a team of more than ten experienced film critics.

    And those who would like to engage in thoughtful discussions about filmmaking on all levels are welcome at http://artsandfaith.com as well.

    Keep up the good work, Alan.

    Jeffrey Overstreet
    lookingcloser.org

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Tom Snyder is officially one of my favourite people on earth. That was seriously one of the the funniest comments I’ve read in weeks.

    And believe me, I needed some funny—we just sat through Transformers, perhaps the worst movie I’ve seen in the last five years,* and that just had me really depressed.

    So thanks Tom, that was some good stuff.

    For those watching at home, I’d like to point out that despite certain criticisms of Noble Alan, no actual exegesis (good, bad, or with a good personality) was performed in the above article. Mentioning that the Bible teaches that prior to the Second Advent humanity will not experience true earthly justice is not a feat of exegesis.

    Also, it may be profitable to point out that transformationalism (the line of thought to which Tom apparently adheres with fervor and joy) is not actually with any necessity at odds with dispensationalism. As they say, some of my best friends are dispensational transformationalists.

    It may also be profitable for some to have it pointed out that a rejection of transformationalism is neither an indication of dispensationalism. Worthwhile chunks of the amillennialist community at large consider transformationalism to be woefully inadequate both as an ideology and as a biblical means of interacting with the culture of the world around us.**

    And the last time someone thought amillennialism was compatible with dispensationalism, we put him in the sillyroom.

    Noble Alan didn’t come out and state it, so I will. (By the way, I did appreciate that he called it a quote-unquote Christian worldview.)

    What is portrayed in movies like Ratatouille, Spider-Man 3, Transformers, and Die Hard 4 is not actually a Christian worldview. It’s true. I know, shock shock horror horror shock shock horror. But still . . .

    What we see in such movies, though not a Christian worldview, is what we might call a compatible worldview.*** Kinda like how most Mormon films we be morally compatible with Christian sensibilities. The films would generally be pretty clean. Happy endings. Good guy makes good, bad guys vanquished. Et cetera.

    You know, the boring pap that is inconsequential enough to attract a decent audience on a Friday night—something for which they can shut their minds off, minds that are exhausted from toiling in a world without love or justice.

    Either that or something that parents who use the cinema as day care can use without worrying that their children will be polluted with foul language and a little bit of the old ultra-violence.

    Oh, I almost forgot one of my favourite scenes. It’s the one where Tom says:

    If he had looked at the Report and talked with Ted
    and I, he would not have embarrassed
    himself with such a sloppy, pseudo-intellectual
    column with so much poor biblical exegesis.

    The juxtaposition is rad because while Noble Alan might have staved off embarrassment by inquiring of Ted and Tom of what exactly Movieguide’s criteria for film-excellence consists, Snyde Tom might have likewise staved off embarrassment by refraining from posting a comment.

    Seriously, reading that comment was like watching a Ben Stiller movie. I kept having to look away, wincing at how close to lunacy Tom kept approaching. My advice? Tom, stick to editing and leave the interaction with the public to the PR department. It’s just not your thing.

    p.s. Noble Alan®, I think you actually just pissed the Movieguide people off because you didn’t capitalize the whole word and end it with a Registered Trademark sign.
    __________________________________

    *note: it’s possible that I’d seen something worse and blocked it from memory, but I saw Anywhere but Here around 2000, and that was previously the worst thing I could remember watching.

    **note: and yes, I’m happy to be a part of that At Large.

    ***note: and really, it’s usually not even that.

  • Geoffrey Seven

    Alvin and the Chipmunks?! Puh-leeze! One of the lamest movies my kids and I saw all year. If the definition of excellence in the Christian sense is “inspirational drivel” then this list is spot on.

    I haven’t seen some of the recent front-runners like There Will be Blood, but I am thinking of A History of Violence from a year or two ago, which was so profound in its exploration of our fallen nature and depravity, and how broken our ability to get away from that and preserve anything whole and good. The “good guy” (such as he is) triumphs (sort of, at immense cost). I am more like Tom Stall/Joey Cusack than like the saintly William Wilberforce, and I am grateful for a God who meets us where we are and sends us honest filmmakers to represent that reality in all its starkness.

    I just want to also note that the art that used to be seen as representing Christian values bears about as much resemblance to this list as chalk does to cheese. I am thinking of Paradise Lost, Handel’s Messiah. All’s not sweetness and light. For my money, the greatest, most “Christian” films are the ones that unpack the darkness at our hearts, the part of ourselves that whispers “evil, be thou my good,” and that shouts “Crucify him!”

  • http://movieguide.org David Outten

    Alan Noble’s worldview is depressing. He appears to believe that in this world injustice reigns and we should resign ourselves to it and hope for a better life in heaven. We can be thankful men like William Wilberforce didn’t have this worldview. The movie AMAZING GRACE is the story of how Wilberforce worked diligently to end the slave trade. He made a difference. He increased the level of justice on earth. Jesus called us to be the light of the world, including in Hollywood. Where Wilberforce sought to end the slave trade Ted Baehr and MOVIEGUIDE® hope to improve the moral quality of entertainment. With that goal in mind it makes perfect sense to report truthfully to industry executives that movies with less foul language make more than moves loaded foul language.

    While Mr. Noble is right that God permits apparent injustice on earth, he fails to note that morality and prosperity are far from opposites. America’s greatest strength is moral behavior, its greatest weakness is immorality. To the extent that Americans are honest, diligent and well behaved (by biblical standards) America prospers. The more we reject biblical morality the more broken families, drug addicts, criminals, welfare and prisons we have. The human suffering, death, tragedy and poverty associated with immorality is immense. While God permits injustice to happen in the world, He does not bless it. Justice does not always wait until judgement day. Individuals and nations may prosper financially for a time while engaging in immorality, but a heavy price is often paid in THIS life. Hitler did not die a happy man.

    The truth is you will make more money in the movie business on movies with good moral content. You must be entertaining and you must respect the art form. People don’t buy movie tickets to see sermons, but given a good story with quality production values you will make more money if you leave out the trash. More importantly, you will help make the world a better place to live if you produce movies that exemplify and encourage good behavior. You make the world worse when you lead people to do immoral things.

    In Mr. Noble’s world excellence is judged by critics scores. According to him the industry should make movies to please critics in hopes that the critics and the expert-based awards shows impress enough of the public to buy tickets. This approach leads deeper and deeper into darkness while harming, rather than helping industry profits. The Academy Awards have almost become an R-rated film festival.

    In MOVIEGUIDE’s world the ultimate critic is God Himself. God tells us in the Bible what is good and what is evil. MOVIEGUIDE® attempts to hold movies up to these biblical standards and inform our readers and viewers how they measure up. Readers can judge for themselves if they wish to see a movie with an “LLL” rating for foul language. They can look at the content section and decide if they want to send their teenager to a movie with nudity and sex outside of marriage. MOVIEGUIDE® is not just a reviewer spouting opinions. Its a standards-based tool for considering whether or not to see a movie.

    Mr. Noble’s world is like a dark pit we must wait to be lifted out of. To some extent it is, but God didn’t put us here just to suffer in the darkness until He’s merciful enough to lift us out. He has us here as lights in the darkness. We’re here to shine that light in every corner and point others to the way out of the pit. We’re on a rescue mission. And, for as long as we’re here we have the job of making the pit as much like heaven as we can. Jesus told us to pray, “Thy will be done, in earth, as it is in heaven.” He didn’t tell us to pray that and then wait to be rescued. We’re supposed to have an attitude. We’re supposed to get after it, shine our light (His light), call for righteousness, set an example and change the world for the good. He can pull us out whenever He pleases. Let’s hope that when He does He can say to us, “Nice work, you did what I wanted you to.”

  • Pingback: Christ and Pop Culture | Movieguide: “Alan, You’re Wrong!” and CAPC Responds

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @David Outten – While we can debate the merits of transformationalism as a worldview, I’d like to point out that your reading of Alan’s intentions are flawed.

    You seem to have ascertained that Alan doesn’t believe in Christians making a difference in the world in which they sojourn. If Alan believed as you said, he wouldn’t be writing articles discussing Christianity and its relationship to pop-culture. And he certainly wouldn’t be writing to lightly criticize the methodology of Movieguide.

    The thing is, if I may be so bold as to comment on his behalf, Alan does think this stuff matters; however, he questions whether Movieguide’s methodology is as good as it should be.

    Whether or not the Christian’s goal on this earth is to bring justice and the veil of moral lives to the unwashed souls around is one thing, but what Alan questions is whether Movieguide is doing any favours to the kingdom of God through the standard by which it judges the merits of films. As well, the conception that these particularly listed Hollywood films contain or forward a Christian worldview is pretty debatable and is a perception that I think deserves to be challenged.

    From your last paragraph, I’m having trouble discerning what you (and by extension, perhaps, the rest of the Movieguide staff) believe the Great Commission to be about. You mention that we are lights in the darkness, but then make it sound like that light is a light to shine the force of truth upon the moral unwellness of the world around us. This does not seem to be light as Christ uses the term. The light we are to be is the light of the gospel, no? A light to show the way to Christ and life in his blood, not to direct people unto lives of moral living. Not that moral living is bad. The world might be a nicer place if everyone were nice Mormons. It wouldn’t be any closer to heaven, but it’d be convenient and crime would go down and we’d feel like we were living in a ’50s sitcom. So did I just read you wrong there?

    p.s. really, you guys should have a meeting and decide across the board to write Movieguide instead of MOVIEGUIDE®—it’s just makes you seems so, I dunno, full of yourselves.

    @Alan – feel free to correct anything I may have misstated, overstated, or understated. Also feel free to ask me to never reply on your behalf ever again ^_^

  • http://stillsearching.wordpress.com Brett McCracken

    This is a great post, Alan… And an important one. It’s important to not let this sort of retrograde buffoonery go uncriticized. I applaud you and hope that you take the quick and vicious denunciations by Movieguide staffers as something of a compliment! (incidentally, does Tom Snyder know that assertively questioning the intelligence of his opponent is no way to win an argument?)

    In any case, Alan points out many important questions and contradictions with respect to Movieguide. I am especially disturbed by the idea that “the message Baehr gives to filmmakers is that making a profit is more important than making something of excellence.” The general sense (from my experience with Movieguide and with Tom Snyder’s comment here) is that Movieguide equates box office success with artistic worthiness/family-friendly/Christian. As Snyder writes, “movies with very strong Christian worldviews… averaged the best box office of all dominant worldviews, and did three times better than movies with very strong immoral, non-Christian or Anti-Christian and Anti-Biblical worldviews.”

    First of all, I’m not sure this is true; second of all, it’s just absurd to think this way (i.e. using the box office to justify the merits of a film). This is like looking at what the top-selling menu items were at McDonalds last year and concluding that those items were, by and large, the most beneficial and uplifting for the consumer.
    Plus, if it is true that box office dominance=strong Christian worldviews, how do you explain that films on your list such as AUGUST RUSH, THE GREAT DEBATERS, and NANCY DREW made less money collectively than did an “abhorrent” sex comedy like SUPERBAD? How do you explain NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN earning twice as much money as AUGUST RUSH? Or THERE WILL BE BLOOD earning three times as much as THE ASTRONAUT FARMER?

    But it is making me ill just talking about the possibility of determining a film’s value through box office comparisons… It’s illogical and dangerous and helps no one, except maybe the Hollywood studios looking to churn out the next big “Christian movie cashcow.” (and yes, Movieguide, feel free to call this argument Marxist… it wouldn’t be the first time you did that).

    At the end of the day, Movieguide is a trifle that serves its own subscriber-only purpose. The rest of us (that is, Christians who actually care about discerning the true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and excellent in film) can take on the much less simplistic and yet ever-more rewarding task of truly encountering Truth at the movies.

  • http://chestertonianrambler.blogspot.com ChestertonianRambler

    I’m emjoying reading this argument, and certainly don’t want to fragment a seemingly productive discussion, but can we at least get past a few simple confusions:

    1) Alan’s comment about the statistical evaluation secular critics give to movies is a bit tangential to this discussion. Neither Alan (I think) nor Movieguide think that Christians should have the *exact same* standards as to how we judge films. Alan, feel free to correct me if I am wrong in supposing (based on your review of previous films) that at times you disagree with the critical establishment simply because of your Christian worldview.

    2) On the other hand, I think the IMMENSE financial returns of the pornography industry demonstrates that Movieguide’s assertion “The truth is you will make more money in the movie business on movies with good moral content” is equally problematic. Moreover, most people who have seriously studied the aesthetics of film recognize two general ways of making a film. You can make a film by adapting a story to traditional narrative structures (the “popular” route), or you can create films that make viewers question themselves and the world around them.

    Both film types are necessary–but the list presented by Movieguide tends to lean exceedingly to the “popular” side. To pull on two movies under discussion, the darkly existential world of “No Country for Old Men” assaults the viewer with the sinfulness of man, a sinfulness that cannot be escaped by human means (but we Christians know can be escaped through the power of God.) “Amazing Grace,” while telling a story of God’s work to end slavery through the efforts of Wilberforce, presents the secular humanist (but very human and largely true) message that “one man can make a difference in history.”

    Christ’s message, and the message of the gospels and of all true Christians, is a message of hope and redemption. But there are other messages of hope–and even other messages of redemption–that can serve both as signs pointing to Christ and as idols replacing our need for Him. The use of jarring narrative to undercut the potential idolatry of our comforting stories is perhaps one form of “excellence” that Movieguide tends not to recognize (unless, as in The Passion of the Christ, it also contains markers that directly identify it as Christian and religious art.)

  • Fireandmirth

    This debate here has unfortunately gone south. Charity is needed. Alan (a Christian) has made some incisive comments which have caused some pain to an organization (of Christians) who have dedicated their lives to serving God in the media. As Christians, I would hope that we could respond as brothers and not enemies. Unfortunately, all too often the technology of our day promotes harshness and foolishly rapid responses, obscuring Christian charity and thoughtfulness. We are called however to sharpen each other as iron sharpens iron.

    Some thoughts. Alan is concerned that Movieguide is promoting popular movies but not excellent movies. Movieguide is concerned that Alan’s ideal of excellence is worldly. The difficulty is that Alan and Movieguide come from two different Christian perspectives.

    Over the course of the last thirty years, Evangelicals have gradually been appropriating more and more of the culture at large. Whereas, it used to be the case that Evangelicals (like their Fundamentalist cousins) avoided things like dancing, card playing, movie attendance, etc, such Christians over half a century ago began to realize that such standards were not the same as the standards of holiness laid out in the Bible. In addition, a reawakening of scholarly Evangelicalism brought into the Church a shift in perspective, exemplified in part by such catch phrases as ‘all truth is God’s truth.’ This opened the door to the Evangelical appropriation of nearly all things (outside the truly horrendous or sexually perverted). I wouldn’t be surprised if most of us have been in a situation in which a friend has found Christian ‘allegory’ or value in what appears to be quite a destructive source. This wouldn’t have happened thirty years ago.

    Now, I am not going to argue against our new found freedom. I believe we in the Church held on to a number of unhelpful standards for far too long. I also believe God uses many things outside of our immediate understanding for his glory. That said, lately I fear we have become heady in our freedom and forgotten that we are still called to holiness. As James puts it ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world’ (1:27). Both Old and New Testaments are filled with such a dual call to personal holiness and social wholeness. Mainliners went off over a hundred years ago in pursuit of only the latter, and have faced many difficult lessons as a result. Evangelicals ought not make the same mistake.

    Perhaps you are asking, how does this relate to Movieguide and Alan? As Movieguide clearly doesn’t advocate that people avoid movies, I don’t think it’s as easy as putting the two on either side of the current shift in Evangelical trends. Rather, to be as charitable as possible, it would seem that Alan and Movieguide (or rather my perception of Alan and Movieguide) interpret the difficult concept of holiness differently. Movieguide clearly sets a high premium on purity. That’s something to celebrate. Purity is a good thing…a fact that “the Psalms, Job, Proverbs or Ecclesiastes” would all affirm.

    However, Alan and Movieguide also differ on the concept of excellence. Here the matter is trickier. Alan has on his side a select cadre of trained critics and their perspective on films. Movieguide has the box office returns and thus the vote of the masses. Both are faulty: as ChestertonianRambler notes, the porn industry also has a large box office. The critics, by contrast, frequently share very few of the values that we as Christians hold. But, in both cases, the implication is that Alan and Movieguide respectively vote with their preferred group. This is doubtful at best. Alan and Movieguide, having set conceptions of the Good, most likely vote first according to their own standards, and only later make any comparisons to the preferences of their ‘preferred’ group. At least, I would sincerely hope so. I really don’t believe that either the secular critic or the masses should set our viewing habits as Christians.

    But, all that said, I’d like to point out that excellence in the ‘high art’ sense, acceptable to even the snarkiest of critics, and excellence in the ‘contributing to redemption’ sense, attractive to the masses, don’t have to be at odds. Truly great films (too rare in my opinion for a ten best list) can pass the scrutiny of both test groups. In the Movieguide list Alan notes above, I would argue that Ratatouille is one such film. Here is a point I imagine where Movieguide and Alan can agree.

    In the end, do I think there is a place for mass-marketed movies that promote, even if not Christian values, then pre-Christian values? Yes. Would that there were more of such to inform the standards of our culture. However, do I also think there is a need for well-crafted films that show the highest artistic merit? Absolutely yes. Perhaps in a forced contest between the two options, as a Christian, I would side with the former set rather than the latter… because films, in the end, aren’t primary to my faith. But such a forced contest will never be, for fortunately we live in a world with enough films that fit into both categories, to keep me contented for the rest of my life.

  • Alan Noble

    Fireandmirth-

    Thanks for the thoughtful response and reminding us of the importance of charity. If there’s anything in my post that came off as uncharitable, that was not my intention.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Reading Fireandmirth’s response I was struck by the thought that we have done very little wrestling with the concept and call to purity (at least in the comments here). I think this might be an important direction to explore—as Movieguide’s primary goal is the promotion of such.

    I’d like to look first at what it means to meditate or think on whatever is pure.

    What we can say about this is that it is a good thing to level our thoughts on what is pure. We are admonished to spend time dwelling on that which is pure because a) it is pure and b) it does our souls good to do so.

    What we cannot say is that this means that we should dwell on whatever is pure to the exclusion of all else. Scripture itself speaks much to the condition of the unredeemed heart and to the world populated by unredeemed men—and then it advocates meditating on its words day and night. Further, though not as powerful an example as Scripture, we see that Movieguide staffers regularly think much about things that are far from pure as part of their service. If they are not to be admonished to quit their task and to think on whatever is pure, then we can feel safe in saying that we do not need to spend all of our time dwelling on what is pure and that it may even be occasionally beneficial to consider what is less than pure.

    Second, we should consider whether consideration of impurity makes one impure. There are a lot of assumptions going on that just cannot be challenged here due to space and time constraints, but I do think we should take up against the notion that impurity in film, when viewed by a believer, has any necessary sort of corrupting influence.

    Does watching a murderer at working cause one to think murderous thoughts or does it cause one to recoil in horror at that sickness of such a soul? Does watching a couple pursue an adulterous affair cause such a skewed ideal to take root in the viewer or might it demonstrate with force the evil of such an act? I think the answer is simply this: depends on the viewer.

    Some people can see a movie about a bank heist and not be tempted to theft or greed or envy, while others will certainly be so swayed. Some people can see a movie about a rebellious child and not rejoice in rebellion, while others while find wicked inspiration in that rebellion. Some can see a topless woman and not be torn apart by lust and adulterous thoughts, while others might be haunted by desires born of their own depravity.

    Everybody is different and I think the Bible is pretty clear on this. And further, I think that we who are adults are expected to act as adults, knowing ourselves and our own limitations. If I know that watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly will incite me to rejoice in iniquity perpetrated against characters in the film, then I should probably avoid the film and others of its mold.

    Jesus says that if one’s eye should offend then it may be plucked out, presuming (as well as the potential for offense) the possibility that the eye might not offend.

    This does not bear much relevance to whether Movieguide’s service of counting ills is worthwhile or not, but more concerns the fact that even if Movieguide’s approach is worthwhile, it is certainly far from the only adequate Christian manner by which to approach film.

    @Fireandmirth – I was saddened to see you place Ratatouille in the category of Great Films (especially after you said how rare such films were) as the film was only elevated above the mediocre by a couple inspired scenes. And while better than average, the film was still formulaic, typical, and a good step below greatness.

  • David

    This doesn’t really have much to do with the topic, but just for clarity sake…I don’t think any of our writers on this site endorse Dispensationalism. I am not even sure where that topic came from in the initial response by MovieGuide.

  • Fireandmirth

    Just two thoughts to The Dane. First, in support of Ratatouille, on the impersonal side, I’ll claim the critics in my defense. Rotten Tomato has Ratatouille at 100% according to ‘top critics’. On the personal side, I just must disagree. I find Ratatouille to be an excellent movie on many counts, from scripting and structure to animation to character and theme and story. Among food movies especially, I won’t commit the sacrilege of equating Ratatouille with Babet’s Feast, but I would rank it fairly high. Sorry: we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    Now your comments on purity. Agreed, it is true that different people handle different films differently. St. Paul notes similarly that what could be wrong for one person may not be wrong for another (eating food sacrificed to idols). However, there is a difference between being able to handle something and needing to handle it. I don’t count myself prone to violence. Given a high dose of violent films, I doubt I would be much effected. But, I don’t count that the best reason to run out and rent a violent film. For me, the violence in the film really needs to serve a viable end. And, incidentally, a viable end isn’t ‘this happens in real life.’ I don’t need to rent ‘Massacre at Bel Air Prep’ to know school shooters strike-out at prep schools. Of course, I’m not certain your advocating that either, so we may be on the same page.

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  • Alan Noble

    I would encourage anyone who is interested in our stance of film to read these two posts by Rich on its dangers and merits:

    The Dangers of Film
    and
    In Praise of Film
    Together, these pieces offer an insight into many of the issues that have been discussed here.

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  • Smith Stuart

    I really quit paying much attention to Movie Guide once I saw Ted Baehr commend the R-rated “Changeling” that features every single possible obscenity (visually and audibly) in the book. He even somehow got off showing partial nudity in one of the previews on his show on a “Christian” network for crying out loud! And he tells people that it’s okay because it’s “based on a true story” and “the woman loves her son”. Just drop the whole thing already! How do Christian reviewers get off thinking they are justified enough to go see these horribly filthy movies. Honestly, I think Ted Baehr has gone through so many profane movies that he has grown hard to the content over time.

    But that’s just my opinion, I don’t mean any personal offense by this… it’s just that sometimes Ted Baehr hits them, and sometimes he doesn’t.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Wow, the spectrum just shifted. From MOVIEGUIDE® being the extreme to, well… CAPC commenters. But that’s just my opinion, I don’t mean any personal offense by this.

    The Danes last blog post..20090417.teaParty

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