The Moviegoer: Better Moral Discernment Requires the Cultivation of the Imagination

Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.

Last week, Plugged In blogger Paul Asay wrote a post on Christians and movies in reference to Philippians 4:8. His post is titled “Sorting out the Good, the Bad and the Excellent.” The author begins by affirming the oft-cited premise that Philippians 4:8 is a challenge to Christians’ consideration of what movies they should or shouldn’t see, because Paul is concerned with what we allow to influence us. Asay writes:

I believe that God really does like for us all to concentrate on the true and the noble and the lovely. Plugged In is founded on that premise, and we want to give you the tools to maximize your chances to see good movies and minimize your exposure to the bad ones. (We’re speaking morally in this context, by the way, not artistically. That’s another issue maybe we’ll tackle another day.)

The citation of Philippians 4:8 in reference to how Christians ought to interact with media is often used in this way. However, it tends to raise more questions than it answers: What constitutes a “good” movie? What are the “bad” movies to which we should minimize our exposure? And if Philippians 4:8 doesn’t clarify these questions, is it really all that helpful or relevant to the question of artistic themes?

The Philippians 4:8 line of reasoning is so prevalent that it became the subject of one of Christ and Pop Culture‘s most popular posts to date. Prompted by an interaction with Movieguide, Ben Bartlett penned a post considering what the verse really means. After considering the verse in a helpful word-for-word analysis, Bartlett concludes:

Philippians 4:8 is… not telling us to avoid seeing themes of sin, even when those themes are portrayed negatively (and thus truthfully). Instead, I think we can say it is a call to wisdom and discernment—a call to describe what is right and what is wrong. It asks that we think carefully and deeply about the world around us, and seek to emulate those things that are true and beautiful and right in society. How will we know the right from the wrong if we refuse to spend time comparing them?

There are limits, of course. We should not view things we know will immediately draw us into sin. We should never pursue sinful desires and then vindicate ourselves by claiming we were just, “thinking critically.” And yes, we SHOULD have some value for artistic themes that truthfully mirror the redemptive themes in Scripture.

However, true discernment is able to see the truth in artistic expression whether it portrays the actual moment of redemption or not. A story that portrays sin as destructive and evil is speaking more truly than a movie that portrays human love as offering ultimate redemption. As Christians, we must be able to see the difference between the two as they compare to the truth of Scripture.

I touched on Bartlett’s last point about easy redemptions in my feature, “Of Oscar Nominees and Disgruntled Critics.” And Bartlett’s conclusion gets at the potential problem with applying Philippians 4:8 to the task of Christian discernment in various cultural, artistic, and media spheres. Namely, that there’s a tendency to apply “good” and “bad” to content divorced from context.

To Asay’s credit, he goes on to address this issue to some degree:

Here’s the rub though: Good and bad often intermingle in the same two-hour film. What are we supposed to do with that?

We’re all part of God’s wonderful creation. Augustine tells us that it’s impossible for evil to create anything, which means that anything that is—anything that exists—contains elements of God’s boundless awesomeness.

True enough. But then what does the author use to illustrate this point? Soul Surfer and the “problem” of women portrayed in their bikinis. (Oy!) Asay really seems to be struggling between what he knows is true and what he knows his Focus on the Family readers (and higher ups?) will demand of him when he oscillates here:

In the comments string last Friday, readers brought up a bevy of movies with problematic content that still have a purpose: The King’s Speech. The Descendents. Slumdog Millionaire. All are harsh in their own ways. Two are rated R. But all have lessons to teach if you’re looking for them.

Don’t take that last statement as justification. Just because movies might have lessons in them doesn’t mean we should go see them. Lots of you wrote in to tell us about how watching content-laden movies sometimes affects how you act.

These two paragraphs together evince the back-and-forth of a conflicted — perhaps compromised — author. One issue that needs to be stated baldly is that people who are so easily affected by content (regardless of context) need to consider that they might have less of a movie problem and more of a regeneration/sanctification problem. In other words, Christians should be growing in such a way that their desire for what is true, beautiful, and good is growing and base desires are subsiding. That personal issue aside, part of growing in discernment is being able to recognize when a film, for instance, is conveying the good and the bad truthfully.

Yet, what’s most worth questioning about Asay’s article, then, is his willingness to make a dichotomy between the ethical and the aesthetic. To highlight a section from the initial quote above, the author comments:

[Plugged In] want[s] to give you the tools to maximize your chances to see good movies and minimize your exposure to the bad ones. (We’re speaking morally in this context, by the way, not artistically….)

While I understand what Asay means, I think making this type of distinction is precisely where many Christian film critics misunderstand a crucial aspect of assessing film in the discerning way that they intend. Considering the moral tenor of a film has far more to do with how a film treats its content than with the specific content itself. (Which is not to say that the latter does not matter, merely that the former is significantly overlooked given its importance.) If the qualities that constitute effective storytelling are not done well, then the specific message of that story, however moral, will be compromised by virtue of these aesthetic failures.

Why have we come to make a rigid separation between content and context, between the what and the how, between the ethical and the aesthetic? Too many reasons to fit within the scope of this article, I’m afraid. Suffice to say, moral issues cannot be considered well when divorced from narrative context. This means that ethics are inextricably interwoven in good storytelling, or put differently, the Christian message is not something that can be properly depicted or considered apart from aesthetic considerations.

This is evident in Peter Leithart’s latest column for First Things, “Messages at the Movies.” Leithart begins the article by endorsing the pro-life message presented in October Baby, but then goes on to say,

As a film, though, October Baby fails. No convincing explanation is given as to why Hannah’s parents withheld her adoption so long. Hannah’s mother never comes into focus. Alanna (Colleen Trusler), Hannah’s rival for the love of her childhood friend Jason (Jason Burkey), is unbearable, raising uncomfortable questions about Jason’s taste in women. The side characters—Hannah’s friends with whom she takes a long road trip—are as enjoyable as any movie-cliché crazies can be.

The deeper problem is that the film is more message than movie.

These kind of consistent failures at storytelling do not just reflect poorly on evangelicals’ artistic and cultural output; they are also indicative of an inability to imagine the good. I think it’s lost on many well-meaning people that moral failures are often failures of the imagination. The inability to see the ethical embedded within life’s narrative reflects a diminished understanding of how God’s law of love plays out in the larger story of redemption. Which is to say, we need to come to a place where we can better imagine why and how the good is good and the bad is bad for individual persons, neighborhoods, communities, and the unique settings and cultures they inhabit.

Web sites like Plugged In are helpful to parents who want to know beforehand what their young ones — with naturally underdeveloped critical and discerning capacity — might be viewing. But if mature moviegoers are truly concerned with discernment, then they’d better start cultivating finer imaginations that are oriented in such a way so as to desire what is good. Then we might be more judicious in our critical evaluation of stories, better at recognizing that which we should truly avoid at the cineplex (hint: it’s not governed by the ratings system), and more adept at telling good stories, which will by nature convey more implicitly compelling “messages.”

About Nick Olson

Nick Olson (Associate Editor) loves the Triune God, his family, the arts, and culture. In 2010, he graduated with his MA in English from Liberty University. He now resides in central PA with his wife, Eliza, and their young son. When he’s not reading, watching films, grading papers, or enjoying his backyard, he’s plotting in hopes to pursue a PhD in American Literature with socio-philosophical emphases. He takes a James Hunter-approach to culture: affirmation and antithesis, but always in love. He watches the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NBA, and thinks that Colbert is often right, but always funny. Nick strives to live day-to-day in the eschatological Light that is the hope of the resurrected Christ. He’s written for Filmwell, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Think Christian, Curator, and Literature & Belief.
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  • http://adventures-in-cinema.blogspot.com/ Andrew Welch

    Great post, Nick. Looking beyond just Christian film critics, what you wrote reminded me of something that David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson write about in their classic textbook, “Film Art.” I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially they say you have to look at a film as one whole piece. Everything–the narrative, the visual framing, the soundtrack, the editing, etc–should all be working together. If you separate one element–and in this case it would be the content–from everything else, then you’re not looking at it the way it was intended to be viewed. Instead, you have to ask what that element’s function is in relation to the whole. Once you do that, it brings so many other elements about a movie into sharper focus. If only more Christian moviegoers would seriously (rather than rhetorically) ask that question: “Why is this here?”

  • Nick

    Hey Andrew! I appreciate it, and I’m glad for your comment, which speaks directly to the issue. I may need to get my hands on that textbook you’re referencing…

  • Amber

    Hit the nail on the head here, Nick (to use a bad cliche – but you get the idea). Alarms starting going off in my mind as soon as I read Asay’s comment that “[w]e’re speaking morally in this context, by the way, not artistically.” How and why would you separate the two? We do a terrible disservice to ourselves, our art, and, I’d argue, to our understand of God, Christ, and His manifestation in our world when we as believers separate the medium and the message (or, pretend to — since they can never truly BE separated). Your second to last paragraph here is excellent — reminds me of Wendall Berry’s comment in a recent lecture that our inability to love is essentially a failure of imagination (my poor paraphrase).

    In short: preach it, brother.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/LoveLifeLitGod KSP

    Great post! I’ll be sharing.

  • Jamison

    I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot lately. I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connors essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer”.

    “If the average Catholic reader could be tracked down through the swamps of letters-to-the-editor and other places where he momentarily reveals himself, he would be found to be something of a Manichean. By separating nature and grace as much as possible, he has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliche and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene. He would seem to prefer the former, while being more of an authority on the latter, but the similarity between the two generally escapes him. He forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment, usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence; and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite.

    We lost our innocence in the fall of our first parents, and our return to it is through the redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite. Pornography, on the other hand, is essentially sentimental, for it leaves out the connection of sex with its hard purposes, disconnects it from its meaning in life and makes it simply an experience for its own sake.”

  • Nick

    Amber–thanks! And you’re right: it’s an issue of medium and message. I’d love to listen to that Wendell Berry lecture at some point. You’ll have to pass along that link at some point.

    Jamison–I love O’Connor, and yours is an apt citation of MYSTERY AND MANNERS. Good call there.

    KSP–Thanks–I appreciate it. :)

  • Amber

    Jamison’s quote of O’Connor reminds me of an email I recently received from a student complaining about a text assigned for class because of all the swear words — which the student ended by LISTING all the language he found objectionable. “An authority on the [obscene]” indeed.


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