Counting Moral Indiscretions Is Not a Movie Review

My frustration with a recent movie review of Paranorman actually began a few months ago. I was preparing for a ministry trip to Tanzania; it’s a long flight, and I needed some stuff to read. A friend recommended Anansi Boys. (I have Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series on my “one day I’m going to read that” list because I do not currently have a graphic novel budget.) This considerably cheaper book would be a good start for reading Gaiman. I bought it and savored it on the long flight to Dar Es Salaam. I’ve become a fan. I even started following Neil Gaiman on Twitter. It’s a relationship in bloom.

So imagine my dismay when I read this retweet by Mr. Gaiman: “Review (spoilers) from Christian site of #paranorman. Love how right wing Christians are essentially pro-bullying now.” I was nonplussed. I am a right wing Christian, and I am certainly not pro-bullying. But he connects the two, and that is disheartening. You see, when I read Gaiman’s novels and tweets, I get this feeling that I’ve sort of been around him. Like a friend. So to learn he might have a negative image of a guy like me—a potential friend—well, it felt like a bucket of cold water. I’m probably pro-lots of things that Neil wouldn’t like very much, but if our friendship goes sour, I want it to go sour over things he can actually pin on me.

So I went and read this review at MovieGuide. In general, I appreciate what they are doing over there. They summarize a film’s content and give a count of language and themes that may be concerning. Before I take the kids to the movies, I need to know if something will be inappropriate for them. (I’m sure my friend Neil would agree.) MovieGuide offers this. Having said that, I have always felt that numbering expletives is a sort of strange way to review a movie. It is like dissecting the innards of a hamster to figure out if it might make an appropriate pet. You wind up killing the thing and you gain so very little context. But, it is helpful to know that The Big Lebowski has 260 f-bombs before you watch it. Not that this is the most egregious sin, but I find it to be a bit like flatulence in public. It is crude and rude. I do not particularly enjoy a 260 f-bomb experience.

But sometimes strong language expresses exactly the sentiment needed to drive the story to conclusion. Take, for example, my first viewing of The Princess Bride. I was in eighth grade, and we got to watch it as a year-end prize for good behavior. I loved Inigo, and I felt his agony over losing his father. I did not care about Westley’s love and Buttercup’s angst. I did not care about the kissing parts. I wanted Inigo to find the six-fingered man and cut out his heart. When the epic fight scene finally commenced, my teacher began to fast-forward through the scene (think VCR, people). I was aghast. Fortunately for us, she stopped a little early. Actually, she stopped perfectly, in the final dialogue between the six-fingered man and Inigo. When the six-fingered man pled for his life, Inigo told him to promise him anything he wanted. “All that I have and more…” the six-fingered man replied. Inigo twisted the dagger into him and said, “I want my father back, you son of a bitch.” My teacher was trying to skip the very scene that made the movie work because she wanted to spare our ears from the only cuss word. I have carried that scene with me for over two decades, and I might have missed it for the counting of cuss words.

There is a point in counting expletives like MovieGuide does; it helps a parent know whether they would want to take their children to a movie or stay home and play Uno. But what upset Neil Gaiman’s buddy, and I think Neil himself, was the heart of the review. What, exactly, are we supposed to take away from a line like this, “Strong Romantic political correctness against bullying and intolerance of people who are different.” Isn’t bullying a universal evil that ought to be condemned, whether for PC romanticism or otherwise? MovieGuide’s review was also concerned about the film’s occult activity and a few other themes that might have an adverse affect on the minds of young children. But on the whole, MovieGuide’s critique cut out the heart of the movie.

Here’s what I suggest: read that review, and then read Russell Moore’s review. Both are written by evangelical conservatives. They both share the same concerns. But this excerpt from Dr. Moore sets the two apart:

Is it true that some past generations of Christians have used Caesar’s sword for ends Jesus expressly forbade, that is the advancement of his kingdom and the purity of his church? Yes. Is it true that some Christians have sometimes spoken to the outside world more in fear than, as Jesus did, with tears and pleadings for repentance? No doubt. Does that mean the caricatures of persecuting Puritans apply to those who maintain that human flourishing depends on certain limits to sexual and economic and other forms of rapaciousness? No.

Still, it’s good at times to eavesdrop on our neighbors’ conversations, at least those they make into movies and invite us to watch and consider. Such depictions might encourage us to think about our tone. 

Dr. Moore’s review mentions the same concerns, but it adds how it might be helpful for us to view those concerns. That’s what Neil Gaiman’s tweet did for me. I don’t want Neil Gaiman to think we are all pro-bully. And when he sees Christians talking about issues of morality, I don’t want him to think that our morality boils down to our counting words or objectionable scenes. What would one gather from such a listing of immoral conduct? That a movie is okay with a little cussing but not a lot? Five expletives verses one? Parents only slightly clueless as opposed to completely inept? Rather, I hope that he will see that what we are talking about flows from the teaching of Christ Jesus himself, so that, in the end, he wouldn’t be rejecting Christianity because of Christian jerks, but rather because he just doesn’t like Jesus.

My hope and reason for even writing about Christ and Pop Culture is to create a platform where we can both critique and enjoy works of art in their various popular forms. It is our way of watching and considering what the world around us is saying. Hopefully, reviews that seek to measure the family-friendliness of a movie will do fewer word counts and deal more with the over-arching narrative of the stories themselves. It’s the story that has the potential to stick with us for decades to come.

About Brad Williams

Brad is the pastor of a Baptist church in a small town in Alabama. Brad has a lovely wife, two children, two dogs, a cat, a turtle, and five bee hives. Besides the incredible fact that he managed to persuade his wife to marry him, he is proud that he served six years in the Army National Guard, managed to graduate college with an English Lit. degree, graduate seminary, and finish the original Bard's Tale as a youngster by making maps on graph paper.


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