Anybody Want to Answer My Email Today?

Here’s today’s email…

I post this simply because a few people have asked me recently if there are still Christians out there who hold onto this condemning reaction to art and culture. They seemed certain that if there are such people, there are only a few isolated folks out there who think this way, and I should just ignore them.

But I am convinced that there is still a vast community out there who write off movies (and other forms of art as well) as “a lost cause” … as so corrupt and evil that “true believers” will have nothing to do with them.

If we just ignore this unnervingly common perspective , or hope it wil go away, very little will change. In fact, when I do interviews on the radio about movies, I often get questions from listeners who seem genuinely bewildered about why a Christian would ever bother to set foot in a movie theater at all.

I remember having a similar perspective when I was very young. I’m grateful to great Christian writers like C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Philip Yancey, G.K. Chesterton, and D. Bruce Lockerbie who took the time to teach me, and helped open my eyes to the revelation of God’s glory in art. In fact, I’ve become convinced that there would be a lot more great art, more beauty, and more truth in the public square if those Christians who have removed themselves for fear of contamination would return and engage with culture the way Christ and the apostles modeled for us.

Feel free to respond if you like. I’ve got a busy day with the press screening for Margot at the Wedding and then writing a review of Into the Wild for Response magazine.

Well, I hardly know where to begin. The whole argument is lashon hara (evil tongue), to begin with; both on the part of Baehr and his supporters and his detractors. However, the whole question of “Christian” movie reviews is disingenious to say the least. Why on earth would anyone calling themselves followers of Yahshua (Jesus) admit to sitting through one of these filthy movies in order to “review” and rate it for other “Christians”? This is simply incredible to me.

I would not contaminate my mind by viewing this filth under any circumstance. It is not rocket science to discern that Hollywood is making nothing but smut, or at the very least promulgating lies, distortions and defamation of our Creator. Case in point: Evan Almighty. To think they would use a human being to represent “God” violates the first Commandment immediately, to say nothing of the rest of the trash that is no doubt in the movie, which probably has a few platitudes about goodness to lull the so-called Christians into a false sense of propriety.

I know these words seem harsh, but for Heaven’s sake, WAKE UP and read the Scriptures instead of wasting precious time (of which we have little remaining) on such garbage as this, then squabbling among ourselves about who is the worst. My God! What does Jesus think of such nonsense?

I could send him a copy of Through a Screen Darkly, which is basically a book-length response to this email about just how often, and in how many ways, God has drawn me closer to him through truth and beauty manifested on the big screen. But I’m not so sure this person would be willing to read it.

Of course, I do sometimes hear from people of the extreme-opposite perspective, who think that I must be some kind of puritanical judge of culture because I write about movies for a Christian publication.

Take this fellow, for example. I did write back to this guy, who sent me the following message on September 18. I asked him, very simply, if he would please point out some examples of how my reviews actually carry out the evils he’s describing here, and he never replied.

Mr. Overstreet,

It is very rare that I contact a writer in relation to how sincerely bad it is, but your movie reviews are beyond terrible; they are moral pomposity disguised as intelligent “cultural interaction.” If you were simply a Christian writing movie reviews I would expect extremely good insight into the moral questions, spiritual successes and insights, and general penetrativeness of modern film. Instead, you are a “Christian movie reviewer” which means you spend your time worshiping at the altar of family values and selling your critical insight at the cost of stars = the “should-ness” of conservative movie watching. I’m sure that you spend your time listening to, communicating with, and generally prostituting yourself out to the coporate conservative monster, and so consider this the voice of the silent majority who never read your claptrap because they have given up on partisan arts-reviewers when they realized that art is a universal medium, not a body of morally suspect material to be criticized by, basically, another Christian intellectual-whore. Christians have branched out a great deal; maybe its time for you to work outside the morally-antiseptic boundaries you have limited yourself to or by which have been limited. As it stands, you should just review movies with a “safe” or “non-safe” label. Everything else you write is useless.

Uncurteously,

[writer's name deleted, just because I'm really not such a bad guy]
Methodist Theological School in Ohio
3081 Columbus Pike
Delaware OH, 43015

Perhaps I should not post such things for all the world to see.

I mean, I wouldn’t want to give anybody the worrying impression that Christians ever fail to treat each other with grace, or that we speak to each other with hatred and condemnation.

They’ll know we are Christians by our love… right?

Right?

[Update: In your comments, please respond with respect and grace, whatever perspective you have on the issue. If I receive comments that seem inflammatory or demeaning, I don't care if you're agreeing with me or not... I'll delete them. Sorry to bother with notes like this, but unfortunately, due to a few disruptive comments, it's become necessary. Feel free to argue, but follow the Comments Policy posted in the right-hand sidebar.]
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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • http://lookingcloser.org Jeffrey Overstreet

    Bringing this thread back around to the original topic — the unsurprising fact that I continue to receive mail from people who want to slap “too liberal” or “too conservative” labels on me, and that some are content to sum up the whole of contemporary cinema as “smut” and “filth” — I should make it clear that I will not allow comments here that take us off-topic, or that lead us into name-calling and condemnation.

    I’ve just had to discard some new comments that came in because they were off-topic, full of accusation, and frankly rather disrespectful to many who frequent and comment on this blog. I don’t discourage debate here, but I will delete comments that seem disrespectful and inflammatory.

    If you want to insult or judge those of us who find meaning in contemporary movies, you’re welcome to go do that on you own blog. I am not condemning those who choose to avoid those movies. For some, that will be the right choice. And they’re welcome here so long as they don’t abuse the Comments privilege by holding forth about why those of us who find meaning in contemporary film are just dealing in trash.

    I’m interested in dialogue, and I *frequently* have conversations with people who disagree with me. I have only closed a couple of comment-threads here, and both of those were due to the an individual who took us far off-topic.

    So I disagree with the message I just received accusing me of surrounding myself with “yes men” (or “yes women”) for that matter here. Some of the “regulars” here have offered valuable critique when I’ve needed it. I learned to seek out contrary opinions back in college, and to make friends with folks who would be brave enough to offer constructive criticism. Only a fool spurns wise reproof, and I have learned a lot by accepting some the observations of some critics and rejecting those criticisms that seemed unhelpful.

    But I also learned the difference between critical discernment and mean-spirited put-downs. I’m not interested in posting long lectures from folks who want to slap labels like “Left Wing” and “filth” on the movies that we discuss here. That only stirs up contention and anger. I’m interested in conversation about art with people who will go beyond insulting generalizations.

    So I’m cutting off comments at this point, unless those comments address the original purpose of this post.

  • http://lookingcloser.org Jeffrey Overstreet

    Bubba said:

    There are Christians who do not engage in the secular culture as much as others: the former group is often tempted to look down on the latter as debauched, but the latter is equally tempted to sneer back that the latter are uncultured Philistines.

    And I say, hear hear!!

    If we must disagree, let’s disagree with grace.

  • fritzl

    God represented as a human being! That could be disastrous! Think of the consequences! “What does Jesus think of such nonsense” indeed.

  • Bubba

    Tim:

    Unfortunately, the pietistic arrogance of a certain segment of the body is very vocal and these types of people are usually the ones to speak most loudly as they puff themselves up with pride because they are too “holy” to engage in such trivial matters as music, film and the arts. Sad that they will miss the glimpses of the transcendant that the arts reveal to us. Meanwhile, their neighbors continue to have their worldviews shaped and affirmed by the culture while on the path to destruction. It’s OK with them, I guess. All long as they have their theology “right” and can remain safe in their “Christian” sub-culture they are fine with it.

    Is it possible that the people you’re criticizing aren’t the only ones displaying a little arrogance?

    There are Christians who do not engage in the secular culture as much as others: the former group is often tempted to look down on the latter as debauched, but the latter is equally tempted to sneer back that the latter are uncultured Philistines.

    It is a delicate balance: we’re taught that it’s not inherently sinful to eat meat offered to idols, but we’re also taught not to behave in a way as to cause other Christians to stumble. We’re supposed to let our light shine in the world, and not withdraw and thereby hide our light, but we’re also supposed to remain distinct from the world, so that as salt we do not lose our saltiness.

    And we are taught to pluck out our eyes if they cause us to sin. That’s a very personal matter, as one person (like myself) can watch Fight Club and reflect on how humanity’s gone astray while another can’t help but want to start his own “Project Mayhem.”

    Other Christians have reached a different decision than you as to what is commendable in art, and as to where the good outweighs the bad. It’s almost certain that those decisions fall to your left and to your right — that some think even musical instruments shouldn’t be played in church while some justify watching prurient movies because of their thin veneer of cultural value — and it’s likewise certain that some people in all camps have made their decision for the wrong reasons.

    Certainly, you shouldn’t act as if the differences don’t matter, but you should accept the possibility that some who you would dismiss as prudes are as sincere in their beliefs as you are in yours, that some may even be more spiritually mature than you, and even that some may have a point to their criticism.

    To presume that these people care nothing for evangelism is not a mark of humility and patience.

  • truerthantruth

    Jeffrey, your patience and grace in situations like is a blessing to me. I’ve received a few letters like this (only a few) over the years, but I’ve sadly responded with scorn and harsh words.

    I’m finding that dualistic mindset present in the first letter is becoming more rare, but it’s still out there. Ugh.

  • spudv

    As acerbic as the second letter was, I may borrow something from the beginning and end. How many blogs could carry the tagline: “moral pomposity disguised as intelligent cultural interaction”? It almost seems like a badge of honor! To me it signals someone reading the posts closely enough to (attempt to) discern between the former and the latter. The closing salutation “Uncourteously” was a chuckler – I’m trying to be civil but will still stick it to you. It makes you wonder what they’re teaching at Methodist schools.

    My Pastor reminded us during a Wed. night class about the beauty of God and if we consider him beautiful. How is God’s beauty manifested? Is it a form of worship to express God’s beauty through art that glorifies Him? I believe so, but it can be tricky to determine what art glorifies the Lord or if it’s just amusement.

  • Tim Berroth

    Jeffrey—As a fellow reviewer I can tell you that opposition from within the Body will always be. All we can do is continue to interact, discuss and enlighten with a spirit of humility and patience.
    Unfortunately, I was once on the other side and can relate to their misguided point of view. When I became a believer, I withdrew from engaging culture and the arts. (I am still now catching up on all that I missed during those years of never seeing a movie and throwing out all my CD’s!)
    It took a lot of study and discussion with patient men and the reading of many books to convince me of the error of what I had been taught. I am thankful for those that took time to make me aware of my ignorance.
    Will the tide ever turn? I am hopeful for the future, but the evangelical climate as it is shows that there is much work to do–as evidenced by these two men’s letters.

    Unfortunately, the pietistic arrogance of a certain segment of the body is very vocal and these types of people are usually the ones to speak most loudly as they puff themselves up with pride because they are too “holy” to engage in such trivial matters as music, film and the arts. Sad that they will miss the glimpses of the transcendant that the arts reveal to us. Meanwhile, their neighbors continue to have their worldviews shaped and affirmed by the culture while on the path to destruction. It’s OK with them, I guess. All long as they have their theology “right” and can remain safe in their “Christian” sub-culture they are fine with it.

  • http://www.besidethequeue.wordpress.com besidethequeue

    It’s too bad that disagreements regarding things like film, or art in general, don’t lead to discussion more often. What better way is there to discuss truth, goodness, and beauty: the gospel, than through the iconographic windows of art?!

    As I have mentioned before, I too have been very encouraged by your reviews and insights. Thanks for doing what you do and putting up with such rude remarks.

    *Will be eagerly anticipaing your “Into the Wild” review….

  • http://www.CriesOfTheHeart.com criesoftheheart

    Wow…
    All I can say, Jeffrey, is that I appreciate you and your gifts immensely. Please be encouraged and know that for every email like that, there are significantly more people (I believe) that receive and understand what you do (and how you ARE called to do it).
    I’ve recommended “Through A Screen Darkly” to many friends, and have already re-read it. It’s made a big impact on me, so thank you for that.
    Sadly, i DO have to say that I gave it the old college try to sit through “Wings Of Desire”, but didn’t succeed. The subtitles were just flying by too fast for me (those Germans talk fast!). Did the movie immediately impact you, or did you have to give it a few times? I’m willing to give it another shot if necessary. ;-)
    Thanks again, and keep up the good work…
    Paul J.

  • http://youtube.com/moviebuzzreviewdude Brandon

    Wow. That second one was really fiery. I think it’s admirable that you strive to answer them with grace rather than scorn. This guy accused you of being morally pompous but in my opinion it seems he’s the one with moral pomposity. And really, the letter seems little more than a bunch of fancy words jumbled together. He even says “consider this the voice of the silent majority who never reads your claptrap” – if he never reads you how can he claim to know anything about your writing?

  • http://lookingcloser.org Jeffrey Overstreet

    Thank you, Brendan.

    I’ve often made these exchanges much worse by reacting with scorn. I’ve actually made a few friends on the few times I’ve managed to exercise any kind of restraint.

    I appreciate your recollection of that chapter in this context.

  • http://threebrothers.org/brendan/ Brendan Ribera

    I had all sorts of witty and acerbic things to say, but (for some reason) I remembered Proverbs 15:1 — A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

    That chapter is teeming with verses that seem applicable here, both for condemning the sorts of email you’re receiving, and for tempering reactions like the ones to which I’m prone:

    - The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.

    - A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.

    - The lips of the wise spread knowledge; not so the hearts of fools.

    - The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly.

    - A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to nger quiets contention.

    - The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.

    - The fear of the LORD is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor.


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