This article was originally published in 2001 at Christianity Today in July 2001.
Many Looking Closer readers and visitors to Film Forum (my Thursday column at Christianity Today) persist in telling me that Christians have no place at R-rated movies. If you ask them why, they’ll usually agree that such films threaten audiences with a list of corrupting influences: bad language, violence, and nudity.
Yet others find many “restricted” films to be as meaningful and challenging as films that fall on the “safe” side of the line.
It’s an important argument, raising questions about the purpose of art, the responsibilities of artists and audiences, the demands of parenting, and the state of the current film ratings system. It also calls into question the proper definitions of various terms: obscenity, profanity, violence, pornography, erotic, sex, and lust, to name a few.
Nudity is a timely and volatile subject to explore first. Recently, the action flick Swordfish was celebrated by the entertainment press. Half the film’s press coverage dished on the apparently monumental news that the supporting actress was going to appear topless. The film, more commercial entertainment than art, did big business. The studio shamelessly used the nudity as one (two?) of the movie’s hottest selling points and even teased us with it in the ads. Rumors flew that Warner Bros. had paid an alarming fee for the actress to drop her dress.
Whatever happened behind the scenes, movie studio executives have learned their lesson well: sex sells, and many are not afraid to capitalize on that fact.
Exploitation and excess can easily turn conscientious viewers against the industry. And who would dare speak ill of a person who listens to the voice of conscience? But alas, in this conversation about extremes, something gets lost: The question of artistic freedom, and whether or not the naked human form is a worthy subject for an artist. Is there an appropriate use of nudity on the big screen? Should all birthday suits be banned?
I posed these questions to a variety of writers and critics who contribute to popular religious media periodicals and websites. They were generous in sharing their carefully phrased opinions. It pains me to abbreviate any of their well-rounded arguments; all of them had worthwhile contributions. (So far I’ve heard from only one woman.)
Here is a brief sampling of what they had to say, followed by a few excerpts from Film Forum readers.
Critics Bare Their Thoughts
Ron Reed — playwright/actor/Artistic Director of Pacific Theatre in Vancouver, B.C. — defends free use of the human form in art. “The human body — and human sexuality in general — should not be excluded from film,” hesays, “nor should such art be avoided by Christians. God gave us the arts as a way to explore all aspects of humanity and divinity, to consider what it is to be human as well as what it is to relate to God. The individual believer is the one who is responsible before God to decide what works of art they should or should not experience at what season in their life. But being timid and overcautious about what we experience-whether in art or in life-isn’t necessarily more likely to lead to spiritual health than is the opposite approach.”
Steve Lansingh, Webmaster at The Film Forum, offers a personal testimony: “One of the great lies American Christians tell our men is to stay away from nudity in order to avoid sexual temptation. As a teenager I had no idea there was any other way to deal with lust other than avoidance, and the effects of that tactic still haunt me today. I developed a sort of detachment to life, trying not to let the physical world around me affect my mental or spiritual state. To this day I’d rather write about a problem than help someone with one; I pray intellectually rather than experientially; I remain Gnostic in practice if not in principle, and must fight it every day. Trying to reunite mind and body has been the most helpful tactic for me in fighting the visual sexual temptation of the movies; the more I’m conscious of sex as both physical and mental, the harder it is to be aroused by a mere image. The more I’m aware of God’s design of the sexes for each other, the easier it is to see the human body as God’s glory rather than Satan’s tool. To understand who we are as human beings, and who the God who created us is, we need to address the sexual life. I don’t know if it can be done properly without nakedness.”
Lansingh draws a distinction between artful nudity and pornography. “[Pornography] doesn’t necessarily have to include nudity. There is pornographic violence, pornographic advertising, pornographic sentiment, and pornographic evangelism. As a whole, I define pornography as anything that promises satisfaction from empty experience — from self-esteem through Gatorade to the gift of life through cheap grace.” Personal responsibility, he suggests, is the key to navigating these waters. “Temptation will still arrive, from TV ads to tank tops, and must be addressed in a Christian’s life regardless of one’s moviegoing habits.”
For David Bruce, Webmaster at HollywoodJesus.com, it’s not a complicated issue. “Secular films are the reflection of the secular world,” he writes. “I approach the subject matter like any missionary would. Would a missionary avoid ‘half dressed’ natives or their native stories? No. Neither do I. We are in the culture as ambassadors for Christ. Movies are stories of the secular culture. I truly do not sweat nudity.”
J. Robert Parks, film critic for the Hyde Park Herald and The Phantom Tollbooth Web site, has strong words for the Church in this matter: “The contemporary church’s obsession with nudity is misguided, misleading, and even harmful. Misguided because we all know that we can be provoked to lust by a lot less than nudity. The James Bond films have certainly taught us that. Misleading because the emphasis on nudity (and swearing) distracts us from equally egregious temptations. The Bible is much more concerned with money and materialism than it is with nudity and lust, and yet few Christians are concerned with Hollywood’s blatant glorification of materialist excess, a problem I believe has greatly infected the church. Finally, harmful because our focus on the negative aspects of nudity and sex often skew our perspective and lead us to denigrate something that God sees as beautiful and sacred. … I don’t believe that seeing a naked woman or man is necessarily wrong. However, if looking at nudity provokes me to lust, then I have to examine my own heart and allow the Holy Spirit to redeem that part of my life and/or flee from that temptation.”
Matthew Prins, freelancer and reviewer for The Christian Century: “Need I refrain? It depends on my state of mind, who I’m seeing [the movie] with (seeing it with my wife, for example, could color the situation differently), [and] how my relationship is with God. I don’t see a difference between a man lusting after Halle Berry, Mona Lisa, or The Little Mermaid‘s Ariel. I don’t think the essentialness of the nudity to the story is going to dictate whether someone is tempted to sin because of it. My short answer then: there is no short answer.”
“I wouldn’t encourage adults to skip movies that have nudity in them any more than I would recommend avoiding art galleries or spas or health books or any representation of human existence,” writes Doug Cummings, the Chiaroscuro Webmaster. “The problem is generally not nakedness itself, but the commercial glorification of false ideals. Our culture is obsessed with body image and physical self-worth. It results in everything from anorexia to body modification. Human nakedness (and by implication, sexuality) is a beautiful thing to be cherished, but we can distort it through our fallen perspectives.” He would re-direct our concerns to the effect of the work as a whole on its audience. “What movies are ultimately saying — and how we read them — is a lot more important than rigid classifications of their content. A film like Eyes Wide Shut may even be billed as a spicy erotic thriller, but when it’s all said and done, adult viewers leave the theatre chewing on the importance of marriage fidelity and commitment. It’s one of the most morally minded films I’ve seen in years.”
Holly McClure is a syndicated movie critic for the Orange County Register and for Crosswalk.com. Her latest book Death by Entertainment — Exposing Hollywood’s Seductive Power on You and Your Family — will be in stores in August. For McClure, the determining factors lie in “how [nudity] is used — if it is in context with the story and not if it’s used for the sheer purpose of titillation. Films where nudity is exploited or used to seduce the audience is what we should avoid. … A creative director doesn’t need to use full nudity to get a passionate scene. Romance works better when the audience has to use [its] imagination.”
Michael Elliott, film critic and founder of Movie Parables, argues, “I don’t believe any critic (or noncritic for that matter) can determine for another individual what is or is not appropriate for viewing. Each of us responds differently to stimuli, with different levels of spiritual maturity. Some may find a scene containing nudity to be salacious and offensive; others may not be offended by it at all. How a director uses nudity will certainly be a factor in how it will be perceived by the public.” He cites Swordfish‘s nudity as an example of mere indulgence. However, “Requiem For a Dream depicts the downward spiral that occurs when people become dependent upon drugs. The level to which a young woman sank, debasing her body in order to get a ‘fix,’ was horrifying and sent as effective an anti-drug message as any film I’ve seen.”
Peter T. Chattaway, published in various Vancouver newspapers, Books & Culture and Christianity Today, and an associate editor at BC Christian News, writes about his favorite film of 1999 — The Dreamlife of Angels. “To shy away from the nudity, in a film that is all about relationships, and in a film where a few of those relationships happen to be sexual, would work against the film, not for it. And that was a film that had profound significance from a Christian point of view.”
Personally, as I scan most movie reviews in Christian publications, I am frustrated at how quickly they discredit films merely because they include nudity … or bad language, or violence, or any occurrence that may well reflect the truth of the world around us. If censors removed nudity from some of the cinematic stories that have powerfully affected my thinking about good and evil, ethics, and relationships, those films would never have worked. The Unbearable Lightness of Being tells the story of a pleasure-seeker whose exploits almost ruin his chances at one true love. The sexual matters there are also metaphors for the film’s spiritual, social, and political context. La Belle Noiseuse portrays an aging artist making a masterpiece as a nude model poses, and we observe how paying attention to a person can change them, and how being seen can change the observer. It never cheapens its subject by stooping to predictable, shallow sexual conflicts or tensions.
On the other hand, the nudity in American Beauty seemed unnecessary, even destructive, to the film’s lessons about freedom and responsibility. Lester Burnham (Keven Spacey) finally decides his lustful advance on a vulnerable teenager is inappropriate. Yet his sexual fantasies and a momentary dalliance with the unclothed teenager are served up to the audience in a way that is packaged for our aesthetic pleasure. This is hypocritical and inappropriate. As the movie asserts, we should indeed learn to appreciate creation’s beauty. But as the movie preaches one thing, the music, the camera’s lingering on the nudity … it all seems designed to celebrate the inappropriately rash display of a teenager’s nudity, coaxing us to join Mr. Burnham in his lust. The nudity is not the problem, but the way it is used, and the context of its display, provoke my objection. Still, I’ve received testimonies from many Christians to whom the film deeply spoke.
Readers React, Respond, Reveal
Some readers are wary of the consequences that might come from viewing such imagery. A few argued that it is best, at least in their own experience, to avoid the contact entirely.
“The right response for myself is just not placing myself in the position of viewing images I don’t want to recall,” responds Scott Green. “As parents of five children, I believe my wife and I are to be held accountable before God for their moral training. What message does it send to a child when Mom and Dad see ‘R’-rated movies, but they can’t?” (Chattaway, addressing the same issue, compared this dilemma to the issuance of a driver’s license. Does it send a bad signal to your children if a parent can drive, but the child must wait until they are older and have developed certain disciplines and maturity?) And Jason Cusick argues that nudity is often detrimental to the work: “Nudity and sex scenes actually take away from story narratives. People get attached to characters but when a sex scene comes, they suddenly see the two actors having sex.” He argues that “there are many more creative and equally artistic ways of showing sexuality and sexual relations in movies.”
But Troy M. Miller argues the “proper context” perspective, and suggests: “3.4 seconds of gratuitous female nudity … put into [a] movie just to drag the men into the theater … isn’t much of a reason not to go see it, as it tends to be so silly that it’s mostly ineffective.” Jay Phillippi, youth missioner for the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York, contributes this testimony: “I’m not a devotee of the ‘For God’s sake, cover up!’ school. I’ve been watching movies for years as a youth leader and father of a daughter. So far I haven’t been struck blind or been morally corrupted by the flash of a bare breast or bottom. As with so much of what we argue about, we seem to overlook the point that God made that breast (or whatever) — the question is how we use it. It can also offer a wonderful starting point for the discussion of ‘why,’ especially with teens.”
Ted Boodle responds with a simple question: “If the Bible was made into a movie … would Christians boycott it?”
The Bible on Birthday Suits
Is there consensus here? Critics agree that lustful thoughts are to be discouraged, and thus individuals need to exercise restraint and responsibility, acting responsibly in view of personal weaknesses and temptations. In a wonderfully extreme exhortation, the Bible says we had better pluck out our eyes than be led into temptation. But that refers to all temptation: perhaps it’s that SUV in front of you on the highway, or whatever is in the glass of the person next to you at the restaurant. Should an auto enthusiast barricade himself in his house to avoid seeing that SUV that makes him jealous? Or should an alcoholic avoid all restaurants to avoid the temptation to order that margarita? Perhaps. But wouldn’t it be better to develop self-control and wisdom that would nip that sinful desire in the bud? Jesus was adamant about avoiding temptation, but he was also strong enough to know how to enjoy wine, dancing, and the company of sinners, and he exhorted his disciples to go, to be “in, but not of, the world.”
J. Robert Parks says, “A critical aspect of all of this is a proper understanding of Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 10. We as believers must recognize that we have very different weaknesses.” Michael Elliot refers us to Philippians 4:8, where we are exhorted to focus our minds on what is true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, and worthy of praise.” For David Bruce, it’s important to remember Acts 17:16-34, and, like Paul, go out and engageour neighbors, listening to their stories in order to better understand how to serve them and love them as Christ would. Doug Cummings reminds us of Mark 7: ‘Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him.’” And Steve Lansingh offers these scriptures: “On the glory of the created body: Genesis 1-2. On the necessity of examining human sexuality: Song of Solomon. On the importance of flesh to God — the incarnation of Jesus: John 1:1-14. On the usefulness of stories in teaching truth: Luke 10:25-37, 15:11-31. On the diversity of choices within the Christian body: Romans 14:2-8. On the revelation of God through sinful people and actions: Gen. 1-Rev. 22.”
Sounds like the Scriptures have quite a bit that is valuable for “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” — even in ways that can inform and enrich our experiences at the movies.
Coming Soon: Wrong, Right, and R-rated , Part Two — Do You Give a *@%$? What critics and Film Forum readers think about all that cussing in the theaters. Most people would agree that “bad language” is indeed a problem, but can we agree on what it is? Or how to respond to it?
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Note: Film critic Holly McClure says she treats films as entertainment, rather than art, which further sets her apart from the majority quoted here, most of whom consider films an art form and address them as such. Why did so many men reply, and only one woman? I would be interested in hearing from women who have an opinion about the appropriateness of skin onscreen, especially since — and this is a “revealing fact” — moviemakers seem happy to expose females but rarely risk even a glimpse of male nudity.