Christians and Movies: Recognizing the Danger Within, Not Without

I have been a movie and TV critic and entertainment reporter for about seven years now, writing in secular outlets like newspapers and Christian faith-based magazines and web sites. As with any job, you get your oft-repeated questions. What’s my favorite movie? (The Tree of Life). Do I pay for the movies? (No. Perk of the job. Unless the movie is ‘Furry Vengance’ when it’s more of a hazard.) What’s the best movie I’ve seen recently (tie of ‘The Iron Lady‘ and ‘The Muppets‘). Who’s the most famous person you’ve met? (I saw Brad Pitt get on an elevator once.)

When I’m at church or other Christian gatherings, however, I get two specific and unique questions: What do I think of Harry Potter? (love him) and How do you deal with swearing/nudity/violence/crude humor…how can you stand all that depravity and soul-sucking grossness that Hollywood throws out?

Hmm… That one is a bit harder.

The short answer is swearing, sex scenes, crude humor, and poop jokes don’t really bother me.

The long answer is that the question, with due respect to the Parents Television Council and Ted Baehr, has some theological issues and may be the wrong question entirely.

Brothers and Sisters, the danger is within, not without.

Christian theology states that we are sinful creatures, or, to put it in Oprah terms, we’re each weighed down with his or her weakness, each with our own lifelong struggles.

Christians believe this intellectually, but it all goes out the window when dealing with media. Instead we tend to picture ourselves, and our children, as blank slates, pure white pieces of paper just waiting to be soiled by what Hollywood, Nashville, or YouTube throws at us.

It’s as if we would never experience inappropriate sexual yearnings without exposure to “Bad Teacher”.

In Matthew 15:10, Jesus states, “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.” In the passage, He taking religious people to task about their rigid dietary rules, but I think the words apply more broadly. It applies to all makers of dairy products, as Monty Python would say.

We must each do the hard work of recognizing our own weaknesses. For some, it may be that sexual content does indeed feed a weakness within. Others may revel in the dark side of violence or evilly enjoy gruesome scenes. For many women, the danger is a false depiction of romance, as in ‘Titanic,’ which feeds the selfish dissatisfaction in our hearts with our spouses and families.

It’s not only entertainment media, but all aspects of consumer culture that can light the warning lights in the dashboard of our hearts.

Frankly, I’ve had more spiritual wrestling with the Pottery Barn catalog than movies. It leaves me discontented with the same living room furniture I had loved hours before. I want to buy not just the velour recliner, but the lifestyle of the hypothetical family in the catalog, complete with the tennis matches and beach vacations on their delightful calendar. My calendar tends more toward dog vet appointments and car oil changes. The catalog gives voice to the whine in my heart.

If something echoes the whine in your heart, it’s a good bet the problem is with you.

We give media too much credit for having power over us, and let ourselves off the hook in the process. It’s much easier to blame media for our strayings and discontentments than to recognize they come from within. The sins I’ve committed in my life aren’t the result of watching ‘American Pie’ or even ‘The Hangover.’ I wish I could pawn them off so easily.

Is this to say that “everything is permissible?” As Paul says, no. It’s not all beneficial. It depends. There is a huge difference between a hormonal teen virgin struggling to remain celibate and a long-time married couple with a healthy sex life in watching an explicit movie like ‘Knocked Up.’ There’s also a huge difference between an explicit movie with something to say (like ‘Knocked Up’) and one made purely for titillation. My goal as a critic is to discern and define those differences for you.

But what about the kids?

Innocence is a precious and fragile thing. I think the question is how we want our children to learn about the world. We want them to learn the tenderness and beauty of sex from a sweet and innocent first kiss, and a theologically correct view of the body, rather than a raunchy movie. Material for which children are not ready creates trauma in their little minds. I still remember the first time, as a highschooler, I watched the videos of the Nazi atrocities in the Holocaust. It is seared on my memory. It shook me.

Movies and all stories are a valuable tool for learning about life secondhand, which can be a safer and more effective teacher than experience. We recognize that great movies like ‘The Sound of Music,’ ‘Casablanca,’ and, yes, ‘Harry Potter‘ actually leave our children better than they found them by giving them heroes to imitate and ideals to hold.

For the most part – and I know this is a controversial statement – Hollywood recognizes and respects the innocence of children. The ratings system is made to protect children. Delightful films for children, full of wonder and joy and without mature content, abound from Pixar, Walden Media, Disney, and DreamWorks, among others. Breaking news from Hollywood – Most of the people who make movies for kids actually want to make good, uplifting, wonderful, innocent movies for kids. The few flicks that sneak in inappropriate content generally don’t do well. Theaters now, unlike when I was a teen, generally ID for entrance to R rated movies. Plus, there are many resources for finding out which movies to avoid for children, including this site.

I guess it all boils down to one message for Christians: Lighten up on Hollywood and look more at yourself. Hollywood is not responsible for your sins.

So, if “Aren’t you corrupted by the trash Hollywood produces?” is the wrong question, what is the right one?

I’ll address that in my next column: Loving the World by Watching (and Making) Movies

Along these lines, Paul Joiner has an excellent series on Should a Christian Read Fairy Tales? over at Echoes of the Cross.

About Rebecca Cusey

Rebecca is a lead critic and editor of entertainment at Patheos. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Cusey

  • Kathy Tuan-Maclean

    Thanks for this Rebecca. I think I’m going to ask my 13 year old who keeps on saying all her friends get to watch “Bridesmaids” and the “Hangover” to read your article–always comes better with someone other than Mom!

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Thanks Kathy. I’m sure it’s true that many (but not all) of her friends do get to watch them. It’s also true that 13 year olds should not be watching either one.

  • Tom Snyder

    So, you don’t think the faulty history and faulty biography in IRON LADY won’t distort a person’s view of the history of those times and view of Margaret Thatcher? Sounds like you’ve already been affected by Hollywood for the worse, not to mention your opinion that sex scenes in movies don’t really “bother” you. Antinomian lawlessness is just as much a heresy as legalism is.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Thanks for the comment, Tom.

      I enjoyed Iron Lady and felt it let Thatcher shine through. I don’t think there’s a lot of faulty history. There are things missing, to be sure, but I don’t think they got things wrong. I liked the rousing nature of it. Funnily, in my experience, the people who remember Thatcher felt it was unfair, but younger conservatives who are only mildly familiar with her, were inspired. If we don’t get bogged down in the details, I think it’s an inspiring movie for conservatives. Some people disagree, but that’s my take.

      As for content in movies, this is exactly what I’m talking about. I’m not advocating lawlessness, but I am saying that movies are not the source of our lust or other sins.

      I have absolutely been affected by Hollywood. TREE OF LIFE made me cry and reframed my faith in wonderful ways. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN absolutely spoke to me about evil in the world and our role in resisting it. GRAND CANYON (an oldie) inspired me to want to be a better person. And many movies made me laugh, which is good for the soul. That’s just a tiny segment of the ways Hollywood has affected me, and I’d say much, much for the better.

  • http://www.graziosostringquartet.com Beth

    I think that we’re missing something vitally important if we don’t acknowledge the “garbage in–garbage out” concept of mental accountability and just plain wisdom. Also, there’s that concept of not influencing brothers to stumble (I Cor. 8). The more we listen to filth or watch sin and kind of feast on it, I really believe that we’re not making good use of our time and beginning to compromise Christian values. Also, when we begin to laugh at sin/bad jokes, etc…, then we begin down that slippery slope of winking at it, thinking it’s not so bad, etc…. I have sat in movies where I wished I’d gotten up and left much sooner. I’ve sat in 1 movie that my husband and I didn’t even want to acknowledge that we’d seen. (We wouldn’t lie about it, but we certainly didn’t want to bring it up because we doubted it would ever be “profitable.”) Amusement/entertainment pulls at us for some good old fashioned down-time. I think “muse” means to think and the “a” in front of it means “not” so that we want to not think sometimes. But thinking is precisely what we do after we’ve planted a story, language, images in our minds. Also, as a mother of 3 sons, I know that the male mind is even more heightened towards visual images, and thus they need to guard against inappropriate thoughts that can lead to sinful actions/behaviors. Ultimately, the Bible teaches us to “guard our minds” and though we want to relax with a good movie, we need to choose very carefully!

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Thanks for the comment, Beth.

      I know “garbage in, garbage out” is a mantra of the church, but I just don’t see it that way. I think our minds are perfectly capable of sifting, recognizing, and discerning truth from untruth and acting on that. And, we create plenty of garbage on our own, without media help.

      • Dallas Rostad

        i just wanted to say…one, I loved your article here…..and two, in Phil. 4:8 says, “8 Finally, brothers and sisters, 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.” I think that this goes right along with your idea of “sifting” through ideas in movies or in life in general for that matter. If Jesus wanted us to live in a bubble He would have told us to do just that. Instead, He said to go out into the world as sheep among wolves. Again, great points!!

        • Rebecca Cusey

          When you stop being defensive and start being open to it, there are a lot of those qualities to be found in movies and TV. At least, I see them. Thanks for reading and commenting, Dallas!

      • Anthony

        Great article, and the follow-up as well–you make some really good points. While I do agree that as Christians we can be too defensive, I’m not so sure we all have the the “perfect” sifting capability you describe–as Rich Mullins sang “We are not as strong as we think we are”. There is a synergy between the sin in ourselves and that outside–we aren’t blank slates, but stuff still does stick–and as you say it varies according to our weaknesses.

        I don’t believe that art, whatever it’s form, is devoid of moral qualities–in some cases evil is affirmed or even celebrated, not just discussed, and as Christians we should not be afraid of saying so–we need to ask ourselves if by supporting such arts by our $$, are we endorsing the message? It’s something to consider in this age where the separation between art and business of media is thinner than ever.

        We also need to be aware of how media affects those around us. I know that is easy for anyone to be oblivious to the fact that the show that is fine for us is dragging the person next to us down.

        All this to say that I agree with Paul Joiner in the articles you link to where he points out the extremes we need to avoid–being totally undiscerning media gluttons or being legalistic media anorexics. It’s much easier to fall into an extreme and not deal with the questions, but loving isn’t always an easy thing, and we’re not called to the easy way.

        • Rebecca Cusey

          You had me at “Rich Mullins.” He’s still one of my favorites and still speaking to me.

          Indeed, we are not as strong as we think we are. I think that dovetails with my point. We’re barring the windows when the wolf is already inside.

          And I absolutely agree that evil is sometimes celebrated, and that should be discussed.

          You make some very good points in a complex world. Thank you.

      • http://www.graziosostringquartet.com Beth

        Hello again Rebecca,
        Another comment: I agree with you that we are capable of reason, etc…, but hope that when you label something as “mantra” that you aren’t missing the truth of the statement. “Mantra” has a negative/extremist connotation, while calling something a “saying” for example, allows others to take it at face-value without imposing judgment. I don’t know your intent, of course, but do think you’re missing something really important in the Christian walk regarding the wisdom and discernment to acknowledge the negative effects that movies/tv/media can have on our lives. Believers or not, the foul language, promiscuity/pornography, violence, and acceptance of sin are very real pitfalls that will affect our own attitudes/behaviors. When you take the whole counsel of Scripture in, there’s certainly numerous admonitions regarding what to look on, think, etc…. I hope you’re open to seeking God’s will regarding that :)

        • Rebecca Cusey

          Thanks for the comment Beth. I appreciate your heart wanting to do what is right.

          I simply don’t see it that way. I think there is value in sifting through ideas, experiences, and emotions, even if we ultimately reject the ideas as contrary to our own values.

          I actually see a lot of uplifting, beautiful, edifying material in the movies I watch. Once I was open to it, I saw a lot of common ground and humanity in these stories.

  • Mike P.

    Top notch article Rebecca. I sin in my heart while watching mature movies, looking at beer adds or…quite frankly…staring at a blank white wall. The sin is in me, not out there.

    I love that you have the guts to encourage others to face themselves instead of picketing Hollywood (my summary of your thoughts, not your words).

    Keep ‘em comin’

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Thanks, Mike! You’re the best!

  • Biblereader

    Obviously I am much older than the others here on your board, so my comment here will most likely not be well accepted. I see one glaring item that you seem to have overlooked when rating movies and that is the spirit that attaches itself to certain movies that are produced, whether they be from Hollywood and for the theater or for TV.
    As Christians we are not (should not) be ignorant of Satan and his workings to keep our focus off Jesus and the “prize” that Paul spoke of, which I am referring to the crown that we get once we finally arrive in heaven. Satan is a spirit; he is written about in the Bible as walking around as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (I Peter 5:8). This Scripture doesn’t only mean trying to destroy our faith. It also means that he does whatever he can to detract us from our walk and I firmly believe that he will do whatever it takes to accomplish that, including attaching himself to a movie, whether it is obviously a horror, a demonic movie or a violent one or not. He can be subtle, which is also what the Bible says to us.
    I think it is very important to note this in your review. We all need to pay attention to this fact and not live as though he is not doing anything against us.
    Not all “children’s movies” are innocent. “Harry Potter” is about sorcery and witchcraft, which God absolutely condemns throughout the entire Bible. “Ted” the teddy bear movie is about bestiality, as was “Beauty and the Beast.” I am appalled that you would recommend these so-called “children’s movies”. These are just three; there are dozens more throughout the years.
    Personally I haven’t been to a theater in over 25 years…and I don’t plan on doing so. My own two children (now grown and married with children of their own) also didn’t go. The reason? The Bible says “I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes” Ps. 101:3. Even though there’s a whole world out there, if I consciously do this, knowing that I can keep myself from viewing wrong, because I know the content is wrong, then I have won a battle against the enemy of my soul. The Bible says to know to do good and not to do it, to Him it is sin. This is far more important than whether there is something wrong with going to a theater or not.
    The Bible says God is holy. There is no gray area here. It is written in plain speech. We are to abide by HIS rules, not what we think they are. Self-justification never got anyone into heaven. The Bible says “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25), meaning that everyone did what they felt was right, since they had no king at that time, BUT we have a King; we have a Savior, Jesus Christ the Righteous and HE speaks to us and has given us the path to walk in. He said “I am the Way, the truth and the life.” We don’t get there by trying to fit our life into His, but His life into ours.

    • J.Brown

      WELL SAID!! I stumbled across this article because I was in search of something to share with a friend. She believes it’s ok to be a Christian and still watch things that show premarital sex, drug abuse, adultery, homosexuality, etc. Her reply to me was, “There are worse things out there!” Well, she obviously just stated what she was watching, which is Grey’s Anatomy, was bad but she made the excuse that there are worse things out there. Yes, there are worse things out there but that doesn’t give you the right to watch the stuff that’s NOT AS BAD! I was SHOCKED when I read this article. I was expecting this writer to say something else. Instead, all I heard was excuses. We have to safe guard ourselves against the power of the enemy. This writer is obviously numb and doesn’t realize that is exactly what the devil wants people to be… NUMB! God help us to open our eyes and be aware of what we put into our hearts and minds. No, you can’t avoid seeing things on a daily basis that would be considered “sin”. If we’re walking down the street and see a homosexual couple kissing or hear people cursing, we can’t control that. We can obviously turn away from it, but that’s just everyday life. But we CAN control what we watch. We can choose to watch that movie or show and we can choose to listen to filthy and perverted music. Or we can choose NOT to. If you really knew your bible and claim to be a Christian then you should do as the bible says. 2 Chron 7:14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

      Thank you Biblereader for giving me exactly what I needed to hear! Even if I had to read this appalling article just to get to it.

    • Also A Bible Reader

      Thanks for sharing:) I respect what you’re saying. I think it’s important to note that although our views might differ, our intentions are both ultimately that glory is brought to God and that sin is put to death. I just think it’s important to establish some common ground to start it off. But as to your argument, based on my understanding of the Bible, I had some troubles with your interpretation.

      To begin, you threw around the concept of Satan “attaching himself to things” a lot. While I absolutely agree with your assessment of Satan’s deception and trickery based on 1 Peter 5:8, I think the idea that Satan “attaches himself to things” is completely Biblically unfounded.

      First, the idea that material objects carry moral values is gnosticism and dualism. This is not how the Bible says that God created the world. He created personal beings who have the ability to choose Him (good) or not (evil). To say that non-personal objects also possess the ability to be moral is an absurd statement in all respects, but most importantly Biblically.

      So how *does* Satan affect us? The Bible tells us that angels are spiritual beings, as you said (Heb. 1:14), which means that they don’t have physical bodies (Luke 24:39). We, too, are spiritual beings (1 Cor. 2:11, among many others). So the means by which angels affect us is through our spirit. Since we know that Satan and his demons are fallen angels (2 Peter 2:4), we know all these things also apply to them. Notice it doesn’t mention anything about them hiding in non-living things. So Satan and his demons affect us by speaking to our spirit, not by hiding or dwelling in material objects.

      This changes the message entirely, if it is our spirit that is being affected directly instead of through very specific objects, then there is no limit to the things that can prompt us into temptation and sin: movies, books, food, the person walking on the street, a pair of shoes, *anything!*

      The essence of myself and the author’s view is that *anything* can lead us into temptation, because Satan and his demons are *always* speaking lies to us, so we should *always* be on our guard and discern good from evil by means of the Holy Spirit. What I (and perhaps the author) differ with in your view is that it appears to me to be a pragmatic attempt at taking the burden of discernment off of us by creating arbitrary rules and restrictions based on tradition and fundamentalism rather than on the Bible. And in doing so, I caution that you might also be led into sin by viewing yourself as authoritatively morally autonomous and trusting in your own rules to give you discernment rather than needing to rely and trust in the Holy Spirit for it.

      I greatly appreciate your reverence for God and your justified fervor when it comes to sin and obedience. But I am compelled to caution against what I believe to be unbiblical views. I hope my words are loving and not provoking, and I would love to discuss this further if you have more thoughts:) God bless!


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