I am painfully aware that the current fad among young evangelicals and, more and more, among young fundamentalists is not to criticize movies. How doth the argument typically go? Something about how any protest against movies is pure legalism or whatnot. After all, even Touchstone and World magazines have movie reviews! And what is the difference between going to a movie theater and watching a DVD/VHS movie in your living room? Well, actually that is a good question for those who insist on a dichotomy between the two. But I typically resist such dialectical revolutions of cultural norms. Anyway, I am quickly digressing into incoherence.
My main grievance is the naive (pardon my French) approach of many Christians to the movies. I am now speaking of the test of the Great Three exerted by Christians upon movies:
1. No female nudity or sex.
2. No swearing–er, at least no “using the Lord’s name in vain.”
3. “Not too bad” violence.
Yes, there they are–the “holy three” of movie standards. Yes, good Christian, if the movie passes this great and reverent test, the movie is good. Of course, if the movie is “really, really good,” then we can perhaps ignore one or two of these precious (and, oh, so legalistic) standards. As if these are the only elements of danger for believers! What about irreverence or the idea of tolerance? What about sentimentalism (loving the wrong things too much) or brutality (loving the right things too little)? Are these elements not present in the vast majority of the films being belched up by the world? Let me let you in on a secret: movies do not become good simply because you have “Curse-Free TV.”
O, yes, I hear the objection: but after you watch it, then you can “talk about” those negative elements. Sure. Whatever. Talk all you want. Which is more persuasive: your debunking all these ideas by “talking through them” or your entering into the story and its supporting world-view with your whole person, allowing the art to communicate to you as it is intended while you sit there passively taking it all in? Perhaps I am proposing a false dilemma; but my point here is rhetorical. Why do we believe that we can escape this? Perhaps we really do not understand the power of movies.
You see, most Christians really worship on Friday night. That is the apex of their week. They have given themselves over to the working the entire week, probably working too much (you have to make a living, don’t you know), and so they finally get to “unwind” and “take in a good movie.” This is their escape. This is their joy and delight. Movies are their way of worshiping the Entertainment Deity. And now they poor themselves into their rite, complete with libations (soda pop) and meal offerings (popcorn). And they completely let go. This, after all, is the real power of movies. For one to watch a movie as it was intended to be watched, one must give himself over to it, and allow himself to be swept away. He must enter into the lie. The greater the lie, the greater the movie. And how do we know the movie is good and “harmless”? As long as it meets the standard of the Almighty Three. And here, while our guard is most down (we already know it’s a good movie–remember the test?), the world comes in unawares and subtly convinces us of its moorings. You see, “the Great Three” is really simply a surface danger; I believe the real danger lies below, and, because it comes in so subtly, Christians are more prone to fall prey to these underhanded elements. To a certain extent, I am not even talking about anti-Christian themes like adultery or gambling. I am speaking about world-views. The real danger of movies is not at looking at a naked woman, but the redefinition of modesty. The greater danger of movies is not the actors’ taking “the Lord’s name in vain,” but arrogant disbelief. The violence of movies is nothing compared with the idea that it is cruel to execute a murderer. These things are more dangerous, because they are more subtly present. And we wonder why the church is worldly.