Christian at the Movies (2)

The laziest form of “discernment” about movies or television looks for the easy targets of occultism, sex, nudity, bad language and gratuitous violence. Certainly, Christians are right to avoid these things. But as we have seen in our last post, discernment is not as simple as using VidAngel or Clearplay to eliminate the objectionable. Nor is it a matter of avoiding any and all references to the occult.

Thus far, we have considered four questions we should use to evaluate film and TV.

    1. If it portrays real life, what kind of world does the movie/TV show claim we live in? Is it true?

    2. If fantasy, what kind of other world does the movie/TV show create? Is it similar to God’s true world? If it’s better, how? If worse, how?

    3.    Does this movie/ TV show make fun of, or glorify, something that God hates?
    4. What kinds of actions and characteristics does it glorify or celebrate? Does it celebrate what is shameful? Does it invite unlawful curiosity?

Here are the next six.

5. What sort of man or woman do you want to be after you have watched it?

What virtues has it pushed you to aspire towards? What vision of masculinity or femininity? As “cool” as James Bond, or as sacrificial as Sam Gamgee? As sultry and alluring as some female superhero in tights or as wise as Abigail? Do you want to mimic being cocky and streetsmart or being noble and chivalrous? Do you want to be a sacrificial servant or a sexual siren? If our boys want to be playboys instead of knights, and if our girls want to be covergirls and Barbies instead of Blandina or Perpetua, then we know who have become their cultural mentors.

6. Does it use spectacle (excitement, violence, nudity) to grab and keep interest?

Spectacle is using what is visually magnetic. We are drawn to scenes of great action and noise (explosions, battles, chases). We are also drawn through bloodlust to see the human body broken, torn or killed. We are also drawn through prurient curiosity to see how much nudity or sexual activity someone will reveal. Directors know this, and use it. It is a technique, a tool, a method: to grab and keep interest. If we endorse it with viewing it, we should at least admit that we are being manipulated.

Yes, here is where we should either simply avoid some films altogether, or use technologies to filter out the morally objectionable of these elements. Sometimes, an otherwise good story is marred by the brief presence of these, and filters come to the rescue. Sometimes, the whole movie or series is so depraved and grotesque that it is unjust flattery of such trash to filter anything out and watch it.

7. Are the characters flat or real?

Do the characters embody the real human condition: fallen people made in God’s image, capable of good by common grace, and also capable of great evil? Or are they flat, two-dimensional placeholders, like no one we know or will ever know? Are they just sock-puppets for a lazy screenwriter to put words into their mouth, or use them for some gratuitous sex, violence or evil? Are they empty stereotypes, mere cliches that end up demeaning our view of our fellow image-bearers? Hollow characters mean we are watching something that is really a waste of our time.

8. Does it flatter me or challenge me?

Poor and useless stories do not cause aspiration; they cause wish-fulfilment. In other words, the best stories ennoble us and leave us desiring to grow. The worst stories are experiences in narcissism: we pretend we are heroes, sexual goddesses, superhuman conquerors, and dwell in that fake experience for the duration of the film. It is cinematic self-abuse: pleasuring ourselves with ourselves, with no real growth in love, honour, or goodness.

9. Did I recognise everything or did I learn anything? Was it predictable or transformative?

Poor movies use formulas and and stereotypes. A formula is a particular story or character cliche. We all recognise where this is going, and like it so. The familiarity of the formula makes no demands on us. We watch and consume, lightly amused by otherwise inconsequential twists in a story we can loosely predict. Movies and TV shows like this are just chewing gum for your eyes and ears. They don’t change you, because demanding art is usually not popular, and therefore hard to sell on commercial film and TV.

10. Did it make me think about my emotions and about what I should feel, or did I just “feel my feelings”? 

Good art not only evokes deep emotion, it is even able to deepen your emotions. It gives you emotional knowledge, showing and revealing the depth of the human experience, the nature of reality, and the power of symbols and analogies. Poor art does not do this. It is more like a mirror, showing you yourself, and making you feel very emotional about your feelings: be they happiness, sadness, excitement or fear. The whole experience is shallow and self-focused. You don’t deepen your affections; you just feel momentarily weepy or elated, and then it’s over. Good art doesn’t just tickle and scratch: it forces you to think, wrestle, imagine and change. Your affections are grown, strengthened and deepened by an encounter with good art.

***

Yes, you can ask whether a movie has sex, nudity, profanity and violence. You can ask about fantasy and magic (more on that next time). But I strongly suggest you ask these ten:

1. If it portrays real life, what kind of world does the movie/TV show claim we live in? Is it true?

2. If fantasy, what kind of other world does the movie/TV show create? Is it similar to God’s true world? If it’s better, how? If worse, how?

3. Does this movie/ TV show make fun of, or glorify, something that God hates?

4. What kinds of actions and characteristics does it glorify or celebrate? Does it celebrate what is shameful? Does it invite unlawful curiosity?

5. What sort of man or woman do you want to be after you have watched it?

6. Does it use spectacle (excitement, violence, nudity) to grab and keep interest?

7. Are the characters flat or real?

8. Does it flatter me or challenge me?

9. Did I recognise everything or did I learn anything? Was it predictable or transformative?

10. Did it make me think about my emotions and about what I should feel, or did I just “feel my feelings”?

Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thess. 5:21-22)

  2 comments for “Christian at the Movies (2)

  1. John
    November 23, 2019 at 8:26 pm

    Could you give some examples? I’m not asking for a safe list to tape on the fridge as that would be to similar to what you critique, but some of us a stretched taut in almost every area of life. Sometimes bloggers need to give recognizable parameters that can be applied across communities. I’d like to work through your list with my teens, but they need tangible examples. I’m struggling to think of a movie I could watch that that meets half your criteria. Keeping the practical things going like vehicles running and an edible dinner leave me bleary eyed more days than not.

  2. David
    November 25, 2019 at 4:51 pm

    John,

    I know what you mean – balancing plates is a tough thing.

    I think the starting place is not to look at this list as a checklist as much as a series of queries. Very few films are going to come out as stellar on every front. The films that take characterisation or the human condition seriously are often marred by gratuitous sex or blasphemy. The ‘clean’ films often lack the sinister elements, but trivialise the human condition with cliched characters and cheap tricks.
    Like music, there is also something to be said for “easy-listening” kind of films, versus serious stories. Most of what is popular will be on the easy-listening side of things. That doesn’t make it wrong, but it is like a zero-calorie drink: not much difference or harm either way, just some time killed.
    For some possible recommendations, look up Anthony Esolen’s recommendations of film and TV. He is a Roman Catholic, and driven by generally conservative values. But he is also a classicist, and aware of the difference between poor and better art.
    Another port of call might be Roger Scruton. He has listed a few examples in his book “Beauty”, and you might also find an article or two of his online. R. Kent Hughes’ book “Disciplines of a Godly Family” has some suggestions in its appendix, which you’d have to work through in a discerning fashion.

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