How Far Is Too Far?

by Chadwick Lewis (Rated G)

One of the most difficult things about being a Christian film critic (and a Christian film fan for that matter) is determining how badly a movie has to stray away from a biblical view of philosophy or ethics before it cannot be commendable to the Christian. You always have to determine whether or not what you are watching is edifying to watch because that makes a big difference as to whether or not you will recommend it to your fellow believers. Sometimes a film is so unedifying it isn’t even worth the time you invested into it to try and help others decide if they should watch it. Then there are the movies that have some elements that are problematic, but there is still a lot to appreciate about them and to find helpful in them. Still other times you have to make an educated guess that something is not good for the Christian to watch without even watching it and just avoid it altogether.

Most Christians when wrestling through these issues look to Philippians 4:8 as their standard. There the apostle Paul instructs us, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just,  whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” The common argument here is that Christians should avoid entertainment that directs their attention toward that which does not exemplify the traits Paul here tells us to think upon. Instead, we ought to only consume entertainment that exhibits these qualities so that when we think about those pieces of entertainment, we are following Paul’s command. 

In theory, this all sounds well and good, and I do not believe it to be a wrong way to apply the passage.  It certainly does not get at the main point that Paul is making here, but there is something to be said for the idea that it is harder to obey Paul’s command if we are constantly feeding our minds entertainment that does not uphold these things. What we choose to expose ourselves to does indeed have an impact on us. That’s why we are urged multiple times in Scripture to be mindful of who we spend our time  with. 

“If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’ Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’ Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame” (1 Corinthians 15:32b-34).

Spending our time with bad company encourages us to compromise where God has commanded us not to compromise, and this is because of the influence those we spend our time around have on us. 

While it may not affect us as strongly as bad company, bad entertainment can have a profound impact  on our way of thinking. All of entertainment, whether it be movies, TV shows, books, or music, is presenting its audience an image of what is and what is not commendable. A crafty artist can interweave his or her own understanding of what is good and what is bad into their work in such a way that it causes the audience to agree with that outlook, even if only for the duration of the piece. Think about it: how many times have you seen an unmarried couple move in together in a sitcom and were happy for them? Or to name a more positive example, how many times have you seen a friendship between two fictional characters that was so powerful that you admired it? 

Some might argue that they can differentiate between reality and fiction, and claim to recognize that what seems good in the context of the art is not actually good in real life. This is certainly possible, but it requires a great amount of discipline and strength of mind. It is much more likely to have such a divide between what one believes and what entertainment one consumes regularly that it inadvertently leads to confusion or compromise. It may not even be compromise on practical things like the aforementioned example of an unmarried couple moving in together. It may be something as simple as accepting certain aspects of the world’s view on gender roles, which more often than not run antithetical to what Scripture teaches. Because a piece of entertainment has shown you an example of what it sees as a good and honorable example of masculinity and femininity, and you like the characters in question, you might find yourself using them as an example of these things. This has the power to impact your view of what it means to be a man or a woman so that it is now warped to some degree away from what God has said. 

Again, it is possible to watch certain movies and shows or read certain books or listen to some music with a critical eye and reject that which is worldly in it. Indeed, this is an excellent skill that all Christians should have in their portfolio. It can be good practice for engaging with ideas when talking  with unbelievers. But it first requires understanding that a piece of entertainment is not simply entertainment. All good art is philosophical in nature, and it should be treated as such. For the disciplined Christian, enjoying art cannot be a time to shut the brain off and be entertained. Instead, it is a time to go to war against the cosmic powers of this present darkness and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore, your mind must be on guard for any way the world might seek to ensnare you in a trap. 

But even then there is some entertainment out there that is not fitting for a Christian to partake in because, as I mentioned earlier, it is simply not edifying in any way. The ability of a Christian to engage art critically and still find enjoyment in it requires a certain amount of redemptive qualities in the art. By redemptive qualities I mean any representation of biblical values in the piece, whether that  be in the writing of a character’s arc or in the lyrics of a song. The degree to which these qualities are present determines how edifying the piece is. Of course, being edifying is one mark of a good work of art, but it is not the only one. Thus it is possible for a piece to be edifying without being particularly good or enjoyable. As Christians, we should be upholding art that is both quality content and encouraging to the soul, not art that is one to the exclusion of the other. But I digress. The point is that very few works of art are perfect when it comes to their content, and so we must examine how strong  their redemptive qualities are to see if they outweigh those elements which are questionable. 

It is important to note here that certain instances of “questionable content” – such as violence, sensuality, and profane speech – do not automatically disqualify a work of art from being redemptive. Some Christians might balk at that statement, arguing that the presence of any of these things ought to be avoided at all cost. The problem with this is threefold. First, since almost no art is totally devoid of those things, no one can actually follow that idea consistently, demonstrating how impractical it actually is. Second, without any ability to depict these things in art, art cannot effectively address matters of good and evil. You cannot have a struggle between good guys and bad guys if you are not allowed to show characters do evil things. Finally, the Bible itself uses instances of these things in its narrative, implying that there is a time and place for them in artistic expression. Of course, none of these things ought to be used recklessly and they should never be there merely for the sake of being there. If they are there, they must be used for the express purpose of illustrating that which is good and that which is evil. 

How do we know then if depictions of these things are appropriate? Well, the art itself will tell you. If the bent of the art is to glorify that which is vile or make light of it as though it were no big deal, then it is likely not an edifying work for the Christian to consume. This is what I call the irredeemable point. It happens when the morality of the work is so eschew that any aspect that is redeemable is drowned out by the noise of the overall moral bankruptcy on display. A subtle example of this would be the movie Marry Me, which takes such a posture of rebellion against God’s design for marriage and love that it compromises the sweetness of the romance it is presenting. A more overt example might be something like Fifty Shades of Grey, which focuses so strongly on its perverted sexuality that it is incapable of painting an edifying image of relations between men and women.

Determining whether a work has crossed the irredeemable point is where discernment comes into play. As demonstrated by the examples above, some are so obviously problematic that it is easy to determine that the irredeemable point has been crossed. But sometimes it is much more murky, so much so that at times it is better just to say that you personally cannot partake of a work but will not necessarily condemn someone else who does so. Or to flip it the other way, you find the work helpful and enjoyable, but can respect that others might feel it does them more harm than good. This is a wise approach in less overt cases, because while one person may be unable to see past the more problematic elements, another might be able to do just that and in the process see something beautiful that is worth admiring and even taking encouragement from. For example, one could get stuck on the amount of wickedness on display in The Godfather, but another might recognize that the filmmakers are showing that said wickedness is horrible and destructive, allowing that person to appreciate it as a cautionary tale. So just because sin is depicted in a film (even to an extensive degree) does not automatically mean that the irredeemable point has been reached. The intention of the artist and the impact on the audience must be taken into account when making that determination.

The more important of these two is the intention of the artist. If the intention of the artist is clearly to reject what is true in favor of a lie, then that contributes to the work reaching the irredeemable point. On the other hand, if his intention is to say something which is true, that is certainly a point in the artwork’s favor. However, sometimes the artist is not totally successful in executing his desired effect. Sometimes an artist who is seeking to create something that would have been irredeemable unintentionally creates something that is edifying because he cannot escape the truths that God has given us. Still other times the artist might be intending to say something that on its surface would be true, but his worldly influences cause him to twist that truth and compromise its truthfulness. This is where the audience reception can be helpful, as it can give a decent read on the success of the artist.  Discerning audience reception is itself a complex enough issue to warrant its own article, but when used properly it can be a useful aid for determining how edifying the work actually is. It will not tell you the definitive meaning of the art, but it will tell you the impact that said meaning has on the hearts and minds of the audience. 

At the end of the day, however, what matters most when determining whether or not a certain work of art is edifying is how it impacted you. I do not mean this in a relativistic sense. I hope my previous statements make that abundantly clear. Instead, what I mean is that if you were not built up by the  artwork in question, you should not be partaking of it. If it did not cause you to meditate on that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise, it is not good for you. Depending on the piece, someone else may find it does help them meditate on those things, but they are not the rubric for what is helpful for you. Ultimately, that is your own conscience. If you feel that you are in sin for consuming certain content, let it be as sin to you and avoid it. Do not pass judgment upon others based on your own position on this, however, as someone else may have a different understanding. The practicality of these issues is not clearly defined, and we are all learning  and struggling through this together. So do not take any of what I have said here as reason to be  uncharitable to one another. 

This is obviously a very complex topic that requires much more attention. My purpose here is not to give an exhaustive exploration of these ideas, but rather to give an introduction to them. Perhaps I will return to this issue in the future, as in many ways this is just the beginning of my own thoughts on this. But in the meantime, let us all be mindful of whether or not the art we consume is truly edifying and build up the discipline of interacting with art critically. Do not mindlessly consume art, but see it as an opportunity to build up your intellectual defenses. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

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