Faith and Film

There are two things that everyone who knows me quickly picks up on; that I am a Christian and that I love movies (three if you count that I love my wife, but that’s not relevant to this discussion).  People assume that I “see every movie” and it has brought up one particular question with many of my friends: How do I reconcile my love of film with my faith?  There are a lot of bad or inappropriate movies out there, so in order to be a lover of motion pictures I must compromise my convictions, right?  Well, the answer to that question is not a straight-forward yes or no.  I am no authority in the church community, this is only my humble opinion on the subject, but I hope to at least explain my personal stance on watching movies.  This has been written from the perspective of a Christian to other Christians, so if you differ in your beliefs your convictions regarding what is suitable to watch or not watch could be very different from mine.  I welcome discussion about this below.  Also, I prayed before writing this because I wanted to be certain that this is in no way self-serving or a way to justify doing what I want to do.

I will agree that motion pictures are a gray area.  You can’t make a blanket statement that “all movies are bad” or “all movies are OK to watch” because there is such a wide variety of content.  As a starting point I turn to 1 Corinthians 10:23-33.  In this passage Paul discusses eating meat sacrificed to idols and how some viewed this as wrong while others had no problems with it.  Paul ultimately said that there’s nothing inherently wrong with eating this meat, but if that act would cause you or another around you to fall into sin then it should be avoided.  I’ve often heard this passage referenced in regards to drinking alcohol.  If you are of age is it wrong to drink alcohol?  No, the Bible says “Do not be drunk with wine.”  However, if you have had issues with alcohol in the past and know that one drink will lead to more, and that you can’t have “only one drink” without it leading to you getting drunk, then you should refrain from it altogether.

How did I get to alcohol from movies?  It is because the same principle applies.  A motion picture is not in and of itself a bad thing.  I will contest that there are many reasons why someone should not watch particular films, and these reasons can be different from person to person.  While I am not suggesting this to be an all-inclusive list or even guidelines that ought to be followed, this is some of the thought process that I go through when deciding what to watch.

To start, if there is nudity, if the movie contains excessive language, if it has filthy or reprehensible material, or if it’s just pure evil then I don’t want any part of it.  The scriptures say not to put any unwholesome thing before your eyes (Psalm 101:3), and that’s not meant to be one more restriction on a long list of do’s and don’ts but because of how it will affect you as a person.  The things you surround yourself with; your friends, media and other influences, will impact who you are.  You can’t continually fill your mind with garbage and expect it not to be in there.  If you fill a cup with orange juice and knock it over, milk won’t pour out.  Whatever we put into our lives, god or bad, will become evident when our lives get shaken up.  So what is that line that defines “excessive language”?  What is the difference between a villain or bad person and “filthy or reprehensible” activities?  I couldn’t tell you.  There’s no manual that spells out “this is how many curse words makes a film inappropriate to watch”, which is what makes it a gray area.  A good rule of thumb is asking the question of whether you’d be alright watching the movie with your parents or a pastor there with you (one and the same in my case).

My wife and I are currently expecting our first child.  I never realized just how much responsibility there is on a parent to shape the lives of their children until I began thinking of specifically how we’re going to raise him.  While it’s low on the list of significant influences in their lives, it is still important to gauge what movies to allow your child to see and when.  I cannot give a definitive answer on that because, frankly, it differs with each kid.  The second criteria for “deciding what movie to watch” comes down to maturity of the viewer and how the content in the movie could influence you.

I’ll provide two much different example to explain this.  Firstly, Hollywood just finished with the Harry Potter movie series, eight films about a boy wizard based on best-selling novels that was aimed at young adults.  The church took a stance against series, encouraging families not to take their kids to see it.  However, on the other hand the church didn’t seem to bat an eye at the Lord of the Rings films.  Both deal with magic, have wizards and mystical creatures, and both also have some moral lessons and a story of good vs. evil.  The only reason I could initially see for the church’s decision to boycott was due to the author of each, one a Christian and the other a professing wiccan (edit: it’s been brought to my attention that JK Rowling was brought up in the Church of England.  My apologies for not doing research on that statement).  Here’s my humble opinion when looking closer.  Harry Potter created a world that made it seem cool and desirable to go to a school like Hogwarts and become a witch or wizard.  For a young person still trying to find themselves and who might not yet be grounded in what they believe, this has the potential to be detrimental.  The maturity level of the person watching a film can make a difference between thinking a character or theme is “cool” and wanting to follow in the footsteps of what they’re watching.  Harry Potter is only one example, but this can also apply to movies with violence, language, drug use or morally questionable characters.  Is the viewer able to watch this without trying to emulate the activity present in the film?

Netflix has one feature that I absolutely love, the “Common Sense Media” rating.  For each movie you can find this rating and they state what they feel the appropriate age should be to view the film, describe the questionable content (broken down by sexual content, violence, social behavior, consumerism and drug use) and many times even suggest questions to bring up after watching the movie.  I’ve used this feature many times to decide whether to watch a movie and I’m sure I’ll refer to it even more once I begin introducing my little guy to movies.  Resources such as this or the site Plugged In or even my film reviews (plug plug plug) could go a long way towards discovering if a movie is suitable for you or someone else to watch.

Here’s the second example.  What if the movie contains themes considered taboo or unquestionably wrong such as racism, domestic violence, suicide, etc.?  There’s a respected family in my church where I know that the father took his teenage daughter to see the movie Crash back when it was in theaters.  If you’re unfamiliar with the movie, Crash is a film that looks at the various personifications of racism that are still evident today.  It’s not an easy movie to get through.  There’s heavy themes, strong language throughout, and at least one very inappropriate scene if I remember correctly.  I think this was smart parenting.  I’m serious.  He determined that his daughter was mature enough to handle the content, watched it with her and discussed the themes and questions the narrative posed.  A movie does not have to be G or PG or be considered a “Christian” flick in order for it to be acceptable for a Christian to watch.  Most movies present real life situations with very real emotions, circumstances and consequences.  It is certainly possible to portray a morally objectionable character or action and it being worth seeing due to the discussion the movie generates.

Again, as I’ve said already, I am not advocating going to see despicable behavior in films because many times it is glorified and could have a negative influence on who watches it.  I’m simply stating that there could be a time and place to see some, and I emphasis some, of these films.  My wife and I recently watched Nightcrawler starring Jake Gyllenhaal.  Throughout the movie his character participated in worse and worse behavior, committing morally reprehensible acts in order to achieve his goals and gain success.  My wife and I discussed while watching it (we rented the movie) what consequences he should have received, what it takes for someone to sear their conscience in order to do some of the things he did, and what we might’ve done when facing some of his decisions when “success” was hanging in the balance.  My wife didn’t like the movie because (spoiler) he never gets his comeuppance, but I found it an interesting character study of a person without remorse.  It raised a lot of questions.

Yet another “gray area” with movies; if you can’t watch something without emotions getting stirred up that leave you with no proper outlet then you should refrain from watching.  An example is romance films.  Romantic movies can make women, and yes guys as well, feel all lovey-dovey and desire to be all romantic with that special someone in their lives.  For a married person there’s no problem with this, nothing is off limits.  If you’re not married this could be dangerous because it presents emotions or a desire for intimacy that has no godly means of being carried out.  There is nothing wrong with watching a RomCom, but if you’re aware that for you watching it could cause you to make poor decisions then you should avoid watching it.

Lastly I would like to provide one strategy that I’ve implemented.  If I watch a trailer or read up on a movie and it looks like it will be highly inappropriate, I won’t watch it.  If I think there’s a chance there will be scenes or content I should steer clear of, but I’m not certain, and the movie seems really interesting, I may rent it.  That way if something comes up I have the opportunity to skip the scene or to turn the movie off entirely.  I only wasted $1.60 (the going rate for RedBox) instead of approximately $25 (how much it cost for the wife and I to see a movie in theaters).  That makes sense to me on a moral and financial level.

So, how do I reconcile my love for movies with my faith?  I use my convictions as a filter for what movies I watch and attempt to make wise decisions before I choose to see the film in the first place.  I have made mistakes.  There are certainly times when I’ll be in a theater with my wife and I’ll be covering my eyes because “that scene” comes on unexpectedly, or I’ll be walking out of a movie and say to myself “I really shouldn’t have seen that”.  That’s how I’ve developed my criteria and screening process before seeing a movie.  I love movies.  There’s is so much amazing cinema out there that can inspire, entertain, or really make you think and hopefully this can help someone else develop their own set of convictions to better weed out what they watch.  This has been my humble opinion on faith and film and I certainly want to know what you think and what criteria you use to decide what to watch.  Thanks for reading.

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