Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
When deciding which movies are worth seeing, many people tend to give limited thought to the matter. That is, the moral and aesthetic dimensions of movie going are often not part of the equation; rather, if it looks entertaining to me, then it is worth seeing. For many Christians, this lone qualification remains dominant, even if the decision is also influenced by moral parameters which have come to be defined rather simplistically. For these Christians, deciding whether or not a movie is worth seeing is often based on the movie’s potentially “sinful” content alone.
Yet, by consulting the reviews provided by the likes of Movieguide or Plugged In, many evangelical Christians have remained woefully ignorant when it comes to responsible movie going. While well-intentioned, these types of reviewers regularly display obscene movie reviews because they divorce the content of stories from their form and context. So if we take the term “obscene” more literally, these reviewers go against the scene by reducing all of its complexities to an informational list of instances. It is obscene to divorce content from context for the same reason it would be obscene to describe the Gospel scene on Golgotha as “three violent crucifixions.”
Our embodied lives dictate that we cannot understand moral questions apart from narrative context. “Foul language,” “violence,” “sexual promiscuity,” and “drug abuse” do not merely happen. People commit themselves to this behavior. These commitments flow from a person’s desires, which are inextricably tied to a person’s state of being, or, who that person is. And desires and commitments—good or bad—have inevitable consequences affecting both the person and his or her fellows. The narratives we create make sense only to the extent that they are true to this larger sense of narrative which informs our lives.
Personal sinful behavior is not the same as watching the depiction of a character’s sinful behavior. In the context of our created narratives, whether or not these depictions are truthful, beautiful, or good is less dependent on the content of the depictions than on the nature of their context. While personal conscience should always be considered, and content can also unnecessarily be obscene, there are other—perhaps better—questions to ask than “how much profanity is in this movie?” These types of questions might include: “does the movie truthfully depict the consequentiality of behavior?”, or “does the movie misleadingly glorify behavior that is harmful to people?”, or “do characters act consistently with who they are?”
We will not consider these critically penetrating questions regarding content and context, or seek out movies which authentically speak to the comic and tragic elements of human existence, until we are more fully committed to fruitfully interacting with culture rather than predominantly consuming it for mere and immediate pleasure. Or, we will not do the harder work of discerning context until we are more fully committed to personal cultivation rather than being tickled by frivolity in order to ease the anxieties of an existence characterized more by immanent ennui than transcendent purpose.