Gospel Fluency by Jeff Vanderstelt, Free for CAPC Members
In Gospel Fluency, Jeff Vanderstelt wants to help every believer speak the gospel in the stuff of everyday life.
Sexual assault and harassment accusations against Harvey Weinstein were just the beginning.
Since The New York Times published its exposé of Weinstein in early October, more actors are sharing their accounts of abuse at the film producer’s hands. From there the brushfire spread. As of this date, actor Kevin Spacey stands accused by at least two men (and his Netflix show House of Cards may be cancelled), director Brett Ratner faces allegations by six actresses, actor Andy Dick was fired over assault claims, and many other actors and directors are having their abuses exposed.
All this has sparked vital conversations in non-Hollywood contexts. For example, the #MeToo social media trend encouraged anyone, especially women, to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault.Christians’ non-conformity to the world’s sexual exploitations are the very resource broken people will need when the sexual revolution fails them—even with the reductionist “purity” rule of “consent,” which somehow fails to protect us from the harassments and assaults that our supposedly sexually enlightened culture still can’t purge.
Whether through public exposé or anonymous reports, we can thank God more people want to expose such works of darkness. (This is part of the Church’s mission; see Ephesians 5:11.) This is a great common grace: even in our culture that so often rejects biblical views about sin and sexuality, we still call these abuses evil.
Yet all these sex abuse scandals may also expose Christians’ ongoing challenges about popular culture.
Many readers of Christ and Pop Culture are young evangelicals like myself. We grew up with the notion that popular culture is uniformly evil. As we’ve matured, we’ve accepted a more biblical truth: that even in a sin-cursed world, God graces human creativity with truth, beauty, and goodness. That’s the idea behind Christ and Pop Culture’s mission, that Christians can “acknowledge, appreciate, and think rightly about the common knowledge of our age.”
But what happens if this view tempts us to treat popular culture as if it’s an unqualified gift from God? What happens if we receive popular culture as a good gift, even a kind of sacrament, that only teaches us or connects us with other people?
If we’re so tempted, Weinstein’s exposure may remind us of at least one truth earlier Christian generations knew well: we still need constant vigilance and discernment against evils that are behind and within human creative works. We need to ask ourselves: have we have become naïvely complicit by supporting an industry whose exploitative stories and songs may seem realistic, but which in reality degrade many actors and celebrities, especially women?
Weinstein’s accusers have emphasized that this mistreatment of actors isn’t just behind the scenes. This exploitation includes the public reduction of women to sex objects, such as in photo shoots or public interviews (including several of Weinstein’s own clearly objectifying comments). And the problem also includes scenes of nudity and sexual acts that many of us have seen in artistic films or prestige TV series—scenes we often ignore, or gloss over, in our focus on praising these works.
Of course, if we witness an evil act, this doesn’t automatically make us complicit. But we still inhabit the community of humans who partake in stories made by exploitative producers. And if we praise only their stories’ good elements, or only discuss how the fiction accurately shows evil while ignoring the actual, non-fiction evils that went into its production, we blur the line between our complacency about sexual scenes and our complicity with sexual exploitation.
Well-meaning Christians may object to these challenges. One common defense is that if a movie or TV show must be realistic and honest about the human experience, then the story may require a nude or sex scene.
However, if we are truly concerned about realism or honest appraisal of our world and its culture, we cannot be sentimental or unrealistic about how real humans make these realistic performances for us—performances that do not and cannot logically exist in an environment free of real-life sexual exploitation and entreaty.
Actress Sarah Polley describes one such humiliating photoshoot:
I was wearing a little black dress, showing a lot of cleavage, lying seductively on my side and looking slyly at the camera. The part I had played in the movie, “Guinevere,” could not have been more removed from this pose.
Already we see evidence that our “be sexual for art’s sake” defenses don’t always provide cover.
Actress Léa Seydoux articulates another problem many popular-culture critical Christians have long suspected: that movie directors may insert sex scenes not to be realistic but to indulge their own fantasies. Aaron Sorkin said he once refused to write such a scene for two actors. Jennifer Lawrence nearly broke down over a love scene with then-married costar Chris Pratt for Passengers. Margot Robbie’s audition for The Wolf of Wall Street couldn’t proceed unless she dressed in seductive clothing. Kate Beckinsale was forced into performing in a nude scene and exacted revenge on her manipulative director by urinating in his drink.
Often these stories are reported as fun behind-the-scenes trivia, like with the original reports of Weinstein’s own objectifying remarks about women. But after these allegations, none of these accounts seem fun or trivial now.
All this sexual exploitation has been going on right before our eyes. And some of us have ignored it, or truly not seen it, because we’ve thought or said that “the art requires it,” or “this is for mature viewers,” or even, “that is just Hollywood and things are weird there.”
But these actors are not trained monkeys. They are also not super-artistic entities who must censor their natural feelings in order to entertain us, or satiate our desires for creative and “realistic” art that includes sex scenes and more. Instead, these performers are God’s image-bearers. They are our neighbors, whom we are commanded to love and respect. And if even one human performer is coerced into salacious photo shoots or nude scenes on-screen, we need to pay attention.
We need to see reality for what it is. Then some of us need to begin taking more specific action, starting by speaking against this exploitation and refusing to enable more of it. Otherwise, we risk ignoring the very cultural conditions that enabled Weinstein and others in the first place.
Weinstein’s exposure also warrants Christians’ second look at every story he’s produced—stories that may have mixed high-quality storytelling with harmful redefinitions of other elements.
In fact, some Christians have warned about Weinstein before, in the mid-1990s, when several groups tried to boycott his company, Miramax, and its owner, The Walt Disney Company. Of course, many of these groups shared overly negative views of popular culture, often ignoring the common grace reflected by human stories. But historically, Christians have rightly insisted that creators with unregenerate, sinful hearts cannot help but corrupt their imitations of God as Creator. That means we can’t artificially separate stories and songs—with their mixtures of idolatry and common grace—from the equally mixed-evil hearts of the people who make them.
The original New York Times article exposing Weinstein remarked in passing that his films “helped define femininity, sex and romance, from Catherine Zeta-Jones in ‘Chicago’ to Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Silver Linings Playbook.’ ”
If actors report they’ve been abused and even assaulted by producers and directors, Christians may need to reconsider these works that supposedly “helped define femininity, sex and romance.” In our conversations about popular culture at home, church, and on the internet, we can’t stop at praising what these works get right. We also need to specifically discern any latent misogyny, exploitative tendencies, and sexual-revolution teaching within the stories themselves.
These stories often include the notion that adult-level “consent” is our sole remaining sexual rule, which grants us freedom to indulge in sexual activity.
But in the world of film-making, some actors may actually consent to physical relations with producers or directors. We might then be tempted to justify this because it’s consensual, similar to how we might be tempted to justify nude or sex scenes if the actors are consenting.
Christians who hold to biblical sexual ethics can’t give this belief a pass. We can certainly affirm the secular world’s requirement of adult-level consent for sexual flirtation and intercourse. However, we affirm this kind of consent as the barest minimum rule. “Consent” alone is a terrible and minimalist standard for physical relationships. A vocalized yes to an entreaty to sex cannot magically erase the danger of coercion or power plays that privileged men may use against women.
Partly for this reason, the Bible emphasizes God’s requirement of absolute commitment and covenantal fidelity to one’s partner. These measures not only reflect Christ’s love for his Church (Ephesians 5:15-33), but balance human relationships. A good husband will not “lord over” or dominate his wife like an authoritarian ruler. He’s commanded to submit to her out of reverence to Christ (Ephesians 5:21) and love her like Jesus himself.
This dazzling edifice of human love clashes with the black-and-white brutality of the sexual revolution’s modern “femininity, sex and romance” architecture in many popular stories. Yes, these sex-defining stories may value sacrificial love or even monogamy. But they also replace covenant fidelity with assumed fornication (one-night stands and so on) whose only moral rule is consent, the supposed magic concept that solves all our sexual differences and overrides abusive power dynamics, especially by men over women. This is not only opposed to Scripture; it’s also unrealistic sentimentalism. In the real world, abusers can still get a person’s “consent” with the unspoken or spoken rule, “‘Consent’ to me, or else I will take something from you.”
Non-Christians may be rightfully outraged at the exposure of anyone’s non-consensual harassment or assault of women. Christians can righteously join them. But we must recall that our Lord, the Creator of sex, has revealed a much higher standard. Far and above the simplistic question of whether both parties technically said yes to sex, we insist that both parties publicly consent to some semblance of covenantal love for as close to forever as they can get.
At the very moment when many people want to overthrow supposedly restrictive and immoral biblical views of sex and romance, Christians can’t afford to retreat from our beliefs in the name of exploring what’s good in popular culture.
Yes, we must praise the truth and beauty our stories and songs happen to show well. But just as loudly we must consider and publicly condemn the corrupt notions they spread about women, sex, and consent—and the exploitation that happens, hidden in plain sight, when film and TV producers insist on showing us celebrities in nude scenes or sexually explicit marketing.
This isn’t an easy challenge. But we can’t fulfill this calling by only looking at the “bad guys,” whether in Hollywood or previous evangelical generations, and trying to avoid their errors. We also won’t fulfill this calling by following whatever popular culture or its celebrities decry is good or bad in order to improve the Church’s witness. Weinstein’s failure alone shows the shallowness of this foundation. Too many celebrities are like too many dysfunctional churches or religious groups, whose members may attempt to atone for their own sins by preaching against them.
Instead of preaching or looking to ourselves, we must first look to Jesus. We must take seriously his loving yet realistically skeptical view of men’s hearts, and applying his apostles’ commands to avoid being “conformed to this world, but [to] 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). In this case, Christians’ non-conformity to the world’s sexual exploitations are the very resource broken people will need when the sexual revolution fails them—even with the reductionist “purity” rule of “consent,” which somehow fails to protect us from the harassments and assaults that our supposedly sexually enlightened culture still can’t purge.
None of us can find the solution to abuse by ignoring our own sin, or the sinful motives behind the movies and TV shows we enjoy or make. We also can’t find the solution by trying to find the most outrageous abusers, such as Weinstein, and publicly making an example of them.
Our only hope is the Hero whom many of our stories, even by corrupt creators, still can’t help hinting about: Jesus Christ. Toward that end, Christians who want to engage popular culture must find that our chief end of engaging popular culture’s stories is still a kind of evangelism. We ought never primarily emphasize only the common grace we receive through popular culture. Instead, we do all things to announce and live out the message of Jesus’s specific saving grace to his children, whom he redeems from among broken victims and maybe even repentant abusers.
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