Yesterday I posted about the dangerous reality that even well-made, “clean” movies can teach bad things. Today I want to reverse that concept: even “bad” movies can teach good things.
Stereotypically speaking, Christians decide whether a movie is “good” or “bad” based on how many swear-words, nude scenes, offensive jokes, and sexually suggestive situations it contains. And the stereotype is there for a reason. It’s difficult to talk about non-Disney movies with other Christians. (Incidentally, Disney movies should be the subject of a series of posts—we’ll see what develops.) We’ve all had that awkward experience where we ask a Christian friend, “Have you seen _________?” only to hear, “Oh, we started watching it but had to turn it off because __________.”
I’m certainly not suggesting that we should watch every filthy movie we can get our hands on, but I am suggesting that we move beyond the portrayal of evil as the sole criterion for what constitutes a bad movie.
When art portrays evil, it is called realism. They are depicting an important aspect of reality. Believe it or not, our world is filled with sexual immorality, drug and alcohol abuse, swearing, blasphemy, etc. So realism in itself is not always bad. In fact, the Bible is full of realism (this is a concept that Preston explored in an old post). The Bible is very graphic at times in its depiction of sex, violence, and human depravity in general. Nothing is sugarcoated.
Leland Ryken is helpful on the subject (full disclosure: I have a bit of a theological man crush):
“The presence of realism in the Bible lays down a basic premise for art and its audience: Realism itself is not immoral. If we did not need it, the Bible would not give it to us. As a religious book, the Bible does not escape from life. It uses the technique of realism to tell us something that we need to know, namely, the sinfulness of the human condition and the misery of a fallen world.” (The Liberated Imagination (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1989) 240)
When we see realism in movies, then, there is a sense in which we as Christians should affirm what we are seeing: “Yes, the Bible tells us that this is the reality in which humanity lives after the fall.”
Does that mean we should watch every nasty and bloody movie that comes out? How should we approach realism in movies? More important than the presence of evil in a film is the way that evil is portrayed. Is the evil rewarded or praised? Is it being upheld as a right standard of conduct? Is that which God declares ugly being praised as beautiful? If so, then we may rightly charge that film with being immoral. This is why I think a movie like Water for Elephants can be dangerous.
But if evil is first portrayed and then condemned or shown to be dangerous or destructive, then we can refer to the film as moral, at least in this one respect. This is why movies like Crash or Gran Torino have great value.
How do we sort through what is helpful to watch? I’ll let Ryken answer:
“The question that a Christian must therefore answer is, Does the moral or intellectual significance of a work exceed in value the possible offensiveness of any of its parts? The answer will vary for individual Christians with individual works, and it will even vary for the same person from one occasion to another.” (241)