Can Bad Movies Teach Good Things?

Mark Beuving —  December 14, 2011 — 13 Comments

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)

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Mark Beuving

Mark Beuving

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Mark Beuving currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Equipping and Discipleship at Creekside Church in Rocklin, CA. Prior to going back into pastoral ministry, Mark spent ten years on staff at Eternity Bible College as a Campus Pastor, Dean of Students, and then Associate Professor. He is passionate about building up the body of Christ, training future leaders for the Church, and writing. Though he is interested in many areas of theology and philosophy, Mark is most fascinated with practical theology and exploring the many ways in which the Bible can speak to and transform our world. He is the author of "Resonate: Enjoying God's Gift of Music" and the co-author with Francis Chan of "Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples." Mark lives in Rocklin with his wife and two daughters.
  • Hali

    But what about comedies? Crash and Grand Torino obviously have great messages…But what happens when the “real” “good” messages are more difficult to find? I understand using “discernment” when watching films, but why then is everyone’s discernment so extremely different from one another? I don’t say this in a cocky way, I’m just curious as to what you think.

    • Mark Beuving

      Great question, Hali. We need to be careful with comedies because we tend to adopt the attitude that “if it’s funny, it’s okay.” But humor doesn’t excuse sin, so we need to watch comedies with discernment, just like anything else. And really, it’s not usually that difficult to tell what a comedy is praising or denouncing.

      My thought is that there are some good reasons and some bad reasons for why some Christians’ “discernment” leads them to watch some things that other Christians’ “discernment” would lead them to avoid. I’d say the bad reasons are a seared conscience and a licentious spirit. Some Christians just want to watch what they want to watch, and they justify it however they can (often using some of the arguments I have used above).

      But there are good reasons for this as well. We all vary in terms of exactly what causes us to stumble. So you may be able to profitably watch something that I decide would not be helpful for me at the moment. Plus individual tastes differ, and I think that difference in taste glorifies God. The church is not about uniformity, but about unity amidst diversity.

      I’m not sure that any of that actually helps, but I do think that as soon as we start saying, “Watch this genre but not that genre” or “Don’t watch anything beyond this rating,” then we have started down the wrong path.

  • Sarah

    That exactly what Denzel Washington said in an interview. They were trying to prove he wasn’t being a christian because of the roles he chose. He said he chose roles that had clear cut good/ evil in them, where good triumphs. I am always trying to explain this to our youth students. That’s why shows like family guy really make me sick- so many Christians watch it when all it does is glorify sin. Bit some other movies much more graphic might be a point of discussion with a nonbekiecer- or our own kids realizing reality.

  • Joshua Grauman

    Thanks guys for the thoughts. I agree that depicting sin as sinful in a way that reflects a biblical worldview is helpful, and that some of the worst movies to watch can be ‘clean’ (especially because of how innocuous they seem). I too want to avoid sheltering my children, and the world is a very sinful and broken place and I agree that exposure to and learning how to address issues from a biblical worldview is the soundest approach. Let me throw out a possible exception/question to this discussion. How does nudity fit into this discussion? Yes, the Bible does depict some gruesome acts and even sexual ones, but it never does so visually. Do the Proverbs about fleeing sexual temptation apply in this case? Is it different to watch a gruesome murder than to watch a stripper on screen? Even if the stripper is portrayed negatively, does the nature of sexual sin mean that we should avoid watching this? If lust is solely the man’s responsibility and it is solely up to him to control his thoughts regardless of environment, why is modesty and fleeing sexual temptation so emphasized biblically? What do others think, am I just prudish or is guarding our eyes really important biblically?

    • Mark Beuving

      Great question, Josh. I’d love to hear some other people weigh in on this too. I certainly don’t have all the answers. I wonder how Song of Solomon might factor in to this. You’re the OT guy, so you tell me: is Song of Solomon giving a graphic description (suggesting mental images if not actual images) of sex within proper bounds for proper purposes?

      But Song of Solomon aside, I really like the quote I inserted from Ryken about the need to exercise discernment. Ryken actually spends the next several pages after that quote discussing the dangers of exposing ourselves to things. On the one hand, he strongly believes that Christians should be exploring the artistic creations of the world around us, but on the other hand, he feels the tension that much of what is being produced is destructive, so we need to be careful not to over expose ourselves to that which could harm us. I think I agree with him on that tension. We definitely need to exercise discernment, but I think a lot of people claim discernment when in reality they’re using their “freedom” as an excuse to engage in things they really shouldn’t be engaging in.

      I guess all that to say: I don’t know. But I would love to hear your thoughts on Song of Songs.

      • Joshua Grauman

        No doubt Song of Songs is explicit. Pretty tough to get around that fact. I guess the question here is whether or not reading about something explicit is different than seeing it. I tend to think so (at least for most people). But ultimately, we have to bring it back to the Biblical principles. That we are to flee temptation is a clear Biblical command. We should even pluck our eye out if it causes us to stumble. So the question really should be, “Does watching this tempt me to lust?” If so, then we shouldn’t watch whatever, while at the same time recognizing that the situation doesn’t cause us to lust, but working on our underlying heart issue that finds satisfaction in fleshly desires.

        • Mark Beuving

          Well said, Josh. I can get on board with that. If it causes you to lust, flee from it. But don’t be content to feel lust in your heart every time you see something suggestive and therefore always be running away from everything. Instead, get down to the lust that’s in your heart, deal with it (easy to say, hard to do), and then continue to interact with the world around you and let the truth of the Bible and the lordship of Christ come to bear on everything we encounter.

          And to go back one more time to the quote from Ryken, “The answer will vary for individual Christians with individual works, and it will even vary for the same person from one occasion to another.” So even as we deal with the lust in our hearts, we’ll still need to be on guard, because art is powerful, and we cannot let anything—even something as potentially good as art—lead us away from our commitment to God.

          I think these are all helpful clarifications.

  • Colby Truesdell

    I may be misunderstanding this post, but it seems like our ‘rub’ in what movies/entertainment to watch is lessen by the reality that Scripture portrays scenes, not least whole stories, of certain acts that we would deem immoral. Therefore, because Scripture ‘contains’ these scenes but does not ‘promote’ these scenes, we then have the liberty (depending on the believer’s conscience) to be entertained by such things.

    I am very intrigued by this. I wonder how Christians can be wise to articulate their liberties. This is my first post, so I hope I am doing this well. Thank you for allowing such conversations to happen!

    Now, my thoughts:

    Though art, when it portrays evil, articulates realism, can you equate it with the realism found in Scripture? Art’s main objective is, by way of imagination and giftedness, to appreciate something as beautiful or emotionally compelling and is to be enjoyed. (On a side note, if Christians embody the life of what it means to live out our true humanity in nature and essence, does that change/determine the content of what humans are entertained by? If so, i wonder how radically different this entertainment would be perceived by those outside the community of faith.) If that’s the case, can Scripture’s realism be a comparable equivalent? It seems that the realism found in the Bible is not realism in and of itself (that is, entertainment), rather it is written to form a community by tradition and history (Scripture, Festivals, and Sacraments), informing those in the community on how to best articulate the way the world is known as the world. Also, if cultural ‘realism’ is determinative in how we Christians see the world, then what about the supernatural? Realism in Scripture, thinking of 2 Kings 6, seems to be qualified by a heaven-earth reality. All this to say, why do we Christians have the conviction that we bear the burden of speaking about the world in such a way that the world understands us? (Paul doesn’t seem to bear this conviction in his preaching to the Corinthians [1 Cor. 1]). I am not saying we shouldn’t be a bridge in our reaching out to lost people (That is a huge purpose in our salvation). Nor am I advocating that we not watch movies in order to understand the way the world thinks about the world (On a personal note, I don’t think I know of any Christian that actually does that). Stanley Hauerwas says, “The first task of the church is to make the world the world, not to make the world more just.” It is the foundation of our world-view that will subsequently change the way we understand the world and the world understands us. If we desire the church to be something other than a peculiar people, we want something, if i can say this, God does not want (e.g., city set on a hill, light of the world). In order to be a cruciform witness in this world, our life hinges on the scandalous message of “King Crucified.” God’s reality, I believe, is not determined by how the world portrays the world, but how the world is portrayed trough the cross of Christ.

    So, how does the difference of qualifiers (Christian realism/Non-Christian realism) change the focus of this conversation? Or, perhaps, it doesn’t at all. These are just my thoughts.

    • Mark Beuving

      Colbly,

      There was a lot in what you said that I’m not following, but here are some thoughts that might help. The purpose of art isn’t necessarily to entertain. That may be a byproduct, but most would agree that art is more about exploring the human condition. It’s a way of looking at the world in a new and fresh manner. Every part of the human experience can and should be examined. The difference for us as Christians is that our examination of the human experience is informed by a biblical worldview. So art in all of its forms really is a worthwhile pursuit—even aside from the entertainment aspect, which I still think has a place in a theology of rest—because it explores the world and the people that God made. Art gives us a mirror into the ways in which the people around us are finding meaning in God’s world.

      Let me know if I completely missed what you were getting at.

      • Colby Truesdell

        Mark,

        Absolutely!

        Being an artist, I understand the theological implications of art being a expression of your humanity (image bears of a creator God). Thus, once one understands the essence and nature of humanity, they can better understand how art plays an important role in exploring that human condition. I, for one, hope that I am not deducing art to be mere entertainment. That’s why I write songs! :) So thank you! I don’t want to seem like I am raining on my own parade.

        However, I feel as though the discussion of Christian liberty and ‘worldly’ entertainment is less about the definition of art and more about our intentions for wanting to enjoy such films (as well as other forms of realist art).

        Art, as you said, when it portrays evil is called realism. Deductively, we can infer that realist art is a reflection of the world’s perception of evil. Now, given this inference, how does/can a Christian benefit from such exploration? (I am playing the devil’s advocate)

        At this point, i believe the common answer is “Well, we (Christians) need to know what the world is thinking about such things.” This is what I meant when I said “I haven’t met any Christian that has this intention while going to the movies on Saturday night.” (This may not be the case for everyone; however, it is the answer I am given most. Some may just want to be amused by such things.- another topic)

        As good as these intentions are, are they biblical? This is what I meant when I asked, “why do we Christians have the conviction that we bear the burden of speaking about the world in such a way that the world understands us? (Paul doesn’t seem to bear this conviction in his preaching to the Corinthians [1 Cor. 1]).”

        Today, Christians are under the conviction that we bear the burden of proof. We have to explain ourselves in such a way that the world would understand us. (I am not advocating Christian fundamentalism!) Thus, in my understanding, comes our conviction to understand and enjoy the world’s perception and understanding of the human condition.

        Friedrich Nietzsche said, “if your (Christian) belief makes you blessed then appear to be blessed! Your faces have always been more injurious to your belief than our objections have! If these glad tidings of your Bible were written on your faces, you would not need to insist so obstinately on the authority of that book…”

        How does this insight from this non-believer (a very smart one at that) contribute to this conversation?

        To be fair, I have seen my share of inappropriate movies. Not that this is the case now. However, I am not content with the answer of “realism.” Realism for the church has also driven us to inappropriately associate with war, violence and slavery. I wonder if there is a more satisfying way, not least more intelligible, to talk about Christian liberties and films without resulting to realism.

        Hope this clears up some of my jargon. – I don’t spend my time writing books like some people 😉

        • Colby Truesdell

          Also, I am not answering the question “Can bad movies teach good things.” The answer, at least to me, is an obvious yes.

          However, what moral teaching/insight can the church present that cannot be given from a Tom Cruise movie or Bowling club? Those from movies and clubs can give insight on the human condition that can be attained anywhere. Why is the church desiring to see/receive these teachings (those from films) as a necessity to their entertainment and pleasure?

          • Mark Beuving

            Yeah, good points. We have to be very discerning about how we will spend our time, and where we will go to learn truth. As far as I’m concerned, God is the only source of truth. So if I want to know the truth on any matter, I’m going to pick up my Bible. But I am also interested in seeing how the people around me are wrestling with truth. Romans 1 says that every person knows the truth, yet they suppress it. So we should never be surprised to see truth show up in dark places, but we should also expect to find that truth distorted and suppressed.

            When I find truth in a film, I want to acknowledge that aspect of the film as speaking truly about God and the world He made. But I’m not going to go to the theatre as a means of developing my worldview. Sometimes the people around us will help us see the world as we’ve never seen it before (this is often the most powerful aspect of art), and this will help me more fully grasp something about the world or humanity or God. But the source of truth is still God Himself, and the only inspired communication of that truth is the Bible.

            I don’t think we should go around pretending that Christians are the only ones who can see the world for what it truly is. Non-Christians also grasp truth at various times and to varying extents. So when we see someone speaking truth, we should affirm that. But we need to make sure that the Bible comes to bear on what people are thinking through, saying, and creating.

            People are created in God’s image, and therefore they have value. Their creativity is a reflection of God’s creativity. So when the people around us create things, it is loving, compassionate, and even “missional” to listen carefully to what they’re saying. Then we affirm what is good and reject what is evil. This is where preaching the cross comes in. Of course, we could just go in guns blazing with a sermon on our lips, never listening to what anyone else is saying. But paying attention to where people are at helps us to present God’s truth with greater insight and specificity.

  • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

    Wow, Mark. The little birdy that whispered these thoughts in your ear flew over to my shoulder as well. Here’s my unedited comment on your last post, which is eerily applicable to this post as well:

    Mark,

    Your final comment about “not considering a book, movie, or whatever to be all good or all bad” is an important one and opens up a whole new discussion.

    One distinction that I’ve found helpful is between movies (songs, etc.) that CONTAIN sin vs. movies that PROMOTE sin. The best movies are not those that avoid sin, but those that CONTAIN sin and CRITIQUE it. As such, some of the “cleanest” movies are not true to a biblical worldview, since they don’t acknowledge the reality of sin–they’re very flat, theologically.

    This brings me back to one of the most biblical movies around: Gran Tarino. It contains tons of swearing, some violence, an abundance of racial slurs, and even a rape scene (the aftermath, anyway). In most cases, however, the evil in the movie (which reflects reality) is not promoted but critiqued. While containing tons of sinful activity, the movie promotes racial reconciliation, reveals the absurdity and foolishness of gang violence, and, of course, the glory of self-sacrificial redemption. On a worldview level, Gran Tarino is much, much cleaner than Water for Elephants, though Christians will generally stay clear of the former and blindly watch the latter.