Monday, May 14, 2012

Why I Watch What I Watch (As a Christian)

I posted yesterday on Facebook about the movie Cabin in the Woods, which I very much want to see. Someone responded to my status, commenting that Cabin in the Woods was a very bad movie and not something that Christians should watch. While I am very much in favor of Christians following their own convictions and wouldn't encourage someone to watch something that goes against what they feel they should watch, I did think, "Oh, I should write something about that."

My take on what Christians should or shouldn't watch is sometimes very different from other people's take on it. I tend to approach things from the complete opposite direction. When I go to watch something, my main question is, "Is there good in this?" while most Christians I talk to about consuming media ask, "Is there bad in this?" The reason I go the other way is based on the Bible verse Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Interestingly enough, this same verse is often used to justify the opposite worldview. It frequently gets turned around to be entirely negative. Instead of, "Whatever is true, think about such things," it turns into, "Whatever is not true, do not think about such things." It's a subtle difference, but a very important one. The emphasis is on things to avoid, rather than things to embrace.

Here's the thing: When you're looking for things you need to avoid... you are thinking about them. If, for example, you sit through a movie and make a mental note of every time someone swears, then by the end of the movie that's what you remember. You remember the bad language and how offensive you thought it was. Any good that was in the movie got trumped by the bad, because that's what you thought about the whole time. That is the exact opposite of what this verse tells us to do.

Now what if the "bad things" outweigh the good things about the movie and can't be so easily ignored? Well, that happens too. But if the movie overall has lovely, right, noble, admirable themes intermingled with cursing... that's not an example of that for me. Cursing is made up of fairly arbitrarily-chosen words that society has deemed impolite. I don't believe in letting something like that take over and ruin a good story. It's not worth losing the story to be upset about the language. I'm a "big picture" kind of person. I'm bothered by big things rather than details.

Example: I love the music from Grease, but I'm really distressed by the movie because it has a terrible message: "Change everything about yourself so your guy will like you. It'll be totally worth it." That's a movie that's not worth watching for me. I'll happily listen to the music and enjoy that, but I will not rewatch it because its message is offensive.

A more controversial example: I hate the combined messages of Facing the Giants, Flywheel and Fireproof: "If you trust God and follow these steps, your life circumstances will fall into place and everything will be great." That message is just not true. I hate those movies not just because of the acting and the writing (although that sure doesn't help), but because I find the overall theme to be manipulating people into believing a lie. This is... if not offensive, certainly distressing.

On the flip side, there are movies like Annie Hall, my 4th favorite movie of all time. Annie Hall is not a "clean" movie. There's some cursing and a lot of references to sex. But its overall message is an uplifting one: "Relationships are difficult and complicated but can change you for the better." That is a true message. An excellent one. A right one. So that is what I think about and focus on. Those are the things I love in this movie. Those are the reasons I embrace it as a movie worth watching.

I would never make someone watch something that went strongly against their preferences. Some people don't like cursing or violence in their movies, just like some people don't like characters bursting out into song. I don't demand that people watch violent movies or musicals (or Sweeney Todd, which is both) just because I don't have a problem with them. But nor do I think it's appropriate to judge someone's level of faith by what kinds of movies they watch. I'm sure the person whose Facebook comment prompted this blog in the first place wasn't doing that - it's just something that I know happens a lot. "Christians don't watch this." "A Christian wouldn't listen to that song." "That's not very Christian of you." The reason those kind of judgments can't be made is I have a genuine prayed-about, thought-through, backed-up-with-the-Bible reason for watching the movies I watch and staying away from the ones I do. It's not out of rebellion or rejection of God or tradition. My movie watching choices do connect to my faith, very strongly - just maybe not in a way that most people think of.


  1. Can I just say I love everything about this post? I could share my own thoughts on the subject at hand, but ultimately you've already covered anything I might say - and you've done it much more concisely!

    Instead, let me just say that this post is a major reason why I admire your writing so much, Hannah. You have a talent for distilling broad themes and personal experiences into something very accessible to your readers. I like to think I'm pretty good at that myself, which is why I know how rare a gift that is. Kudos!

    1. Thank you so much for this comment and all the passing on this blog post! I'm glad you enjoyed this - it's something that I've thought about and worked through for the past several years and it's nice to finally be able to condense it into blog form. :)

  2. Excellent post, Hannah, and a topic that I come up against as well as a Christian who watches and writes about a lot of movies that are decidedly not Christian. I don't know if you're familiar with Francis Schaffer's writings, but he and his wife were very active in ministering to the youth of the 1960s, especially ones traveling in Europe, and their ministry has always focused on what he called "leftover beauty," that is that our world and humanity, fallen as it is, is still infused with the image of God and his grace, and thus many things that are not specifically Christian still retain vestiges of that and are worth celebrating when we find it. I believe that even things like beautiful craft in making art can be celebrated - of course sometimes the message goes so far against what I believe that I can't do that, but it's rare.

  3. Great piece of writing. As a fellow Christian and fellow movie fan I have to say I can relate to your position on this matter.
    I would add from my own experience that this falls right in with too many Christians living in a "Christian bubble" or having thier own "Christian Clubhouse". In that they only watch faith based films, only listen to faith based radio stations and only hang out with "good" Christian friends. That's not what Christ did, that's not what we should be doing either.
    Watching movies is not going to send us to hell or make us stop going to church. In fact it gives you an oppurtunity to relate to others who don't share our same beleifs and not seem like a bunch of out of touch weirdos who have to obey a set of crazy rules and never get to have fun.

  4. Sigh. I am trying to reply individually to the other two comments, but Blogger is being stupid and won't let me, so I'll post it here.

    Jandy: I'm only a little familiar with Francis Schaffer, but the little I've read about his take on art and creativity, I *really* like. I love that idea of leftover beauty - that's very much what I believe. There's an excellent chapter in Rob Bell's book Velvet Elvis that talks about all truth and all beauty being originally from God in the first place, so when we see truth and beauty, we should recognize it as being from God, rather than dismissing it because it didn't come through one of our church-authorized channels.

    Donald: Thank you so much for the read and the comment! I agree, a lot of Christians tend to isolate themselves. This means that unfortunately most of them never get exposed to really good art and they have no idea what it can actually do and how powerful it can be. So they in turn grow up to make mediocre Christian art which inspires *other* people to make mediocre Christian art, and it just never gets much better.

    Also, one of the things I like most about "secular" movies and music is that it allows me to see things from someone else's perspective, even if I don't agree with their viewpoints. That's sometimes viewed as dangerous by the church - like if you understand why somebody makes a bad decision, you're somehow supporting them or, worse, you will end up making the same bad decision yourself because you saw someone else do it. So they tend to run away from it. This is, of course, silly. The more I can do to understand the people around me, Christian or nonChristian, the better I will be at relating to them and, frankly, the better person I will be overall.

    (That was kind of a ranty response to your comment that was not nearly as coherent as I'd have liked it to be. My apologies.)