It has been said that the most influential theologians in modern America live in Hollywood. That is, much of what Christians think and believe is shaped not by the Bible or the great thinkers of church history but by the movies they see. Unknowingly Christians often drink at the well of secularism, consuming ungodly, unchristian ideas, ideas that are unbiblical and unhealthy for their faith, all in the name of entertainment.
Intuitively, we know that’s not how it’s supposed to be. The question, then, is how is the Christian to respond to Hollywood? Can we be in the entertainment but not of it? Historically Christians have adopted one of three approaches.
The first such approach argues that the answer is a very straightforward “no.” Hollywood is “unholywood,” the argument goes. Christians, this position posits, should have no part in the secular culture. Instead, they are to flee from all appearances of evil, anything that might confuse their faith or lead to temptation, to the exclusion of any and all things non-church – be it film, literature, or music. Thus, a strong wall of defense is constructed between the sacred and the secular. Never shall the two meet.
On the surface the premise seems biblical. Admonitions can be found throughout the Bible to that effect and this position has held sway among some Christians from the very beginning, nearly 1900 years before the rise of Hollywood. After all, it was the Apostle Paul who said, “Flee from all appearances of evil.” Yet, that same Apostle addressed his audience at Mars Hill (Acts 17) by quoting not the Bible but their own pagan poets. Not only was Paul not unaware of their culture, he was familiar with it and used that to his evangelistic advantage.
In the end, this approach is understandable in that it seeks to protect Christians from the wiles of Satan in a most complete, thoroughgoing manner. The problem is, Christians who are completely sheltered from the popular world around them risk denigrating the potential beauty in God’s creation and the expression of God-given talents. Who would deny the beauty of Michelangelo’s David or Beethoven’s Fifth? Moreover, this approach runs the risk of undermining evangelism, denying the Christian a point of entrance into the world and mind of the lost. That is not to say the Christian has to like the movie or approve of its message. But, if she’s never seen it, how can she refute its hold on the mind of the lost?
So, in the end, complete rejection is an understandable, yet imperfect means of responding to the power of the popular culture. There has to be another way.
For many Christians the complete rejection of secular media is unacceptable. Instead, they embrace Hollywood’s offerings, usually under the auspices of two very different reasons. Some will argue that something more than just a passing awareness of the culture is necessary to engage the culture. For many others, however, Hollywood is embraced uncritically, appreciated solely for its entertainment value.
In response to the first motivation, evangelism, we must say that it is noble, biblical, and seemingly in keeping with the example of Paul. However, bear in mind that Paul also cautioned believers to flee from evil. How do we reconcile the two? Very cautiously. Some movies are simply not to be seen by Christians. No one can justify spending a night watching pornography for the sake of reaching out to the lost. Such a move violates so many biblical principles that it makes the point beyond debate. Likewise, other movies should be watched with discernment, acknowledging the potential for sin and our desensitization toward it.
As for those who merely watch for the sake of entertainment they must realize that everything we see, everything we hear impacts our souls, edifying our spirits or searing our consciences. In the end, can Christians really set aside matters of the faith and simply “enjoy” a movie? Or, better yet, should they?
Consider the example of two wildly popular movies, their message, and your response. Did you find yourself cheering for the native people at the end of “Avatar” as they rose up triumphantly and defeated the greedy, big corporation and its mercenary defense forces? The movie’s producers convinced you theirs was a noble cause all the while portraying animism, the worship of nature, and panentheism, the idea that the divine is in all things – ideas that are clearly antithetical to the Christian worldview – in a very favorable light.
What about the immensely popular “Twilight” series of films? Here, the viewer is drawn into the bizarre love story of an eternal being, Edward, and his socially awkward girlfriend, Bella, leaving many viewers longing for such love in their lives. What about the fact that the hero is a vampire, a very ungodlike creature with godlike qualities, and that the basis of the vampire-human relationship is ultimately about the giving of the one’s life to sustain the other, all portrayed with strong sexual imagery? Again, not very Christian but amazingly popular, even among the churched.
Remember, Hollywood will do whatever it takes to get you to embrace their worldview. They are not simply out to entertain. They are out to communicate a message, to share their gospel. Christians need to be alert to that message and respond accordingly.
A third option is available for Christians who want to engage culture, feed their desire for artist pleasure, and still heed biblical admonitions about sin and sanctification. This option allows for Christians to partake of popular culture, enjoy that which is truly enjoyable, while rejecting that which isn’t. This model calls for Christians to proceed with caution to the theater with their eyes open and their faith engaged.
Approaching the offerings of Hollywood with critical discernment allows the Christian to truly be “in” the world, aware of what is popular and what is shaping popular opinion, without actually being “of” the world. In this way, the Christian can take in many of today’s most popular movies, critically acclaimed or mind-numbingly banal, and do so with an open mind and a clear conscience. Watching movies in this way requires the mind of Christ (Romans 12:1-2), seeing the world as Christ sees it, embracing the good, enjoying the beautiful, while rejecting evil. The discerning Christian can watch the latest blockbuster and be lifted up when the message is edifying or be rightly repulsed when the message is ungodly.
Consider the example of the award winning “Schindler’s List.” This is the tale of an opportunistic businessman during World War 2 who acquires Jewish “workers” from the Nazis to line his own pockets. The movie is dark and somber, shot entirely in black and white. In the end it leaves the viewer offended by the total depravity of man as displayed in his treatment of his fellow man. No one, Christian or otherwise, can watch this movie and approve of the actions of the Nazis or the anti-hero, Schindler, early in the movie.
The director wants the viewer to come away sickened and saddened by the events of the Holocaust. To make his point all the more poignant, he portrays violence, both militaristic and sexual, with brutal honesty and clarity. For that reason, many Christians avoided this movie both in the theater and when it was shown on national television. Those who did, however, missed a beautiful tale of redemption, one in which Schindler sold all the wealth that he had amassed to purchase the “freedom” of his Jews – a very Christian theme.
Watching “Schindler’s List” with discernment allowed Christians to experience emotionally and artistically one of the most horrid realities of the last century without buying into the worldview that permitted such atrocities to occur. Coming away from the movie they were not titillated by the nudity. They were not encouraged to participate in acts of senseless violence. Instead, they were rightly angered. They watched aghast at the violence portrayed on the screen, convinced that such violence must be avoided at all costs. Christians watching this movie weren’t compelled to embrace the worldview of the Nazis. They were forced to reject it and the consequences of such evil wholesale. And, along the way, they gained a new illustration of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ that they could share with and explain to those nonbelievers who were flocking to the movie.
Watching movies with discernment isn’t easy. Hollywood has perfected the art of worldview sleight of hand. They’ve convinced many to check their morals at the door, to let down their spiritual guard, and accept views of sin much lower than those of Christ without even realizing that they’re being presented an alternative worldview, that of the world. To arm themselves, Christians must not be in the dark when they enter the theater. They must set the need for preserving their purity above all others. When they feel their senses being assaulted, when they find themselves losing their sense of right and wrong, they must get up and leave. They must admit defeat on this day and retreat to the safety of the cross.
Likewise, Christians must promote the world’s purity. As Christ said, the church is to be the salt of the world. The world must be aware of the presence of Christ’s people and that presence must make a difference. If you can watch a movie unaware of its deeper message, you not only endanger your own sanctification, you lose your saltiness. You forfeit your ability to affect change among nonbelievers. That, ultimately, must be your mission here. If you cannot accomplish the task at hand without violating your sense of right and wrong and without losing your ability to take a stand for Christ, stay home. After all, Christians are in the world to bring the light of the gospel to the world. When your light is extinguished by your own hypocrisy, by our own spiritual weakness, the witness of the gospel is hurt and souls may be lost.
Consider these biblical texts and the way they should impact they way you watch a movie.
1 Thessalonians 5:21 – Test everything. Be aware of what Hollywood is trying to communicate. When they turn off the lights, don’t turn off your spiritual radar.
2 Corinthians 10:2-7 – Be sure that you walk according to the Light, not forsaking your faith for the sake of entertainment, acceptance, or a potential evangelism encounter.
Proverbs 21:12 – Wisely consider the ways of the wicked. While Christians don’t have to partake in wickedness to know that it is bad, we would be wise to understand what the world knows, loves, and embraces.
Proverbs 23:17 – The wise Christian views the sin of the world with great care, knowing that allure of evil is great and his exposure to it dangerous.
Mark 7:14-15 – Remember the greatest danger in movies is not Hollywood’s message but our own resident evil. Hollywood merely preys on that which resides in all of us – sin. Acknowledging that arms us with the ability to diagnose the root evil or dangers of a movie and equips us to engage the enemy of righteousness head on. It also serves to protect from falling into new sins of our own unaware.
Christians are a part of the culture. They live as foreigners in a strange, spiritual land. While their voice may seemingly be small, it must never be silent. They must, with Christ, call that which is good, good, and that which is evil, evil.
When it comes to the movie industry it is naïve and unhelpful to issue a blank warning against all movies and reject them wholesale. At the same time, it is dangerously naïve to believe that one can simply ingest the message the Hollywood feeds them without risking his or her own sanctification. Instead, Christians must approach the wares of Hollywood with wisdom, caution, and the boldness of Christ. They must engage the culture with the good news of the gospel where they are most susceptible – their culture. But, Christians must do so knowing that the world does not wait passively, hoping that some Christian will shine the light of holiness into their darkness. No, Hollywood lies waiting in ambush, hoping to appeal to fallen nature so they might make some converts themselves.
So, go watch a movie but watch your step.