Saturday, December 16, 2006

An addendum to "Casino Royale"

One of my blog readers wrote, in response to my review of Casino Royale:
I find that a ‘thinking Christian’ sending reviews of immoral Hollywood movies is rather strange. I cannot quote the whole text, but you should know it well, “…………………… think on these things” It is ok to send me emails of substance, but leave the ‘sewage’ out!
I think it is important to respond to this view to make sure that, as Christians, we are, indeed, thinking appropriately about the things we should be. The text referred to reads:
... whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think aboutt these things. (Philippians 3:8, NRSV)
Many Christians think that this is an easy text to live by - as if it makes what we read or watch easy to choose. But this is not the case. Paul provides a list of criteria for evaluating what Christians should/should not read/watch. The first question we need to ask is, does what we read/watch have to meet all the criteria provided by Paul? So, does something need to be true and honorable and just and pure and pleasing and commendable and excellent and worthy of praise? In other words, if any one of these criteria are not met, should we reject the source as Christians? Or is Paul saying that any one (or more) of these criteria is enough for Christians to think about something. In other words, what we read/watch should be true or honorable or just or pure or pleasing or commendable or excellent or worthy or praise? It might be tempting to leap to the conclusion that the first of these options is the right one for Christians - it certainly seems intuitively to be correct. But let's test each on out. The and option If we should only read/watch things that fulfilled all of the criteria, we probably shouldn't read:
  • The Bible

The Bible contains an incredible amount of immoral behaviour. Franky Schaeffer (son of the brilliant Francis Schaeffer) has written, in his excellent book Sham Pearls for Real Swine has made the point that, '[i]f the Bible were a film, it would be R-rated in some parts, X-rated in others.' (p. 28) He points out that '[t]he Bible is the literature of God, and literature, as every book burner knows, is dangerous... The Bible is, among other things, about God, men, women, sex, lies, truth, sin, goodness, fornication, adultery, murder, childbearing, virgins, whores, blasphemy, prayer, wine, food, history, nature, poetry, rape, love salvation, damnation, temptation, and angels.' (p. 28, emphasis supplied)

If what we read has to comply with all of the criteria listed by Paul, then we shouldn't read it (or at least parts of it) because it describes immorality.

Now, some may argue that the Bible describes all these things within a theological context and doesn't condone them. True. But this serves to make the point that we can't decide whether something is immoral or not by counting the number of immoral behaviours in it. We need to judget something by its overall point and purpose.

  • The Lord of the Rings or The Narnia Chronicles

JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy and, by definition, is not true. That is, not true in the historical sense. Truth, of course, has many meanings and can be conveyed in many ways. But some Christians think all fiction should be avoided. If Paul is read in this way, then The Lord of the Rings should be avoided.

  • The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson's (in)famous film The Passion of the Christ is incredibly violent. What we see in the Passion is probably the most historically accurate portrayal crucifixion ever on the screen. But violence is immoral, isn't it? Therefore we shouldn't watch it if all of Paul's criteria are to be included for everything we watch.

We could go on and on. It is clear that a simplistic reading of Paul's criteria, and requiring everything we watch or read to meet every one of them, will mean we need to avoid a great deal that Christians actually believe should be read and watched (eg, the Bible). So clearly the and approach is not adequate. What about the or approach?

The or approach

If the and approach doesn't work, the or approach must be the one we need to go by. How would this work?

Whenever we are deciding what to read or watch, we need to ask whether any of the criteria fit and whether, overall, there is some value in watching or reading something. This means that, rather than fitting everything into one box or the other (good or evil) we have to do some deeper thinking.

Let's return to Casino Royale for instance. How would we evaluate it on the basis of Paul's criteria? Firstly, the movie's main character is human and describes various experiences that, to a greater or lesser degree, we all face. For example, Vesper, the female love interest of Bond, raises the issue of whether certain jobs require people to "switch off" morality. In particular, are their situations where, for a higher good, humans need to engage in what is immoral? We seem to be living in a world where we often hear justifications for immoral behaviour which bring about some higher good. Torturing alleged terrorists, for example, to save people who might be victims of terrorist action. Often, too, in the real world in which we live, values often conflict with each other and we need to make decisions which might be somewhat ambiguous.

Casino Royale also explores issues of vulnerability and how experiences can lead to a person putting on an "armor" that protects them. In the film, we see Bond struggling with his armor and, in particular, his need to trust another person when his past has not provided him with any reasons to do so. Many, many people have shut off their emotional lives because of bad experiences - and some of these experiences make it very difficult for a person to let God love them. It is a challenge for us to explore how we might help these people learn to trust and to love again.

These are just two issues raised by the movie -- there are many more. It is interesting that many Christian movie critics are praising Casino Royale. Here are some quotes:

'... Casino Royale gives us so much that the Bond franchise has longed for: credibility, actual human drama, maturity, intensity and great unpredicted surprises.' Todd Hertz/Christianity Today

'At a time when we can be reasonably sure there really are guys out there licensed and eager to kill in the name of country—whether justified or not—Bond seems less naturally heroic and more morally culpable for his actions than ever." He concludes that the story is "far better," but the result is "less outright 'fun' than previous incarnations.' Christopher Lyon/Plugged In

'The movie's worldview is basically biblical in its extolling of bravery and diligence in overcoming evil ...' Lisa Rice/Crosswalk

Is Hollywood evil?

It is very common for Christians to stereotype Hollywood as evil and full of anti-Christian movie makers conspiring to undermine Christian values. This stereotype needs to be challenged. It arises more from fear and ignorance than anything else. As Austin (2005) has pointed out, 'there has always been a Christian presence in Hollywood.' (p. 53) To suggest that Hollywood, as a whole, is evil, is to characterise Christians who work there, influencing what we see in cinema and on TV, as evil. The fact is that real people, from all worldviews, work in Hollywood. All Christians would benefit from learning more about how films are actually made and on what basis decisions are made by film makers. It is much more complex that we might think.

It is absolutely true that some movies are not good. And there are many good ones. But they are not necessarily good because they have nothing immoral in them or bad because they do. Counting the number of times characters swear, or the frequency of sex scenes, or whether there is nudity, or violence is an inadequate way of determing whether a movie is worth watching or not.

How, Then, Do We Decide?

If things are not black-and-white, then how do we decide what is a good movie and what isn't? We might think that who makes a movie might help us. For instance, what about this list of movies, all of which have Christian messages or themes?

  • Chariots of Fire
  • Tender Mercies
  • Places in the Heart
  • Hoosiers
  • The Mission
  • Grand Canyon
  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • Dead Man Walking
  • The Apostle
  • The Prince of Egypt
  • The Iron Giant
  • Magnolia
  • Signs
  • Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie
  • About Schmidt
  • Changing Lanes
  • In America
  • Bruce Almighty
  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • The Passion of the Christ

As Thom Parham (2005) points out, '[a]ll of these films were critically acclaimed and/or box office hits. But with the exception of Jonah, Bruce Almighty, and The Passion, none were made by Christian filmakers. (p. 55, emphasis supplied)

Now, what about this list?

  • Gospa
  • Entertaining Angels
  • The Omega Code
  • The Joyriders
  • Left Behind: The Movie
  • Carman: The Champion
  • Megiddo: The Omega Code 2
  • Mercy Streets
  • To End All Wars
  • Hometown Legend
  • Joshua
  • Left Behind II: Tribulation Force
  • Luther
  • Finding Home
  • Therese

Parham describes these films as '[o]verall ... unwatchable. There are only a handful of good scenes among them. None had success with critics or at the box office. (What does it say about Christian filmmakers that one of their best-received movie features computer-generated vegetables who sing and dance?)'

Clearly, judging a film by whether it is made by Christians is pretty much a waste of time! The only thing left to do is to ask the questions that Paul asked about the movies we watch:

  • does the movie say anything true?
  • is their anything honorable protrayed in the movie?
  • does the movie promote justice in an way?
  • does the story promote purity?
  • is the movie pleasing in any sense?
  • are any aspects of the movie commendable?
  • does the movie contain elements that are excellent, including the cinematography, acting, plot, etc?
  • is there anything in the movie that is worthy of praise?

Clearly, no movie (including so-called Christian movies) are not necessarily going to fulfil all of these criteria. We live in an imperfect world. But wherever we see the creativity of God reflected in human creativity, we should rush to the cinema and send a message to Hollywood that we want more of the same!

Franky Schaeffer (1990) describes how

As a child, growing up in L'Abri, I never knew that there were "R"-rated movies. I only knew there were well-made films and poorly made films. I never knew nudity portrayed in art and film was "evil." I never knew that four-letter words invalidated someone's book or film, and made it "unacceptable," (though I was taught not to use profanity in polite conversation). I thank God for my ignorance during those formative years. When my father expressed himself at all on the subject of narrow fundamentalist and evangelical attitudes toward art and culture, it was to bewail the lack of vision and harsh treatment of artists, not the "evils" of the "world."

I was taught my father and mother to judge artwork on its artistic merits and that the moral rightness or wrongness of things, such as nudity, violence, or profane language in the arts, depended on their context, the honesty of the work, its quality, and the subject matter.

As a result, it never occurred to me to confuse what was right, as far as personal moral behavior went, and what was appropriate to portray in the arts and media. Violence was part of life; therefore, I was given to undersatnd, it should be portrayed in art forms when necessary to the story. Some people used "bad language" in life. They, too, had stories honestly worth exploring throught the arts and film--stories that could not be told if the syntax and phrases of profanity were eliminated from the characters' vocabulary....

My father and my mother raised their children to be unafraid of ideas and unafraid of being intellectually challenged ...

My father never protected his children from ideas, from art, from intellectual challenge and stimulation, or from contrary thinking, even anti-Christian, anti-biblical art, thought, and culture. Believing that Christianity was truth, he welcomed honest questions. (pp. 6-9)

Franky Schaeffer's parents' approach, in my opinion, is one which we should all strive for.

So, is it ok for Christians to go and see movies made by Hollywood? It's the wrong question. Hollywood makes movies, some of which are good and some of which are horrible. So do Christians. The correct answer is that it depends on the movie. Follow Paul's advice, ask God for wisdom, and decide for yourself -- and think about what you are seeing.


Austin, R 2005, 'The Hollywood Divide', in S Lewerenz & B Nicolosi (eds), Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, pp. 41-51.

Parham, T 2005, 'Why Do Heathens Make the Best Christian Films?' in S Lewerenz & B Nicolosi (eds), Behind the Screens: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, pp. 53-64.

Schaeffer, F 1990, Sham Pearls for Real Swine: Beyond the Cultural Dark Age - A Quest for Renaissance, Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Brentwood, Tennessee.

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