Trevin Wax and Alissa Wilkinson have a good conversation going about movie standards, here, here, and here. Allow me to commend them both for many good things said, and then just add a couple more items that I would like to see considered more frequently in this kind of discussion.
One of the questions concerned The Wolf of Wall Street, and whether Scorsese portrayed Wall Street sin accurately. I believe that — at least as it pertains to certain tawdry elements — he probably did. But unaddressed is the matter of whether he portrayed the sins of Hollywood directors accurately, which I think he probably didn’t.
This needs to be teased out some, but you can file it under “no animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture.” What I mean is this — everyone knows that more matters than simply what winds up on the screen. If, in order to get that cinematic product up on the screen, you had to kill some horses, everybody seems to agree you shouldn’t do it — whether or not the resultant portrayal of the world of chariot racing was real, gritty, and true-to-life. Yeah, that might be true, but it still matters to a lot of people whether the horses got hurt.
In a similar way, we need to learn to distinguish “acting,” on the one hand, from “behaving badly with a camera running” on the other. If an actor points a starter pistol at someone, pulls the trigger and it goes bang, and the other guy falls over, the first guy is pretending to murder someone and that someone is pretending to die. It is acting. It might be bad acting, or acting bad, or both, but it is acting.
However, if an actress takes off her blouse and bra, she is not pretending to be immodest, she is being immodest. Allow me to imitate the apostle Paul, and ask you to bear with me for just a sec (2 Cor. 11:1). If an actress named Suzy Jones is playing a woman named Molly Murphy and in the course of the story takes off her top, does the viewer know what Suzy’s breasts look like, or what Molly’s breasts look like? Well — kind of both, right? But Suzy is a real woman in the real world, and detailed appreciation of what she looks like undressed is not something that any man not married to her has any right to have — much less millions of men not married to her. So the character in the story is not the only one who is sinning — so is the actress. The character is pole dancing, and so is the actress, and neither one of them ought to be. Certain things can be pretended, but other things cannot be.
High production values, and the presence of a story line, must not be considered as an all-purpose disinfectant. Suppose a man and a woman have sex while a camera is running, and they actually have intercourse, but it is not porn proper — it is released to theaters, and it was rated R, so everything is acceptably mainstream. The actor involved is married to somebody else. Does that somebody else have biblical grounds for divorce? Was it adultery? Yes, it was. Can he say, “No, baby, no, that was not me! It was my character!” I didn’t think so.
So on this point, the issue is not whether it is a sin to see sin being committed. I believe that there are any number of situations where pastors, or parents, or film critics might need to see some travesty. I agreed with what Alissa Wilkinson said here about the need for criticism, as opposed to a simple movie report. If a bunch of Christians are seeing an objectionable movie, and are being led astray by it, it might be necessary for a clear-eyed film critic to see it — in order to take better aim. Phineas wasn’t in sin for “seeing” a copulating couple. In order to be faithful, he needed to see.
So the issue is whether sin of a degrading nature needs to be committed in order to tell stories this way. And if the pagans are telling stories in this way, according to their fashion, we do need more Christian film critics who do what a good critic does. I do want more of this, not less. Let us agree at we don’t want any of our daughters to get a job acting in Hollywood where she will be asked to spread her legs on camera — not even if the resultant film “accurately” portrays the “seedy world of fill-in-the-blank.” But here is the question, and this is where our film criticism would get its report card. If, after fifty years of our film criticism, teaching the Christian public how to think Christianly about film, more of our daughters think that there is nothing wrong with doing something like that, then we are manifestly failing in our task.
I don’t think these things are that complicated, and part of my concern is how we make them complicated.
A second issue has to do with the common assumption that anything that is lawful in one medium is lawful in another. But I don’t believe that this is the case at all. Some things should be strictly limited in how they are communicated. Trevin Wax said this in one of his posts: “If a movie version of the book of Genesis were made, it wouldn’t be for minors.” This is quite true, and this means that to write a novel that contained the same level of description as Genesis does would be lawful to do. “And behold, it was Leah.” The same with the Song of Solomon. Writing and publishing erotic poetry is clearly within bounds for believers. But do we get to make Song of Solomon: The Movie? Not a chance. Do we get to film those portions of Ezekiel where we see the Assyrians who are hung like a donkey and ejaculate like horses (Eze. 23:20)? We don’t just look at the content of what is said — we must also take care to learn how it is said. The media matter. Ezekiel can do what he does with words, and we can imitate him in our use of words, everything else being equal. But if we made a movie out of it, then we are clearly being scabrous.
So Trevin Wax asks this question. “At what point does our cultural engagement become just a sophisticated way of being worldly?” I think it is a great question, and I think we need to pursue it with a hot love of holiness and cold hatred of legalism.