On Not Being Scabrous

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.

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Keith Kraska
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Keith Kraska

Whenever someone tries to justify an erotic scene in a film by saying it’s “just acting,” I ask, would it still be acceptable if the actors were siblings? After all, they’re just acting, right?

walter
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walter

As a former actor this was exactly the point for me. Though I might be playing a character I am still the one doing it. So, as a Christian, certain things were out of bounds. Your points are well said.

Aaron
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Aaron

I’d like to hear a “why” on your last two paragraphs.  Yes, it is sin to look upon a naked woman, not your spouse, lustfully.  It is also a sin to “lust after her in your heart” which can happen through the text medium just as well (some would say more) than the visual medium.  I agree the medium matters, but if Song of Solomon leads one to thinking about sexual things in print, it would do so in video form as well.  Both mediums would cause you to do that.  Now, I don’t think the bible titilates, it informs,… Read more »

Aaron
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Aaron

I guess I’m asking how definite and absolute is your statement “not a chance”.  Would there be a way to make the SOSolomon movie that isn’t sinful, since the text, as you say, is not sinful?  

bethyada
Member

Thanks for this Doug. In discussing inappropriate scenes many align graphic violence with visual sexuality. I say that the first can be portrayed without the actors sinning but the second cannot and yet many people do not find this convincing. Perhaps I am not as articulate as you are in this post.    //    A couple of further thoughts. I hazard a guess Alyssa writes as she does because she is a woman and doesn’t really grasp the effect the movie will have on virtually all men. It doesn’t have this affect on her and I doubt she understands that the… Read more »

bethyada
Member

Slightly unrelated, I think Christians need to be far more concerned about themes of films than violence and language. When sin gets portrayed in a positive light this has a negative effect on our faith, especially when we do not recognise it! I would rather my children saw a couple of evil men executed than the adulterers live happy ever after.

Tom Brainerd
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Thanks, Doug.
I have at points in time been concerned that there are those in the Reformed camps who think that ‘good worldview’ insulates them from these issues, and they can watch whatever they want with aplomb. I am reminded of a comment in one of the early Reformed online discussion forums…”Except for the breasts, sex and killing it was a good movie.” Maybe not. 

Genevieve
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Genevieve

Here, here! Great post, thank you.

Brent
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Brent

Pastor Wilson, along the same lines of allowing a film critic to review a movie, do you think it is permissible for a Christian to get a job working for Facebook as an internet censor where his entire job more or less consists of looking at porn every day? If so, are we really to believe that some Christian men are “gifted” for this kind of job? If not, does this mean we simply entrust the job of internet censorship to the world? 

Moses Bratrud
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Good post. I think, however, that Pastor Wilson should update the names of his stock characters. Women in movies aren’t named Molly Murphy or Suzy Jones anymore. Next time give them androgynous first names and non-Anglo-Saxon surnames, because that’s the way things are going: Shay Jimenez, or Dallas Wasikowska–just ideas.

Different Aaron
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Different Aaron

This is a profound point, and I am embarrassed that I have not considered it before. Thank you for writing this!   Along the same lines, I suppose the rule applies to any kind of sexual conduct (kissing). That is, do we support/promote movies that have actors and actresses who are each married to someone else who kiss throughout their movie for the sake of depicting a married couple (or whatever). Because we don’t want our daughters to grow up and become actresses who make out with men they are not married to. Am I right here? Seems like pretty… Read more »

Dan Glover
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Those Christians and Christian film critics and Christians who think they are film critics, and who think that an obscene or sexually explicit scene is “art” or “only acting” or necessary for the narrative, should ask themselves if they would permit an actor to do those things to the actress if the actress in the film were their daughter.  Also, for those who think that narrative in the medium of film requires showing all the immorality and the more gratuitous the more authentic it is, you need to watch more old movies.  Watch Hitchcock some time.  Many of his most… Read more »

Dan Glover
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Brent, sure, let the world censor their own crap.  If working as a censor for facebook means a man’s “entire job more or less consists of looking at porn every day”, of course a Christian man shouldn’t be doing it.  In what other context would it be ok for a Christian man to sit and look at porn all day?  I can’t picture ever wanting to be a censor for facebook, even if one didn’t have to weed out porn all day.  

Robert
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Robert

How would you handle non erotic scenes. I am thinking of holocaust movies.

Jane
Member

I think it’s interesting that the central point of Trevin’s article (or at least what I perceive to be the central point) sort of whooshed right over Alyssa’s head.                                                                                                                                                That is, as genuinely meritorious as the artistic and technical qualities of a film may be, to give it a high star rating may not suggest that “everyone should go see it,” but it does suggest that the reviewer found it good. And to suggest that it was found “good” is to suggest that moral quality is not part of the analysis of what makes a movie “good.” And that, for… Read more »

melody
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melody

Let’s say the film version becomes the stage version.  The actors still engage sexually but now you are really in the same room with them.  Does this change the dynamic at all, and if so, why?  Let’s say that you are a first century Christian and you attend coliseum events that involve the killing of Christians.  Do you go because the venue is great architecture?

Robert
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Robert

I spent some time thinking of this, last night. What they did in the seventies and early eighties involved a lot of creative camera angles. The nudity was more implied than shown.

Travis M Childers
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Travis M Childers

Thank you, Mr. Wilson, for calling a breast a breast. As a married Christian man who finds shapely females in any stage of undress to be quite attractive, I have always raised one eyebrow (or tried to–do you know how difficult just raising one eyebrow is?) toward men who claim the nudity doesn’t affect them. They are, I would guess, either liars or eunuchs. But I can’t help but think that we don’t take our convictions here far enough. As an earlier poster pointed out, the implications of applying a solidly Christian worldview to our viewing of films are far-reaching.… Read more »

Matthew Bowden
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Matthew Bowden

Thanks Mr. Wilson. I am a junior at Annapolis Christian Academy in Corpus Christi, Tx. I am writing a paper for Bible class where we could pick a topic to write about that would be approved by the teacher. The topic I have chosen is the boundary that Christians should have when it comes to film media. This article really helped me get started.
With gratitude,
Matthew Bowden

Rick Gibson
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Rick Gibson

I have not seen the Wolf of Wall Street.  A good friend of mine from church has.  This friend happens to have had a severe substance abuse problem for years.  After cocaine and related drugs nearly killed him a year and a half ago, with the Lord’s help, he has been drug free.  He did not know that this movie was going to involve long, detailed scenes of drug use.  He told me that seeing the film gave him an enormous hunger for drugs, which he has not had for over a year.   Much of the harm done by… Read more »

Chelsey
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Chelsey

There is a reason why Shakespeare never staged a marriage ceremony with vows in one of his plays.

Watchman
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Watchman

And there was a reason that most Christians would not go see those plays even without the marriage vows being part of them.

Jane
Member

This conversation is reminding me of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, in which a key plot point was a family-and-friends production of the play “Lover’s Vows,” surely a tame work even by the standards of most Mablogians. Yet the principled characters in the book were scandalized by the fact that acting the parts required gentlemen and ladies to make professions of love to one another, and even to embrace.  They took seriously the idea that a man or woman ought not profess love to another person without meaning it. Perhaps, upon careful consideration, we might be right in dismissing their concerns… Read more »

Robert
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Robert

I saw an interview with Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter). After he became an adult, he did a stage play where he had a nude scene. He asked a veteran actor about it. He was told that the first two times, he would be mortified. After that, he wouldn’t notice it. 

Michelle Walker
Member
Michelle Walker

“Certain things can be pretended, but other things cannot be.” I agree. But how do you slice it? 

SJR
Guest
SJR

Wonderful comments, thank you. I particularly enjoy the distinction between acting sin and actually committing sin. Very helpful. // I was left wanting some more detail from your last paragraphs, though. Would you be able to enlarge on your comments re: the Song of Solomon? As a writer, I’ve often found myself torn between not wanting to stumble people or offend the weaker brethren, versus being totally unashamed of the livelier bits of Scripture. Specifically, I find it endlessly fascinating that the single longest example of divinely-inspired fiction in Scripture is the SOS, erotic poetry. 1. What does that mean for… Read more »

Tim Mullet
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Tim Mullet

It seems strange to describe a book as erotic, when it’s repeated message is, “do not awaken or stir up love till it pleases.” 

Tim Nichols
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Tim Nichols

It seems strange not to describe the Song as erotic, given what else is in it.  How could you not?
But it seems to be principally aimed at young women, an opposite number to Proverbs 5 and 7.  Both passages tune their description and discussion for their respective audiences.

Tim Mullet
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Tim Mullet

So the intent of the book is to stir up lust in the reader for Solomon or his beloved?  God wants single people to read this book in order to awaken their sexual desire before it is time then? Whatever the book is, it is not explicit.  The metaphors are hardly direct.   Attempts to explain the metaphors typically say more about the person seeking to explain the word pictures than they do about the pictures themselves.   A pure person can read the book and see it for what it is, a beautiful, discreet, picture of love between a… Read more »

Greg - (Tiribulus)
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I left the following at the article on the Christianity Today website: “The unbelievers at IMDB tell me everything I’ll ever need to know without ANY Christians EVER needing to defile and pollute themselves with the world’s debauchery. Hollywood is a reprehensible decomposing degenerate filth factory. I don’t need to crawl around in a dumpster to know it’s diseased and rotting inside. I can smell it from all the way over here thank you very much. ….The very production of these movies is sin itself. Unless these film addicts would be willing to “perform” in them as well? No? Then… Read more »