Several readers respond to Film Reviews by S. M. Hutchens:
First of all, I’m just a regular working-class stiff, certainly no scholar, so what do I know? I do know, however, that the scholars at Touchstone do have the clued-in sensibilities of the regular working-class stiff, which, in my opinion, is very, very good, and which I commend.
The question of my credentials aside (and that’s a big aside), what often comes to my mind when reading movie reviews by Christians in Christian publications, is that the author frequently seems to be just really, like, well, intellectually hip to the fact that he’s a truly clued-in Christian writing a truly relevant movie review that, like, really demonstrates that even Christians (like himself) can be, like, intellectually, culturally, and coolly relevant (and perhaps even more importantly, enlightened!!!). In my opinion, what the writer really needs for an education—for enlightenment, even—is to work in a facility where, say, he’s lifting grown adults out of wheelchairs every day, and cleaning their butts. Or a job as a laborer on a road construction crew. Not for a day but for a few years. Etc., etc. Oh, well. Good job, and take care,
I too have grown increasingly uneasy about viewing many films. In part of course this is because of the continual decline in the moral quality of contemporary films, but it is also in part a realization that the very nature of films makes us voyeurs, and we have little doubt about the ethical propriety of such acts for the Christian. This problem has always existed for films, but it has become more pronounced as the level of voyeurism increases: we witness today not merely the private and the mundane in the lives of others, but quite commonly the perverse and the blasphemous. We leave feeling unclean, or as S. M. Hutchens puts it, defiled.
The analogy of films to books is weak because films are too brief to allow the luxury of character development such as one finds even in mediocre novels, and because the viewpoint of the film is not really that of a character or an omniscient narrator (as in most novels), but rather (again) that of the voyeur, the not-so-innocent stranger who happens upon the scene. We watch films not as we read books, that is, to learn from the lives of our fellows, but instead simply to leer at lives we cannot or would not lead ourselves.
Palos Verdes, California
The point [Hutchens] makes—whether, as Christians, we should even watch films, theatre and television (let alone review them)—is one I’ve been turning over in my mind of late. I’m currently reading Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth. Pearcey’s central thesis is that Christians are to develop an overarching, Christ-centered worldview. We are then to go forth and strive to win back every facet of culture through our God-given vocations in art, business, law, education, medicine, politics, etc. She includes the entertainment industry as one of these vocations.
It’s a commendable thesis, but it seems to me that, in some cases, she’s asking the wrong question. It’s not whether we need Christian actors, writers, producers, filmmakers, and so on; it’s whether we, as Christians, should expend so much of our minds and spirits on the commodity produced in the first place. At best, the time we waste keeps us from the enjoyment of so many other aspects of God’s good creation. I’m thinking here of the pleasure of building good, solid relationships with friends and family, of reading, cooking, gardening, and, above all, plumbing the depths of the Bible and the wisdom of the saints. At worst, it corrupts us and turns us away from God. It awakens in us “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” And it’s addictive: the more we consume, the more we want to consume, and we’re caught in the cycle.
As for the “pert and urbane reviews in culture-sensitive Christian magazines,” I ask myself, as Mr. Hutchens does, whether the reviewers ever stop to examine themselves. I’ve seen over and over their defense for the work they’ve chosen. They are watching the film, or play, or TV show, with their critical Christian faculties fully engaged. This will enable them to serve others in two ways. One, they will be able to deliver informed criticism to other believers, separating for them the Truth from the deception, the pure from the impure, pointing out anything redemptive. Two, they will have points of reference from which to interact with unbelievers. These arguments seem plausible on the surface but are really devoid of inner truth. Was it Chesterton who said that Good is infinite in its variety, while evil is always depressingly the same? How many formula Hollywood screen offerings must one watch to realize that they’re no different than the tens of thousands that have come before? Five? Twenty? Two hundred? Is not the defense I cite above rather an excuse not to give up an activity that they know in their heart of hearts is not pleasing to God, but that they believe they cannot live without? I suspect that’s the answer.
As believers, we’re called to soak our minds in the true, the noble, the right, the pure, the lovely, the admirable, the excellent and the praiseworthy. It’s axiomatic that reality in this fallen world will, all on its own, provide each of us with more than a lifetime’s worth of evil and ugliness. Must we daily seek to feed our imaginations with it, too.
(I guess I’m advocating for Touchstone to avoid movie reviews).
Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan
Sir, I was intrigued by the article on film reviews. I would like to see you explore this further. I grew up and pastor in a conservative church that is part of the American holiness movement. When I was a child in the ‘50s going to the movies was pretty much prohibited, and in my own home TV was discouraged. I enjoy watching movies and occasionally (rarely, really) go to the cinema. I try to be careful about what I allow to be played in my home, and I have TV Guardian technology on my video player that filters out profane and coarse language, etc.
I believe that one of the reasons we (my denomination) have struggled to take young people into the church as members for the last 15 to 20 years has been our stance on entertainment. Now our church discipline no longer bans theater attendance per se, but cautions us generally about the sensual, violent and profane material which we can access directly into our homes by a variety of means. Even as we have become more liberal in our lifestyles, we still have yet to shake our antediluvian image in the larger church world, and some of our prohibitions give rise to amused derision from our brothers and sisters in other denominations, not to mention skepticism and incredulity on the part of the unregenerate.
I too have wondered about the effects on reviewers who expose themselves routinely to movies like Sideways or Meet the Fockers, to mention a couple of recent films that are apparently pretty crass and vulgar. I do freely admit to reading such reviews, so I may be aiding and abetting a practice I question myself. My sixteen-year-old son is fascinated with the movie industry, and is always wanting to watch rare or offbeat movies like La Dolce Vita or Tokyo Story. He loves to read articles about Orson Welles, Spielberg, Tarantino, and others. My struggle as a father is how to guide him in developing a Christian world view and the pursuit of holiness without being legalistic.
Well, I am rambling a bit, so I best close. I have heard both sides of the argument: World Magazine, for example, feels they must know what is playing at the local cinema even though some of their conservative readers take them to task over it from time to time. And I suppose sites like Plugged In and others feel they are doing parents a service, as well.
I believe the issue of knowing how to be in the world yet not of the world in relationship to popular culture as a whole is one that we as a church have struggled with, going from legalism to license at times. Thanks for addressing this issue.
John Mark Poling
While I’ll admit that Camelot has serious moral problems—what pro-lovers treatment of Lancelot and Guinevere does not?—I cannot concede [Hutchens’s] assertion that Christians should think twice before coming into contact with any forms of theater. “The fulminations of the church fathers against the theatre and ‘spectacles’“ mostly regarded the Roman circuses, hardly surprising when one considers that the circuses were the sites of martyrdoms and live pornography. Theater died in Western Europe for centuries because of Roman excess, but when it came back, it came back in the churches. Look at the rich and centuries-long traditions of medieval theater, from the first “Quem quaeritis?” play in 969 to the great Corpus Christi cycles of the fifteenth century, and beyond to the erudite morality plays of court circles like that of St. Thomas More. To say you are considering ”the difficulties the churches seem historically to have had with plays and players” is to say you are considering a post-Reformation tradition while skipping over centuries of drama.
Post Reformation, religious drama was problematic because plays were used as propaganda vehicles by partisans of both sides. To survive, plays and players took on a more secular tone. Nevertheless, the underlying Christian sensibilities remained the same: Shakespeare’s latest plays resound with the hope of the Resurrection.
Yes, as time went on, dramas became more and more a- and immoral insofar as they strove to maintain popularity. But not all plays are immoral, anymore than all books are (and we won’t even go into the fact that novels, by so thoroughly submerging the mind of the reader in the fictive world, can seriously warp the moral sensibility). Nor are all movies or all television programs immoral. By all means, avoid the bad. But by all means, encourage the good.
Plays and movies are not inherently “historically inimical to the faith” any more than novels, poems, or philosophy. By separating “Christian dialogue with Athens, Paris, and Rome” from Christian dialogue ”with Corinth, Pompeii, Hollywood, and Cannes,” you are saying that what one believes philosophically can have no expression artistically. On the contrary, what we believe MUST be expressed in what we create. David wrote psalms. Hundreds of anonymous clerics wrote plays, as did Chesterton and Tolkien. Christian artists cannot change the popular tone of their media by withdrawing from it, but by engaging it and using it to make something beautiful for God.
If we retreat from Hollywood, then Hollywood reigns unchallenged. That would be a shame. Equally shameful would be the case if all the Christian playwrights and actors I know were asked to give up their ministry because of a historical misunderstanding. I, for one, will keep watching plays and movies. From them I can learn the tricks of the trade, and from them I can steal—the oldest trick in the book—the technical wonders that make plays on any subject work onstage. (Bad plays on any subject aren’t really worth producing.) I can keep writing my plays, incorporating both my technical know-how and my religion and philosophy. Knowing the ropes, I can tie my own knots. Lifelines are made of such as these.
Still a Christian playwright,
You have a serious magazine, to which I have at last subscribed!
I realize that Hutchens didn’t say you were, but he hinted that the idea of a regular film review might be a consideration; and the hint of a possibility is enough to make me type. I think the worst thing about popular culture in general, and movies in particular, is that they are such a distraction. If you use the pages of your magazine to pursue distractions won’t you lower the standard of seriousness, and debase the coin you mint? Do not be so foolish as to practice something so embarrassingly evangelical as the ‘Christian’ film review. Don’t you think that serious scrutiny of the vast majority of film would be as supercilious as the gourmet hot dog?
With great sincerity,
Just wondering if anyone has paid attention to the Christianity Today/Books & Culture 10 best films of 2004 list, which I noticed yesterday on their website. They have two lists, the ten most redemptive films and the ten critically best films.
I found it sadly instructive that the ten critically best films were very similar to what one would find on a virulent secularist’s ten best list: they included Dogville, Million Dollar Baby, Vera Scott and others that to my second-hand knowledge (I have not seen any of the films but try to follow cultural trends through criticism), contain serious anti-Christian and anti-human themes and platforms. I may be presumptuous, but do we see another example of the faithlessness of the evangelical pseudo-intellectual evidenced here, eager to pander and ingratiate himself with our cultural elite? It would be more understandable if our cultural elite offered something really tempting, such as the past paganisms and heresies of strong-minded rebels. But what our elite presents as important is such chaff and swill.