Spiraling into Legalism

I come from a legalistic evangelical pseudo-background. I say “pseudo” because my actual background is much grayer and less legalistic than the brand of Christianity I eventually came into. Let me explain.

I grew up in a church affiliated with both the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ. From what I recollect, having been out of that church for many years now, it honored liturgy and did not preach fire and brimstone. We recognized ceremonies and seasons, from the Seder to Advent to Lent. Sermon messages were often tailored to these seasons, and when they weren’t, they typically delivered a nice and even-handed message that edified the mind rather than stir the passions. I was often bored during church. I found it safe and secure but otherwise uneventful. I was more excited by the cookies and hot chocolate after the service than I was by anything occurring during it.

That all changed when I entered high school and met the passionate evangelical types, young Christians who had grown up in an entirely different environment, where the emphasis was on getting the whole world saved before Jesus came back at the Rapture, which was going to happen at any moment. I was quite swept up in this movement. I was too timid to preach Christ from the street corner, but, like the others, I began surrounding myself with like-minded Christians and participating in the demonstration of our faith by forming prayer circles in very public spaces at our high school so those who didn’t follow Christ would see us and feel really sorry for not believing like we did. I’m not trying to be sarcastic. That’s really the way we felt, and I felt it perhaps even more keenly than others.

I felt I was the chiefest of sinners among our group. I didn’t practice all of the egregious vices we identified like drinking and smoking, but I did curse sometimes, and at others I may have nurtured a lustful thought or two. I said a very formulaic prayer at night before dropping off to sleep in which I first made sure to confess my sins and get resaved, sure that I had “fallen from grace” during the day and might die and go to hell in my sleep. Nobody necessarily preached that at me. It was something I picked up from the general tenor of my little Christian clique. I was a grown man before I discovered that many Christians I knew believed you did lose your salvation by sinning after being born again, a revelation that broke my heart. But as I spiraled into legalism, there was one thing I never let go of, and that’s my ability to appreciate art detached from my personal politics and moral standpoints. There’s something redemptive about art done well, and it’s a comfort I’ve returned to again and again, even art that’s full of unsavory elements.

Losing My Love

I didn’t encounter a problem with this among my peers until college, and by that time I’m afraid I was lost to my love of film completely. Several of my Christian friends in high school didn’t watch R-rated movies because they weren’t allowed to. Some of them snuck around and did it anyway. I wasn’t allowed to watch them until I was maybe 15, but by that time I had already been sneaking them in for years. I recall watching Total Recall at a friend’s house on his eleventh birthday. He was one of those privileged friends whose parents really didn’t care what he watched. Total Recall was a hard R. It scarred me. I loved it. The “R” now stands for “rite of passage,” I think. None of us in high school regarded them as immoral. Many of the Rs we snuck in were probably morally better than the PG-13s we were allowed to watch. It seemed like every other PG-13 from the 80s especially, still in vogue, was mandated to show boobs and teens getting drunk and acting irresponsibly (Sixteen Candles, anyone? which, if you remember, was actually rated PG). Many Rs, on the other hand, achieved their rating by virtue of one too many F-bombs, hardly scandalous or taboo.

My sophomore year of college, I was engaged in conversation by two female Christian friends on our way to see The Green Mile in a conversation about the morally questionable adventure we were about to embark upon. I don’t remember the exact words exchanged, so I’ll try to capture the spirit of it.green-mile

“Doesn’t it bother you when you see an R-rated movie?” #1 asked.

“Like the one we’re about to see? You said you’ve seen it, though,” I responded. Friend #2 hadn’t, so we were taking her to see it at the dollar show, just on a whim.

“Yes. It’s a good movie, but all those F-words, and the violence. They’re unnecessary, don’t you think? Plus it has a lot of sexual jokes in it and some male rear nudity.” I think much of this was to warn #2 of what she was about to see. Looking back on it, it makes the movie sound all the more appealing.

“Well, I think a lot of it is justified by context. It takes place on death row in a prison, with some pretty rough and violent characters,” I said.

“But a lot of it can be implied or left to the imagination, I think,” #1 responded. “It doesn’t have to shove our face in it. For instance, you’ve seen Eyes Wide Shut. Don’t you feel a check in your spirit about that?” This wasn’t the first time somebody suddenly put me on blast about having seen Eyes Wide Shut. I decided afterward to be more judicious in who I revealed that to. People who hadn’t seen it thought it was a porno, little realizing that most audiences probably would give up on the movie before it even got to the orgy scene. Kubrick is not for the impatient masses.

I shrugged. “No.” Check in my spirit? I thought. What is that about? It was a new Christian catchphrase that I was to hear quite often in the years to come.

#1 said, “You might want to think about it. I think seeing a movie like that can damage your soul. You need to set boundaries on what you’re watching.”

I chuckled and replied, “I actually bought it on DVD last week on Amazon. It’ll come in the mail next month.” (This was the year 2000, I might add, when Amazon orders took 6-8 weeks.) I bought it because I had been on a Kubrick kick for a couple of years. His art was hypnotic and weird.

Friend #1 and friend #2 lectured me for a while on not letting forms of entertainment poison my spirit. #1 gave the testimony of how the Holy Spirit led her eventually to give up her Metallica CDs, a story I’d heard before. I’d only recently gotten into Metallica myself, a late bloomer. They promised to pray for me, they were concerned about me, etc. Then we went and saw an R-rated movie. #2 turned her head and closed her eyes several times. That conversation impacted me, and not in the way they wanted me to be impacted. I became more determined not to let my personal politics and faith legislate my appreciation of art, and I’ve been richly rewarded for it.

Message Can Transcend the Content

A couple years later, on a Christian retreat in which those same friends were in attendance, our keynote speaker used Titanic to illustrate spiritual truths, and at no point did he say, “But don’t watch it, ‘cause Kate Winslet shows her dirty pillows.” Instead, he said, “You see, art can communicate some really awesome spiritual concepts, even ones that supernaturalfilmmakers didn’t intend.” I began to look for those concepts, probably extending metaphors too far in some cases, but I was glad to have that freedom.  I don’t begrudge others their sensitivities. My wife, Diana, can’t do horror. She can appreciate the artistry. She knows, for instance, that Halloween is a seminal work, as are George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. She even likes hearing me regale her with the adventures of Dean and Sam on Supernatural. But she will not watch them. Even the hokiest horror scenes give her nightmares for days and otherwise just depress her. However, she doesn’t try to make her issues my own. Conversely, I can’t stay awake for most of her PBS Masterpiece series and movies, but I don’t expect her to sleep through them or not to watch them because they anesthetize me. It’s a matter of taste and that’s it. That’s all it should be.

Can foul content ruin a movie? Sure, and that’s where conversations of film criticism can have merit. Does the content override the message, and how so? Don’t cheat. Don’t judge the quality of the film-making just because you’re sensitive. Instead, look at the content in its context. For instance, earlier I discussed the rough, violent, and dark setting of The Green Mile. Actually, the movie is probably pretty restrained in its presentation. It’s not wall-to-wall violent, which makes Delacroix’ horrifying execution all the more so. Another Frank Darabont-Stephen King work, The Shawshank Redemption (one of my favorite films of all time), also contains dark, gritty, unsavory elements. It happens to take place at a prison. I would not expect the majority of the inmates to speak in “shucks” and “darns.”

But sometimes films are just plain distractingly exploitative. If a movie advertises itself as such, all well and good; we know what we’re getting into. However, the self-referential, scathingly satirical, and meta-textual Deadpool is briefly undermined by a strip-club scene that lingers rather slobberingly on shots of full-frontal female nudity. For what purpose? Absolutely none. It’s a scene that belongs in much lesser flicks and brings the gleeful maniacal fun of the flick to a screeching halt. It’s played seriously, meaning to offer us eye candy and otherwise fill some kind of quota. It’s band-wagon exploitation. I hate strip club scenes in general, not because there’s nudity but because so often filmmakers consider nudity to be the entire point. If your characters need to meet and talk at a strip club, fine, but keep the nudity out of focus in the background. Quit interrupting important dialogue with swooping crane and tracking shots of the goods on display. Keep nudity in the context. In this case, I’m sensitive to the insult to my intelligence more than anything else.

Art and Self-Righteousness

The title of this post references politics, but I have mostly been speaking of morality. I feel they go hand-in-hand, however. The expectation that art should reflect both our moral sensitivities and our politics is rooted in self-righteousness. We know what’s right, we know what’s best, and God forbid a celebrity ever speak out. Entertain us, then shut up. Every time a celebrity exercises his or her free speech, it reflects the hypocrisy, the evil, the ugliness of Hollywood, and we will boycott his or her movies until the end of time. But God bless Jon Voight, Clint Eastwood, etc. True ‘Muricans. You see, this indignation only applies if they’re liberal.

We saw this most recently with Meryl Streep’s comments on Trump’s America in her speech upon accepting the Cecil B. DeMille award at the 2017 Golden Globes. Christian ‘Muricans were especially incensed when she seemed to insult football and UFC fans. I feel she misspoke on this latter part. She was unscripted and in the throes of her own embittered emotions—a side-effect of the same quality that, when utilized well on film, garners her scads of well-deserved nominations and awards. Additionally, she began her speech by being the most gracious, humble, and considerate person in the room. I could forgive her any missteps or miscues from that point. I happen to like football and UFC, and I was not insulted in the least. But half my Facebook friends were. Their comments aligned with Trump’s, who, the next day, tweeted that she was the most overrated woman in Hollywood and did as much vehement name-calling and bawling as his character limit would allow. Many of my woefully misguided Facebook friends swore never to watch another Streep film, and judging by the general tone of their social media postings, I wonder if they ever had to begin with. Meryl Streep is arguably the greatest actress of all time. Just watch Sophie’s Choice, for starters, then begin working your way through her oeuvre. She’s earned the right to speak her opinion, something that decent, God-fearing, red-blooded, native white ‘Muricans claim is a God-given right (and not something that has to be earned).

But we want motion pictures and their creators merely to entertain us rather than challenge us or make us think. If they are to do the latter, it is only allowed insofar as it already reflects our religion-addled consciences (i.e., God’s Not Dead and other such entertainment, which helps reinforce our sense that Christian ‘Muricans need to stand up for and argue our faith more than we do). Unfortunately, Christian filmmaking falls woefully short of challenging its viewers because it plays it safe on content, standing comfortably so far on the clean side of the line that the worst sin its characters commit is to walk into a bar, raise their voices at their spouses/kids, question God, or say dirty words like “darn” and “stupid.” It’s not honest with its characters, so this “hypocritical” Hollywood has to take up the slack with entertainment that actually gets the job done—Robert Duvall’s excellent The Apostle, for instance, which Duvall had to make independently and finance himself because its spiritual message scared away most studios. Christian studios would have emasculated the thing and deprived it of the raw honesty that made its story of redemption shine all the brighter.

Other entertainment that seems to proselytize for the left can actually move me in surprising ways—most recently, Promised Land. The movie may have had an agenda to promised-land-movie-postercategorically condemn natural gas drilling, but it didn’t approach it bombastically. It’s a quiet, subdued, often humorous study of a small Midwestern prairie community whose residents are debating whether to sell their land to a natural gas company represented by Matt Damon and Frances McDormand. There are people of all types represented in this community. Yes, the typical bumpkin that seems to be a favorite Hollywood archetype, but also an old retired science teacher played by Hal Roach who knows a thing or two about fracking. We see three-dimensional humans with complex motives, and Damon and McDormand’s characters aren’t evil corporate shills but regular folks caught in what may be the wrong side of the matter. My conservative background would want to reject this movie on principle, but I appreciate the artistry and a story that respects my intelligence and compassion, as this one does. It causes you to reflect and introspect. Another prime example is Brokeback Mountain, which was the punchline of many jokes among homophobic Christians I was acquainted with, some of whom mourned the loss of co-screenwriter Larry McMurtry to “the other side.” I wisely decided to keep my mouth shut, see it, and decide for myself. I liked Ang Lee and the cast. There would surely be some takeaway. Diana and I watched it some years after it came out, and while the sexual content was uncomfortably raw for us in a couple of spots, the overall experience was moving and sad, and I believe it captured Heath Ledger’s second greatest performance (after the Joker, naturally), further showing we lost him much, much too soon.

Is the Plot Worth It?

Going back to the morality thing—years ago, when Diana and I watched any movies with sexual content, I would cover my eyes anytime there was nudity on the screen, for her benefit. After some weeks of this and during a screening of Boogie Nights, she paused the movie and said, “Just watch, will you? I know you’ve seen this before, and it bothers me more when you cover your eyes than if you’d just watch it. You’re not doing me any favors.” We still glance around the room and chuckle uncomfortably when a movie is being gameofthronesneedlessly exploitative (the aforementioned strip club scenes), but otherwise we can be mature adults when the nudity is functioning somehow to advance the plot—for instance, the final scene of the Season 1 finale of Game of Thrones, arguably the most necessary nudity in the series. I knew it was coming, having read the book, but I decided not to tell Diana. She was spellbound, not by the nudity itself, but by what happened to lead to it and what it represented. Moral indignation run rampant wouldn’t even have made it past the first episode. Granted, much of the nudity of the series is rather exploitative and unnecessary, but even in those cases, one can hang in there as the plot shifts to more important matters. It’s one of the greatest shows on television and a cult phenomenon I’m glad to have been a part of.

Deeper Truths through Allegory

And ultimately, “liberal, secular Hollywood” is able, through allegory, to present deeper and longer lasting spiritual truths than ostensibly Christian fare like Son of God, which takes some pretty ill-advised liberties with the biblical text, even within the first half-hour, which is all I’ve seen of it. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and the (good) Superman films have all been celebrated for their presentation of deeply applicable messianic and spiritual metaphors. So have the Matrix films, which also have their share of Zen and Buddhist applications and are meaningful from that perspective.

As far as films about Jesus, I’ll take Passion of the Christ any day, which is so deeply committed to its vision that it went head-on for the tabooed R rating and never looked back. Say what you will about Mel Gibson the man—when he makes a movie, he gives it all he’s got. Not only that, but he limited the film just to the final day of Jesus’ life rather than focus on His whole life from birth to death, allowing for a much deeper look into this particular facet of His life and a more spiritual experience for the viewer than any previous depiction of Christ had ever offered.

As you can see, I enjoy talking about this subject. Consider this post a sort of manifesto of my personal position regarding content concerns in motion pictures. I like the art. I can stomach much (and withstand much abuse) for the sake of art and in order to realize and appreciate the filmmaker’s vision. I don’t always see violence, nudity, and profanity, and think, They can do without all that stuff. The line is not so easily drawn. It is, however, open to individual tastes and interpretation, and I respect your reasons wherever you choose to draw that line.