Thursday, 1 July 2010

Why 18 Certificate Films are Good For Christians

The brief for this column is to provoke discussion.   It’s called Outside Edge because it’s meant to be edgy.  OK then, here goes.  Christians ought to watch more films.  Is that edgy enough for you?  No?  OK then let me say what I’m really thinking.  Christians ought to watch more films, including those with swearing, violence and sex.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I’m preparing for our MA summer school on contemporary spirituality when I’ll be leading a session on spirituality and film.  I’m planning to show a recent film that deals with spiritual issues.  But which one?  Turns out that most of the leading contenders include the kind of content that offends some Christians. I understand this and I don’t want to cause gratuitous offence. But it bugs me.  It bugs me because I don’t think we should be offended – at least not in a “tut, tut turn it off quickly before I’m corrupted” kind of way. 

Part of the value of films is that they introduce us to the reality of our world or at least the reality as seen by film-makers and their audience of millions.  At its best film is unquestionably important art.  You know, the kind of creative production that helps us see deeper into our world.  Think The Lives of Others, think Shawshank Redmption, think Magnolia. Even so-called escapist films give us insight into the desires, longings and fantasies playing out in people’s hearts and souls.

Now I know that some readers will already be reaching for Philippians 4:8 “ … whatever is true, whatever is honourable, 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 about these things.” I know this verse well; it was used to prod me into the Christian ghetto shortly after my conversion.  I know it and I affirm it.  Of course, we should be inspired by and aspire to such qualities but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make ourselves aware of the shadow side that is part of our world, part of ourselves.

If we are to love our world and those with whom we share it, the better we understand and feel its issues, the better our loving.  Not necessarily easier, but truer.  At one recent showing of Clint Eastwood’s wonderful Gran Torino one person commented that there was no need for film makers to “rub our noses in the seamier side of life”.  I disagree.  That’s precisely what we need.

This is not about tittering behind our hands like an eleven-year-old who has just heard a naughty word, it’s not about voyeurism, it’s not about greedily gobbling lashings of violence.  Nor is it about mindlessly approving everything that passes before our eyes.  One of the shallowest ways of dismissing a film is to assume that the film-makers approve that which they depict.  The Colour Purple was not a tract in favour of domestic violence.

Our call in Christ is to love this world of his and to love it as it is, not to hide from that which we find unpleasant, not to love some fantasy of the world as we would like it be to.  You can’t tell me that Danny’s powerful speech at the end of Brassed Off was very moving but would have been better without the swearing.  No it wouldn’t, it would have been sanitised pap, a lie.  Of course watching films is no substitute for proper, flesh and blood, dirty-handed encounter with reality but it just might help to introduce us to the world for which Christ died – the real world.


My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.


Revsimmy said...

Yes yes yes. For some people, "holiness" seems to be a very fragile thing. One whiff of "unholiness" or that other great prod back to the ghetto, "worldliness", and it might disappear in a puff of smoke. But it seems that Jesus' holiness was extremely robust, allowing him into the dark places to shed some light. You can't confront darkness from a distance, and we need to confront it.

tim f said...


Particularly with language, the idea the words are offensive in themselves is just bizarre. Not gratuitously using words which offend others, yes that's holy. Not creating stumbling blocks for others, and recognising that if someone thinks something is sinful it's probably better they don't do it, yes, that's holy. But who called Pharisees "broods of vipers", "blind guides", "fools" and "whitewashed tombs" again? I'm guessing that was pretty rude.

The simplistic "it's got bloody violence in it, therefore we shouldn't watch it" also prevents us from putting forward prophetic critiques which comment on specific trends and what they might say about our society. For example, how can we comment on & draw lessons from the acceptable misogyny inherent in torture porn flicks (Hostel, Saw, etc)if we have written the whole genre of horror off as sinful? (Besides which, if we write a film off as having nothing good to offer just because it includes stuff we disapprove of as well, doesn't that write off absolutely every film, especially Disney et al? Shouldn't we take this to it's logical puritannical conclusion and stop reading books, watching tv and indeed speaking to non-Christians [better be careful with some of those Christians too] unless we're specifically evangelising them?)

Rant over.

tim f said...

No, rant not quite over actually!

Christian sub-culture is so staid, careful not to offend, unambitious and limited that it often fails to grab hold of truth in the way that non-Christian art of whatever stripe can do sometimes. I've felt much closer to God seeing Black Sabbath (not just them, but using them as an example because people will actually have heard of them) live than I have at many (not all) worship services - that has to be something to do with the artists making genuine attempts to grapple with and figure out truth in their music and lyrics even if they often get it wrong, rather than repeating tropes just because we know we can't get anything "wrong" that way.

Rob Reed said...

I agree. A lot. I sometimes annoy myself by going to CAPalert, where an idiot judges the biblical worth of films according to whether they depict things condemned in the Bible (he actually gives them a score out of 100, which he considers 'scientific'). I tried to point out the nonsense of this, and he banned me from the site.


Geoff Colmer said...

Great post - I look forward to the Letters Page!

It's my intention to blog on Being Human, which I think is superb and explores some huge issues, the obvious one being our humanity! Shortly after Easter I was asked to preach on one of the resurrection narratives and it would have made a perfect opener exploring what Jesus' resurrection says about our future humanity. However, it was an LEP that I hadn't been to before and just the thought of an opener explaining that Being Human was about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost who share a flat, caused me to bottle out - probably rightly! However, it would have engaged with vast swathes of not just younger people and therein is something of a tragedy.

While I, like you, affirm what Paul says in Philippians 4, to use this passage as a core text for the arts results in works that are at best sentimental and 'nice' and at worst just plain naff. It results in denial, escape and dishonesty.

Pete Laws, the Minister at London Colney, has just got a distinction in his MA in preaching, on the horror genre in films. His web site The Flicks That Church Forgot, is worth checking out He has 2500 subscribers to his pods and while it's not my sort of genre I admire his serious engagement.

While waiting for the next series of Being Human sometime next year, we've started watching True Blood. Again, difficult to use as illustrations in sermons to unknown congregations, but brilliant opening credits. If you haven't seen it, check it out -

Andy Goodliff said...

Geoff, good to hear you've been enjoying Being Human, one of the very good British dramas ...

Amen, to the post ... let me recommend the excellent Gone Baby Gone to those who may have not scene it ... but I think I'd want to draw a line with the likes of the Saw films ... I guess related is are we able to read films well ... I always had a problem when I was a youthworker with the way my church young people rated a film on whether it had a good 'fight' scene ... with watching films must come the skills to see that it comes with a certain worldview, often subtle. One final example, I took some church young people to visit a sikh gurdwarda, one parent opted out and took his son to the cinema, as if that was an innocent experience compared to the "dangers" of engaging with a member of another faith

andy amoss said...

Recently re-watched The Exorcist, my word is it moving!

Not only is it stunning to reflect on the changes in society from just a few years ago, when it was unquestioned that two priests (yes, Catholic priests!) be played as heroes (yes, heroes!) coming to the rescue of a 12 year old girl (yes, rescue!). The film is also keen to expose the ways we think we can understand and control reality, instead of being in awe of it.

But the main thing for me was the way it serves as a staggering exploration of the place of fear and sacrifice within faith. It really brought to life for me part of what must have been Jesus' approach to the cross.

The gospel isn't a sanitised thing, so why should we desire our means of reflection to be so?

andy amoss said...

Great column by the way, Glen. You effectively apply words to express an argument where i would only be able to express frustration. So thank you.

Mike Lowe said...

If you don’t engage with the world Jesus came to save then what’s the point? This post and Rob’s subsequent post reminded me straight away of Pulp Fiction and the ‘conversion’ of Jules. Enjoy the quotes, which I have censored in case it gets blocked!

“There's this passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17. "The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is The Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee." I been saying that s*** for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded s*** to say to a motherf***** 'fore I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some s*** this mornin' made me think twice. See, now I'm thinking, maybe it means you're the evil man, and I'm the righteous man, and Mr. 9 millimeter here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or, it could mean you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. I'd like that. But that s*** ain't the truth. The truth is, you're the weak, and I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin', Ringo. I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd.”

JULES: I just been sittin' here thinkin'.
VINCENT: (mouthful of food) About what?
JULES: The miracle we witnessed.
VINCENT: The miracle you witnessed. I witnessed a freak occurrence.
JULES: Do you know that a miracle is?
VINCENT: An act of God.
JULES: What's an act of God?
VINCENT: I guess it's when God makes the impossible possible. And I'm sorry Jules, but I don't think what happened this morning qualifies.
JULES: Don't you see, Vince, that s*** don't matter. You're judging this thing the wrong way. It's not about what. It could be God stopped the bullets, he changed Coke into Pepsi, he found my f*****' car keys. You don't judge s***like this based on merit. Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is I felt God's touch, God got involved.

Ink thinks said...

Hi Glen - not sure if you remember me, Beccy from WBC, great post. I couldn't agree with you more... now if only I can get more people to agree that horror literature is a necessary evil...

Glen Marshall said...

Beccy, course I remember you. Glad you liked it. You might want to check this out It's a Baptist minister blogging and podcasting about horror films.

Simon said...

I would respectfully disagree, and disagree quite vehemently. I believe it is essential to guard what you allow in through the eyes and ears. The flesh is a powerful enemy and what you watch can become fuel for the flesh. Once the image is in your head, you'll have a hard time removing it.

I'm all for for understanding the world we live in and not just the nice side, but rather than watch a movie from the comfort of my home, I just simply have to open the door and engage with real people. However well directors and producers create movies, they are still mostly fiction. As entertainment, I would not encourage any believer to watch the movies you describe. I've found ministry to those who suffer with nightmares, lustful thoughts, violent thoughts and suicidal thoughts, the roots can often be traced to years of watching such television.

I appreciate the world has moved on considerably since you wrote this post and you may not hold this view any longer, but felt it important to bring a viewpoint from the other side.