Why I Watch “Bad” Movies

Before he was iconized into easily the most famous and recognizable movie version of Jesus, Jim Caviezel played as the protagonist in a story where his motivations are completely opposite Christ’s. In The Passion of the Christ (2004), Caviezel portrays a man who is willing to suffer to save those who deserve death, even his worst enemies. As Edmond Dantés, Caviezel is consumed by his desire for revenge, giving the bad guys a taste of their own medicine. I remember hearing other Christians rave about The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), so I watched it for myself a short time after it’s release as a teenager. I didn’t like its message, and I wasn’t afraid to call my friends out for praising a movie that glorified something so ungodly. It invites us not only to applaud Dantés for what I suppose someone might say is vigilante justice being served, but to celebrate the deaths of everyone involved in the plot for his demise. Vigilante justice, especially when it involves as much murder as Dantés commits, is probably about as un-Christ-like as you can get, and from what I remember, the film is designed to make you want it.

I recognize that this is an oversimplified analysis of The Count of Monte Cristo. It has been almost two decades since I watched it. Considering how much I have enjoyed the John Wick movies, I think I would probably appreciate it more today than I did then, assuming it holds up reasonably well to my current quality expectations. The book it is based on is considered a literary classic, and the movie adaptation of it was generally well received critically. It is not equitable to judge an artistic endeavor of its magnitude based solely on whether or not its central theme is opposed to a particular Christian value.

Celebrated vengeance through violence and all sorts of other un-Christian messages and themes are presented repeatedly in movies for adults and kids alike. Rarely are they heavily weighted factors in determining the MPAA rating. These ratings are usually based on which particular aspects of the human anatomy are shown, implied or explicit displays of pretty much any type of sexuality, the intensity of violent acts showcased, the presence of gratuitous gore, the number of uses of certain words relative to someone’s opinion of how bad they each are, and a few other things like the presence of drug use or frightening images. It’s not a terrible system for those particularly concerned about all of these things equally. Who is? Some prefer to look at websites that get specific down to the number of times each profane word is used, describing in detail every instance of violence, sex, or nudity depicted or implied. Unless you give up movies altogether, which is a fine choice to make I guess, you have to decide what and how much you’re willing to be shown within a two hour period. For me, that’s quite a bit. My assessment of how bad certain things are is also different from every content rating system I’ve seen, significantly so in certain categories. For example, I am much more bothered by Tom Cruise using “Jesus Christ” as an expletive over and over again in Top Gun (1986) than I am hearing someone repeatedly shout out the mostly meaningless words “fu**” or “sh**”. I actually still really like Top Gun, but there are definitely movies I won’t watch and others that I regret having seen.

Movies aren’t the only forms of media that need a content warning. The Bible is filled with many gruesome descriptions and disturbing stories. The Bible tells us about the incest of two daughters who took turns getting their dad drunk and having sex with him so he wouldn’t have to be without a male heir. God had just destroyed the city where they lived by raining down fire on it, and then instantly turned their mom into salt for looking back toward their home as it burned. This all happened after that father had offered up his daughters to be gang raped by the city’s ruffians because they were demanding his male guests be given to them for an all-night sexual assault. The apostle Peter later refers to that father as “righteous Lot”. The Bible tells us about a man and his concubine who visited a city where she was gang raped to death. The man then decided to cut her body into pieces and mail her body parts to leaders of the surrounding tribes, prompting a civil war. When the tribe of the rapist murderers finally surrendered to the others, there was concern about the fact that they’d all sworn not to marry off their daughters to men from that tribe. They noticed that there was one city that hadn’t joined the war. For their inaction, they decided to murder all the married women and the men, and use the 400 traumatized virgins they left alive as wives for the tribe they had sworn against. That wasn’t enough women to go around, so they devised a scheme to hide out and kidnap more women while they danced at a religious celebration. They ended up getting enough women from that to force into marriages against their wills I guess. The Bible tells us about the Canaanite conquest, where God ordered his people to slaughter entire cities of men, women, children, and animals, leaving none alive, burning their cities and farms to the ground. The Bible describes the horrific gore and brutality of the siege warfare suffered by the Jews, causing mass starvation so severe that women were slaughtering their own babies for food and fighting with each other about whose they should eat first. And of course, the Bible describes in graphic detail the brutal Roman torture Jesus was subjected to when he was crucified. I could go on and on. The Bible earns its R rating, and I believe it does so for good reason. It isn’t my purpose here to explain why we are challenged with all the things in the Bible that are shocking and graphic and fundamentally disturbing, that probably warrant an age restriction and have no business being depicted on coloring pages. But I believe the biblical narrative challenges us with these things intentionally, inviting us to struggle with them. In his 2018 Pepperdine Bible Lectures presentation, “Slasher Film Theology”, a preacher friend of mine, Jeremy Marshall, analyzes several Wes Craven films as a means by which we might better understand some of the Bible’s more troubling content.

While no movie will have as noble a purpose behind its use of morally challenging content than the Bible does, there is still often a justifiable reason to include it. Saving Private Ryan (1998), with its opening scene’s graphic and gruesome portrayal of the storming of D-Day, generous use of profanity throughout, and even a couple conversations that are at least somewhat sexually explicit, tries to give viewers an idea of what it might have been like for those who suffered and died in service of their country. It just wouldn’t have the same impact if it wasn’t uncomfortable to watch, if you weren’t shown a realistic portrayal of the gore, and if the expletives weren’t true to the reality of the horrors they experienced. For me, the dissonance extends even further than most. I have no intention of discussing this here and point it out only by way of illustrating the point, but I personally believe that while being willing to die for others is honorable, killing people, even in wartime, is almost always wrong for a Christian. The underlying “good” message of the film contradicts Christian values as far as I understand them. Of course most will disagree with me on that point. Even so, I think Saving Private Ryan has a great deal of redeeming value.

Redeeming value is subjective. Some think the disturbing violence and gore of Saw (2004) and it’s sequels is justified by the tension it contributes to its twisted premise. Others think the unapologetically Christian message of a Kendrick Brothers movie like Overcomer (2019) redeems its cringiness. I disagree on both fronts. The former is sickeningly unnecessary, and serves only to mask an otherwise lackluster plot line. I would actually say the exact same thing about most Christian movies, which often feel like formulaic Christian culture cash-ins that I can imagine may cause unsuspecting outsiders to actually take the gospel less seriously, seeing how exploitable Jesus’ followers can be. I can still see where fans of these movies are coming from, and I mean here to illustrate my point, not criticize people who enjoy things I don’t. Not all people, and not all Christians, need to agree on what makes a movie worth watching.

I love to watch movies in general, especially when it comes to the experience of a movie theater. When I watch movies at home, there are always distractions, self-imposed and external. I usually pause the film multiple times to get a snack, or use the bathroom, or check my phone. I can’t resist. I get distracted by my kids waking up and needing me for something, or by a phone call, or by some other task that I remember needs doing. When I’m in the theater, I’ve made preparations to be unavailable, mentally and physically, for the duration of the viewing, and I can give my full attention to receiving whatever good the film has to offer. I am careful about how much water I drink before hand, I use the bathroom right before showtime, and I silence or turn off my phone. I do this because being completely focused on the film enables me to fully appreciate and derive as much value as possible from it. Experiencing movies like that, especially with friends, I find very rewarding. With what follows, I’ll attempt to expound upon why watching “bad” movies is, for me, often worth it.

APPRECIATING THE ARTISTRY

Whether you admire the music, the performances, the cinematography, the sound design, the visual effects, the use of technology, the writing, the costumes, the sets, the aesthetics, or how it all comes together as one, the artistic value of a movie should not be understated. Appreciating artistry as a display of human achievement is something we humans are uniquely designed for. When I watched the first episode of The Walking Dead years ago, I was disgusted by the horrifying images of reanimated human decay. I decided it wasn’t worth continuing, until I met a young Christian woman who began visiting our campus ministry church at the University of Central Florida. She had deep admiration for The Walking Dead in part because she was really into makeup artistry and the aesthetics of horror in general from a creative standpoint. I revisited the show with this in mind. What once turned me off to it completely became a source of fascination for me, and I was impressed by what the show’s creative teams had accomplished. This wasn’t a glorified display of real human decay, this was a group of artists setting the emotional tone for a convincing story to be told. It’s not for everybody, but for the first few seasons, it became one of my favorite things to watch.

Nudity has been a prevalent element in art for hundreds of years, and has been both supported and condemned throughout Christian history. Many a Pope has commissioned that penis art be irreversibly covered, or worse, completely destroyed. At one point in my life I would have thought that to be the right call, but I now believe differently. The substantial concern surrounding this topic warrants a tangent here. Nudity isn’t in itself wrong, and is not condemned in the Bible. Considering the role of nudity in the Biblical world, I would expect there to be a specific statement that addressed it if it were something God wanted us to regard as inherently sinful. Yes, there are instances when “uncovering the nakedness” of someone is condemned, but in context this phrase is clearly referring to engaging in sexual activity with another person, not simply seeing someone naked. Ask your doctor, nudity isn’t even inherently sexual. The football locker room showers when I was in high school and the community showers in my college dormitory, both Christian schools, consisted of a completely open room with shower heads on the wall, and once I got over my self-consciousness I thought nothing of it. The problem for most isn’t nudity, it’s the potential that seeing a less-than-fully-clothed person of the opposite sex might result in lust. Apparently the potential for same sex lust wasn’t on the school bathroom architects’ radars for some reason. For most of my life, I believed the lies of what many have come to criticize as “purity culture” that, in the name of so-called holiness, shamed me and most other men for experiencing natural attraction to women and shamed women for being naturally attractive to men. Purity was the intent when churches and religious communities taught confused pubescent boys to bounce our eyes away from every female we felt attraction for, expecting good Christian girls to dress extra conservatively so that we wouldn’t be influenced to have even a hint of a sexual thought because of them, even going so far as to encourage us to send our dates back inside to change clothes if they were wearing something that might make us want to think about them sexually. Purity was the intent of the impossible pharisaical standards we tried to hold ourselves to, but shame was the effect, and the fallout of that mindset has done massive damage to many people. Jesus does tell his followers not to lust, committing adultery with someone in your heart. But attraction and lust are not the same thing, and clothing definitely isn’t the determinant factor between the two. Lust is an issue of the heart. It’s the choice a person makes to fantasize about or covet someone, not something that happens to us unwillingly when we encounter someone dressed, or not dressed, in a way that we find naturally attractive. For a long time, I considered nudity to be the non-negotiable, absolute worst thing a movie could have in it. Although I do still think most nudity in movies is questionably motivated, it’s use is sometimes justifiable. It’s also not going to send me into a frenzy of lustful fantasy when it’s there, even when I don’t think it should be. I can choose to regard all women honorably no matter how they are dressed. I’m a Christian, not an uncontrollable animal, and I try to be led by the Spirit to see all people as God sees them, with love and respect. I also respect those who would avoid movies where people are dressed, or not, in a way that they think would tempt them to choose to think wrongfully. I have my limits as well, and I generally avoid movies with substantial explicit sexual content or prolific nudity, especially when I think women are being intentionally objectified for the purpose of giving viewers something to ogle at. The presence of a nude man or woman in a movie does not, for me, automatically mean I won’t watch it, or even always have a moral problem with it.

As an aside to this, pornography is different, and I still firmly and confidently condemn it. Pornography uses nudity and explicit sex for the purpose of actually arousing viewers. It intends to enrapture people in depraved, degrading sexual fantasy. It is addictive by design, and if you are caught up in it, you can and should free yourself from it. Get help if you need to. Christians should abstain from pornography and the lust it exists to incite, heeding Jesus’ admonition against it. We should never regard other individuals as objects to be used for our sexual fulfillment devoid of relationship and respect. And if by pornography’s poison, nudity and sex in movies are triggers for you, perhaps you should consider taking the time to rework your neural pathways before you loosen your personal media consumption standards in these areas, if ever. Not all things lawful are profitable, and we should not be enslaved. It is for freedom that Christ sets us free.

INSPIRING THE IMAGINATION

I believe it is God’s design that we are capable imagining and dreaming outside of our present circumstances. While J. R. R. Tolkien’s Christian worldview informed his creative decisions, he didn’t write in allegory. His intent was to give his readers a fantastical other world to immerse themselves into. Tolkien believed that imaginative stories are a way to participate in God’s divine intent for humanity through what he called “sub-creation”. By making new worlds, inventing believable characters, and writing engaging stories for them, he believed that he was fulfilling a divine purpose, glorifying God by imitating the original Creator.

Not long ago made a list of everything I could think of that really makes me feel fulfilled in life. It could all be organized into five categories, one of which is the satisfaction I get from media that connects me to imaginary worlds. Along with video games, theme parks, audiobooks, plays and musicals, extended universes, and Dungeons & Dragons podcasts, movies tap into my fundamental desire to be immersed into a different reality, not necessarily as an escape, but as a way to satiate my need for adventure.

Sometimes I wish I could just abandon the daily grind and go hike 2,200 miles along the Appalachian Trial, or kayak all 1,500 miles of the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail. In The Truman Show (1998), I relate to Truman’s yearning to get out of town and move to Fiji, and the fear that holds him back. My life is blessed, and good, and my desire to fulfill the responsibilities I have to my wife and her wants, my children and their futures, and even my contribution to my community outweigh my desire to venture too far into the unknown. Sometimes movies and other forms of media allow me to embark on unbelievable journeys without disturbing the stability of the normalcy of my life. Movies are also, at their best, emotional experiences for me. My heart rate rises with fear or excitement. My eyes well up with tears of sadness or joy. I laugh out loud for humor, or even or just because I’m having a lot of fun. The ability to experience and feel through narrative is God’s gift. Sometimes that experience is justification enough.

PERSPECTIVE AND UNDERSTANDING

One of the most impactful benefits a movie can give viewers is an opportunity to learn and grow. I love the feeling of intrigue or enlightenment I get when a good movie delves into a historical period or culture I am unfamiliar with, or exposes me to a worldview or attitude that is different from my own. Movies are not always a reflection of truth. After seeing Hamilton (2020), I was shocked by several aspects of the story, wondering how true they were to the historical record. After spending a little time with Google, I learned that several elements were inaccurate or completely made up for dramatic effect, but the things that were the most shocking to me were relatively factual. I remember having similar experiences with films like Braveheart (1995), Gods and Generals (2003), and even The Passion of the Christ. Movies don’t always give an accurate account of historical facts, but they sometimes inspire me to reflect and learn more.

When it comes to perspective, mine is limited. I am a formally and liberally educated, white, American, heterosexual male. I was raised in an culturally Southern, evangelically Christian, politically conservative, nuclear family of six. My mom and dad raised us in a safe, love-filled, happy environment and are still together in one of the most beautiful marriages I’ve ever seen. If you’re very different from this, then I probably don’t understand your perspective or your struggles, and you probably don’t actually understand mine either. (I have some, believe me.) Movies and other media can provide us with an opportunity to understand ourselves, one another, and the world around us differently.

Our individual experiences are all extremely narrow and ignorant. Movies can offer us a chance to look beyond ourselves, increasing our understanding of the perspectives, values, and experiences of people who don’t think like us. Watching the tragedy of divorce unfold in Marriage Story (2019) gave me insight into something I have not ever nor hopefully ever will have to experience myself. But so many have and do, and I think a movie like Marriage Story has the capacity to promote empathy for the pain and distress so many endure when marriages crumble. Additionally, it could help those who have been affected by divorce process some the emotional trauma they experienced firsthand. 8 Mile (2002) opens a cracked, dirty window to the difficult impoverished circumstances that many are stuck in, challenging viewers to consider how hard it is not just to get by, but to survive, let alone to overcome. The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) actually helped me understand a young client I once had who took his involvement in a backwoods amateur wrestling community in middle Tennessee very seriously, aspiring to become a professional wrestling personality someday. Even the first iteration of The Fast and the Furious (2001), however silly and sensationalized it may be, attempts to capture the spirit of the illegal racing communities that some of my friends in Little Rock were loosely involved with.

Often movies are designed to make a statement. It is perhaps in this that they realize their greatest potential for good. It is also where the biggest threat exists. I believe the statement a movie makes has the potential to do far more harm than two hours of exposure to any amount of sex, violence, or profanity. When I see a movie whose message is opposed to the truths I define my life by, particularly truths related to my faith in Jesus, I welcome the challenge. By better understanding the views and values of those with beliefs that conflict with mine, I have an opportunity to better contextualize my faith against the pulse of the modern world. I think this is important not only for my own sake, but in attuning myself to better understand and process the issues and ideological trends that my children will inevitably be exposed to, through which I intend to guide them.

I don’t have any criticism for those who prefer to draw a line and refuse to watch movies that have a certain rating, or that contain a certain amount of profanity, gore, or sexual content. For me, in light of the value I believe there is in seeing a wide variety of movies and other media, it has been good to move beyond a simplistic evaluation to a more consistent and open mindset toward the whole endeavor. If I see a movie centered on the glorification of revenge, that positively depicts drug or alcohol use, that has a scene or two with some nudity, that portrays horrific violence, or that uses the word “sh**” instead of “crap”, or “fu**” in place of “fooey”, it is not in condonation of any of these particulars. I am committed to loving my enemies, to not becoming a serial killer or drug addict, to using language that does not unnecessarily offend, and to abstaining from covetousness and sexual fantasy outside of my monogamous marriage. I am committed to guarding my heart and mind in making reasonable, thoughtful decisions about what I watch. That probably won’t look for me like it does for you. And I think that’s perfectly fine.

Find my movie reviews here: https://boxd.it/2ZkUf

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