CAN HOLLYWOOD AND HOLINESS CO-EXIST?
I like movies. I like plays. And I like television. I admit this, not because it is a virtue, but because it is a fact. I appreciate a heroic war story. I like a good laugh. I enjoy following the clues with a detective as he tries to solve a tough case. I can even tolerate getting teary-eyed over a Jane Austen or Hallmark “chick flick.” Frankly, I enjoy escaping from reality for an hour or two.
The problem is this: I love the Lord. And at times my enjoyment of movies and television programs directly conflicts with my enjoyment of and obedience to God. All too often, Hollywood and holiness are mutually exclusive. All too often, my identity as a believer and my role as an audience are impossible to reconcile. Thus, I need to re-evaluate the content and importance of entertainment in my life. I need to raise the bar concerning what constitutes acceptable entertainment for me and my family; and, I suspect that the same is true throughout professing Christianity, for both evangelicals and fundamentalists. In his book, Set Apart, R. Kent Hughes laments that “the statistics reveal that the viewing habits of Christians are generally the same as the rest of culture” (55, emphasis his). Something is amiss, and the problem lies more in the hearts of Christians than in the hearts of entertainers. Spurgeon made the following statement in his day: “I believe that one reason why the church of God at this present moment has so little influence over the world is because the world has so much influence over the church” (The Soul Winner, 261-262). Spurgeon’s words apply to us today as well. We are worldly, and our entertainment choices prove it. “We,” as in “we fundamentalists,” are worldly.
Now, my personal position regarding the theater puts me in the minority among fundamentalist brethren. Although I do not frequent the theater, I am concerned with what we watch, not so much with where we watch it. When I heard of a professing Christian who enjoyed the blasphemous movie Bruce Almighty, my question was “Why?” not “Where?” Fundamentalism has always erected a large “No Trespassing” sign at the theater door. Evangelicalism, on the other hand, removed the sign in the name of “Christian liberty,” but it did so without providing any teaching regarding Christian discernment and biblical standards. The results have been tragic, as evidenced by an increasingly worldly church. The portions of evangelicalism which once lacked the will to discern right from wrong now seem to lack the ability to do so.
Checking for Beams
Yet, we fundamentalists need to check our own eyes for beams even as we justly criticize evangelicals. The problem for fundamentalists is that, while we have largely stayed out of theaters, movies have refused to stay in them. Televisions, VCRs, and DVD players are now more common in homes than refrigerators. Hollywood entertainment has never been more accessible, and many see that as a blessing. Now, those of us who would never darken the door of a theater, even to see The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, are able to enjoy the latest box office hits in the comfort of our own living rooms—in surround-sound, no less! Though fundamentalists have generally eschewed the theater, most have had no qualms about the video store, or WalMart, or the library, or the mailbox, or airplanes. Many fundamentalists are watching the same things as their unsaved neighbors, albeit a few months later (which must count for something!). I have to wonder, “is that success?” Is it new movies that are worldly? Is it the sticky theater floor? Are movies somehow sanctified by being in a home where Joshua 24:15 graces the walls rather than movie posters? I suggest that the battle is no longer a matter of location, but of content.
I fear that we have failed in much the same way as the evangelicals. We have failed to teach our people how to discern what is biblically acceptable and what is not. I am not urging fundamentalists to begin frequenting theaters, nor am I suggesting that our entertainment standards be lowered. Quite the contrary, I believe that our standards of entertainment must be significantly raised and taught to our people with an open Bible. I suggest that we replace (or at least supplement) our singing of “Oh be careful little feet where you go,” with “Oh be careful little eyes, what you see…and ears, what you hear…and mind, what you think…and heart, what you love.”
Although you won’t find the words “Hollywood” or “DVD” in your concordance, Scripture says much about these matters. It says more than most of us think. There is no shortage of passages that address the Christian’s behavior and thinking. Though many texts might be cited here, I am going to focus on Ephesians 5:1-12, and I encourage you to meditate on this passage in private.
What We SEE
Ephesians 5:3 says that a life that is “becoming” or appropriate for saints must be devoid of fornication and all sorts of impurity. What we watch is not specifically mentioned, but it does not need to be. Scripture says that sensual things are not even to be named among God’s people. They should not be part of our reputation or conversation; they certainly should not be part of our recreational viewing! Verse 12 makes the same point: it is shameful even to speak of such things. In this area, as in others, God desires our absolute purity and holiness. The passages which address what we see and think are generally well known (e.g. Job 31:1, Proverbs 6:25, Matthew 5:28). For the sake of space, I will not spend time exegeting them. However, I do believe that such passages are known better than they are obeyed, and I will address that issue briefly.
Few Bible-believers would argue that nudity is acceptable. Scripture is exceedingly clear on this point. Thus, much of Hollywood’s entertainment is obviously off limits for the believer. Yet, even Christians who oppose blatant nudity somehow excuse partial nudity, immodesty, and fornication (whether shown or implied) when they are being entertained. Both on the big screen and the small, programs commonly contain so-called “tasteful nudity” and carefully planned immodesty, which is sometimes even more provocative. Which is more harmful: an R-rated movie like Striptease, or a PG-13, Academy Award winning movie like Titanic, which contains both nudity and fornication? Even families who reject partial nudity regularly view bedroom scenes or actresses in lingerie, low-cut blouses, wet and clingy outfits, or strategically placed bed-sheets. They rationalize that it is harmless. After all, “it didn’t show anything.” Thus, their consciences are salved, even as their characters are sullied. Tragically, once such perverse images enter the mind, they are there to stay. Such things have no places in our lives. It is time to raise the bar.
What We HEAR
Verse 4 of Ephesians 5 continues to list practices which have no place in the believer’s life. Whereas verse 3 focuses on immorality and greed, verse 4 lists sins of the tongue. These sins abound in typical Hollywood fare—filthiness, foolish talking, and coarse jesting. Does Hollywood contain filthy, obscene language? It specializes in it. Yet, Christians routinely endure the basest of language and the blaspheming of God’s name in order to take in a good story. Does Hollywood contain foolish talking and perverse joking? You would be hard pressed to find a recent comedy that didn’t get cheap laughs from perverse jokes and double entendre. Sexual innuendoes are “must see TV.” Crass humor is commonplace. The problem this poses for Christians is that such programs are often genuinely funny. Notice, however, what Ephesians 5 says about such humor. It is inappropriate for the Christian (v. 4). It is irreconcilable with worship (v. 4). It is typical of those who are lost and outside of the kingdom of God (v. 5). It is one of the reasons why the wrath of God is coming on the unsaved (v. 6)! In other words, God is not laughing, nor should we be. It is time to raise the bar.
What We THINK
Movies have the power to change the way we think. That profound message was recently delivered to a vast audience. The speaker was not a fundamental preacher. Rather, he was a Hollywood director, and he was televised as he addressed a room filled with the rich and famous from the movie and television industries. The occasion was the 2006 Golden Globe Awards. The Golden Globes, given annually by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, are esteemed and coveted awards that are intended “to recognize outstanding achievements by conferring annual Awards of Merit…and to focus wide public attention upon the best in motion pictures and television” (www.hfpa.org).
So what were “the best in motion pictures” for 2005? Foxnews.com offers the following synopsis:
As expected, it was a triumphant night for films dealing with homosexuality and transsexuality. Along with the victories for Brokeback Mountain [which the article previously referred to as the “gay cowboy movie” and which won four awards, including Best Picture], acting honors went to Felicity Huffman in a gender-bending role as a man preparing for sex-change surgery in Transamerica and Philip Seymour Hoffman as gay author Truman Capote in Capote.
So what was “the best in television” for 2005? Predictably, the award-winners in the television genre were no more family-friendly. Desperate Housewives, a program even more perverse than its title suggests, was awarded top comedy for the 2nd consecutive year. A newcomer won the award for the best actress in a comedy. Mary-Louise Parker was recognized for her role as a marijuana-selling mother in Weeds. Thankfully, the HFPA has yet to create a “Best Raunchy Reality Show” category. Stay tuned. Or, better yet, don’t.
Tragically, we are no longer shocked by movies and programs which celebrate perversity. However, the fact that these shows are no longer on the bottom shelf of the industry, but are instead the very programs which are lauded as “the best in motion pictures and television” says much about the entertainment industry—and much about the society which both feeds it and feeds on it. Perhaps the most telling comment of the evening was the one made by Ang Lee in his acceptance speech for the Best Director award for Brokeback Mountain: “I want to give my first thanks to my fellow filmmakers for strengthening my faith in movies—and the power of movies to change the way we’re thinking.” Although I would disagree with everything which Mr. Lee stands for, I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment of his industry’s influence. It has “the power…to change the way we’re thinking.” It exercises that power with great skill and success.
Hollywood is about more than entertainment. It is about indoctrination and adaptation. Hollywood is a master of calling evil good and good evil. It makes homosexuality fun (a la Will and Grace). It makes immorality hip (a la Friends). It makes teen virginity an embarrassment (a la That 70’s Show). It makes adultery adventurous (a la Desperate Housewives). It makes tolerance the highest virtue and Christian conviction the lowest vice (a la ER). It makes witchcraft cute (a la Sabrina, the Teenage Witch). It makes death a door to a godless paradise (a la Titanic). It makes deception and revenge satisfying (a la every soap opera ever made). Hollywood is more than a seductress or blasphemer: it is a false teacher. And, as Wayne Wilson explains, audiences are “in no mood for critical analysis,” and thus, “are ripe for propagandizing” (Worldly Amusements, 76).
Hollywood Sells the World
I fear that this is the biggest blind spot for the average Christian. If we judge a film or program at all, we do so only on the basis of content: how much skin and profanity does it have? And even if we reject films with blatant homosexual or anti-God agendas, we are amazingly naive regarding the messages being taught by even so-called family movies and programs. As Hughes writes, “Perhaps the most subtle of television’s evils is the promotion of worldviews that are sub-Christian and spiritually destructive” (Set Apart, 55). Hollywood children (and mermaids) teach our children that parents and teachers are unreasonable and out-of-touch and that rebellion is justified. There is usually a tear-jerking conclusion in which the unreasonable father comes to his senses and apologizes. Hollywood heroes (from Superman, to Batman, to James Bond) teach us that the ability to seduce a stranger is heroic and noble. Hollywood heroines teach ladies a view of love that is sentimental at best, and more often is downright sensual. The message is clear that love does whatever it takes to get one’s man, that there is power in sexuality, and that lust is irresistible. And we worry about the effects of sensual entertainment on young men!
Ephesians 5:6 warns us not to be deceived by vain words. Perhaps this is the most dangerous aspect of Hollywood’s product. It deceives. Whether Christian consumers are cognizant of it or not, what we watch alters our beliefs and shapes our consciences and sympathies. When looking for a biblical injunction against the vast majority of such entertainments, one need only consider the warnings against false teachers that pepper the New Testament. As Paul tells Timothy in I Timothy 4:7, godliness cannot co-exist with worldly and worthless fables. Reject them! Our text is equally clear. Rather than partaking with the darkened world, we must walk as children of light (Ephesians 5:7-8). Rather than participating in their evil deeds, we must reprove them (Ephesians 5:11).
Am I calling for total abstinence from the film and television genres? Not necessarily, though for some it may be prudent. I have no argument with those who simply abstain from the theater, but I am arguing that such abstinence does not completely settle the problem in 2006. I am calling for biblical discernment and obedience. I am calling for a conscientious re-examination of what we put before ourselves and our children for amusement, along with a re-examination of how prominent a place even legitimate recreational viewing should have in our lives. Such a study would be greatly aided by Wayne A. Wilson’s book, Worldly Amusements. I commend it to you. Above all, I am calling for our viewing habits to be brought under the lordship of Christ. It is time to raise the bar.
What We LOVE
I conclude with this life-changing truth. Our obedience or disobedience in this crucial matter is more than a test of our wills. It is a test of our love. William Wilberforce, commenting on Christians partaking of the theater of his day, states this point forcefully: “Let it be sufficient to remark, that the controversy would be short indeed, if the question were to be tried by this criterion of love to the Supreme Being” (quoted in Wilson, 38). For many, the refusal to put off worldly entertainment arises from the fact that we love the world itself. We love that which God hates. Thus, many pastors are oddly silent on the issue, because they are as engaged in worldly entertainment as their flocks. As Ephesians 5:11 teaches, they can give no reproof of corruption because they are actively participating in it themselves. Similarly, many fathers say nothing of their teenager’s foul viewing lest they should have to change their own. The point is this: Our problem is not just our eyes. It is our hearts! Our hatred of evil is lacking because our love of the Lord is lacking (Palm 97:10). We struggle to obey Christ because He is rivaled in our affections (John 14:15). We genuinely believe that there is more satisfaction in a 17-inch box than in the God who created and redeemed us!
I make no pretense of being blameless in this area. Unfortunately, I have seen much that I regret. I have sometimes made watching even decent movies a too common form of recreation, thus wasting time which should have been redeemed (Ephesians 5:16). Yet, I desire sanctification here as elsewhere. My standards must be raised. My beliefs must be applied to my habits. My affection for Christ must outweigh my enjoyment of ease. My entertainment choices must be submitted to the lordship of my Savior.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I enjoy movies, plays, and television programs. Some of them are fine. But, I love the Lord. Thus, my relationship with Him must take precedence and dominion over my viewing. It is as simple as that. But it is no sacrifice, for what I am losing is nothing compared to what I am gaining. In the words of Ephesians, I am privileged to walk worthy of my high calling (4:1). I am privileged to be an imitator of my holy Father (5:1). I am privileged to walk in love, following the sacrificial example of Jesus Christ, who gave all for me. I am privileged to do so as a sweet-smelling offering to God (5:2). I am privileged to exemplify the fruit of the Spirit (5:9). I am privileged to discern and do what is acceptable to the Lord (5:10). So raising my viewing standards is not a matter of legalism or joyless asceticism. It is a matter of love and loyalty to the Triune God.
Chris Anderson is a member of the Ohio Bible Fellowship and is Pastor of Tri-County Bible Church, Madison, Ohio. He is a graduate of Bob Jones University, with both bachelors and masters degrees. He and his wife, Lori, are parents of four daughters.
The preceding article was originally published in The Ohio Bible Fellowship Visitor (January 2006). Information regarding the Visitor is available at http://www.obf.net/~visitor.
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