Christian at the Movies (1)
I was about ten when the first Rock ‘n Roll evangelists came to town. They weren’t proselytizing on behalf of Iron Maiden. They were there to tell us about the rampant satanism and occultism in contemporary rock and pop.
To rapt audiences, they played snippets of songs backwards: “[ssshkp]…[ssshkp]…[ssshkp]…meeshnar eep… [ssshkp]… eeg zatan… [ssshkp]…’There! Hear that?'”. We heard about the backmasking and subliminal messages embedded in most songs. It was terrifying to know that Satanists were manipulating us with hidden and even inaudible messages. As a child, it made me want to block my ears and run out of most stores and public places playing rock.
And it wasn’t only the music. The Smurfs was satanic because it had Gargamel the wizard and a cat named Azrael. Gummi Bears was satanic because Zummi would cast spells by saying words backwards. Thundercats and He-Man were satanic because of Set and Skeletor. Mickey in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was just as bad. Ditto for The Lord of the Rings and Narnia. Playing Dungeons & Dragons was tantamount to holding a seance.
Of course, there was (and still is) occultism in popular entertainments, just not to the level the evangelists suggested, nor in the conspiratorial way that alarmist evangelism thrives on. When all that blew over, besides having made Fundamentalism look goofier than ever, it probably harmed believers in a far more serious way. While looking for the frontal assault of satanism, Christians became oblivious to far greater dangers in popular entertainments, to which they gave a free pass. The concepts of sentimentalism and trivialization seemed tame and silly compared with the roaring lion of occultism. The ideas of implicit morality, worldview, and celebrated or denigrated ideas went missing. Moral universes, characterization, Christian or non-Christian imagination – these were (and still are) alien concepts to most Christians. And besides, it’s easier to spot the occult than to judge something for its beauty or worth.
Consequently, in this scheme of things, the cornpone silliness and trivialization of the Rapture in A Thief in the Night was ignored, while the witches in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty made those films clearly wrong. The bawdiness in The Princess Bride was no problem, but Pokemon was clearly a tool of Satan. Characters smooching each other on a weekly basis was fine (as was the formula in 80s and 90s TV shows), but the mention of spells, magic, dragons, witches, wizards was insidious occultism grooming our children for a future career in the occult. We could trivialize the entire faith in Veggie Tales and cartoons of Bible accounts, but those were “safe”, as opposed to how Disney would slip in supposed satanic salutes. In short, Christians learnt how to strain out gnats and swallow camels at the movies.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. I still find Christians operating at the same level. The films and TV series have changed, but the criteria of evaluating them seems to be the same: is there occultism? Is there bad language? Is there sex and nudity? Is there gory violence? If these are absent, then the film or programme is “innocent”. (Indeed, for some Christians, even the presence of these is no hindrance to their watching a movie.)
So you will find believers watching completely anti-Christian films, discipling their children with sentimental (and therefore anti-Christian) visions of reality, and loving their choices because they score 1 out of 10 on the SNVL rating, and have no mention of magic or fantasy. Conversely, you will find the same Christians avoiding decent or even helpful visions of ultimate reality because of some reference to magic or the presence of evil in the story, and choosing rather to wallow in saccharine portrayals of reality.
Maybe you are one of those fortunate Christians who has managed to raise a family with nary a screen in site. Maybe you have acreage aplenty, and your kids can roam free in the great outdoors till mama calls ’em in for supper. You have my admiration and righteous envy. For those of us in the city, and for those of us in cities with high walls and electric fences, screens are both a part of life and a survival tool for parents. While my children probably watch a fraction of what most children today watch, they still encounter movies and TV shows, and it is my duty to teach them discernment.
To that end, I wrote out ten questions for them to consider as they come across films. At this stage, my wife and I still strictly control and filter what they see. But that cannot last forever. One day, they will be independent, and have their own internet connection. By then, I hope that what will keep them pure will be not merely VidAngel or Covenant Eyes, but their own consciences shaped to love what is true, good, and beautiful. Here are the first four questions.
If it portrays contemporary or historical life in this world, what kind of world does the movie/TV show claim we live in? Is it true?
If it creates a fantasy world, what kind of other world does the movie/TV show create? Is it similar to God’s true world? If it’s better, how? If worse, how?
These first two questions ask what kind of moral universe the movie creates. Every film is a mini-cosmos, a world that the characters inhabit. We are asked to enter that world, and view things from its perspective. The important question is, what sort of world is it? Is it a godless world? Are humans intrinsically good or evil? Is the morality like that of Scripture or is it inverted? Perhaps it is deliberately amoral, nihilistic and purposeless. Is there good and evil, truth and lies, ugliness and beauty? Do you emerge from this world, fantastical or realistic, with a clearer vision of the true world that God has made, or is it somewhat distorted? A fantasy world is not a false world; it is an alternate world. A false world is one which distorts good and evil, Creator and creation, truth and lies, whether it uses realism or fantasy. A false world reshapes the very lens of perception with which we come back to our own world.
3. Does this movie/ TV show make fun of, or glorify, something that God hates?
4. What kinds of actions and characteristics does it celebrate? Does it celebrate what is shameful? Does it invite unlawful curiosity?
One of great powers of theatre and spectacle is its immersive character. Writers such as Augustine and Pascal warned about the power of theatre to envelop us in the action, until we sympathetically feel what we should not feel. We desire the married woman to elope from her abusive husband with the kind stranger. We want to see the hero take violent revenge on his evil persecutors. We long to see the romantic tension defused in some act of on-screen sensuality.
We need to ask, does this film make us lustful, envious, covetous, or vengeful? Do we laugh at immorality, pride, arrogance and conceit? Do we begin to admire the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life? Are we drawn in to covet another man’s wife or husband, to desire what we are told not to desire? Within the movie experience, are we sympathetic and supportive of sinful behaviour? Do we become contemptuous of wisdom and righteousness? Then the film is shaping our conscience away from God.
Many of the protagonists in modern movies are, by biblical definition, fools. They are immoral, proud, self-directed, profane, irreligious, immodest, bloodthirsty, violent, and ungodly in their speech. Yet they are the “heroes” of the tales. If we think that these heroes are not shaping our children just because we filter out the worst bits of nudity, violence, and language, we are straining out gnats and swallowing camels.
The next six next time.
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.