What is Reel?: an older sermon on film, with reflections on Worship songwriting…

August 9, 2007

As a songwriter I’m influenced by many different things. In fact, as a Christian, often I find myself quite surprised by what I’m drawn to write about, which at times has me second guessing myself. For instance, is it okay for a Christian to write a song about sex, like Vigilantes of Loves’ catchy ditty “Love Cacoon” or the Prayer Chain’s (though it was penned by members of the Choir) intensely moving “Bendy Line”? The mere fact that I linked those two songs will, for some, open a whole bag of worms, though both were written by self-professed Christians, the first by an a former elder at my last church – while he was still an elder there – and the later by one of the producers and writers of a huge amount of the contemporary worship songs we sing today, such as “God of Wonders”, to name only one. Yet, there is an entire book of the Bible on love-making, so it’s not un-Biblical to do so, is it? What about ‘murder’, a topic that Pedro the Lion, at one time one of my favorite bands, has composed multiple records on? Or what of ‘war’? Or, what of the time I was in a more traditional church where there was a reading of Psalm 137, where-in the last line is “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” Is such appropriate content for a Biblical song or movie? If proper context were given, could possibly a ‘corporate worship’ song be written – in good conscience – around such a Scripture? Remember 2 Timothy 3:16: “ALL SCRIPTURE is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” – if so, can it not also be good for use in worship?

I ask these questions, as I think they are important ones for all Christians, particularly those engaged in some artistic endeavor, to engage and come to terms with, and though I’ve not dealt with them directly yet as it relates to music and songwriting, I have explored this same issue as it relates to film. Seeing the benefit of working through this issue, I thought I’d share it with you. May you be challenged, encouraged, and strengthened in your faith.

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WHAT IS REEL?

“Life has become show business, where we each play a role and long for our moment of celebrity… For many Americans, life is now played out as if it were a movie. Our fantasies are more real that reality. It does’.t matter how celebrity is achieved, only that it is. Think of Kato Kaelin, or the technician on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno who strips to his bikini shorts and shakes his oversized gut for the laughter of the audience, or guests on the Jerry Springer Show. ..We are coached on our roles by Martha Stewart. Our costume designer is Ralph Lauren. Our makeup artists are plastic surgeons. In the words of Andre Agassi in a commercial for Canon cameras, ..Image is everything… ..Stores.. are entertainment centers. Ideas have become sound bites. Our president is ‘entertainer-in-chief’… Athletic events are often subordinated to the athlete’s story. Books need promotional tours if they are to sell. News programming is for our enjoyment ..Hard news is increasingly written using the techniques of fiction, so that it can be read at Starbucks. Brides and grooms…videotape their weddings, so that they can play the tape at their wedding reception (as if the real event is the showing and the ceremony [merely] the taping). Images of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Princess Diana have allowed these individuals to become not only icons but personal friends to be mourned. The latest Internet idea has 24-hour videocams in dorm rooms, allowing viewers to see the ‘lifies’ that others are playing … this just after the release of The Truman Show. If life is not a cabaret, it is at least a movie!” -Robert K. Johnston

I hope to step on everyone’s toes. For one, since the “word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword…”(Heb. 4:12), we should always expect to get cut somewhere while studying it: “dividing joints from marrow” has never been necessarily pleasant – only essential to our healing from the fall and growth as believers. Secondly, the cross of Christ is, according to Paul, both “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23): the truth of the Gospel is offensive to both the devoutly religious AND the devoutly irreligious. That being the case, I feel that I can do no better THAN to step on everyone’s toes, and if I don’t do so, I apologize sincerely, and will gladly revise this shortly.. Evangelical Christians have often heard messages on the subject of sexual temptation, and to summarize the Bible’s position on that subject in little detail; “RUN AWAY! RUN AWAY!” (kudos to Monty Python) Of course, given the overt sexual content of some films, music, and television, that response surely comes to play here as well. But I bring up the subject of sexual temptation because though the Scripture is mostly clear on that subject, it is mostly vague on this one – where application regarding sexual morality is often simple, this will be complex – where that subject calls for action, this one calls for discernment.

To give you an idea of why this subject is so confusing and even controversial, here’s an example from my own life. I have a list of movies I have seen that I believe most all Christians should at least consider seeing at some point in their lives. A few of the more common and unobjectionable of these would be; Ben Hur, the Passion of the Christ, the Gospel of John, Luther, Spitfire Grill, the Chosen, Facing the Giants, Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Chariots of Fire. But even more-so than these, I have been truly encouraged and challenged in my faith by films such as; the Big Kahuna, the Apostle, Smoke, Babette’s Feast, Jerusalem, Amistad, and my favorite movies of all-time, a 2 part-er, Jean de Florette and Manon Des Sources. Where I found myself encouraged by these films, some Christians could point out that the Big Kahuna contains horrible language and the only Christian character in the film ultimately needs to be rebuked by a non-believer! Robert Duvall’s character in the Apostle is a Pentecostal preacher running from the law for murder and is not necessarily the most chaste of men. Amistad not only contains the best presentation of the Gospel I’ve ever heard, but brief nudity and a scene that may be far too violent for most (much like the excellent, recently released on DVD, Lord of the Rings) – I still wince every time I see it. But rather than wallow in confusion over this subject, I would like to lay down a few general principles that will help give us guidelines to follow in how to be discerning regarding popular film, t.v., and other media.

“I will be careful to lead a blameless life – when will you come to me? I will walk in my house with blameless heart. I will set before my eyes no vile thing. The deeds of faithless men I hate; they will not cling to me. Men of perverse heart shall be far from me; I will have nothing to do with evil” – Psalm 101:2-4

Notice how extreme David’s desire was for purity and holiness; “I will be careful to lead a blameless life..I will set before my eyes no vile thing..I will have NOTHING to do with evil” But most interesting is this : notice the connection in the 2nd stanza of this poem: “I will walk in my house with a blameless heart. I will set before my eyes no vile thing”. The New Testament speaks of the lusts of the eyes and how the world system (or “flesh”) preys on this weakness. I want you to notice here how King David speaks to this issue; by refusing to set before his EYES anything vile he is working to keep his HEART blameless. Have you ever watched a movie or even a TV program and at some point in it an image is thrown at you and you are unprepared and it just hangs with you FOR DAYS?!?! Granted, some of us are more visually stimulated than others, but this general principal is still true: what we allow past the filter of our eyes affects us. What is more, the images of film and television, and even the audio ‘images’ we hear on a c.d. are far more than JUST pictures – they convey meaning – they tell a story – they attempt to convince us, even if only on a minute level, that something is true or false about the world.

Every image we take in conveys a worldview! Think about it: in film, for example, a filmmaker only has about 2 hours, generally, to tell a story convincingly: after investing so much time an energy in cutting their story down to the essentials, every camera angle has a meaning, and every costume great significance. And filmmakers, in spite of what we sometimes think watching some of the terribly unartistic major markets movies that are released now, are all trying to say something. For instance, did you know that across the board G and PG rated children’s films make far more money, on average, than any other? Then why the enslaught of sex and violence in the normal motion picture? It’s NOT because it makes money, in spite of what we’re often told. Or again, across the board films portraying aspects of Christianity in a negative light sell FAR LESS tickets than do spiritually uplifting films, yet still most of the films pertaining to the Christian faith portray Jesus as promiscuous, or Priests who break their vows, or King David’s who lose their faith. Why do such a thing? Of course, because the film industry wants to send a message, and few in that industry, especially high up, are Christians. Michael Medved, a longtime respected movie and cultural critic, spoke to this issue. He said, “Why hasn’t Hollywood gotten the message? The one thing this industry is supposed to able to do is read the bottom line. Why, then, do savvy producers continue to authorize scores of projects that portray religious leaders as crazed conspiratorial charlatans, when similar films have failed so conspicuously in the past? It is hard to escape the conclusion that there is a perverse sort of idealism at work here. For many of the most powerful people in the entertainment business, hostility to traditional religion goes so deep and burns so intensely that they insist on expressing that hostility even at the risk of commercial disaster.”

Now, before you get too wary, this is not to say, “look how evil the bad people in film are” but rather “…be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8) We cannot emphasize enough that people are not the enemy – non-believers are fellow beggars who have not yet found their way to the feast; the enemy is Satan and the fallen world system, and the untruth he hurls at us daily, in this case through the various aspects of popular media.

“I will set before my eyes no vile thing.” So how far should we take this? Or, let us also include the New Testament. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things” (Philippians 4:8) Again, I ask: how far can and/or should we take this? For instance; should I not watch the nightly new because murders are often reported, and murders are not true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, OR praiseworthy? Some people, I believe ignorantly, do so! Are we to hide under a bushel and not speak about, or even think about anything that doesn’t make us smile? So, really – what does this look like? What is the driving purpose behind this verse?

I think it all has to do with FOCUS. Here are a few reasons as to why. The apparently not so noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy are all over the Bible Take a look at Isaiah 13:15-16: “Whoever is captured will be thrust through; all who are caught will fall by the sword. Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be looted and their wives ravished…” So, can you imagine this verse as a movie? Would this pass your criteria for a Godly film? What of the violent drowning of thousands of Egyptians as the Lord God swept them into the sea, chariots, horses and horsemen all .. the entire army of the Pharaoh (Exodus 14:27-28). Does that image strike you as ‘lovely’? As ‘excellent’? Should we stop reading the Bible then, too? Better yet, in Judges 20:4-7 a Levite reports his story: it is recorded that while he was staying the night in Ephraim some men wanted to have homosexual sex with him, but settled for the man’s concubine, whom they raped and murdered, leaving her dead body in the doorway of the house where he was staying. But WAIT! The story gets ‘better’! He then takes his dead concubine, cuts her into 12 pieces and ships her parts all over Israel! Would you see this movie? How about if I told you that you might be doing yourself a disservice if you did not? Remember this, 2 Timothy 3:16 says “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”. That includes stories such as these.

A few years back there was a short lecture given at the Phi Kappa house at UGA by my friend John. He’s a atheist and presented a paper stating that the Bible was obscene. He had really hoped I would show up to debate him on this, but I due to a strange entanglement I was unable to make it in time. I had, however, already prepared a response: my response was that he was right, and that it was a GOOD thing that the Bible was obscene. You see, to call something ‘obscene’ means that it goes against our own sense of decency, or rather, in the many cases, the WORLD’s sense of decency. How can a fallen people not find the truth of God obscene? The Bible was written to pry us out of our complacency, to break us of our false notions of what should or should not be, to rip the veil of this world from our eyes. If we do not find this offensive, we are dead – and many of us are. Sadly enough, too many of us are simply dead.

So, back to our initial verse, what does it mean to “set before my eyes no vile thing”? What does it mean to think on things that are noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy? How should this affect our approach to popular media?

Well, first we NEED to keep in mind that this is NOT about legalism.
1 Corinthians 10:23 states it more clearly; “”Everything is permissible”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”–but not everything is constructive”. We should watch things that will be constructive and beneficial to our spiritual lives. To expand on this, I ask a question – what, in your opinion, differentiates the violence and gruesomeness of many of the Old Testament Bible stories (and even the Cross of Christ) from, say, Die Hard? Clearly it is the meaning of those events in the larger story. The purpose of the violence in Die Hard is mere titillation. The meaning of the violence in Scripture is the larger purposes of God working in history. An example: Think about it: in real life it makes a big difference if someone is killed as an act of war than in a criminal act. Why is this? In an act of war an act of violence takes on a terribly different meaning – it serves a greater purpose. I’m not arguing necessarily that one is just and the other is not, necessarily – that would be a different talk entirely, but CLEARLY we can see that the act of killing someone in a robbery is very different than killing an enemy during a war (especially a ‘just’ war). So, can we not apply this to the movies we watch? Does the violence make sense in the larger story? If it does, then it may very well be, from a Biblical standpoint, noble, right, admirable, and even excellent – as we’ve seen in the Gospel itself, violence can be used for redemptive purposes. In saying this, let us also be careful: sometime movies go so far as to desensitize us. Notice that the Bible rarely goes into graphic detail about such violence because it is not needed. That was probably my only real criticism of Lord of the Rings, honestly – did the fight scenes REALLY have to be THAT gruesome? But that said, might it actually be possible that violence in a movie COULD be constructive or beneficial to our faith? I believe that there’s no reason it couldn’t be.

So, here we have a number of guidelines to our intake of popular media. We have the call to “flee sexual temptation”. We have King David.’s wisdom to “put before my eyes no vile thing”, and Paul’s admonition to think on thing that are noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy – yet these admonitions are both qualified by the fact that sometimes what we might think vile, or noble, may in fact NOT be so, so we need to seek out the meaning of the event in the larger context. I also believe Paul’s admonition to not tempt the weaker brother comes to play here, but equally so, to not let our freedom in this area be judged by another’s conscience. That’s a lot to think about, isn’t it?

Before I close, I’ll throw out a number of other questions that I often ask myself. Have you ever thought about the actors and how these scenes might affect them? In paying for a movie ticket you are, in affect endorsing that film – it’s like your ‘vote’ for it. Have you ever thought that they people on that screen live real lives, too? Can I justify paying that person to play that role – is it good for them to do so? Or, even if it seems to enrich the story, what of a tastefully placed sex scene (if there is such a thing) – even one that doesn’t really show anything? Is that any different that voyeurism? Can you imagine your neighbors, for the sake of you better understanding their lives – their story – inviting you over to watch? It sounds pretty ridiculous, doesn’t it? Is there any difference? Another question to ask yourself, who were you asked to identify with while watching the movie, and were they the ‘good guy’ or the ‘bad guy’? Or apart from the subjects of sex and violence, what of programming that is G or PG, but is under girded by an ATTRACTIVE, yet clearly unbiblical worldview? Might that be even MORE dangerous, in some sense, since it makes us tend to lower our guard? An example of this would be many of the Oprah endorsed movies: in many ways they are clean films, but they are undergirded and project a worldview that is adamantly New Age, even when often veiled as Christianity. Another example is many of the Romantic comedies – they seems so harmless on the surface, but often leave women feeling especially discontent in their relationships because of the false standards – essentially lies – it tell us about what relationships are like. 1 Cor 10:4-5 says that we are to “destroy arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God”. A pretense in this case is a false presupposition or idea that we hold and simply accept as true that actually keeps us from the truth of God. If we are being unknowingly fed an unchristian worldview, something attractive and untrue that is vying for our acceptance EVEN in a program as seemingly safe as The Muppets, then shouldn’t we be on our guard?

Lastly, whatever you do, do it for the glory of God. Can you listen to the music you listen to, or watch the television or movies you usual watch and do it truly for God’s glory? That may be a hard question to answer, but it is an important one to ask. Each one of us will likely have a different way of applying this material. Personally, I have to be very careful about what sort of music I listen to, and rarely do I buy music that is not at least written by a Christian, even though little of what I buy is explicitly Christian in content. As far as movies are concerned, I used to go alone, but rarely anymore: it’s helpful to have others to talk to about after the experience. I..m also far more selective about what I see and read plenty of reviews about any movie I see and even pray about it before I go. And television I’ve practically given up altogether because I’m so easily sucked into it. But that’s just me – each one of us is wired a little bit differently, and you cannot be judged by my conscience on such an issue.

Here are a number of possible applications for you.
1. Choose entertainment that upholds your Biblical values, and keep in mind that your purchase of movie ticket, c.d., or (much more complex) a product advertised during a certain program is your ‘vote’ for it.
2. Never have pause about leaving a movie that is offending your conscience: your thought life, and free time are far more valuable that your money (as the proverb says,as a man thinks, so he is). Don’t risk becoming desensitized or jaded merely for the sake of being entertained.
3. Do not urge others to watch a film with you if they have genuine reservations – you may be causing them to stumble. There may in fact be films that are okay for you to watch, but not for another given our various levels of maturity, personal experiences, and temptations.
4. At the VERY LEAST, TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU JUST WATCHED! Ask one another questions – discuss what in the movie is true. Ask, if something in it is false, yet attractive, why that untruth seems so appealing. This sort of interaction with other believers not only helps us to “sharpen one another” but to “take every thought captive“.
5. And NEVER go to a movie, or, for that matter, take in any kind of entertainment media with the attitude of just shutting down your mind and being entertained. If you’re in so much a need for rest and relaxation that you can’t either play some sort of sport with your friends, or read a book, then take a nap.

I will be careful to lead a blameless life- when will you come to me? I will walk in my house with blameless heart. I will set before my eyes no vile thing. The deeds of faithless men I hate; they will not cling to me. Men of perverse heart shall be far from me; I will have nothing to do with evil.

So, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What’s appropriate, or inappropriate? Be encouraged to share.

 

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