Responsible Moviegoings: What to Watch

“‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything.” 1 Corinthians 6:12

As long as art has existed, people have tried to determine precisely what artwork is “helpful” — and to suppress what is unhelpful. But such efforts themselves have attracted criticism. “A censor is a man who knows more than he thinks you ought to,” Granville Hicks once complained. Henry Steele Commager said, “The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion.”

Movies in the United States have always gotten a lot of attention from concerned citizens. There are many perfectly good reasons for that. Movies are more visceral than paintings or photographs because they incorporate motion and sound. They are more accessible than literature because they attract even people who never read. And they bring in much bigger crowds than stage plays.

Almost a century ago, many Americans regarded cinemas as “the recruiting dens of vice.” Then several Hollywood scandals involving drugs, sex and murder outraged the nation in the early 1920s. The growing threat of national censorship — or worse, censorship imposed by local authorities following many different standards — hung heavy over the film industry.

The major studios decided that self-censorship would keep religious groups and others from forcibly imposing harsh rules. They established the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in 1922. Will Hays, former postmaster general, became its head. Hays and America’s filmmakers promised to clean up Hollywood and set moral guidelines for movie production.

Very little was actually accomplished until “talkies” began appearing in 1927. They led to the adoption of Hays’ Production Code in 1930. After 1934, all theatrical releases had to get a certificate of approval from the MPAA. The code established some general principles for movies to follow:

1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

These general statements were followed by several pages of “particular applications,” which forbade everything from nudity and profanity to interracial love and “suggestive” dancing.

The Code also included a thorough explanation of its philosophy. The explanation sounded quite sensible and laudable, for the most part — but it was based on the assumption that Americans could not exercise their own moral judgment. The media had to make choices for them.

In 1968, the MPAA introduced a voluntary ratings system to replace the Production Code. The movie industry would no longer have to police itself; it would merely submit its films to be labeled with warnings for the public. Theoretically, individual theaters would enforce age restrictions, and adults would fend for themselves. The original ratings were G, M (eventually PG), R and X (later NC-17). In 1984, thanks to an outcry over the intensity of the PG-rated “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” the MPAA added PG-13 to the mix.

The methods by which the MPAA decides on a rating are quite subjective. The entire rating process is shrouded in secrecy. But over nearly 40 years, the MPAA ratings board has proven to be often manipulable, arbitrary and inconsistent.

At best, MPAA ratings are an extremely vague indication of objectionable content. A system that places, say, Borat or 300 on the same moral plane as Schindler’s List or Dead Man Walking is not very useful for adults. Furthermore, the age of responsible viewing for any movie varies widely, and some Christians will find it wise not to watch a particular movie at all.

We Christians need to uphold standards for what we let into our minds. Yet if we are to make responsible decisions about going to see a movie, then someone else is going to have to see the film first. It would be best if that person shared both our values and our taste in movies.

If you choose movies based on their entertainment, artistic or spiritual value, I recommend checking out the Faith and Film Critics Circle. That is a group of nearly 20 Christian film critics who review and discuss movies for all sorts of websites and publications. If you are more concerned about avoiding specific moral problems (say, gratuitous sex or language inappropriate for your children) — then Screen It! provides far better information than the MPAA does.

Ultimately, there is more to responsible movie-watching than avoiding offensive content. If we choose films based solely on what we want to avoid, we will miss a great deal of beauty and truth as well. Should we automatically leave a movie after a certain number of curse words? A single sex scene? Four gruesome deaths? Two instances of alcohol abuse? Five insults?

Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” We often hear this verse mentioned when Christians discuss media standards. But as a friend of mine once pointed out, this verse does not say anything about what we should avoid. It says we should think about “whatever” has “anything” praiseworthy — not just about things that are perfect. It says we should meditate on truth, honor, justice, purity, beauty and excellence wherever we find them.

“Why,” my friend wondered, “are we so preoccupied with preventing unbelievers from influencing us? Is the truth weaker than a lie?”

We often think of ourselves as embattled, beset on all sides by the forces of darkness. And maybe we are, in a way. But I can’t help thinking that too many of us are trying to “engage” our culture by attacking, shunning or lecturing it. Instead, our cultural engagement should begin with listening and observation, so that we learn how to reveal God’s love in ways that will make sense to the people around us. Movies are a great opportunity for that.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what other Christians have written about going to the movies:

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