Teenagers, Worldviews & Rated-R Movies

By: Marc Santom
Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

Tis the season…of summer movie blockbusters, just around the bend. Robin Hood, Iron Man 2 & Twilight Eclipse are just a few titles that will don the cinema marquees and rake in fistfuls of dollars–not to mention the hearts and minds of our teenagers.

It’s been about six years since Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ hit theaters in 2004. You know what I consider to be one of its best, barely-noticed legacies? That is was rated R.  I loved the uncomfortable irony of it all—that this film, which many Christians considered to be one of the greatest evangelistic tools of our day, was labeled with the scarlet letter of the MPAA movie rating system. That meant that this film about Jesus’ triumphant love would share the same rating as brash films like Pulp Fiction, Superbad, Saw V and Sin City.

Of course I loved The Passion for more that its R rating. I was elated to see the greatest story ever told conveyed with a lot of Scriptural accuracy, a real budget and genuine artistic sensibilities brought to bear. What also elated me was that many preachers who elevated the (often arbitrary and inconsistent) MPAA rating system to sacred status and made “Thou shalt not see R-rated movies” the Eleventh Commandment were forced to re-think the issue.  They had to begin to ask questions like this:

  • “Can an R-rated film have redemptive value—and can it have more of it than a PG film does?”
  • “Does this mean that PG and PG-13 movies are always safer and more accurately reflect a Christian worldview?”
  • “Can God’s truth, beauty and goodness be found in other films that don’t star Jesus as the main character or fail to have an overt Christian message like Fireproof or  Facing the Giants?”

My aim is not to debate the value of R versus PG rated films or the competency of the Motion Picture Association of America. There’s a bigger story here…

I like to think of God’s truth, beauty and goodness as billions of gold coins cast down from Heaven—and are now found all over this world. Evangelicals of a dualist mindset would say that these gold coins can only be found in the sanctuary, during personal devotions, on SermonCentral.com or in art forms that are overtly Christian in their message. But because “the Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (Ps. 24:1),” all of His gold coins are still His and still golden even if they’re found in “unspiritual” places like Wall Street, the Mormon Tabernacle, The Chicago Tribune or (believe it or not) Hollywood.

Many films that come out of Hollywood contain these gold coins—and can be found by those who have the eyes to see them. They are loaded with poignant life issues, questions and themes that are gold mines of raw worldview-building material. Since films have such a powerful influence on our teenagers, it only makes sense to teach our students & children how to discern what they see, hear and feel whenever they do watch them. If God is as big as He claims, and if His Truth is unmatched, then why should we fear tackling the worldviews that come out of Hollywood? Let’s watch, think, learn, discern, discuss and understand. Let’s help nurture a climate of critical thinking. And, by the power of God’s Word sought in community, let’s name the lies, identify the fool’s gold and also celebrate cinematic expressions and affirmations of God’s truth, beauty and goodness. And let the Holy Spirit convey God’s truth to all of us using the compelling and familiar language of cinema.

With our students already engaged in Hollywood, let’s capitalize on this and discuss why scare-fests like Drag Me to Hell and cheap-laugh comedies like Date Movie have very little redemptive value (i.e. scarce in the gold coin department) despite the fact that they are “safer” and “cleaner” PG-13 movies—not rated R ones. Instead, let’s teach and inspire them to watch movies for more than just cheap laughs and fear frenzies. Let’s walk them into the films they see with “eyes wide open” (see Bill Romanowki’s book by that same name), exploring the big courage of small hobbits, the celebration of life and commitment in Juno, the self-sacrifice of Will Smith’s character in I Am Legend or the  unconditional love found at the end of The Notebook.  Remember, our goal is not necessarily to get them to watch more movies, but just to be more discerning with the ones they do watch.

With these thoughts in mind, here are ten questions that your children or youth ministry students can ask themselves to more effectively mine the films they watch for gold:

1. Did I enjoy it merely because it entertained me (with laughing, crying or screaming) or because it had redeeming value and made me think through some meaningful stuff?

2. What life themes are brought up? How are they dealt with: scripturally or unscripturally?

3. How are good & evil / right & wrong portrayed? What solutions are offered for the problems of evil?

4. What messages do you think the writer and director are trying to convey? How do these messages line up with the truth of God’s Word?

5. What does the movie have to say about the nature of God and mankind? And how do the two relate to one another, if at all?

6. What kind of change does the main character undergo? Is this the kind of change that would please God?  Explain.

7. What elements of truth are present that line up with God’s Word? What elements contradict the nature of God, His creation and His Word?

8. Did I feel that the movie contributed to desensitizing me to violence, vulgarity or immorality?

9. Would I have watched this with my parents or pastor? Did my conscience bother me for watching this? If so, why?

10. Does this film inspire me to be a better person, to learn valuable truths and to live my life with more love, faith, integrity and purpose?

Together with our students, we need to get over the mindless fear we have of films (and other art forms) that are not overtly labeled as “Christian.” Sure, there are some of our students who, for various reasons of conscience, maturity and obedience, probably shouldn’t watch Harry Potter, Little Miss Sunshine or Avatar. And those reasons need to be respected. But let none of these reasons be because we think that this is the Devil’s world and that his lies and ugliness hold sway over God’s truth, beauty and goodness. Such thinking precipitates a cloistered lifestyle of retreat instead of a posture of thoughtful engagement. And how can we hope to redeem a culture that we’re too timid to engage or too worried that may offend us a little along the way?

Let’s model Paul as he walked through Athens (Acts 17:16-34). He found God’s gold coins in the midst of a pagan culture and used them to advance the Kingdom amid a spiritually-hardened people. As we walk with our sons and daughters through Hollywood, let’s tread lightly for conscience’ sake but help them to discern boldly for His name’s sake. And we may just see some of them catch on and begin watching movies for God’s glory instead of watching simply to be entertained.

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Marc Santom
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One Response to “Teenagers, Worldviews & Rated-R Movies”

  1. Good word Marc! It’s time Christians got out of the antiseptic bubble and engage the world. Do the terms “salt and light” mean anything? The church in America is running a parallel universe with the world. I could stand in the middle of Times Square at noon and yell out “Chris Tomlin” or “Casting Crowns” while seeing a few people turn their heads upon recognizing those names. Most would have no idea what I’m saying. The two world hardly intersect.

    Each person needs to know how they can engage the world without compromising their walk with Christ. (For example, a recovering alcoholic probably shouldn’t engage in a bar ministry.)

    Another issue is that the church needs to again become the innovators in culture. Early in our nation’s history the church set the tone for and was the center of community life…including the arts, etc. Now we just react to what the world delivers…from rock and roll to rap, we just put out our versions of it. The church needs to take the lead in culture. Then you’ll see the world respond in more than a tepid manner (positive OR negative) to the church.