Monday, January 25, 2010

Christians and the Movies

Like most Christians, I enjoy movies. Unlike most Christians, I have essentially no moral standards with respect to the movies I will watch, enjoy and recommend to friends. This is a statement of fact, not a call to imitation. If pressed, I will argue that to deny viewing the best works in the most accessible and popular art medium in American society because of some arbitrary regulations about how much pleasuring and dismemberment of flesh it is permissible to view. But really, I just watch whatever I feel like watching.

It is interesting to me that, in general, Christians are much more accepting of mainstream movies than they are of mainstream* music. I know Christians whose mp3 collections consist entirely of praise and worship music, but who boast considerable libraries of Hollywood films. Again, a statement of fact, not a moral judgment. Similarly, ministers and Christian authors seem almost obligated to include laudatory film allusions and illustrations in their sermons and books, but only to reference mainstream music in order to disparage it. But that's not really what interests me here. What I'm interested in are the handful of films that come up over and over again in books, sermon illustrations and Christians' lists of favorite movies, what they have in common and why they are so popular. I write, of course, from person experience, not scientific data collection.

Christians' favorite films seem to include: Braveheart, Gladiator, The Patriot, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, The Princess Bride, Star Wars, the new Chronicles of Narnia films, and many superhero films, especially Spiderman. A few common elements link these films: a fantastical or romanticized historical setting, a clearly defined conflict between good and evil, and a strong male protagonist who solves this conflict through violence. This last element is less pronounced in a couple of these films, and I will discuss these exceptions later.

I think that these elements point to a certain line of reasoning, probably unconscious, in the way that Christians view film in general, the starting point of which is the idea that a narrative is as moral as its most moral character. (A common corollary of this idea is that the most immoral narratives are those with the most immoral characters.) The most moral characters, the Christian filmgoer thinks, are those that champion the most important causes in the face of greatest opposition. The most important moral causes are one's own freedom and the freedom of others. The greatest opposition one can face is violent opposition. Usually, the best way to overcome violent opposition is through violence. Therefore, the most moral films are those that depict a protagonist who champions freedom in the face of evil, violent opposition, usually by being violent himself. The fantastical or historical settings allow these conflicts to be starkly drawn, and the protagonists tend to be male, because, well, females don't usually fight battles. In my experience, ministers and authors use these films for one of the following: to provide an illustration of courage, to depict the price of freedom, to show the scope of the conflict between God and Satan.

Of course, I take issue with multiple premises in this reasoning. The first is the idea that a movie or any kind of narrative is as moral as its most moral character. To begin with, I have no idea how to measure, even approximately, how moral a narrative is. I do know that a film may contain a very moral character and depict morality as the product of great foolishness or the producer of great unhappiness, and that I would not call such a film moral. Moreover, I know of films that contain only immoral characters, but that seem to me to teach profound moral lessons, and I would call such films moral. Most good films, I think, depict characters who are neither thoroughly good nor bad, and in these characters we see ourselves. So this reasoning is flawed from the start.

Still, one of the many functions narratives can serve is to provide examples of moral heroes, and I mentioned above, this is often what ministers and authors are after. Why, then, do they choose these heroes? In this regard, I think that Christian author John Eldredge has been very influential. Eldredge has garnered considerable fame claiming that the church's recent ideal of the docile, deferential, girly man is at odds with the true, God-given desire of a man's heart, to be a fearsome warrior with a full beard and an enormous penis. His two favorite examples of manhood come from film: Maximus from Gladiator, and William Wallace, who according to Eldredge, is a lot like Jesus. Like many blowhards, Eldredge makes some decent points in diagnosing the problem, and offers a solution that is even worse. But he's popular and I think that people are following his lead in setting up violent figures as Christian ideals.

I object to this idealization for several reasons. Jesus, whom Christians believe to be morally perfect, does not share the fundamental trait of these characters, their violence. This is not to say that it may never be a Christian's moral duty to carry out violence, only that it is at best inessential. Even then, we live in a time when even soldiers rarely see combat and violence is a duty for the very few. Moreover, characters like Maximus, The Matrix's Neo and comic book heroes are superhuman in their physical abilities and superhumanly stoic in responding to their situations and actions. We cannot empathize with them and so they make poor ideals.

It is worth drawing attention to two of the film franchises mentioned above, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, which are adaptations of stories written by Christians. Both contain clashes between great armies and many other instances of violence, but neither has a protagonist defined by violence. The real victory in Narnia are won by the willing sacrifice of the Lion Aslan, and by humans when they obey him. For this reason, the battles in the recent adaptations of these stories are anticlimactic, and barely consume any space in Lewis' works. Peter and the Narnians go to war in obedience, but the outcome is known in advance. In Lord of the Rings, the protagonist Frodo is stout-hearted but useless in battle - it is only because the ring's corruption sets in slowly, and ultimately due to another character's fortunate malice that Middle Earth is saved. These characters, I think, present better moral examples than William Wallace or Spiderman.

But again, I see no inherent reason to avoid films full of morally bankrupt characters, even if these films make points that we disagree with, or make no point at all. It is my opinion that human experience is enriched by encountering and weighing foreign ideas, even if these ideas do not become our own, and so long as we do not unquestioningly accept what we are told, these encounters do not endanger us.

*Here and everywhere, I use the term "mainstream" broadly. If a movie is advertised on network TV or shows at a multiplex, it's mainstream. If an album has a metacritic rating, it's mainstream.

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