How are we to discern which secular media (movies and television shows in particular) is fit for consumption, and not only that, but which we can commend to others? Alan Noble from Christ and Pop Culture basically explains that a book such as Judges portrays the world as it is, and thus portrays truth, and in the context of a larger redemptive truth. The assumption here is that there are similarities between this truth and the redemptive themes that my run through secular media. To this end, I offer the following brief analysis of Judges 3:7-11 as a paradigm for true redemptive narrative, which will in time become and introduction to a sermon I suspect. Please bear with me and consider these thoughts:
Observations and Arguments. First, this book is included in Holy Scripture, so there is something that can be learned or emulated from it. Christian cultural commentators might say that it is the portrayal of truth, and that the communication of truth is always desirable. The book simply recounts people acting as they are. Second, the book of Judges portrays the sin and rebellion of the nation of Israel. Cultural commentators are quick to parallel this with the sin that is portrayed in media, and that viewing or reading about sin does not necessarily cause us to sin. An honest presentation of mankind is incomplete without the depiction of sin. Third, the book demonstrates a subsequent downward cycle of rebellion and wickedness. Judges does not end with a fairytale happy ending. So others take this to show that movies must not necessarily have happy endings. Sometimes evil appears to triumph over good, and these cases may still and often most powerfully teach a lesson or make a point. Finally, Judges is not only permissible to read but imperative, as it is Scripture. and portrays the reality of our world. Movies, likewise, portray aspects of the world and allow us to be involved and experience what we might otherwise be unable to, in order to better understand the world in which we live.
Analysis. While clearly the above are arguments given in support of media, there is not merely a fine distinction but rather a gaping hole in the argument. After meditating on the passage the differences are irreconcileable. Certainly the book of Judges records the history of the nation of Israel in the time between the Exodus and kingship. However, the account is not merely historical but also theological, written and preserved in such a way as to make a point. I concede that media makes a point as well. So one task is to compare the purpose and see if they are aligned, or even similar? What is the purpose of the book of Judges?
The purpose of the book of Judges is to highlight the faithfulness of God in contrast to the faithlessness of His people. Did you catch that? God is the great protagonist, and the judges act out his will upon the earth. It is the Spirit upon them which gives them their strength. Perhaps you don’t like my purpose. Expositor’s Bible Commentary decides that the purpose is to demonstrate that Israel’s spiritual condition determines its political and material situation. What was the purpose of the last movie that you watched? I imagine it does not have the God of the Bible anywhere near its controlling purpose statement.
With that in mind, we might now respond to the four claims above.
1. Yes, something can be learned from secular media as it can from Scripture, but their themes and meanings are in diametric opposition. Judges does not simply present a record, but gives a select record. Media does not simply present neutral and comprehensive facts, but only those relevant to the argument being made. After honest consideration, I believe you will find a vast difference between the purpose and themes of Scripture and secular media. Also, truth is not reason enough. A vivid description of illicit acts, while true, is unworthy of our attention simply because it is true.
2. The sin portrayed in Judges is unlike that of the media. First, sin is never glorified in the Bible, but its horrendous effects are clear. This can also be true for movies. But Scripture also explains why sin is horrendous, namely that it is a sin against a Holy God, rather than cosmological karma. Additionally, there is a difference in the medium. Surely no one will dispute that experiential aspect of videos and interactivity that it depends upon in order to garner interest in viewers. In the Bible certain passages are suggestive or direct about inappropriate sexual behavior, for example, but to watch direct or even suggestive behavior on screen is quite different. There is an obvious reason why the big screen is so important to the film, largely that it is part of the experience. Unfortunately, when many people presume that we can view sin without ourselves personally sinning (as Christ did, since his life was sinless), the greatly underestimate the effects of our fallen nature. Finally, there is a great difference between the elective viewing of movies and seeing it unavoidably in life. For your consideration, please realize that Scripture is not only historically true but beneficial for study, our lives are historically true, unavoidably experienced, and deserving consideration, while films are fictional, external, elective, and rarely edifying. You can choose what you should spend your time thinking about, because it is usually a focus on one to the detriment of another.
3. Yes, there is a clear downward cycle of sin and no ready happy ending. But be careful before jumping immediately to apply this give credibility to “depressing” movies. Consider the cycle more closely. With Othniel as a paradigm, we can witness the downward cycle as follows: Israel’s Sin (3:7), Israel’s Servitude (3:8), Israel’s Supplication (3:9), Israel’s Salvation (3:9-10) and finally Israel’s Security (3:11). If a movie would mimic this, then I would be in full support. However while we may view the sin and resulting servitude in media, prayer to God and salvation by God have largely been replaced with a humanistic salvation. What were the last lessons that you remember? I can think of some: be true to yourself, take a risk, don’t give up, family is important, greed is harmful. If there is no sin against God, then there is no need for redemption by God. If it is only ruptured relationships, then forgiveness and grace from men are all that is necessary. Take God out of the picture and the most redemptive message on screen is still an affront to the holiness of God. Yet an account of increasing wickedness with God in the picture presents a loving picture of God’s faithfulness to His people.
4. Certainly movies help us to understand the world in which we live, often illustrating the depravity of man. Yet this is of little benefit without the goodness of God. Some films do a great job of painting our fallen world, but they do not point to the Savior. But even more foundational is the fact that these lessons are believed by the general public to only be learnable on the big screen. I had never thought of that before, but by their actions, people testify to the truth of that statement every day. Instead of helping out in a convalescent home or soup kitchen, we watch movies that jerk our tears. We become even more separated from the needs of our world, insulated, rather than being propelled into action. There are needy, the poor, the sick, the widow and orphan all around us, and if we were taking care of them we would not need movies. In fact it is the very reason that we aren’t doing this that movies are being made, because it is increasingly rare for Christians to work out their faith.
Finally, unless a movie glorifies God, and not simply denigrates man at its best, then it does not pass the Philippians test regardless of how we process it or rationalize it. Scripture encourages worship of God; secular media does not. I hope that Christians will begin to get tired of the energy that is expended defending secular media and searching to find meaning within it. Instead of making the best out of a bad situation, instead of defending hurtful media, we should consider what we can learn from Scripture and use media to make something truly commendable. This is the generation that calls evil good because it is unwilling to give up its base desires, rather than at least admitting the harmful elements of media. Even if unwilling to give it up, please do not promote it and so snare others but identify and confess it as a struggle and area of accountability of God in which you desire to grow.
Can carnal but skilled and artistic people glorify God in their work? No. Scripture clearly tell us that those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Rom. 8:8) And it likewise warns us that friendship with the world is enmity with God. (James 4:4) The test is not to take Philippian 4:8 and look for something true or honorable or right or pure or lovely or of good repute or excellent and worthy of praise. We need a paradigm shift, a change of thinking, so that a single blemish and failure to line up with Scripture will give us pause, rather than a single positive quality bringing our praise when it comes to media.