Why I Do Have a Television and Often Go to Movies

So I’m going to start my rant on this article by John Piper.

“Almost as soon as it was out of my mouth, I felt: “What a jerk, Piper!” A jerk is a person who nitpicks about the way a question is worded rather than taking the opportunity to address the issue in a serious way. I blew it at multiple levels. “

A person who nitpicks about words is a smart person. Words mean things. The way things are phrased are just as important as the issues behind them. Poorly worded questions can have you searching for the wrong answers. The second you think the words aren’t an important part of the question is the second you damn yourself to never find the right answer. It’s not being a jerk, it’s making sure you’re at the right starting point.

“I think relevance in preaching hangs very little on watching movies, and I think that much exposure to sensuality, banality, and God-absent entertainment does more to deaden our capacities for joy in Jesus than it does to make us spiritually powerful in the lives of the living dead. Sources of spiritual power—which are what we desperately need—are not in the cinema. You will not want your biographer to write: Prick him and he bleeds movies. ”

I’ll agree that relevant preaching doesn’t mean knowing movies inside and out, but John Piper is painting with far too wide a brush when he says the cinema spiritually deprives us. Perhaps it cannot be helped. I have a feeling that like most people, John Piper has seen far too many movies in the multiplex to understand the true power of films. There are plenty of spiritually powerful, redemptive films but they aren’t going to play at your local multiplex.

Films like The Island, The New World, The Double Life of Veronique and To Live and many more are films I can say with 100% certainty are films John Piper has never seen. These films are deeply spiritual in nature and are worth contemplating.

That being said, he isn’t wrong about how repulsive films can be. I’ve seen more than my share of repulsive and disgusting films but to reject the entire idea of movies based on only it’s worse traits is narrow-minded. I could reject the idea of the church based on the rotten people I’ve met in them throughout the years.

John Piper assumes the evil is to be found in the movies. But often the movies are mirrors, reflecting the reality of the world around is. The depictions of sinful behavior of sin exist on film only because they can be found in the depths of the human heart. Granted, some films depict sinful behavior only to be sordid, but there are many powerful films that must show us the sinful behavior. Powerful, redemptive films like Schindler’s List would loose their power without the horrific and revolting depictions of sin.

“If you want to be relevant, say, for prostitutes, don’t watch a movie with a lot of tumbles in a brothel. Immerse yourself in the gospel, which is tailor-made for prostitutes; then watch Jesus deal with them in the Bible; then go find a prostitute and talk to her. Listen to her, not the movie. Being entertained by sin does not increase compassion for sinners.”

I believe that movies have the great potential to make us empathize with those unlike ourselves, place us in the shoes of those that oftentimes we’d rather not be in. That being said I think there is a danger of being caught up in the glamor of sin. It’s a dangerous slope, but John Piper would have us sit at the bottom of the mountain instead of risking the dangerous peaks of cinema. There is a real danger of being entertained by the sinfulness, and it’s a case by case battle. Some will be haunted by the simplest depiction of the smallest sin while others will simply understand that the sin exists in the film and should be taken in that context.  Good films tend to make sin a conflict for the character. Sometimes the sex scene exists not to be sexy, but to create a conflict in a character.

 

“I have a high tolerance for violence, high tolerance for bad language, and zero tolerance for nudity. There is a reason for these differences. The violence is make-believe. They don’t really mean those bad words. But that lady is really naked, and I am really watching. And somewhere she has a brokenhearted father.

I’ll put it bluntly. The only nude female body a guy should ever lay his eyes on is his wife’s. The few exceptions include doctors, morticians, and fathers changing diapers. “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” (Job 31:1). What the eyes see really matters. “Everyone who looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Better to gouge your eye than go to hell (verse 29).”

This is the kicker in America. We have an unhealthy taboo against nudity that often results in fetisization of the nude form. In many other places in the world, seeing a nude body is natural and not inherently sexual. I thing this is more of a reflection of our Western culture. After all, a lustful gaze can be just as likely upon a dressed figure than an undressed one.

“Brothers, that is serious. Really serious. Jesus is violent about this. What we do with our eyes can damn us. One reason is that it is virtually impossible to transition from being entertained by nudity to an act of ‘beholding the glory of the Lord.’ But this means the entire Christian life is threatened by the deadening effects of sexual titillation.”

I have a big theological disagreement here. An eye cannot cause you to sin. Sin is in the heart, not in the eyes.

“One more smaller concern with TV (besides its addictive tendencies, trivialization of life, and deadening effects): It takes time. I have so many things I want to accomplish in this one short life. Don’t waste your life is not a catchphrase for me; it’s a cliff I walk beside every day with trembling. ”

I’ll agree that there is plenty of TV that is a waste. I’ll also say that there are plenty of sermons that are a waste, plenty of Christian books that are a waste, plenty of Sunday mornings I wasted going to Church hearing lies more seductive and clever than anything I heard on TV. When I see it on TV I know it’s a lie, but when I hear the same thing in the church it has a real chance of slipping past my defenses.

C.S. Lewis in “The Screwtape Letters” shows how the devil can lead us away by using Christianity. As long as he adds that one thing he can drive us into sin. Christianity and self-help or Christianity and self-righteousness are two ideas I find more seductive and destructive than the effects of the media. Why? Because half-truths are far more likely to take me in than the outright lies I see on TV.

But not all is lies. Even in the media saturated with sin and sexuality there can’t help but be reflections of the truth. Sometimes it takes a lost sinner to remind Christians how much we need a savior. Sometimes it takes honest and revolting depictions of sin to remind us that that way only leads to emptiness. Sometimes one must wallow in the slums of sins before understanding the true power of redemption.

It’s a risky and dangerous business, but cutting yourself off from it all isn’t the answer, it’s simply avoiding the real problem of real people living in a real fallen world. The second we try to cut ourselves off from the world is the second we forget the power of Christ.

© 2016 James Blake Ewing

  • stevekimes

    I could write a lot in response to this, mostly positive. But it would make the conversation you are having with Piper expand exponentially.

    Let’s just talk about a Christian response to nudity, for a moment. You are right, Americans are pretty hung up about nudity and that makes them fetishize it. Piper is also right. Nudity tempts him to inappropriate lust, and that is the case with many American Christian men. Level of nudity is simply a cultural more. Some cultures women are topless and exposing male genitals is no big deal. In other cultures these are strict taboos. That doesn’t make one culture better than the other and we can’t judge them for one point or another.

    In a sense, American movies do their best to fetishize nudity, especially women’s breasts. They sexualize them to such a degree that Piper’s response is appropriate.

    The real issue, I think, is the limited idea of what cinema is, in the American mindset, especially the Christian mindset. I bemoan the fact, like you, that Piper and others do not know the many spiritual classics that can be found in cinema, especially worldwide cinema. The Graham association wanted to make Christian films, ignoring that they will never make spiritual classics anywhere near as great as The Passion of Joan of Arc or Ordet. They will never be inspired by the Dardenne Brothers (sigh). Because these films and many, many others are outside of their scope of what “movies” are. Evangelical movies are trying to make Christianized versions of Hollywood (even then, they won’t be able to touch Hail Caesar!), but that’s a mistake. Hollywood isn’t spiritual but economic. Spiritual film should be inspired by spiritual film, not capitalistic ventures. And there is so much to choose from.

    So Piper has the choice between less-than-mediocre “Christian” films or mediocre Hollywood (or Burbank) entertainment. Yeah, I wouldn’t bother, either.

    • http://creativecriticism.net/ James Blake Ewing

      Thanks for your thoughts. We’re on the same page with most of this. If only people were more aware of what is out there. Guess we’ll just have to write more about them!