Seeing Worldviews behind the Art – Should Fiction Be Safe? Conclusion

So today I learn that in a recent sermon Pastor Mark Driscoll of Seattle’s Mars Hills Church called Avatar “satanic”. Well, actually, he called it “the most demonic, satanic film I’ve seen.”

I don’t know what Pastor Driscoll’s point was in his sermon, and I’m not bringing this up to discuss whether or not he was wise to voice his opinion in such a strident way. Rather, I want to return to the discussion about safe fiction.

First, one more news item related to the “safe fiction” topic. It seems Barnes & Noble has added reviews from Common Sense Media Web site, and this has upset some writers: “The way the book reviews seemed to suddenly appear on and the fact that they seemed to emphasize negative subjects like sex, violence, drinking, and drugs over subject matter, raised a red flag for some readers” (excerpt from “Common Sense Raises Issues at B&N” by Judith Rosen — Publishers Weekly, 2/23/2010).

I think these two articles illustrate in real-life settings the problem with seeking after “safe fiction.” For one thing stories are layered. On the surface are the behaviors we can readily see such as sex and violence and bad language—things the Common Sense reviews would flag.

Below that, however, lie attitudes characters might espouse. As one commenter noted over at Novel Journey in a discussion about Avatar, a movie like Twilight shows all kinds of unhealthy attitudes toward love. Yet it’s gotten a pass from many Christian parents because the characters don’t have sex.

But there’s another layer—that of the worldview espoused through the story. As Brian Godawa says in his book Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom & Discernment (IVP Books), we need to look behind the art to the worldview.

Given all the ways in which a movie or book can go astray, can we ever really confidently say a story is “safe”? Here’s a part of Godawa’s conclusion:

The fact is, there is nothing perfect in this life. We live in a fallen world. Everything and everyone is tainted by sin, even those with whom we agree. Even Christian media are not exempt from imperfection. No Christian sermon, book or movie is completely unstained by our fallen-ness.

In other words, there really is no such thing as “safe fiction.” And by declaring a work of art “safe,” we are basically telling the audience they can turn off their discernment radar. No need to think about this book or movie or TV show because Someone Important has pre-approved it as safe.

From where I sit, picking up any book or viewing any movie with my brain in neutral because what I’m about to consume is “safe” puts me at the greatest risk of undo influence.

An author maybe withheld all the cuss words in a story, and there’s no sex or violence, but is there greed? Snobbery? Bullying? If so, then those books aren’t safe. Teens who long to fit in can get all the wrong messages about what it takes to be a part of the In Crowd from such a “safe” piece of fiction.

We Christians need to be thinking about the stories we consume. We need to compare the values and worldviews with those of the Bible. And we need to teach the next generation to go and do likewise.

Seeing Worldviews behind the Art – Should Fiction Be Safe?

After his introduction in Hollywood Worldviews (IVP), Brian Godawa moves at once to “Sex, Violence & Profanity” in chapter one, explaining that this topic is the first raised whenever he speaks on this subject.

In addressing these issues, his views dovetail with mine. First he acknowledges that many movies seem preoccupied with integrating evil into the stories. He also verifies that many studies show a connection between the vile acts of violence, sexual perversion, and profanity and an increase in degenerative social behavior.

However, Godawa also points out that those studies do not differentiate between movies that put such behavior in contrasting contexts. For example, Schindler’s List, a movie about the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust, is filled with man’s inhumanity to man. And so is Friday the 13th. The point and purpose of depicting violence in the two, however, couldn’t be more different.

But the question remains. Should Christians be a party to either kind of film? Godawa makes it clear that a decision about this issue should not be one we arrive at based on our own wisdom:

The ultimate sourcebook for most media watchdogs is the Bible. And it ought to be—without its definition of a universal objective morality, we have no absolute reference point for right or wrong … The Bible alone provides a justifiable objective standard for making moral judgments that transcend the whims of personal opinion.

He then explodes the myth that some people might entertain that the Bible does not contain any sex, violence, or profanity. While I think the “profanity” section is a little weak, he adds a section of blasphemy that I think is helpful.

But the strength of his argument, in my view, isn’t that the Bible contains activities such as incest, rape, murder, adultery, and so on. I suspect most Christians know this is true, at least on a limited basis, if not as extensively as Godawa demonstrates.

Instead, the key for me is his handling of a verse often used to support “sanitized stories,” Philippians 4:8 – “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”

From Hollywood Worldviews:

Readers of Bible passages like this one often misunderstand the language to be expressing a “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” approach to spirituality. But ignoring the dark side is not at all what the verses are indicating.

It is not only true, honorable and right to proclaim that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, but it is also true, honorable and right to proclaim that Satan is the father of lies (Jn 8:44) and that false prophets are his minions (2 Cor 11:14-15). It is not only pure, lovely and of good repute that Noah was depicted in the Bible as a righteous man, but it is also pure, lovely and of good repute that all the rest of the earth around him were depicted as entirely wicked (Gen 6:5). It is not only excellent and worthy of praise that Lot was revealed as a righteous man, but it is also excellent and worthy of praise that the inhabitants of Sodom were revealed as unprincipled men “who indulge[d] the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise[d] authority (2 Pet 2:10).

Godawa next addresses the scriptural admonition (Ephesians 5) to expose the deeds of darkness and to bring them to the light.

I think this exhortation applies not only for wicked deeds but also for false belief systems—the very reason why I feel so strongly that Christians need to look behind our culture’s art to the worldviews each piece espouses.

But I see I haven’t answered the question, Should fiction be safe? I’ll try to wrap up my summation of this chapter of Hollywood Worldviews and give an answer tomorrow.

Published in: on February 25, 2010 at 11:07 am  Comments (4)  
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Seeing Worldviews behind the Art – Should We Be Separate?

I want to continue thinking about the importance of examining the worldviews of the stories abounding in our culture. These thoughts arise from questions and comments to my first post about Hollywood Worldviews, a book by screenwriter Brian Godawa (IVP).

One question had to do with the validity of working to understand the way others think or speak in light of God’s command for us to be separate, and I’ll add, to be pure and holy.

Like so much in the Christian life, I believe this command exists in tension with another, namely that we are to make disciples. In Jesus’s prayer in John 17, He said

“I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.

I think there are a couple points we can learn from this passage. First, Jesus asked God to keep His disciples from the evil one. He didn’t give that job to them, as if they themselves could keep from the evil one.

And yet, we are to resist the devil and he will flee from us. The reality is, we are in a spiritual battle against spiritual forces, not fleshly enemies. That fact makes it all the more incumbent upon us to pray that God will keep us from the evil one and to rely on His power, not our own machinations. (“With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view [that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness], be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints” Eph. 6:18).

Nevertheless, Paul’s lead into the spiritual-armor passage in Ephesians is this:

Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil (emphasis mine).

In 2 Corinthians, Paul says we are not ignorant of Satan’s schemes. And Peter says in his first letter that we are to

be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

But back to Jesus’s prayer. The second point which I think relates to the topic of looking at worldviews behind the art of our culture is this: Jesus sent His disciples into the very world He said they were not of. There’s that tension again.

Elsewhere He said we were to be salt and light. He didn’t spell out how we were to be salty or shine brightly, but from the context and His other instruction, I believe, in a nutshell, we are to be obedient, loving, pure, and unashamed of the gospel—all out in the open for others to see.

So we are to be in the world, shining brightly, but we are also to be on the alert to Satan’s schemes. Why? Because the enemy wants to tarnish our brightness, as individuals and as a Church.

Finally, I’ll mention Paul’s knowledge of Greek culture when he preached to the Athenians (Acts 17). He went out of his way to know what their religious beliefs were:

while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD’ (emphasis mine).

I believe this was Paul being alert to the schemes of the devil as he went about making disciples. In the same way, I think we today should examine the objects of worship disclosed in the stories our culture tells, all so that we can be alert to Satan’s tactics, even as we seek to make disciples.

Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 12:37 pm  Comments (2)  
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Seeing Worldviews behind the Art – Is There a Cost?

A couple excellent questions came up as a result of yesterday’s article discussing Brian Godawa‘s book Hollywood Worldviews. The first concerns whether or not there is a cost for the Christian in looking at worldviews behind the art.

Let me say up front, I don’t think a believer should violate his own standard of morality. And hopefully each understands the need to have such a standard in place.

There are black and whites in Scripture, but there are a lot of grays, too. We often think of the Ten Commandments as black and white, but what do we do about the command not to bear false witness, when Rahab lied to save the spies and Abraham lied to protect himself and Jacob lied to get Isaac’s blessing? In each instance were these people sinning? Is it ever “right to do wrong”? Or how about Jesus holding up David as an example for breaking Jewish law, to illustrate that His disciples were allowed on the Sabbath to pluck grain when they were hungry?

These questions, I think, are important for each believer to address in his own life. I’m not convinced there is a one-size-fits-all answer.

Then there are issues that are not directly addressed in Scripture, overtly or implicitly … such as what our standards should be for entertainment.

Does this silence mean we should have no standards or that we should shoe-horn clear principles into these areas in question and come up with a law for today’s Christian? No and No.

Paul addresses a matter that troubled the church in Corinth that seems similar to the issues we often refer to as gray areas. In so doing, he identifies some believers as weaker brothers and some as stronger.

I think the tendency today is to assume that I am in the stronger camp, and whoever sees things differently is in the weaker camp! 🙄 The truth is, in some areas, I know I am in the weaker camp and probably always will be.

Hence, there are some things I know personally I can not participate in without putting myself in the path of temptation. That’s my personal moral standard. I don’t expect others to abide by it because I don’t know if they have the same weaknesses I do.

All that to say, if I have my moral standard in place, I should not violate it for the sake of seeing what the rest of the world is thinking. However, there are plenty of stories I read or view because they don’t violate my personal morality. It is with these stories that I need to look beyond the art and entertainment value.

However, I think a lot of us Christians stop at this standard-of-morality level. We don’t look beyond. Perhaps we never have been taught to compare the ideas in a piece of fiction with what the Bible has to say about life and Godliness. Perhaps we don’t know what the Bible says about the nature of God or life or whatever the movie addresses.

Whatever the reason, I believe we Christians open ourselves to the influence of potentially false worldviews if we don’t examine the ones espoused in the fiction we engage.

No, we may not deny Christ or start to worship a tree because we saw Avatar. But without realizing it, we may take a step away from the uniqueness of Humanity—the image of God, breathed into us when He created Adam—because we don’t examine what it means to say, We are one with our Mother the Earth, as Avatar espouses.

In answer, then, to the question, Is there a cost in looking behind the art to see the worldview, I’d say there is a cost in NOT looking behind the art. I’d also add there may be a cost if we alter our standard of morality and justify doing so with the idea that we’re just trying to get to know what our culture thinks.

That’s like saying I’ll buy a big bag of candy so I can be aware of what people not on a diet are eating, put it in a candy jar, and stare at it without taking any because I’m limiting my sugar intake. Why would I put myself through such an ordeal?

On the other hand, if I already buy bread for sandwiches, why wouldn’t I take a close look at the labels and compare grams of sugar in one loaf with that in another?

My call for discernment isn’t one that requires a change in selecting entertainment. It’s a call to think about the stories we are already choosing to read or view, and to do so with our Bibles in hand.

Seeing Worldviews behind the Art

I’m reading a wonderful book by screenwriter Brian Godawa entitled Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom & Discernment (IVP Books). The thing I appreciate most, at least in the first half of the book, is the balanced position Godawa takes.

He identifies those he calls cultural anorexics—individuals who “withdraw from culture because of its imperfection.” He postulates that these folks no longer understand the way others think or speak; in essence they have raised a barrier that makes it impossible for them to “interact redemptively” with the guy living across the street or the mom sitting beside them at the youth soccer game.

In his posts or comments, Mike Duran over at Decompose raises the issue of the “Christian ghetto” from time to time in regard to the world of fiction, and I think he may be speaking of “cultural anorexics” who want to withdraw into the safety of sanitized stories.

But there’s another extreme that Godawa identifies—the cultural glutton. These are the people who say things like this:

“I just want to be entertained.”
“You shouldn’t take it so seriously.”
“It’s only a movie.”
“The sex and violence don’t bother me.”

Hollywood Worldviews, p. 20

Individuals with this view, Godawa says, agree with Samuel Goldwin’s famous saying: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” (I realize that soon this statement will need some explanation to those coming after the demise of the telegraph. 🙄 ) Goldwin’s point is that movies are about story, nothing else, especially not an idea!

Well, even expressing that view in the way I did in that last sentence exposes the fallacy. Interestingly, when I wrote about the movie Avatar back in January, some of the articles I quoted (written by Christians professionally reviewing the movie) and some of the comments to my various posts espoused this same opinion.

Godawa takes a radically different—and balanced—view of movies. They are stories, but not devoid of meaning. That is, they actually are about something—chiefly, redemption.

One of the simplest ways of understanding worldview is as a belief system or web of beliefs, that contains a creation-fall-redemption motif … Every worldview has some understanding of the original state of reality (creation), what went wrong with that original state (fall) and how to recover or return to that original state (redemption).

Hollywood Worldviews, p. 22

In addition, Godawa believes that thinking about a movie’s worldview doesn’t have to consume a viewer so that he can no longer enjoy the cinematography, acting, plot line, humor, or special effects. The fact that movies communicate worldviews and values

need not spoil the joy in entertainment or justify total withdrawal from culture. Rather, it can deepen one’s appreciation and sharpen one’s discernment, helping the reader strike a balance between two extremes: cultural anorexia and cultural gluttony.

Hollywood Worldviews, p. 27

I’m in favor of balance striking! 😀

Published in: on February 22, 2010 at 1:42 pm  Comments (7)  
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