What shall we do about movies?

Do we really believe that where we watch what we watch is more important than what we watch?

At the time he wrote this article Richard C. Osborn was the principal of Takoma Academy, Takoma Park, "Maryland. He now serves as the education director of the Columbia Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

  This is a Viewpoint article. That means it does not necessarily reflect the thinking of the editors of Ministry. We're not particularly in favor of watching movies anywhere we find very little of value and much objectionable in them. But we do think that the Seventh-day Adventist Church must discuss the issue of movie going.

Far from wanting to lower the church's standard on this matter, our purpose in fostering this discussion is to encourage the church to raise its standard. But to do so the church must have a position that is consistent, that makes sense. Our current emphasis gives the mistaken impression that where we watch something is more important than what we watch. Our church needs to teach its members to be discriminating viewers whether they are watching television broadcasts, movies shown through VCRs, in school auditoriums, or in movie theaters.

What do you think of Richard Osborn's suggestions? We'll publish as many of those responses that meet the following three conditions as space allows: First, you must offer solid reasons for your view. Second, if you disagree with Osborn, you must offer a constructive alternative. And third, you must limit your response to 250 words!

The Editors

 

The first time I attended a movie in a theater, I went with my conservative missionary parents. After treating my mother, brother, and me to a meal at the famous Palacio de Papas Fritas (Palace of Potato Chips) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, my father told us that he had another special treat for us. Leading us around a comer, he headed for a movie theater.

A lump formed in my throat, and I began sweating as we purchased tickets and entered. I wondered if my father was leaving the church or if he would lose his job as treasurer of the South American Division.

The movie, Lowell Thomas's Seven Wonders of the Worlda documentary using Cinerama, a new movie technologyhad already started when we entered. The darkness increased my feelings of unease as I remembered stories about fires in theaters. Looking for exit signs, I wondered what would happen if fire broke out and burned us up. Would we go to heaven or hell?

I remembered the stories a Sabbath school teacher had told us about the bad influences found in a theater. She re called having one of those bad influences reach under her chair and touch her legs. Nevertheless, as I relaxed, I began to re ally enjoy the movie.

A Sabbath morning sermon by a visiting General Conference vice-president occasioned my next visit to a theater. In Montevideo, Uruguay, the local theater was the largest place available in which to hold a combined meeting of the churches in the region. Apparently holding religious services in the theater temporarily sanctified it, changing the nature of the concepts associated with it.

Much as had the Cinerama documentary film and the visiting preacher of my experience, during World War II newsreel films detoxified the theater for many Adventistsat least temporarily. But the issue was extremely sensitive, and many church members euphemistically used the term film rather than movie to describe the documentaries and newsreels they viewed there. Many others, however, were adamant in attributing evil to the location itself: guardian angels would never enter the door of a theater.

By the 1960s and 1970s, Adventist schools were showing fairly current films, usually for banquets and Saturday night fund-raising programs. During this period Takoma Academy had the reputation of being able to beat most other Adventist institutions at picking up movies released from the theater circuit. Many school projects benefited from the funds raised by showing almost-current block buster movies.

Recently, however, the school has found the audiences for its movies dwindling. Church members will not attend movies at the school because they have already seen them elsewhere. And many prefer viewing movies in a more comfort able settinga setting where popcorn and drinks are allowed, where the sound is good, where the picture is sharp and large, where the projector never breaks down, and where distractions are less likely to occur. Many members have come to like the atmosphere of a movie theater.

But here's where the problem lies: while Adventists are apparently attending the theater in ever-increasing numbers, our church offers them little or no help in deciding how to choose which movies they will watch.

The arrival of cable television in the town in which I live, Takoma Park, Maryland, brought home to me in an even more vivid way the importance of learning to discriminate. For four months we took advantage of a special introductory offer for Home Box Office (HBO), Cinemax, and the Disney channel. During this time I watched some of the movies I had heard the young people talking about and mimicking. Similar emphases characterized many of the teen-oriented moviesthe stupidity of adults; the ignorance of teachers; nudity; the enticement of sex for pleasure only; fascination with and acceptance of drugs, from alcohol to cocaine; the silliness of traditional values; and mocking of "nerds."

As I watched these movies, I realized how completely we as parents, as an educational system, and as a church have been failing our young people. Since the church does not offer any approach other than the rule Thou shall not go to a theater to see a movie, most church members have little sensitivity to the need to discriminate as to what they watch, whether it be at home, at school, at church, or in a theater.

I believe that our church should take a more realistic position regarding movies than we currently doand yet a position that is ultimately more conservative. Many church members believe our current position is illogical and unreasonable. When our church members, and in particular our young people, feel this way about one of our standards, they begin to question the other standards and even the doctrines of the church.

Already young people are leaving the church over such lifestyle issues. If we can admit that we need to change, these young people may see that we are willing to deal with the issues they are facing. And here is where the conservatism comes in. Our members are attending movies in theaters, renting videos, and watching commercial and cable television while giving little thought to what they are seeing. It is time once again to make movies an important issue in the Seventh-day Adventist Churchbut to do so in terms of what we are watching rather than where we are watching it.

The current position makes Adventist teachers and pastors extremely vulnerable. Even though a large percentage of Adventists in the United States ignore the church's blanket condemnation, church employees would be castigated as liberals and possibly threatened with loss of employment should they try to teach guidelines for discriminating even though in reality they would be calling for a very conservative and restorative position. We who deal with our young people ask that movies once again be made a serious issue.

Criteria for choosing

It seems to me that movies are analogous to literature, and that the criteria our church adopted in 1971 as a guide for teaching literature in denominational schools could also serve as the basic criteria for choosing which movies one watches. These criteria are available in a pamphlet published by the General Conference Department of Education, Guide to the Teaching of Literature in Seventh-day Adventist Schools. (The box accompanying this article contains excerpts from this pamphlet.)

I believe that having made these criteria available, the church should leave which movies a person watches up to the individual and should not develop an approved list of movies. Perhaps, however, church publications, church employees, and laypersons could publish reviews of movies, focusing on helping members learn how to discriminate in this area.

How shall we apply these important criteria to the process of selection? Dr. George Knight, professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theo logical Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan, wrote the book Myths in Adventism: An Interpretive Study of Ellen White, Education, and Related Issues1a book that many have highly endorsed, including Robert W. Olson, secretary of the Ellen G. White Estate.

In chapters 12 and 13 of his book, Knight deals with the implications of these criteria for literature. The principles he develops can help us handle some of the complex issues involving movies.

1. Should we watch only those movies that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report?

Knight admits that the criterion he once followed in selecting literature was much simpler to apply than what he now uses. At that time his only standard was a narrow interpretation of Philippians 4:8 ("whatsoever things are true," etc.)which meant that he found few literary works appropriate.

However, Knight now argues that "Scripture never seeks to avoid the seamy side of life. It deals with both the good and the evil, and it puts both in proper perspective. For literature to emphasize only the good and the beautiful is less than biblical. Such a practice would be romantic rather than true to life in the sense that the Bible is true to life." 2

In dealing with this passage, Knight also uses a Francis Shaeffer model. Shaeffer spoke of the Christian worldview as having both a major and a minor theme. "The minor theme deals with the abnormality of a world in revolt, with the fact that man has rebelled, become separated from God, and has come to see his own meaninglessness. It portrays the defeated and sinful side of human nature. The major theme is the opposite of the minor. It uplifts the fact that God exists, that all is not lost, and that life is not absurd. Man has significance because he is made in God's image.

"If literature exclusively emphasizes the major theme, it is both unbiblical and unreal. By its shallowness and lack of insight into real-life problems we would have to reject it as genuine literature in the biblical sense. On the other hand, it is equally unbiblical for literature to emphasize exclusively man's lostness, degradation, and abnormality. The Bible deals with both the major and the minor themes." 3

What implications, then, does this perspective have for the responsibilities of teachers and preachers? Pointing out that one does not study literature just for the diversion it provides, Knight argues that the teacher should "help the young learn to read critically and interpretively, so that they can perceive the meaning of what they study in terms of the great struggle between the forces of good and evil." 4

"In short, the essential thing in literary study is not the passing on of a body of knowledge, but the development of a skill the ability to think critically and to interpret literary insights within the biblical worldview. . . . Part of the function of literary study should be to help us develop this skill. The alternative is mindless absorption." 5

2. How does one choose which movies to watch?

Free choice is always difficult, yet God made us free moral beings with the power to choose. There is a wide body of knowledge about the themes of literary works upon which one can base his or her decisions as to what to read, and someone who is reading can easily lay aside books that do not meet the criteria. When it comes to movies currently playing in theaters or popular at video stores, greater difficulties exist.

"Word of mouth" from people who have already seen the movie and find it appropriate would be one source of information. One can also read movie reviews to discover the content of various movies. While most reviewers in secular journals and newspapers are not Christians, many Christian magazinessuch as Christianity Today and The Christian Centuryregularly review movies from a Christian context.

Ultimately, the individual will have to use informed free choice, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to determine which movies to see. We allow this freedom for books, television, and radio. Why not for movies also?

3. Won't people make mistakes in their choices?

The possibility of making mistakes always accompanies free choice. But we can learn from our mistakes and avoid a similar movie the next time.

Even on those occasions when we have made a mistake, we can learn something about the Christian life. Knight deals with this issue in terms of modem art: "Seen within the framework of Christian interpretation, all art forms take on a new meaning. If some modern art forms appear meaningless, it is because they reflect the meaninglessness deep in the soul of their creators. In their own way, the very prevalence of the despairing arts points the Christian to the nature of his modern task."

4. Won't this suggestion open the door to Adventists watching anything that comes on TV and movie screens?

Many church members are already in discriminately watching movies in theaters, and even more Adventists are watching whatever comes along on TV. Beginning to think seriously about what we watch will actually limit what we see. Worrying about the criteria to use in selection would result in a greater good than worrying about where we do our viewing.

5. Why not leave this issue to parents? Why should teachers and pastors be concerned about teaching these criteria?

As more parents have abdicated their responsibility for teaching values to their children, the church and particularly the school have become primary vehicles for values education. Knight quotes Gene Garrick of the Tabernacle Church of Norfolk as saying, "Though the school must shelter to some extent, we must be careful not to keep the student from learning to think critically. The Christian school is the ideal place to tackle some problem areas and help the students to think through the non- Christian precepts and implications as judged by the Bible." 7

6. Don't movies differ from the written word in their impact on people? Books may have a longer lasting impact, but the immediacy of movies is greater. When choosing movies to watch, we must take care to avoid those that are chiefly characterized by intensity or excitement. The church should en courage members with a background in media and communications to develop additional criteria to deal with other differences from the printed word, such as visual symbols.

We should not regard these differences as justifying the blanket condemnation of watching movies. As a medium of communication, movies offer many positives. If we were to condemn movies in general, then we would also have to condemn Faith for Today with its movies and the religious movies so central to many an evangelist's efforts.

7. Won't the church's adopting a new position regarding movies hurt "weaker" brothers and sisters? Some might argue that Paul's counsel in regard to eating meat offered to idols (1 Cor. 8:4-13) would apply here. Paul argued that even though there was nothing wrong with eating such meat, the believer should be careful "lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak."

But if we used this argument indiscriminately, no change would ever take place on anything. The church would still be segregated. Women would still be restricted to inferior positions. Slaves would never have been freed. Bicycles and tennis courts would still be seen as evil.

Change is always painful. But in order to serve the greater good, sometimes the church must change. Making such changes becomes particularly imperative when doing so is the only way of maintaining the church's credibility with a majority of its membersespecially when those members are the future of the church, its young people.

Since there appears to be no theological impediment to changing our position on this particular issue, I believe we ought to cross the crossroads at which we are currently standing. Our Adventist forefathers advocated changes to restore the church to its original purpose. I am urging a similar restorationthat by developing a more realistic position we return to our original, high principles of taking movies seriously.

1 Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1985.

2 Knight, p. 157.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., p. 159.

5 Ibid., p. 161.

6 Ibid., p. 169.

7 Ibid., p. 173.


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At the time he wrote this article Richard C. Osborn was the principal of Takoma Academy, Takoma Park, "Maryland. He now serves as the education director of the Columbia Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

August 1989

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