Movies: where or what?

Guiding principles emerge from confusing standards.

Fred E. Crowell is pastor of the Adventist church in Columbia, Missouri.

It is our first Sabbath visiting in a church we will call home for the next few years. We slide into the pew, hoping to go unnoticed so we can see what's going on in our new congregation. Opening the bulletin, we find an insert advertisement for a movie tonight in the youth chapel. That's good, because we don't have any plans for the evening. But wait a minute! This must be a misprint! It says here they are going to show Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Wasn't that at the theaters recently? Surely the church shouldn't be showing this type of movie!

My thoughts race. We have two teen age daughters whom we wouldn't allow inside a theater to see this movie. Now here it is in our youth chapel. Maybe this church shouldn't be our new home!

Finding other activities that night, we chose not to watch the movie. Two months later, after settling into this conservative Midwestern university town, we rented Honey, I Shrunk the Kids for home viewing. We were pleasantly surprised. It did not have bad language, gross violence, or immorality. We felt a bit guilty about misjudging the film be fore having seen it or reviewing a critic' s comments.

I felt compelled to reevaluate my position on movies. As a pastor, what should I tell my members? Some still strictly follow our Church Manual's, guidelines. Others have revised their standards to a more liberal position.

I began my investigation by examining several editions of the Church Manual to see what each said about movie attendance. I started with the 1959 edition and concluded with the 1986 edition. Surprisingly, the wording is virtually the same in each version. A short paragraph deals with movies.

"We earnestly warn against the subtle and sinister influence of the moving picture theater, which is no place for the Christian. Dramatized films that graphically present by portrayal and by suggestion the sins and crimes of humanity--murder, adultery, robbery, and kindred evils--are in no small degree responsible for the present breakdown of morality. We appeal to parents, children, and youth to shun those places of amusement and those theatrical films that glorify professional acting and actors. If we will find delight in God's great world of nature and in the romance of human agencies and divine workings, we shall not be attracted by the puerile portrayals of the theater." 1

I realize that many Adventists would never see a movie at the theater; others select carefully and feel comfortable in the theater watching a "good movie." A growing number of church members are willing to see anything that comes across the silver screen.

The issue goes beyond the public theater. The videocassette recorder, as popular in Adventist homes as elsewhere, has turned the family room into a theater. Adventists who wouldn't go to Cinema 5 need wait only three months or so to watch currently popular films on their VCRs. Of course, regular and cable television offer their own profusion of movie entertainment.

How can we as pastors deal with this confusing situation? Stuart Tyner in the September 1989 issue of Insight!Out explores the three options available: (1) watch anything and everything; (2) totally eliminate all movies; and (3) be a discriminating viewer.2 Let's ponder these in turn.

Anything goes?

Number 1—watching anything and everything would fill the mind with profanity, immorality, and violence. This transgresses the counsel given in Philippians 4:8: "Finally, brethren, what ever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, what ever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good re port, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things." 3

Obviously we must rule out the majority of offerings from the motion picture industry. Michael Shaugnessy, writing on pornography, human mutilation, and psychological dysfunction, reports that the popular "slasher" films rely heavily on desensitization so that people exposed to X-, NC17-, and R-rated movies tend to moderate their attitudes to ward women and violence." 4 What justification could there be to watch such movies as Rambo, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Henry and June?

Perhaps the following advice from Ellen White about reading material could apply also to movies: "Avoid reading and seeing things which will suggest impure thoughts. Cultivate the moral and intellectual powers. Let not these noble powers become enfeebled and perverted by much reading of even storybooks." 5

Now, what about the less-offensive PG or PG-13 movies, which are targeted especially toward teens? While the sex in these "innocent" films may not be as explicit, the language as strong, or the violence as flagrant, inherent problems remain. Lynn Minton, who features a column in McCall's magazine entitled Movie Guide for Puzzled Parents, had this to say when interviewed about teen movies: "With some films, it's not so terrible that a young person sees them. What's terrible is when certain values go unchallenged."

Referring to the current wave of movies portraying sexually active, happy go-lucky adolescents, Minton continued: "I do find some of these movies upsetting because of the image they project. Everyone's jumping in and out of bed casually, and hardly anyone's left out or emotionally upset by the encoun ter. Well, this is not real life. In real life, people sometimes get hurt. What's more, a young person who isn't interested in casual sex could well get from these movies the idea that something was wrong with her or him." 6

We have here a principle for judging movies that goes much deeper than simply how much sex, violence, or bad language is used.

Total abstinence?

For me personally, the second option—eliminating movie-watching to tally—would be ideal. There are just not many good films available, and a zero-tolerance approach would remove the burden of determining which are OK and which are not. Time spent watching movies could be more profitably in vested with the Bible or enjoying a Christian book, or in family activities. This approach, however, would also ban Christian films shown at vespers and Saturday night socials.

As for going to a theater to see a good movie, Francis Nichol ably expressed the traditional call for total abstinence: "Every institution has its own atmosphere. The church has the atmosphere of prayer. We find ourselves in a certain mood when within the influence of that atmosphere. A business office has an other certain atmosphere. Likewise a moving-picture house has its own clearly defined atmosphere. The atmosphere of the theater hangs heavy with evil. The atmosphere produces its effect on ones who frequent such a place.

"For this reason, if no other, I think an Adventist presents a weak and worth less argument when he declares that he wishes to go to a moving-picture house only occasionally to see a good movie. Doubtless I might secure at a saloon a glass of pure water to quench my thirst, but I would rather find a good drink elsewhere. I don't like the atmosphere of a saloon. If I went in there, I might even be tempted to drink something else be sides water. Adam and Eve found out long ago that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a bad tree to visit." 7

The old arguments were clear: (1) movie theaters are bad places—the atmosphere is still evil—your angels won't go there; (2) movies, like books of fiction, with their professional actors, harm the mind and the soul. Unfortunately, while these arguments may support the ideal standard, for the great majority of people they don't provide a practical or realistic rebuttal to the movie-going dilemma.

First, theaters themselves are obviously not bad places. The church even holds evangelistic meetings in them occasionally. Second, all pictures and professional actors aren't bad. What about Faith for Today's productions? Third, most people have televisions, and many more are acquiring VCRs or have access to them, so movies frequently have nothing to do with theaters. Fourth, should we protect our children from reality to the point that they will find themselves confused, bewildered, and unprepared to avoid drowning in its muck? Fifth, the "absolutely no movies" approach isn't helpful or realistic in the nineties. Most Adventists watch TV movies and aren't going to stop because of renewed church pressure.

A workable answer

We are left with Tyner's third option: being selective about what we watch. Since many members young and old view movies at least at home, I suggest offering some criteria by which they can evaluate their video menu.

Consider the concept of movies from a Christian perspective. All of life can be regarded as a continuum, with the devil and total depravity on one end and Christ and complete perfection on the other. To start with, all of us need to evaluate where our lives stand on that continuum. Having honestly done that, we can ask ourselves some questions about entertainment questions that go deeper than such matters as immorality, violence, nudity, and profanity. We must concern ourselves with broader principles, such as these:

1. What is the difference between a Christian's view of the film and a secular person's concept?

2. Does this movie enhance or detract from my system of values?

3. How does the movie make me feel and why?

4. What is the main point of the movie?

5. Is the theme Christian or anti- Christian?

6. How does this movie affect my relationships with Christ, my family, and my everyday associates?

Putting into practice

Using the above questions, one Saturday night I led our church youth group in an experiment on critical movie evaluation. First we went to a video store, where I asked them to select a movie, PG-13, PG, or G. They spent at least 45 minutes looking, picking up movies, and putting them back. In the end they decided on one called Three Fugitives.

The main stars were Nick Nolle and Martin Short. It was about a father robbing a bank for money to keep his little girl in a special school. Since the death of her mother, the little girl hadn't spoken a word. As Short's character was robbing the bank, Nolle, having just gotten out of prison for robbing banks, was there depositing the money he had earned while in prison. Short took Nolle hostage. The police, however, accused the ex-con with masterminding the holdup.

The rest of the movie showed the physical and emotional struggle between Nolle, Short, and his daughter. The hostage was lorn between his own desire for survival and his interest in helping Short escape to Canada, where he could live in peace with his daughter. It was Nolle who finally got the little girl to talk again when he threatened to abandon the father and daughter to fend for themselves. In the end both men were arrested, but Nolle was freed and helped care for the little girl.

The youth and their leaders enjoyed the movie. It was very touching despite a fair amount of profanity and some violence. We evaluated it from the stand point of my six questions, which I had discussed with them earlier.

In answer lo the first question, they felt that secular people and Christians would view the film in much the same way—as an entertaining comedy. They felt the Christian, however, would be more sensitive to the bad language. For some, the swearing did attack their sense of values. A couple others, however, said that they heard such language all the time, so it didn't really bother them.

Despite the swearing and a lack of realism in some of its portrayals (such as the bank holdup scene), the youth judged the movie in general to be good. They endorsed what they considered its main point and overall theme, helping others. Nolle, for example, was willing to forget about himself to risk helping Short and his daughter. One person said it reminded her of the good Samaritan story in the Bible.

Because assisting others with life's problems harmonizes with Christian principles, the youth concluded that watching the movie enhanced their relationship with Christ. They did, however, express a concern that continual viewing of films with profanity, violence, or immorality might desensitize them and leave them less resistant to these things in their own lives. They felt this would happen to them even if the movie came out OK in the evaluating criteria. They acknowledged that prolonged exposure to negative ideas and themes would make them weaker as Christians and jeopardize their stand for God.

In summary

As a pastor I am concerned when my members watch a lot of movies, including those on television. There's no way I can compete with the entertainment industry when I step into the pulpit. The razzle and dazzle of Hollywood can make church services seem dull and hard to sit through.

The situation would improve if we parents and church leaders took stock of what we and our young people watch. I trust that the guidelines suggested here will help toward that end.

1 General Conference of Seventh-day
Adventists, Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual
(Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,
1988 Revised), pp. 147, 148.

2 Stuart Tyner, "And the Winner Is ... ,"
Insight/Out, September 1989, p. 5.

3 All Scripture passages are from the New
King James Version.

4 Michael Shaugnessy, Pornography, Human
Mutilation, and Psychological Dysfunction
(Portales, N.Mex.: Eastern New Mexico
University Psychology Department, 1987), p. 6.

5 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1948), vol. 2, p. 410.

6 Interview by Marilyn Kaye, "Kids, Parents,
and Movies: A Conversation With Lynn Minton,"
Top of the News, Spring 1984, pp. 311, 312.

7 Francis D. Nichol, Questions People Have
Asked Me (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald
Pub. Assn., 1959), pp. 49, 50.

 

Resources for reviewing movies

Magazines

Parents of Teenagers, Box 482, Mount Morris, IL 61054. This
magazine has a Music and Movies section that evaluates current
entertainment offerings from a Christian perspective. It is an excellent
source of discussion starters.
 

TV Guide, Radnor, PA: News America Publications, Inc., 100
Matsonford Road, Radnor, PA 19088. This popular weekly lists the
top 10 videos, supplying a short synopsis of each movie's content
along with its rating. TV Guide also tells whether there is nudity,
violence, strong language and other "adult" themes.

Books
HBO's Guide to Movies on Videocassette and Cable Television,
Senior Editor Daniel Eagan, Editor Olga Humphrey. HBO Harper-
Collins Publishing, Inc., 10 E. 53rd St., New York, NY 10022, 1991
edition. With 657 pages, this provides a rating and an overview for
7,000 films. It also tells whether there is strong sexual content, rape,
nudity or brief nudity, adult situations, explicit language, violence,
mild violence, or "adult" humor. Available in most U.S. bookstores for
$14.95.
Video Movie Guide, Mick Martin and Marsha Porter, Ballantine
Books, New York, NY, 1991 edition. This volume of 1,515 pages rates
the quality and content of more than 10,000 movies, identifying those
with profanity, sexual content, nudity, and violence. Il also separates
them into categories such as action, children, and family viewing.
Lists for $7.95; available at most U.S. shopping mall bookstores.

Newsletters
Movieguide: A Biblical Guide to Movies and Entertainment,
Good News Communications. Movieguide, P.O. Box 9952, Atlanta,
GA 30319. (404)237-0326. Excellent resource for evaluating movies
from a Christian perspective. Ted Baehr, editor and author, has two
dozen volunteers across the country who report on the latest releases
regarding profanity, obscenity, violence, and nudity. Specific con
cerns are addressed: Is the movie anti-biblical? Is it anti-authoritarian?
What is the underlying premise? Movieguide Rates films from an R
rating on up the scale. The suggested donation is $30 per year, for 24
issues.
 

Preview Movie Morality Guide, John Evans, Senior Editor, 1309
Seminole Drive, Richardson, TX 75080. (214)234-0195. This twice monthly
newsletter rates PG-13 and PG movies. It provides a summary
of each film's plot along with an analysis from a moral and Christian
perspective. Also included is a description of the frequency and
intensity of offensive elements such as obscene language, sex, nudity,
violence, etc. Positive aspects of each film are also pointed out
Suggested donation is $23 per year; free sample available.


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Fred E. Crowell is pastor of the Adventist church in Columbia, Missouri.

February 1993

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