Questions for which a simple “yes” or “no” answer isn’t enough can be frustrating. However, if those questions are considered thoughtfully and prayerfully, they can yield answers beautiful in their fullness and complexity. Let me say from the beginning that I believe the issue of Christians’ relationship with R-rated movies is one of these questions. The rating system of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is an extra-biblical standard, so it’s quite fallible and often says very little about the films it rates. On the other hand, it’s far from useless. I’ve come here neither to bury the system nor to praise it. I’d much rather go deeper and broader, into the question of whether going to the movies is an edifying use of our limited time on Earth at all. Because I think we can all agree that films exist in the “G” to “PG-13” range that are not worth seeing. My opinion is that some R-rated films are worth seeing.
Briefly, this is why I think film is valuable and should not be totally ignored by Christians. People make movies, and movies are about people. Christians are commanded to love people, without exception. An essential aspect of loving people is loving the image of God within them, and an essential part of the image of God is creativity. God communicated through stories, too. Furthermore, movies are not simply another trivial form of cultural expression. They are an art form. This was settled decades ago. Their enormous popularity makes them the most significant art form in the world, both now and for the last hundred years. Art is the most sophisticated and powerful way that humans have created to comment on themselves and their world. (Sorry, science. You can teach us the how, but not the why.) Art can also teach us about God, albeit in a flawed, broken way, because every person knows something about God from His creation (Romans 1). The bottom line is this: art, including movies, can be a tool for understanding people, and without understanding people, we can never love them as we ought.
With all that as my baseline, my focus here will be on objectionable content — what is permissible, what is edifying, what is a source of temptation. These questions don’t have simple answers either. Perhaps a worthy way to begin would be to educate oneself about film content, using sources more thorough than the MPAA. Common Sense Media, Plugged In, Kids-in-Mind or even the “Parents Guide” on IMDb go into detail on the levels of profanity, violence and sexual content in the films they review. One thing to notice about each of these sites, however, is that, like the MPAA ratings, they are primarily oriented toward educating parents about what films to let their children see. Here’s the distinction I wish to draw: what many children lack, and begin to develop as they grow up, is discernment. Discernment is a crucial part of the Christian life (Luke 12:57, John 7:24, Acts 17:11, 1 Corinthians 2:15, 1 Thessalonians 5:21, 1 John 4:1). Every Christian needs to work on it; none of us have it down perfectly. But I believe some films can be appropriate for people who have reached a certain maturity, while being at the same time not appropriate for children. I also believe this can apply to each of the three main criteria for ratings: profanity, violence and sexual content.
Profanity — Kids can be particularly indiscriminate when it comes to language. They will learn R-rated words one way or another, but avoiding overexposure should be helpful. Adults, though, ought to have self-control. Certainly watching movies that are filled to the brim with rough language can rub off on the listener, so these films are best taken in moderation. But I can’t help but consider this the least dangerous of the three. The best way to combat bad language is to cultivate a large enough vocabulary for it to be unnecessary. And if the viewer’s response to profanity or obscenity is to be offended, I highly recommend this, from a college professor of mine, Grant Horner, on why Christians should be “unoffendable”:
Violence — The MPAA has courted controversy recently for being allegedly less strict with violence than the other two factors. Consider the documentary Bully, which originally was going to be rated R for language but has since been slightly edited and released as PG-13. This was particularly controversial in light of a more famous movie about teens murdering one another, which was rated PG-13. Theoretically, the ratings give equal weight to all three categories. Despite the difficulty in rating such different things, I think it’s plain that a violent word is not as dangerous as a violent act. American Christians shouldn’t consider violence less serious than other content just because the surrounding culture tends to think that way. However, something else I’ve noticed about PG-13 violence is that it has a tendency to be slick, emphasizing “coolness” and downplaying consequences. R-rated violence can be shocking, but there may be some benefit to taking an honest look at what happens when violent people aren’t stopped. But again, the correct interpretation of violence comes with maturity.
Sex/Nudity — In the American Evangelical subculture, sexual content is probably considered the most serious of the three. This is not entirely without reason. Visual stimulation can be powerful, and an ordinary person is much more likely to succumb to temptation in this area than in the one just mentioned. But I don’t believe it’s an open-and-shut case that nudity and sex in films is always inappropriate. Seeing the nude female form as nothing more than an object of lust is exactly what pornographic culture intends us to do. There is far too much shame here, and not enough recognition of the beauty of God’s creation. Sex within marriage is glorious, and I believe it can be depicted in film as such. I certainly can’t claim perfection here. There is a time to flee temptation because of weakness. But our goal is to become strong — to make a covenant with our eyes (Job 31:1) and not live in fear of breaking it.
(Please don’t trust my word alone on this issue. Here are a number of other perspectives: first, a collection of various responses to this precise question with commentary by Christian film critic Jeffrey Overstreet. Also, here are two articles on the larger issue of modesty: one from RELEVANT Magazine, the other from Christianity Today‘s Her.meneutics blog.)
One must be careful not to place too much emphasis on the corrupting influence of film. As Christian critic Rebecca Cusey points out in a sharp essay, people are corrupt enough without outside influence. She also states that the objectionable content of some films “[doesn’t] really bother me.” While I’m fairly sure I understand what she meant, such a statement is easy to misinterpret. Language like that leaves a person open to the charge of being “desensitized.” Make no mistake: observing sin, either in real life or fiction, does bother me. It bothers me in the sense that I long for heaven and hate to see God dishonored or good people getting hurt. In a different sense, it doesn’t offend or shock me, and I’m working on my discernment so that I can always recognize evil. With that discernment, a person can watch a film and understand it in the fullest sense. The worst thing a person can do is watch a film, no matter the rating, and not think about it.
I hope I have conveyed humility in writing this. I enjoy the freedom that grace has won for me (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8), but I pay special attention to the admonishment not to place a stumbling block in front of anyone. Far be it from me to force someone to watch something that will violate his or her conscience. All I mean to accomplish, with this post and my blog, is to share my love of films and the truth, goodness and beauty to be found in them. In his book, Reflections on the Movies, Ken Gire wrote, “I would rather be told an R-rated truth than a G-rated lie.” (I must confess that I haven’t read this particular book; I actually got the quote from a tweet.) Part of me is becoming fed up with the whole system. Two films I watched recently, Take Shelter and Prometheus, left me with the feeling that they were actually rated R for being serious, for being genuinely intended for adults, and that kids just wouldn’t understand them. I realize this isn’t how the MPAA operates, but I’m confident there’s more value in thinking this way than there is in counting “F-words.” Of course a great many R-rated films are trash, but no one is going to convince me that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Godfather, Fargo and Pulp Fiction aren’t worthwhile. They’re not “safe,” but they are “good.” (Yes, this is a Narnian reference. No, I didn’t come up with it on my own. I first read it used in a context like this here.)
ReViewing the Movies: A Christian Response to Contemporary Film by Peter Fraser & Vernon Edwin Neal
Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment by Brian Godawa
Meaning at the Movies: Becoming a Discerning Viewer by Grant Horner