Some Thoughts on Christians, Movies, and Nudity

To be honest, I had no idea what (or who?) Deadpool was by the time everyone was watching the trailers for the new movie. I’d never heard of that character and had no special interest in learning more (I’m fatigued of superhero movies at this point anyway). But it turns out that Deadpool is a pretty interesting guy (thing?) and has a lot of fans. Box Office Mojo’s unofficial reports have the movie blowing away some meaningful records, several of which are in the “R-rated” category. R-rated superhero films are rare. Studios prefer PG-13 ratings for films they want to be blockbusters, for obvious reasons.

The MPAA states that Deadpool’s R-rating comes from “strong violence and language throughout, sexual content and graphic nudity.” Violence is, of course, very common in superhero films, though it’s almost always in a highly stylized, choreographed context (as opposed to the visceral realism of Saving Private Ryan). Strong language isn’t as common in the superhero genre, but it’s rare to see a film for grownups that doesn’t drop a few four letter epithets.

When it comes to the evangelicals that I know and talk to about movies, violence and language live on the low end of the Problematic Scale. Of course, cinematic violence can be nihilistic and inhumane, and coarse language can be over the top and abusive. But in general, violence and language are the least-weighted categories of movie vice. While an evangelical film critic may warn you about jarring violence or strong language, it’s unlikely, all other variables being equal, that those two things by themselves can actually warrant a spiritually-motivated abstention.

When it comes to sexuality and nudity, the opposite tends to be true. If language and violence are the least weighted content flags, sex and skin are the heaviest. It takes little sexual content–and virtually any nudity–to get most of my evangelical movie-buffs to refuse to see it, or refuse to give a recommendation. (I probably should clarify that nudity in the sense I am talking about is erotic and/or flippant, not the stomach-turning nudity of the Auschwitz prisoners in Schindler’s List)

This dynamic within much of evangelical cultural commentary is not uncontroversial. For example, some Christian film critics have accused this ethos of hypocrisy (and perhaps a little bit of sexism) for having a high tolerance for violence and such a low tolerance for sexuality. After all, isn’t violence, especially gun and war violence, more desensitizing to the soul–and more dangerous for younger, impressionable viewers– than a 2 minute love scene?

A case study here may be helpful. Alissa Wilkinson, a brilliant film critic and chief of Christianity Today’s movie review section, gave a 3.5 star (out of 4) review to the Martin Scorcese/ Leonardo DiCaprio flick The Wolf of Wall Street. The recommendation came accompanied with an entire section of the review that warned potential audiences of the graphic and non-stop nature of the movie’s sexual content. Wilkinson wrote that she admired the way the film demanded an emotional response from the audience, and that, as indulgent as the movie was, it would be “worth the risk” for some.

In response, Trevin Wax, an editor at The Gospel Coalition, linked to Wilkinson’s review and asked whether evangelical cultural engagement had left the door too open to the “unwatchable.” “At what point do we say,” Wax asked, “It is wrong to participate in certain forms of entertainment?” Wilkinson concluded that the movie’s depictions served its story’s harsh judgment of the characters, while Wax was skeptical that a parade of sexual images could be justified at all.

This is an important question for me personally. I love movies and I love writing about them. I’m a critic by instinct. I want to think deeply about movies, and my love of great film has motivated me to see many obscure pictures that my friends often have no idea exist. I love living and thinking and writing in that world.

At the same time, my aspirations to movie criticism have been tempered with an increasing unwillingness to watch sexual nudity. Even as I try to raise intellectual objections to John Piper’s 7 reasons for Christians to not watch movies like Deadpool, I find myself more and more in alignment with his plea. On the whole, I think Christians would be better served in their lives, marriages, and imaginations if they made a point of avoiding films that simulate sexual acts or show nude characters.

Here are a few, very brief reasons I’ve arrived at this position:

  • In virtually every imaginable case, cinematic sex and nudity are placed intentionally into a film in order to give the audience an erotic or titillating experience. In other words, nude love scenes do NOT further a film’s basic storyline more than would having the characters close the door behind them, and fade out. The purpose of simulating intimacy on-screen is to invite the audience to participate in the erotic storytelling, and, as such, I don’t believe that a Christian, male or female, can simultaneously watch it and fulfill Christ’s command to not look at another person lustfully.
  • Piper’s distinction between violence, which is always fake, and nudity, which is never fake, seems to me very compelling. A gunfight between characters is entirely staged. The blood is phony, the bullets are rubber, and the explosions are highly controlled. But a nude actor is really nude, and thus, the audience does not have the epistemological distance from the sexual that it does have from the violent. If a superhero film were produced with real guns that really shot real extras, nobody would find it praiseworthy.
  • The Scriptures teach that the naked human body is not a morally neutral thing. The nakedness of Adam and Eve is precisely the characteristic that the author of Genesis uses to sum up their perfect sexual union (Gen. 2:25). The biblical prophets used public nakedness as a metaphor for a life lived apart from God (Ez. 16). This is not, I believe, a failure of the biblical writers to be “sex positive,” but an affirmation of what we all know by instinct to be true: That our naked bodies are precious, that they have a purpose, and that outside of God’s dominion the naked self is only a sign of shame and despair, not joy.
  • Films have a special kind of potency to shape our moral imaginations. The combination of imagery, dialogue, lighting, and music are what James K. A. Smith refers to as a “pedagogy of desire.” I believe that art not only tells a story but shapes our desires in the images of the stories it tells. To that end, I don’t want my desires to be shaped by the ridiculously unreal, freewheeling depiction of sexuality that movies present. Movie sex is nothing remotely like married sex, and my suspicion is that many people are in deeply frustrated, wounded relationships because they thought it was.

So there you have it, just a few thoughts on the Christian, the movie, and sex. I would love to hear your thoughts on this too.

16 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Christians, Movies, and Nudity

  1. Excellent thoughts brother.
    While Piper’s article assumes that nude scenes elicit lust in our hearts, he unfortunately leaves the door open for the objection, “It didn’t incite lust in my heart.” While we can call someone’s bluff, ultimately only the Spirit can convict of “lust.” In Seminary I wrote several different papers exploring the biblical theme of clothing and nakedness. I think a robust biblical theology of investiture etc. should lead us to the conclusion that public Nakedness this side of Eden (though somewhat culturally dependent), is a shameful condition remedied by God and those who love like him. God covers Shame (Gen 3:21). Shem and Japheth follow Suit (Gen 9:23). Thus Love covers sin and shame. How can we “cover” the shame of a woman or man who is Nude in a film? We cover it by not voting for it with our time and money.

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  2. Hi – I am Muslim but, considering that many Christian perspectives can apply to other religions, I am glad to have read such an insightful piece on consumption of sexual media.

    I do believe that even violence (especially with gun-related mortality rates) is something that people of faith should be more cautious of – but I concur that nudity does have a greater moral significance for individuals in their daily lives.

    Thank you for writing with clarity. Persuasive!

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  3. Hey Samuel,

    I went and saw Deadpool with some guys from my church, and sure enough, the nudity was horrendously exploitive. Even if you can argue that the sex scenes with his girlfriend were needed(hah) the rest was just softcore smut. Which is a shame because there were some really funny and creative scenes in there, but on the whole, nope, don’t recommend it.

    As for nudity in film, im torn. Mostly i see it as unnecessary, especially in sex scenes. Its films like The mission or Schindlers List that give me pause and ss someone who studied both film and theater, i understand some of the arguments for it.

    I think the one thing that people sometimes don’t think about is ” if that were my husband/wife, brother, sister, mother, father, etc…would i want to see them do that?”
    I know most actors either agree to do such scenes…but it definitely should give us more pause than it does. Thanks for sharing, God bless!

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  4. What about nudity when it is displayed using prosthetics? Lars von Trier’s NYMPHOMANIAC and Kechiche’s BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR are both well known films that use prosthetics for some of their (all too many, I might add) sex scenes. Many other films employ using fake breasts on a woman in nudity shots to increase breast size. Can Piper’s logic be molded here? What if the nudity is fake?

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    1. Exactly my thoughts. He stated in his article that ALL nudity IS real when it comes to film, even comparing the morality of it to using real loaded guns while filming, Implying that they really have sexual relations. But we all know that rarely happens… As such a self proclaimed movie buff, he got that fact wrong. I’d also like to point out that the sex scene for deadpool wasn’t thrown in to get the audience all hot and bothered. It was 100% comedic, and over the top because that’s just how Deadpool is… over the top, crazy, comedic.

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  5. Nudity, violence and other factors mentioned here are indeed unspeakable in the presence of God, especially considering He has such high standards for us; anger equals murder, or should I say a lustful look equals sexual immorality. My only question therefore, would be, do we really have to watch movies? Can we control ourselves from not watching them? Or we’ve gone too deep we can’t just do without it?

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    1. Anger equals murder? What does that even mean? You do realize that Jesus displayed anger and yet never murdered, right? I’m sure you have seen a commercial, or TV show that had a sexual reference/act that didn’t make you commit sexual immorality, am I right? You do know that Jesus saw Mary Magdeline totally nude and that he didn’t lust after her, right?

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  6. First time reading your blog (found it through a Tim Challies link). Great thoughts and great writing. I am in agreement with you, and as a person who likes to watch movies I have found myself unable (or unwilling I suppose) to watch many of them. Even good, creative movies often have so much junk in them it makes watching it untenable. Same goes for tv shows. I really am concerned about the attitude of many young Christians who justify watching just about anything, saying they appreciate the art or they can handle the junk or that they are simply exercising freedom in Christ. In most cases I think it’s an attempt to justify worldliness. I’m not the one to judge for sure but I have my doubts. Hoping that my generation is still willing to sacrifice entertainment to foster greater holiness.

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  7. The question I ask myself is this, “Am I choosing to be entertained by something for which Christ died?” Also, would we be OK with watching these things being performed in our own home, in front of our eyes? I think not. Images can stay in the mind and then pollute our hearts and affections for our spouse. Thank you for this post.

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  8. Seems like Christianity Today’s stance on the matter is we should appreciate the enlargement of our world view these films bring, and as long as we come away with an appreciation for the artistry and what the film has taught us about the world, it’s “worth the risk.”

    Now I can go make that Documentary about how negatively influential porn is on society, and I’ll fill my documentary with plenty of graphic (though artistic) sexuality so my viewers come away knowing just how badly the world has skewed God’s design for sex. People need to see those graphic scenes so they completely understand my point.

    It’s preposterous! We are basically saying that anything goes as long as it is artistic, has good dialogue, plot points and engages us in the world around us.

    I won’t be surprised if in ten years Christians are writing articles about the benefits of viewing pornography as a way of making us “culture creating” Christians.

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