Last week I jotted down some thoughts on why I’ve come to the conclusion that Christians are better off avoiding movies with sexual nudity. The majority of the feedback I’ve gotten from that article has been positive and affirming, and I’m grateful for any help its been able to give. But I’ve also gotten some thoughtful, friendly pushback and questions. Much of this has been helpful in clarifying my own thoughts, and I want to take a minute and address some of it.
The first thing I should clarify about my original blog is what I did, and did not, intend to communicate. My aim was to help Christians affirm their conscientious objections to watching simulated sexual acts by offering some substantive reasons why, in my opinion, violence and profanity are not similarly problematic. I was not trying to argue that all sexual content in movies demands the same response from everyone, nor was I making a case that all movies that contain it are equally problematic. There is, of course, a significant difference between talking about the sexuality of a James Bond film and that of 50 Shades of Grey, just like there’s a difference between the violence of The Exorcist and The Human Centipede. My conviction is not that all these films are equivalent or that Christians must treat them as such, but that a consistent ethic of avoiding explicit sexuality in any film is not hypocritical, unrealistic, or even particularly “legalistic.”
The reason I think this is a point worth making is that when most Christians ask about sex in movies, they’re not asking about whether they should walk out of the theater when it comes on, or if they should leave the party or close their eyes or only watch with their spouse and fast forward. Those might be important questions, but in the majority of cases that’s not what is being asked. What is being asked is, “Is it even worth trying to avoid?” And, “Don’t I have Christian freedom to watch if I’m resisting the temptation to lust?” My blog was specifically directed not toward the details but toward the larger point that, yes, for the Christian, avoiding a dramatic encounter with the erotic outside of the marriage covenant IS realistic and IS spiritually wise.
With that said, let me address some specific questions that I’ve received and that I think are helpful in clarifying some principles:
1-Aren’t you assuming, unreasonably, that everyone has the same struggles in this area?
No, I’m not assuming that at all. In fact, if you read through my original post, you may notice that I made absolutely zero references to “struggling” or pornography or addiction, etc. That was intentional. Of course, it’s not difficult to base my argument on those things, and many have done so. But there are two problems I see with doing that. First, my struggles with pornography do not inform how you should think about movies or TV in your own life. The New Testament is very friendly to the idea that some members of the body of Christ may be prohibited in their conscience from something that other members are allowed. That’s OK. Paul calls us to live together as one in understanding and in love but not necessarily in habit. An argument against Christian viewing of cinematic sexuality that is grounded in the besetting sins of some of the body is not really an argument based in biblical principles, but in special pleading, the same way a Christian argument for teetotalism based on alcoholic struggles of some would be.
The second problem with using pornography addiction as a reason that all Christians should avoid sexuality in film is more simple: It doesn’t really help anybody. You can argue all day that Christians who watch sexually explicit movies will eventually fall into pornography addiction or sexual dysfunction, but in the end, that simply won’t be true for much of the Body. It is better, I think, to base an argument for avoidance in transcendent principles about eroticism in art and a biblical theology of the body, and that is what I (briefly) tried to do.
2- Isn’t there a difference between how movies use sexual content, and doesn’t your argument ignore this difference through over-simplification?
A Christian friend of mine emailed me after I posted the blog and argued that his personal view was to avoid films in which explicit sexuality was essential to the film’s story. In other words, my friend differentiated between a movie that contained a scene of sexuality in an overall narrative that wasn’t sexual, and a movie whose essential nature was erotic.
This is of course a perfectly valid distinction. I completely agree that we can and must make distinctions based on the totality of the art that is presented to us. My only rebut to this point would be what I said in point #1 of my post: Even if a film’s overall narrative trajectory is not erotic in essence, sexual scenes unavoidably serve an erotic purpose within that trajectory. The question for the Christian is not, I think, whether we should watch 2 hours of sexual explicitness vs 2 minutes. The question is whether our epistemological proximity to the extramarital erotic puts us afoul of Christ’s command to not even gaze lustfully. The distinction that my friend brought up is valid and true. I’m just not convinced that it’s enough of a distinction.
3- Doesn’t this ethic unwittingly condemn Christian physicians who have to look at nude bodies?
I was surprised to see that this objection was actually raised against my post by a noted Christian blogger. I find it laughable. If anyone can read my blog and come away thinking that I’ve destroyed the distinction between the naked body in a medical context and the naked body in an erotic context, then I have some magic beans you may be interested in.
4- Wouldn’t it be more helpful to say, “If a particular movie causes you to sin, don’t watch it”?
The appeal to individual discernment almost always sounds more helpful than blanket statements. But in my experience, when it comes to matters of practical decision-making, telling Christians to use “discernment” is more or less an end-around of the actual issue. Again, I don’t think most people who ask about Christians watching sex in film are asking about whether a particular scene in a particular movie, and how they should specifically respond to it. Instead, most are asking, “Should I even bother making a fuss and risk being called a fundamentalist?”
I’ll put it this way: A Christian’s tolerance for sexuality in films should always be less than the spiritual parameters they’ve set in place for their consumption of entertainment. So if a single guy who lives alone, doesn’t have a church small group, and basically no one invading his life to watch and ask questions wants to know which movies he can and cannot watch, the wisest counsel to him will be quite strict. As more means of grace fall into place in a person’s life, more clarity may come as to what, specifically, should be avoided totally. But my feeling is that for many American Christians, this relationship is actually the opposite: The more plugged in a Christian is and the more liable to accountability, the stricter the media consumption is, and the less plugged in and less accountable, the looser. Speaking to that reality in the American evangelical church, then, I believe that it is perfectly biblical and responsible to encourage an ethic of total avoidance.