Movie Reviews and Evangelical Blind Spots

I have respect for the ministry of Plugged In and how they serve Christian families by flagging objectionable content in film. I think there’s a place for this kind of thing and have availed myself of the site frequently over several years.

But in my experience, evangelicals frequently place too much trust in services like Plugged In. Instead of using them as helpful meters to determine age-appropriate moviegoing, many Christians use content and worldview metrics to shape their entire approach to consuming culture. The problem with this reductionistic approach is not only that it frequently fails to accurately represent the nature and purpose of art, but that it relies heavily on the idiosyncratic blind spots of a religious subculture.

Here is a great example of what I’m talking about. Plugged In wrote a mostly positive, if somewhat dismissive review of the kids movie Show Dogs. After noting some bathroom humor in the content flagging portion of their review, here’s what they said in the conclusion:

 Show Dogs is a kids’ movie through and through. If you consider its story and presentation on a graduated scale—say, one that ranges from whine and scratch on the low end all the way up to a family pleasing tail-wag peak—this pic probably qualifies as a Saturday-matinee chew toy that lands on the less-enthusiastic, flea-bitten side of the scale. It feels like a talking-dog version of Miss Congeniality: a canine caper the youngsters will giggle at even as parents roll their eyes wearily.

On the plus side, it actually has plenty of action and less doggy doo-doo humor than I expected. And in the negative column, there are some extended dog-private-parts-inspection moments and a couple uses of the word “d–n” that really should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Your kids will likely think it’s silly and fun. But whatever you do, I’d suggest you leave your family dog at home. ‘Cause he’d never forgive you.

For those familiar with Plugged In’s style and language, this most certainly constitutes a positive review. Show Dogs, according to this reviewer, is fine for your kids, if a little trivial. They’ll enjoy it, you probably won’t, but it’s harmless fun.

Today—and to their credit—Plugged In ran a blog post that discusses some of the controversy that’s been growing around the film. You can read the viral review one mother wrote here, but the short summary is that many parents and sexual abuse victim advocates are extremely concerned that the way Show Dogs handles a particular subplot sends a seriously disturbing message to kids about their bodies and private parts.

Apparently, Plugged In’s positive review of Show Dogs caused some concern among their readers, concern which they wanted to address via the blog post. Here’s how they address it:

One thing we try not to do at Plugged In is infer motive, because that’s a game with no real end. Our objective at Plugged In is always to tell you what’s in a film as accurately as we can and let you, the reader, draw your own conclusions and make your own decisions. When I saw this sequence, it translated as simply as an over-long potty joke that wasn’t particularly funny in a silly movie that wasn’t particularly good.

But movies, even the most straightforward of movies, are incredibly complex things. It’s not just the moviemaker’s story that’s at play here: It’s our own stories, too. We all bring our own experiences and sensitivities and baggage to every movie we see. And so, in many respects, even when we watch the very same movie, the messages it gives can be very different. Unique.

I have no idea why the editors at Plugged In noted the controversy surrounding Show Dogs and decided to double down on their positive review of the film in response. Why not simply let the controversy pass you by, noting that you diligently catalogued the movie’s profanity and potty humor and adding no further comment? No clue. But what actually frustrates me about Plugged In’s post here is that it’s not really the truth. When Plugged In writes that they don’t try to infer motive or tell readers what decision to make about a movie, they’re either using definitions of those words I’ve never heard of, or they’re not being totally honest here. Plugged In infers filmmaker’s motives all the time. Plugged In tells readers to stay away from certain movies because of their messaging all the time. This kind of exhortation is intrinsic to the discernment ministry that Plugged In operates. For them to claim that they do anything less is profoundly confusing, because it’s demonstrably untrue.

I don’t fault Plugged In for missing a troubling interpretive angle of a film. Anybody can do that. What I do fault is the impulse within evangelicalism to make Christian discernment and worldview ministries the sole proprietors of virtue and vice in pop culture. There could be an important reason why a major evangelical pop culture review completely missed overtones of sexual abuse in a movie: Namely, because much of evangelicalism, including our churches and parachurch ministries, has a blind spot when it comes to sexual abuse. We fail to see what we aren’t looking for, and we fail to look for what we don’t think about enough.

Maybe Plugged In doesn’t want to publicly consider this possibility. Maybe it hasn’t crossed their minds. Either possibility doesn’t really matter in the end, just like the motives of a filmmaker who puts graphic nudity or 200 F-bombs into his film don’t really matter for a Plugged In review. What’s there is there. The question is seeing it.

This isn’t an indictment of Plugged In or a call to burn down evangelical reviews of movies. Instead, it’s a call for humility in how Christians engage culture, and a reminder that holistic approaches to art are superior to worldview litmus tests and curse word-counters. There is a place for the latter, but it shouldn’t be in front and on top of the former.

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They Were Right About Us

It’s been astonishing to watch fellow conservatives redefine everything–and I mean everything–they say they believe in order to defend President Trump. I’m now hearing from some that the President’s vulgar and hostile remarks about NFL athletes’ kneeling during the national anthem are not a gross attack on free speech. Why not? “It’s a private corporation! Trump isn’t passing a law! He’s just expressing his opinion!” My oh my. How far we’ve gone from the intellectual defenses of people like Brendan Eich and James Damore, to arguing that the President of the United States can publicly call for private citizens to be fired because of their political opinions.

I have never, ever seen a politician who could corrupt the values of his supporters like Donald Trump. When it comes to this President, the mainstream Right is willing to jettison any and all ideas in order to defend his stupid, crass, belligerent worldview.

Liberals were right about us all along.

A new way to read this blog

More times than I can count I’ve been asked how to subscribe to this blog via email. Until today I didn’t have a way to do that. I do now.

If you go to this link and fill out your name and email, you will receive new posts here when they publish. I wish I could insert a signup form into this post, but alas, it’s not possible. Just click the link, enter your information, and you will receive everything I post here via email.

The Work, and Worth, of Writing

I’ve come to fervently believe that, especially as it pertains to the digital age, you get what you pay for. Many of us millennials, reaping the harvest of the emergence of the Internet, have been raised to expect much for free. The democratization of information that led to the “online writing economy” generated an ocean of free content, and free content has played and will continue to play an indelible part in the economic, social, and even intellectual transformation wrought by the Internet.

But, contrary to illusion, nothing is quite free. Advertising funds the overwhelming majority of the “free” internet. And as technology progresses, the competition to get more clicks on more ads and make more revenue starts to dictate online experience. Advertisements start to play automatically, filling the entire screen. “Clickbait,” genetically engineered to pique interest and offer as little as possible once the necessary click has been acquired, begins to dominate web channels. Sagging attention spans need reasons to keep clicking, so headlines are written to deliberately mislead. Mindlessness is the name of the game.

And why complain? After all–it’s free.

We live at a time when thoughtfulness is a premium good–one that costs much more than it generates. I believe that sincere intellectual and spiritual good is possible to foment via the internet, but I also believe that almost every digital trend of the last 10 years has made that task much harder. “Free” is constantly at odds with true, beautiful, and good. Whether we attribute that fact to the harsh realities of market economics, the greediness of capitalism, or sheer bad luck, the fact remains the same.

I love blogging. I love it because I love the intellectual labor that thinking, shaping, and saying demands, and because I love the way that blogging plugs me into the world of ideas in such a direct way. For the last few years I have tried to think deeply and seriously and Christianly about many different topics. I’m sure I’ve fallen short in one or all of those categories numerous times. But the practice is part of the pleasure. For all the dangers of blogging’s instantaneous demand for reaction, there’s also a virtue in the way it lets a writer return, again and again, to a question that demands renewed attention, fresh insight, and a better word.

But all this is work–real, time-consuming work. It’s not my source of income or my career. But it does require attention and detail and space and computers and internet connections and books and articles. And for the past year or so I’ve been thinking carefully about how the work inherent in my blogging should relate to my efforts to provide for a family, and to empower my future writing without the threats of intrusive ads or silly, click-begging content.

So I’m rolling out a personal Patreon. 

If you’re unsure what I mean by that, here’s the short story. Going forward, my Patreon account will allow readers who want to help support my work at this blog to do so with small, monthly donations. This is not a subscription and my blog is not being paywalled. As I explain on the page, there are indeed some exclusive perks to being a patron, but access to this blog is and will remain totally free.

I’m not looking to turn a major profit from my blogging or quit my day job (which I love!). As you’ll see, my suggested donation levels are very small. My only ambition is to connect directly with readers who find value in what I do here, and who are willing to spend $2 every month in helping me keep that value coming.

My Patreon offers 3 different tiers, each with a unique reward depending on how much is donated:

  • For $2 per month, you’ll get a new weekly email newsletter from me, with links to the week’s best writing, important stories in religion and culture, and some reflections on various topics that won’t be published here. You’ll also get access through Patreon to the member-only blog on the Patreon page, where I will be posting 1-2 times per week.
  • For $5 per month, you’ll get the newsletter and the access to the Patreon blog. Additionally, I’m offering some personal writing coaching. If you’re an aspiring writer who would like to talk about style, developing an argument, best practices, how to pitch to editors, etc, I would love to offer you a few weeks’ worth of help.
  • For $10 per month, you’ll get all the above. I’ve also offered a special perk aimed specifically at those who want to promote their own book or writing on my blog. If you think my readers would like to know about what you do or what you think, I’ll edit and publish a 500-word post by you at my blog.

Let me say again: This blog is not becoming subscriber-only. You can choose not to donate anything, and this blog will still be around for you.

But: If you’ve been helped by this space, if you’ve found value in the kind of things I think about and say on this blog, I hope you’ll consider partnering with me in this way. Beginning now, at the end of every post, and in the sidebar to your right, I’ll be posting a link that will take you to my Patreon page. I hope you won’t find this intrusive. It’s all in the interest of, well, making blogging great again.

Latest Mere Orthodoxy blog: “Disappointed by Christmas”

A friendly reminder for those visiting this page that my main blogging has moved to Mere Orthodoxy.

My latest, just posted, is a reflection for those of us who struggle in the days after Christmas. Here’s an excerpt:

The realization that it’s possible to get exactly what you want and yet feel that hope has betrayed you is one of life’s milestones. We are all born believing that what really stands between us and joy is not getting what we want.  We have to be taught otherwise, and many never are. We have to be taught that peace and satisfaction are not the same thing, and then we even have to be taught that sometimes the two are opposed to each other. None of this comes naturally, because natural human nature does not discern it.

To feel disappointed by Christmas is to plunge headfirst into the truth that we are made for something even greater than hope. For the Christian, the hope of Christmas is not formless and void. It has a shape, a color, and a name.

Read the whole piece here.

Movement and Location

A public-service announcement:

I’m very excited to announce that MereOrthodoxy.com, a terrific web journal of religion and culture, is now hosting my blog!

So what does this mean?

  1. First of all, it means that the primary website I’ll be blogging at is http://blogs.mereorthodoxy.com/samuel. Over at the new site, I’ll be keeping up my blogging in much the same way I’ve done here. The new site looks a little different, but otherwise nothing has changed.

2. At least for now, I’m going to keep this website running, but it won’t be updated as much as the new site. If you’ve been subscribing to my posts here via email, you won’t be getting much email from now on, at least until I figure out how to set up a subscription option at the new blog.

3. That’s it! It’s business as usual, just in a new location. As always, there’s no subscription or cost for anything.

If you’ve been a regular reader of this site, THANK YOU. Thank you for your reading and your support. I hope you’ll follow me onto my new blogging home.

A note of welcome

I’m terrible at making meaningful “welcome” or “About me” pages. But since this is the inaugural post at my Mere Orthodoxy blog, it’s probably fitting that I take a second and offer some preliminary welcome and thanks.

Firstly, welcome to this blog page. If you’ve followed me from my previous home blog at samueldjames.net, a special welcome to you. I’m very excited to be writing under the Mere Orthodoxy banner, and grateful to Jake Meador for his invitation to do this, and for Chris Krycho and others for making this happen.

This blog will be very similar to what I have been doing for the last couple years at samueldjames.net. Sometimes the posts will be very short, and other times they will push 1,000 words; in either event, my hope for this new site is the same as it was for the old one: To be a place to capture my wandering thoughts on whatever I happen to be reading/thinking/hearing about at the time.

If you’ve subscribed in the past to posts at SamuelDJames.net and you want to do so here, hang tight, I’m working on that. In the mean time the best way to keep up with my writing is through my Twitter; barring that, I invite you to just visit this page regularly. 🙂

Again, a big thank you to Jake and the Mere-O team for welcoming me here. I’m looking forward to what lies ahead.

A Note to My Readers

As the end of the year approaches, I’d like to take a break from regularly scheduled pontification and briefly (I promise!) share some personal thoughts about my life, this blog space, and you, dear reader.

This past year has been a wonderfully productive and blessed season for me. In addition to my regular responsibilities at my day job, I’ve been able to contribute writing and editing to several different places. Some of this work has earned income, some has earned opportunity and exposure. In either case, I’ve been blessed to be able to use my voice at a variety of websites and organizations that I greatly respect. This is a blessing beyond what I could ask or think.

In addition to my published writing around the web, I’ve maintained this blog space. This year the blog has generated over 80,000 views. That’s a spectacular number to me, especially considering how few resources have been poured into publicizing what I write here. I am dependent almost entirely on the clicks, shares, and retweets of those who know me through social media.

Whether at this website, or at any number of different sites that I’ve written for in the past year, I am exceedingly grateful to be doing what I love. This isn’t something I take for granted. But it’s also something I realize is precarious. I’m sure it doesn’t shock you to hear that writing is not a profitable line of work. The vast majority of what I write–hundreds of thousands of words–is not compensated in any way. I do not receive any money for what I write here. That means that I spend many hours a month trying to articulate halfway coherent, truthful thoughts for free. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing. But having a baby and a young family to support is also a good thing.

I’ve tried this year  to give a voice to a thoughtful, convictional, kind, and helpful Christian worldview. My aim when I sit down to blog is NOT to grab your attention with an overreacting headline and clickbait. It could be that my traffic would greatly improve if I were just a little more willing to accuse, exaggerate, or just be a hack. But I’m not willing, and I’m fine with whatever cost that creates. I’ve probably written something this year that you’ve disagreed with (or maybe many things!). My sincere hope is that even in those cases, you’ve found something hopeful, encouraging, and worthwhile.

If you’ve appreciated my writing this year, particularly at SamuelDJames.net, would you consider supporting it? Below I’ve installed an option to donate any amount via PayPal. This donation is not a subscription. I have no intention of charging for this website, or any of my writing. This is merely a way to support what you find helpful here.


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Thank you very much for reading, sharing, commenting, and supporting. These are challenging times for many, and as George Orwell once said, sometimes seeing what is right in front of one’s face is a constant struggle. I hope that in some way this year, I’ve helped you see.

The Roots of Conspiracy Theory Rage

Are your political opponents evil–or just wrong?

Checking my spam folder today, I saw an email from a conservative watchdog group. The email opened like this:

Dear Fellow Conservative,

Do you ever just wonder: what on earth is going on with the liberals in the Democrat party? 

Do they just have no clue what they’re doing to America? Or are they are so spiteful of the American way of life that they are actively working to destroy it?

Note the bold font on the last sentence, meant to draw the reader’s eye and suggest the author’s own beliefs. The writer of the email wants you to believe that the reason your political opponents are so wrong isn’t that they’re mistaken, it’s that they’re evil. In just a few words, the issue has shifted from the wrongness of liberalism’s ideas to the wicked, hostile intentions of its adherents.

But why? What evidence is there to suggest that liberals are “spiteful” of people like me? Well, evidence is largely beside the point; the email is meant to confirm suspiciousness in me that’s already there long before it arrives. And we have to concede this to the sender: This is indeed how so much of our political discourse in America goes right now. The space between “wrong” and “evil” has shrunk so badly that it’s almost obligatory now to preface criticism of someone with, “I don’t think they’re a bad person.” In a culture where people’s first assumption was that disagreements happen because of competing ideas, not  because minions want to ruin everything, no such preface would be necessary. It’s necessary in our culture because “This person is wrong about issue X” is almost always interpreted as a commentary on their character. If someone gets issue X wrong, it’s because they know they’re wrong and just want to hurt others.

This is, I think, a very important element in conspiracy theory thinking. Once you’re sold on the idea that honest wrongness is impossible, everything your opponents say becomes, in your eyes, evidence of their treason. Consider the usual progression of straw-man fallacies. Person A says to person B, “I think your real goal is to do Y to America.” Person B replies, “No, that’s not my goal at all,” to which person A says, “Well of course you’d deny it if it really was!” Bias confirmation kicks in, and there’s almost no way to convince person A otherwise, because everything they see is either what they predicted or evidence that person B is hiding something. That’s conspiracy theory thinking. And there’s no clean way off that psychological merry-go-round.

Why Can’t Progressives Talk About Smut?

I have a piece at First Things today (my first ever!) on the uneasiness of modern liberalism when it comes to pornography.

Here’s an excerpt:

Despite much emerging data, including research on the psychological costs of addiction, it seems that the American left rarely talks about porn and culture. A celebrity iCloud hack or the firing of a schoolteacher tend to inspire a round of takes on body-shaming and feminism, of course. And occasionally a Game of Thrones episode will trigger a backlash against simulated rape. Otherwise, it seems that pornography is the pink elephant in the room for most mainstream liberals.

One glaring example of this can be found in a recent New York Times piece by Roni Caryn Rabin, an alarming profile on the growing popularity, among teenage girls, of genital cosmetic surgery. “Labiaplasties” are surging in demand among girls under 18, despite the warnings of doctors against the procedures. What could be driving this demand for perfectly engineered nether-regions?

Read the entire article here.