Culture / Entertainment

 

Mar

31

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

How Christians Are Responding to the Noah Movie

Noah_Russell_CroweI didn’t get the chance to see Noah this weekend, but it appears the movie has done respectably at the box office, enough to fuel future biblically themed epics.

The intriguing thing about Noah is not the movie itself but the Christian response, particularly the evangelical response. I don’t ever recall seeing evangelicals so divided about a film. By and large, we stick together.

Evangelicals en masse rejected Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. I was just a kid then, but I remember hearing about this “blasphemous” movie. On the other hand, we flocked to Prince of Egypt, an animated though reverent portrayal of Moses’ story. And, of course, The Passion of the Christ stands out as the biggest biblically-themed blockbuster of all time. In the decade since Mel Gibson’s Jesus hit the screen, we shrugged at Evan Almighty, ignored the TV movie of Noah, and rallied around Sherwood Baptist Church’s films.

But then came Noah.

It’s a movie that’s made waves among evangelicals (pun intended), but let’s be honest: we’re not all in the same boat here. In fact, I struggle to remember any film that has drawn so much praise and criticism from churchgoing Christians.

Here’s the rundown of options as I see them, scrolling daily (hourly) across my FaceBook and Twitter feeds:

1. Cheers

I haven’t seen any evangelical leader claim that Noah gets the Bible right, but many have lauded the cultural opportunity this movie affords. Focus on the Family President Jim Daly and pastor Erwin McManus appeared in a video encouraging Christians to attend. Popular film reviewer, Phil Boatwright, pointed out the extra-biblical elements, but recommended it as a discussion-starter:

“Noah is an epic movie experience that engages not only the cerebral but the emotional. On the way to the car, people discuss it… That’s when you know you’ve experienced true art. It’s not just a time-filler before going to some other time-filler. It’s a film that demands debate.”

Christianity Today featured an extensive, seven-page review of the film. It begins with an encouragement for evangelicals to engage this film and then offers five reasons why:

  1. Noah is a good movie made by good filmmakers who pursue important questions and think of movies as art.
  2. Noah is a solid adaptation.
  3. Noah is visually and imaginatively compelling.
  4. Noah re-enchants the ancient world in powerful ways that counteract some of the worst excesses of modernity.
  5. You should actually see it for yourself.

Greg Thornbury, president of The King’s College in New York City, points out two major theological objections but believes the film is path-breaking and will help re-enchant a new generation with the biblical narrative:”

Aronofksy’s Noah is a way of putting ourselves before the Bible’s “dangerous question” as Barth put it. The grim, gritty, and supernatural antediluvian biblical world takes us back into ancient history, of origins. Who are we? What has gone wrong with the world? Where is justice? Is God there? What does he have to say? That ancient world sets us back on our heels and forces us to take stock in this strange new world inside the Bible.

Jerry Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, offered 5 positives and 5 negatives, and then encouraged Christians to engage rather than boycott:

The main events from the Noah story are depicted in a powerful way on the big screen by name brand actors and quality production. Christians should be ready to engage moviegoers in conversation about biblical and cultural themes that are portrayed in this movie.

2. Jeers

Those who are critical of the movie fall into one of two camps. First, you have the Christians who think the movie fails at the level of storytelling. Brian Godawa (a Christian who’s no stranger to Hollywood productions) thinks the movie fails at fundamental levels:

“On the nose” dialogue. Flat characters that you just don’t care about. A sick twisted hero that you just don’t care about. Look, I know your hero has to have a character flaw, but this is so extreme that you can’t stand Noah, and you just want to leave the theater.

The second category of critics are those who believe it fails because of its unfaithfulness to the biblical story. Ken Ham didn’t mince words:

Friends, last night I watched the Hollywood (Paramount) movie Noah. It is much, much worse than I thought it would be—much worse. The director of the movie, Darren Aronofsky, has been quoted in the media as saying that Noah is “the least biblical biblical film ever made,” and I agree wholeheartedly with him.

Sophia Lee of World sees the film as missing the mark, primarily for being an epic that shows God’s judgment without His mercy:

Expressed only through dreams and nature, Noah‘s God is mythical, impersonal, and devastatingly involved. Any references to God are seen through Noah’s perspective. That’s a good sum-up for the film itself—a wholly human approach to figure out deep yet simple theology with great intellect, emotion, and creativity, yet somehow missing the crux of it. That’s the true tragedy of Noah.

Al Mohler’s response is similar:

The odd elements are not the problem, the movie’s message is. Furthermore, the way that message distorts the Genesis account is a far larger problem when it becomes clear that the misrepresentation extends to the master narrative of the Bible – including the character of God.

3. Mixed

While some are jumping out of their theater seats to applaud Noah and others are taking to social media to express their disdain for this film, a smaller number are greeting this movie with mixed feelings. They are neither ecstatic in support or categoric in their rejection. For example, Joe Carter sees his take as falling somewhere in between the cheers and jeers:

Noah is an art movie masquerading as a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, an incongruous hybrid that is unlikely to satisfy most movie goers. Yet despite all its flaws, Noah is a worthy addition to the deluge apocalypse genre. It’s not a great film—it’s barely a good one—and it certainly isn’t the biblical masterpiece many of us were hoping for.

And my friend Aaron Earls views the film from the perspective of the director, Aranofsky, who is a secular Jew. He concludes his review with an insightful analysis of a backwards-facing Noah, and why Christians are bound to see the film’s theological component as lacking:

Aronofsky can give us a Noah who longs for creation, but he cannot show us a Noah who looks forward to the cross. There is no covenant from the Creator to promise a future redemption. This time, the serpent’s head goes uncrushed.

The ark in this film can only remind us of what was lost and try to salvage as much as possible, it cannot point beyond itself to the place we can run into and find ultimate salvation and the eventual redemption of all of creation – humanity included.

The film raises tremendous and worthy questions about sin and grace, justice and mercy. I’m thankful any time we have a chance to discuss those in culture. We can enjoy it as a film and an opportunity for significant discussions.

But it cannot give us the right answers because this Noah is faced the wrong way. With only creation in view, Noah has its back to the cross, leaving viewers adrift in an ocean of opinions and wishes without any solid ground to provide true hope for what comes next.

Noah found salvation in the ark, but without turning our gaze to the cross, there is no room for us.

What about you? Who saw Noah this weekend? And would you recommend I go or wait until it’s out on DVD?

 
 

Mar

04

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

9 Magazines Worth Subscribing To

magazines-in-a-bunchOne of the best ways to keep a finger on the pulse of evangelical culture and the wider world is to subscribe to a variety of magazines. Yes, I recognize that magazines seem to be on their way out. Newsweek went online only. US News and World Report fell away. Time is holding on, but who knows for how long?

You might be thinking, “Why should I subscribe to any magazines?” My answer to that is two-fold. Most magazines are relatively cheap (their revenue comes from ad sales, not subscriptions). Also, magazines provide a quick and easy way of seeing what’s going on in different segments of our culture.

Here are a few magazines I subscribe to, and some reasons why you might consider taking out a subscription as well.

TimeTIME

This is perhaps the best place to get a quick overview of American news and culture viewed through the lens of a left-of-center editorial staff.

The cover stories are usually well-written. The columnists are a mixed bag, sometimes insightful, other times not so much. Despite the shortcomings, if I had one secular magazine I would subscribe to, it would be Time.

Entertainment Weekly

EWI don’t pay for this one. It’s one of the selections I get as a perk for collecting Sky Miles. I doubt I would pay for it if it came otherwise. Still, you can flip through this in about 10 minutes and be aware of upcoming films, TV shows, music, etc. You see what the Hollywood glitterati are talking about.

Don’t expect any in-depth treatment here. The feel of Entertainment Weekly is that of a giddy fan base that can’t wait for the next big thing from the entertainment industry.

FastCompanyFortune & Fast Company

These are two different magazines, but they blend together for me. They are magazines about business practices, innovation, and changes in economics and industry. If I had to pick just one, I’d go with Fast Company

Flipping through these, I usually find two or three items of particular interest and at least one stellar article that I read from start to finish.

ChristianityTodayChristianity Today

When I lived in Romania, I was subscribed to only two magazines: Christianity Today and World. They arrived weeks later than their release date, but it didn’t matter. I gobbled them up when they arrived, reading them cover to cover, generally the same day they came in the mail.

Christianity Today is the magazine begun by Billy Graham, now under the leadership of Mark Galli and Andy Crouch. It’s the flagship publication for big-tent evangelicalism. I’ve contributed occasionally to CT both online and in print for the past few years now, and I always consider it an honor to write for such a respected journal of evangelicalism. In the past few months, they’ve overhauled their design and they’ve also added N. D. Wilson as a contributor, so now you’ve got additional reasons to subscribe.

WorldWorld

As I mentioned above, World was my other lifeline in Romania. It’s more conservative than Christianity Today and tends to be more politically focused. The contributors analyze current events and trends in light of a conservative, Christian worldview.

World magazine comes out bimonthly instead of weekly, which gives TIME an edge on being “current.” But I find that I don’t read World to discover the big news, but to see the magazine’s analysis of the news. Also, they introduce stories that I may have missed elsewhere. Their annual Roe v. Wade edition in January and their annual recap in December are “cover-to-cover” reads for me. Then there are Marvin Olasky’s “treadmill books,” the Daniel of the Year, and the always refreshing Andree Seu Peterson.

FTWin2014-coverFacts & Trends

A 60-year-old quarterly magazine for evangelical leaders, Facts & Trends covers the intersection of church and culture with relevant stories and practical information. Recently redesigned, it features award-winning journalism from writers that include one of the nation’s top religion reporters (Bob Smietana), the latest church-related research from LifeWay Research, and columns from Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer. Even with all that, the magazine is free. You have nothing to lose and a lot to gain from subscribing.

ModernReformationModern Reformation

With Modern Reformation, we are moving on to some magazines that cost a little more to subscribe to because their circulation numbers are lower. Still, they’ve been helpful to me. Modern Reformation takes a current event, theological issue, evangelical trend, or biblical doctrine and examines it from a conservative, Reformed perspective.

The analysis is always insightful, with helpful book reviews. The most recent edition dealt with God’s judgment on the Canaanites and was a thoughtful presentation of various issues related to God’s judgment and mercy. Michael Horton is the brains behind this outfit, and he has assembled a number of good contributors to make this a must-read.

TouchstoneTouchstone

I’m a new subscriber to Touchstone, a journal of “mere Christianity.” With contributions from Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders, this is the most ecumenical magazine in my reading stack.

What I like about Touchstone is that the “mere Christianity” on display here doesn’t water down the distinctives between these confessional commitments. The Catholics don’t pretend to be Protestants, and the Protestants don’t pretend to be Catholics. But in issues related to religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and the distaste for watering down doctrine, the contributors all share a similar tone. Russ Moore’s involvement with Touchstone was one of the reasons I subscribed.

ChristianHistoryChristian History

I have a box full of Christian History and Biography magazines. It’s one of the most helpful resources out there. I don’t know how many times when I’ve needed to know something about either a movement or a figure from Christian history that instead of going to my books, I’ve gone to this box.

The quarterly magazine shut down a few years ago and then relaunched through donations. This is an underrated gem.

Your Recommendations?

What magazines do you subscribe to? What magazines should I add to this list? I’m all ears.

 
 

Feb

17

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Are We Missing the Point of Frozen’s ‘Let It Go’?

8-27 (1)The bright spot in this insufferably cold winter has been the success of the movie, Frozen, considered one of the best Disney films in decades.

We took the family to see the film on Thanksgiving weekend, fully expecting the common, tired storyline of a princess being true to herself and finding salvation through romantic love. It is the Disney dogma, after all.

Suprisingly, the movie’s storyline takes us in the opposite direction. The princess who is “true to herself” wreaks havoc on the world and leaves shattered relationships in her wake. Her devoted sister pursues her, even at great personal cost. And when all seems to be lost and you hope a prince will save the day with romantic love, there is instead a stunning portrait of self-sacrifice, described as the only kind of love that can melt a frozen heart.

It’s not hard to see the redemptive sketches in this movie. If you believe that love is more than just a feeling, that true love is expressed in self-sacrifice (which flows ultimately from Christ’s willingness to give His life for the world), and that true change can only take place through redemption not self-discovery, then you will find this movie delightful. More importantly, you will find ways to connect this movie’s theme to the gospel. We loved it.

The Success of “Let It Go”

Four months later, we’re still talking about Frozen. It has earned close to a billion dollars at the box office, surpassing the studio’s all-time best moneymaker, The Lion King (in inflated dollars). For months, it has been in the top five, and the soundtrack has spent considerable time at the top of the Billboard charts.

“Let it Go” is the stand-out song on the soundtrack due to its beautiful melody and memorable lyric. The music video has been viewed more than 88 million times. But the success of this particular song leaves me scratching my head, especially when you consider its place in Frozen’s storyline.

If there ever was a song that summed up the Disney doctrine of “being true to yourself” and “following your feelings” no matter the consequences, it’s “Let it Go.” Take a look at some of the lyrics:

The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside.
Couldn’t keep it in, Heaven knows I tried.
Don’t let them in, don’t let them see.
Be the good girl you always have to be.
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know.
Well, now they know!

Let it go, let it go!
Can’t hold it back any more.
Let it go, let it go!
Turn away and slam the door.
I don’t care what they’re going to say.
Let the storm rage on.
The cold never bothered me anyway.

It’s funny how some distance,
makes everything seem small.
And the fears that once controlled me, can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do,
to test the limits and break through.
No right, no wrong, no rules for me.
I’m free!

Thousands of little girls across the country are singing this song – a manifesto of sorts, a call to cast off restraint, rebel against unrealistic expectations and instead be true to whatever you feel most deeply inside. What’s ironic is that the movie’s storyline goes against the message of this song. When the princess decides to “let it go,” she brings terrible evil into the world. The fallout from her actions is devastating. “No right, no wrong, no rules for me” is the sin that isolates the princess and freezes her kingdom.

It’s only after sacrificial love saves her from the effects of the curse that the princess is free to redirect her passion and power – not in “turning away” and “slamming the door” and expressing herself – but in channeling her powers for the good of her people.

If there is a moral to Frozen, it’s that “letting it go” is self-centered and damaging. What’s needed is for our distinctive gifts to be stewarded and shaped by redemptive love.

Perhaps that’s why I’m flummoxed by the popularity of “Let It Go” (the song). Not from an artistic standpoint; it’s a gem. But I’m afraid its popularity drowns out the bigger and more beautiful point of the film.

Rebellion vs. Rule-keeping

A popular idea in our culture is that there are only two ways to live:

  1. Through authenticity, expressed in rebellion against cultural constraints
  2. Through an ordered life, expressed in rule-keeping

Many people see these as the only options. And sometimes, Christians are assumed to be lumped in with the second group – the rule-keepers of religion. To the stodgy, religious types, “Let It Go” is an anthem to the beauty of spontaneity and freedom.

But Christianity doesn’t see morality in either of these ways.

We don’t believe we are most true to ourselves when we embrace our deepest desires. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. We need deliverance from our deepest instincts, not celebration of them.

Neither does Christianity say we are most true to ourselves when we conceal our sin – as if by willpower, we can control our terrible tendencies. Some religious people may put forward the image of a rule-keeping, behavioral checklist. But that’s not true Christianity. The gospel frees us from the curse of the law.

The Glory of Self-Sacrifice

Christianity teaches explicitly what Frozen only hints at: salvation comes not through self-discovery or self-restraint, but through self-sacrifice.

All across the country, little girls are singing about self-discovery. Let’s make sure that after they see this wonderful film, they are given songs about self-sacrifice.

 
 

Jan

29

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Christians and Movies: Are We Contextualizing or Compromising?

the_best_reasons_for_going_to_the_movies_by_yourself_126417541Earlier this month, I wondered out loud about the kinds of films evangelicals are watching and reviewing. The responses to “Evangelicals and Hollywood Muck” ran the gamut: some agreed (“Finally!”) while others resisted any attempt to question film-watching as a key aspect of cultural engagement.

I mentioned movie reviews and linked to Christianity Today’s review of The Wolf of Wall Street as an example. Though the post wasn’t primarily about movie reviews but instead the bigger question of how evangelicals develop and maintain standards when it comes to movie-watching, Alissa Wilkinson (the reviewer) interacted with my initial post in her lengthy article “Why We Review R-Rated Films.” Alissa seeks to frame the discussion within the broader context of movies, art and criticism.

So, although I’m not speaking only about movie reviews, and although Alissa’s article is about more than my post, I want to interact with her article’s rationale for reviewing all kinds of films.

Different Responses to Different Films

First off, if you’re looking for a quick history of how the Motion Picture Association of America developed the rating system, you’ll find Alissa’s article to be a good resource. She sums up what brought about the rating system in the first place and how it has developed over time.

Secondly, the article explains that different people have different responses to different kinds of films. This is a self-evident but helpful reminder. She says The Exorcism of Emily Rose is the type of film that she simply cannot tolerate in any form. Other people may find that movies about eating disorders or traumatic experiences trigger painful memories. So far, I’ve been unable to see Lone Survivor. My brother served in Iraq, and though I’ve been invited to watch the movie with friends and family, I cannot bear the thought of seeing a film depict, in brutal honesty, the kind of carnage that today’s warfare leaves behind. My brother’s deployment was nerve-wracking enough the first time. If he gets deployed again, I don’t know how I would handle the tension if scenes from that movie are bouncing around in my mind. All this to say, I recognize that no one is the same. What may be beneficial to one person is a stumbling block or intolerable to another.

The Art of a Good Movie Review

Next, Alissa explains the art of writing a good movie review and why evangelicals should make educated choices about what films to watch. She doesn’t believe it’s a movie reviewer’s place to tell a Christian whether or not they should watch a movie. Movies are something that “helps us understand the world we live in new ways; it teaches us about and records our cultural history; and it helps us keep a pulse on ourselves and our culture.” As such, a good movie review has this goal: “to try to help readers think about movies in new ways, informed by the Christian understanding of the world that undergirds everything we write.”

On the surface, this kind of review is commendable. I am not advocating a simplistic method for reviewing books and movies, where the story is embraced or rejected on the basis of the main characters’ actions (Are they good role models? Did they do bad things?). For example, you may be disgusted by some of the characters in The Brothers Karamazov, but the story is meant to turn your revulsion toward the bigger questions of suffering’s role in redemption. A Christian who critically consumes a cultural artifact will look for the bigger picture, not try to ban Tom Sawyer.

The Way We Tell a Story

So now we come to the example of The Wolf of Wall Street. Alissa writes that the film (despite its filth) still has a “clear moral sense of the universe.” Scorsese is condemning the excess of the characters, not celebrating them. For this reason (along with its artistic merits), the film gets a high rating, even with the lengthy section of caveats where viewers are warned of all the objectionable content.

Alissa would argue that the aesthetics and milieu of the film help reinforce that message. But I wonder if the same kind of self-deception is going on in this film that Alissa points out so perceptively in her review of The Hunger Games – Catching Fire. 

I’m not just frustrated, I’m appalled: all this tie-in merchandise declaws the story of The Hunger Games, in much the same way that the actual affluent Capitol in the books declaws the seriousness of the “real” Hunger Games—a forced gladiatorial battle between teenagers—by staging flashy weeks-long television specials around it in order to distract from the horror of juvenile carnage by making it entertaining.

The Hunger Games is a dystopian story that challenges our culture’s thirst for violence as entertainment, and yet, in its marketing, it has become the very thing it critiques. Alissa is perceptive in pointing this out: “They give us what we ask for. Bread and circuses. Chocolate and theme parks. Remember who the real enemy is.”

I think something similar is going on with The Wolf of Wall Street. How many filmgoers got the subtle “condemnation” of sexual excess that Scorsese was communicating? Like The Hunger Games, I suspect most people walked out of the film remembering the way the story was told, not the underlying critique.

Neighbor Love and Our Viewing Habits

According to Alissa’s article, good movie reviews are a way of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

“Loving someone means being able to live life alongside her. It means being able to talk about what matters to her.”

The rationale for watching The Wolf of Wall Street is this: “We knew everyone would be talking about it, and will be for quite a while.” In other words, it’s a cultural artifact that is creating conversations, and Christians need to be part of those conversations.

Loving our neighbor means entering their world and letting them know that we’re interested in what they’re interested in. A good movie review can clue us in on what others are talking about. But this doesn’t mean, when it comes to viewing a film, evangelicals should start defining “neighbor love” as sitting in a dark theater surmising how to use The Wolf of Wall Street as a connection point in our next “spiritual conversation.”

Do We Draw Lines Anywhere?

At this point, I feel like we are heading down a rocky terrain without any brake system working on our vehicle. Without any brake system in place, there is, in principle, no film we could not or would not see.

I’ve seen Hollywood elitists raving about the lesbian love story, Blue is the Warmest Color, which contains lengthy, explicit sex scenes with graphic nudity. Should we watch this film in order to speak knowledgeably about it if it comes up in a discussion with our neighbor?

Likewise, women can’t get enough of 50 Shades of Gray - both the book and the upcoming movie. Will we watch and review 50 Shades? If you’re a woman in a book club that decides to read and discuss this book, are you failing to be a witness by opting out of that discussion? Or are you being a faithful witness precisely because you withdrew?

After all, some would argue that the book is implicitly critiquing Christian Grey’s perversion and the damage it inflicts on others. Is it worth viewing two hours of sexual bondage in order to digest that critique? Most would say no. Why? Because no matter what the ultimate message of the film may be, the aesthetics and milieu (the way the story is told) overwhelm the point.

If we say, “No, that’s too far” to a film like 50 Shades or to watching an NC-17 movie, my question is Why? And why wouldn’t the “too far” rationale apply farther up the hill, before we’re off the cliff and heading toward the abyss?

My goal is not to create an artificial line, a legalistic rule that we cling to as a mark of purity. Instead, it’s a question of discernment, and that’s why I am left wondering: Is there anything to which we would simply say, “No matter how much artistry may be involved in this film, it uses copious amounts of sewage to get across its point. Stay away, for your own health.”

I’m not the only one drawing lines; I just wonder why the lines get drawn where they do. That’s why I believe Christians need a “theology of no” when it comes to certain forms of media. A recent NPR article shows how what was once considered R material is now becoming PG-13 or PG. What was once NC-17 is becoming R. The culture is sliding into decadence, and far too many Christians are sliding right along with the rest of America.

Contextualized or Compromised

Is our bigger problem a lack of contextualization? Or is it that we’ve compromised ourselves without knowing it?

That’s the issue here. And I suppose I worry more that we are failing our neighbor because of our compromise than because we’ve failed to contextualize.

Alissa is right that film watching is a matter of wisdom, not fear. But my great fear is that we are being unwise.

 
 

Jan

06

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Evangelicals and Hollywood Muck

wolf-of-wall-street-poster2-610x903-1I grew up in a fundamentalist environment. The church I was baptized in believed it was inappropriate for Christians to go to a movie theater. To this day, my grandparents maintain this standard as a bulwark against worldliness.

The library at my Christian school had a variety of books for children, sanitized for Christian consumption. Encyclopedia Brown made the cut, but all the “goshes” and “gee whizzes” were marked out with a heavy black pen. No second-hand cursing allowed.

Films without anything objectionable were allowed at school, but looking back, I see how this analysis was applied simplistically. I still remember watching an old version of The Secret Garden - a movie with no cursing, thank goodness, but with a pseudo-pantheistic worldview that healing power is pulsating through all living things.

As a teenager, I discovered the work of Chuck Colson, Francis Schaeffer, and C. S. Lewis. These men had a different perspective on art and its merits. I began to see artistic analysis differently. I realized Disney movies weren’t safe just because they were “clean,” and PG-13 movies weren’t bad just because they had language or violence. It was possible to watch a movie with a critical eye for the underlying worldview.

I never subscribed to the fundamentalist vision that saw holiness in terms of cultural retreat or worldliness as anything that smacked of cultural engagement. I don’t subscribe to that position today.

But sometimes I wonder if evangelicals have swung the pendulum too far to the other side, to the point where all sorts of entertainment choices are validated in the name of cultural engagement.

Generally speaking, I enjoy the movie reviews I read in Christianity Today and World magazine. They go beyond counting cuss words or flagging objectionable content and offer substantive analysis of a movie’s overall message. But in recent years, I’ve begun to wonder if we’re more open than we should be to whatever Hollywood puts out.

Take, for example, Christianity Today’s recent review of The Wolf of Wall Street. Alyssa Wilkinson devotes nearly half of her review to the graphic depictions of immorality, yet still gives the film 3.5 stars out of 4. Another review counts 22 sex scenes, but can’t be sure since it’s hard to tell when one ends and another begins.

My question is this: at what point do we consider a film irredeemable, or at least unwatchable? At what point do we say it is wrong to participate in certain forms of entertainment?

I understand there are complexities to this issue. Some Christians disagreed with the praise showered on the recent Les Miserables film. I am among the number who thought Les Mis showcased the glory of redemption. It was a movie in which the sordid elements only served to accentuate the beauty of grace and the dehumanizing nature of sin.

Les Miserables is not unlike the accounts we read in our Bibles. Sexual immorality, rape, and violence are part and parcel of the Scriptural narrative. If a movie version of the book of Genesis were made, it wouldn’t be for minors. It seems silly to cross out cuss words from Encyclopedia Brown when first-graders can discover some pretty adult-themed events in their Adventure Bibles.

So, please don’t hear me advocating for a simplistic denunciation of Hollywood films. I am not. But I am concerned that many evangelicals may be expending more energy in avoiding the appearance of being “holier-than-thou” than we do in avoiding evil itself.

Yes, Paul used a popular poet of his day in order to make a point in his gospel presentation. Cultural engagement is important and necessary. But church history shows us that for every culture-engager there’s also a Gregory of Nyssa type who saw the entertainment mindset as decadent and deserving of judgment.

Is there justification for viewing gratuitous violence or sexual content?

At what point does our cultural engagement become just a sophisticated way of being worldly?

I find it hard to imagine the ancient Israelites admiring the artwork on the Asherah poles they were called to tear down. I find it hard to picture the early church fathers attending the games at the Roman coliseum, praising the artistic merits of the arena even as they provide caveats against violence.

Yet now in the 21st century, we are expected to find redeemable qualities in what would only be described by people throughout church history as “filth.”

What’s the point in decrying the exploitation of women in strip clubs and mourning the enslavement of men to pornography when we unashamedly watch films that exploit and enslave?

I do not claim to have this all figured out. But one thing I know: our pursuit of holiness must be the mark against which our pursuit of cultural engagement is measured.

If, like me, you’re conflicted about this issue, maybe it’s because we should be.

 
 

Jan

02

2014

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Duck Dynasty Debrief

duck-dynasty-getty2Unless you didn’t scan a newspaper or watch cable news the week before Christmas, you’ve probably heard of Duck Dynasty by now. My guess is that most Americans first came across the family of millionaire rednecks, not on TV but in a retail store.

Revising Abraham Kuyper’s famous quote about Christ’s sovereignty, J. D. Greear tweeted last month:

Per latest trip to #walmart, I’m pretty sure there’s not 1 square in of the commercial cosmos over which the Duck Dynasty has not said “mine”

So what happens when patriarch Phil Robertson makes some crude remarks about homosexuality to GQ magazine? You get a storm of publicity that is every marketer’s dream. A&E was so outraged about Robertson’s remarks that they ran a Duck Dynasty marathon all weekend, I guess so people could see what the fuss was about, and of course, tune into the season premiere next month.

Meanwhile, fans flocked to Twitter and FaceBook to express their support of the show and the Robertson family. And, just as I predicted, the suspension of Robertson backfired. The patriarch was quickly reinstated.

It’s been a couple weeks since the brouhaha, enough time to get a little perspective on the controversy. There are several elements in this discussion that deserve to be revisited.

The Unpopularity of Biblical Morality

First off, let’s not be melodramatic. It’s hard to make Phil Robertson out to be a martyr and when there really are such things as martyrs.

If anything, the debacle simply shows us how unpopular it is to say that homosexuality is a sin, but also how unpopular it is to suspend an outspoken, self-proclaimed Bible-thumper for, well, thumping the Bible.

The omnipresent panels on news shows had fun with this event. After playing a clip of Phil Robertson preaching a few years ago, some of the talking heads seemed shocked that Robertson would lump homosexual offenders with swindlers, gossips, and God-haters. They might have been even more shocked if they’d realized Robertson was simply paraphrasing Romans 1.

Meanwhile, Bill O’Reilly supported Robertson’s right to express his views but thought he crossed the line when he said homosexual offenders wouldn’t inherit the kingdom of God. Apparently, O’Reilly missed 1 Corinthians 6 in his reading through the Bible this year.

Here’s the thing to remember: it is always unpopular to talk about sin. But Christians are a sin-talking people.

We believe that human beings are rebellious and flawed at the core of our being. We are all intrinsically disordered. Our loves are out of whack. We believe the world is a messed up place. Because of humanity’s failure to give glory to God, shalom has been disrupted.

Sure, we believe sexually immoral people are under God’s condemnation. But that’s what we believe about ourselves, too. We’re all in the same boat here.

There aren’t two paths to heaven and hell, one hetero and one homo. There’s only a broad path with all kinds of sinners, and a narrow path with all kinds of repentants.

The Popularity of a TV Show

The popularity of Duck Dynasty is a double-edged sword for evangelicals. The show reinforces the stereotype that devout Christians are a bunch of backwards rednecks. For progressives who live by a calendar that claims sexual enlightenment occurred in the 1960′s, Duck Dynasty is a throwback to an older time. The characters are harmless. That’s why so many liberal commentators were happy to give them patronizing pat on the head and and say, roughly, “Oh, they’ll come around.”

Stereotype or not, this does not mean I recommend we join the sneering class of “sophisticated” evangelicals who want the Robertsons marginalized because “we’re so much more articulate and sophisticated than their version of fundamentalist Christianity.” There are real gospel issues at the heart of this controversy, not least the nature of repentance, the need for faith, and the grace of God that is powerful enough to rescue us from our sinful tendencies. To look with disdain on Christians who boldly proclaim their convictions, no matter the fallout, is to risk adding to the ostracism such convictions engender. In Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, “city-fied” and “redneck.”

Phil Robertson Is Not Our Spokesman

So, even if I’m glad that Duck Dynasty has an audience, and that this family is seeking to remain faithful to their religious convictions, I would still caution evangelicals against making Phil Robertson our spokesman. He’s a brilliant marketer and businessman, but he shouldn’t be our mouthpiece.

First off, he was unnecessarily crude in his remarks.

Secondly, he minimized the pervasiveness of sin in the way he commented on the issue. (He implied that sexual sin was an irrational choice. But isn’t every sin irrational? And should we continue to imply that same-sex attraction is nothing more than a choice?)

Third, though Robertson talks about salvation through Christ without mentioning baptism, he belongs to a church that believes baptism is essential for salvation. The theology of the Churches of Christ cuts against the grace he appears to proclaim. And many people in that movement believe their salvation is sustained by their own works. Look to Phil for “family values” if you like, but look elsewhere for theology that is biblical and grace-filled.

Conclusion

In the end, let’s take a deep breath and get some perspective. We don’t pin our hopes to a television show, no matter how popular. And we don’t adjust our convictions to fit the culture, no matter how unpopular. Celebrity television stars come and go; it’s the Word of the Lord that stands forever.

 
 

Nov

18

2013

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

How Should Christians Respond to Noah the Movie?

This came out last week:

russell_crowe_noahWhen I first heard that a movie based on the biblical story of Noah was being made, I figured it would be some low-budget film along the lines of the television travesties we’ve seen about the Great Flood. The trailer reveals that much more time and money has gone into this film than I would have expected.

Whenever Hollywood takes a biblical story as its basis for a movie, evangelicals tend to respond in one of two ways.

1. THE CRITICS

First, there is the group that is primarily concerned with biblical accuracy. Taking any sort of dramatic license is akin to tampering with the text, which can lead to the solidification of errors in the minds of the viewers.

This group gets on blogs or comment streams and points out all the flaws and errors in the director’s vision for the film.

  • If it’s The Nativity Story, they point out that we don’t know the wise men were kings, or that there were three of them.
  • If it’s The Prince of Egypt, they point out that it was Pharaoh’s daughter, not his wife, who discovered Moses in the river.
  • If it’s The Ten Commandments, they remind us there is no biblical record of an Egyptian princess saying “Moossseeeess, Mooosseeeess!” so many times.
  • If it’s the History Channel’s Bible series, they point out the Bible does not attribute ninja moves to the angels who helped Lot flee Sodom.

You get the gist. This group wants biblical accuracy, and all movies are judged based on their ability to get the details right.

2. THE CELEBRATORS

Second, there is the group that is flattered to see Hollywood pay any attention to the Bible at all. No matter what Hollywood does with the sacred stories, it’s “getting the word out,” or “making the Bible seem cool.”

This group hosts preview screenings as a witnessing tool for the Lord (and a marketing tool for the moviemakers, of course). They find the good in any semblance of spirituality coming from Hollywood.

  • If it’s Bruce Almighty, they start a group discussion about how God may or may not be like Morgan Freeman.
  • If it’s The Passion of the Christ, they invite their lost friends and neighbors over for dinner and a bloodbath.
  • If it’s Spiderman 3, they do a sermon series on revenge and the spirituality of superhero movies.

No matter how bad the movie might be, it’s better than not engaging it at all. Make the best of a good Hollywood film!

What’s Right and Wrong in These Approaches?

I’ve deliberately caricatured the worst aspects of both these groups, but I don’t want us to miss the fact that there is something to be said for both reactions.

The critics are right to maintain a high view of the Bible and to judge everything by its standard. They’re also right about a movie’s ability to solidify mental pictures and details in our mind, whether they reflect the Bible well or not.

The celebrators are right to see an opportunity whenever Hollywood jumps on a biblical bandwagon. It’s easier to talk about spiritual things with your friends and neighbors when millions of people are flocking to spiritually themed films on the weekend. 

Where these two groups go wrong is in they tend to overplay both panic and promise.

The critics overplay the danger of a biblically inaccurate film, tending to see all artistic license as sacrilegious.

The celebrators overplay the promise of a Hollywood blockbuster, expecting spiritual fruit to come, not from the Word, but from pixels on the big screen.

NOAH

That brings us back to Noah. It looks like 2014 will be interesting for having an epic film based on a Bible story.

No matter what Hollywood does with Noah, we should recognize the backhanded compliment in having biblical source material as the basis for a film. The reason Bible stories are appealing is their built-in familiarity, plus their emotional resonance.

So, the jury is out on this film.

How will Noah be portrayed? As a righteous man or a pragmatic dealmaker?

How will God be portrayed? As a righteous judge purging the world of wickedness or a bloodthirsty tyrant who can’t wait to destroy the earth?

What kind of conversations will come from this film? Will we have the opportunity to talk with people about the nature and character of God? About the nature and character of righteous faith?

I recommend Christians watch this movie the way we watch any movie – with discernment and wisdom. We shouldn’t overhype the movie’s flaws and miss the bigger opportunity. Neither should we see the movie as the most promising method of evangelism to appear in recent days, as if the Word of God needs visual representation in order to maximize its power.

What about you? How will you respond to Noah the movie?

 
 

Oct

14

2013

Trevin Wax|12:10 am CT

Why “Gravity” Pulls You In

sandra-bullock-and-george-clooney-get-lost-in-space-in-gravity-trailer-watch-now-134387-a-1368110057-470-75Gravity is not a movie; it’s an experience. At least, that’s how people are talking about it.

With the proliferation of websites, subscription services, and digital passes for watching movies at home, moviemakers have found it necessary to increase the experiential aspect of watching a movie on a big screen in order to attract people to the theater. Gravity is an example of this strategy.

I usually wait for movies to come out on DVD, but the marketing push and word-of-mouth buzz from friends and family piqued my interest. I saw it in IMAX 3-D this weekend.

People are talking about Gravity for good reasons. (Spoiler Alert!)

1. Watching the movie is an immersive experience.

This movie creates the sensation for the moviegoer that you are in outer space. From the startling silence during key moments of the film to the 3-D effects that make it seem as if you are maneuvering your way through cosmic debris, Gravity was made for the big screen experience.

2. The storyline is compelling and is carried along by terrific acting.

We’ve seen movies before where a single actor carries most of the film. Castaway, for example, told the story of a man (played by Tom Hanks) trying to survive on a deserted island.

Films that rely so heavily on one actor usually rise or fall on the strength of the main character and the actor’s ability to keep moviegoers engaged. Gravity will probably win Oscars for cinematography, but it’s Sandra Bullock who particularly deserves an award. That Bullock can be so utterly believable as Dr. Ryan Stone is a tribute to her strengths as an actress.

What’s more, the supporting character in this film is not George Clooney, but the earth itself. There’s hardly a moment where we do not see our planet in the distance, its stunning, tranquil beauty juxtaposed with the chaos and emptiness of space. Our immense and beautiful “home” looming just out of reach, so close and yet so far, becomes a visual picture of transcendence.

3. The story does not shy away from questions about spiritual reality.

Gravity tackles philosophical and spiritual questions. At one point, the hopelessness of Ryan’s situation leads her to reflect on the inevitability of death. We’re all going to die, she realizes, but “I am going to die today.” The knowledge that death is coming leads to a striking scene where Ryan, hovering weightless in the space module, moves into a fetal position, with a tether around her like an umbilical cord. As she cries, her tears do not fall but float.

When all seems to be lost, Ryan turns to the subject of prayer, wishing someone could pray for her, but worrying that it is too late because no one ever taught her how. In the emotional climax of the film, the character is brought to the brink of death. But what seems most tragic is not just that the character is about to diebut that her death will take place alone, without the companionship of another human and without the spiritual ability to call for divine assistance. It’s striking to watch the spiritual dimension of human life come to the surface when a scientific minded, non-spiritual woman is facing her demise.

4. Humanity triumphs against all odds.

People love a story about someone beating the odds and surviving a horrible tragedy, and it’s no surprise that Gravity ends happily. The message of the film can be summed up like this: None of us will forever outrun death, so we might as well enjoy the ride. 

But while this philosophy, in other circumstances, could lead to a hedonistic lifestyle, in Gravity it leads to gratitude. As Clooney’s character drifts away to die, he marvels at the beauty of the sun reflecting off the earth. We glimpse the beauty of the Aurora Borealis in a scene that adds pathos and wonderment to the sense of solitude in space. And Ryan, when she emerges from the water after arriving back on earth, stands up, wobbling on her feet, and says, “Thank you.” She may have survived the tragedy triumphantly, but even this woman who doesn’t know how to pray cannot keep from thanking someone.

 
 

Aug

30

2013

Trevin Wax|4:10 am CT

Some Thoughts on “I Weep for Miley”

This has been an unusual week for me as a blogger. I wrote a blog post on Monday evening, “I Weep for Miley,” which was atypical in its tone and scheduling. Within a few hours, it went viral, leading to more than 80K shares and 400K views.

In the comments section and personal FaceBook messages, I received a lot of feedback and some criticism as well. I thought it might be helpful to address a few of the most recurring questions.

Did you really weep?

I was asked this multiple times, and the answer is yes. In fact, it was my weeping over this that prompted me to write in the first place.

After I got home on Monday night, Corina and I talked about the VMA’s and she watched part of the performance on YouTube. A little while later, I was watching our little girl play outside in a new summer dress she’d just gotten. And I just broke down about it all.

Because writing is one way I process my thoughts, I went to the kitchen table and started listing the reasons I was so affected by this. I usually don’t pay that much attention to “shocking” news stories. I’ve never seen an episode of Hannah Montana. To process why I felt so burdened over this, I wrote the blog post. Based on the response, I guess I put into words what a lot of people were feeling.

Why didn’t you write about Robin Thicke?

I don’t feel Christ-like compassion for Robin Thicke and other men who benefit from degrading and demeaning women. My visceral response is to be outraged that we live in a society where chivalry is dead and men can be involved in such displays of depravity without consequences. I’m praying the Lord would work on my heart and give me a proper proportion of righteous anger and His sense of compassion.

Why did you refer to Miley as sister and daughter rather than simply her status as a human being made in the image of God?

Some said I should have made it clear that lust is wrong because because Miley is a human being with innate dignity, not because she is in relation to anyone else. I agree with this criticism for the most part. Thinking of Miley as a daughter or sister, however, is what helps remind me of her humanness. It’s abstract for me to think of the theological truth of image-bearing without bringing other relationships into the picture. This has been one of the ways I fight the temptation to lust, look at pornography, or objectify women.

Why aren’t you weeping over more important things?

This was a recurring theme in the comments and in private messages I received. You’re only giving this girl more attention. There are children starving every day, etc. I don’t know how to respond to this critique, except to say I do believe there are other important issues to weep over.

The blog was merely a reflective post in which I unpacked the reasons the Miley debacle had so affected me. There are other issues that get to my heart (readers of this blog know that I am especially engaged in issues related to human rights for the unborn). Suffice it to say, I think Christians should probably cry more, not less, over the lostness of our world.

My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law. (Psalm 119:136)

You are a misogynist who thinks women need men to give them permission to perform in suggestive ways.

I’ll let blog readers decide if there’s any merit to this concern. Simply put, I do not believe it is a sign of progress for women’s rights for a woman to feel she must shock the world by exposing overt sexuality in order to make headlines and be accepted.

Conclusion

I’m always a little surprised when one of my blogs strikes a chord. This is why I love writing. You get to say what people are feeling but don’t know how to express. And then people spread the words that have given voice to their hearts.

Had I known the blog post would be read by so many people, I would have probably changed some things and tightened up aspects of the post. But over-thinking it might have lessened the emotional impact that led me to write it in the first place.

I pray the Holy Spirit would break our hearts over the lostness of our world, lead us to compassion toward people in need of Christ, and drive us to our knees in prayer.

 
 

Aug

26

2013

Trevin Wax|6:36 pm CT

I Weep for Miley

Picking up a sub sandwich today, I saw a news report on CNN about Miley Cyrus’ performance at last night’s VMA’s. I was shocked, then sickened, then saddened.

For the rest of the day, I wondered:

What kind of people are we?

What kind of culture have we created?

What do we want our children to be?

No more wondering. Tonight, I weep.

I weep for the little girl who gave us Hannah Montana and became a role model to millions of little girls across America.

I weep for the lostness of a girl who doesn’t see herself stumbling around in the dark.

I weep for the news channels that profit from their all-day coverage of a young woman spiraling out of control.

I weep for the American Idol culture that promises glitter and gold to children, then chews them up and spits them out.

I weep for an entertainment culture that celebrates the breaking of every social taboo and the casting off of every restraint, only then to turn and mock the stars that follow suit.

I weep for a tabloid culture that finds celebrity gossip and embarrassing moments titillating.

I weep for women enslaved by a false view of sexual liberation.

I weep for men (myself included) who have failed to say, “Enough is enough.”

I weep for all the times I’ve looked at women as objects and failed to see them as someone’s sisters and daughters.

I weep for the fathers of Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Madonna, and all the family members of all the other women who feel they have to sexualize themselves to achieve success.

I weep for my five-year-old little girl, who twirls around like a princess and hugs me tight at night, when I think of the world she is growing up in, the world I will send her into.

I weep for the broken, messed-up world we live in.

But then I weep at the power of grace.

There’s Jesus, lifting the head of a woman of the night and sending her away into the light. There’s Jesus in a crowd, healing a woman desperately trying to cover the shame. There’s Jesus at the well, transforming a woman tossed aside by multiple men.

Weeping is no longer enough. Now, I pray.