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Evangelical Vs. Progressivist Content Warnings 102

Let’s challenge our motives for adding “content warnings” to even mildly controversial stories.
| Jul 16, 2015 | 15 comments | Series:

Evangelical vs. Progressivist Content WarningsEvangelicals like to have “content warnings” against things such as certain words, sexual dialogue, or violent moments. They believe these things will harm or tempt weaker people.

Progressivists1 like to have “content warning” against things such as certain words, sexual dialogue, violent moments, or in more recent cases also certain symbols in popular culture. They believe these will also harm or tempt weaker people.2

As I pointed out in my first article in this miniseries, I see little difference between the two approaches to content warnings—although members of both sides often accuse the other of exclusively practicing censorship and moralism.

But as I’m about to say in this article, Christians have good reasons to reevaluate a default posture of plastering warnings on all or most offensive content. Do we think that by giving all the warnings, we are the mature ones who protect “the weaker” who may or may not be actually weak? Do we act like even mild censorship is the best way of guarding against sin?

Content warnings do serve some good

Let’s recall first that either set of content warnings—either those used by evangelicals or by progressives—may be well-intentioned and may help people. I would never suggest that small children should be able to handle exposure to sexual dialogue. I also never suggest victims of real violence, with real “triggers,” should be thrust before, say, a violent scene.

That’s my problem with some of the pushback I’ve seen against all content warnings.

If a Christian movie reviewer says a movie includes 14 and a half F-words and therefore is unsuitable for children, is it cool to mock the reviewer?

If an article about date rape is prefaced with a warning that rape victims might find challenging and hurtful content in the article, should we imply that this is unnecessary?

Let’s not suggest that in every case, if someone is “triggered” or offended, well, that’s their problem and they should grow up or toughen up. That’s a kind of Darwinianism. It’s not how the Bible recommends we respond to those who are suffering the consequences of others people’s evil, or struggling against their own temptations to sin.

But let’s challenge our motivations

That being said, I think I’ve discerned a pattern of behavior and statements that give away one problem. The problem is that some people are putting content warnings on pretty much anything potentially controversial, not out of legitimate care but because they kinda want to fancy themselves the “smartest” or “most discerning” or “most caring” guardians.

I’m not saying this practice is motivated by self-righteousness. But it certainly can be.

By all accounts, the 2005 movie version should be banned for other reasons.

By all accounts, the 2005 movie version should be banned for other reasons.

Recently I engaged in a discussion with an internet friend about a similar issue. He thought more highly of the intentions of most people behind “content warnings” and even bans, such as pulling the old TV show “Dukes of Hazzard” because the car shows a Confederate flag. But based on biblical suspicion of human nature, I must view such attempts more negatively—as at best a mixture of good intentions but also savior-complex impulses.

For evangelical content-warners, maybe we also like to fancy ourselves the mature grown-ups. We are the special saviors who can see a violent movie or listen to a fornication-praising song “on behalf” of the simple, naïve, or weak people, especially children.

Then of course, as a Ministry we can inform people what’s wrong with the story or song, assuming all or most other Christians are immature and can’t handle stuff like we can.

A subtle form of this approach is behind the practice of doing this to a bad word: “d***,” and then acting like I am the big tough ranger Christian who is protecting helpless hobbits. “I heard a bad word and I can stand it, but I Censored it so you need not see it and be hurt!”

Undoubtedly too, in the progressivist/secularist world, columnists and pundits and writers are doing the same thing. In one recent example a student newspaper flagged even the word “crazy” (though they did not add the badness-obscuring asterisks or hyphens) so that weaker people would know that a bad word was there and could avoid it if necessary.

And let’s ask: Where does the constant content-warning end?

I also see few ultimate first-principles behind many content-warning advocates. They seem to minimize not only free-speech rights but the rights of artists to explain their intentions. Instead content-warners cite anecdotal statistics (“that idea will hurt the most people”) and often subjectively excuse certain people (“well, this trusted artist didn’t mean that”).

Without higher first principles, there is logically no end to content-warning gone amok.

If you warn about a Content that does not actually hurt people, few are reluctant to point this out. The only limitations stopping you are how many others you can get to listen to you, and whether you’re at the right moment to hit or start a cultural condemnation trend.

gilligansisland_skipperandgilliganLet’s say a pundit has a large audience of people who trust him, and he decides “Gilligan’s Island” ought to be banned or content-warned. He suggests the show is both racist (which it probably is in places) and filled with sexual innuendoes (which it also is in places). And let’s say other people, who are informed, respond with irritation at the would-be censor.

But what about uninformed people who hear the controversy only casually? The choice is:

  1. Support banning or content-warning an old TV show and thus enable censorship.
  2. Support efforts to criticize the content-warners and end up enabling a worse sin.

Honestly, given a choice between those sins, I would also choose the lesser of two evils.

But the choice is a false one. It does not actually fight actual sin or help people mature.

Let’s explore this next time.

  1. I am referring here to an informal secular religion, not a political cause.
  2. Samples of both warnings are in the image. The top example is from a MovieGuide review. The bottom is from a college newspaper.
E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Leah Burchfiel
Leah Burchfiel

They [Progressivists] believe these will also harm or tempt weaker people.

The “or tempt” part is puzzling me, because IME, Progressivists don’t use that kind of language. What’s generally more important is if you do, or do not, say an -ism. If someone wants to say an -ism but is socially aware enough to realize that is not acceptable in a context, then they are generally viewed as being fit for polite society. Unless they do it anyway, and then they’re probably a troll.

But anyway, it’s almost like a challenge to see how many codewords you recognize or can guess. I mean, AcapAcap? Waaat?

Also, if anyone is puzzled, I can provide an explanation as to why “crazy” is Frowned Upon.

Leah Burchfiel
Leah Burchfiel

Also, too, Progressivists would generally see the descriptor “weaker” as being ableist. “Vulnerable” is the generally preferred term.

Kessie Carroll

What, like trigger and content warnings? I see that all the time on Amazon. Particularly on romance with erotic content. “Warning: Contains adult language and sexual situations. High heat level.” Authors have taken to putting these in their book summaries to ward off the 1-star reviews, and I’ve been grateful that they have. Just like with movie ratings, I can tell at a glance if it’s something I’d like to read, or not.

(That and the reviews that nail these books to the wall for terrible writing and editing.)

I recently read a book that had some really gruesome reviews, because the readers didn’t realize it was a Christian book with huge swaths of preaching in it. Goodness, these people were MAD. I felt bad for them. I hate being preached to about worldviews I disagree with, too.

Walter Cantrell
Walter Cantrell

I’m hoping to Self-Publish a couple of books toward the end of the year, and I started thinking about whether or not I should include some kind of warning at the end of the blurb.  Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.


WARNING:  This Book Contains Strong Christian Content.  Throughout this Adventure, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is Presented in a Straightforward and Unapologetic Fashion.
Romans 1:16  For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes…


Sometimes I appreciate content warnings, but other times I think people take them too far. When taken too far I find such content warnings annoyingly misleading. People might, for instance, warn the audience that there is sexual content when there is actually only a very small implication that a couple slept together ‘off screen’. Depending on the circumstances, this may mean that I have to miss a part of a story because I got the impression that it contained a sex scene when it really didn’t. Maybe part of the issue is that some rating systems have very general terms that don’t really give the audience an idea of what the story is actually being rated for.

When I was little I thought about how movie ratings were helpful sometimes, but not always because they don’t rate for things that my parents may have banned. My parents tended to have rules against shows with tons of magic, for instance. I guess that’s one reason why I feel that parents should try to watch shows with their kids or before their kids.

When it comes to other things, such as trying to eliminate the confederate flag off the face of the earth, I get pretty irritated. Keeping it out of tv shows takes out a lot of history and limits characters’ beliefs. More importantly, I dislike how people do everything they can to get such things changed or removed rather than addressing the real roots of society’s problems. I remember my intro to psychology textbook talked about how it was wonderful that some tv show had avoided using the name of Mark Twain’s character of Injun Joe. But the textbook went on to say that unfortunately the show used the name Crazy Joe instead, which was supposedly discriminate toward the mentally ill. Racism and all that is of course evil, but there’s a difference between advocating racism and simply telling a story set a few hundred years ago and showing people in the mindset they had back then. Plus, if even calling a character crazy is bad, then what should we do instead? Call the character Kind, Sweet Joe even though he is a villain? I’d rather people write about mental illness in a way that educates people about it and shows them ways they can help the mentally ill, but we don’t have to eliminate any mention of the word crazy just to do that.


“It does not actually fight sin nor help people mature.”

Bingo. That is the problem in a nutshell. I don’t have a problem with content warnings in general, like movie ratings that tell you whether or not the movie is G, PG, or whatever. And I don’t have a problem with sites that try to review media so that parents have an idea what is in a particular movie or book or whatever, which helps them sort through all the options available.

The rest? Ugh. I mean, look at it this way. If someone has been violently assaulted and is having a hard time dealing with that, don’t you think they self-censor? For example, my mum died of Alzheimer’s Disease. That’s why I haven’t seen/read The Notebook or read the book Still Alice. Just by reading the dust jacket I can see that the book is about someone who dies of Alzheimer’s. So I choose not to read it because it will stir up memories for me and make me sad.

Knowing that media is full of violence, swear words, and portrayals of every evil known to man, if a person is particularly sensitive about a certain subject, don’t you think they research media choices to make sure that the subject isn’t portrayed so that they can avoid it? I personally hate watching movies that are full of swearing. Once a movie starts and the potty-mouth begins, I will eventually turn it off if it doesn’t get better.

These content warnings make me feel like people are a bunch of passive, quivering people hiding under their blankets who need everything spoon-fed to them by Big Brother. Give us some credit for taking care of ourselves, I say.


Yes, exactly. That’s how I feel too. A good review will tell you what you need to know without having to count and detail every sin that it includes.