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The Bible: R-Rated?

Can the Bible be used to support mature content in Christian fiction?
| Feb 4, 2014 | 47 comments |

200px-RATED_R.svgAdvocates for “mature” Christian fiction often point to the Bible as proving their point. They point out that the Scripture is full of violence, sex, and contains some examples of course language. Indeed, the case can be made that this is true. But does the Bible really fit the mold it is being forced into? Is it really the same as an R-rated, mature material?

What is “mature content”?

I don’t know that I’ve heard a good definition of the phrase presented in terms of fiction written by Christians. Jeff Gerke’s warning for the old Hinterlands imprint would give us a starting point.

Hinterlands books may contain vulgarity, profanity, nudity and/or sexual content, but never for gratuitous purposes.

Of course, this doesn’t draw any lines. Sexual content could mean anything from a couple indicating they are going to have sex to a full graphic description of the act. But based on Jeff’s statements from his guest article on SpecFaith back in January of last year, he relates the term as the equivalent of an R-rated movie in content.

Many Christians need to avoid R-rated movies, but some Christians can watch such movies and not stumble. That doesn’t mean anything about who has more or less worth to Christ, because that’s the same for both. It just means that there are Christians who can handle, and even desire to explore, stories with this sort of content. They can be grittier and, in some senses, more realistic.

When writers and readers talk about mature content, their boundaries would usually coincide with an R-rating on a movie.

So mature content means it is not G-rated, PG-rated, or even PG-13-rated. So what crosses the line from a PG-13 to an R? From the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating descriptions.

Sex:

More than brief nudity will require at least a PG-13 rating, but such nudity in a PG-13 rated motion picture generally will not be sexually oriented. . . . An R-rated motion picture may include . . . sexually-oriented nudity . . .

Violence:

There may be depictions of violence in a PG-13 movie, but generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent violence. . . . An R-rated motion picture may include . . . intense or persistent violence . . .

Profanity/Vulgarity:

A motion picture’s single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context. . . . An R-rated motion picture may include . . . hard language . . .

The language boundary would fit movies or book without any adjustment, but sexual and violence boundaries are different. To translate from visual media to printed media, it is obvious the difference is explicitness. That is, if you can read the same level of detail to form a picture as an R-rated movie, then you’ve crossed over into mature content.

For example, in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings into film, he had to keep it at a PG-13 rating. So he could show heads getting chopped off, but he couldn’t show blood spewing out as would be more realistic (from his comments on the extended version commentary).

So is the Bible R-rated?

It certainly contains sexual situations, violence, and some would say cussing. But do they cross the line into R territory?

If we take the above boundary, the level of detail, especially in relation to violence and sexuality, would determine if it is an R or PG-13. The more a book would show rather than tell, the more likely it is to cross over into mature content.

Let’s examine it in relation to the Bible.

Sex:

There are plenty of incidences of sex in Scripture, but none that are described in detail. The closest one gets to that is the Song of Solomon. However, it does so in an allegory, keeping the curtain’s closed, so to speak. Indeed, it has been interpreted in other ways than speaking of sex.

What you usually have, however, is very much telling. So-and-so knew his wife, and she conceived—type statement. No where in Scripture does it give a graphic, detailed account of a sex act. On the sex category, it would not be consider sexually-oriented nudity, and so not R-rated.

Violence:

Most all references in Scripture concerning violence is told, not shown. We don’t get depictions of blood gushing out, or other such details. The most one gets is bowels:

Now this man [Judas] purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out. (Act 1:18 KJV)

There are two or three more instances in the OT of this description. It is still pretty telly, but does give more detail that paints a clearer picture in the reader’s mind. Certainly much less detail than a novel describing the event might have.

But does that make it “realistic and extreme” violence? It is still too telling and not showing to be a realistic depiction, which would describe the bursting open, the blood, descriptions of the guts, and how the person feels either experiencing it or watching it. To simply say “his bowels gushed out” isn’t much different than saying someone cut off his head. No description, no R-rating.

Profanity/Vulgarity:

While Scripture doesn’t drop the equivalent of an F-bomb, there is some “harsh language” going on, as someone details on a forum post. I’m not totally convinced that the people then would have thought of them as profanity (too easy for us to overlay our culture’s values onto theirs).

For instance, Jesus calls the Pharisees, vipers. One might consider that name calling, but I don’t think it’s an explicative or profanity. Several listed in the article are questionable.

But it is a difficult task to sort out. Some of those could have been considered cuss words of the day. Like the use of the word, “dung.” He claims it is the equivalent of a couple of our words for it used as an explicative. However, it is not clear that it is being used as an explicative in the verse he cites:

Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ… (Philippians 3:8, KJV)

Paul may have simply meant it literally, not as an explicative. That said, Paul does give the judaizers, in his letter to Galatians, some harsh words:

I would that they that unsettle you would even go beyond circumcision. (Gal 5:12 ASV)

Oh that those who disturb you would even castrate themselves! (Gal 5:12 EMTV)

Based on the above, it is possible that some words and phrases, at the time, might be considered profanity or vulgarity.

That said, none of those words today would give a movie an R-rating. Even the castration comment. If any of them were considered profanity back in the day, they certainly don’t today. Even if we could point to some profanity, we have no way of knowing how strong it was considered then. It takes some strong language to get an R-rating. Minor cussing won’t do it.

There are no F-bomb equivalents in Scripture.

The Scripture would be rated PG-13.

Based on my assessment, one could not make the case that the Scriptures would garner an R-rating, as it is simply too much telling, and very little showing on both sex and violence. Any cuss words, if they could be labeled such, are likely mild in the Bible’s culture, and certainly mild to non-existent in today’s.

If the criteria for declaring something mature content is to earn an R-rating, the Scriptures don’t make the cut. This is not the mature content you are looking for. Consequently, those who wish to hold up the Bible as an example and support for mature content in fiction will find little to grab hold of here. Merely saying it happened does not make it R-rated.

What a PG-13 rating does tell us is the Bible can be used as support to mention people having sex, violence, and even minor, infrequent cussing. As some have said accurately, the Bible would not be approved to be sold in CBA stores if it were just a book like any other. Too many instances of sex and the occult to make it past the censors.

While I may be saying that one cannot point to the Bible as a justification and example of mature content, I’m not saying this excludes the possibility that mature content can’t be warranted and permissible to write and read, within limits. It isn’t inherently anti-Biblical, though on an individual basis, that depends on what all is shown. There are other arguments for and against mature content, and I’ve not dealt with those here. So don’t assume from this I’m anti-mature content.

Would you define mature content differently? Do you have examples from Scripture that you believe would be classified as worthy of an R-rating that I’ve missed?

 

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Julie D
Guest

My main problem is when people use “adult” or “mature” to indicate an excess of sex and violence (but mostly sex).  In one online discussion, someone actually pointed out that an excess of sexual content reflects a teenage mindset, not necessarily an adult one; a comment which I found all the more intriguing as it was on a secular discussion board.
Even if the term is used as a marker of R-rated content, that doesn’t always indicate the maturity level of the content.  For example,  The Velveteen Rabbit  has several profound passages

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.
”Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit. ‘
Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
 ‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
 ‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” 

That passage contains some very deep lessons about integrity, personal relationships, and seeing past appearances, but not one hint of R or even PG-13 content.  Yes, we need some way to indicate the sorts of intensity and possible temptations  in media, but maybe “mature content” isn’t the best term.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Rick, this whole article is so good.

Izzy Stevenson
Member

The problem is, you can’t compare book ratings to movie ratings. In a book, you can say the phrase “blood gushed out” and it won’t be a big deal. But if you *see* blood gush out in a movie, it will be a much different matter. Books can contain much more content than a movie and get away with it because, whether you “tell” or “show” in a book, it *is* still words on a page, and its level of graphic-ness is subject to the imagination of the reader.

You can’t tell if a book is R-rated or something less. In movies, you can tell what level of graphic-ness it is by looking at it; it’s objective. In a book, it will look different in each person’s mind; it is subjective. Therefore, you can’t really say if a book is PG-13 or R.

Alex Mellen
Member
Alex Mellen

I definitely agree with this. A lot depends in a book and a movie how you show or tell something. I’ve read books with scenes that have made me sick to my stomach because of the detailed description, though the actual action may not have been that terrible to watch. I’ve also read books that I would never watch if it was turned into a movie, because I know I would not be able to handle it.
 
Also, I think the author missed a couple of passages that might qualify for an R-rating, including parts of the book of Judges–especially chapter 19. I definitely had moments reading that book that left me extremely disturbed.
 
Now, does this justify using similar content in books and movies? Maybe sometimes, but we can’t justify it by saying “The Bible does it too.” Neither can we forbid violent content if the Bible doesn’t include it. It’s a matter of convictions and of accounting for the sensitivities of others.

Paul Lee
Member

Do you have examples from Scripture that you believe would be classified as worthy of an R-rating that I’ve missed?

 
Just today I read Jeremiah 25:33: “And those pierced by the LORD on that day shall extend from one end of the earth to the other. They shall not be lamented, or gathered, or burried; they shall be dung on the surface of the ground.” (ESV, emphasis added of course)
 
We don’t know for sure that the word translated “dung” had comparable vulgar connotations to the other English word. In fact, I think it’s unlikely that the word had exactly the same connotation, because historically our reluctance to analogies about human excrement probably came from the rise of living standards following the Industrial Revolution.
 
But one thing is certain: the analogy to feces in Jeremiah 25:33 was clearly intended to be harsh and disturbing. Whatever else it may be, the language is strong and unpleasant.
 
In the past several weeks, the image of a dead body being the same as feces has been coming to my mind. Maybe I got it from Jeremiah originally; I’ve read through it before. I was thinking through my reluctance to commit suicide despite my desire to die, and I realized that I didn’t want to leave filth for my family to clean up. I realized that I would become feces lying on the floor for my parents to clean up.
 
I’ve also adopted the vulgar synonym recently, because sometimes I need the harsher connotations.

David James
Guest
David James

Wait just a moment. You were considering suicide? What’s going on?

Leah Burchfiel
Member

I’ve been threatening to dope him up on Prozac for awhile now. You can come and hold him down.

Paul Lee
Member

Nothing, I’m just overly dramatic.
 
And I’m confused, and my pessimism combines with my confusion in complicated ways. I’m not sure whether or not I’m losing my faith — I don’t want to lose my faith, but I can’t maintain the same kind of faith I used to profess. I never really believed in being “saved,” and I gave up pretending to believe in “saved,” but I still believe — have almost always believed — in Christ.
 
(Seriously, give me any test about how much I believe Jesus is really God, but I’ll probably fail if you insist on absolute confidence in the Bible — which makes me suspicious, because Christ is supposed to be the one who saves, not the Bible.)
 
And now the people at church are starting to quote Already Gone at me (I think that book should have been entitled Already Judged), and I’m terrified because church is the only significant community I have. I don’t know how to relate to people very well outside of the context of shared Evangelical faith, but at the same time, the Evangelical language and practices make me deeply uncomfortable.
 
I’ve found myself explicitly identifying as one of those angsty young adult spiritual wanders/ex-Evangelical heretics, and that sickens me in my saner moments. The only reason I’ve fallen into identifying myself that way from time to time is because I’m desperate to identify with something, but a community based around cynicism is shallow. Cynicism must circle back around itself and swallow its own tale to be complete.

David James
Guest
David James

Find me on Facebook. I’m Friends with several people that comment on here. My extension is facebook.com/davidjamesofbtc

I would like to continue talking with you, but if we continue it here it would hijack the thread and probably be too public as well. Please do contact me.

You may have to “Follow” my profile at first. I check the “Follow” list on occasion to see if there’s anyone there I want to send a Friend request to. As I do not know your name I may not recognize you, but again, I’ll keep my eyes out for you. Even if you would have to “Follow” me at first, I think you can send me a message. Do contact me.

HG Ferguson
Guest
HG Ferguson

There are several places in the OT that are about as graphic as it gets.  The death of Jezebel immediately comes to mind — she’s thrown bodily out of a window, she smashes on the ground below, her blood spews as it would under an impact such as this, including on the horses, which then trample her corpse with their hooves.    After that Jehu goes in to eat and drink (one wonders how he managed that) and when he comes out there’s very little of the most evil woman in scripture left because the mongrel dogs have eaten her, just as the Word of the Lord predicted.  I could also mention the death of Eglon in the book of Judges at the hands of Ehud.  Let’s not get specific, you can read it.  Yes, gentle readers, the scriptures can be indeed quite graphic and gory when it suits God’s purpose.  Because the Word of God is real, and depictions like these make His judgment against unrighteousness all the more so.

Travis Perry
Editor

Ezekiel 23:20 talks in terms of fornication the desire Israel had for other Gods. The terminology in context is fairly graphic. Definitely a PG13 if not an R…though I think it would be a matter of what words you used to translate some of the original terms that would put the passage in one rating or the other. Especially when you realize translations as a rule tone down the terms there.

Robert Mullin
Member

Judges 3:21,22
1 Samuel 18:27
Judges 19: 22-29
Ezekiel 16 (metaphorical, but certainly R-rated). There are a host of R-rated scriptures (though I will fully admit that you are probably right in that most of them are “told,” rather than “shown”).  Travis has already mentioned Ezekiel 23:20.  
I really think too many authors worry about the content of their books and not the quality of their books. What are you saying with your content?  Are you  simply trying to sell your story to a secular crowd? Are you afraid that your fiction will seem too tame if you don’t spice it up? Why not simply focus on the story, and let the Spirit lead you? There will always be those for whom the book is not appropriate. We should all be focusing on speaking truth in our fiction, not trying to score points on a ratings card, no matter what on what part of the spectrum our stories happen to lie.

Jason Brown
Guest

I’m sorry, but I have to disagree on the “sex” part. Though Song of Solomon is certainly vivid, it isn’t the most detailed section of the Bible in regards to sex. There’s a story before that in which a man “knew” his wife and (this part is the most vividly detailed to me) “spilled his seed on the floor.”  No description of the actual act of sex beyond the one-word descriptor of “knew,” yet afterward it goes a little further to describe (using old-style wording) a married man letting his semen not go in his wife, but to just drop dead on the floor. God, seeing this as wicked, also had him drop dead on the floor.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I don’t know. Its weird in a way, because when it comes to the crucifixion, you have songs like Carman’s “This Blood” that sound like this:
 

Violently they grabbed his arms,As they tightly strapped each wrist,With a hellish look stood a strong armed soldier,Whip clenched in his fist,Laced with chips of bone they beat him hard,From his shoulders to his feet,And it sliced right through his olive skin,Just like razors through a sheet, 
 

It’s using R-rated imagery to make a point. This from a musician who would be rated G otherwise. You can do wrong both ways: you can PG it, and make a bloodless crucifixion with a serene Jesus, or go hard R and almost fetishize it. I don’t think you can really look to the Bible to sanction one way or the other.