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The Obscurity Of ‘purity’ and Christ-honoring Art, Part 2

Last week’s column, the first in this three-part series, began with a rebuttal to the pervasive notion among some Christians (both real and merely professing) that Christians are meant to avoid exposure to any type of evil, whether real or […]
| Sep 4, 2008 | No comments |

Last week’s column, the first in this three-part series, began with a rebuttal to the pervasive notion among some Christians (both real and merely professing) that Christians are meant to avoid exposure to any type of evil, whether real or represented.

To that we find several objections, backed solidly by Scripture itself. Verses such as Philippians 4:8 never encourage Christ-followers to think about only nice things. The Bible itself often represents rebellion in much of its rot-gut disgustingness. The Gospel narrative itself comprises dark and bloody elements. And lastly, Christians were never taught to avoid the world and all its cultural products by the Apostle Paul, who illustrated the point with both words and by example. One of those examples is the below verse:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything.

1 Corinthians 6:12 (ESV)

Here, Paul quotes what was apparently a Corinthian proverb, and this instance, qualifies it with the Christian view. “All things are lawful,” the Corinthians apparently liked saying, but Paul goes on to say: Yes, but not all is beneficial. What is the point of doing “all things” if they only enslave you? The Apostle doesn’t even use the it’s-just-wrong-or-could-tempt-you-toward-evil argument. Instead, he goes for a more obtuse objection: what would be the benefit of doing something? Will it help you in Christ, or glorify sin?

That’s the argument I hope to make here, hoping to correct the opposite extreme of the first of three views on portrayals of evil. The first was a notion that Christians are commanded to think only about pleasant and Godly things and expose themselves to as few portrayals of evil as possible. But the second view goes something like this:

2. Because we’re saved, there’s nothing wrong with seeing the same movies, listening to the same music, reading the same books as others. After all, they’re just movies, music, books; I’m mature enough to handle these things. Besides, for much too long Christians have segregated themselves and been legalistic, and we’re supposed to be “all things to all people.” How should we evangelize if we don’t understand the culture we live in?

A meaty discussion

Not too few assumptions are inherent in a statement like that (though of course it can’t encompass the whole “side” because a summary can only go so far). The first is that movies, music and books aren’t significant; they’re just entertainment and so on. Closely related is the heavy implication that if someone is able to “handle” certain kinds of media or representations of evil, then all Christians should have the same power. If I can “handle” it, then you must be a legalist if you can’t.

To be frank, this is an unhelpful and closed-minded view that fails to take into account the different spiritual maturity levels and diversity of personality among believers. Picture telling that view to a former Wiccan who is repelled by elements of his or her religion incidentally reflected in a fantasy novel, even a Christian one. Or a former alcoholic, saved by Grace, who struggles to avoid even the places where beer is sold, and is mocked by his non-tempted friends who claim he ought to be able to go into a bar and grill with the rest of them. Or a typical Christian guy who shies away from too much exposure to women’s bodies, put down by a Christian doctor who has had years of mental conditioning to nudity.

Some people may not be aware that the Bible actually does say that some things are sins for people, and not sins for others. The same apostle Paul addressed that directly with the whole meat-sacrificed-to-idols issue: the big Harry Potter-style debate of its day, in which some believers felt free to eat certain kinds of publicly sold meats, while others — with backgrounds in idol worship — couldn’t stand the thought of buying a product offered by ritual to a false god. Paul sounds almost “relativistic” in saying, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (Romans 14:3).

From these chapters, it’s clear that some practices by themselves are not sins; here, the issue is the state of one’s heart attitude. So if you’re tempted by eating meat that others consider an idol’s offering, don’t do it. If you’re a former Wiccan who doesn’t like magic in Narnia or mandrakes in Harry Potter because those elements vividly bring back the junk in your mind, don’t read the books. If you’re convinced Easter is saturated with paganism and that genuinely disturbs you, don’t bother with the candy and eggs. If you’re a Christian ex-con and violence in movies tempt you to hit somebody, avoid them.

It would be wrong for “stronger” Christians to look down on others who don’t do such things and judge them for being legalistic — and wrong for “weaker” Christians to assume their apparently stronger siblings in Christ are just undiscerning backsliders.

But now we come to those things we really are told to avoid, and which really are sinful.


Sex, violence and the glory of God

Perhaps I should have put that subheadline first in the column. Like many media producers know, two of those words definitely get attention. Nothing draws eyes like seeing something explode, or somebody roll around and fight, or somebody get naked — or, even “better,” seeing somebody roll around and fight while getting naked.

Violence is big in movies, and nakedness and portrayals of sex-related sins are also prevalent. Naturally, then, when Paul starts telling the Corinthians about how some things are not beneficial, he heads straight for telling people to avoid violence.

Ha ha! I’m of course just kidding. No, instead Paul writes exclusively in that chapter’s remainder about the dangers of sexual immorality and the need to avoid it. Nowhere else, either, does Paul write about avoiding violence — doing violent acts, much less seeing portrayals of it — or bad language or references to bodily abuse. Instead, the apostle heads straight for the sex. “Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body,” Paul writes.

Am I saying that any practice not specifically condemned in Scripture is wide-open to Christians? Not at all. Cases can be made that smoking is sinful (almost all people physically, cannot smoke in moderation; am I wrong?) or that the use of intoxicating drugs, anytime, is an affront to our God-given lives and bodies.

But I’m compelled to side with Scripture because it spends more time addressing the more common sins, such as pride, coveting, hatred and lust, and leaves out rarer-occurring ones such as being tempted to hit someone the same way you saw somewhere. Sure, some people will be tempted to smoke or drink too much, or commit some violence, because they’re susceptible to those elements in a film. But I contend it’s public portrayals of sex that should be anathema for Christ-followers, especially guys.

Sure, seeing naked people on-screen don’t always tempt guys to want to do the same sorts of things. But, as documented in several dozen honest Christian books on the subject (sometimes too honest), seeing folks — especially female folks — without wearing much is far from merely Arteestic or Telling the Story for Christian guys.

By contrast, I don’t know many guys — feel free to correct me — who will watch a violent movie moment and even barely think, Wow, I’d sure like to go out and kill somebody! Similarly, seeing people drink on-screen won’t affect the average believer who hasn’t had a problem with drinking too much alcohol, or drinking at all. And even bad language, I’m sure the apostle would agree, is a sin “outside the body.” Whereas sexual sin is uniquely a sin against one’s own body — the temple of the Holy Spirit — and for most guys, a bikini-clad woman showing herself off, or a sexually loaded story scenario, has no purpose beyond over-interesting the guys in the audience.

Here is where other types of Christians, though, will disagree with the contention that portrayals of sexual sins are — for the most part, and formost people — the main kind of sin that Christians, especially guys, should avoid in media. Maybe they’d point out that Jesus went among the tax collectors and the prostitutes and wasn’t bothered. He had to put up with the bad in order to reach them with the truth.

Right, I would readily say. Jesus also walked on water. So I’ll shove you out of the boat!

Seriously, Jesus had all kinds of powers that we as His people will not have this side of Heaven. One of those included absolutely holiness; though He was tempted, He never sinned. We as His people are growing in Grace, but we still need to fight the junk.

Once I read a Christian novel, one of those what-if-Jesus-never-came-until-modern-times stories. In that book, the Jesus-character was portrayed as going basically to the parallel-world version of the “Playboy mansion” and preaching the truth to the Hugh Hefner equivalent and all the self-body-selling people there. The implication, not so subtle to this author, was that Christians should quit just yelling at these types for all their sin and actually go among them and try to make friends.

And ordinarily I would agree, except for this one fact: the author’s main character, following in the parallel-world Jesus, must have been a eunuch. While much of the book presented well his struggles trying to be “Jesus’” apostle, the protagonist’s real-life reactions to the “mansion” women were nil. I don’t think the book even said something mild such as, “he looked away, trying not to be distracted.” Am I wrong? Would a real-world, red-blooded, made-for-intimacy-with-only-one-special-woman, Christ-following guy be able to suspend temptation magically while preaching in the Playboy mansion?

If you’re a guy who disagrees, claiming this sort of thing doesn’t affect you, you’re either a real-life eunuch, or you’re blessed that God’s given you more powers to overcome those temptations. But please be kind to your “weaker” brothers. And that would be most of us, judging not only from all those fight-lust books, but Scripture itself.

Separation anxieties

Finally, the “all things to all people” passage (1 Corinthians 9: 19-23) has been used far too often by some Christians to justify all kinds of behavior imitating the world, when it’s clear from Paul’s passage that he only “became as” different types of people groups, or perhaps economic classes, “for the sake of the gospel.”

Again, it’s a matter of the heart. We can certainly understand and participate in our culture, to the glory of God and with the hope of sharing the Gospel, without indulging in its sinful practices. Paul read Greek poetry, but didn’t buy into any of the myths. Many Christians have found they can read Harry Potter or watch Star Wars, point out how the good-versus-evil themes of those books incidentally imitate parts of the Gospel, but also disagree with the love-as-the-ultimate-end or trust-your-own-feelings notions. Neither of those franchises will truly tempt most discerning Christians and cause them to stumble — unless they’re the rarer individuals who have backgrounds in real paganism and such.

Now, given both Biblically imbalanced positions of purity and Christ-honoring art, how should Christ-followers best interact with both darkness and light in not only others’ fiction, but their own? Often we have no exact how-to rules. But I hope to finish this series by outlining some Biblically based starter concepts, as best I can, next week.

E. Stephen Burnett 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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