Tuesday, December 16, 2014

When Abraham Celebrated Christmas

When we hear the well-worn tale of the Christ child, we can be tempted to greet it with a yawn. We know what Christmas is about, thank you very much.

Well, Abraham didn’t. Here’s how I image he might have responded to the “good tidings of great joy” that he heard.

Any historical inaccuracies are the fault of the Wikipedia articles I read. (Just kidding. They’re my fault—although I did consult Wikipedia.)


After a long and harsh argument with my wife, I sought refuge in the solace of the desert night. Leaving our tent, I walked until home was a small fleck on the horizon behind me. As my anger subsided, my strides became slower and shorter. Finally I stopped. The moonlight cast harsh shadows on the ground, imitating the harsh way in which the moon had dealt with me in the past several years.

You see, I grew up worshipping our moon god, whose name was Nanna. My hometown served as the location of the chief sanctuary dedicated to Nanna. The moon god played a central role in my upbringing; it was his name that I learned to worship on into adulthood. And when Sarai and I failed to conceive a child shortly after our marriage, it was Nanna whom we sought to appease with service and supplication. And yet, with all our efforts, Nanna remained aloof.

Sarai and I had often visited the priestess in the sanctuary, hoping that our god would bless us with fertility. But each trip proved futile. Each prayer seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Meanwhile, our neighbors and family members experienced Nanna’s blessing time after time after time. The good news of another pregnancy only heightened our awareness of our infertility.

It may be hard for you to understand, but our culture directly linked our worth to the size of our family. The larger one’s family was, the more he was esteemed. Having no children was a shameful failure. Imagine attending a friend’s wedding in your worst clothes, and being seated in a position where everyone could see you. Now imagine doing that for years on end.

Try as we might to fit in and act normal, there was nothing normal about us. Many of our nights ended in arguments, with Sarai and me shifting blame back and forth like two children playing catch. I would often end up storming out of the tent and going for long walks. Just like tonight.

In the stillness of this night, I looked up at the moon, silent and oblivious to my suffering. And the moon wasn’t alone. A countless arrangement of stars danced and flickered like the moon’s happy children, mocking me with the painful truth that my wife and I couldn’t even conceive one child.

And just as that thought passed through my mind, the Giver of Life spoke to me. The words seemed to bypass my ears and germinate inside me, setting my heart aflame. Immediately, I somehow knew this voice was not from any of the gods I had served all my life. This was the voice of Yahweh: He who brought everything into existence.

In an instant, I became acutely aware that what I had been serving all my life was an enemy to this personal and righteous Presence. With terrorizing clarity, I saw that all my worship and all my work had been aimed in the wrong direction. It seemed fitting that the Semitic name for our moon god was Sin, because that is exactly what my life had been built on: the service of sin. In all of my time begging for the favor of the gods, I had been acting as an enemy to the one Deity who could actually hear and answer me.

As often happens when one encounters Yahweh, I found my priorities undergoing a dramatic shift. Our barren family, which just minutes before had been my life’s greatest misery, faded into the background. A problem of superior depth and eternal consequences had presented itself. How could I, a bondservant of sin, find rescue from the piercing presence of the true and living God?

As if in answer to my confession of woe, Yahweh spoke the most amazing and comforting words my soul had ever heard. He pronounced a blessing over me, promising to bring a savior for the entire world so that sinners like myself could be rescued and restored. That night, Yahweh preached the gospel to me and the news staggered me with inexpressible wonder.

On that blessed night, I received a special calling rather than the condemnation I deserved to hear. And in Yahweh’s abundant mercy, that calling involved something my wife and I had long ached for: the birth of a child. Our own child. Sarai and I were promised a son. This world’s Creator chose to meet my greatest need—something I hadn’t even been aware of—by giving me my heart’s desire. What kindness! What grace!

Your New Testament Scriptures quote our Savior as saying, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” I tell you, I had never felt such joy in all my life as I did that night. I’m sure I scared half my cattle to death while running and leaping back to my tent, shouting with delight, desperate to share the amazing news with my wife. Yahweh had promised us not only a son, but also a Savior.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

When Pornography Invades “Normal” Entertainment

In this blog series, I’ve been assuming the detrimental nature of porn. The similarities between the sex acts in mainstream entertainment and the sex acts in porn are dangerous only if porn itself is dangerous. So, in order to reach the largest possible audience I can, I want to end this series by briefly putting aside religious considerations and looking at how science-based research alone can help us see porn as a serious “public health issue.” According to Fight the New Drug, porn’s damaging effects can be felt in three spheres.

First, porn use damages our minds. Porn use is addictive. Just like alcohol, drugs, nicotine, and the like, sexually charged media triggers a release of dopamine into the brain. Over time, this chemical response trains our brain to seek more and more enjoyment from whatever caused it. That being the case, porn physically changes our brain. It actually rewires—and damages—our brain so that we need more and more stimuli in order to receive the same amount of pleasure from viewing it.

Second, porn use damages romance. It trains us to view everyone around us as merely sexual objects, hindering our ability to develop healthy relationships. Because porn glorifies sexual infidelity, aggression, and abuse, we end up hurting our spouses, who desire relationships built on faithfulness, sensitivity, and love. Ironically enough, porn also leads to less sex: “Even being exposed to porn just once can make people feel less in love with their significant other,” thus leading to a decreased sexual desire for (and pursuit of) them. To put it another way, porn kills love, since it promotes unrealistic expectations for lovemaking.

Third, porn use damages our society. It creates distrusts between spouses, and emotional distance between parents and children. Speaking of children, porn use among teens and adolescents severely warps their views on sex—sometimes permanently. And even when exposed to nonviolent porn (which is much less common than one might expect), viewers become more verbally and/or physically aggressive, as well as more tolerant of certain forms of societal violence—including rape. To quote therapist John Woods, pornography addiction “is no longer just a private problem. It is a public health problem.”

This problem doesn’t stop with what we typically call pornography. As Dr. Norman Doidge says in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, “[S]oftcore is now what hardcore was a few decades ago …. [It shows] up on mainstream media all day long, in the pornification of everything, including television, rock videos, soap operas, advertisements, and so on.”

Think about it for a minute: what was once considered hard core porn was demoted to soft core porn, and what was once soft core porn is now socially acceptable. Everything is affected—not just R and NC-17 movies. We readily accept the pornification of our entertainment, not because we’re morally superior to past generations but because we’ve grown morally numb. We’re like the frog in the proverbial pot of water: because the temperature is rising so slowly, we are blissfully unaware of the danger we’re in.

And that’s why I’ve written this blog series. As we have seen, there are at least seven similarities between bona fide porn and mainstream sex scenes:
    1.  They both involve sexual acts
    2. They both involve sexual arousal for actors (mostly/especially men)
    3. They both are obscene
    4. They both encourage voyeurism
    5. They both promote unrealistic views of sex
    6. They both encourage sexual lust
    7. They both dehumanize and objectify actors (mostly/especially women)
We shouldn’t dismiss these similarities any more than a shipwrecked seaman should dismiss his only box of supplies floating out to sea. Sure, there are differences between porn and Hollywood sex scenes, but isn’t that something of a moot point? If anything, it only proves to further condemn our acceptance of an overtly sexualized entertainment culture.

In closing, let me appeal once again to a narrower demographic: those who profess membership in the body of Christ. Are we sure that our embrace of sexually explicit entertainment is not a sign of compromise or idolatry? Why are we so prone to defend our movie watching habits with the excuse that what ultimately matters is a film’s message—that the end actually does justify the means? Do we really want to pretend that the pornification of our amusements is morally neutral? Why are our entertainment choices nearly indistinguishable from those who don’t identify as believers in Christ?

To put it more positively, we have a promising alternative to the seven porn-like characteristics of cheap sex offered by the world:
  1. God has provided us a context (i.e., marriage) in which sexual acts are not only allowed but also encouraged. When sought through His provision, sex is far from dirty; rather, it is glorious and beautiful.
  2. Through holy matrimony, the arousal and fulfillment of sexual desires is a sweet gift of grace. Marriage allows us to enjoy great pleasure unaccompanied by the sorrows that follow in lust’s footsteps.
  3. The privacy of the marriage bed provides protection from the contamination of satisfaction found in the obscene.
  4. The personal, first-hand enjoyment of sex far outweighs the fleeting second-hand pleasures found in voyeurism.
  5. The saving and sanctifying power of the gospel allows us to view sex realistically: it is both great and tarnished by sin. Like any other pursuit of pleasure, it is sometimes euphoric and sometimes…normal. We can view sex as a gift from God and avoid the fallacy of treating it like a god; it will never answer our souls’ longing for meaning or purpose.
  6. The beauty of God’s holiness lures us away from the mud pies we once enjoyed in the slums, drawing us into the banquet hall of unending grace. At God’s right hand are great pleasures—not the faulty or fleeting kind, but the kind that go on forever.
  7. God’s grace enables us to view others, not as tools for our own enjoyment, but as men and women made in the image of God. The gospel frees us to love others sacrificially and to experience how it is better to give than to receive—yes, even in the marriage bed.
I implore you to consider that the modern church’s tolerance—and outright support—of sexually explicit entertainment may not be a sign of a healthy engagement with the world. It might actually be a sign that we are captivated by inferior artistic and hedonistic pleasures. It might be a sign that the world is doing a better job at being leaven and darkness than we are at being salt and light.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Dehumanizing Actors for Our Entertainment

It’s been called “the most infamous sex scene ever.” The film in which it is found was banned in several countries. The scene is said to have “scandalised [sic] the…movie-goers who actually got to see it.” But no one was as scandalized as Maria Schneider, the young actress who starred in the scene (and the movie). For decency’s sake I won’t give any specifics, but I will quote from an interview with Schneider (linked to above) so we can better understand the trauma she went through. (Note: the article contains a risqué picture.)

“That scene wasn’t in the original script. The truth is it was Marlon [Brando] who came up with the idea,” she says.

“They only told me about it before we had to film the scene and I was so angry.

“I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can’t force someone to do something that isn’t in the script, but at the time, I didn’t know that.

“Marlon said to me: ‘Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie,’ but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears.

“I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by [Director] Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologise [sic]. Thankfully, there was just one take.”

Specific scenarios like this—filming impromptu sex scenes—are unlikely to take place today. But that’s a small comfort to many modern-day thespians. The prevalence of nudity and sex scenes in mainstream film and television scripts places a huge amount of pressure on actors. As I’ve detailed before, this pressure often leads people to violate their consciences in order to get ahead in the entertainment industry.

Do these experiences match those of porn actors? As part of my answer, let me quote from the book The Hardcore Truth: An Ex-Porn Producer Reveals 10 Myths About Pornography. The book is in the format of an interview, in which Matt Fradd asks Donny Pauling about his experience producing porn for nine years.

Donny: People ask me now, “Are you attracted to porn?” and I say, “What’s attractive about a girl curled up in a corner in a ball, sucking her thumb in a fetal position because her mind is so blown by what she just went through?”

Matt: This is the stuff you would see while on set?

Donny: Absolutely, you see things like this. You see girls break down crying. I would have a camera focused on a girl, and there would be tears coming out of her eyes.

Matt: What would happen in that situation? I suppose you would have to re-apply the makeup?

Donny: Yeah, we would just have to stop for a while and let her collect herself. And it depended on my attitude that day. Sometimes I’m not in the mood for this. “Come on, knock this off. We have work to do here.” People believe the myth that [porn is] glamorous and it’s just not. You don’t hear about all the things that happen in the lives of these girls and how they break down—and even the guys in the business. They hide it a little bit better, but it’s definitely not a glamorous thing.

So we see that actors who sexually act out for the camera—whether it’s in the world of porn or the world of mainstream cinema—can experience similar feelings of humiliation, shock, and grief. Phrases like “I felt a little raped” and “[girls] curled up in a corner in a ball” are damning descriptions. They reveal an intense form of psychological and sexual abuse, as well as a calloused disinterest on the part of filmmakers.

Let’s try an experiment. Below, I’m going to quote from several industry insiders about their experiences. See if you can guess which examples are related to pornography and which are related to major motion pictures.

1.     “I want to be known for my acting, not for my breasts.”

2.     “I know how many of the women in these scenes (and probably men too, you just don’t hear from them) have talked about throwing up in the bathroom between scenes, crying, stressing out constantly, etc. . . . I know no other culture more willing to use people and throw them away.”

3.     The industry has a way of making you bitter – it teaches you not to trust people and it ages you.”

4.     One article states that, for most actors in this business, filming sex scenes is “a necessary evil.”

5.     “If I never had to do it again that would be the best thing. You’re worried about what the other person is feeling, you’re worried about what the crew are thinking, whether they’re really uncomfortable, whether you’re uncomfortable. You’re just thinking, ‘God let this be over.’ [These scenes are] generally just mortifying or humiliating.”

6.     “It’s very traumatic, it really is. It never gets easier.”

7.     “I was absolutely terrified and had no idea what was going on. I cried afterwards because I was thinking, ‘This isn’t acting, what am I doing?’”

8.     “You can’t really get over the embarrassment. I know [some] people…do things like drinking shots before filming, but I handle them by not really watching them afterwards.”

What is your guess? Which examples are from the world of porn and which are from film/television? Here’s the breakdown:

The last five come from an article I’ve linked to previously*:

  • The “necessary evil” quote (Number 4) is a general statement of the writer
  • Number 5 is from actress Claire Foy
  • Number 6 is from actress Natalie Dormer
  • Number 7 is from actress Ruta Gedmintas
  • Number 8 is from actress Cléménce Poesy

Of the above eight examples, only one of them is about the porn industry; all the rest deal with mainstream entertainment.

Now, some could argue that not every actor expresses shock or shame when faced with a sex scene. For what it’s worth, they’re right. Scarlett Johansson, for example, is quoted as saying, “Shooting those sorts of scenes always ends up being more funny than anything else.” But we need to be careful here. If you want to employ the excuse that “not everyone feels this way,” let me ask you two questions.

First, what exactly is your point? If you’re trying to prove me wrong, you’re arguing against something I’ve not even said. It’s never been my intention to pretend that these experiences are universal—only that they are prevalent. Movie patrons need to know what kinds of behind-the-scenes actions their money is supporting.

Second, when you argue that “not everyone feels this way,” what does that say about you? Do you mean that treating actors like pieces of meat isn’t a real problem unless it’s done 100% of the time? That dehumanizing actors is acceptable in Hollywood so long as it’s practiced in moderation? That actors should just accept sexual objectification as a normal hardship of stardom? I don’t see how such a stance can be anything but a form of moral negligence. It’s irresponsible—at best.

God created humans in His own image. Objectifying and dehumanizing them is bad enough, but doing so for our entertainment is sick and sinful. It shows a disregard for the second greatest commandment of all time: to love our neighbor as ourselves. Brothers and sisters in Christ, we are called to a higher standard. For the glory of God and the good of humankind, let us show greater, Christ-like love to those whose consciences are being sacrificed on the altar of our amusement.

* http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/my-mums-going-to-see-this-actors-and-actresses-reveal-secrets-of-the-sex-scenes-7658255.html (Because this article has what some would consider indecent visual content, I’m not providing a hyperlink to it.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Breeding Ground for Lust

Does pornography celebrate marriage? The question might cause you to snicker. And for good reason. The porn industry depicts sexual perversion, not sexual purity. Onscreen acts include fornication, adultery, sadomasochism, ménage à trios, and orgies (to name a few).

In contrast with the cheap thrills of porn, the Bible celebrates the act of sex within the context of the covenant of marriage. Husbands are encouraged to drink deeply from the well of conjugal relations (Pr. 5:15-19), and couples are told to enjoy sex often (1 Cor. 7:3-5). Both the Old and New Testaments prohibit sexual activity outside of marriage (Ex. 20:14; Pr. 6:24-35; Matt. 5:27-30; Eph. 5:3), for such acts are a denial of the God who made us and are damaging to one’s own body (1 Cor. 6:18-20).

As Christians, we believe sex is more than a physical act: it is a mystical union that ties two beings together, even if there is no love or commitment involved (1 Cor. 6:16). The monogamy provided in marriage points us to the faithfulness of Christ toward His beloved bride, the church. Sexual relations in marriage exist, at least in part, so that we may know God in Christ more fully. Sex is no mere triviality.

There’s obviously a great contrast between porn’s vision of sex and Scripture’s vision of sex. So how do we categorize sex acts portrayed in mainstream movies?

Succinctly put, mainstream sex scenes are largely characterized by lust. Does that sound like a controversial statement? It shouldn’t. Consider that the majority of sex scenes in films depict acts between unmarried persons. And it does more than just portray the immorality that exists in real life; it celebrates it:

In the movies, immorality in general, and fornication in particular, is almost unanimously portrayed as acceptable, if not laudable. [In sex scenes,] Hollywood isn’t just portraying reality. It’s putting a stamp of approval on immorality.

As I’ve pointed out before, even if it could be proven that depictions of married sex were legitimate forms of entertainment, we would still have to eliminate 99% of what Hollywood has to offer. Mainstream sex scenes regularly depict the same acts celebrated in porn: fornication, adultery, sadomasochism, ménage à trios, and orgies (to name a few).

A popular argument is that there are a lot of people who aren’t negatively affected by sex scenes in movies. While that may be true, I’d ask you to contemplate the questions listed in Sex Scenes in Movies Don’t Bother Me. There are a handful of factors that are regularly overlooked.

Is one sex scene likely to ruin your marriage or destroy your capabilities to enjoy your conjugal rights? No. (Although even one erotic image can easily be ingrained in one’s consciousness.) But we’re not talking about one or two instances, are we? We’re talking about regular, socially acceptable entertainment. Sexually imagery is powerful, and repeated exposure to sex acts outside of the marriage relationship encourages audiences to cultivate a taste for sex as it shouldn’t be.

What happens when you feed your soul a steady diet of sexualized, tantalizing, obscene, voyeuristic, unrealistic, lustful entertainment? You start to desire the love, excitement, and fulfillment supposedly found in immorality. You find an increasing desire for what God has said is off limits. You develop a stronger and stronger appetite for what God said you should never taste.

If you’re married, you may very well experience a weaker and weaker enjoyment in your spouse. You compare your spouse to the naked bodies you’ve seen on screen. You compare your love life to the thrilling, animalistic, lustfully euphoric sex depicted in movies. The lovemaking you experience with your spouse becomes more and more boring and unsatisfying.

To be clear, this is not because marital sex is inherently mundane. On the contrary! Rather, it is because you can’t fully enjoy what is pure when you have cultivated a taste for what is impure. And no one in the history of mankind has found true love and lasting fulfillment through sex outside of God’s provision. Fleeting pleasure, maybe, but never soul-enriching satisfaction. You can’t quench your thirst with salt water.

Just so there’s no mistake, I’m not saying it is wrong for films to deal with sexual topics—even sordid ones. Scripture deals with sordid sexual topics, and some movies should deal with sordid sexual topics. What I’m focusing on here, and what we’re focusing on in this blog series, is the narrow topic of onscreen sex acts. That’s it. You can disagree with me if you want, but please don’t disagree with something I’m not even saying.

What I am saying is simply this: whether it involves the protagonists or antagonists, central or secondary characters, most cinematic sex acts portray and normalize immorality. They encourage us to find sexual pleasure, not in our spouses, but in the looks and acts of others. They can’t help but promote what they portray. As I’ve argued earlier:

The reason all sex outside marriage—from the socially acceptable to the fairly “kinky” to the outright violent—is tantalizing is because it’s forbidden. Therefore, displaying a sex act on screen (real or simulated) is to display sex as it should not be. In other words, it is tantalizing. In other words, it is pornographic.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

INTERSTELLAR (2014) – Film Review

As a fan of Christopher Nolan, and of science fiction in general, I was intrigued to see what the revered auteur would bring to this particular genre. Would his storytelling genius wow audiences once again? Would this movie become my favorite sci-fi film of all time (as I dared to only slightly hope)?

In anticipation of the experience, I enacted a self-imposed media blackout: I decided that I wouldn’t watch any trailers for Interstellar or read any critical reviews before seeing the film for myself. I wanted to step into the theater with as little knowledge about the future as the astronauts in the movie. The fewer preconceived notions I harbored, the less likely I was to be disappointed—and the more likely I was to be satisfied.

So, what to my wondering eyes did appear? Let’s take a look. As a reminder, I rate movies based on three criteria: morally objectionable content (C), artistic merit (A), and my personal opinions (P).

CONTENT (C): 9 out of 10
Let’s be honest: one problematic characteristic of Christopher Nolan is that he loves his anti-heroes. In his films, you find yourself rooting for people whom you wouldn’t invite over for dinner in real life. In this case, however, the main character is a more traditional protagonist. He is not just sympathetic, but also quite scrupulous. This is a man you can fully support.

One laudable characteristic of Christopher Nolan is that he consistently rejects opportunities for reveling in the obscene—and he’s been given the opportunity several times (not the least of which was the presence of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises). Nolan has taken the admirable path of decency once again in Interstellar, for which I am thankful.

Probably the most controversial elements of the film are a smattering of language (including the explosion of an f-bomb) and an implicit declaration that there is no room for faith in a world of science. Although, later in the film, another force is given its due reverence, which could be interpreted as either complementary or subversive to the earlier declaration. Whatever the case, there is a strongly humanistic slant to the film’s resolution, but it’s not anything I would consider problematic.

ARTISTRY (A): 8 out of 10
The most captivating aspect of this movie is Matthew McConaughey’s performance. The range of emotions experienced by his character are intensely palpable. If it were up to me, I’d nominate him for an Oscar.

The script is padded with a bit of extraneous material (a pointless baseball scene, redundant exterior shots of the spaceship, etc.), but it’s nothing terribly bad. Some critics might complain about logical inconsistencies, but those come naturally with a story saturated in metaphysics.

I love how Nolan decided to go completely silent for the shots of outer space. Such a restrained approach, especially when used in a few key plot points, is atypical for big-budget Hollywood—and, as a result, is more poetic. It shows that you don’t necessarily need to juice everything up to the nth degree in order to be dramatically effective.

The one place where I think Nolan is consistently weak is in the music department. He picks composers and/or scoring techniques that hover in the realm of mediocrity. True to form, the music composed for this film is bland, although there are a few moments of genuine creativity. Why composer Hans Zimmer chose to use an organ as his main instrument is beyond me. The instrumentation isn’t nearly as bad as that employed by Ennio Morricone in Mission to Mars, and it still technically works in the film, but I’d like to see a Christopher Nolan movie with a musical score that is more than just serviceable.

Speaking of audio problems, there are times when the music is mixed so loudly that the dialogue is incomprehensible. It only happens a few times, but the poor mixing quality is surprising, considering the caliber of those behind the camera.

PREFERENCE (P): 5 out of 10
Unfortunately, Interstellar isn’t anywhere near my favorite sci-fi movie. Not to say that I hated it. I never found it boring. In fact, I was fairly interested throughout the movie’s entire 169-minutes. But a Christopher Nolan film usually does a lot more than just keep me interested; it captivates me and, in the case of The Prestige, causes me to geek out long after the credits have rolled. That didn’t happen this time around.

And then there was the ending. I won’t give any spoilers, but I will say that I found the climax a bit…hokey. It didn’t take me out of the experience, but it did seem farfetched. Then again, Nolan is dealing with various phenomena about which we have only partial understanding. I can appreciate his attempt to avoid being clichéd in the third act; I just didn’t find it completely satisfying. (I will point out that my wife, who is smarter than I am, guessed one key aspect of the film’s ending only a scant few minutes into the movie. In that sense, she would say the ending was, if not clichéd, too predictable.)

If I were to rank all of Nolan’s films, I’d probably place Interstellar at or near the bottom. I don’t mean for that to be an insult. As I’ve said about Pixar, a bad Christopher Nolan film is still good filmmaking. It’s going to take a heck of a lot more than this for me to say the director has lost his touch. With Interstellar, he just didn’t touch my mind and heart as powerfully as I might have hoped.

CAP score: 73%

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Anti-Science, Anti-Pleasure, and Anti-Reality

* CONTENT ADVISORY: This topic requires a certain level of frankness that may be inappropriate for some readers. While I have taken great pains to avoid titillation, reader discretion is still advised. *

One scene in the screenplay for The Wolf of Wall Street required Margot Robbie to perform a sexually charged act: to take off a part of her clothing in a way that was…impractical.

“I remember thinking when I read it, ‘That’s just impossible,’” Robbie says. She actually sat down at home and tried it. “I was like, ‘No, I’m right, that is absolutely impossible.’” [1]

On the day that scene was shot, they had to improvise and come up with an alternative course of action. (I guess sometimes even Hollywood can’t make the impossible possible.)

This story illustrates a common trait of sex acts portrayed on film: they aren’t exactly rooted in reality. Porn is, of course, the worst offender. “True to life” is not something you’ll see plastered on the advertising for the latest titillation flick. Often, the sex acts in porn are downright fantastical—not in the “man, that’s great” sense, but in the “man, what alternate universe are they living in?” sense. Pornographic films can present us with sexual trysts that are outlandish. Apart from their tantalizing nature (and sometimes even in spite of it), they’re downright hilarious in their lack of realism.

You know what I’m talking about. A woman waltzes in to a public men’s room with a guy and they spontaneously copulate without anyone interrupting. A man opens the door to a woman’s house, walks right in, and the two go at it with the door wide open. A couple decides to have sex out in public, and the surrounding crowds respond not with horror but with enthusiastic support. Business associates riding in a limo suddenly have rabid intercourse with speed, style, and positioning that are physically impossible. Yes, porn isn’t interested in reality.

Except that the above scenarios are actually specific scenes from recent movies. In fact, if I listed the actors involved in those scenes, you would recognize four big-name Hollywood personalities. When it comes to describing the sex act, it seems that Tinseltown isn’t much more concerned with reality than porn is.

Think, for example, about sexually transmitted diseases, which areone of the most critical health challenges facing the nation today.” The CDC estimates that there are over 2,000 new infections every hour in the United States. The greatest protection from STDs, of course, is complete abstinence, followed by monogamy. Another form of protection is correct and consistent use of male latex condoms.

Porn doesn’t deal with these facts. But what about mainstream movies? How many films show, say, the use of condoms? Stop and think about that. Can you think of any instances?

Several years ago, I read somewhere (and I mentally kick myself for not saving the article) that the number of times “safer sex” has been portrayed in the entire history of cinema can be counted on one hand. That’s less than six presentations of condom use in over 100 years of filmmaking.

That number might need adjusting now, but the truth remains: Hollywood consistently gives us glamorized portrayals of unsafe sex. I won’t pretend to know all the reasons why, but there’s at least one: as Health.com acknowledges, “People are always complaining about condoms; they say they’re uncomfortable, kill their erections, or disrupt the intimacy or sensitivity of sex.” It’s harder for filmmakers to make a sex scene engaging when they’re forced to stumble through the unromantic process of breaking out the latex. It’s something of a mood killer.

STDs are rarely involved in cinematic plotlines that involve sexually promiscuous characters. Other than lewd comments or jokes, the dangerous reality of unprotected and non-monogamous sex is almost universally ignored. Practically no one uses condoms or ever contracts a sexually transmitted disease. How realistic is that?

Cinematic sex scenes are also unrealistic in that they present immorality as the most exciting and satisfying form of intercourse. To an incredibly large degree, sex acts portrayed in films are between unmarried persons. I guess it could be argued that movies are just portraying how most people live their lives. After all, sex outside marriage is common in our society.

The problem with that argument is not that it’s false but that it’s only part of the truth. Sex outside marriage isn’t simply acknowledged in our entertainment (movies, TV shows, magazines, books, video games, etc.)—it is also celebrated. In the movies, immorality in general, and fornication in particular, is almost unanimously portrayed as acceptable, if not laudable.

Hollywood isn’t just portraying reality. It’s putting a stamp of approval on immorality. Of all forms of sex, the film industry respects marital lovemaking the least of all, often downplaying it through the use of derogatory humor. This despite the fact that marriage-based, others-centered sex is the most satisfying of all. Sex scenes in movies don’t match scientifically-proven reality.

We’ve already touched on the unreality of certain sexual scenarios in film. These alternate reality situations extend also to the ways in which men and women are portrayed. As a general principle, men and women view sex differently: men are more experience-focused, whereas women are more relationship-focused. There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Some women can be more sexually aggressive now than they were a couple decades ago, and porn use among women (something once considered a “man’s problem”) is on the rise.

Nevertheless, if you’ve had any experience in a long-term relationship with a member of the opposite sex, you’re more aware of the distinct differences between men and women. In contrast to this, women in sex scenes are often written to act just like men do: with a crazed libido focused almost exclusively on external experiences. Such scenarios are tantalizing for guys (which is one reason why porn is filled with them), but it’s not rooted in reality.

Speaking of personal experience in marriage, I remember a conversation in which one of my pastors emphatically stated how fake cinematic sex was. Not being married at the time, I wondered how fake it could actually be. I mean, sex is sex, right? Hollywood couldn’t get it that wrong.

Now that I’m married, I see more clearly what he was talking about. Cinema sex isn’t just a perversion, although it is that. It’s a mirage. A rip-off. A fantasy version of sex that doesn’t exist. As we’ve mentioned before, it sets up a standard for us to emulate, but it’s a standard that is impossible to meet. In that sense, sex scenes in movies are very much like porn.

[1] http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/film/slapping-dicaprio-was-just-the-beginning-for-margo-robbie/article16265484 (I’m not directly linking to the article because of some risqué content.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Should We Label Hollywood as “Evil”?

Every year, thousands of children swarm Hollywood in search of fame, but what they often find under the surface is a deep and disturbing underbelly of manipulation and abuse.” So reads part of the description of An Open Secret, a new documentary set to premiere at DOC NY this year. The film is helmed by Amy Berg, the Oscar-nominated director of another documentary that deals with the theme of sexual abuse.

An Open Secret is “a sobering look at the lives of children who were exploited and assaulted by some of Hollywood’s most powerful players.” The film’s title suggests that these secret crimes weren’t so much secret as they were ignored or glossed over. If the content of the movie is true, it’s a scathing indictment of the culture in which much of moviemaking takes place.

It reminds me of my blog post Hollywood’s Secret Rape Culture, in which I talk about the many ways actors—especially women—are abused and mistreated in the process of filming scenes that require nudity and/or sex acts. This rape culture is simultaneously well known (by those in the industry) and relatively unknown (by audiences).

On top of all that, consider the Sex Scenes = Porn blog series we’re currently going through. We can label such scenes “professional” all we want, but just because a movie isn’t slapped with an NC-17 rating, it doesn’t mean all is calm on the Western front of Mr. Rogers’ friendly little neighborhood. (Sorry for the mixed metaphors.)

With all of these considerations, should we write off Hollywood as a lost cause? Is it a subculture so steeped in depravity that it’s beyond salvaging? Should we just slap Tinseltown with a label marked “Evil” and be done with it?

I could be wrong, but I believe the answer is no. Why? Well, such a label is, I think, overly simplistic. In all my critiques of the industry, I don’t want to paint Hollywood with such a broad brush as to condemn everything that plays in a local theater.

It’s way too easy to condemn Hollywood as a whole, ignoring the fact that the institution itself is made up of different studios, producers, directors, actors, and screenwriters who are varied in their approach to controversial subjects, and some of those approaches are not just permissible but laudable. Jeffrey Overstreet recently listed several such laudable examples:

Look at the films of Scott Derrickson, which have earned high praise in the horror genre, but which affirm Christian beliefs and focus on the reality of spiritual warfare and the overwhelming power of Christ. I’m a big fan of Sinister and I admired both The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Deliver Us From Evil

Look at the favorable reviews for films based on the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and other great Christian artists. . . .

Look at the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire. Classics like Babette’s Feast and, going back farther, Ordet. Look at how many of these films reflect Christianity and are legendary in film history.

Look at the not-so-blatantly religious films coming from Pixar, films that celebrate Christian values. Some of Pixar’s most prominent directors and writers have publicly professed Christian faith.

And that’s only a sampling of what Overstreet’s article addresses.

Another problem with labeling Hollywood as evil is that it can lead to (or spring from) a misguided notion about the source of true evil. Even when the Bible condemns worldliness, it points us back to the source of that worldliness: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). In other words, worldliness is just a term for what happens when the evils of men spring out and into culture.

This evil is, at root, a heart problem. We can spend most of our efforts keeping evil at bay by retreating from a secular culture. Our problem, though, is not primarily outward, but inward. Labeling Hollywood as unredeemable and ignoring movies altogether can indicate a dangerous misunderstanding of the nature (and treatment) of evil.

Speaking of the true source of corruption, I guess you could say there is a sense in which we can—and should—say that Hollywood is evil. If we’re trying to make a theological point about the universal sinfulness of man, than such a label would be appropriate. Even Jesus called His disciples evil—not scathingly or in rebuke, but in a simple, matter-of-fact way (see Luke 11:13). Hollywood is filled with sinful people, but that would be true even if Hollywood generated only G-rated fare that didn’t offend anyone’s sensibilities.

So if we can’t categorically condemn everything Hollywood produces, how are we as a church supposed to respond? I’m glad you asked. (Well, I’m glad I asked for you, at least.) In his book Worldly Amusements, Wayne A. Wilson lists four possible responses:

1.     Avoidance (don’t watch movies at all)
2.     Silence (don’t talk about movies; just let everyone do what they feel is right)
3.     Engagement (immerse yourself in culture in order to be relevant)
4.     High Standards (use wisdom and discernment; abhor what is evil and cling to what is good)

It’s obvious he is a proponent of the fourth view. As he explains, there are at least four benefits to this response:

1.     It avoids legalism by seeking to apply Scripture without adding to or detracting from it
2.     It gives art its due, acknowledging its power for good and evil
3.     It honors the performers by enabling us to obey Christ’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves (as we’ve talked about, among other places, here and here and here and here)
4.     It honors the Word of God by acknowledging that there are applicable principles we should adhere to

True, the High Standards position is much harder to maintain than mere avoidance, or absolute silence, or full immersion. But it is the most Christ-like response. By the Spirit of Christ, let us exercise true discernment by engaging Hollywood with both the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves (Matt. 10:16).

photo credit (cropped and inverted): shdowchsr via photopin cc