In another corner of cyberspace, Christ and Pop Culture examined the implications of Miley Cyrus spending “the majority of her 6 minutes on stage ‘twerking.’” The magazine summarized the sexualized spectacle as “exuberant, banal, nihilism.” Several months later, while examining Scorsese’s filmmaking and stylistic choices, this same magazine adamantly proposed that The Wolf of Wall Street was not only “redeemable,” but also “an incredibly moral film.”
How can the Christian community disapprove of a young woman pretending to have sex while half naked, then turn around and praise a 40-year-old for “flopping around naked” (as DiCaprio himself put it) in a major motion picture? To answer succinctly, and to borrow a phrase from Keving DeYoung, it’s because there is a “hole in our holiness.” We’re living out a twisted version of The Emperor’s New Clothes, where the townsfolk are no longer pretending their ruler has clothes on—they’re actually convinced nothing is amiss.
Am I coming down too hard on this film? Am I comparing apples to oranges? Let’s examine some key arguments to see if The Wolf of Wall Street (henceforth WoWS) is not the wolf in sheep’s clothing I’m claiming it to be.
“The message of the movie is a moral one.”
Maybe someone would say that, while Miley was glorifying vice with her dance number, Scorsese was condemning vice with his film’s sex scenes. The movie’s sexual inundation is excusable ultimately because of the intention behind the inundation. In other words, the ultimate message of the movie determines whether the rampant sexuality is glorified or not.
Christ and Pop Culture sought to explore the intent behind WoWS, citing the messages behind certain songs Scorsese selected to play over certain scenes. Granted, such an investigation isn’t necessarily without merit. Nevertheless, the gymnastics necessary to turn debauchery into righteousness is, at best, awkward. (The article might have been improved if it also examined the petition Scorsese signed in defense of child rapist Roman Polanski. Such a stance reveals his warped views on sex—a pertinent point when evaluating Scorsese’s ability to handle sexual themes rightly.)
For the Christian, a story’s method should be just as important as its message. Not all techniques are created equal. A supposedly moral message doesn’t give the storyteller a free pass to use whatever method he or she wants. No amount of metamorphosis can transform obscene sexual images into clean entertainment. In fact, a story can send contradictory messages by using improper methods. In the end, we are all accountable to God, not just for what we say, but also for how we say it.
“But the sex is portrayed as objectionable, not commendable.”
It could be argued that the sex acts portrayed on screen were never designed to depict sex as it should be, but rather sex gone awry—sex that is unrestrained, perverted, and dirty. Therefore, it isn’t tantalizing or problematic.
But how could we better describe pornography than with those same words? The porn industry thrives on displaying sexual acts that are unrestrained, perverted, and dirty. The very nature of sexual lust is, as Josh Harris says, “coveting the forbidden.”
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.
Pornography cannot rightly be used to communicate a moral message. It isn’t possible. Whether it was designed to be a morality play or not, WoWS is an immorality play.
“The Bible itself is R-rated (or worse).”
Now here’s a real example of comparing apples to oranges! To be fair, the Bible does handle some serious sexual topics, including prostitution, adultery, incest, and rape. But Scripture never lingers over details.
Even in the case of David and Bathsheba, which involves voyeurism, no anatomical descriptions are given. We’re told she is “very beautiful to behold” (2 Sam. 11:2), but that’s it. We aren’t invited by the writer to gaze on her along with David. And when the act of adultery comes, it’s over after one verse: “Then David sent messengers, and took her; and she came to him, and he lay with her, for she was cleansed from her impurity; and she returned to her house” (v. 4). No lengthy exposition, no play-by-play narration, no sexual imagery.
Contrast that scene with the written descriptions of the sex scenes in WoWS. (Warning: the material is intensely graphic.) There’s no comparison; the Bible is discreet, wheras WoWS doesn’t know the meaning of the word.
Granted, if the story of David and Bathsheba were put to film, it could possibly be raunchy, depending on how the filmmakers adapted the material. It could also just as possibly be handled chastely without harming the integrity of the story.
So yes, if we turned the Bible into something that it isn’t—i.e., a visually told story—it might very well be seedy and perverted. But because the Bible isn’t a movie, and because it doesn’t revel in depicting depraved sexual acts, it is far from R-rated.
“What right do you have to critique a film you haven’t seen?”
It’s true, I have not seen the movie. But let me ask you this: do you consider it improper to condemn pornography without watching all (or even any) of it? Probably not. Pornography is a format that is inherently unredeemable. And the pornographic elements of WoWS are all that I’ve focused on.
Surely you know I’m not exaggerating. Film critic James Berardinelli says WoWS is “replete with naked bodies and acts of sexual depravity.” Commentator Jackie Cooper says it’s a movie with “nudity aplenty and the sex scenes are fairly graphic. . . . This is a hard R and borderline NC-17.” According to reviewer Adam R. Holz, “there are 22 sex scenes in this movie. (But it’s an admittedly difficult tally to be dogmatic about since sometimes it’s hard to tell when one ends and another begins.)”
I’ve researched a great deal while writing this blog post. I’ve sought to include only fair and accurate descriptions. If you have seen the movie and you still think I am distorting it, please leave a comment. But there’s no denying the graphic sexuality discussed above. No one can pretend WoWS is an exercise in restraint.
The method is the message.
There is nothing inherently wrong with sexual themes in movies. They can be handled delicately and tastefully. WoWS handles them crassly, sending a message that contradicts the (apparent) moral of the story. To quote film critic Jonathan Kiefer, “Glorification [of vice] may not be an intention [of WoWS] but may be a consequence.”
Whatever Scorsese’s intent, the end result is a glorification of depraved sexuality, a pornographic film that speaks out of both sides of its mouth, a morality play in name only. Stories that use such evil methods shouldn’t be lauded—especially by Christians.