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

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

When Did Voyeurism Stop Being a Vice?

Did you know that the term “peeping Tom” was inspired by an 18th-century story? As legend goes, Lady Godiva persistently begged her husband, the Earl of Coventry, to ease the tax burden of the people under him. Finally, in exasperation, he promised to acquiesce only if she rode through the town on horseback—in the nude. She agreed.

During her ride, the townsfolk remained indoors out of respect—all of them, that is, except one man. This person’slustful curiosity compelled him to gaze at her and [he] was then, according to various versions of the legend, struck either blind or dead in punishment.” What was the pervert’s name? I’ll give you a three-lettered guess.

No Christian would want to be labeled a peeping Tom. After all, it is indecent and immoral to receive sexual pleasure by watching someone other than your spouse undress or engage in sexual activity. We fully acknowledge that.

Or do we? Douglas Wilson says we do not. In his book Reforming Marriage, he lays before our eyes the naked truth (so to speak):

Many Christians are willing to watch, by means of a movie camera, what they wouldn’t dream of watching in person. You couldn’t get them into a topless bar, and yet they cheerfully go to films where they see far more. Would most Christian men be willing to be peeping Toms, roving the neighborhood? Certainly not. But what if they discovered a woman who knew of their presence and was willing to undress in front of the window? That would be worse. What if she were paid to do all this? Worse, worse, and still worse. And if she is paid lots of money, has a producer and director, does all this for the movie cameras, and has millions of men drooling at her window sill? This is suddenly different and becomes quite a “complicated” issue. (p. 111)

Pastor Wilson is exactly right. In light of what Scripture has to say about public nudity and public sex, and in light of what we’ve already studied in this blog series, it isn’t the issue that is complicated, but rather the tangled web that is own hearts.

Have you noticed that one of the main ways we as a society seek sexual enjoyment is through watching? We justify gazing on people sexually acting out by labeling it as entertainment. We peruse articles telling us what it was like for Actor X to kiss (or share a sex scene with) Actress Y in Movie Z. We pore over Victoria’s Secret and Sports Illustrated Swimsuit magazines with relish. We play videogames that invite us to ogle their characters’ bodies. It could be argued, I suppose, that we’re not actually participating in any sex act ourselves. After all, we’re just watching. But that’s just a denial of how the sex act works. The authors of Every Man’s Battle make a helpful clarification:

For males, impurity of the eyes is sexual foreplay. . . . Because foreplay is any sexual action that naturally takes us down the road to intercourse. Foreplay ignites passions, rocketing us by stages until we go all the way. . . . No doubt about it: Visual sexual gratification is a form of sex for men. As males, we draw sexual gratification and chemical highs through our eyes. (pp. 66, 68)

In light of the sexual nature of even simulated sex scenes, the sexual stimulation that occurs in such acts (for both actors and viewers), and the obscenity involved in these scenes, it’s no wonder that they promote voyeurism.

Cinematic sex scenes and porn films invite us to do something we were never designed to do: watch people sexually act out. Through the medium of film, we have grown accustomed to gazing on moments of intimacy. Something about putting a camera lens between the participants and us provides enough distance for us to squelch our conscience and soak in the sights and sounds of sex.

All in the name of entertainment.

I’m not up in arms about this because I’m an opponent of pleasure, though. Just the opposite! Voyeurism is a poor substitute for true sexual enjoyment. In our voyeuristic culture, we find ourselves needing the sexuality of those outside our relationships in order to enjoy even our own relationships. We treat blatant porn or “acceptable” cinematic sex as the standard to which we (secretly, at least) hope to attain. Only when we can make our sex lives mirror the lives of those we see on screen do we feel like we’ll be happy. We’ve made an unnatural connection between voyeurism and sexual release, between the sex we see on the screen and the sex we hope to enjoy in our own lives.

That is not how sex was designed. God created sexual intercourse to be enjoyed personally, not vicariously. Through His provision of marriage, He wants us to experience the ecstasy of sex firsthand, not secondhand. He has provided us a way to enjoy true intimacy, not just to be on the outside looking in, snagging meager scraps that fall off the table of stars and supermodels.

Remember also that God created our sexuality to know Him more fully. His provision of marital union is an image of the personal and harmonious relationship between Christ and His church. Through marriage, God calls us to see His love and devotion for His cherished, blood-bought bride.

Just as God did not design us to be sexual voyeurs, He also didn’t design us to be spiritual voyeurs. Through the gospel (which is illustrated in the marriage relationship), He calls us to know Him personally, not vicariously. He invites us to experience His grace firsthand, not secondhand. He offers us the privilege of knowing Him intimately, not to watch from the outside.

When all is said and done, voyeurism isn’t so horrible because it seeks pleasure, but because it involves trading in covenantal enjoyment for cheap thrills. It leaves us with much less than God has promised. With that in mind, do we really want to defend entertainment choices that offer such a bastardized version of the beauty and glory of sex?

Previous entry: Turning Sex Into a Spectator Sport
Next entry: Anti-Science, Anti-Pleasure, and Anti-Reality

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Turning Sex Into a Spectator Sport

In the wonderfully entertaining film Captain America: Winter Soldier, there’s a scene where two fugitives, a man and a woman, are trying to avoid being caught. A corrupt official who knows them is about to walk by, so the lady turns to the guy with a plan: he needs to kiss her. Confused, he asks why. She answers, “Public displays of affection make people very uncomfortable.” And so they kiss. It’s not a racy kiss, but it still causes the corrupt official to turn his head slightly away, effectively causing him to miss the fact that he just passed by his targets.

We all instinctively respond the same way, don’t we? As a culture, we may be more comfortable with PDA than we were, say, a couple decades ago, but we still don’t automatically gawk when two lovebirds share airtime. Rather, if we see a couple making out in public, our inclination is to turn away. This response hints at something we all instinctually know: intimate moments are not for public observation.

Sexual intimacy isn’t something God positioned on center stage. It is not a spectator sport. And regardless of your stance on PDA, the Christian position regarding the sex act itself is that it is supposed to be off stage, so to speak. A violation of this principle in our entertainment turns art into porn. It is a failure both artistically and morally. Let’s look at the artistic problems first.

An artistic failure

How is a public display of sex (real or simulated) an artistic failure? In his book Reading Between the Lines, Gene Edward Veith says it “violates aesthetic decorum” (p. 36). Pointing to the Greeks, who admittedly “were hardly prudish or moralistic,” Veith notes how ancient dramas avoided certain words and deeds on stage. They dealt with violence and sex, for sure, but they did so through “exalted poetry,” not explicit acts that took viewers out of the experience of the story.

Fast forward to modern-day filmmaking:

When an actor and an actress take off their clothes in a movie, viewers begin reacting sexually instead of aesthetically. The dramatic effect is interrupted and displaced by the sexual effect. Stimulating an audience artistically takes skill and craft; stimulating them sexually is far easier. (p. 36)

Anyone with a pulse knows this to be true. We label such scenes as “hot” and “steamy” because of how they affect us. (Heck, my dictionary’s definition for the word “steamy” uses the phrase “steamy sex scenes” as the example.)

When filmmakers present us with an up-close view of an intensely personal and sexual act, they become (unlike Gandalf the Grey) conjurers of cheap tricks. We stop responding to the characters in the movie as characters. Or, as Donald Sutherland once put it, “When I take my clothes off people are no longer looking at me as a character, they’re looking at me with no clothes on.” [1]

When we’re faced with a sex scene on screen, we’re left with feeling either uncomfortable (like those who come across couples making out in public) or aroused (like peeping Toms anxious for titillation)—or possibly a mixture of both. Whatever the case, sex scenes are an aesthetic canker that pushes audiences out of the story.

A moral failure

For the Christian, the problem is not only artistic, but also moral. Veith continues:

The moral problem with obscenity is even more significant than the aesthetic problem. We might think of the “obscene,” in the Greek sense, as portrayals of what should be kept private. Sexuality is for the private intimacy of marriage, not for public eyes. Striptease shows are obscene, not because nudity is wrong but because nudity is private. To pay a woman to take her clothes off in front of crowds of ogling men is to violate her in a very brutal way. Public sex is obscene, not because sex is evil but because sex is sacred. (p. 37)

As I mentioned earlier, the sex act is, by God’s design, inherently private. To publicize the act is to pervert the act. Sex gone public is sex gone wrong.

In the book of Proverbs, the author of our sexuality speaks about His design for its enjoyment:

Drink water from your own cistern, and running water from your own well. Should your fountains be dispersed abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be only your own, and not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice with the wife of your youth. As a loving deer and a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; and always be enraptured with her love. (Pr. 5:15-19)

Sexual enjoyment that is pure and satisfying and fulfilling involves this component: keeping your experiences private—away from outside intrusion. Public sexuality is no more refreshing than a broken well whose water leaks out and runs through the dirt.

In contrast with our Creator’s beautiful provision of covenant faithfulness, exclusivity, and holy pleasure, sex on the silver screen offers an obscene, pornographic substitute. This cheap replica defiles true pleasure, as well as our experience of the One who created us to delight in that pleasure. For the glory of God and the enjoyment of our own souls, let us not be content with inferior copycats of God’s abundant provisions.

Previous entry: “But Professional Actors Aren’t Sexually Affected”
Next entry: When Did Voyeurism Stop Being a Vice?

[1] 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 (I’m not providing a direct link to the article because of its explicit nature.)