Content means the “things contained.” In a movie, it’s its main message. Using dialogue as an example, content refers to what the characters say and what their words mean means, whereas form refers to how they say them. “Technical excellence is very important,” explains Darrell Holley, “but it is not alone sufficient; a wrong presented beautifully becomes all the more wrong and wicked.” Thus, as Christians, we must consider this point in our film analysis.
Think of the movies the critics love, or consider the films that increasingly top the Oscar nominations. Frequently, they are technically excellent but support non-Christian morality. On the other hand, so-called Christian films have a different problem: Not only is their form lacking, but sometimes their content is too, representing a sentimental, shallow Christianity.
Whereas some films lack in truth and purity, others lack in good acting and production quality. Is it better to compromise on content for excellent form or to compromise on form for better content? Does it have to be one or the other? In answering these questions, we should beware of two extremes.
Beware of the Extremes
First, we should avoid an anything goes, laissez-faire, no-holds-barred ethic in which we watch just about anything we want. Russell Moore refers to people who do so as “South Park Evangelicals.” These are “culturally libertarian hipster right-wingers” who enjoy “ the crude humor of the R-rated cartoon South Park” and “wish to distance themselves from their dour fellow conservatives by assuring liberal opinion-makers that they can be both right-wing and cool.”
Such people are often guilty of short-list legalism, believing that something is permissible if the Bible does not explicitly preclude it. However, Scripture is more than explicit commands; it also gives principles and paradigms for our lives that we consider carefully and prayerfully. Neither artistic excellence nor incarnational living negates our call to godliness, holiness, and purity.
The second extreme is to swear off secular or non-religious movies altogether and to replace them with Christian movies. Moore refers to this crowd as “off-brand evangelicals,” who “take trends in pop culture and reproduce them in Christian dialect for use within the Evangelical subculture, with the hope of making it more attractive not only to those outside but to those within.” Off-brand evangelicals are often long-list legalists, piling rules atop already-existing laws.
This approach also has its challenges. “To avoid non-Christian influence altogether,” John Frame says in “Theology at the Movies,” “we would have to live as hermits.” Most of us live in the world, though. And even if we could live as hermits, that still wouldn’t fix the real problem. Temptation and sin are as much an inward as an outward struggle.
Besides, God has not called us out of the world. “How can we pray for a world we know nothing about?” Frame asks. “We must not seek to isolate ourselves from the world, but rather to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’ in our fallen culture, to carry out our Lord’s Great Commission.” Thus, we must learn to “live amid secular (=anti-Christian) influence without ourselves compromising the faith.”
To be sure, in critiquing off-brand evangelicalism, we should still take Biblical boundaries and spiritual standards seriously. “A person is not a legalist simply because he has deep convictions,” explains Leroy Forlines. God has called us out of darkness into light as a holy people to proclaim His excellencies (2 Pet. 2:9).
Engaging Film Culture Responsibly
According to Frame, some Christians rightly carry out their Great Commission call by engaging film culture: “For them it is not wrong, I believe, within sensible limits, to expose themselves to modern film or other media.” We’re not hermits, and yet we cannot run headlong into the snake pit. How, then, does the believer interact meaningfully with film culture while also being cautious about its dangers?
Begin With a Solid Foundation
If we’re going to analyze movies responsibly, we must have a sure foundation. Otherwise, we’ll build our house on sand rather than on rock (Mt. 7:24-28). Knowing God’s Word is crucial. In part one, we considered what the doctrines of creation, the fall, and redemption mean for movies.
In addition, we should know how to apply the Christian critical tradition to film analysis; we introduced this in part two. As Christians, we believe that some things are objectively true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, reputable, excellent, and praiseworthy, and that some things are not (Phil. 4:8). With these standards in mind, we can begin distinguishing between cultural products that are consistent with these qualities and those that aren’t. Knowing this distinction makes all the difference in our analysis.
Enjoy (the Right) Culture
We can legitimately enjoy those parts of movies that are consistent with our Christian foundation. Ultimately, our values determine what we enjoy. Thus, the ideals of truth and excellence should shape our values so that we enjoy cultural products consistent with the principles they set.
Whenever you watch a movie, sometimes you’ll observe themes of beauty, goodness, justice, redemption, truth, and other such qualities even from non-Christian filmmakers who don’t necessarily support Christian values. We can legitimately enjoy these moments, remembering that God is the author of all truth and recognizing the evidence of His common grace in the fallen world.
Ever wondered why so many people resonate with that story, told time and again, of good beating of evil? Think of (spoiler alert!) Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey beating Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. Or consider Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones defeating the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Or recall Elijah Wood’s Frodo Baggins destroying the ring of power and thus ending the evil regime of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings.
Secular filmmakers also ask life’s big questions about God, life, death, the afterlife, and so forth. On a basic human level, we can relate to these questions and the quest they inspire because we all ask them, even if we don’t always agree with the answers these filmmakers propose. We can use points of intersection such as these to build bridges with those to whom we’re witnessing, like Paul at Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-34).
How, though, do we respond to those elements in films inconsistent with the Bible and the Christian critical tradition? We can’t enjoy them. However, they can serve as texts by which we study the world in which we live. Movies are like a window into the soul of the culture: The view isn’t always pretty, but it’s emblematic of our mission fields.
Still, being in and yet not of the world can be challenging. If we’re not careful, we will, in our effort to exegete the culture, end up enjoying it. While we can enjoy that which is consistent with truth and excellence, we should not enjoy that which is not. But sometimes we’re like Paul in Romans 7 who doesn’t do that which he wants but does that which he hates (Rom. 7:14-25).
Thus, we must constantly guard against this temptation, repenting when we succumb to it. And we must constantly challenge ourselves to desire that which is consistent with Christ and with His Spirit (Eph. 5:9; Gal. 5:22-23). In Matt Pinson’s words, we’ve got to learn how to “withdraw from the world in our values, attitudes, priorities, and habits,” and yet to “permeate the world with our presence in it and our active engagement with it.”
At times, this may mean making hard decisions not to watch certain movies. That may be difficult when some in our peer group paint us as legalistic and self-righteous. So be it! While we shouldn’t be pompous about our personal convictions, our ultimate allegiance is to King Jesus. Whatever our different viewing habits, we should resolve to base them in God’s Word. Filling our minds with bad language, violence, and sexuality is simply not spiritually healthy.
When we interact with film culture, we should not engage it as a lone ranger but rather in community with prayer and accountability and in the right spirit and for the right reasons. In addition, we should always examine a movie’s primary point, that basic issue of content—in a word, worldview. “That is the element,” writes Frame, “that is most culturally influential (often in a destructive way), and it is often most central to the filmmaker’s purpose.”
Most movies aren’t simply either consistent with a Christian worldview or not; most of them are a mixed bag. “In films as in real life there is, of course, moral ambiguity. There is good in the worst, bad in the best.” Interacting with movies can often be challenging and even testing. Thus, we must be ever vigilant, always on guard, and erring on the side of caution when questions arise; that is Christian prudence. Certainly, we can’t just withdraw from this subculture. Christians are taking every thought captive (2 Cor. 10:5), and, for some, this will mean engaging film culture responsibly. Enjoy your feature presentation.
 Darrell Holley, “The Principles of the Christian Critical Tradition,” Integrity: A Journal of Christian Thought, vol. 1 (2000): 164.
 Russell D. Moore, “Retaking Mars Hill,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, Sept. 2007; http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=20-07-020-f; accessed June 1, 2017; Internet.
 F. Leroy Forlines, The Quest for Truth: Answering Life’s Inescapable Questions (Nashville: Randall House, 2001), 247-48.
 John M. Frame, “Theology at the Movies,” Frame-Poythress.org; http://www.frame-poythress.org/ebooks/ theology-at-the-movies; accessed May 14, 2017; Internet.
 F. Leroy Forlines, The Quest for Truth: Answering Life’s Inescapable Questions (Nashville: Randall House, 2001), 247.
 Along these lines, Frame says, “Sometimes, one finds Christian themes and symbolism in films, even films which are not in themselves supportive of Christian values. Christians should be ready to be surprised when they attend films, and not only negatively.”
 J. Matthew Pinson et al., Sexuality, Gender, and the Church: A Christian Response in the New Cultural Landscape (Nashville: Welch College Press, 2016), 3.