Christians, “adult content,” prudery, and self-control.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 August

Couple years ago an acquaintance of mine was casually recommending some movies to a group of us. Stuff he’d recently seen; stuff he’d seen, but we hadn’t, so he thought we might be interested.

It just so happened one of the movies is what we’d call “adult content.” Lots of swearing. Little violent. Some sexual activity; not buck-naked thrashing around, but even so, it’d be stuff you might not want your kids to see. Although maybe you’re the type of person who doesn’t care what your kids see. I’ve had a few fourth-grade students whose parents were far from discriminating. Far.

Most of this group were Christian, and the inevitable question came up: “Do you think it’s appropriate for you, as a Christian, to watch such a movie?”

Not “to recommend such a movie.” Watch such a movie. The implied question wasn’t, “Is it okay to recommend such movies, ’cause certain people might be led into temptation?” but “Won’t everyone be led into temptation by this movie? Are you sure you’re not fully corrupt by watching such stuff?”

Are there some movies, video games, songs, TV programs, magazines, or books, which no Christian should ever, ever see?

A fair number of Christians would answer, “Absolutely. There are certain things which soil everyone they touch.” So they avoid such things. Some go even further: They wanna ban such things. These would be the people who try to pass laws against them, who complain to the Federal Communications Commission about anything on TV which offends them, who make sure sex shops and marijuana dispensaries and online bingo parlors can never open within the city limits of their town. Not just because they’re protecting the children from stumbling across such things; they don’t trust the adults either.

And a fair number of Christians would also answer, “Absolutely not. Mature Christians can handle such things and not be affected. You do realize Jesus used to eat with tax collectors, drunks, whores, and sinners, right? He wasn’t corrupted by them. And I won’t be corrupted by them.”

But let’s be blunt: Some of those Christians are totally lying to themselves.

Art versus “porn.”

Let’s leap to an extreme case. Is it ever okay for Christians to view pornography?

Unless you’re fact-finding, I can’t see how it would be. Christians are ordered to stay away from pornía, the Greek word for all sorts of non-marital sexual activity. Mk 7.21, Ac 21.25, 1Co 6.16, Ga 5.19, Cl 3.5 Our word comes from that word.

Porn is specifically produced to get people to lust after porn actors. Not people with whom you have a relationship. I don’t care what your own personal delusions are; you don’t know these people, and they don’t know you. It’s impossible to claim you merely own it, but don’t use it for its intended purpose. (You might try, as plenty a guilty teenage boy has, but no reasonable person is gonna believe you.) What people do with pornography is obviously non-marital sexual activity. Just the stuff the scriptures speak of—and ban.

Porn’s not the only example. Every sin has a subculture which encourages you to do it, teaches you how to do it better, and produces literature and videos. Porn just happens to be extremely successful at its job. Its only purpose is to tempt.

Because of this, you notice lots of other things get called “porn”:

  • Beautiful photos of outdoor scenery: “Nature porn.”
  • A video meant to make you gluttonously crave food: “Food porn.”
  • A magazine encouraging you to buy to your heart’s content: “Shopping porn.”
  • Horror movies which focus on people abusing one another: “Torture porn.”

And so forth. The word “porn” is gonna get your attention anyway, so anyone who wants to tempt you with their product, isn’t gonna shy away from it. They’re okay with calling it porn.

Okay, now let’s leap to the other extreme: Michaelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The vast majority of us recognize these frescos as art, a created work meant to inspire sentiment and provoke thought.

Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Yep, there are tiny penises in this painting. Wikimedia Commons

However, there are buck-naked Old Testament saints and angels all over the ceiling. Even God’s nightgown is a bit see-through.

What makes this art, and the other pornography? Well, like I said, porn’s only purpose is to tempt. Art’s purpose is to inspire. It all gets back to the motive of the artist—or pornographer. What are they trying to stir in you? Are they trying to make the blood rush to your brain and heart? Or your genitals?

The Sistine Chapel is, of course, a chapel. And Michelangelo deliberately made all the penises in his paintings little. (They’re only there because it’d be freakish if they weren’t.) So I seriously doubt Michelangelo’s intent was temptation. Some Christians decidedly disagree. In part because, regardless of anyone’s intent, they’re tempted. Or, to be fair, they’re the parents of a teenage boy, and certainly know he’ll be tempted, and are so tired of doing all that laundry. Puberty’s rough on boys.

I admit anyone, if horny as a teenage boy, could choose to be titillated by such art. But the vast majority of us wouldn’t be. Wouldn’t even think to be. Eww.

So here’s where we get to the issue: Do those who are provoked by such things, recognize that what provokes them may not necessarily provoke others? Or do they presume they’re the baseline for the rest of humanity: If it’s porn to them, it’s porn to everyone?

’Cause that’s why such people want it banned. That’s why they wonder what kind of demented Christian I am, putting a nekked guy on my blog. That’s why they’d insist I put a black band over Adam’s junk, lest it lead people astray. It bothers them, so it must be scoured from the world.

So that’s where our original question originates from. “Do you think it’s appropriate for you, as a Christian, to watch such a movie?” essentially states, “I don’t think it appropriate. Not for that movie. It’s not art; it’s pornography. You’re watching porn. Christians have no business watching porn.”

Setting the boundaries.

In the United States, the movie studios created the Motion Picture Association of America, and the MPAA created a ratings system. Roughly works like so:

  • G. Anybody can handle it.
  • PG. Nearly anybody can handle it.
  • PG-13. Little kids can’t handle it.
  • R. Kids shouldn’t watch it without their parents there.
  • NC-17. Kids shouldn’t watch it.
  • Unrated. The MPAA didn’t give it an official rating, so dumber parents won’t notice it’s functionally an NC-17 film when their kids download it.

Christians regularly find the system ridiculous.

And I’ll tell you why. The MPAA ratings board is representative of the larger, pagan culture. Not the Christian culture. Some Christians are more conservative than others, but pretty much all of us agree: The MPAA isn’t as strict as we would be. There’s some harsh stuff in even G-rated movies.

Even so, I regularly see Christians—including Christians who agree the MPAA is too loose!—use the MPAA’s ratings as the basis for their own cut-off points. “I’ll let the kids watch a PG-rated movie, but absolutely no PG-13s till they’re 13.” Wait, you trust the MPAA now? The same folks who, in Stephen Spielberg’s PG-rated film E.T., permitted Elliot to call his brother “penis breath”? (Wasn’t that fun when we showed that movie at church.)

See, the problem is everybody’s different. The MPAA members don’t know what tempt you. They only know what tempts them. That’s why they’ll let stuff slide that would horrify one set of Christian parents, and be casually dismissed by another set. Different Christians, different boundaries.

Now to us adults. Different Christians are gonna have different dividing lines between art and porn. As we should. If it tempts you, stay away. If it doesn’t, no biggie; but be honest about whether it really doesn’t tempt you.

Lots of times it won’t be a problem. I can watch a Batman movie, and never once be tempted to put on a costume and fight criminals. (Okay, I actually tried it when I was 7 years old. But not anymore.) Most folks will watch superhero movies and never try that stuff themselves. Rarely will they ever—and when costumed vigilantes actually show up in our cities, we tend to jail them. People don’t go to the movies for lifestyle tips. They go to escape reality, be entertained, and nothing more. Same with video games and novels.

But sometimes it will be. So if you can’t watch violence without wanting to go out and be violent yourself, you need to avoid all violent movies, games, and books, and get control of yourself. If you can’t watch movie sex without getting aroused, you need to avoid that too. Figure out your boundaries. Set them and stick to them.

That’s basic self-control. But it’s not how your average Christian tends to behave. We don’t figure out our limits and live within them. We let the culture set our limits—then struggle with them.

Ever since The Passion of the Christ was rated R, there’s always gonna be a Christian or two who point out, “Well, not every R movie is irredeemable.” Yeah, they’re technically correct. Still, I’m pretty sure the R movie they have in mind isn’t Schindler’s List; more likely Sausage Party.

And again, maybe you can handle a movie about animated foodstuffs which have sex. Maybe not. (Maybe you’d find that utterly tasteless—pun intended—and would never bother.) You decide. But as I said, your average Christian doesn’t decide, and follows the crowd. Their friends, pagan and Christian, are gonna watch it, and they don’t wanna be left out. Sometimes, for the sake of the more prudish Christians they know, they hypocritically pretend they’d never watch such stuff. I’m not sure how many people they’re actually fooling. Other than themselves.

What about the bible verses? Aren’t there bible verses?

As usual, Christians wanna quote bible in order to prove their points. So let’s look at the two passages they tend to inflict on us to keep us away from the stuff they don’t approve of. King James Version first, ’cause it’s easier to quote out-of-context that way.

1 Thessalonians 5.22 KJV
Abstain from all appearance of evil.

Which means stay away from evil whenever it makes an appearance. Not stay away only from what appears evil; that’d be hypocrisy. Loads of Christians mix up that meaning, and go with the hypocrisy ’cause it looks better. Don’t do that.

The other one; this time my translation.

Ephesians 5.3-5 KWL
3 Never let people call you pornographic, wholly unclean, or greedy—as is appropriate for saints.
4 Upsetting behavior, stupid talk, dirty jokes: Not appropriate. Instead, thanksgiving.
5 This knowledge you knew: Every pornographic, unclean, or greedy person is an idolater.
They’ve no inheritance in Christ and God’s kingdom.

In both these passages, Paul is entirely right: We need to avoid evil. Our actions should never lead people to describe us as evil. We have no business fooling around with lifestyles and behaviors which are inconsistent with how God wants his kids to behave. Being lust-filled (or driving others to lust), dabbling in unclean things, and pursuing stuff instead of relationships: These things make us wholly out-of-place in God’s kingdom.

Now, are the movies making you this way?

I would remind you it’s not the movies. It’s not the stuff we read, the games we play, the TV we watch. It’s the evil already within us. Mk 7.15 The multimedia just draws out the corruption that’s already there. Greedy people don’t get more selfish by watching a movie about greed. Instead, they pick a movie which defends their greed (say, The Fountainhead), and insist everyone watch it ’cause it justifies them. That’s the real problem.

If you watch a movie about sex ’cause you wanna indulge your lusts, your lusts are the real problem. If you watch a movie full of tasteless humor ’cause you already love tasteless humor, your lack of taste is the real problem. Don’t blame the movies. Blame the viewers who are indulging their temptations instead of resisting them.

Now, the bible passage I wanna point to, is where Paul warns those of us who aren’t tempted, to watch out for those of us who are. Excerpts:

Romans 14.14-15, 20-22 KWL
14 I know (and was persuaded by Master Jesus) nothing is inherently unclean—
unless it’s unclean to one who considers it to be. To that person, it’s unclean.
15 If your fellow Christian is upset over food, you’re no longer walking by love.
Don’t lose that person, for whom Christ died, for your food!
20 Don’t destroy God’s work on account of food!
Everything is clean—but to the person eating, yet offended, it’s evil.
21 Better to not eat meat, drink wine, nor anything which smites your fellow Christian.
22 You have faith in yourself? Now have it in God.
Those who don’t pride themselves in what they permit themselves, are awesome.

The discussion in Romans 14 was over meat. Pagans would sacrifice animals to their gods—then sell the surplus meat at a discount. Some Christians, Paul included, figured pagan gods aren’t real gods, 1Co 8.4 so why pass up an opportunity? It’s like using stem cells from aborted babies: The deed’s already done, so we may as well make the best of it. (If that analogy horrifies you, that’s the idea. This wasn’t a trifling issue to those who were greatly offended by it.)

Paul’s conclusion: He had no problem with it, but other Christians absolutely did. And if he traumatized other Christians by feeding them something they considered an egregious offense to God, he was sinning against them.

So if I have friends over—friends whom I know can’t handle an R-rated movie—and I turn on Pulp Fiction despite their protests, I’m sinning against them. I have no business inflicting my sensibilities on them.

(And really, they have no business inflicting their sensibilities on me either. But I’m supposed to be the bigger person. Ro 14.13 We all are.)

So if they can’t handle the fact I watch R-rated movies, they need to practice a little self-control and not judgmentally condemn me for it. And if I consider them prudes, I need to practice a little self-control and not judgmentally condemn them for it. I don’t answer to them; they don’t answer to me. Each of us, individually, answer to Jesus. Ro 14.10-12 He knows what we can handle—or not. All the more reason we need to be honest with ourselves about it.

Does this mean even asking the question, “Do you think it’s appropriate…” is a sin?

Not necessarily. Depends on the motive. When we’re asking for information, and not because we already figure we know the answer, we’re not judging. That’s fine. I get questions like that every once in a while from new Christians—“Is it okay for me as a Christian to watch that movie?”—and I tell ’em as I just wrote: If it’ll lead you into temptation, best you don’t watch it. If not, no problem.

But from not-so-new Christians, it’s almost always asked as a form of passive-aggressive judgment. That’s not fine.