Moving Beyond Swear Word Checklists When Watching Movies


Note: Ted Kluck and I wrote this together. Actually, Ted wrote almost all of this. I just made a few snide remarks and a few profound points. My notes are all in italics.

Being that dystopian future movies are all the rage, we recently took a Netflix-flyer on a film called “Snowpiercer”, which concerned a future in which everyone on earth was frozen to death (in a global-warming experiment gone awry) except for a few hundred people who managed to get a berth on a train that (stay with me) runs forever and keeps everyone alive. Needless to say there’s a lot of willing suspension of disbelief going on in this movie.

Okay, I know Ted is going to talk about this in a little bit, but I’m that annoying kid in class who was always answering questions before they were asked. Can we talk for just a moment about why dystopian future movies are all the rage? Hunger Games. World War Z. The Walking Dead (technically a television show). Left Behind. Left Behind Remixed, starring Nicolas Cage. Why is it that everyone is so infatuated with the apocalypse? I suspect it is because the apocalypse is much easier to imagine than a utopia. I look around and I see ISIS, Ebola, and global warming, and it sort of does feel like the world is coming to an end. The simple fact is: it’s easier to be gloomy than hopeful. In the face of the onslaught of gloom and doom, Christians should be the most hopeful people alive. Yes, the Prince of Darkness does appear to be grim, but we tremble not for him. Why? His doom is sure. King Jesus will return, place his foot upon the skull of Satan, and press down firmly. Boom. Evil is over. New heavens and new earth. Dystopia destroyed.

The movie stars a very “meh” Chris Evans, an awesome-as-usual Ed Harris, a creepy John Hurt, and a making-a-career-out-of-not-being-afraid-to-be-ugly Tilda Swinton. Not surprisingly Evans, who is the only good-looking poor person on the train, leads an uprising which, after lots of fighting and bloodshed, leads him to the front of the train. It is kind of a class-struggle movie meets “Braveheart,” except that the Evans character does a lot less self-conscious bloviating than William Wallace but probably just as much killing.

(I like William Wallace’s bloviating. They may be able to take my life, but they can’t take my freedom. Take that bloviation to the bank.)

The movie was good, but that’s not the point. The point is that it made us think about how to watch movies. “I wonder why people love dystopian future movies so much?” my wife asked.

“Maybe because they all have a sense that it’s not working and it all has to come to an end at some point,” I posit (Posit? Did you go behind my back and spend thousands of dollars at a small liberal arts school to get a useless degree in philosophy?) . “But this was really a movie about man’s total depravity.”

Which led to another really good conversation that I won’t bore you with the details of. But it occurred to both of us that “Christians watching movies” should encompass more than just checking a website to see how many cigarettes are smoked (exactly two in “Snowpiercer”), how many f-bombs are dropped (a few), and how many breasts appear (zero).

Too often we simply want to go through a moral checklist rather than digging deep and getting to the heart of the matter. We resort to counting the number of curse words and amount of violence instead of digging deep into what the movie says about life, God, me, goodness. We zoom in on the minute details of a movie and then neglect to examine how the film affects our desires and dreams and passions. If we’re truly going to watch God when we watch movies, we need to establish some big picture principles before we create swear word checklists. What are some of those principles?

Here are a few simple guidelines:

  1. Cultivate a conscience and listen to it. I think watching movies as a Christian is about more than just avoiding the wrong things but…it’s still important to avoid those things which might cause us to stumble. For example, I don’t feel like I’m more likely to cleave somebody in half as a result of watching “Snowpiercer.”

It’s helpful to identify “temptation triggers”. In other words, is watching a particular show or movie going to tempt you to participate in sin? Watching Breaking Bad doesn’t tempt me to make meth. Watching Californication probably would tempt me to lust. This is a wisdom issue. Wisdom is about knowing how to make God-honoring choices in a morally gray world. Know your heart, then steer clear of the pitfalls.

  1. Surround yourself with people who care about your conscience. This one is self-explanatory, but my wife and my friends know the kinds of movies that make me uncomfortable and I’m really thankful for that.

Movies that make me uncomfortable:

  • Anything written by Nicholas Sparks.
  • Comedies starring Adam Sandler. Honestly, why do people think he is so funny?
  • Christian movies.
  • Movies starring Michael W. Smith (yes, he was in a movie).
  • Movies where the trailer contains the phrase, “Only one man…”
  1. Watch movies in light of your Christian worldview. As I watched “Snowpiercer” I couldn’t help but try to think where I would be, as a Christian, in that scenario. How would I worship? How would I struggle? Could I, in good conscience, cleave anyone in half?

Other helpful questions to ask: What does this movie say about God? What does this movie say about what constitutes the good life? What does this movie say about the culture I live in, and how does the gospel speak to that culture? Does this movie glorify something God detests? Can I give thanks to God for this movie?

  1. Don’t be a pompous windbag about movies, but don’t be dumb about them either. There’s a happy medium between “Tree of Life” and “Sextape.” At some level it’s up to us to find that medium. I try hard not to turn every movie into an academic exercise (because, let’s face it, nobody in my life wants that), but I also really like “debriefing” the movies with interesting/thoughtful people.

When it comes to “interesting” and “thoughtful”, I think we all know who you’re talking about.

Ted’s responses:

  1. My worthless liberal arts degree was in creative writing.
  2. I was talking about my wife (re: interesting and thoughtful)
  3. Sandler is funny because he can somehow pull off the “idiot with a heart of gold” thing. People like that.
  4. Mel Gibson/Wallace’s bloviating led to a lot of residual chest-thumping and bloviating by otherwise wimpy evangelical guys in the late 90s and early 2000s…all of which just struck me as a little sad/funny. Which begs a more interesting question: Why are basically wimpy people so drawn to tough/aggressive/macho people in the movies? Could be another blog post in that…

Stephen Altrogge

I'm a husband, dad, writer. I drink too much coffee and know too much about Star Wars. I created The Blazing Center. I've also written some books which people seem to like. You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook