Evangelicals and Hollywood Muck by TREVIN WAX

I grew up in a fundamentalist environment. The church I was baptized in believed it was inappropriate for Christians to go to a movie theater. To this day, my grandparents maintain this standard as a bulwark against worldliness.

The library at my Christian school had a variety of books for children, sanitized for Christian consumption. Encyclopedia Brown made the cut, but all the “goshes” and “gee whizzes” were marked out with a heavy black pen. No second-hand cursing allowed.

Films without anything objectionable were allowed at school, but looking back, I see how this analysis was applied simplistically. I still remember watching an old version of The Secret Garden – a movie with no cursing, thank goodness, but with a pseudo-pantheistic worldview that healing power is pulsating through all living things.

As a teenager, I discovered the work of Chuck Colson, Francis Schaeffer, and C. S. Lewis. These men had a different perspective on art and its merits. I began to see artistic analysis differently. I realized Disney movies weren’t safe just because they were “clean,” and PG-13 movies weren’t bad just because they had language or violence. It was possible to watch a movie with a critical eye for the underlying worldview.

I never subscribed to the fundamentalist vision that saw holiness in terms of cultural retreat or worldliness as anything that smacked of cultural engagement. I don’t subscribe to that position today.

But sometimes I wonder if evangelicals have swung the pendulum too far to the other side, to the point where all sorts of entertainment choices are validated in the name of cultural engagement.

Generally speaking, I enjoy the movie reviews I read in Christianity Today and World magazine. They go beyond counting cuss words or flagging objectionable content and offer substantive analysis of a movie’s overall message. But in recent years, I’ve begun to wonder if we’re more open than we should be to whatever Hollywood puts out.

Take, for example, Christianity Today’s recent review of The Wolf of Wall Street. Alyssa Wilkinson devotes nearly half of her review to the graphic depictions of immorality, yet still gives the film 3.5 stars out of 4. Another review counts 22 sex scenes, but can’t be sure since it’s hard to tell when one ends and another begins.

My question is this: at what point do we consider a film irredeemable, or at least unwatchable? At what point do we say it is wrong to participate in certain forms of entertainment?

I understand there are complexities to this issue. Some Christians disagreed with the praise showered on the recent Les Miserables film. I am among the number who thought Les Mis showcased the glory of redemption. It was a movie in which the sordid elements only served to accentuate the beauty of grace and the dehumanizing nature of sin.

Les Miserables is not unlike the accounts we read in our Bibles. Sexual immorality, rape, and violence are part and parcel of the Scriptural narrative. If a movie version of the book of Genesis were made, it wouldn’t be for minors. It seems silly to cross out cuss words from Encyclopedia Brown when first-graders can discover some pretty adult-themed events in their Adventure Bibles.

So, please don’t hear me advocating for a simplistic denunciation of Hollywood films. I am not. But I am concerned that many evangelicals may be expending more energy in avoiding the appearance of being “holier-than-thou” than we do in avoiding evil itself.

Yes, Paul used a popular poet of his day in order to make a point in his gospel presentation. Cultural engagement is important and necessary. But church history shows us that for every culture-engager there’s also a Gregory of Nyssa type who saw the entertainment mindset as decadent and deserving of judgment.

Is there justification for viewing gratuitous violence or sexual content?

At what point does our cultural engagement become just a sophisticated way of being worldly?

I find it hard to imagine the ancient Israelites admiring the artwork on the Asherah poles they were called to tear down. I find it hard to picture the early church fathers attending the games at the Roman coliseum, praising the artistic merits of the arena even as they provide caveats against violence.

Yet now in the 21st century, we are expected to find redeemable qualities in what would only be described by people throughout church history as “filth.”

What’s the point in decrying the exploitation of women in strip clubs and mourning the enslavement of men to pornography when we unashamedly watch films that exploit and enslave?

I do not claim to have this all figured out. But one thing I know: our pursuit of holiness must be the mark against which our pursuit of cultural engagement is measured.

If, like me, you’re conflicted about this issue, maybe it’s because we should be.


The Bible Is Not about You by Byron Yawn

I hate to disappoint you, but the Bible is not about you. Specifically, it was not written to improve the quality of your daily existence (in the way you think). It is not a spiritual handbook and it is not a guide to determining God’s will for your life. The Bible is not a story of God determining in eternity past to send His Son to earth to create a more satisfactory existence for you. But, this is usually where we take the story. We are seriously self-absorbed when it comes to our Bibles.

Who else could take the unbelievable episode of Moses and the burning bush and bend it back toward our everyday experience? Or, the life of Joseph and draw out principles for effective management? Your life and happiness are not adequate points of reference for the scope of what God has done and is doing. Neither are mine. It’s bigger than you and me.

In the Bible we are watching as redemption comes to pass on the pages of Scripture, one unbelievable event after another, eventually leading to Christ. Each page rumbles with anticipation. When you see it from here, the Bible opens up in ways you’ve never imagined. It takes off.

Unfortunately, we’ve been conditioned to read ourselves onto the pages and into the events of Scripture. We don’t even realize we’re doing it. What’s the first question we ask of the Bible in our personal reading times or church services? “How is this relevant to me?” This is the wrong question entirely. No question could push us further from the real story. It’s very much like walking out into the night sky and assuming all the stars showed up to look at us.

When we approach the Bible this way, we can’t help but read it as if we’re the center of the biblical universe and all of its history revolves around us. When everything is read through the lens of self, self-improvement, and self-contentment, we’re destined to miss the point. But this is what we always do. Is it any wonder most Christians—even those who care deeply about the Word of God—are unable to put it all together?

Usually, biblical stories are approached as a set of isolated events with no connection to each other or to the greater redemptive plotline of the Bible. Without the real story, the events of the Bible become merely parables for better living, moral platitudes, character studies, or whatever else we can come up with. In the absence of a greater plot this is all we have. Over the years popular Christianity has practically rewritten the Bible. Our version of various events reads more like a fairy tale than God’s story.

·Eve’s decision to eat of the fruit and the subsequent disintegration of humanity becomes a lesson on the effects of negligent leadership and an absentee husband.

·Cain’s homicidal rage becomes a lesson on avoiding sibling rivalry.

·Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his only son becomes a lesson in trusting against all odds for God to provide, or how we should all surrender our children to God.

·Moses before a burning bush becomes a prototype for decision-making.

·Gideon becomes an example of how to determine the will of God.

·The prayer of Jabez becomes a lesson about expanding our personal influence.

·David’s encounter with the fighting champion of a hostile nation becomes a lesson in overcoming our greatest personal challenges (“giants”).

·Jonah, a prophet miraculously swallowed by a fish and vomited out on a specific shoreline, becomes an example of the futility of resisting God’s purpose in your life.

·Jesus’ testing in the wilderness in a template for how we resist temptation.

·The story of a caring Samaritan is a model of how we should reach out with compassion to those of other races and classes.

·A young unnamed paralytic dropped through a roof at the feet of Jesus by four men becomes a lesson on the value of friendship.

None of these interpretations are remotely close to the real point of the events themselves. We’ve told them wrong. You may think I’m crazy, but stick with me. I used to approach the Bible the same way. I totally missed it. Or to be more specific, I missed the point. All these events and people lead us to the person of Jesus. It’s about Jesus.

The lessons we typically draw out of the biblical stories are secondary observations at best. Usually this is because it’s all we know to do with them. Fact is, the same sort of life lessons could be derived from any contemporary biography or history. The meanings and applications we’ve given these events have nothing at all to do with what’s going on in the true story. Our approach is about the same as looking for stock tips in the sonnets of Shakespeare. This oversight is so very tragic.

Something so much greater is underway in these sacred pages. These events were not intended to be spiritualized into oblivion and dissected as lessons about raising kids or starting businesses. They are intended to be marveled at by God’s people. We stand and point at what God has done. They are each a link in a chain of redemptive history that moves from Genesis to Revelation. They’re not isolated at all. They’re amazing demonstrations of the divine continuity of God’s power. They are each the commitment of a Holy God to keep His promises and honor His holy name among men.

Our response to the individual incidents should be, “Look how God used this to get us to Jesus,” not “Look how this relates to my longing for significance.”

We’ve lost the main story line that pulls all the pieces together and gives them a consistent meaning, so we essentially take what’s available and make up a story. What we’ve come up with in evangelicalism is a bit like Little House on the Prairie. (Didn’t Michael Landon bear a strange resemblance to King David?) The Bible is now the epic tale of trials and triumph on the frontier of a long-ago land. It is no longer about what God has been doing for man and is more about what humanity has done to impress God. We approach it more as a collection of fables that indirectly offer principles for life. The Bible is no longer about how God went about saving humanity from the brink of desolation. The Bible is more the account of how God occasionally stopped to applaud the faith of a few exceptional people. It’s less about what He has done. It’s almost exclusively what we can do if we learn from the lives of heroic figures in God’s Word.

We do the weirdest things to the Bible in the absence of the cohesive theme. No other book is treated so recklessly by people who honor that same book so greatly. Among our favorite rewrites are character sketches. We like to examine the lives of Old Testament saints—triumphs and tragedies alike—and offer various patterns for living. Almost everyone assumes this is the very reason the Old Testament saints show up in the biblical record. Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, and Deborah have all come to represent examples to live by (or not to). What else could be the reason for the focus on their lives? Therefore we mine them for spiritual and moral principles. Sermons are preached and books are written about their lives and offered as blueprints for daily life, success in business, or practical decision-making skills.

Every Sunday kids sit in Sunday school classes, look at flannel boards or snip at construction paper with safety scissors, and learn how these ancient figures are examples of faithfulness or failure. The consistent message is, be like them and life will work out better. Or don’t be like them and life will work out better. Work harder, make good decisions, and stay out of trouble like Joseph, and God will bless you.

When these same kids reach their early twenties, struggle with real life, and fail to reach Joseph’s moral high ground, they despair. They can’t do it. Joseph was exceptional. They get angry with God when life does not work out according to the coloring pages. Eventually they find Christianity irrelevant and powerless to save them, and they walk away.

They’re exactly right—Joseph is powerless to save them. We’re creating angry moralists, setting them up for failure, and blaming it on the Bible. Tragically, the one message that actually could save them from their failure was before us in the story of Joseph the entire time. We failed to mention it. Families would run from our children’s programs if parents knew the effect our Bible lessons are having on their kids.

This approach to understanding this amazing book could not push us further from the real message and central character of the Bible. I know this sounds ridiculous to most of us and maybe even sacrilegious to some, but it should be obvious. The Bible is about Jesus, not Moses or any other biblical figure. The point of Moses is not Moses, but the one to whom Moses points. The Bible explicitly argues this very thing.

Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession; He was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was in all His house. For He has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, by just so much as the builder of the house has more honor than the house. For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God. Now Moses was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken later; but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house—whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end (Hebrews 3:1-6).

[Editor’s note: taken from the forthcoming book by Byron Yawn, Suburbianity: Can We Find Our Way Back to Biblical Christianity?Used by permission.]

Byron Yawn is the senior pastor of Community Bible Church in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of What Every Man Wishes His Father Had Told Him, and the forthcoming Suburbianity: Can We Find Our Way Back to Biblical Christianity? (Harvest House) You can follow him on Twitter@byronyawn.