Have you ever had this experience? You go to a movie with a friend, a movie that perhaps has some content that’s a bit edgy. But as you walk out, you’re thinking something like,That wasn’t too bad. It didn’t really bother me at all.
In fact, you’re already thinking about where you’re going to go eat when you ask what your friend thought of the flick. Your friend seems quiet. A bit withdrawn, even. “Man,” he finally admits, “there were some things in that movie that really disturbed me. I’m not sure I should have seen it.”
Suddenly you find yourself wondering, Should that movie have bothered me more? Am I just totally desensitized? Or are my friend and I just different people with different sensitivities? Thoughts like those raise some larger philosophical questions that I think all of us would do well to grapple with. Specifically:
1) What experiences and convictions inform my standards when it comes to movie content?
2) How can I tell if I’m being desensitized and/or negatively influenced by what I’ve seen?
3) Am I willing to actively engage with my motives (and possibly my rationalizations) for seeing certain films, as well as actively engaging with the ideas and images I see there?
Experiences and convictions. Let’s talk first about our experiences and convictions, and how they relate to our movie choices.
Some of us already have very defined parameters regarding our entertainment choices. Others may not have ever thought too deeply about what we see — we just kind of go with the flow. Wherever we’re at on that spectrum, I think it’s worth reflecting on what has influenced our decision-making grid when it comes to content issues.
A helpful passage of Scripture for me, personally, is the Apostle Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 10:23: “‘Everything is permissible’ — but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’ — but not everything is constructive.” At the very minimum, this passage prompts me to ask the question of a particular film, “Is my watching this going to be constructive or beneficial?” Sometimes I can easily answer that question. But it’s a good, quick and accessible starting point for my initial process of discernment.
(As an aside, Paul also deals with the issue of different people’s convictions in the balance of 1 Corinthians 10 as well as Romans 14. In both places, he warns against harshly judging someone who has come to different conclusions in a grey area than we have.)
As far as experiences go, one watershed movie experience for me was watching American Beauty in 1999. This critically acclaimed film about a middle-aged man trying to find meaning in his vacuous suburban life won Best Picture that year. It’s a disturbing story about the emptiness of the American dream, and it’s a brilliant depiction of depravity. But some of the film’s images were pretty disturbing to me, and they stayed with me a long time — so much so that I began to ask the question, “Do I need to see a brilliant depiction of depravity to know that depravity is depraved?” Much, if not most of the time, the answer is no.
Dealing with desensitization. Next, it’s critical to deal with the reality of desensitization and influence. It may be that certain content truly doesn’t affect us. But before we insist that that’s the case, we need to take some time to determine whether it’s actually true or whether we might be more hardened, more desensitized to certain things, than we want to admit.
In our culture, we’re deeply invested in the idea that we know what’s best for us. If we say that something doesn’t affect us, we believe it doesn’t. The classic case is the adolescent responding to his parents’ objections about a certain song: “Mom, I don’t listen to the lyrics; I just like the beat.” And yet he can sing every lyric word for word. Whether he realizes it or not, those lyrics are going in. The same thing can happen when it comes to movies.
Recent academic research consistently indicates that there is a strong correlation between what we ingest, entertainment-wise, and what we think and do. (I chronicled some of the latest research on this connection in my 2009 article “See the Show, Be the Show.”) But what about us individually? I think there are some questions each of us needs to ask ourselves to begin to determine whether and how much we’re being influenced by what we see on the big screen:
1) Do you continue to have images from a movie (or a certain kind of film) coming to mind days or weeks after you’ve seen it? If so, that’s a big indicator that a particular movie, type of movie or content is having a real impact.
2) Are you slipping into thoughts, attitudes or behaviors that you know aren’t right? If you’ve seen a bunch of films filled with foul language, for example, and you find yourself swearing more, that might be an indicator of how those movies are influencing you.
3) Do you find yourself dismissing or minimizing content that’s blatantly at odds with what Scripture teaches, simply because you want to be entertained? I think this is an especially useful question when it comes to comedies that generate a lot of buzz. It’s easy to say, “It’s just a dumb comedy. It doesn’t matter.” But if we’re just letting ideas and images counter to God’s truth sweep over us because we want a laugh or we want to unwind and veg out without thinking, we become quite susceptible to being influenced by the world’s point of view.
I love how Eugene Peterson addresses this issue in his paraphrase of Romans 12:2 in The Message: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”
Why am I watching? Finally, if you’ve considering watching a movie that you know ahead of time includes harsh content, I think it’s well worth considering why you want to do that — and whether it’s really good or necessary to do so. What do you hope or expect the outcome to be? How might it influence you negatively? Sometimes, if we’re honest with ourselves, we may find that we’re succumbing to temptation to see something that, deep down, we know we shouldn’t set before our eyes. I’m not saying that potentially difficult content in a film always pushes it out of bounds in all cases. But we need to be willing to engage our motives on a case-by-case basis.
And if we do decide to engage with something with tough content, I think we’ve got some work to do on the other side as well. What were the messages? What images affected you and why? In short, are we willing to engage critically, reflectively and personally with what we’re watching? Because if we’re not talking about it and thinking about it, it increases the odds of us being influenced and desensitized by it.
And we may not even realize it.
[This blog post was originally published on Plugged In’s blog as the last in a five-part series about how and why we watch movies. To read the first post in the series, go to “Don’t Watch. But If You Do ….”]