To the Pure, All Things Are Pure: Exploring Questionable Content in Films

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–By Sam Hendrian–

“To the pure, all things are pure.”
– Titus 1:15

This New Testament quotation is encouraging, for it suggests that if we are truly pure of heart, we need not be afraid of inanimate objects (like works of art) causing us to sin merely by viewing them. For nearly a century, there has been passionate discussion within Christian circles about the cinematic arts and whether profanity, sex scenes, nudity, and graphic violence can ever be justified on-screen. Does Titus 1:15 offer an immediate solution to all moral dilemmas when it comes to watching movies, or are there more complex factors that need to be considered like context and individual vices?

This pressing question cannot be answered without first shedding light on several examples. Last year, The Shape of Water received the Academy Award for Best Picture. While it undeniably contains stunning cinematography, haunting music, and excellent acting, the sometimes-explicit plot involving the sexual relationship between a mute woman and a sea creature has raised red flags for many Christians. Even if the movie’s central relationship was not semi-bestial by nature, would it still be alright to praise or at least be entertained by a piece of art that starkly depicts unchaste sexual acts?

I think we should keep in mind whenever determining a movie’s moral “watchability” that nothing shocks God. He has seen the worst of depravity and yet loves every person anyway. He created human anatomy and sexuality, and while the Fall has skewed our perception of these things, He never intended for them to be shameful or scandalous subjects.

With that being said, I believe it is possible for a Christian to watch a movie like The Shape of Water objectively without any danger of sinning. If we can better empathize with the struggles of our fellow human beings while still recognizing sin as sin, this can even be a positive experience. That being said, each person’s mind is positively or negatively affected differently by certain onscreen images, and it is ultimately a matter of personal conscience.

What about movies that do not necessarily contain graphic content but have plot-lines that raise moral red flags? Two of my all-time favorite movies are The Apartment and The Graduate. The former tells the story of a businessman who receives promotions by lending his apartment to adulterous executives, and the latter is about an affair between a confused college graduate and a middle-aged married woman. On the surface, these stories sound quite lewd, but they are actually infused with a Christian outlook on life.

The Apartment is really about a frail but good-hearted man choosing courage and chivalry over the cowardice and lust that dominate his place of work. The Graduate is a compelling exploration of the emptiness and confusion that is sparked when people look for love and fulfillment in the wrong places. Neither film glorifies sexual immorality but rather show its consequences in eye-opening ways. As the titular character in Mary Poppins Returns sings, “A cover is not a book, so open it up and take a look.”

Now, there are certainly cinematic stories that do not treat sexuality with the reverence it deserves but rather ridicule and/or misrepresent its true purpose. Movies like American Pie and The Rocky Horror Picture Show immediately come to mind (for an in-depth review of the latter, click here). Should Christians really be watching movies with such a skewed outlook on sexuality, even if there are some good laughs or positive messages woven in?

Again, I think it comes down to a matter of conscience. Every person should ask this question before watching a movie: Will this cinematic experience help me to better understand and love my fellow human beings, therefore giving glory to God, or will it subtly make me more mean-spirited and indifferent about how I treat others?

Of course, sexuality is not the only content concern in films. Vulgar language and bloody violence can potentially disturb our minds and hearts just as much, especially because it is already so rampant in the real world (the evening news and Quentin Tarantino films may have more in common than you would think). It is tremendously easy to become desensitized to what we see and/or hear on-screen, and this desensitization can negatively affect how we react to real-life evils.

On the other hand, if we want to light up the darkness, it can help to be aware of what this darkness consists of, and watching movies that show evil at its most diabolical is one way to do this. But the question still remains: Do the potential benefits outweigh the potential dangers of immersing ourselves in such darkness, even if it is “just a movie?” Perhaps the soundest advice is to ask God for His eyesight before viewing any film. Just as He watches each human story from a patiently mercy-coated perspective, so we should also strive to watch each cinematic story with the same graceful outlook.

Pope Saint John Paul II said in his Letter to Artists:

“Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”

This is something we should all keep in mind when enjoying art or creating it ourselves. The ultimate purpose of movies is to help us better empathize with our fellow human beings, for empathy is the heart of the greatest Christian virtue: charity.

Now, sometimes demeaning portraits of humanity might pass as art worthy of our time, but we must be conscientiously wary of these.  Nevertheless, charity is primarily about engaging rather than averting, so we need not rule out watching a movie simply because it depicts the worst of human depravity.

“To the pure, all things are pure” is ultimately more of a challenge than a piece of permission. It says that we are each responsible for deciding whether to use Earthly things for the purpose of love or for the purpose of sin, echoing another Bible quotation from our Savior Himself: “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them” (Mark 7:15). Let us prayerfully seek out entertainment that challenges our vices and brings out our virtues, for while vices defile our broken world, virtues rebuild.

About the Author

Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.

For more articles by Sam, click here.