To see or not to see

Amoral, moralistic, and biblical film reviewing

Issue: "Quayle's presidential bid," June 19, 1999

Now that Saving Private Ryan is readily available at video stores, it's time to revisit a firefight sparked by WORLD's review of the film (Aug. 8, 1998) when it was playing in theaters. Many letters that we printed took WORLD to task for praising a film that contained graphic violence and bad language, and not warning readers about the latter. As is our custom, we did not print our response to the criticism. My belief is that after we've taken our shot, readers should freely take theirs without having to worry about any sarcastic put-downs. But now that more of our readers are seeing the film for themselves, let's deal with some fundamental issues. WORLD's movie and television reviews assume that Christians should not live in a cultural ghetto and should develop points of contact with the non-Christians who surround us. Our models here are Daniel and Paul, both of whom displayed knowledge of the pagan poetry and theology that surrounded them. We respect Christians who want to isolate themselves from the world, but this magazine's primary calling is to cover the world, not the church. We also see nothing wrong with the pleasure that watching a good movie or show provides. Within that context, our reviews have three functions. They should help our readers decide whether to see something that sounds appealing. They should give readers some sense of the pictures that are dancing through the heads of our fellow citizens. They should summarize and biblically critique the worldviews of our key cultural teachers. The triple task makes the reviewer's job hard. He has to be both a regent (standing in for readers as their eyes and ears) and a teacher. He needs the discernment to bring out theological implications and the lightheartedness to enjoy movies that aren't theological treatises. He needs the ability to look at what other people see but then see it more deeply through adept use of a biblical lens. Along with the triple task, a WORLD reviewer needs to understand the triple distinction-amoral, moralistic, and biblical-that I wrote of last month in summarizing our general reporting philosophy. Many reviewers today are amoral, worshipping sensation for sensation's sake, reveling in slow-motion murder and fast-talking obscenity, not even paying attention to whether films and programs glorify evil. Some moralistic reviewers appropriately attack the amoral but then push smiley-faced films that preach faith in man's natural goodness. These reviewers criticize amoral destruction but don't note how the subtle sapping of moralism can be even more effective in keeping us from seeing our need for God's grace. They roll over for smarmy products designated as "uplifting"-but uplift apart from Christ is idolatry. Biblical reviewers, however, look for films that help us to comprehend evil and the need to fight it. Christians disagree on the extent to which films need to depict man's depravity and sin's consequences, but truthful films often are not nice, just as Christianity is not a nice religion: Priests used hyssop to spray the blood of sacrifices on the people in Moses' time, and Christ had to shed his blood, not just preach, to pay for our sin. That hard reality of biblical faith distinguishes it from the spongecake of theological liberalism. Discussion of hard realities brings us back to Saving Private Ryan, which I've now watched on video after missing it in the movie theaters. On the to-see-or-not-to-see question, we clearly failed by not telling readers of the bad (although historically accurate) language. On the describe-the-hit question, we did a good job of succinctly summarizing the D-Day film's power. But it's the theology suggested at the end of the film that I find most intriguing. One dying soldier's last words to the man whose life he and others saved, at great cost, are "Earn this. Earn it." Then we fast-forward half a century: The man who was saved, now old, is in a cemetery, hobbling to a cross that commemorates his savior. The old man fights back tears to say, "I lived my life the best I could. I hope that was enough." But has he "earned it"? He turns to his wife and pleads, "Tell me I'm a good man." His wife says, "You are"-and there are his children and grandchildren behind him. The gospel according to director Stephen Spielberg is evident here, as it was in Schindler's List. We can pay for the life that's been given us by our good works-although we're never sure if we've done enough. And yet, at the end of Saving Private Ryan a shadow lurks: We cannot shake the mystery of grace offered by a man dying for us. Maybe some of us can discuss with non-Christian moviegoers how Christianity alone brings into harmonious tension the earning and the gift.

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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