When The Wolf of Wall Street was released, I put it on my Netflix list. After reading a few reviews, I took it off. The consensus was that director Martin Scorsese’s latest had crossed some lines in language and graphic sex. A month or so later I read a blog post by Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition website, where he responded to a review by Alissa Wilkinson in Christianity Today. Wilkinson had given the movie—nominated for five Oscars but receiving none at last night’s Academy Awards—3.5 out of 4 stars, in spite of four paragraphs of reader advisory. To sum up Wax: What gives? To sum up Wilkinson’s response to Wax: A high rating is by no means an endorsement. Her rating reflected the artistic excellence of the film and its truthfulness—the central truth being that Jordan Belfort, the slick, brash, white-collar shyster played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a repulsive character.
I get this. As a fiction writer, I understand that telling the truth means delving into unpleasant subject matter, for the central truth about us is that no one is righteous. I don’t doubt Wilkinson’s judgment that the movie condemns the behavior it shows.
And yet—it shows apparently a lot more than it needs to show to get the point across. The gleeful abandon displayed by DiCaprio’s character in the trailers is probably on view during the hard-R scenes, and thousands of potential audience members—myself included—are drawn to gleeful abandon. My Christian upbringing and walk (not to mention age) make it likely I would be repulsed by Belfort’s type of abandon, but a viewer generally takes the message he wants to take. For every disgusted viewer, how many more come away with the impression that Belfort is one nervy dude who almost pulled it off?
“The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light” (Matthew 6:22). That is, knowledge combined with worldview helps us interpret what we see. But the eye is also a delicate organ—the ear, too, for that matter—and a barrage of artfully depicted sex, f-bombs, and blasphemy can blunt the fine edges of discernment. Blatant sin is appealing, at least at first. By showing the appeal, does Scorsese undermine his own message?
Here’s another question to ask before putting that movie (or any other) on your Netflix list: Are Christians subject to titillation? I’ve cited “intellectual curiosity” as my reason for watching a questionable movie, only to recognize that at least some of the curiosity was located further down. How much sin should we witness to be convicted of its heinousness? Don’t we see enough in ourselves? And finally (a Sunday school question we never outgrow): What would God think about this use of our time?
The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t shock God. He’s seen it all, in real life. But we are but flesh and our sensibilities are not made of indestructible titanium. They wear thin, and after too many shocks we become unshockable. Maybe even jaded. And jadedness, I hardly need to add, is no fruit of the Spirit.