Guest Blog: The MPAA - Catering to Our Inner Pharisee
April 30, 2012
Editors' Note: This post was written by John Perritt (M.Div; Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson), who is the Youth Pastor at Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church in Ridgeland, MS. In addition to his pastor duties, he is currently working on biblical counseling certificates through Christian Counseling & Education Foundation. He blogs on film & theology regularly at www.reel-thinking.com.
When it comes to critiques, people have generously dished them out to the Motion Picture Association of America. I am not the first (and likely won't be the last) to write a critique of this association. However, my beef is more directed towards Christians and how they use the MPAA, than with the organization itself. This post will hopefully assist us in biblically considering some pitfalls that may arise from the MPAA.
For starters, the design of the MPAA is unbiblical - it caters to our "inner Pharisee" if you will. Every human being on the face of this earth struggles with a desire to oversimplify things. If you remember, our first parents (Adam and Eve) were created to live in a perfect existence, but they sinned against God. Post-sin, everything is difficult, skewed, and unclear. Prior to this sin, everything was easy. There was no grey area to wade through, there was no evil - it was all very good. As Tim Keller once said, "We all know that we should be perfect." (1) This idea of perfection gives us a desire for issues to be black or white, yes or no, PG or R, if you will.
While the MPAA assists us in the area of discernment, I believe it has actually caused many of us to oversimplify our sin. Some Christians see the 'R' rating and think, "No way!" The opposite is true as well. There are those who see 'Rated-G' and think, "That film is void of sin! They must have plucked that one straight out of the garden!" Although I exaggerate about the degrees to which we consider a film to be good or evil, there is no doubt that the MPAA plays a major role in the films we choose to watch.
This is very unfortunate for a few reasons (you can think of some more, no doubt). First, many Christians have made the rating system some type of self-righteous law. They have become Pharisees and believe that there is more holiness in 'G' to 'PG' rated films and that there is more evil in 'PG-13' and 'R-rated' films. It is no doubt true that there is more mature content with the PG-13 and R films, but we must resist the temptation to see the MPAA ratings on par with inspired Scripture. Although we don't say that, many Christians think and act in those terms. We must understand that the people who determine those ratings may not even share the same biblical worldview that we do. Would you let a complete stranger tell your child what movie they can or cannot see? This is what we do every time we make a decision based solely on the rating system.
We must do the difficult exercise of discernment and begin thinking biblically about films instead of letting the MPAA think for us. Using discernment takes strength and energy; looking at a rating does not.
Therefore, my second issue is the fact that the MPAA ratings can lead to laziness. Laziness comes easy to all of us. Being slothful is a sin and we are all inclined to sin, so we are always prone to be lazy. We typically associate laziness with physical activity. While we are definitely lazy in that area, I believe we are much more lax with the stewardship of our minds than any other area.
When God created us in his image (Gen. 1:26-27), he created us to be intelligent, thinking creatures. If he created us with this design, you can bet your movie ticket that Satan is hard at work to keep you from thinking. Therefore, if your decisions regarding movie-going lie solely in the hands of the MPAA, perhaps more discernment is needed. There is little thinking involved in deciding what movies to see based solely on the MPAA rating. God calls us to shun such laziness and steward our minds for His glory.
Instead of writing a movie off because of an 'R' or 'PG-13' rating, we must be more thoughtful. We should ask ourselves if some of the themes or the content would be good for us to see. I often like to read a bit about the movie at websites like IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes. The point is, as a Christians, we need to do more reading and thinking on our own instead of having people tell us what movies we should watch. Although our hearts are always deceiving us (Jer. 17:9), we know our areas of temptation better than the MPAA. Therefore, we must fight the laziness the MPAA can often cultivate and think more intently about the films we may or may not watch.
A third caution is that we might miss the 'good' of our sin. You didn't misread that - the good of our sin. What I mean is the "good that God brings out of our sin." However, if we try to avoid films that depict sin, we may end up missing parts of the Bible too. Let me explain by using the MPAA's rating system (I can hear charges of hypocrisy!). If one were to apply a rating to the entire Bible, large portions would no doubt be rated 'R', or worse (Judges 19 for example). It is filled with violence and sex that would make some Hollywood actors blush. However, we know that God uses these terrible events in Scripture to teach us about ourselves. We also know that God brings good out of evil.
I recently watched The Fighter. Christians who base their viewing solely on the rating system would most likely abstain from this movie. It is rated R for violence, bad language, and drug use. Although I agree that the content is very rough and difficult to watch, it illustrates the devastating effects drugs have on an individual's life. Dicky Eklund was an amazing fighter, whose life was ruined because of drug use. The film clearly communicates this. Just like Scripture, movies can illustrate the awful effects our sin has in our lives.
If we abstain from movies that depict sin, we may be doing ourselves a disservice. We miss lessons that better illustrate the depravity and consequences of our sin. We miss the opportunity to cultivate a better understanding of a holy God and that from which he has rescued us. Alternatively, we may also miss times of reflection that cause us to think about an eternity without sin.
The ultimate 'good' of our sin is that it should make us long for the return of our King, Jesus Christ. It should make us long to be free from this present evil age. Indeed, it seems that every day of our lives we are trying to recreate heaven. We look for heaven in our entertainment or pleasure. But our sin is a good reminder that we are not there yet. Although we get glimpses of Christ's coming heavenly kingdom in his reign here on earth - even through modern film - Christians long for the day when Christ comes to consummate His eternal Kingdom.
So let the depictions of sin in modern film not only be used to educate us on evil and holiness, but let them also move you to pray for the return of the King.
One last caution we have for Christians who solely base their movie watching on the MPAA, is the fact that we miss an opportunity to better know our great God. This emphasis was in the last point, but I want to consider it from a slightly different angle.
John Calvin once said, "Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God." (2) Movies are stories, stories about fallen mankind. Yes there are movies we must abstain from, and we must also realize that the movies one can watch vary from individual-to-individual. When we watch movies that disturb us and have accurate portrayals of our sin, let those cause you to reflect on our perfectly, holy God. When we see the endless evils mankind is capable of, by contrast, it should help us better grasp the perfection that is only found in God.
If you've seen M. Knight Shyamalan's Unbreakable, the protagonist and antagonist could not be further opposites. David Dunn [Bruce Willis] is a man who has never had an injury. He's been in extreme accidents where he is the sole survivor and walks away without a scratch. Elijah Price [Samuel L. Jackson] on the other hand, has broken just about every bone in his body. He uses the assistance of a cane to walk and has been wheelchair bound many times in his life. His accidents occur so often, the kids called him Mr. Glass.
The movie-goer should be amazed at Dunn's unbreakable nature. The severity of the accidents he's been through without injury causes characters from the movie (and us) to shake our heads in disbelief. However, Price's extremely breakable character only magnifies the strength that has been given to Dunn. This is the reality Calvin was illustrating. Contrasting our sin to God's holiness magnifies that holiness all the more. Film can depict fallen mankind in a unique way that helps us to understand our holy God in a new light.
Not only is this true of the villains in film, but this is also true of our heroes in film. Every hero has a weakness. Superman's is kryptonite, Batman's is the fact that he's human, and the above mentioned Dunn's is water. Even when we look to the Bible, the heroes are flawed. Noah got drunk and naked after the flood, Moses disobeyed God, David slept with Bathsheba, and the list is too long for the disciples.
We love to worship mankind and turn our heroes into something they are not. We love to make them perfect. When you watch movies with great heroes, appreciate them and realize that every hero is a type of savior. Every hero is attempting to deliver people from some danger, but every hero of the silver screen is flawed. Therefore, it's a good practice to reflect on the many ways the hero falls short of the True Hero.
We must remember that sin can be depicted on-screen without endorsing it. Depiction of sin, whether it's PG-13 or R, can help us appreciate our holy God better. Whether it's the sin of the hero, villain, or just the average Joe, it can bring a depth to our depravity never explored, and if viewed thoughtfully, can bring great glory to God.
To sum it all up, the MPAA was designed to be a helpful guide, but it has long stopped being a guide in many Christian's minds. We should understand that it can cause us to be lazy and hinder the practice of discernment. It can oversimplify our sin by making things too black and white. Although there is much sin that is praised and worshiped at the local box office, God is more powerful than evil and often uses it to bring good from it.
The MPAA has done a great job of training us to see films in four to five categories, but it's a habit Christians need to break. It's time for us to wave goodbye to the MPAA and embrace the discipline of discernment.
1. Keller, Tim. Getting Out. Sermon at The Gospel Coalition 2011.
2. Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian. Pg. 39