A decade late, a dollar short

Reprinted from World magazine

By Joel Belz, Publisher, World magazine

January 1996 – Evangelical Christians have a reputation, deserved or otherwise, for being a decade or two behind the times. Sometimes that’s an embarrassment; it can also be an advantage.

In one particular, Christians’ tendency to fall behind the world has been a good thing. The fact that we’re catching up is dangerous.

It took many evangelicals half a century to decide their parents had been too strict in forbidding Hollywood’s movies. It was “fundamentalist” to say you wouldn’t go see the flicks. Use a little God given judgment, some of us began to argue a little too self-confidently, take in half a dozen movies a year or so, and we’d sure enough find greatly improved opportunities to talk to unbelievers about contemporary culture.

Sure enough is right.

I know this from personal experience. I was barely 17 when I had to sneak off, looking both ways to make sure nobody saw me going into the Esquire Theater on Clayton Road in St. Louis, just to see The Sound of Music.

Today, not one Hollywood release in a hundred is as innocuous as The Sound of Music. Producers’ style these days is to take even mild, straightforward stories and spice them up with language and scenes that a generation ago would have ruled them out of bounds for most people in America, let alone most evangelicals. But now we Christians pay to bring a huge majority of all that is produced right into our own living rooms. We sit and watch it all with our children.

Some of us are outraged, and properly so, at entertainment like the reportedly pornographic Showgirls now being shown in neighborhood theaters across the country. “Such purveyors,” said Cal Thomas in his column here in World two weeks ago, “must be shamed and told they cannot get away with morally raping our children and strip-mining our land of its remaining virtue.”

And when the National Endowment for the Arts supports blasphemous acts of “entertainment,” it is right for Christians to protest, to boycott, and to insist that such funding be cut off.

Even so, Showgirls and Adres Serrano’s crudities are not the ultimate problem. The problem instead lies in the acceptance by millions of Christians of prime-time programs full of double entendres, of PG movies loaded with the blasphemous use of God’s name, and with the just-this-side-of-pornographic videos brought by the armloads into our homes.

Too many of us have adopted a self-justifying view of what might offend God and what might not. That’s why we’ve come to think it’s OK to invest an evening watching Murder One when we’d feel a bit more embarrassed to watch a program called Adultery One. And it has something to do with why we tend to tolerate an entertainer’s using God’s name profanely more than we will a long list of sexual or excremental four-letter words. We’ve developed a hierarchy of sins that is wholly extra-biblical.

The awful result of that kind of thinking is that we incrementally harden our hearts to sin of every kind. That’s exactly what we evangelicals have done as we’ve tolerated increasing doses of almost everything God says we shouldn’t even think about. Especially in this area of entertainment, we’ve kidded ourselves – little by little – into thinking that what God calls sin isn’t really sin.

I am suggesting a return to the over-simplicity of fundamentalism’s old no movies rule. There are good reasons why we discarded some of that modern-day pharisaism.

But a one-time excess of legalism should never serve as an excuse for new excesses in freedom. When’s the last time you walked out of a theater and complained to the manager about the content of what angered you? When’s the last time you stood up in your own living room, shut off the TV, and said, “That’s enough!” When did you last tell the manager of your local video store that they’d gone too far?

Protests, nationwide boycotts, and congressional action against what’s outrageously evil all have their place. Right now I’m more worried about that which hasn’t yet outraged us, but maybe should have.