How to Drive Through Hollywood and Not Wind Up in Hell, A Christian Guide to Watching Movies

Christians view Hollywood as the Babylon of modern culture. We criticize it. We despise its ideals and we reject much of what it produces. But then comes the films that Christians seem to drool over; Les Misérables, pretty much every film in the Star Wars universe, The Greatest Showman (which my youngest daughter saw five times), and most recently, Black Panther. Most people outside of the church think we are hypocritical idiots anyway, but what about the confusion that our Hollywood mood swings seem to produce within the Christian community? We are borderline bipolar in our going to and shunning of the theater.

For my undergrad, I attended a Baptist university. It was quite a culture change from my public high school. I will never forget the Freshman orientation session in which we were lectured on the rules. The one I found most amusing was “no mixed bathing.” I didn’t know Baptists had issues with jumping in the tub together. But that’s not what he meant. He meant that if you went swimming, there could be no girls in the pool at the same time. Seriously?

Spending lots of summer days at the old community pool I couldn’t think of a single instance in my life in which I went swimming and there were no girls. I had no idea that swimming was a sin. Now that I’m 44 and well past the statute of demerit limitations, and considering that my Baptist University is now no more, I will offer my confession. I went swimming while I was in college. There were girls.

Amongst the other commandments of Baptist U were no physical contact, no dates, and no movies. The irony of it all is that for my first two years at Baptist U I dated a girl, also a student at the U, who worked at the movie theater. One weekend while cleaning up the theater, she found the student ID of one of our classmates. Baptist U forbid it, but the ID on the floor was like a smoking gun of sin. Baptists go to movies.

That was a long time ago, and despite it being a rule in the Baptist U handbook, the Bible issues no explicit commandment for the theater. And so when it comes to movies, one will find within the Christian community a wide range of opinion. There are some who believe it is best for our holiness that the theater is banished to Babylon. Even a screening of Bambi puts money in the pockets of infidels who also produced the Wolf of Wall Street. And, there are those for whom no movie is off limits. They see it as a bridge to the gospel in cultural conversation much like Paul before the Areopagus in Acts 17. Then there are countless others in the middle who just go to movies and think nothing of it or of them. Who’s right? Which position is more Biblical? Can a Christian drive through Hollywood and not wind up in Hell? I think so. Here’s how.

Your Right is not Your Brother’s Left

In Romans 13 and 14, Paul is trying to give direction to those in the church who are quarreling over opinions about meat. If you trace this conversation in the NT you find that it is one that was evolving as the gospel moved from predominantly Jewish cities into Gentile territories.

The issue first arises in Acts 15. The locale of this conversation is Jerusalem and so new Gentile believers were not only coming to Christ but also being saddled with the kosher regulations of the Jewish people. It’s pretty tough when you tell a new brother in Christ that he needs to be baptized - AND circumcised! It is hard to get new members when the First Steps class at FBC Jeru involves a knife! So to help the new brothers bind together, the apostles ruled that circumcision was not necessary to salvation (much to the delight of the Gentile males), but that they did need to abstain from some things for the sake of Christian morality and brotherhood. Both sexual immorality and strangled meat sacrificed to idols were a part of pagan Temple worship. Abstain from sexual immorality because it is a matter of God’s command. Abstain from strangled meat as a matter of Christian community in Jerusalem. Eat meat, but be selective.

We find this directive perpetuated to Paul as he carries the gospel further in Acts 21. But if you follow Paul, you know that his heart was always to get the gospel to Rome. While there were Jews most certainly living in Rome, the demographic of the budding church in there would be far different than Jerusalem. Thus, the conversation changes.

Ironically, the conversation became more polarized. The conversation was not over which kinds of meats to eat, but as to whether a Christian should eat meat at all. In that culture, it would not be unusual for the leftover meat of animals sacrificed in a pagan Temple to make its way into the local market. How were you to know if the meat you were buying at Piggly Wiggly had not been filleted in the Temple of Jupiter the night before? Some were of the opinion that its just meat. It doesn’t matter. Others were seeking to be more careful and so they swore off meat altogether.

The conversation Paul was having with the Romans about meat is much like the conversation we are now having about movies.

The problem for the Roman church came as some embraced the position that "my choice is your command.” No matter how you fall when it comes to Hollywood, in our current culture, we all drive through Babylon. Some take a hard right. They make no choice about watching certain movies because they simply don’t go to theaters. As stated previously, buying Bambi tickets also supports the Wolf of Wall Street. Hollywood is Hollywood. God is God. Take a right.

The problem comes when that right becomes a brother’s left. Those who do not make the same choice are unduly criticized as loving Christ less. In Romans 14 Paul makes it clear, a matter of choice may be a matter of conscience for an individual but it is not a commandment for the whole. But wherever each falls, he is to love his brother (Romans 13:8). Christ is not glorified and the church is not edified in quarreling over opinions (Romans 14:1).

So when it comes to driving through Hollywood, I think as brothers and sisters in Christ, we can have productive conversations, but we need to respect the routes we choose when it comes to movies. We need to distinguish the difference is personal opinions for the sake of conscience and Biblical commands given for the sake of holiness. Some will avoid the theater altogether, but you may find your preacher’s car in the parking lot of the Regal 8 as you pass by. He still loves Jesus and so do you. You just navigate the issue differently. You may be right, movies are not for you. But don’t think that he has left the faith with buttered popcorn in his hand. Don’t divide over opinions.

Proceed with Caution

So now that some of our brothers are driving by the rest of us with a little more understanding, allow me to address those of us who ride together to the theater. Now that we are here, there are still choices to be made. Your brother makes a valid point. The same people who made the G rated film about deer and chipmunks gleefully playing in the forest also made the film about men who lacked any moral self-control romping with gratuitous sex on Wall Street. And, there should probably be a red flag waved before several couples from the Dorcas Sunday School class meet up to see it.
While the Bible doesn’t offer us a clear Thou Shalt Not when it comes to Hollywood, it does offer very clear principles in our pursuit of holiness. Central to the conversation over “meat or not to meat” in Romans 13 and 14 is the vision Christ has for all of us:

"Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Romans 13:11-14)."

I think the modern version of American Christianity has also moved far from the nuanced conversations Jews and Gentiles were having in Jerusalem to the extreme conversations like Paul was having with post-Pagans had in Rome. In Jerusalem it was meat, but not strangled meat. In Rome, it was herbivore or carnivore. Leaves or meat. Feast or famine. WAY over here - or WAY over there. We struggle with balance.

Baptist U was a product of a version of Christianity that sought to call people out of the culture and into a clear, unmistakable commitment to Jesus Christ. The intent of it was noble. The end result was horrible. We call it legalism. In short, legalism is Christ - plus. You need Christ - plus no movies, plus this church not that church, plus pants no shorts, plus don’t jump into a pool with a girl. Legalism says that saved people don’t swim with girls. The end result was a group of sneaky Christians who did not forsake sin but rather became proficient in hiding it. We proved Paul’s caution to the Colossians to be true. It looks good until you get caught. In the end, it is a Christ-less, useless Christianity.

These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:23)

So our new WAY over there is in casting off legalism, we have embraced indulgent liberty. Paul also warned us of the mistake of this. "What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! (Romans 3:15, see also Romans 6).” We have forgotten that in rebelling against legalism that there is yet a call to obedience that the redeemed are to embrace.

In short - WAY over here or WAY over there - it doesn’t work. Both are equally useless in what should be our common pursuit of holiness.

It is here that Christians need to add a word to their vocabulary, discernment. This is a wonderful word used in various places in Scripture that points to a fabulous gift that God has given to His people - a redeemed brain! Use it.

Discernment means that you think. Discernment means that you have the end goal in sight - to be transformed into something that looks more like Christ and resembles less the world (Romans 12:2). Discernment says I will go to movies, but not all of them. Discernment says I don’t have to see it to know what’s in it. And just in case you’re wondering about my references to Wolf of Wall Street - didn’t see it, but I can tell you what’s in it. Why? Discernment - I have a redeemed brain!
Which turns the screw on our current conversation. How does one set a standard when it comes to watching movies? I think Trevin Wax’s posts are particularly instructive and balanced. Consult Evangelicals and the Hollywood Muck, as well as his, follow up, Christians and Movies, Are We Contextualizing or Compromising?

Trevin nails it, but here are my two-cents in short about how to establish your personal standard.
  1. Know who you are. Because of what we’ve come from and what we need to work through to pursue holiness, not every person will have the same reaction to every film. I’m very male. Films with sex - no question. Films with very attractive yet underdressed women - still no question. I can’t handle it. But I could also watch Black Hawk Down and sympathize with the tragedy of it while also having the ability to walk away without cursing every other word. When it comes to the cursing, I just don’t like it. Most of the time I just wait for those great historical films, like Black Hawk Down, to hit TNT. The inconvenience of commercials is worth the language filter.
  2. Know what Christ has called you to. Though you are forgiven there is a lot of work to be done. Though you are under the blood, remember your call is Christ-likeness, not unrestrained liberty.
  3. Use the Bible. Walk in the Spirit. Listen to others. God has given His people three pretty good filters for the soul. The Word. The Spirit. The Church. We don’t want to divide over quarrels, but I do appreciate my brother’s objections when I do talk about movies. It makes me check up. I love Him. The same Spirit in him is in me. It makes me revisit Scripture. It helps me think through things. Furthermore, I may not forever be in the same place with movies. I am being sanctified. I am growing. I am listening, not quarreling.
Don’t just drive into Hollywood full speed ahead. Observe the signs. Proceed with caution. If you want more about Christian discernment in movies, see my post The Fault in Our Discernment.

Welcome Conversations at Intersections

Jeremiah 29:11 is a fan favorite among Christian high school graduations.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11)

Because the context of the verse is ignored, the meaning of the verse is misapplied. As it stands alone, Landon walks across the stage on graduation day, grabs his diploma and sets off into a prosperous future. Taken in context, the reader realizes that the verse was not given in a time of achievement, but one of defeat. The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar has sacked Jerusalem and has separated his captives from their homeland. Jeremiah 29:11 must be read in the context of Jeremiah 29:1. As Jeremiah continues he alerts the exiles that as for their time in Babylon - they are going to be there awhile. Build houses. Raise families. And then he tells them to do the unthinkable, seek the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:5-7). And if anyone comes in the name of the Lord to tell you differently, they are lying to you (Jeremiah 29:8-9). And all important to Jeremiah 29:11 is Jeremiah 29:10. You are about 70 years away from ever getting out of this. God has parked you in Babylon, so make the best of it!

Living the rest of your life in exile is not the best news for graduates, but important instruction even now for Christians trying to navigate a Babylonian culture. Learn to garden! We are going to be here for awhile.

Movies are culture messages. They reflect the struggles of our past and our hopes for the future. They are good versus evil. They are intrinsically moral and as such inseparable from Scripture. You may not be interested in having conversations about film, but the Bible is in constant conversation with them.

Back to Paul in the Areopagus (Acts 17). In having a conversation with the culture he makes an observation about their idols. He does not worship them, but he has driven by and paid attention. He has learned about them (Acts 17:22-23). In referencing the idol dedicated to the “unknown god” Paul seeks to fill in the blank by pointing them toward truth (Acts 17:23-27). He points out how people intrinsically try to “seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him (Acts 17:26)." And then pulling a quote from one of their poets, he points out how they are so close to him. It is expressed in the art they produce, yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring (Acts 17:28).’”

Imagine Paul speaking with the execs at Paramount in Hollywood and telling them, “I’ve seen your movies. You’re not that far from God.”

Recently I viewed Marvel’s hit film Black Panther. On my Thursday night Facebook Live show, Biblical Conversations on Culture, my guest, Pastor Angulus Wilson from Fresno, CA, pointed out that the story was about an invisible kingdom that existed in the world, but had chosen to withdraw from the world. Its king, in his evolution throughout the film, was a warrior, an intercessor, and a sacrifice. When the king leads his kingdom to engage the world, it becomes a missional power for world transformation. If you read the Bible and understand the nature of CHRIST'S KINGDOM, you realize immediately, Marvel has no intention of producing a film about Jesus - but wow - they are not far off!

Does that mean we need Hollywood to help us spread the gospel? Absolutely not, but they are handing us a marvelous opportunity for conversation. What it does mean is that you and I need to pick up some hitchhikers along the way as we drive through Babylon. They are as Paul said, “feeling their way towards him.” They need a ride! If you pay attention to movies, they are laced with the cries of searching souls and as such become incredible intersections of conversation.
Whether you go to movies or not, we all have the same call. We are called to bring people to Christ. For those who go to movies, we should be there for more than just mindless entertainment. We should be paying attention to the messages in them and then helping people fill in the blanks with Scripture.
While living in Birmingham a couple of the guys who lived on my street invited me to go see the Will Smith movie I Am Legend. One of the guys with us was not a Christian. As we watch the film, that “not far off” story begins to unfold:
  • The human race has been infected with a virus - the Bible fills in that blank with sin (Romans 5).
  • One man seems to have an immunity to the virus - the Bible fills in that blank with a Christ who knew no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21).
  • After extensive research and many failed attempts to reverse the effects of the virus, Will Smith’s character realizes that the immunity is in his blood and that the only hope for humanity is his sacrifice! Slam dunk! (Romans 5:9)
The movie version of I Am Legend is not far off from Romans 5. Help seekers fill in the blanks with Scripture.

As a Christian, how can you not watch that movie with a friend and point him to Jesus? I used it as an opportunity to fill in the blanks with the gospel. The film became a garden spot; an intersection for a Biblical conversation with culture. A trip to the theater did not send us to Hell, in fact, it gave me a great opportunity to keep a friend from heading there.

If we are merely entertained by Hollywood we will be absorbed by it and fail to be transformed into something other than the world (Romans 12:1-2). But if we can approach Hollywood with discernment, critically, and Scripturally we seek the welfare of our city by showing them a better end to their searching. Movies give us stories and images which we can use to point people to the truth. We have to be discerning, but not divisive. We have to approach film with personal respect, but also be concerned for personal holiness. We are not simply here to support Hollywood, but to talk with it. Who else will show them a better way?

When it comes to film, what are your standards? Is there a movie you have viewed recently that has given you a great opportunity to share the gospel? Please share.


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