Since Pagans make the movies . . .

by Mark Butterworth (Nov. 2006)

Nearly all movies and entertainment are made by pagans for pagans. That doesn’t mean that a Christian can never find anything to like or love in such things. It does mean that there are some things, though, which a Christian is obligated to hate.

All modern pagan entertainment is premised on a lie or lies. One, that God is not truth. Two, if there is a God, he (or she, they would insist) is unknowable. Three, that life is basically meaningless but people pretend otherwise. Four, that people have no right to tell others how to live. Five, that sexual desire is uncontrollable so why bother trying. Six, that justice and revenge are the same thing. Seven, it is more fun to be emotional and irresponsible than sober and adult. (Make your own list from here.)

Since the human heart is made to seek and know God, even unconsciously, pagans often mix in themes which are responsive to that need such as people seeking redemption for their suffering, forgiveness for their cruelties; people changing their character as a result of conflict taken to some extreme, people converting from evil or indifferent attitudes to positive ones, people seeking justice for wrongs done to them, and people wanting to improve themselves - to love and be loved.

But pagan entertainment by its very nature is generally poisonous even when its trying to be positive because it gets the very basic truths of life wrong, or it uses half-truths that neatly seduce the inattentive into accepting ambiguities or falsehoods which condition perception and opinions that lead people away from truth and right action (righteousness).

The fact that most Christians are wishy washy, hypocritical, self-indulgent, weak, and tolerant of immorality doesn’t change the Ten Commandments or other injunctions against sin. That some Christians justify their weakness and lack of zeal for Truth is where the greater shame lies. At least a hypocrite knows what’s right but fails to do it. He has hope, at least, that someday he might improve or believes he should and it would be better if he did. But the one who accepts lies for truth, justifies falsehood, he ought to fear the outer darkness.

But he doesn’t because he claims he’s “saved”. He made the alter call, got baptized and confirmed, goes to church filled with nice people and undemanding sermons or simply scoffs at narrow minded injunctions and unsophisticated prohibitions.

Now, it’s true that, occasionally, humanity sets itself high standards, moral, spiritual or otherwise, but the fact is that we live by the mean, the average. Mediocrity is the general rule, and that applies to devotion of any kind, whether to art or God, and thus, the Christian community is always at odds with itself; always more willing to be of the world than merely in it.

Suffice it to say that it is always a tiny minority among Christians who want to ban dancing, drinking, smoking, strip joints; who want to robe nude statues and cover over of nude paintings. We will always have Savonarolas popping up, and I am not he, but it is important to have scolds to remind us that we indulge ourselves or corrupt ourselves with far too little hindrance when it comes to both popular and elite culture.

Debra Bruch, Ph.d., in an article regarding the Christian suspicion and prejudice against theater, traces the antagonism back to the ancient Romans.

"One of the more efficient tools for societal and governmental persecution was the Roman theatre.

Mime flourished during this time, and the licentiousness of the mimes offended the moral sense of Christians. With the mime, Roman society attacked Christian morality by focusing on behaviors repugnant to Christian believers. For instance, the ludi Florales honored the goddess Flora who was a prostitute. During the festival, actors undressed onstage, goats copulated in the circus, and audience members were in a constant state of inebriation. Entertainers prided themselves for their lewdness and violence, and pointedly attacked Christian beliefs. Mimes often ridiculed Christian sacraments such as baptism and communion.

While the early mimes did not physically endanger Christians, they helped to deeply affect society. Audience members were affected by the violence of the mimes’ portrayal of Christian behavior and beliefs. Consequently, mimes helped promote the attitude within society that Christians were non-human and no better than criminals. (My emphasis) The violent massacre of the Christian ideology as entertainment soon changed to the violent massacre of the Christian people as entertainment. Soon, the government and society used Christians rather than actors to supply theatrical entertainment. The theatre is a form of entertainment, and the Roman idea of entertainment became partly to watch Christians die in the arena."

Eventually the Church insisted that:

"Christians must forswear the theatre when baptized. Furthermore, based on an awareness of the effects that theatre had on his society, Tertullian forbade Christians to attend theatre performances.(4) Speared by this influence, church leaders sought to dissuade Christians from attending the theatre, and in 398 A.D. the Council of Carthage voted to excommunicate anyone attending the theatre instead of church on holy days. Also, actors were denied the sacraments unless they denounced their profession."

Today, despite the fact that most Americans identify themselves as Christian, we have a new era of demonization of Christians in popular media - music, TV, movies, magazines, novels, comic books, and so forth.

Clearly, all these attacks are meant to prepare the ground for real persecutions to come. Can that be possible? It doesn’t seem like it given the religiosity of the American public in general, but it is being seen in places like England, Canada, Sweden, France, and elsewhere where Christianity has declined so much as to be reduced to a mere cult, and ordinary pastors or preachers are jailed or fined for speaking out against any number of things like homosexual behavior, the evils of radical Islam, Feminism, or multi-culturalism. The Bible is being proscribed as hate speech when quoted directly in public.

Persecution today doesn’t result in being dipped in tar and set alight or thrown to the lions in the arena. It means fines, perhaps, jail, loss of employment, diversity seminars, censorship, accusations of hate speech, and a myriad of other ways to silence, shame, inhibit, cow, and humiliate a believer in Judeo-Christian morality.

Remember, when most Christians were given the chance to offer a pinch of incense to the Roman emperor/god they did so readily (or had their slave do it for them). The martyr was the exception, not the rule.

When the Boy Scouts, as benign and non-denominational as a group can be, suffer constant attack by the ACLU to the point that cities and States across the country seek ways to punish the organization and prevent it from maintaining its mission and good work, then one has to wonder who is next?

And who is doing these things?

Well, pagans are.

Americans aren’t accustomed to looking at their neighbors or their culture as pagan.

Most religious Christians and Jews don’t get up in the morning and go to work saying, “Oh dear, another day amidst the heathens and idolaters.”

No, people get up and don’t think about their fellow Americans as much other than as people like themselves they will normally encounter over the course of the day.

These words -- pagan and heathen -- are hoary and anachronistic if not atavistic (but much more fun to use). Christians have tried to come up with new terms. Secular Humanist was current in the 70’s and 80’s but went by the wayside since it’s awkward and not very descriptive.

The Christian Problem with Art

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that everybody hates a zealot, whether it’s an aggressive insurance salesman or a newly minted religious convert. With the religious zealot, reaction is generally based on a sense of being insulted. How dare you question me?! Just who do you think you are!? I’m doing perfectly fine without your interference, and I’ll thank you to mind your own business!

The idea of someone being so bold as to demand an accounting of another -- Are you saved? How’s your walk with God? Are you right with the Lord? Do you think frequenting strip clubs is doing the Lord’s work? Or watching naughty movies building up the Body?

Another word for moralist is killjoy.

I have recently been engaged in discussion with a variety of Christian film critics, artists, and interested bystanders at an Internet forum on the practice of pagans in making movies and what the Christian response should be to the exploitation of actors who are willing to shuck their clothes, expose themselves naked, and/or simulate sex.

One example I used was the movie Schindler’s List which generally wins universal praise, and even Christians criticize puritans who want it censored when shown on network TV for its scenes of naked people. The argument is that the truth of the movie, its historical value outweighs any moral objection since the scenes of naked people aren’t sexy or intended to be.

This same argument is applied to Saving Private Ryan which freely uses profanity, especially the F word.

But I pointed out to my colleagues that although the scenes of naked people being abused and killed by the Germans in the Concentration Camps is not sexy, there are two other scenes in the film which are generally overlooked.

Early in the movie, the successful businessman, Schindler, has a sex with an attractive woman. She is exposed and intercourse is simulated. Later, the German camp commander has a lovely Jewish mistress who lies exposed on his bed while he uses a rifle to pick off people in the camp below.

Let’s tackle the simple moral question of whether it is right in art to do something immoral to make a moral point. When you have men and women stripped naked in public on a movie set to be filmed for any reason -- is that right?

Is it right to pay people to take their clothes off to pose, act, or simulate sex at any time for an audience? Or is it okay if it’s for art’s sake? A movie, theater, a painting, a photo?

I am not asking whether we can practically stop people from doing such things. I was asking my fellow Christians if it is ever right or only sometimes wrong.

I did not find a single Christian film critic to agree that, for Christians, nudity and simulated sex in movies was always wrong. Some had qualms regarding exploitation in some movies, but certainly not all movies. Nor could everyone agree that paying women to disrobe in public was necessarily immoral. Protecting other people’s modesty was not considered that important a virtue by my brethren.

Almost all complained that I had no right to censor or demand censorship of art. That was the greater sin in their eyes. Not that people exploit beautiful young women who might glory in exhibiting themselves, getting a good paycheck, and advancing their careers by being compliant to (mostly) male directors.

My fellows accepted, and had come to believe, that nudity and simulated sex in movies had important things to tell us about characters in a story; that there were no substitutes for certain kinds of actions, thus sex scenes or nudity often had importance which superseded ordinary morality.

They refused to accept the analogy that it would then be perfectly all right for me to rob a bank to finance my Jesus movie. If it isn’t degrading to people to strip them naked for the sake of a movie, nor depraved of people to demand it of others for their movie, what is degradation and depravity in the eyes of Christians who want engaging and entertaining pastimes?

Pope John Paul II wrote a Letter to Artists where he observed:

“There is therefore an ethic, even a “spirituality” of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people.”

How is that ethic served when Christians separate art from renewal, entertainment from spiritual values?

Proverbs notes that, “Those who touch pitch will be defiled.” But in order to notice the defilement, a person has to have some idea of purity, and that purity is a preferred condition. The notion of a virginal quality as a positive good seems to be long past. Our debased culture can’t even keep its hands off little girls, but dresses them as tarts.

“Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”

The Pope offers this further on. But this is often taken as a carte blanche in depicting sin, evil, depravity, and nihilism. Thus Martin Scorsese’s recent movie, The Departed, wins rave reviews for being gritty, sordid, convoluted, gruesome, and meaningless because bad is bad but good is bad, also.

A few years ago when I participated at an online forum of Christian writers, a great number wanted to write the same kind of lurid stories that made Stephen King rich. They never considered what comes out of their imagination and/or obsession with this or that thing a projection of the condition of their soul or self. They became infuriated at the idea that they were acting in a manner less than Christian and sought any means to justify their activity and impulses.

They would never acknowledge the wisdom of this from JPII:

“In producing a work, artists express themselves to the point where their work becomes a unique disclosure of their own being, of what they are and of how they are what they are.”

Nor could any accept the idea that a mercenary appeal to the worst or the weakest in people was a moral failure on their part. They thought that as long as they believe in God, there is no harm in using the world’s ways in attracting an audience and making a lot of money.

“The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves.”

But simply say that so and so is a serious movie maker and the Christian can escape censuring a Spielberg, a Scorsese, a Clint Eastwood.

It has been thrown up in my face from time to time that Michaelangelo was a great Christian artist and he painted and sculpted nudes (if you can ever call any of the women he painted or sculpted as  resembling women), so there.

Yet, Michaelangelo was a Renaissance artist. Not a Christian one. He worshipped art. Not Jesus. It was only in his old age that he discovered faith; that he had duped himself, wasted much of his life by loving art more than truth.

What to do?

It is ironic that one of the people who sued or sought an injunction against the Utah company, ClearPlay, which offered DVDs for sale of movies which they stripped of sex, vulgarity, and violence was Mel Gibson. The movie? The Passion of the Christ. ClearPlay edited out some of the ultra violence. Gibson objected. And then one year later re-released the movie in a new version which did what? Edit out some of the more gruesome images.

Furious arguments have been made (and the court did rule against ClearPlay) by individuals expressing outrage that someone would dare to censor an artist’s unique vision. But no one has explained how I don’t have right to buy The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, take a marker and blot out the N word every time I find it and then resell the book to someone else with my “corrections”.

Judging moral content can’t be the only way for Christians to judge art, but if a movie demonstrates some basic moral abuse (sex, nudity, exploitive violence etc), that is reason enough to condemn it on its face, particularly the exploitation of humans by exposing their bodies and paying them to act sexually. One is even tempted to wonder about the need for passionate kissing. It’s gotten to the point that couples are sucking each other’s faces off so strenuously that it’s enough to make a sensible human wonder why we should kiss at all (some cultures don’t, you know).

If you happen to be someone who cares about limiting the immoral content of pagan movies, you might wonder what can be done.

There was time when something was done. In 1930, under pressure from Catholic bishops who had the power to call upon Catholics to boycott movies they disapproved of, and Catholics obeyed, the Hayes Office was established which created the Motion Picture Production Code. Until 1967, that code regulated TV and movies. It worked very well. To read it is to find an incredible wisdom in what it said and why.

For example:

III A: Most arts appeal to the mature. This art appeals at once to every class, mature, immature, developed, undeveloped, law abiding, criminal. Music has its grades for different classes; so has literature and drama. This art of the motion picture, combining as it does the two fundamental appeals of looking at a picture and listening to a story, at once reaches every class of society.

F a: Because of the larger audience of the film, and its consequential mixed character. Psychologically, the larger the audience, the lower the moral mass resistance to suggestion.

H: The grandeur of mass settings, large action, spectacular features, etc., affects and arouses more intensely the emotional side of the audience.

In general, the mobility, popularity, accessibility, emotional appeal, vividness, straightforward presentation of fact in the film make for more intimate contact with a larger audience and for greater emotional appeal.

Hence the larger moral responsibilities of the motion pictures.

The Code explains the moral and immoral effects of art, especially motion pictures, succinctly and intelligently. Unfortunately, the observations it makes about human nature and the social obligations of mass entertainment are now considered to be of as much relevance and general truth as that proverb from the Bible I quoted above.

As Pat Buchanan said, “We had a Culture War and we lost.”

For thirty-seven years, religious people were able to hold the centrifugal forces of social suicide at bay in the United States. Can they ever do so again? Certainly not with the Internet making downloading of any imaginable thing possible to individuals. The Internet also encourages people to create every kind of depraved content and upload it to the world.

The greatest problem, though, is that a very large majority of people don’t want censorship except in what they consider extreme cases. They don’t realize, though, that extreme cases, like TV shows about people having sex with animals are sneaking in under their radar since there is no one or any code to prevent a movie producer or an obscure cable TV program from creating a show which exploits extreme cases.

By the time people notice and say, “Whoa, how did that get on TV?” It’s too late, and people have adjusted to the newer, more vile world. As one character says in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “People get used to everything. Damn them!”

This is why despairing religious people write apocalyptic books threatening the End of Days, the Second Coming, and the Day of the Lord. Nothing short of Armageddon can cleanse the people of their filth. Or a slaughtering, barbarian horde (which is generally how things work and the Bible more effectively illustrates).

Christians keep trying to create a popular counter culture in books, music, video games, TV and movies. The market for such things is not insubstantial, but it is irrelevant. While children might be reading Ann of Green Gables rather than Heather Has Two Mommies at their evangelical school, they are still dropping into the multi-plex at the mall to satisfy their curiosities about bad girls, bad boys, bathroom humor, sexual banter, and casual use of vulgarity.

After awhile it becomes impossible to make children blush.

So what to do, what to do?

I can’t think of anything other than to continue to be voices crying out in the wilderness, and I mean the Christian and Jewish wilderness (and perhaps Hindu and Buddhist ones) since people of faith have been overwhelmed by the secular juggernaut and become entirely supine in the face of the totalitarianism of the decadent.

Who knows, maybe that third Great Awakening in America we keep hearing about will rear its sleepy head at last in the near future.

Perhaps another Bonfire of the Vanities wouldn’t be such a bad thing (until one considers what eventually became of Savonarola). Of course, it isn’t likely that the Church would roast a new Savonarola. Rather it would probably be a character assassination led by the pagans at Time Warner, Viacom, and Fox Corp. and others.

It’s funny how, from time to time, people are persuaded of their sin and guilt, go on a purge, and then once sobered, return like dogs to their vomit. I sometimes wonder if these cycles are going to play out for as long as mankind exists or if it’s possible for humanity to permanently change in the manner that it’s possible for individuals to make moral self-improvements. I guess we’ll know in another million years or so.

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