Portrait of crying baby girl

(Photo credit: Fiery-Phoenix)

A weird thing happened the other day. As some old friends from college were considering catching a movie together, and emails were flying around in an effort to agree on one, a line in one of those emails made me laugh out loud, and then immediately get really sad.

“We’re trying to avoid Rated-R movies.”

Wait, I thought, who’s trying to avoid Rated-R movies? I’m certainly not. I’m on a mission to see all the Oscar nominated films before the award show and, of course, many of them are Rated-R. And anyway, I haven’t thought about a film’s rating since I was 17, when legally you get to stop thinking about a film’s rating.

Anyway, I didn’t go to see a movie with the guys that night. But I thought of this again as I was reading a post over at RelevantMagazine.com, in which the author, Andrew Byers, confesses to being a “prude.” This, I’m sure you can figure out, is just a Relevant-y way to write yet another article about “cultural engagement.”

Byers’ conclusion is not life altering — it’s not wrong, either — but it doesn’t really offer much. He basically lands on the notion that, when encountering pop culture, Christians should be both wise and innocent, riffing on Jesus’ admonition to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Okay, sure. Use discretion. Got it.

But what is telling about this piece is the example that Byers uses to get to this point. He tells a story of his children’s relationship to “Gangnam Style.” He doesn’t allow them to watch it, but of course they end up knowing the song and dance because all of their friends have seen it. Anyway, after last night, his kids will know it too thanks to an ad for nuts.

I respect Byers desire to protect his children’s innocence and, just a couple months away from having a child of my own, I’m sure I’ll be doing similar handwringing in the not too distant future (how young is too young for Star Wars, by the way?). But Byers example is also very telling of the prevailing evangelical attitude toward pop culture. They too often think of themselves as children, making decisions about what to watch, listen to, or read as if they were impressionable 12-year-olds.

This view led to the cultural missionary model — in which the well-prepared evangelical, who fancies him or herself not easily influenced, “engages” culture like a missionary visiting a remote village. In short, this view forces evangelicals to think of themselves as squeaky clean outsiders, and they waste time, money, energy, and so, so many words on developing strategies to infiltrate culture while remaining pure themselves.

I’ll echo Byers’ point about discretion. It’s foolish to imagine everything is equal when it comes to pop culture. But evangelicals have to stop stunting their intellectual and spiritual maturity by sheltering themselves from bad words, fake blood, and the tantalizing sight of skin.

This is why I reacted so strongly to those friends who were trying to avoid Rated-R movies: in an effort to do so they were also avoiding incredible and worthwhile depictions of the human condition. They were avoiding truth in the best way we know how to tell it — in stories. They were avoiding art.

And for what? Are evangelical adults not capable of telling the difference between fiction and nonfiction, between behavior that is acceptable and that which is not? What are they afraid of? What are they trying to protect against when they shelter themselves?

In the end, evangelicals have become fearful and judgmental outsiders, imagining their whitewashed castles superior to the messy, lived-in world depicted in so many movies, books, television shows, and songs. In short, they’ve become irrelevant.

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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41 Responses to When it Comes to Pop Culture, Evangelicals are a Bunch of Babies

  1. If you are really wondering, “What are they trying to protect against when they shelter themselves?”, why don’t you ask your friends?

    They might be trying to be careful about what they let into their brains because violent images don’t always produce a redemptive desire to see the world change and lustful images might introduce unwanted temptation. One of them may have found that their speech towards other was not helpful or pleasing when they engaged in a steady diet of R-rated movies.

    Sure, avoiding R-rated movies is a fairly crude and unsophisticated way of handling media. They probably have more careful, discerning standards than that. But to generalize their thoughtful request to say evangelicals are “fearful and judgmental outsiders” is, well… judgmental.

  2. Stephen S. says:

    Well, Jonathan, they’re afraid/believe that to encounter such things on a regular basis will affect their ability to be “pure”. As a professor of lit., rhetoric, and culture, whose research focused on popular visual narratives, I went on many job interviews at evangelical schools where they were very concerned about how I would deal with the ratings of films in a film class.

    My point was to try to speak their language. First and foremost, the ratings are a bad indicator of purity/quality. There’s HIGHLY problematic material in G, PG, and PG-13 films and, as you say, amazing truth in R-rated films. I like to encourage my more evangelical friends to talk about their specific concerns.

    BTW- my eldest (now 5) was introduced to Star Wars via watching me play Star Wars Lego on XBox and then watched all three of the original trilogy again and again this last summer. He found Episode 1 (rereleased in the theater) to be VERY confusing, “Where’s Darth Vader?”, but liked Darth Maul and was very sad when he “got killed”.

    • Steve S. says:

      I think I’m obliged to reply to this comment because I’m also a father of a 5-year-old and a literature prof, not to mention my name. My wife and I are dealing not only with film choices for our children, but book choices as well. We’re having to tread carefully, as we can’t always predict how our children will react to different media.

      I think you’re dead-on about ratings. They’re not good indicators of anything but the most trivial of moral concerns. I don’t think they’re useless, but they’re unreliable.

      More to the original point, I wouldn’t be too hard on Evangelicals for trying to avoid certain media. (Would anyone be equally hard on an recovering alcoholic for declining to share a bottle of fine wine with us?) Yes, we should be grown-ups about our media consumption. We can learn to view critically and analytically, and we should. But we also shouldn’t underestimate the power of a movie to move the soul, either for good or for ill.

  3. Chris M says:

    In a nutshell – evangelicals have an immature and shallow response to a medium that is largely immature and shallow. What’s the problem?

    But seriously, I do try to engage with as much pop culture as I can but trying to shift through all the crap in order to find a gem can become quite time consuming. Thankfully I have some talented friends who are non-Christian artists to help me out. I gave up trusting many progressive reviews of “artistic” stories since their modus operandi largely consisted of finding sophisticated ways to express their appreciation of crude manufactured rebellion designed to win the applause of the “cool kids” while giving the middle finger to the “squares”

  4. Robert says:

    Jonathan…so where do you draw the line and why? The movie ratings shift as the culture shifts. They are no objective standard and hence cannot be trusted. But according to your article they can be completely ignored.

    “But evangelicals have to stop stunting their intellectual and spiritual maturity by sheltering themselves from bad words, fake blood, and the tantalizing sight of skin.”

    Reconcile this statement with Paul’s admonition in Philippians 4 to think on those things that are honorable, pure, lovely and commendable.

    Avoiding rated R movies is certainly not the only standard a Christian should use, but it’s at least a good starting point.

    “…the tantalizing sight of skin.” I sure hope your thinking matures as your children age. Most of the mature movies that are not rated R for violence are rated R for sensuality…do nothing in the mind of a teenage boy but encourage the very lusts he needs to mortify in his body and further confuse and pressure teenage girls to use their sexuality in ungodly ways.

    If parents don’t avoid R-movies, then you’ll have no basis by which to tell your children to avoid them. If you can’t get your children to avoid them, then they will drink the sewer water our pop-culture calls art.

    My friend, it has nothing to do with art and everything to do with honoring Christ and living as lights in a very dark world. Christians don’t need more pop-culture. We get plenty of that by walking down the sidewalk. We need more of God and more of his Word so that are lives are conformed to the image of Christ.

    • Kevin Megill says:

      “Reconcile this statement with Paul’s admonition in Philippians 4 to think on those things that are honorable, pure, lovely and commendable.”


      “Finally, brethren, whatever is is true, whatever is honorable … if there is ANY EXCELLENCE and if ANYTHING WORTHY OF PRAISE, dwell on these things.” (Ph’p 4:8-9, NASB).

      Do some R-rated movies qualify as having *any* excellence? Do they have *anything* worthy of praise? *Something* that is true, honorable, noble, etc? If so, then the verse encourages us to think about those things. It doesn’t actually say, “If there is anything bad in something, avoid it.” It says, “If you can find something good in it, think about that.”

      It’s not that we are obligated to watch R-rated movies, of course. There are other ways to find honorable things to think about. Also, if a movie is actually likely to draw me into sin, I should avoid it. Still, Philippians 4:8-9 isn’t a verse about avoiding wrong influences; it’s a verse about what perspective to take on the things we actually engage with.

  5. Deanna Ogle says:

    Yes! Exactly, and the way they try to ensure they won’t be “influenced” is through isolation instead of teaching how to think critically and what to do with what you see.

    It’s funny, I remember sanctimoniously abandoning a couple of bands in middle school for this reason. And I tried to use this said abandonment for good-kid cred with my parents. Oy vey.

  6. Johan says:

    I’m not so impressed by public proclamations that we’re so pure we avoid R-rated films. However, on a one-to-one level I would totally sympathize with people giving a wide berth to stuff that feeds addictions–such as films that flirt with pornography.

  7. Gary Horsman says:

    As an evangelical, I have no problem separating art from morality. And yes, the American MPAA rating system is a poor metric for determining what constitutes objectionable content.

    However, a little understanding and tolerance can go a long way to finding a reasonable approach to these types of disagreements. I’d hesitate before judging someone else’s prudence. We’re all at different places in our spiritual maturity. Who am I to judge my fellow Christian’s sensitivities to potentially objectionable elements in media? Maybe they’re just not where I’m at. And that’s fine.

    I think of Paul when he was trying to settle an argument about consuming meat that’s been sacrificed to idols. Some believers saw it as sacrilege. Others as just food that shouldn’t be wasted. Paul called the more tolerant ones the strong and the less tolerant the weak. Paul said the strong should hold back and not become a stumbling block for the weak.

    When spending time with my more conservative Christian friends, I do watch what I say or do and what is proposed as a communal activity because I want to be sensitive. Maybe one day, the weaker ones will mature enough to see that some of the things they’re worried about won’t compromise their faith. Then again, maybe not.

    It’s probably best not to judge, but to put yourself in their shoes and to be supportive.

    After all, it’s just a movie.

  8. Robert says:

    When you meet another Christian who is comfortable consuming R-rated material, you are right to question them and ask them how they justify consuming the extreme moral sewage created by our culture in light of what Jesus and Paul say in the NT. This is a perfectly righteous judgement; it’s based on the objective Word of God (of course, you’re obliged to follow your own admonitions).

    And this is not the same as eating meat sacrificed to idols. If you don’t believe that the content in R-rated movies causes you to sin, then frankly, you’re heart has become calloused and you’re blind to the sin that so easily besets us. This also goes for many PG-13 films and much of what is broadcast without restriction on cable TV (HBO, Showtime, etc.).

    It’s not an argument that Christians are “too pure” to watch the film, but that we understand our sinful nature, are observing the culture where we live and are being disciplined followers of Christ to stay out of the sewer.

    Christians, cannot and should not, justify as entertainment, that which mocks our King and challenges his moral rule over our lives.

    • Consumer Unit 5012 says:

      When you meet another Christian who is comfortable consuming R-rated material, you are right to question them and ask them how they justify consuming the extreme moral sewage created by our culture in light of what Jesus and Paul say in the NT.

      This is the same Jesus who hung around with whores, tax collectors, and lepers, right?

  9. Kate Cochran says:

    Wow, Jonathan I completely disagree with you. The attitude of your article suggests a sneering displeasure with those Christians who do take God’s words in Matthew 10:16 and 18:3 (not to mention Philipians 4:8) seriously. I find a lot of my friends these days go so hard down the path of being culturally “relevant” (yes, like the magazine you mock), that soon they forget where they are and have downloaded hours of sex and violence into their brains. Our culture is already over-sexed and immune enough to violence, and frankly, it’s tiring to hear that people like myself are “babies”. While yes, it’s not about a rating (“R” rated means nothing… “The King’s Speech” was rated “R” for a few f-words), it is about the things we fill our minds with. Why does skipping “Django Unchained” make me a judgmental outsider? Do you believe that movies and books and television filled with this sort of thing will make you any less judgmental? Please. I’ll take my “Prude” label and wear it. Not with pride, but sure, I’ll stick it on next to all the other labels people throw at me that don’t matter.

  10. Dan Allison says:

    I’ve done plenty of post-grad work in literature and I’m an active lover and promoter of the arts. And what comes thru the TV and out of Hollywood today is a sewer, period, designed for people who find violence and ignorance entertaining.

    • Jimbo says:

      lol. That is a ridiculous blanket statement and it is exactly the type of attitude that is criticized in this article. Lots of great movies and TV shows — great in the sense of having artistic value — have been and are being produced today. “The Wire” is probably the greatest drama ever written for television; it ended only a few years ago. “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan” are both rated R with very good reason, but both are undeniably great movies. More recently, look to “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood.” Again, both rated R, both earned their R rating, and both are teeming with artistic merit. And btw if you’ve done so much work in literature then you ought to be well aware that depictions of sex and violence in works of art are nothing new.

      Sure, there’s plenty of crap out there, but there’s also plenty of really worthwhile stuff. Your blanket statement is simply inaccurate, but unfortunately it’s a view that too many Christians share.

      • Dan Allison says:

        I did see No Country for Old Men. Isn’t there enough evil and violence in the world, we have to create more to be entertained? That’s just sick.

        • Guest says:

          Making a work of art about violence isn’t necessarily about creating more violence in order to entertain. Sometimes it’s meant to help us to understand our world’s evil and violence.

          No Country For Old Men is about the corrosive temptations of violence– that’s why the Josh Brolin character, who would be the triumphant hero in a typical movie, is killed in No Country. He tried to muster violence against violence, and it only got him and his wife murdered. That’s why the most violent character finds himself horribly injured and lost, by the same pure coin-flip chance he lived by.

          This story is a way to engage with the evil and violence we see in the world to try to understand it. It’s not about making up bloody stories for fun.

          • Dan Allison says:

            So the Coen brothers made no profits here, they made the film purely from the goodness of their hearts to advance our understanding of the human condition? RIGHT! And rap music is merely poignant tales of the inner city told by sensitive artists… WAKE UP!

  11. Chris says:

    Perhaps I missed it but why didn’t anyone mention that The Passion of The Christ was rated R. If adapted accurately many stories of The Bible would be R rated movies. But that’s not the point being made, I just had to digress.

    As a Christian first and a movie lover second, this article really spoke to me. But this can be taken in a different direction with the same theme. Where would you draw the line with music. If these folks didn’t want to see a movie based on its R rating, would you fault them for avoiding albums with explicit lyrics? As a teen I stopped listening to bands with those lyrics and got into bands like Blindside and Project 86. But I’ve never given up my taste in R rated movies. In fact, I prefer them because I know the Directors accomplished all they could because they didn’t have those pg-13 restrictions holding them back.

    I get that you don’t want your friends missing out based on their interpretations of faith, but if the feature is good enough for them to check out, they’ll come around.

  12. Harris says:

    It is perhaps unfair to park this solely at the feet of the evangelical. Christian practice through the ages has shown a fairly consistent theme of suspicion about popular entertainments, from the early church’s rejection of the circuses to the Puritan rejection of Christmas, to the very sober-mindedness of the 19th C Presbyterians and Methodists. This is not a new thing.

    That said, Evangelicals today often have a more ambiguous relationship to pop or mass culture, generally a “cultural-lite” sort of approach. Like the easy embrace of pop culture, this approach still accepts the fundamentals of the cultural context. This is a kind of Constantinianism. What we could use more of is the nurturing of alternate viewpoints, coupled with the robust interrogation of culture in our theology and our practice.

  13. Cray Allred says:

    Has anyone of the author’s persuasion addressed the spiritual difference between word and image? I’m not inclined to disagree in general, but they tend to highlight the narrative qualities of film and how biblical narrative is just as yucky, while ignoring the practical and biblical reality that the image is a mightier force for spiritual temptation than the written word.

  14. Joel says:

    Some sociolinguistic real talk: Evangelicals are the only people in the world who call them “Rated-R movies” rather than “R-rated movies.” It’s a total shibboleth!

  15. […] probably because of the Oscar season, but John Fitzgerald grouses about the Evangelical approach to […]

  16. johntheChristian says:

    Is it just me, or are patrol and relevant full of people who fail to see the irony in their judgement of the judgemental?

    I watch r rated movies. I feel I can handle “mature” topics in a mature way. However, I don’t feel the need to allow myself to be filled with the disdain, patronizing scoffing and stifled rage evident in many of the articles i read on these two sites.

    Your friends don’t want to watch and r-rated movie? Don’t invite them. What’s the point of this article? To brag about how enlightened the author is compared to his backwards friends?

    I’m cool, right guys? Right? I’ve seen boobies on the movies, that makes me a big boy right?

  17. Dan Allison says:

    Sure. Some people avoid art because they didn’t receive an education that lets them appreciate it. But come on! What on TV is “art” any more? Hillbillies standing around a pawn shop? I’m not even an evangelical. I avoid TV and movies because they are filth, a waste of time, an insult to my intelligence, and a commercial for American empire. When you lose a loved one through “accidental” gun violence, those Bruce Willis films just aren’t that edifying any more. No, it’s not that people without TVs are prudes, it’s that people with TVs are time-wasting brainwashed ignoramuses.

  18. […] “This view forces evangelicals to think of themselves as squeaky clean outsiders, and they waste time, money, energy, and so, so many words on developing strategies to infiltrate culture while remaining pure themselves.” […]

  19. Buster says:

    If we boycott movies with violence and scary themes than violence will cease to exist in the real world, life itself will become less scary as well, sounds like logic to me. We must remain innocent at all cost, ignorance is our most prized possession especially sexually, a fetishized ideal of “sexual purity and ignorance’ is our golden calf. God forbid we ever become more knowing and wordly than a five year old.

    • Kyle says:

      What? Oh for f^&k’s sake…

      In other words,sanitize all media & art for the sake of keeping everyone on some pure & righteous path. Gee, thanks for telling everyone your cultural worldview is some antiquated vision from the 1950s.

      Want to know why sex & violence sell better than,well, everything? Because people in the 21st century wish to be entertained and need escape. Plus, a gal in a skirt & stilettos jumping around on a football field is way more interesting than watching some old fart on a Sunday screaming from a pulpit. Maybe if you’d lighten up and,I dunno, not think so much about god you might enjoy life a bit more.

  20. Neil Wilson says:

    It is no secret that Evangelicals in the US have come to live in a self imposed bubble and become cut off from wider society around them. In the last election evangelicals formed the majority of the so called GOP base and if you talked with them you would have thought Mitt was going to win with a landslide, we all know now how wrong they were.

    • AC says:

      Good point Neil, I pray we found somebody to turn the tide:

      When media is controlled & the truth is spun, sometimes you need to take advantage of an unorthodox opportunity to share vital truths….the left are upset because they were unable to manipulate the message…..Dr Carson is the guy who can reverse the damage caused by liberal indoctrination & low-voter IQ


      • JDP says:

        dunno man, not impugning the guy but this just seems like one of the many conservative base boomlets various GOP candidates had in ’11/’12

        i mean, flat tax + health savings accounts? k…just not seeing that being some broad inspiring message.

        can’t help but think 2016 is gonna be Christie or someone, there’ll be complaints about RINOsity, but then he’ll hit the right red meat notes and away we go. but who knows. like the guy well enough though, even if he can be impulsive.

  21. JDP says:

    well it depends. i think certain styles of entertainment are damaging but that doesn’t mean they have no redeeming value, or are completely pointless. the question is just could they still have that value, or as you put it, “depict the human condition,” without indulging in some of these excesses.

  22. Marc says:

    Depende que evangélicos, rata…, algunos la tienen re clara…, no generalices, hay millones de evangelicos ¿acaso te crees que todos son idiotas como tu imaginas?

  23. Steve says:

    If Fitz had written an article saying that he could justify buying clothes made in factories overseas with terrible working conditions*, he wouldn’t have received half the comments with half the zeal. The shit evangelicals choose to care about truly confounds.

    *not that he would!

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  25. Allen says:

    This reads like an appeal to desensitize yourself because it is easier to please the flesh than deal with keeping your heart and mind pure.

    Life happens, you can’t escape being put into a compromising situation, but that doesn’t mean we are to look for it.

    Please read Romans 14. It makes it very clear that you, sir, are very wrong. The fact that you would laugh at your friends for having convictions shows you’re rebellious and ignorant of the word. I hope you didn’t cause them to stumble in an attempt to prove a point that, you were ‘free in Christ.’

  26. Joshua says:

    Dear God,
    I don’t understand why other Christians are uncomfortable with revelling in blasphemy, lewdness, profanity, violence, adultery, murder, fornication and lasciviousness… when I love that stuff! It’s so fun to watch it all put together so skilfully. What is wrong with those guys? Why don’t they love it like I do?
    Cheers, Jonathan

    Dear Jonathan,
    I hate all those things that you love and take so much pleasure in, and those things and the people that do them will have no part in my Kingdom when my holiness destroys sin once and for all. My children are uncomfortable with those things because they carry my Holy Spirit, who is conforming them to the image of my Son, who had no pleasure in unrighteousness, and felt only pity and compassion for those enslaved by it. Those things are of my enemy, Satan, who is your father, and the lusts of your father you will continue to love and enjoy until you become a part of my family. My Son has paid the price for you to be free of your sins – in this life and the life to come. Only once you have accepted Him and have received my Holy Spirit will you be able to overcome the sinful lusts of your flesh. I love you Jonathan. I gave my life to save you from these sinful chains keeping you from me and an eternity in heaven. Come follow me.

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