Hollywood Likes Morality: Its Own

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Last week, Plugged In Director Bob Waliszewski asked us whether Hollywood should do a better job of making good—as in ethically good—movies. Whether it should focus on creating products that “encourage, inspire and uplift us,” he says, and even sometimes tackle critical issues. He writes:

For instance, I can only imagine what could happen if a studio intentionally set about tackling the egregious practice of sex slavery. (Yes, I know there have been a few films made on this subject, but I’m talking about one with major Hollywood actors and a powerful, true story brought to cinematic life with a huge budget). Or how about championing the plight of impoverished orphans? Or a film that highlights what can happen when Christians and Muslims actually care about one another, and seek one another’s well-being? Certainly, there’s a story out there along this line that would inspire some copycat acts of unity.

I’d agree with my boss that it’d be great if the entertainment industry could really take Philippians 4:8—to concentrate on whatever is pure and lovely and admirable—to heart.

But how that looks is another thing entirely. As Bob said, it’s not as simple as we might wish it to be, and many readers chimed in with some really thought-provoking missives of their own. Check out this from Andrew Gilbertson:

You also face the problem—particularly with Hollywood—of what constitutes ‘good’ or makes us ‘better people.’ The church says ‘it is good to strengthen marriages, to affirm the importance of their centrality to culture, to monogamy and a God-honoring covenant’; that’s a positive message on sex and relationships. To the world/Hollywood, a ‘positive’ message on sex and relationships would be ‘people need to get over their archaic sexual mores and be more accepting of all forms of sexuality, because it’s saying that there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ context for sex that’s been causing problems since the Victorian era.’ Both want a ‘positive’ message on a specific topic, but both have VERY different visions of what ‘positive’ is.

And therein lies the problem of asking Hollywood to be ethical: In its own collective mind, Hollywood already is.

Many Christians would say that we live in an increasingly immoral society, but I’m not sure if that’s exactly right. In fact, I’d argue that our society is actually getting more “moral” by the month. It’s just that secular society’s sense of morality sometimes diverges from the traditional, Christian, values society has largely cleaved to in the past.

It’s not a universal divide. Honestly, there’s a lot more agreement on what’s “moral” these days than sometimes we give society credit for. Should people of all races be treated equally and fairly? You bet. Is it bad to bully? Absolutely. Shouldn’t we love one another and care for one another whenever possible? That’s what Jesus and our mothers taught us to do, right?

But when it comes to some other issues—sexual morality is probably the biggest hot-button one these days—what most evangelical Christians believe to be right can look far different from what the rest of the culture believes. And increasingly, the culture doesn’t even want to talk about it. Those who disagree are, very simply, wrong—as if the statement “sleep with whomever you want” was a new commandment engraved on a tablet. There’s little room for disagreement.

The conflict doesn’t end with sexual morality, of course. We at Plugged In still call out foul language—language that the rest of the culture barely even blinks at anymore. We’ll point out hinky spirituality, even as society grows ever more comfortable with overt secularism and patchwork blends of faith. (And violence … well, we’re all a little inconsistent on that score. Christian America and the Hollywood intelligentsia would probably agree that violence is, generally, bad. But that doesn’t stop the entertainment industry from cranking out outrageously violent movies—or stop most evangelical Christians from seeing them.)

So where does that leave us? I think it leaves us with a lot of movies that sometimes offer the sorts of messages that Bob Waliszewski wants to see from Hollywood, but often paired with content he would also rate a “one clattering cymbal out of five for family friendliness.” And you don’t need to go any farther than the local multiplex to see tension.

The Conjuring 2 features a loving couple saving a loving family using the power of a loving, all-powerful God. It also features a demon nun that’d send many a Christian hiding behind a chair … or fuming over its graphic depictions of occultish evil. Warcraft offers a startling message of self-sacrifice—one that might even recall Jesus’ own sacrifice on the cross—along with oodles of violence and a few sexed-up CGI orcs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows emphasizes important messages about teamwork in the midst of a few wholly unnecessary profanities and an utterly salacious male fantasy in the form of Megan Fox.

We sometimes are quick to dismiss Hollywood as a collective of money-mad heathens who want to undermine traditional values and will do anything for a buck. But that’s not altogether true. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I believe that people get into the entertainment biz to make people happy. To tell important, gripping stories. I believe that, very often, these moviemakers want to give us what we say we want: uplifting, inspirational films. And sometimes they even give us movies with very important messages—ones that they likely hope will inspire (in Bob’s words) “copycat acts of unity.”

But in trying to give us what we want, Hollywood often pairs it with what we don’t. In its attempt to unite, it sometimes divides. We get salacious content alongside the occasional sweet message. We are fed inspirational speeches peppered with language.

We live in a beautiful world created by God, but it’s a fallen world. And that’s never so obvious as when we go to the movies.

So I’ll ask again, where does that leave us? Where it always does, really: with the need to be responsible stewards of our own choices. Hollywood isn’t going to make it easy on us. And frankly, it never has. It’s up to us to lean on God when it comes to our movie-making decisions. It’s up to us to determine what’s best—what’s healthy—for ourselves and our families.

Not that you’re entirely on your own. Plugged In’s here to help. We’ll keep chronicling problematic content and analyzing movies’ worldviews. Hopefully we’ll be able to teach a little something along the way. You might not always agree with what we say or how we say it, but we promise you one thing: Whenever you turn to us for help or advice, we’ll be here to prod and maybe even provoke you to ponder today’s movies—and their messages—more deeply.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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