“Would you eat chocolate if it had a little poop in it?”
“Then why would you watch movies with even a little bit of sin in them? If Catholics are watching all the same movies as everyone else, how can we think we are any different?”
Thus goes an argument for boycotting all movies that have any depiction of sin in any form. Unfortunately this leaves the viewers with practically no movie options, except for perhaps saint movies, kid’s movies and movies from before the 1980s (and even those are not exempt from the ‘sin’ criteria). It also almost implies that we shouldn't be friends with those who sin (which again is everyone), rather than seeing there is good and bad in most people (and movies), and we may need better criteria for choosing movies (and friends).
On the other hand, this is how the pro-all movies, anti-censorship Catholic movie watchers argue: “It is not what goes into a man but what comes out of him that defiles him. Just because you watch a movie with sinful characters doesn’t mean YOU are going to go out and start murdering people, and dealing drugs, and stealing paintings. Plus, Catholics aren’t called to live in a bubble. It makes us irrelevant to the rest of the world when we don’t have the slightest connection with the culture of everyone else.”
Both sides have a point. Watching every crappy movie that comes out influences you whether you admit it or not. We become what we consume. So I don’t fault people who almost never watch movies as a way to avoid the pitfalls of senseless consumption of media. At the same time, there are so many good movies that spark discussion and thought and even change that I refuse to condemn all movie watching.
So where do you draw the line? The Vatican has not come out with a List of Movies that are Acceptable for Catholics to Watch. Even though some people would love that, Jesus and His Church leave many matters to our prudential judgment. So how do you make that judgment? Are all movies no big deal? Or are there some movies we should avoid if we are trying to stay close to God? How do you decide which they are? I don’t have foolproof answers. But I can offer you some helpful guidelines that I have picked up over the years of trying to live in the world, and yet not be of the world.
Have you done your research? Before switching on a movie, look it up. You can choose what you put it your mind. Once it’s in there it’s a lot harder to get it out. Look up Decent Films, movie reviews by a Catholic film critic, Stephen Greydanus. He gives ratings for artistic/entertainment value, as well as moral/spiritual value. Look at the plot overview. Most likely it will give you enough clues about what to expect. If the premise itself is ridiculous (look up the description for the movie 40 Days and 40 Nights for example), why go there?
Does this movie glorify sinful or unhealthy lifestyles, blur the lines between good and evil, or glamorize evil? One of the movies I most regret watching as a teenager was American Pie. Crude, ugly, provocative and pointless. When I was a teenager, FRIENDS was extremely popular. (Yes, I’m that old.) It was a consistently witty and often heart-warming show where the characters begin to feel like our friends. But how many of us began to laugh off the casual sex, the irresponsible behaviour, the selfishness, and the short-lived romantic relationships as lovable quirks? You can’t avoid the truth of the existence of sin, but when sin becomes something amusing, then you know you’ve lost the sense of sin. It’s a gradual and almost invisible shift in our perspective.
How do you feel after watching certain kinds of movies? Empty, sad, depressed? A lot of romantic comedies can be used just as an unsatisfying escape from real life, making us fixate on an unrealistic ideal, and making us less and less satisfied with our off screen lives. Pope John Paul II talked about this desire to escape: "Faced with problems and disappointments, many people will try to escape from their responsibility: escape in selfishness, escape in sexual pleasure, escape in drugs, escape in violence, escape in indifference and cynical attitudes. But today, I propose to you the option of love, which is the opposite of escape."
Does the movie use sex scenes or love scenes just to ramp up sexual tension? Sometimes a movie implies that someone slept with someone else, and that’s part of the storyline. But you can tell when the movie makers are using the scene to ‘to plunge the viewer into a heightened state of awareness’ as Alanna Boudreau put it in her blog on the same topic. Most likely, watching overly sensual scenes just makes it a little harder for you to avoid selfishness and lust creep into the expression of your sexuality. Sometimes though the movie is good enough to fast forward your way through the few bits like that.
Is there anything true, good, or beautiful in the movie? Some stories have no explicit reference to God, and yet they reveal Him, or point to Him because everything that is good, true or beautiful come from Him and point back to Him. Themes of self-sacrifice, courage, selfless love, transformation and perseverance come out in any well-told human story and point us to who we really are and what we were made for. I really loved the transformation story in Blood Diamond, for example.
Are you engaging your mind when you watch a movie? A movie always has a message, but you can choose to agree or disagree with the message. I think it would often be very fruitful to talk about movies after watching them, rather than just consuming their messages as if they were Gospel truth. You can enjoy a movie, like the characters, see a lot of good in it, and still see the flaws. I think that’s a great approach when watching movies with kids too. Ask thought-provoking questions, and be willing to have honest discussions. Measure it up with what you know to be true. Look for truth, and look for lies, and talk about it.
How much time are you spending on movie-watching? Public confession- I have spent way too much of my life watching movies. It’s easier to watch life than to live it. It’s easier to applaud courage and love than to BE courageous and loving. It’s easier to get attached to and invested in fictional characters than the real life human beings around me. The people whom I admire the most watch very little TV. That’s because they’re busy LIVING their lives. I was already aware that too much TV was not good for me. But then I attended a retreat where the priest, a wise old Carmelite, showed us clearly the link between lukewarmness in prayer and too much media consumption (especially TV shows/serials or long duration entertainment as he put it), and it became pretty clear that I had to take a big step back. In the past month I’ve watched very little TV and I’ve found my mind clearer and more productive, my brain less distracted and jumpy.
Are you willing to make some changes? Get rid of movies that you know are bad for you. Make a decision about how often you are going to watch movies- once a week, twice a week? Decide to only watch movies with someone else, if that will help you to be accountable. It’s easier to forget all your standards when you’re alone and bored. Many years ago when my sister and I were becoming a little more serious about our faith and its implications to our daily lives, we started watching a movie together. It became clear pretty soon that there was no value to the movie, that it failed all the criteria for a good movie. In the past we would have just kept watching the movie, just because it was on, continuing to hope for redemption. But this time we looked at each other and said ‘Let’s just put it off’. And we did! Look for replacement activities to do when you're bored. Sketch, write, read, bake, write a letter, go for a walk.
Have you really brought this area to God? Ask Him to permeate every part of your life, including your leisure time. It’s too easy to compartmentalize, to ask God to wait in another room while I watch what I want to watch. But He wants to bring light into every dark corner. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds!
Usually after you’ve come to know more fully the beauty and truth of life in Christ, it’s much easier to see how shallow some movies are. I watched a LOT of movies as a teenager, and re-watched them as an adult. I was shocked at the crap I allowed into my mind, or that I thought was normal. But in Christ there is redemption! Living the Christian life is not about restrictive rules, but the freedom that comes from cutting out the crap and living more intentionally.
P.S. In case you’re interested, here are some movies from the top of my head that I’ve enjoyed (far from comprehensive list!):
X-Men: Days of Future Past
The Scarlet and the Black
Lord of the Rings (all of them)
Saving Mr. Banks
The Great Escape
It Happened One Night
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Sound of Music
Pride and Prejudice (BBC mini series)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
How to Train Your Dragon
Do you have any good movie recommendations?