Gravity and American Hustle each snagged 10 Oscar nominations this morning, including for Best Picture. But they'll have to contend with seven other nominees for that top honor: 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Overall, it's a strong mix of movies (even with the sad, nay, horrible omission of Saving Mr. Banks) in a year that had more than its fair share of good ones. But that doesn't mean they're all great to sit back and watch with your sweetie and a bag of popcorn. 12 Years a Slave and its depiction of horrors is, at times, almost torture to sit through. The Wolf of Wall Street is as rough and foul a movie to be released in—well, maybe ever. American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, Her and Nebraska are all rated R for good reason, and many Christians won't see R-rated movies unless they have the words "passion" and "Christ" in the title.
There are lots of good reasons to skip harsh movies, of course, whatever their artistic merit. Plugged In (the ministry for which I work) exhorts people to be wary of the entertainment they consume, just like health-conscious folks might clear of trans-fats. Watching a lot of sex and violence and whatnot can be unhealthy, studies suggest. And if that's not enough rationale, we can point to Scripture—the oft-quoted Philippians 4:8:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
But should all of that preclude us from, or make us feel guilty for, watching the movies above? Not necessarily.
Many Christians take Phil. 4:8 to mean that we shouldn't expose ourselves to unpleasantness. If a movie contains elements that rub us the wrong way or make us feel uncomfortable or run counter to our faith, we should steer clear. And maybe they're right. I'm no theologian.
But when it comes to the art of storytelling (and movies, of course, are simply powerful visual stories), it seems to me like you often need to bring in some negative elements to bring forth the true, the right, the pure. The Bible itself is certainly no gigantic Hallmark card of inoffensiveness. It challenges us and sometimes shocks us. The people who wrote it lived in a harsh, brutal, sensuous and often unforgiving world. And so when I read Phil. 4:8, my eyes are pulled again and again to the beginning of the phrase.
Whatever is true.
"God's artistic choices should govern our own," writes N.D. Wilson in a fantastic online column for Christianity Today. "More than any other type of artist, Christian artists should be truth-lovers and truth-tellers. More than any other consumer, Christian readers … should be truth-seekers."
And so, I think, should Christian movie-watchers.
The movies selected as Best Picture nominees, by and large, hide truth inside their messy folds: artistic truth, emotional truth, spiritual truth. They touch a nerve. Most of them are not made to honor God. And yet, because of the truth embedded in each, they do in spite of themselves.
Over the next several weeks, until the Oscars are announced March 2, I'm going to periodically post some mini-musings on the Best Picture nominees. I'm calling them "discussionals" (a mixture of devotionals and discussions) because, well, I like to make up words every once in a while. They'll be mainly a series of thoughts and questions and even a Bible verse or two—stuff that I found worth mulling over. As such, they'll be quite personal, written as much to work through my own thoughts as anything.
I won't promise to get through all the nominees. But hopefully, I'll get to most of them—in alphabetical order. They'll be mostly for folks who've actually seen the films already and, of course, shouldn't be taken as a reason to go see them. But I hope they'll be of some use.