The auditorium was abuzz that day with the chatter of young Christians from different walks of life. And why not? The topic of debate, though outdated, was interesting: Can Christians watch movies? The audience consisted of people from both ends of the spectrum: from those ‘traditionalists’ who thought movies to be a devil in disguise to those ‘modernists’ who flaunt their openness for everything new and ‘progressive’. In the middle of the auditorium, and the spectrum, sat those who preferred to watch movies in private, so as to not offend the two groups, and, of course, ‘weaker believers’ whom they thought they could lead astray by their ‘unholy’ conduct.
In the course of time, the debate began. The wise host clarified that what was about to come was a ‘conversation’ and not a debate, which means the audience to keep their guard down and decide their take on the issue after listening to the friendly conversation. He then introduced the participants of the conversation—let us call them YM (Yes movies) and NM (No movies) for the sake of convenience.
The host first asked YM why he thought it was ok to watch movies.
YM: I think we all should watch movies. French Playwright, actress and novelist Yasmina Reza is reported to have said, “Theatre is a mirror, a sharp reflection of society.” Isn’t that true? As a Christian minister, I want to know what is going on in the society that my church members are part of. A lot of times, movies are windows that give me a glimpse into what is going on in society, and how I can bring the message of Christ in the kind of world that we live in. Movies help us to keep the good news relevant.
Host (turning to NM): That sounds compelling. What do you think?
NM: Well, I appreciate YM’s passion to keep the good news relevant. What my friend ignores though is the fact that movies just do not reflect society, but also shape society. Frequent use of swear words in our movies is a case in point. In the past few years, popular media has bombarded our younger generation with the F-word, which does not just reflect us as a society, but also normalises its usage and makes it acceptable rather than warning us against it. The same could be applied to sexualisation of women, elimination of gender boundaries, glorification of violence and what not. The problem is that YM wrongly assumes that movie-makers, directors and producers, reflect on society as neutral observers and then represent it without any distortion. He forgets that the movie-makers have their own intentions and biases in observing and depicting society in a particular way—they are mostly driven by monetary profits, blinded by their convictions, and often live by secular creed that abhors God and religion, and they want everyone else to become like them.
There was a round of thunderous applause from NM’s supporters as he halted his passionate speech.
YM: Thank you, NM for that wonderful talk. I agree that we need to be aware of the trappings of movies and of our culture, in general. Your insight about the biases and prejudices of the movie-makers is also quite perceptive. However, your image of movies is very negative. When you cite the cases of how movies have badly influenced societies, you forget all the good it has done and it could do. I am surprised that in your indictment, you did not mention Taare Zameen Par, Swades, Three Idiots, Citylights, The White Tiger and so many other movies that have raised awareness regarding education, nationalism, urbanisation, justice and much more. Do you think the Church in India on its own can achieve even 10% of what these movies have done? You see, movies have power to change society, but because of your bias against it, you are not able to see it.
This time the round of applause came from the other quarter.
NM: You are right that movies also have a positive contribution to make to society. But that 5% positive is buried under 95% of garbage. I wouldn’t like to use my hands to rummage through that trash and get hold of that precious message you speak of. I better invest my time into something that is more productive, that brings me closer to God and my neighbours whom I am called to serve.
YM: I wouldn’t say the ratio is 5% to 95%. I think you are exaggerating it. It could be no more than 50-50. But isn’t that how everything in the world is—all tainted by worldliness, but also waiting to be redeemed? In that case, should we isolate people from the mediums that shape our culture and our society, or should we teach them to engage with them in all godliness, and aim to redeem them? Should we tell them not to watch movies, or should we train them to watch them meaningfully without being swayed by their worldliness?
NM: You seem too hopeful to me when you say that such a dispassionate engagement with movies is possible. But that aside, I see that both of us agree on at least one point—that the world and everything in it needs to be redeemed, and only Christ has the ability to redeem it. In that sense, Christ is above culture. But while you think that this redemption happens through engagement with it, I think it is only by choosing not to engage with certain cultural mediums, Christians can truly hold that Christ is above culture. Even if your view is that Christ above culture means that Christ should transform the culture, please enlighten me to see how watching movies can help transform a culture? As far as I know, most of those cheering for you here, are those addicted to movie-hopping, or series-hopping if they have Netflix.
At this moment, there was some laughter from one quarter, and some booing from another.
YM (smiling): Well, I understand the danger. But what I am saying is that engaging with movies meaningfully itself would include guarding ourselves against such temptations. But I would also point out that your fear of being tainted by what is bad in the movies is also equally dangerous because it isolates you from the world to which you are to witness. It reminds me of Christ’s exhortation of not to put a lamp under a bowl, but on the stand. How do you think we can be light to the world if we choose to live under a bowl, safe in our own bubble?
NM: Well, we are supposed to be salt and light to the society for sure, but I am wary of the fact that society and its allurements can become light to us. I cannot allow movies the role that belongs to Jesus alone.
YM: And I am with you here. But mediums such as movies can show us the context in which we are to be light. If we do not know what is happening around us, we can’t be relevant anymore.
NM: Why is there such an itch in your generation to be relevant? I mean what it means to be relevant? Tell me is there anyone who can be relevant in all ages and to everyone?
YM: Right! No one can be relevant throughout all time. That is precisely why we should study what would make us relevant in our times.
NM: That is of no use. The world around us is changing too fast, and the church cannot afford to be relevant to every cultural trend around it. But even if that was possible, I believe God has not called the church to be relevant, the primary call for the church is to be faithful. You see, good news addresses the deepest human longing – freedom from sin and restored relationship with God. Therefore, it is in the nature of the good news to be relevant at all times and to every human quest. The gospel does not need to be relevant, it is relevant.
YM: But that is a statement you are making as a Christian, what about those who do not know Christ. How would they see the relevance of the Gospel to their lives and their questions? Do you have any master-plan for them?
NM: Well, yes. The master-plan is to share the gospel. That is what the early church did. They did not care about being relevant. They were faithful, and God made them relevant.
YM: And you think the language of the early church came from nowhere? How about the way John used the idea of Word in his first chapter? Do you think it all appeared before John as a revelation from above? What about Paul’s instructions regarding food offered to idols and marriage in 1 Corinthians? What about Augustine’s famous book the City of God? Did they just appear out of nowhere or were they responding to questions from a specific cultural context of their times?
The discussion kept moving between ‘conversation’ and ‘debate’ until the host intervened and took the charge.
Host: This has been quite an intriguing and enriching conversation, and I wish the clock had not been invented to stop us today. But as we stop, let us gather a few thoughts. We all believe that Christ alone holds the key to transform us—our minds, our imaginations, our skills and the mediums we use to reflect on society but also to project our biases. In that sense, we believe that Christ is above culture. The difference is in how do we transform a medium such as movies—by engaging or by refusing to engage with it? Those who want to engage with it can listen to those who believe otherwise and take a guard against the trappings and the idolatry mediums such as movies can lead to. Those who do not want to engage with it are free to do so, but they too should listen to their opponents’ warning, and must keep an eye on the spiritual pride their isolation could generate in them and with that affect their witness. To end this conversation, I think it could be instructive to rephrase Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:31 here for our purpose: “So whether you watch movies or not or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
With this, the host dispersed his audience, and the auditorium was abuzz with chatter once again.