Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Christian Standards of Entertainment

With Halloween approaching, I've got my mind on the old pastime of scaring ourselves silly with horror films, stories, and--in our own generation--video games.  A love for the horror genre is in my blood, if you'll excuse the way-too-fitting use of that phrase.  Among my biological relatives, at least those on the maternal side (and that's the side I know the best), I can't think of one single person, who's old enough to tell, who isn't exceptionally fond of scary fiction.

This has often put me in a unique position among my coreligionists, or at least those who are close to me besides those in my family.  It seems like many of the people I know find the horror genre distasteful at best and outright immoral at worst.  It's as though my time-honored family tradition--and trust me, it may be the one-and-only thing that is literally common to my entire extended family--is supposed to be something I should look at as a "guilty pleasure."

YOU should be ashamed!!

I've actually fretted about this at times.  I am the sort of person who tries to avoid deliberately enjoying entertainment that is inherently tainted.  Example?  I used to enjoy the show Friends, and pretty much gave it up when I was baptized, due to the fact that a fairly central premise to the show and in most episodes was a sinful, unwholesome lifestyle being presented as something normal and acceptable.  For this reason, I pretty much avoid the comedy genre, as almost all comedic films or sitcoms these days take place in this sort of moral wasteland where making light of sexual immorality or high levels of irreverent crassness is a central theme of the movie or show.  So I am not someone who is content to just say "Yeah, this show/movie is pretty rotten to the core, but I'll just chalk it up to a guilty pleasure."  Because indeed, my conscience is active and lively enough that, even though I do engage in such "guilty pleasures" from time to time--I'm not perfect--there is major emphasis on the guilty, such that I would never defend such a thing as being okay.

So whenever I really enjoy something, as I enjoy horror, I feel the need to really think about whether or not it's morally acceptable, rather than just shrugging and saying "Oh well, right or wrong, I like it, so that's what matters."  That's just not acceptable to me.  I believe in consistency, in people being able to know where I stand on things.  When it comes to this beloved genre, I intend to make another post as to why I think an enjoyment of horror is compatible with Christian values.

But this gets me to a bigger question:  What, in general, are my concerns when watching a film, reading a story, or playing a video game?  Thinking of horror, here, has gotten me to thinking of what some of my standards are for all entertainment, regardless of genre  I'm going to share some of them in this post.  These are the considerations I try to take into account when I choose my entertainment, or at least if I enjoy something outside of these guidelines I tend to admit that it's probably something I shouldn't be doing rather than insisting there's nothing wrong with my patronage of it.  As for the topic from the beginning of this post, horror, I see no reason other than prudery that something from the horror genre that adheres to these guidelines should be treated as any more immoral than any other genre which does.

End discrimination against the horror genre!

1.  Evil Should Never be Glorified:  Entertainment of various genres often deals with evil, or evil beings and powers.  Some even explicitly include monsters and demons.  The deciding factor in whether a work is morally acceptable is not the inclusion of darkness and evil, but whether the darkness and evil are deliberately made to appear attractive or glamorous.  If there is realistic witchcraft in a film--that is, not mere fantastical magic but actual pagan or devil worship--that does not make the film immoral anymore than the book of Genesis is immoral for recounting tales of murder.  But the witchcraft should not be depicted in a flattering way.  You should not leave the experience thinking being a witch seems cool.

*2.  Violence or Gore Should Not be Glorified nor Gratuitous:  It's often true that there is violence or gore to be found in certain genres, especially horror, but also war films and others.  Personally, I think the classiest stories, films, and games use it as tastefully as possible, and I think that's key.  Violence is often a necessary part of the storytelling.  When it is necessary to show it explicitly--perhaps for impact, realism, etc.--it should never be done to titillate or to thrill.  It should not be something "cool."  Gratuitous violence is much like obscenity:  Hard to define, but you know it when you see it.  I'll admit frankly, though, that for example most slasher films probably cross the line, and in the world of video games, many war games are guilty of it too.  The violence in them is often over-the-top, intended to impress the audience by finding new and creative ways to kill victims.  To me, that's gratuitous.  The aim of violence should never be to "show off" or impress.  As a fan of slasher flicks, Dario Argento, and even the Mortal Kombat video game franchise, it pains me to admit to all this, as all of these can be easily argued to contain gratuitous violence, but if I'm going to imply that, say, fans of raunchy comedy have a duty to resist indulging this or to at least admit that their indulgence is "guilty," then I too must admit when things I enjoy are wrong.  And I believe that gratuitous violence, even when pulled off in a manner that's dreamlike and brilliantly executed, is probably wrong...

3.  Hopelessness and Despair Should Not be at the Heart of the Work:  Increasingly, films and stories take place in a universe of bleak, amoral realities.  People are pretty much animals, from the cynical sitcom to the gritty horror flick.  And even the protagonists are so strictly focused on self-preservation, hedonism, or self-promotion that one gets the feelings that no one really cares about anyone else.  Or perhaps, in more cosmic stories, evil wins, and not merely in a "bad ending," but in a way that suggests evil is really more powerful than good.  These are all messages that a Christian has no need to imbibe.  Cynicism is not a Christian trait.  We believe that good overcomes evil.  While it might be the case that tragic or horrific things happen--which is why a "bad ending" is not synonymous with cynicism--the implication that evil inherently trumps good, as opposed to isolated incidents where evil seems to triumph, is toxic.

And should be buried underground with nuclear waste.

4.  The Work Should Still be Recognizable and Complete if all Questionable Elements were Removed:  I'm not a prude who believes that Christians should never read, watch, or play anything that has questionable elements.  If that were the case, the ancient Christians would have been wrong for reading and admiring the works of pagans, which often had questionable elements.  However, it seems safe to me to pose this question:  Would the work that I'm enjoying remain intact, coherent, and meaningful if all the questionable elements--including gratuitous sex/nudity; gratuitous drug use; gratuitous violence; obscenities; perversions; irreverently sexual, sadistic, demeaning or dirty humor, etc (see, I just made a whole list of things a work shouldn't ideally contain all in this one point!)--were removed?  If the answer is yes, and if you're not enjoying the work for the questionable parts, then I would say that it's okay to watch, read, or play it, although I would say that it should be enjoyed under protest of the immoral parts:  When watching a film with others, for example, there should be no question that, if you had your way, the immoral parts of the film would not be included, and you should find little ways to protest--I always avert my eyes from gratuitous sexual nudity, for example, even if an overall film is decent and the nudity in question doesn't tempt me; I do so as a form of living my disapproval of the questionable element, and I would likewise skip over an explicit sex scene in a novel insofar as possible.  If, however, upon removing the questionable elements, the work would be a gutted shell of its former self, hardly making sense, or if a significant portion of the work's plot, themes, or presentation would be missing, then it's probably safe to say it's trash.

5.  The Work should not Pose a Near Occasion of Sin to You.  It may be that a given work passes muster in every other way, but that in some way it causes you personally too much temptation.  Perhaps it's a film that, despite having one scene of gratuitous nudity, lives up to the principle of #4.  If that one scene, however, causes you to lust, then even IF the overall film could be salvaged if that scene were removed, you yourself need to avoid the film altogether, unless you can find some way to watch an edited version of the film, although to be honest due to the principle of #4 if there's an edited version of the film that edits out strictly the morally problematic parts, I would say anyone should opt for that version.  It's just that it's especially important for someone who could be tempted to sin.

6.  Morality Should Not be Evil OR Deliberately Gray:  It's okay for a work to not answer certain moral questions.  What I'm talking about here is that a work should never teach that morality is gray, that suggests that right and wrong differ depending on circumstance, and that we the readers/audience/players have no right to judge whether an action is right or wrong.  It goes without saying, of course, that any work that actually advocates immorality, at least if that advocacy is at the core of the film or doesn't pass the test of #4, should be avoided.  This includes themes like vengeance or greed just as surely as it includes themes like sex or drugs.

7.  The Work, at Heart, Should not be Something You'd Feel Guilty Producing:  This is just an overall standard.  Taking #4 into consideration of course, if the overall work is one that you yourself would feel immoral in producing, then why should you put your seal of approval on the self-condemnation of the other souls who have produced it?  Whenever there is a piece of work where immoral elements are so integral to the work that you couldn't imagine being free of guilt if you had singlehandedly made the work yourself, you shouldn't forget that somebody out there did make it, and when you endorse the work gladly and without remorse, you endorse the spiritual suicide of those who really are part of it.  It would be like praising the drug culture and feeling like you're absolved of guilt just because you neither do nor sell drugs.

As is so often the case when I list things, this isn't an exhaustive list.  But it's something to reflect on, and a good starting point.  Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be watching one of those horror films I love so much on Halloween, with some relatives, and I've gotta get to work on deciding which one...


*Note:  My problem with gratuitous violence isn't the old scaremongering that kids who watch violent movies will go out on killing sprees.  Rather it's that gratuitous violence treats the human body irreverently, as an object.  Gory violence is very dehumanizing, and therefore when used gratuitously in a work for the sake of amusement, humor, titillation, or the "cool" factor, it presents an atmosphere in which human dignity is disrespected.  That's quite enough reason for concern among Christians, without any need for scaremongering.

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