“Is it okay for Christians to watch R-Rated movies?”
“Oh, I don’t think I can watch that. Isn’t it rated R?”
“This looks interesting, but what’s it rated?
Christians frequently ask these questions about movies. In a broader sense, the unifying concern is about which entertainment choices are permissible for Christians. This important question deserves a thoughtful answer.
Visual art has simplistic categorization: pornographic and not pornographic. Ditto for music (explicit or not explicit). Books are the Wild West with no “official” rating system. Of all the entertainment mediums, movies are the exception. You are probably familiar with the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) rating system of G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17.
Which of these ratings are permissible for Christians? My grandfather often says that if you ask the wrong questions, you will get the wrong answers.
Relying on a rigid rating system does not actually protect us from danger, and it robs us of experiencing the full joy and power that cinema offers. Below are three guidelines for how Christians should approach film and entertainment choices.
1. We Must Reject a Posture of Fear
Implicit in the questions above is fear. Christians tend to approach a film with the question, “Will this be harmful?” rather than “Can this be beneficial?” Within the Church is a lingering stigma that the film industry is nothing but a dangerous cesspool of sin and sacrilege. Though this notion is somewhat warranted, it doesn’t tell the full story.
Imagine going to a beach and staying entirely in the shade, one hundred feet away from the water, for fear of sunburns or drowning. Both are real dangers, and we would be foolish to neglect sunscreen or do away with lifeguards. But it would be tragic to allow these fears to steal the joy of our beach vacation. We were not created to live recklessly, but neither should we live in fear.
God loves stories so much that when He inspired the Bible—His perfect and timeless self-revelation—He did so primarily through stories (more than 60% of the Bible is written in narrative form). When Jesus came to Earth as a man, He spent much of His earthly ministry simply telling stories (“he said nothing to them without a parable.” Matt 13:34). Stories have the power to communicate important truth and transform us, not just to corrupt or distract us.
2. We Must Go Beyond the Surface
Many Christians base their assessment of films entirely on the presence or absence of “bad stuff,” by which they generally mean the Big Three: violence, sex, and profanity. They ask, “What’s the language like?” “Is there much violence?” “Is there any nudity?” Again, these are important questions—but they shouldn’t be our only questions.
One issue with establishing a standard based solely on a particular content-based rating—such as R—is that it suggests that anything with a lower rating is harmless or permissible. If you’ve read any of the movie reviews on this site, you know that our format examines content that is both “on the surface” (violence/sex/profanity) and “beneath the surface” (worldview/messages). When Christians focus only on the former, they inadvertently neglect the latter, and the result can be disastrous. In fact, what is beneath the surface can be more perilous than what is on the surface.
A Christian can potentially (though not always) benefit from watching a thought-provoking and powerful film that contains one needlessly gratuitous sex scene if they simply skip the scene (like cutting the bruised portion off an otherwise tasty banana). On the other hand, a distorted and secular worldview that underpins an entire story is so subversive that it contaminates the whole film. Take Smallfoot (you can read our review here), a squeaky-clean PG children’s film that has a relentless and militant atheistic worldview latent throughout. The MPAA rating system might focus only on the surface level content, but Christians can ill-afford to do the same.
3. We Must Recognize That Not All “Bad” Content is Actually Bad.
Not all R-Rated content is created equal. In fact, the most successful R-Rated movie in cinematic history is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The Bible itself certainly warrants a hard R-rating; it is stuffed with enough violence, sex, rape, vulgarity, murder, and incest to make the creative executives at HBO blush. The R-rated content in the Bible suggests that there is a time, place, and manner in which Christians not only can confront and engage such material but should.
Many of the most powerful war films are understandably rated R. To water-down or sugarcoat the grim reality of war would be untruthful and dubious. Similarly, a movie like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List contains plenty of violence, nudity, and profanity; but no one is likely to feel enthralled or sexually aroused by watching it. Rather, the graphic nature of the film enables the viewer to understand the horrors of the Holocaust in ways that a paragraph in a history textbook never will.
Of course, sometimes “bad” content is just that—bad. The popular SAW franchise contains gruesome violence as well, but unlike a sobering war film, the horror films glorify violence rather than exposing it as ugly. A gristly prison film may contain strong profanity as it paints a dismaying picture of our true broken and sinful human nature, while a raunchy stoner comedy tosses out F-Bombs like they’re lollipops at a 4th of July parade just for juvenile kicks.
So…What’s the Answer Then?
The point of this article is not that Christians shouldn’t be discerning or cautious with their entertainment choices. If anything, the point is that they should be more discerning and cautious. A blanket rule like “Christians cannot watch R-Rated films” is far too generalized and simplistic to engage with something as complex and nuanced as a film. So how should we choose what films to watch and where to draw the line? Here are three quick guidelines:
Do Your Homework. Go beyond the rating. If a film interests you, do some research. There are plenty of helpful resources on the internet, such as the weekly movie reviews we do here on The Collision!
Develop Accountability. Don’t let the entertainment industry have power over you. If your initial research reveals that a film has a gratuitous sex scene, for example, hold off on seeing it in theaters. Wait until it comes out on home video or streaming and watch it with your remote control nearby to skip the scene. Better yet, watch it with a group of friends or family to ensure you do skip the scene or quit watching the film altogether if you discern partway through that you should.
Recognize that there is room for liberty. The Bible does not provide a clear step-by-step guide for how to consume entertainment, but it does tell us how to honor God and respect one another. Not everyone will approach entertainment in the same way. I believe that there is far more danger in judging or questioning other Christians’ eternal salvation on the basis of the movies they watch than in anything harmful in the movies themselves.