Tue 08 Mar, 2016

Should Christians watch horror movies?

Finding nuance beyond our knee-jerk responses

Jonny Mellor / #culture, #film, #horror

Great work Thinktheology and Nathanael Smith for not playing it safe with Tuesday’s post- a review of Robert Eggers’ ‘The Witch’ and general reflections on the horror genre. The guys at Think asked me to do a sort of companion piece that went up there on Wednesday, but I thought I’d share it here as well. 

Should Christians watch horror movies? Twenty years ago, in the kind of churches I grew up around, this question would have been met with a uninanimous and curt response and Nathanael Smith would have probably found himself facing something not dissimilar to the Salem witch trials!

Things have moved on and for some that is enough to settle the argument. Christians have made our peace with Dungeons and Dragons and Harry Potter, it’s only natural that we’d continue to repent of all of yesteryear’s knee jerk cultural prejudices.

However, it’s really important that we stop and think this through. I’ve got mixed feelings about the way the church interacts with art (in all its shapes and sizes) nowadays, and as someone who helps lead a church and spends a lot of my time working with artists, I’ll be honest, I’m still working this stuff through. However, I’ve got a few thoughts that I’d like to throw into the pot:

1. We are not to be undiscerning consumers

Andy Crouch charts the Western church’s shift in how it interacts with culture largely as a shift from a posture of wholesale condemnation through to undiscerning consumption. He warns of the risks in such a position:

‘…consumption, as a posture, is capitulation: letting the culture set the terms, assuming that the culture knows best and that even our deepest longings (for beauty, truth, love) and fears (of loneliness, loss, death) have some solution that fits comfortably within our culture’s horizons, if only we can afford to purchase it.’(Culture Making, pp 95-96)

In all of these discussions, I fear that for many of us, when we hear ‘if your conscience allows it’ (which I fully agree with by the way) we hear an encouragement to capitulation. Our consciences certainly have an objective Holy Spirit element to them but they are also educated and trained and they can be seared, it seems, almost beyond repair (1 Tim 4:2). One of the main ways I have learnt to hone my conscience has been by wrestling at length over the art I indulge in. I have smashed more records and CDs, binned more DVDs and stopped halfway through more TV series than I can count. I felt God prod me that some were leading me towards sin, others were leading me to think in unhelpful ways and others just needed to go as I was more interested in them than in Jesus at that time. I have found this costly- both financially and in terms of losing things I loved- but the payback has been that I’ve learnt to hear the nuances of God’s voice as I’ve learnt to discern the prod of the Spirit and obeyed Him along the way.

2. As we think about the true, right and lovely, we must find a place for the ugly, wicked and horrific

Whatever decisions we make regarding specifics though, we must find a place for horror in our lives! When I was growing up, Philippians 2:8 was used pretty liberally to warn me off a whole host of evils. However, I can’t help thinking that Paul’s teaching here has been somewhat abused. Paul teaches the Philippian church to ‘think about such things’ (the true, noble, right, etc) which is very different to ‘only think about such things’. If he’d done the latter, he would have been making the rather radical move of prohibiting serious reflection on large chunks of the Old Testament. Ezekiel would be considerably shorter (Ezekiel 16? 23?) and Judges 19-21 would certainly have to go (imagine Eli Roth getting his hands on that particular passage).

God chose to expose us to the horrific effects of sin in his own perfect word and he hasn’t spared us any of the gory details. It is totally understandable why many Christians treat Christianity as a bunker to hide away in, safe from the horrors of the world, but that’s not what it was ever meant to be. We are meant to be able to look evil in the face, acknowledge head on the depths of depravity in the world and then give our lives to the one who crushed the snake’s head in a bid to rescue people and refashion our culture. A church that ponders flowers, eagles and sun rises all day will likely develop a fairly rose tinted view of the world. God however chose to motivate his people into action by encouraging us to dwell on stories of gang rape, dismembered corpses and donkey’s genitalia. It’s certainly not meant to be entertaining, but if an irregular dose of some cinema that may be deemed slightly unsavoury can wake us up to the horrors of the real world we live in and the desperate need for us to do something about it, then it may be worth a few sleepless nights.

3. Living in Babylon means learning the culture

As I’ve thought about the shift in the church’s attitude to culture, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s largely down to a change in perception of where we live, spiritually speaking. In my early years, Christian leaders talked as if we lived in Israel. Once into my twenties, the general concensus was that we were in Athens. But as has pointed out on this very site, we are now squarely rooted in Babylon.

Therefore, Daniel is a very helpful model for us. He was immersed into Babylonian culture (Dan 1:4) and took the assignment on with some gusto. Of course, he did need to take a stand for righteousness, but he did this by resolving  not to defile himself with the literal consumables he was given; he did not seem to fear the cultural produce he would have been filling his mind with every day.

In Daniel’s footsteps, we must learn the language and literature (and music and film and theatre and visual aesthetic) of our culture. As someone who leads a Christian art network, I’m particularly interested in how we apply this by subverting these norms into high quality, culturally incisive art that can speak back into the culture, however, this can be applied much more broadly to all who want to understand the state of play around us and communicate meaningfully to those outside the church.

In conclusion, I’m not sure exactly how we tie all of these threads together, but I’m convinced that we need to. We have to learn to value what is good and be careful in how we nurture righteousness in our thoughts, words and deeds, but at the same time, we must become more robust, so that we can stomach what Babylon feeds us- in virtually all its forms, artistic or academic- and use it to overthrow, or even better redeem, that horrific city.

I rap. I write. I help run Sputnik. Yes yes y’all.

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