Thursday, June 12, 2008

SatC and the question of cultural engagement

CT's review of Sex and the City has provoked something of a storm, with Ted Slater of Boundlessline going as far as hyperbolically attacking them for relishing sexual perversion. Now I'm not exactly the target demographic for this show, having never watched a single episode, and I don't plan to change that. Actually, what I'm interested in here is not Sex and the City, but rather that this debate has once again raised questions of what cultural engagement looks like. I occasionally write book and film reviews on this blog, and I've always wanted to sketch out a little of how I engage as a Christian with things like these, especially after my post on Philip Pullman. Rather than lay out anything comprehensive at this point, I just thought I'll lay out a few basic points, and then maybe speak a little about this particular debate with these points in mind.

1. It is clear that Scripture gives us freedom on a number of issues. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind the weaker brother/sister in love. To slightly adapt a biblical example, I might not think that eating idol food has any consequences because of my belief that God is the one true living God, I might refrain if I think a Christian brother or sister who sees me doing that as a result, might struggle.

2. On the flip side, there is the opposite danger in which a Christian insists on a certain ritual/rule/prohibition that becomes normative for all Christians, and thus falls into the trap of legalism. Circumcision would be the obvious eg. in the NT. Paul got really worked up about this because he saw that it posed a real threat to the gospel. A contemporary eg. in some circles might be alcohol: either you're teetotal or you're not really a Christian.

3. I approach books/films/other cultural artifacts worldviewishly, which I find is a much more helpful angle to take. Instead of simply asking: is this morally good or bad (which are not wrong questions in themselves, but don't often lead very far because films and literature tend to be complex), it's far better to ask worldview questions of it. How does the film conceive of ultimate reality? Does it describe our own experience of the world? What does it say about the director's own views? What questions or issues are raised? Are there "true truths", i.e truths which Christians can agree on, here? Do you feel like the film has given you any true insights into the world, or has it just felt depressing/a cheap shot/etc.? How does the Christian faith speak into this particular situation or setting?

4. This doesn't mean we can justify going to watch any movie - the Bible does talk about fleeing from immorality. But it also recognises that different people struggle with different things, and we should also take into account things like maturity and stage of life. Some people are more astute cultural critics than others, and that should be taken into account as well. We should be equipping Christians to engage with culture better.

One of the basic issues in this debate is that different people have different expectations from a film review from an evangelical publication. Since I regularly read CT reviews, I get the sense that the editors don't want to babysit you and so will not tell you what or what not to watch, but I think a large swath of readers wanted something more prescriptive: watch/don't watch this movie! In some ways, the reviewer also treated her review as somewhat of a personal essay, which is not necessarily something wrong; lots of film reviewers like Ebert do it.

Having said all that, I am actually in basic sympathy with those who oppose the movie. I think Camerin Courtney could have been more careful with her words and should have done better at pointing out the immorality in the movie beyond "There's a threesome." But I'm not sure Ted Slater's initial riposte was all that helpful. The best response is actually from Carolyn McCulley. It's thoughtful and frames the issues much better. But the point of this post isn't really about who's right or who's wrong, but the way we think these things through - it's not just the conclusion that counts in this case, but how we get there.

Bear in mind I'm not trying to be comprehensive here, but am just making a couple of points. If you want a (very much imperfect) eg. of how I try to engage worldviewishly with culture, have a look at my review of Kate Winslet's Little Children.


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Anonymous Wynn said...

if you've ever been in a room with a bunch of girls watching a girly movie, then you will know how unedifying the conversations become before, during, and after the movie... not just for the guy listening, but also for the girls themselves. and these are Christians girls i'm talking about.

4:49 pm  
Blogger BK said...

Not that I know, but I can believe that. We all, myself included, could probably do better with our film choices and the conversation that flows from it.

10:47 pm  
Blogger Tim said...

sorry for the delayed response to this post, haha. ive been away from the blogging world unfortunately, as you can probably tell!

but yeah, this is something i think about a heap. im the sort of person that draws alot of creative inspiration from artistic expression - whether its in literature, or movies, or music - and often i do get upset that Christians get really worked up over something controversial and miss the very point of the exhbiit(I'm reminded of Tony Campolo and his views on this, which are very liberal for someone with such a rich theological background! hehe).

having said that, im glad i havent watched sex and the city - simply because it's not a very well-made movie! that's the problem i think with some Christians that do try and engage with pop culture; sometimes they miss the boat completely and throw their lot in with something that completely, utterly stinks... and then come across as trying too hard to be cool :)

anyhow i hear you're coming to malaysia at the end of the year?

3:00 pm  

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