Movies and Relativism
How Do We Process the Ethics of Movies?

David Nedostup asks, “How do you fight relativism in the battle for values and ethics? Is the disease sin?”

The first solution to relativism is knowing what we believe. Really knowing it—not taking what we’ve been taught for granted, but really seeking out the truth. In the Bible, the church at Berea was commended because they didn’t take everything the Apostle Paul said at face value; they constantly held up his teaching against Scripture as the ultimate measure of Truth. (A corollary to this is knowing the difference between personal opinion and sound doctrine.)

The second key, as a former pastor and mentor advised, is knowing why we believe what we believe. In other words, sure there’s sound doctrine; but what difference does it actually make? Faith is not merely a sterile intellectual proposition. God doesn’t just want us to assent to his lordship; he wants to transform us by the renewing of our minds! So if our faith really hasn’t made any difference in our lives, it’s easy for other doctrines to sound equally (or more) appealing.

Third is abandoning the politically correct blind adherence to the value of tolerance. As even the staunchly atheist G. B. Shaw observed, every society is founded on intolerance. A society is, in fact, defined by what it will not tolerate: incest, cannibalism, rape, smoking, holocaust denying, and so on. Some things are simply not acceptable to a given group of people; if all things were acceptable, society would cease to exist. Liberty is bounded; and as Christians, we need to allow the ethic of Christlikeness to determine what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

Fourth is a realization that Christianity doesn’t offer the definitive word on ethics. Competing systems of thought also offer reasonable bases for ethical behavior. What they don’t offer, though, is spiritual aid to overcoming the basic human brokenness that defeats merely intellectual ethical commitments. Without the Holy Spirit, we are all doomed to be ruled by “the flesh,” as Paul describes in Acts 7. But as Paul makes clear in both Acts 6 and Acts 8, the Holy Spirit trumps baser human instincts. And as far as I know, no other religion or system of thought offers the Holy Spirit to all who believe.

So yes, the “disease,” if you will, really is sin—fundamental human fallenness.

With regard to watching movies and dealing with these issues, the above four points provide the basis for critical evaluation, from a theological point of view. From an artistic point of view, I’d offer four more points to consider.

First, no movie can possibly tell the whole of God’s story—not even The Passion of the Christ. The best we can hope for is some glimpse of a portion of the Good News. From this standpoint, almost every movie will seem relativistic, to some degree. The Passion, for instance, didn’t address human sinfulness at all. So one might conclude, from just watching that movie, that Christianity is all about suffering and sacrifice. It isn’t, of course; and Gibson’s movie doesn’t make that statement. But that’s how the perception of relativism in art can work.

Second, whatever small glimpse of truth we might get from a film cannot be unilaterally applicable. This is because we are not all at the same point in our spiritual journeys—either audience members or filmmakers. For example, a violent and mildly vulgar film called Better Luck Tomorrow opened up an atheist friend to a serious discussion about Providence; but it would be wholly inappropriate for my Christian mother. The fact that God is dealing with me differently, right now, than He is dealing with my now agnostic friend does not mean that truth is relative.

Third, when dealing with art, remember the idea of limited perspective. In movies, this means we’re only getting one person’s point of view; sometimes it’s the director’s point of view, sometimes it’s one of the characters’ point of view. But that can’t be taken for granted, and it needs to be worked out carefully. Characters don’t always speak for their creators. I’m a writer myself, and can guarantee that this is a fact.

Fourth, movies are designed to manipulate. I always advocate that Christians should exercise discernment with films the way the Bereans exercised discernment with Paul’s teaching. Film is a complex artform. Its methods and language are nearly inescapable in our culture; and while we might understand the syntax of that language intuitively, it doesn’t hurt to study it, too. That way, when we run across movies that are the cinematic equivalent of Faulkner’s prose (as opposed to Hemingway’s) we’ll have some clue about what those films are actually trying to tell us.

That’s probably way more of a response than you were looking for; but thanks for asking!