Mar 13, 2015

The Steamed-up Screen

By Cheryl Magness

I am no longer in the pop culture loop. Movies and television shows come on to the scene, rock everyone’s world, and depart, and I am none the wiser. On the rare occasion that I open a People magazine in the checkout line at the grocery store, I don’t recognize 90 percent of the personalities therein.

But I would have to be dead to have not heard about Fifty Shades of Grey. I have heard about it so much, in fact, that I’m sick of it. Nevertheless here I am, tossing my two cents in with everyone else’s.

Actually, though, this article is not about Fifty Shades of Grey.  I have not read the book. I will not see the movie. I don’t think it is worth my attention. I wish everyone else agreed.

But as I ponder my reasons for rejecting this particular piece of popular culture, I can’t help but wonder: why are we so indignant about this movie and not others? 

I understand that there is an element of this film (and book) that goes beyond your garden variety R rating. There is abuse and perverseness, both of which the marketing of the movie seems intent upon normalizing. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder about the defensibility of watching any movie that contains this level of sexual content and nudity, “normal” or not. Is it really deserving of my time and money?

I have decided that it is not. It’s a decision I think I made in practice, if not principle, a long time ago. It probably coincides to some extent with becoming a parent. When there are children in the house, you not only don’t get out to movies much; you are more careful of what you watch when they are around. This point was driven home for me about 15 years ago when my husband and I rented an Academy award winning movie that we had never seen. The children were upstairs in bed, tucked in for the night. But just a few minutes into the movie, we turned it off. The opening scene was simply too graphic to watch with children in the house, even sleeping children. What if one of them woke up, came downstairs, and stumbled into the television room at precisely the wrong moment?

But I think I have also come to the realization that, Academy Award notwithstanding, that movie was too graphic even for me. I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way I became increasingly uncomfortable with the level of explicitness in many R-rated movies. There are movies that I saw when I was younger that I would not choose to see today because of the degree to which they depict sexual content. More and more, I question why it’s necessary to show so much of the sex act on film, and I can think of no reason beyond the voyeuristic. Considering that most of us know how it works, do we really need to see it played out repeatedly on the screen? Particularly when it is unfortunately quite likely that what we are seeing is not happening within the context of marriage? Certainly, sex is a part of human existence and is going to be a significant aspect of the stories we tell. But what ever happened to fading out and leaving things to the imagination? What ever happened to suggesting rather than showing? The answer, of course, is that sex sells, which means it will continue to be depicted on-screen. But Christians should consider whether they want their dollars contributing to the ongoing support of material designed only to titillate.

So the question then becomes, where does one draw the line? Some Christians believe that any and all occasions of temptation should be avoided. One should therefore consume no alcoholic beverage because to do so may lead to impaired judgment or, worse, substance abuse. A female should not bare her shoulders or knees because the more skin there is exposed, the greater the chance she will cause a man to commit the sin of lust. Lutherans, in their understanding that sin comes from within rather than without, don’t typically go to such extremes. We are also aware of the dangers of pietism, which emphasizes pious living as a requirement of faith rather than as a natural consequence of it. At the same time, we acknowledge that there are such sins as gluttony and lust and that we should desire to avoid situations in which we might find ourselves tempted to commit them.

I think most of my fellow Lutherans would agree that pornography is not harmonious with God’s law and should be avoided in all instances. It is fairly easy to mark and avoid hardcore porn: in the words of former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.” But when it comes to movies that are sexually explicit but not outright pornographic, the judgment is a bit more difficult. At what point does a sex scene cross the line into pornography? What is tolerable within the context of a dramatic production, and what is just too much? Different people probably have different opinions about that, which means that it is not something about which we ought make a law for others. I do think, though, that those who love and desire to keep God’s Law need to carefully consider what they allow themselves (and their children, if they have any) to be exposed to. That which is seen cannot be unseen. Money that is spent cannot be unspent. I am not suggesting that a Christian must only consume moralistic, pietistic material. We live in a fallen world. Good stories reflect the reality of sin and its effect on people’s lives. But a truly well told story does so without being gratuitous or voyeuristic.

There is so much music, art and literature in the world that is edifying, encouraging, and soul-enriching. Our time on earth is but a drop in the eternal bucket. Why not spend it soaking in the best the world has to offer? Why not demand good movies, both with our mouths and with our pocketbooks? I know what you’re thinking: The motion picture Industry doesn’t much care what confessional Lutherans want, but hey, that’s where DVD players and video streaming come in handy.  


Cheryl is the sister of ten, daughter of two, mother of three, and wife of one. She was an English teacher in a past life but is currently getting a bigger return on her music degree than her English one. Her husband is a Lutheran cantor. When not accompanying one of his choirs, she can most often be found playing piano in the community, homeschooling her youngest, or caring for her aging mother. She blogs at A Round Unvarnish'd Tale.


  1. Amen and amen. Thank you, Cheryl.

  2. Well said.

    Perhaps someday everyone will wake up and realize that these movies are flat-out boring.


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