I was brought up at a time when going to the cinema was forbidden for church members. It was preached against from the pulpit, warned against by elders and strictly forbidden by parents. That was a time when movies were tame compared to the standard fare offered in cinemas today. Hollywood at that time still had a conservative code of ethics in place for movie-making. Yet for church members, cinema attendance was a no-no.
But things are a-changing. The last few years I’ve heard reports about our people attending cinemas. Some students openly speak of it in classes. Though I don’t have a Facebook account, I hear that members of churches use it to relate what they saw at the cinema.
Recently Una Sancta published a review of a movie shown at a cinema. The writer stated that when he was a youth “the sentiment was that it wasn’t a place you should go to as a Christian” but that he “never bought into the argument that the cinema … was a place to be avoided at all costs …” He is “thankful for the restraint in relation to cinemas and the movies” because “wholesome cinematic presentations are few and far between, and the movie industry has been responsible for much social change that just doesn’t accord with God’s Word and God’s law”. Nevertheless, he relates that he told his older children: “Don’t decide on the cinema and then see what’s on offer. Rather, decide that there’s something that you are confident about that is wholesome, that you would like to see. Then if it’s being shown in the cinema, don’t let that hold you back.”[i]
What has changed? Were the earlier warnings against cinema attendance unjustified? What were the principles underpinning those warnings? And if those principles were based on God’s Word, does the changed culture in which we live change the Scriptural principles underpinning the earlier warnings (a view reflected in our Dutch sister churches)?
In this context, it’s worth noting what Prof J Geertsema wrote in a Clarion editorial in 1988 titled, “Is Clarion going to review movies?”. [ii]
Is Clarion going to review movies?
The reader will find in this issue an article about the latest movie on the life of “Christ”.[iv] Clarion does not have a regular column in which movies are (critically) discussed, as is done also in many a Christian paper. We do not want this in our magazine. A regular feature of Movie Reviews, however critically it may be done, means the acceptance of this secular form of entertainment and art. It suggests that we, too, are of the opinion that also for Christians, members of the Church of Christ, the modern theatre with its worldly movies is a useable or consumable element of our modern culture. We disagree with such a view and do not want to create such a suggestion.
Before and after the last World War the theatre and its movies were taboo for Reformed people. They did not allow themselves nor their children, to see the movies in those worldly theatres, because the movies usually shown there were considered a form of worldly entertainment that would bring world conformity into the lives of holy children of God, and in that way in the church of Christ.
The purely secular (in antithesis with godly, God-fearing), worldly character of the theatre has not changed. Neither has the mostly immoral, strongly lawless, character of the movies. A simple look at the advertisements with which the movie sellers try to draw their consuming customers and the reading of reviews make this clear.
Therefore, we have no valid ground for changing our judgment and attitude. These should remain the same; a Christian must not participate in this secular, worldly, form of entertainment that thrives on what is lawless and lacks any true fear of God. A member of the church of Christ who does make use of this product of our modern secular culture brings a form of this lawless world, not only into his own life, but, being a member of the body of Christ, also into the church. Therewith he secularizes not only his own life, but also the body of Christ. It is obvious that such action is in conflict with the constant exhortation of the apostles that we are called to keep the Bride of Christ, that is, ourselves and our families, holy and pure for the heavenly Bridegroom and Lord.
Certainly, secularization can be brought in many ways and forms. Besides, sin is not in the technical achievement of the film as such. The film as such belongs to the possibilities which God put in creation. In that sense it is something good and can be used in a holy manner when it can be sanctified by the Word of God and by prayer. However, this does not diminish the reality of what is stated above. The modern film industry for the consuming public in the theatres is dominated by unbelief and lawlessness. Children of God, bought by Christ, (to be) sanctified by the Holy Spirit, should, also in this respect, maintain the antithesis and keep themselves free from this contamination with the lawlessness of the world.
Are we still willing to “fast”, to abstain from certain things, for the sake of the holiness and faithfulness of the church for her Lord? Proverbs teaches us (14:16, in my own translation): “A wise man fears and turns away from evil; but a fool lets himself go and still thinks that all will be fine.” Let us realize that the history of the church, also in recent times, shows that participation in the entertainment of the world is a sign of worldliness which is part of a secularization process that ruins the holiness of, and eventually destroys, the church as church of Christ.
Now one could argue that, although there is much movie junk on the market, filled with immoral garbage, nevertheless, many a movie is a piece of art, art of a high degree, in several ways, in the script, in the way it is played, in the pictures. And is not art there to be enjoyed? I shall not deny for one moment that there are films which can be marked as very artistic. But is the fact that something is art the norm for our actions? Should the norm for our actions not be the cause of the Lord?
Theatre attendance is a public act. Let me give the following reasoning: There is a (strong[?]) member of the church who goes to a theatre to see one specific movie because it is a piece of art. However, for his not so arts-minded (younger, and/or weak) brother in the church a movie is a movie and a theatre is a theatre. He argues in a simple way: that (older[?]) or stronger [?] member of the church (perhaps a friend or even someone in a leading position) goes to the movies, even talks openly about it as having seen a piece of art; therefore, there must be nothing wrong with going to the theatre to enjoy the movies shown there; so, I can go there too and enjoy myself with this form of entertainment. The earlier objections against the theatre seem to be fading away. Maybe, the opposition of previous years was just one of those old-fashioned views of an older generation that was not involved in real life.
I do not know whether movie attendance is greatly increasing among us. I fear that it is becoming an acceptable thing like so many other things. Out of concern for the church and its holiness for the Lord, I pose the question: Are we preserving and building the church of Christ with the consumption of movies from the secular movie industry? Do we keep our own life and the life of the youth of the church holy and blameless for the Lord by (regular) theatre attendance?
There is not only the matter of the preservation of the church. There is also the increase through being a light for the world. The world often realizes that the church is supposed to maintain a different, holy, lifestyle in which its (the world’s) immorality is rejected and fought. The world also realizes quite well that its way of life and forms of entertainment bear the stamp of worldly liberalism and often immoral lawlessness, which are not fitting for the Christian church. If now church members reject the antithesis, the difference in outlook and behaviour between church and world, what message goes out from the church to the world? Why should the world repent from its sins, if Christians themselves consume and enjoy the products of sin?
Is not also here, as in many other respects, the warning and exhortation of Christ in Matthew 10:16 in place: be innocent like doves? God’s Word exhorts: Be holy, for I am holy.
Are we busy gathering the church for Christ out of the world in the proper way when our entertainment is the same as that of the world? Does not world conformity undermine and weaken the call for repentance and conversion from sin? Whom do we seek to serve, Christ in His church-preserving and gathering activity, or ourselves and our own pleasures? Do we seek to build with Christ? Or do we break the cause of Christ? It is important to keep listening to Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23, “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful” or building up.
Do we miss out on a significant element of our modern culture by maintaining our negative attitude regarding the movie theatre? Should we not respond to such a question with the word of Christ in Matthew 16:25, that whoever would save his life for himself and his own enjoyment will lose it, but that whoever loses his life for Christ’s (and His church’s) sake will find it?
The reader now understands why we do not want a regular Film Review in our magazines. We do not deny that this form of entertainment exists. We do not deny either that some films can be of a high artistic quality. We do not say that the film as such, in itself, is evil. But we maintain that the phenomenon of the movie in our modern, secular world is dominated by lawlessness, which we do not want to become accepted in the church in the way of its becoming an accepted form of entertainment. What about the T.V.? Certainly, it is my conviction (and not mine only) that the T.V. is one of the handy instruments of the devil with which he is ruining the holy character of many of our Christian families. But that is a different chapter. No film review in Clarion. We want to build and preserve, not to break down and ruin.
Prof J Geertsema
[i] A Terpstra, “A Tale of Two Cynics”, Una Sancta, 20 May 2017
[ii] J Geertsema, “Is Clarion going to review movies?” Clarion, 16/9/1988, Vol 37 No 19, pp. 374/5.
[iii] I submitted Prof. J Geertsema’s article, with a brief preface, to Una Sancta. The EIC is undecided as yet whether to publish it in a future issue.
[iv] A reference to an article in Clarion about the movie The Last Temptation of Christ.