The Moral Universe of Film and Television -Is Anyone Out There?

Even films without violence or nudity can teach a worldview at odds with morality and truth.
by Chuck Colson

Ask most Christians what they think is wrong with movies and television shows, and they'll probably cite examples of violence, sexual content, and profanity

The problem with a lot of what we watch isn't only what's there; it's also what is not there: Namely, the notion that someone is in charge of the universe.

Christians call this idea "providence." John Calvin defined providence as a "governing activity" rooted in the idea that God is the "Creator and Preserver [of the universe]?[and] that he sustains, nourishes, and cares for everything he has made?"

Belief in providence went beyond matters of religion. Historically, belief in a governing activity enabled the various plot strands in drama and comedy to come together in a satisfying ending-that left the audience thinking the world had order and wasn't spinning out of control.

As Thomas Hibbs of Boston College points out, we see providence at work in the movies of Frank Capra, for example. Whether the movies had a religious reference, like It's A Wonderful Life, or didn't, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the message is the same: Some force is at work rewarding good and punishing evil.

As Hibbs chronicles in his book, Shows About Nothing, that has changed in the past three decades. Since the early 1970s, much of what we watch is characterized by what Hibbs calls a "demonic anti providence." These are films like The Exorcist, Silence of the Lambs, and the recent hit, Hannibal, or shows like Seinfeld, which advertises itself as a show about nothing.

This goes beyond making television and the movies religion-free zones, or depicting religious believers in negative ways. The world depicted in movies and television is often one where "ultimate justice is elusive," and "where we are tempted to see the underlying force as malevolent and punitive."

As a result, says Hibbs, this worldview sees "violence and ineradicable guilt as the underlying truth about the human condition? "In place of the hero, we have what Hibbs calls the "demonic antihero" who-unlike the hero who knows what is right and seeks to do it-is bound by no moral code and, in fact, invites the audience to celebrate his liberation from morality.

The demonic anti-hero, and the worldview that produced him, are the product of cultural attitudes towards beliefs in God. It's true that most Americans profess to believe in God, but this God is a far cry from the God of Scripture. More than a century of naturalism has eroded our belief that God is providential-that is, in charge of all events. Likewise, there is little sense that he rewards good and punishes evil. What we see onscreen not only reflects these beliefs; it reinforces them.

The entertainment industry has become the dominant cultural force in our culture. Films and television have little effective competition when it comes to shaping our-and our children's-moral imaginations.

We can't stop at knowing just whether a film contains nudity or violence. Even films without either one can teach a worldview at odds with historic Christianity. To understand the impact of media on our lives, we have to look at the worldview being depicted, asking if, according to the show, anyone is really in charge.

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