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Christian Liberty as Illustrated by The Ramones

October 3, 2011

After writing my last post about Shakespeare and Chaucer’s bawdy humor, I started thinking about this issue. Christians tend to fall into two different categories when it comes to entertainment: what Brian Godowa calls cultural anorexics and cultural gluttons. Cultural anorexics are the kind of people who refuse to watch any movies whatsoever; cultural gluttons are those who don’t refuse to watch any movies whatsoever. I feel that in the last few years mainstream Christianity has moved from an attitude of cultural anorexia to cultural gluttony. I’m certainly not supporting cultural anorexia–it’s not good nor is it Biblical. But I’m not happy about the attitude of cultural gluttony that has settled in mainstream Christianity, especially among younger people, the attitude of “I can watch/listen to whatever I want to and you can’t tell me that that’s not a good idea, because that’s LEGALISM and legalism is, like, the worst thing ever dude.”

In his excellent “Ask Doug” video about death metal, Doug Wilson makes the point that people will take entertainment and say that it is a “wisdom issue,” and then say that because it is a “wisdom issue,” that no one can tell them what to do about it. What they don’t understand is that wisdom is objective; if it is a “wisdom issue,” then there is an objectively wise stance on it, and what they should do is seek to find that stance. Instead, people use the phrase “wisdom issue” to give an excuse for watching/listening to all kinds of junk.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t avoid everything that has “bad words in it.” To steal another Doug Wilson point, when it comes to entertainment/art standards the Bible should be our guide, and not the Bible edited with a schoolmarm’s scissors. The Bible portrays sex, violence, profanity and blasphemy, although not to such an extent as some people like to pretend it does. As Christians, we don’t read a Precious Moments Bible, but neither do we need an Exploitation Bible (NIV) either. Since Christians seem to have a disturbing lack of standards for art/entertainment, I’ve decided to come up with some criterias for deciding whether art is worthy of our time.

1. Morality vs. Content. Sometimes a movie or book may contain profanity or violence or something, but the overall message is Christian or in sync with Christian morals. Gran Torino is a good example of this: it’s filled with profanity, but it celebrates manliness and Christlike self-sacrifice. On the other hand, there are plenty of “clean” movies that have anti-Christian messages. This can be taken to far: just because something has a “good message” doesn’t mean it’s automatically worthy of our time. It may be that the immoral content of the piece of art outweighs it’s message.

2. Artistic Worth. Is this actually a worthy piece of art apart from the immoral content. This is what separates Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and The Illiad from the latest Seth Rogen flick (and don’t anybody try to argue that a Seth Rogen movie is artistically worthy. It just ain’t, Ok?) This is a bit more of a grey area. What about someone like Eminem, who uses his considerable talent to promote all sorts of evils. “Stan” was the song that convinced me that rap music could be artistically worthy; it’s also a creepy, profane tale of dysfunction and suicide. (Don’t listen to it. It’s messed up.) Listening to Eminem is a bit like hearing a Beethoven Symphony mixed with all sorts of crass and profane musings? Does Eminem’s artistic talent outweight his depravity?

I think this is an area where Christians can get tripped up. Just because something is artistically worthy does not mean it’s worth our time, or that it’s not sinful. Take comedy for instance. Much of modern comedy is incredibly effective and also incredibly crude. Christians will often use as an excuse “But it’s funny.”  And it is. Sometimes it’s downright hilarious. That still doesn’t make it right. Watching innapropriate humor and then saying “But it’s funny” as an excuse is sort of like committing adultery and then using the excuse “But she was really gorgeous.” It’s still wrong.

3. Grey Areas. For my final point I’m going to use the Ramones as an example, partially because it’s relevant and partially just because I wanted to mention the Ramones. The Ramones were known for their over-the-top, corny lyrics. For example, some of their songs are Beat on The Brat (“Beat on the brat, beat on the brat, beat on the brat with a baseball bat!”) and Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue, which was the first positive song that they wrote. Are these songs actually promoting child abuse and drug use? Are they a sort of satiric black comedy, attacking a sort of behavior by pretending to naively be enthusiastic about it, like Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. (To be fair, Jonathan Swift was much more talented than the Ramones.) If they are being sarcastic, is this sort of humor worth our time. Are the Ramones simply too cheap and tawdry to be worth listening to in the first place?


Currently Listening: The Matchbox 20 station on Pandora, which plays the best music. So far it’s played songs by Goo Goo Dolls, The Verve, Collective Soul, 3 Doors Down, Third Eye Blind, OneRepublic, and of course Matchbox 20. All of the best pop/rock bands were from the 90s. They seemed to have a lot more popular songs with meaningful lyrics back then.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2011 5:04 am

    Good points. Definitely not something that’s really thought about in mainstream Americanism. Evangelical churches tend heavily towards doing things that make them “feel good,” because “feeling good” is apparently how they draw closer to God. Allow me to point out that the Rastafarians use this exact same argument when they claim marijuana use as a sacrament.

    Music, movies, etc., don’t have to make us “feel good” to be worthy of our time. There’s a big place for music that makes us feel bad – “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” being a prime example. Great skill, lyrics, vocals…but it really condemns you and makes you stop and think.

    Gran Torino could not have portrayed Clint’s character nearly as well if not for his incredibly profane language and actions. It’s what makes his redemption real. We can’t root for a character to come clean if he’s already clean. I know good Christians who refuse to watch that movie because of its language (and perhaps that’s wise for those who aren’t mature enough to handle it).

    Without getting too Jonathan Edwardsy (sp?) about it, there may be more of an opportunity for provoking helpful thought with “feel-bad” songs than “feel-good” ones. Such as something that cultivates a healthy fear of the Lord, as most Presbyterian hymns at least touch on.

    Also – last sentence in (1): it’s “its” not “it’s.” Cheers!

  2. D. R. Leach permalink
    November 16, 2011 10:37 am

    I cannot say with an authoritarian voice where the line is between useful and not useful in music, movies etc – however, it seems to me that at least some objective standards exist between the holy and hipness. I’d prefer to err leaning toward the former. This is an issue I do struggle with. I admit, it is hard for me to imagine the Apostles or the various Christians of history we look up to as the best examples of faith and Christian zeal and productivity – collecting all the Beatles albums (to use a group I know and have always liked). I ask honestly – but I do ask – at what point does the earnest Christian, seeking to serve Christ aright, and in truth, say “All things are lawful, but not all things are expedient” in regards to this vast mess of “entertainment?” Actually, where does this desire for 24/7 entertainment I sense here and there among Christians fit in with the sorts of things that are commanded us in Scripture? in fact, where ought entertainment fit in at all? I wonder if the Reformers or Puritans had all our time for personal pursuits, and all our technology, if they would be mulling over the value of sexually suggestive movies or morally bankrupt rock tunes? When I was young, I did not sense in a meaningful way that time finite. Now that I am not young, I wonder about things like, “Though perhaps God will not strike me dead for spending 2 hours watching old Moody Blues videos on youtube, and though I can argue for “liberty” ad naseum, is this two hours that will mock me as I prepare (and do) enter eternity?” I suppose the tenor of this note might be dismissed by some as a sort of misguided pietism. I hope not. I do not call fo anyone to be a monk, nor am I one myself. But at what point does all this “culture” – even what is objectively speaking, the best of it – fill up our souls with the secondary? No agenda here, just wondering.

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