Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

In the World But Not of the World (2)

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
Last monthÕs editorial ended by asking the question whether it is possible for Christians to be involved in todayÕs culture seeing that it is increasingly showing its anti-Christian bias. This question is especially urgent when it comes to some of the most important expressions of modern culture, namely literature, music, stage and film productions and a host of other forms of Òentertainment.Ó
Man is Endowed with Cultural Urges
Before answering the question as to whether we should participate in any of these cultural expressions, we need to remind ourselves that we have all been created with the cultural urge in us. Man was made in the image of God, endowed with true knowledge of God, righteousness and holiness, in covenant with God, able and willing to serve his Creator with all his heart, mind, soul and strength. Man was made lord over all the earthly creation. As the poet of Psalm 8 puts it:

With dominion crowned he stands
OÕer the creatures of Thy hands;
All to him subjection yield
In the sea and air and field. (Psalter 15:3)

God gave man a cultural mandate to Òmultiply and replenish the earth,Ó exploring nature and its secrets and potentials, harnessing its energies so as to make it serve humanity. But man was not only to engage in scientific endeavours; he was also endowed with artistic gifts to be used in ÒcreatingÓ works of art for the glory of God as well as his own and othersÕ enrichment and enjoyment.

This cultural mandate, which God gave to man in the Garden of Eden, was inseparably connected to his covenant relation to God. All things were subject to him, indeed, but in order that he might use all his powers and gifts and the treasures he would find in nature for the glory of God and the benefit of his neighbour.

The Impact of the Fall on Culture
But man fell. And this changed everything. His relation to God was altered drastically. The day man ate of the forbidden fruit, he died spiritually. The image of God in him was marred beyond recognition. The light of divine knowledge became darkness; his righteousness was turned into unrighteousness and his holiness was changed into vile affections. Man became an enemy of God and a slave to sin. All of this has affected the way he carries out his cultural mandate. We may never forget this when discussing the subject of modern culture.

Yet, many people seem to ignore the fact that conditions have changed fundamentally since the fall. We find even Christians talking about culture as though we are still living in the state of righteousness, fully equipped, as Adam was to carry out his mandate. The reality is that we are living in a broken world, on a cursed earth with every creature in bondage to corruption and made subject to vanity.

True, even fallen man remains lord of the creation. The in-created urge to multiply and replenish the earth still moves him and spurs him on to scientific and artistic activity. He begets children, raises a family, contributes to society, is involved in politics, composes and performs music, paints pictures, produces literature, writes plays, makes films, etc., etc.

But in all these cultural endeavours man is driven and motivated by sin. In everything he does he acts in harmony with his depraved nature. He does not and cannot love, serve and glorify God with the fruits of his cultural labours. His only concern is to serve himself and his own pleasure. Even if he thinks he serves other people, he is still motivated by self-love and philanthropy makes him feel good and increases his self-esteem. Because of this, the ethical or moral value of modern culture cannot meet the standards God has set in His Word. ÒThere is none that doeth good, no not one,Ó is true of all manÕs works, including his cultural achievements (Psalm 14:3).

Admittedly, there are certain branches of culture that lie more or less at the periphery from the point of view of ethical content. Take mathematics for instance. That 2 plus 2 equals 4 is a truth which has very little to do with ethics.

Developments in the Entertainment Industry
But the closer we examine those branches of modern culture in which manÕs ethical nature does find expression, the more it becomes evident that modern culture is corrupt through and through.

This is certainly true of much presented by the entertainment industry today. The last hundred years or so have brought us some wonderful inventions: the phonograph, now obsolete and replaced by tapes and CDÕs, radio, television, VCR, and most recently, the computer and internet. I call them wonderful inventions because thatÕs what they are. We should not be too quick to refer to these things as tools of the devil even though the devil is using them to his advantage.

For every bad and harmful use of these instruments one can point to a good and beneficial one as well. Clearly, the harm lies in what the inventions are used for and in whose serviceÑSatanÕs or GodÕs. The radio is an excellent means of information, but what comes over it is another matter. The CD player provides concert-like sound for our listening pleasure, but what kind of music pleases us? Television gives us a ringside seat to whatever is happening on the globe, but news is not the only thing it offers us despite all our claims to the contrary. And who will deny that cinematography is an art form that brings us beautiful nature scenes captured by powerful cameras that show us GodÕs handiwork in colourful detail. But the same cameras present to our mindsÕ eye scenes that we would be better off not to see.

Movies and Television
Perhaps no art form expresses our modern culture as clearly and powerfully as films. But from the beginning (the 1890Õs) moving pictures have been a source of controversy among Christians and indeed, in society in general. Decent people were afraid that the new invention would have a demoralizing effect, especially on young people. This was partly due to the fact that many movie actors had previously been vaudeville artists whose reputation was anything but respectable. Those fears were not unfounded.

By the 1920Õs (Òthe roaring twentiesÓ) movies were generally of such low calibre that the government threatened to impose federal censorship--the last thing movie producers or directors wanted. In desperation, rather than out of conviction, the alarmed movie industry decided to clean its own house before it was cleaned for them. For a while this ÒvoluntaryÓ censorship worked but soon the lure of greater profits and popular demand led to a gradual relaxing of moral standards. Eventually things got so bad that the American Roman Catholic hierarchy formed the so-called Legion of Decency which carefully monitored each film before it was released. Any movie that did not pass the grade was placed on the forbidden list. Parishioners were instructed at Sunday mass to swear an oath not to patronize any movie condemned by the church. Once again Hollywood, faced with greatly reduced numbers of moviegoers, relented and this time (1934) a new censorship code was adopted that had some teeth in it. For the next ten to fourteen years the code was strictly enforced and films did indeed present a fairly clean and wholesome image.

By the fifties and sixties, however, things changed for the worse again. Mainly through the advent of television, new pressures were put on the film industry to relax its censorship code. Because television applied even stricter moral regulations to its programs than the 1934 code did to films, many people found the entertainment offered by this new medium too tame. Fully aware of this, Hollywood began to lure audiences back to the theatre with promises of franker, racier, more adult entertainment. And they delivered on their promise. New films were produced as adaptations from popular novels dealing with issues such as adultery, fornication and homosexuality. The public, delighted with this ÒmatureÓ entertainment, began to demand less stringent rules of censorship. In 1951 the U.S. Supreme Court, apparently yielding to this pressure, ruled that movies were part of AmericaÕs ÒpressÓ and so were entitled to constitutional protection under the First Amendment.

The sixties and seventies saw further relaxation of censorship rules and films became more and more blatant in depicting nudity, coarse language and violence. This trend has continued to this day. One does not have to attend the theatre to know what is going on. Movie reviews in newspapers and magazines indicate that todayÕs films commonly offer scenes of voyeurism, adultery, incest, prostitution, lesbianism and rape. Also--and this is very important--producers, directors and actors are increasingly using movies as a tool for political and social change. The cinema in the eighties and nineties became an ideological medium. It is a known fact that most screenwriters, actors, directors and producers are on the left side of the political spectrum. With few exceptions, they are political liberals and were strong supporters of the Clinton-Gore team in recent elections. These people are anti-family, anti-church, anti-Christ, anti big business, and pro-choice, pro-gay and pro big government.

Their bias shows in their products. Businessmen are invariably painted as evil. Religious leaders are stereotypes of corruption. Moral conservatives are intolerant hypocrites. Sex is hardly ever depicted as a ÒnormalÓ act of love between husband and wife, but almost always as an illicit adulterous affair.

Much of what has been said about movies shown in theatres holds true of what is presented on television. By now television also has succeeded in removing most of the restrictions imposed on this medium in its early years.

Theatre Attendance by Christians
In light of the above the question as to whether Christians should participate in this cultural medium is almost superfluous. Who in his or her right (Christian) mind will sit through a film which deals with the kind of subjects referred to? Yet statistics show that movie attendance and television viewing among evangelicals is at about the same level as among the general public.

And what about the Reformed community? From a survey among 33 Canadian Reformed young people, aged 17 and 18, taken in1995, it appeared that seven watched 0-3 movies in the theatre, TV or VCR, eleven watched 4-6, and sixteen viewed more than 8 movies in one month. One student reported that he had not watched a movie that month, but that he had done so previously. (Watching Movies, No? Yes? How? Inter-League Publication Board London: 1996).

One wonders what a similar survey among Free Reformed young people would show. There are indications that also among our young people, and older people as well, movie attendance is on the rise. It used to be that in our circles theatre attendance was out of the question. Actually, throughout the Reformed community going to shows was seen as evidence of worldliness. In 1928 the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church issued a strong warning against movie attendance along with dancing and card playing. One may question the wisdom of such prohibitions but it cannot be denied that the motive behind this synodical pronouncement was a deep concern for the spiritual well being of church members. If the fathers of 1928 were so alarmed by what was portrayed in films in those days should we not be even more concerned about what is presented on the silver screen today?

The Influence of Movies and Television
In the past films were tame compared to their modern counterparts. One may argue that Christians should be able to discern for themselves what is acceptable and what is not, as far as movies and television programs are concerned. But the problem is that those who regularly view movies become desensitized to the violence and the profanity and sexual content of most modern films. That can only mean one thing: their consciences are in the process of being hardened, perhaps even seared, as with a hot iron. (1 Tim.4: 2).

Let us not underestimate SatanÕs design in all this. If he can get covenant children to watch a movie in which the name of the Lord Jesus Christ is blasphemed or the seventh commandment violated without their being troubled by it, he has gained his objective. Especially if those same people sit down the following Sunday at the table of the Lord. Here PaulÕs warning certainly applies: ÒYe cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the LordÕs table and of the table of devilsÓ (1 Cor.10: 21).

Does this mean that a Christian should never watch a film, abstain from any involvement in modern culture and from any kind of entertainment? We shall try to answer these questions next month, D.V. In the meantime let us remember the words of the psalmist: ÒBlessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord and in his law doth he meditate day and nightÓ (Psalm 1:1,2).

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