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the idol of "clean"


Today’s guest post is from Dietrech Kessler, who writes under this pseudonym for the God of Evolution.

A soldier escapes from a dangerous battle on foot, seeking shelter for safety while his enemies search for him like a pack of wolves. A woman steps slowly out of her home, and seeing the soldier, smiles and says “Come in. Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid.” Exhausted, drenched with sweat, ribs aching and chest about to burst, the soldier studies the woman— her face welcoming, her voice gentle, her appearance pleasant to the eye, her overall aura warm— he has no choice but to trust her, and the truth of it is, he actually wants to.

Upon entering the woman’s home, he lays down on her bed and she covers him with a blanket and brings him a drink. His panting and heavy breathing begins to die down, as he readily concludes that there is no greater feeling, no better paradise, than cold water rushing into his parched mouth. He pours what is left of the water onto his head, and the sensation of coolness lulls him to peaceful sleep.

The woman, so inviting, so welcoming, walks back into the room where the soldier is resting and looks down on him in sleep. Her face is blank, her body as still as his. Then, with sudden ferociousness, she hammers a stake into his head. His legs kick, his arms flail, his eyes twitch open and shut, as blood spatters all over the room and drenches the blanket atop him. The violence is heavy, the gore excessive.

Should Christians watch a movie that has a scene like this?

A man and woman talk about their amazing sex. A man and woman live outdoors in the nude. An army wipes out an entire civilization— every man, woman and child. Fire reigns down from the sky and consumes two cities. Worshipers of a strange graven god cut themselves, yearning for a response from the heavens. A man stabs an obese king in the stomach until the fat of the king oozes over his forearm. Beheadings. Oral sex. Hero-Prostitutes.

When Christians talk about movies, typically we decide whether or not we will see movies, not based on the richness of the stories themselves, but on the “content” regardless of the stories. It is often how many “curse words” are used, whether or not there are sex scenes, or scenes of grotesque violence, that we believe should determine whether or not a movie is “appropriate.” “Content not context” is what I like to call this approach. I have often argued that instead of “content not context,” Christians should take a “context not content” approach to entertainment.

I’ve made the case to various fellow Christians, that if a sex scene is portrayed in a way that glorifies a marital relationship, or if something is portrayed in a way that emphasizes the evil of an act, that such scenes can point to great moral truths. Upon making this argument to a career minister, he shot back at me “I don’t need smut to teach me great moral truths! I have the werrrd of Gawd for that!” Ironically, the “werrrd of Gawd”— “infallible”, “inerrant”, “indisputable”, “dictated completely by the Spirit”— is chock-full of “smut” in order to tell moral truths. The Bible in its entirety is context not content. As most of you have figured out by now, if you didn’t figure it out immediately, all of the above scenes I described within the first few paragraphs are straight from the holy book itself.

I’ve described the story of Jael and the tent peg (Judges 4), Song of Solomon, Adam and Eve (Genesis 1), the Canaanite genocide (Joshua 10-11), Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), Elijah and the Prophets of Baal (1st Kings 18), Ehud and Eglon (Judges 3), David and Goliath (1st Samuel 17), more Song of Solomon (2:3), and finally Rahab the harlot (Joshua 2). Christians often talk about how we should avoid R-rated and even PG-13 movies. But if the Bible were to be made into a movie, it would be NC-17.

I can remember being told to turn my head at a scene in Schindler’s List, when the Nazis watch and laugh as nude Jews, both men and women, run around in a circle for their enjoyment. Why should I have turned my head? Was the film glorifying this deed? Or was it trying to use such a scene to show the evil and wickedness of the Third Reich? But it didn’t matter. “Turn your head”– Christians have taken this approach to entertainment, but at what cost? Has “clean” become our idol? Temporarily accepting the doctrine of mechanical dictation, for a moment— the Spirit certainly did not concern Itself with “clean” as It “spake through the writers” who penned the Bible.

If a “dirty” or “bloody” or “linguistically-colorful” scene in a film or book highlights the consequences of sin and evil, or glorifies a moral good, should we reject that form of entertainment? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t reject entertainment that glorifies sin and wrongdoing. If a film portrays an affair as light-hearted comedy or as a necessary alternative to marital struggle, perhaps Christians should reject that film. If a book is about a sexually-sadistic CEO who takes all of his sexual fantasies and desires out on a young literature student, and the eroticism is supposed to excite us and create a form of lust in our hearts, Christians should probably reject such a book.

But the demand for “clean” is dangerous, and it’s just another attempt by many Christians to sanitize the world or use it as an excuse to withdraw from it— when we are told many times in the Bible that the world will never be sanitized of our every sensitivity, and that we are not to withdraw but  be “the salt of the earth.” We are not meant to “turn our heads” to atrocity. We are meant to tackle it head on. But how can we face atrocity and heal those affected by it, if we believe it’s wrong to even see a simulation of it on screen? There is a wide gulf between niceness and goodness,  but how ever did “clean” replace context?

“But what about Philippians 4:8? Doesn’t that passage demand ‘clean’ entertainment?” you may ask, and to which the reply, funnily enough, is again “context.” It was Charles Spurgeon who stated quite wonderfully, “I feel vexed with the fellow who chopped the Bible up into chapters; I forget his name just now, and I am sure it is not worth recollecting.” Readers of the Bible would do well to read entire books in one sitting, time allowing, in order to grasp meanings of often-abused passages.

That’s what I did with Philippians. It appears that Paul is thanking the church at Philippi for supporting him more so than other churches. In a figurative sense, Paul seems to have the Philippian church in an embrace, assuring them that he feels their struggle and feels their joy. He encourages them to stand side-by-side with one another as they face persecution. In light of this message, we read Philippians 4:8, And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.(NLT)

This passage, then, is Paul’s advice for the first Christians to develop the ability to take their minds elsewhere to a realm of light, pleasantness, goodness and joy, in the midst of crippling persecution. Some translations even have “meditate” instead of “think on.” It is a stretch then, if one does not cherry-pick 4:8, to apply the verse to the realm of entertainment.

None of this is to say that there isn’t such a thing as age-appropriateness. A five-year-old should not watch The Passion Of The Christ. I was not allowed to watch Saving Private Ryan until I was fifteen. I would even venture to say that exposing a small child to R-rated and many PG-13 movies verges on psychological abuse. But we are not talking about children and parental judgement of age appropriateness. We are talking about an entire system of thought present within many Christians in the United States today concerning art and entertainment. And I think that we have erected an idol of “clean” that has no legitimacy or usefulness in God’s kingdom.


distance, disconnection, and leaving fundamentalism

By the time I returned to my extremely conservative Christian college for my sophomore year, I was glad the summer was over. I’d endured a hell-hole of a summer camp, been excommunicated and shunned by people I considered “family,” and was forbidden from speaking to my best friend ever again.

However, I was going back to the same type of environment that had caused all of that trauma, although I didn’t really see it that way at the time. At least, at college, I could sit at the same table as a boy, wear knee-length skirts without being termed a “woman of the night,” and I could be among people who thought that music was important to worshiping God.

Looking back, though, while those “freedoms” seemed huge and I enjoyed the “rebellious” nature of some of the decisions I was allowed to make, I really had no idea that the environment at school was just as spiritually oppressive as the environment at church. And what I also didn’t realize, at the time, was that everything about my faith was about to fall apart and make me vulnerable to more violence and abuse.

Something that I’ve realized since then is that my particular “faith journey,” at this point, is not unique. It’s certainly not one that gets talked a lot about, because it isn’t terribly dramatic. On the surface, I was still attending a Baptist college. I was still going to church. I still prayed, I still “believed” in God, and I still could feel guilted into having a “quiet time” or “devotions.”

The stories you more frequently hear involve someone going through a spiritual 360– in a dramatic swerve, they turn into an agnostic, or an atheist, or they renounce Christianity and become “spiritual,” but, then, somehow, miraculously, something happens that brings them back to an orthodox Christianity.

My journey doesn’t look like that, mostly because it wasn’t allowed to. I couldn’t, practically, make the decision to no longer attend church. My college administration had effective ways and means of making sure every student attended every church service. I rebelled, some, when I was at home, by “playing sick” most Sunday mornings and grudgingly going to church on Sunday night and Wednesday.

Neither did I do anything else that was particularly crazy. I didn’t become promiscuous, even emotionally, didn’t suddenly develop a fascination for death metal, didn’t do drugs–but, I did disengage.

Everything about God, faith, or spirituality no longer seemed to matter to me. I couldn’t bring myself to care about anything at all remotely religious. I went through the motions, and I think if you had asked anyone who knew me at the time they would have said that I was fine. Healthy, even. My sophomore year was the year I met one of my best friends, and I even helped disciple her a bit. Since this time in my life, however, it’s become possible for me to label depression in my own life for what it is, and this was one of those times.

I could barely drag myself out of bed. I stopped caring about anything to do with fashion, as clothes (“standards”) represented a lot of the evil I was struggling with. My personal relationships fell apart–some, quite violently. One friendship ended when she slapped me across the face, and another friendship ended when she tried to deck me in public. My grades fell, I started losing weight, and I was constantly returning to my room to sleep. At one point, when I was at the campus clinic, the nurse there wisely asked me to fill out a questionnaire. After I’d filled it out, she tried to gently tell me that I was depressed, but I scoffed at the very notion. Christians can’t get depressed, didn’t you know? We have Jesus, and depression is only demonic oppression. A depressed Christian is an oxymoron, and one who takes anti-depressants is at the very height of sin, because he would be rejecting Jesus and turning to the “world” to fix his problem.

Toward the end of my sophomore year, a few things happened. One of them was that I decided that “being a Christian” had to mean something different than what I’d always thought. What I was feeling, what I had to drag myself through every day, just could not be right.

I have no idea what brought me to that realization. There was no epiphany, no chapel message, no gentle urging from a friend to start seeking answers. I went from not-knowing-or-caring to thinking-and-caring gradually, in a process so slow it is impossible to see, even now. But I remember waking up one day, and feeling something more, something beyond, and I knew that my answers lay completely outside anything I had heretofore experienced.

I’d grown up in an environment that idolizes spiritual leaders– in an interesting twist of fate, IFB folks are more sola ecclesia than Catholics– and, in that environment, it’s difficult to have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” even though they are constantly admonishing us to do so. This is largely due, I think, to the very public nature of Christianity in IFB circles. Everything we do is judged as objectively as possible, and I understand the appeal of that. Subjectivity means that there will be gray areas and uncertainties, and “personal” is synonymous with “subjective.” It’s really nice to have an objective trump card that you can throw out with a triumphant “ha!” Ironically, bandying around words like “abomination” are comforting, simply because of the absolute nature of the rhetoric. IFB teachings limit our faith to public spheres– dress, behavior, community, church attendance, how much you “amen, preacher!” during a service, whether or not you show up for “door-knocking” evangelization nights, and a whole host of other things.

But what I realized, slowly, is that if I am to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, it can only be just that. Personal. Subjective. Different. Unique. Relative.

Photo by Hartwig