When I post a review recommending a film that includes harsh language, I almost always hear from somebody somewhere who is aghast that I, a Christian film reviewer, would approve of anything that includes profanity…

This week, I get to argue my case at ChristianityTodayMovies.com.

Much of my reply is a distillation of a great conversation that was published earlier at CT. You can go back and read through that article here.

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2013 UPDATE: Somehow, the article has disappeared from the Christianity Today Archives, so I am restoring it here in its entirety.


Ask the Experts

by Jeffrey Overstreet
posted 05/21/04

Q: I’m surprised to see that Christianity Today Movies sometimes gives good reviews to movies that have lots of profanity. How can you justify that?

A: Foul language, like murder, pride, jealousy, and other sinful behavior, is part of the reality of our world. People do these things. Art reflects our world, and thus responsible artists will sometimes reflect the flaws of our world. Some of these flaws may be troubling, but that does not mean the artist has done something wrong. They may be merely reflecting the real world honestly.

Imagine what the Bible would be like if it did not portray people committing adultery, lying, stealing, speaking harshly with each other, betraying each other, murdering each other. Just because bad behavior is portrayed in a story does not mean that such behavior is beingcondoned. We must weigh carefully whether we think such behavior is being recommended or merely reflected.

Paul exhorts us to avoid letting “any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths” (Eph. 4:29). This includes gossip, self-righteous put-downs and condescension, arrogance, and prideful talk. We should not speak this way. I don’t think this means we should never listen to such talk. If so, then we must turn off almost every program on television, even children’s stories, where characters speak pridefully, arrogantly, and harshly with each other as part of typical storytelling.

I have worked among people who use profanity excessively all of the time. It is the way that many people talk. Instead of running away from those people, I am challenged to listen to them, to understand what they are saying, to have patience with them and to love them. Moreover, I am challenged to be strong and to ask the Lord to help me avoid absorbing their way of talking. Foul language is often used to get the attention of others, to help the speaker express a sense of frustration or powerlessness. I should be able to listen and respond with patience and grace. If I cannot deal with this harsh reality when it is reflected in art, I certainly will not be able to deal with it when someone is shouting at me or speaking harshly in my presence.

Discerning moviegoers should consider these questions when they encounter harsh language in a film:

    1. What does the foul language tell me about the character who is speaking? Why are they speaking that way?
    2. Does the filmmaker want me to admire this character? Or is this merely part of the character’s flawed nature? If a film glorifies bad behavior, we should acknowledge this. We may still do well to pay attention to the film, though, since one character’s language is only a small part of a larger whole which may include meaningful storytelling and moments of revelation. Each viewer must attend to their conscience, and we must not judge each other for our differing choices. Only when a person begins to exhibitthe misbehavior that they encounter should we suggest that they reconsider whether they are strong enough to spend time contemplating such art and entertainment.
    3. Does seeing such behavior lead me to absorb and mimic such behavior? If so, I should avoid this kind of film until I am strong enough in spirit to deflect such harsh realities. Perhaps I should avoid such films entirely.
    4. Children have not yet developed strong filters for separating wise behavior from foolish behavior. Is this film exhibiting behavior that might influence a child? If so, we should protect that child from such material until they are ready, just as we would keep them from a meal in which the fish might contain tiny bones on which they could choke. Furthermore, we should train up children to remove the bones, to be careful about what they watch and resist imitating bad behavior.

If the portrayal of bad behavior is unethical, than we must all quit paying attention to any kind of stories. Shakespeare is full of coarse language. Scripture itself includes foul language, although our English translations have softened some of it. What the New International Version calls “rubbish” was, in earlier translations, a term equivalent to dung. The Apostle Paul, in discussing the accomplishments of the Pharisees, compared such acts to … well … you know what I mean. Indeed, Scripture includes colorful descriptions of some of the most reprehensible behavior in all of history.

Jesus did not demand that those he talked with clean up their act before they approached him. He loved them, listened to them, and went to work on the heart, knowing that was more important than starting in on the surface details.

For more on this issue, read Film Forum’s special panel discussion on the issue of foul language.

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