I spent Part 1 of my series on sexuality in movies trying to reframe the ongoing debate over depictions of sex in media. Rather than delve into whether a specific movie is worthy of our attention, I think it’s worth looking at why these debates unfold as they do.
It’s no surprise that the Puritans gave us the modern framework for these debates. But Christian distrust of the arts goes all way back to Tertullian in the year 197. In De Spectaculis, Tertullian writes:
You shall not enter circus or theatre, you shall not look on combat or show.
This quote, more than any of Paul’s admonishments in the Bible, is the one that launched social conservatism as we know it. And it’s interesting how we managed to retain the spirit of Tertullan’s warning while ignoring the fact that the “clean” alternatives American Christians condone (football, violent movies) fit Tertullian’s description far better than a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street does. The point here is that even today’s most conservative Christians find nuance within Tertullian’s statement and make more exceptions than he would have.
So how did we go from Tertullian to the Puritans? First, it’s important to note that the Puritans viewed the Catholic Church as corrupt papists. They were offended by the aesthetic excess of Catholic churches, as well as Rome’s embracement of Renaissance Art that glorified the human form. The Puritan view of the arts – which wasn’t quite as morose as you might think- functioned as a reaction to Rome by embracing minimalism. Puritans felt the need to “justify” their creative outlets by channeling them as expressions of faith (like writing psalms or reverent poetry). If you go back to the comments section of the Trevin Wax post that inspired this series, note how many commenters follow the Puritan argument that time spent away from God’s Word is time wasted.
So the American mentality towards the arts is actually a deep-rooted reaction towards the perceived creative excesses that the Catholic Church fostered. In addition to simple clothing and churches, the Puritan aesthetic also manifested itself in bans against graven images and depictions of the human form. It’s no accident that landscapes became so popular in America; outside of family portraits, depicting people in art was frowned upon.
Make no mistake, the root issue that the believer faces is not the evil of the sinful content of drama, but the form of drama itself. In opposition to that evil the believer must look to the Word of God for direction and protection. By evaluating the form of drama in the light of Scripture and the Three Forms of Unity the believer discovers that drama is an evil which must be forsaken.
At first their main problem with theater wasn’t sexual content or subject matter. It was the belief that to act in a play is to deliberately lie. The actor portraying Romeo wasn’t really a lovesick man in love with a girl (whose part – like all womens’ roles – was usually played by a male actor). The actor portraying Macbeth wasn’t really a king. The whole show was based on actors intentionally deceiving the audience, and the audience reveling in the actors’ sins.
This wasn’t just a mild debate. Pious Christians rioted, ransacked, and drove out actors whenever anyone attempted to open a theater or put on a play. The war against plays was in many ways the first culture war, and it established the blueprint we still go by.
So how did the theater finally gain footing? Through church services. It was one of the the first artistic truces between church and art in our history, and it foreshadowed the church’s pattern of declaring new art forms Satanic until they found ways to utilize them for spiritual purposes. And it happened because church attendance was in decline (yes, even in the 19th century, people backslid on attending church). A small number of pastors broke the hardline stance against theater and invited actors to perform morality plays that fit with the morning sermon. The plays were a hit, so the spirit of the free market overtook the spirit of Tertullian, and slowly but surely pastors stopped fighting against theaters.
The irony with our current debate over sex in media is that the church introduced the scandalous elements to our entertainment media. To compete with one another, some churches raised the stakes with more explicit themes. There wasn’t nudity of course, but adultery became the central topic of church plays rather than something that was vaguely hinted at.
Tracts went in the same direction. The first graphic depictions of murder and sex in American literature were written for longform tracts designed as a bait and switch to titillate readers, only to admonish them to stay away from such temptations and repent. As people grew bored with the tracts, the writers made them more salacious. The intent was to keep readers focused on the sinfulness of such behaviors. Eventually the envelope had been pushed too far and the church backed out of morality tales, unleashing them to secular culture.
My point is that the debate about whether The Wolf Of Wall Street is acceptable viewing fare should be seen as a continuation of the centuries-long distrust American Protestants have held towards the arts. And if you take that long view, it’s easy to see that a century from now Christians will probably be a little less neurotic about sex in movies than we are now.
I can understand it if some Christians view this as a validation of the slippery slope argument. And to a degree, it is. But the problem is, as Tertullian illustrates, no matter how selective modern Christians portray themselves to be, they are much more lax in their entertainment choices than early Christians were. At a certain point they stand their own ground and see grays where Tertullian didn’t, and justify things they enjoy for no deeper reason than the fact that they enjoy it. They might put a Christianese spin on it, but it’s no different than the Christianese spin fans of Martin Scorcese movies use. Many of these these same strict Christians attend churches filled with Satanic rock music, graven images of Christ, and uncovered heads. They choose to ignore these things because they’ve accepted them as cultural norms, and therefore quite reasonable and even pleasant. They choose to battle over The Wolf of Wall Street but look the other way on football.
So I arrive at basically the same ambivalent place Trevin did, although I suspect that I’m much more willing to unapologetically embrace a director’s artistic vision. But this is an issue that Christians must figure out on their own. If Martin Scorcese’s movies lead you to temptation, by all means avoid them. The costs are greater than the gains, and you won’t be able to appreciate them if you can’t move beyond the sex or the violence. But history shows us that anyone making an emphatically declaration of what is or isn’t acceptable entertainment winds up reflecting the mores of their time rather than any universal guidelines.