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July 2, 2009

'Sources of Spiritual Power Are Not in the Cinema'

So says John Piper in a blog post about no TV and rare movie watching

Are pastors more "relevant" when they refer to contemporary movies and/or include clips in their sermons? John Piper, for one, doesn't think. Matter of fact, he suggests that pastors--indeed most of us--should pretty much stay away from movies altogether.

In a recent post at his Desiring God blog, Piper wrote:

"I think relevance in preaching hangs very little on watching movies, and I think that much exposure to sensuality, banality, and God-absent entertainment does more to deaden our capacities for joy in Jesus than it does to make us spiritually powerful in the lives of the living dead. Sources of spiritual power - which are what we desperately need - are not in the cinema. You will not want your biographer to write: Prick him and he bleeds movies."

Piper went on to say, "If you want to be relevant, say, for prostitutes, don't watch a movie with a lot of tumbles in a brothel. Immerse yourself in the gospel, which is tailor-made for prostitutes; then watch Jesus deal with them in the Bible; then go find a prostitute and talk to her. Listen to her, not the movie. Being entertained by sin does not increase compassion for sinners.

"There are, perhaps, a few extraordinary men who can watch action-packed, suspenseful, sexually explicit films and come away more godly. But there are not many. And I am certainly not one of them."

What do you think? Is Piper right? Partly right? Does it "depend on the circumstances"? Weigh in with your opinion in the comments section below, and/or let us know at CT Movies.

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Guys, you may want to edit this article. It should probably say John Piper doesn't think SO. The way it is written right now sound like you are saying he does not think AT ALL.

So, according to Piper, there's only one kind of movie, and only one possible result from watching it because ... we're all alike? And the measuring stick for a preacher's decision to mine films for spiritual content is "What Would My Biographer Say?" Piper needs to get his head on straight and get his heart back in the right place. He might start here: What does Jesus say about the world we're sent into and how we should be in it? What does Jesus say about our similarities and differences? What does Jesus say about seeking praise from our fellow man?

I'm not a fan of Piper's Reformed theology, but I sure appreciate an A-List pastor finally talking about the elephant in the living room of evangelical culture. For years, we have left Jesus on the sidewalk outside the cinema while we ventured into the dark to consume for our amusement R-rated movies that glorify with amoral and immoral passion and impunity the sins that Jesus cried and died for. We choose the dark over the Light.

I know anyone who dared to ask the question, "What would Jesus watch?" would be accused, first, of being trivial and irrelevant. Soon, though, they would be villified and rejected by a Christian culture that is so compromised when it comes to cinema that it no longer considers vicariously enjoying the sins of others to be a sin itself. But the question remains: would I invite Jesus to sit next to me in the dark to be entertained by wickedness and evil that he came to expose by his light?

I reject legalism and Christian law, and it's difficult to know where to draw the lines in a discussion about which movies cross the line, but at least Piper has acknowledged that there should be a line, even if it's a fuzzy one. If it makes some Christians at least stop and think, then that's a step in the right direction to bringing some light into the dark world of cinema.

"Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret." (Eph. 5:11-12)

It's not always easy to be both in the world and not of the world. A far easier approach when it comes to films or television is to either watch nothing or watch everything indiscriminately. For those of us seeking a balanced approach, a reminder of potential spiritual danger can be helpful. (I've appreciated the thoughtful analysis of CT's reviewers in this regard. They probably wouldn't all draw the lines in the same place, but they're thinking about these issues and sharing their reflections with us.)

In Piper's blog post [you should read the whole thing], he mentions a number of different concerns, all of which seem legitimate to me. But I don't think the way he encourages us to deal with these concerns is necessarily the only way, and he doesn't mention any benefits at all to selectively watching films or television. This kind of abstinence may be very helpful for Piper personally, but as a general policy it reminds me of the early 20th century, fundamentalist aversion to any form of art that wasn't explicitly Christian. For the Christian community as a whole, I don't think this is necessarily a healthy, or effective, approach.

If the apostle Paul could quote from a Pagan poet and refer to the spiritual practices of the city he was visiting, maybe there's something to us being cultural observers, at least to some extent. When I read the gospels, I see Jesus meeting the people where they are. How can I know where the people of the culture around me are or the questions they're asking if I never listen to them? And if one way they are speaking (often very loudly) is through film, should I just close my eyes, plug my ears and ignore them? And how can I be supportive of those seeking to express themselves though art from a biblical worldview (even if not overtly "Christian") if I reject everything? Can't we be wary of the dangers Piper writes about, but still familiarize ourselves with what's out there and watch some of it discerningly, reflectively, and even---when appropriate---appreciatively? I know that some of my best conversations with unbelievers were started by discussing some film (or book, or album, etc.). When they know that I'm truly willing to hear them and am trying to understand them, they're much more open to listening to me.

IMO, a more balanced approach is more difficult, requires more frequent correction [and for that I thank Piper], but also has much more potential benefit.

Those who quickly and thoughtlessly write off Piper as being legalistic or old-fashioned are probably the ones who need the warning the most. We all need the reminder--over and over again--to guard ourselves from sin. And we must realize that a movie which left us productively, spiritually, thoughtfully impacted one day, could drag us into sinful thinking the next. That's why it's hard to determine a line; the devil's schemes are more complex than that.

My main concern with the article is that Piper seems to think the only reason a Christian would watch a movie is for A) entertainment or B) relevance.

I agree that, for the the Christian, entertainment should be kept to a minimum, as I just see very few places where it is acceptable for the Christian to "turn off his mind" and amuse himself for a few hours. By all means, it is healthy to relax, and if you choose a movie to relax, it definitely should not be one filled with violence or sexuality. That is when we are most prone to what Piper is speaking of.

Are we watching movies just to be relevant? It's a small part of why I what movies, but it's not all that effective and it takes much more than that to be truly relevant. So I don't want to fool myself, let alone use it as an excuse to watch things I shouldn't.

But what about exercising our minds creatively, in the aesthetics, and enjoying art and beauty as gifts from God? What about seeking out and enjoying those movies--which may at times include some "rated-R" material--that focus on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable? Piper doesn't seem to realize this as a possibility, and I think it just must be the most compelling one. There have been countless times it has provided me with the real joy he often speaks about.

I haven't watched TV since 1959 (to begin with by constraint, then by choice) and see maybe 3 movies a year. When I see glimpses of current prime time TV I see what has happened in 48 years to our culture. If we minimize the impact of media on our spiritual lives and where the culture is leading us, we are a pitiful lot. Its not legalism, its discerning the spirit of the age.

The two areas of Piper's argument that confuse me the most are

a) "sources of spiritual power...are not in the cinema"; and

b) the apparent assertion that television media is, in its entirety, trivial.

The first argument is perhaps more surprising than confusing, because the form it usually takes is not that there are no sources of spiritual power in the cinema, but that there are no GOOD ones. It appears here that Piper is saying both are nonexistent in this setting. He later argues that TV is "deadly" due to its potential (he implies absolute) negative influences on behaviour. The assertion that film media is devoid of spiritual power implies that there is no possibility of any good or evil resulting from watching anything filmed. Again, I find this confusing, not to mention untrue. Unless I am misunderstanding Piper, he seems to have painted himself into a corner, saying that TV is at the same time powerless and destructive, making his argument self-contradictory.

The second argument that I find confusing and contentious is the generalization that TV treats life in a trivial fashion. I'm not even sure there's a response to that - it's the debating equivalent of Pollock chucking a can of paint at a wall. All I can say in response is that this past year I watched two shows (now canceled) that discussed in depth such topics as why it's not possible to find peace through Zen Buddhism ("Life"), the importance of the manner in which we live and end our lives, a thoughtful dissertation on the nature of the soul, and the peculiar struggles and dynamics of the broken family (those last three all courtesy of "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles"). I'm not of the mind that "Terminator" handled any of these serious issues with anything less than thought, gravity, soberness, and respect...but, it's always possible that, in my immaturity, I read too much into a stupid program in order to justify my watching it. (The last half of that sentence is not intended to be sarcastic.)

On a tangent, can anyone link me to a similar argument against reading books? The arguments Piper levels at film media are applicable to print media, but I can't find any such. The ongoing double-standard that books are inherently beneficial and thoughtful, and movies are inherently destructive and mindless, is one that baffles and frustrates me. Anyone who's had a nasty note written about them knows very well that words can be just as destructive as images, if not more so. And, of course, there are countless books in existence that teach heresy and blasphemy.

A cursory search of Piper's website shows him to enjoy both reading and writing, while recognizing some writings as beneficial and others as not - why not apply this same discernment to film? Why is film media as a whole "deadly" because of its potential influences and high time consumption, but not print media as a whole, which is also highly influential and time-consuming? The lacking presence of this argument is not unique to Piper; I haven't yet found anyone who makes it.

Sorry to go off-topic, I've just become very curious and if anyone can provide me links to such a discussion, I'd be grateful.

He's assuming all movies are without redemptive value, and that's not true.

Check out this article about the film I jsut finished working on in this mag:


Most things that are negative, can be swung to just-as-strong positives.

Well, if I had to find one thing that I can agree with Piper on, I guess it will be this one.

I love the movies, but I pretty much hate technology and 'relevance' in the eucharist.

It's late modernism already. By the time the movie ends it's irrelevant. Give me something old in your sermon...maybe even thousands of years old.

Don't be cool. Jesus might spew you out of his mouth.