18 March 2011

Absolute Purity and Entertainment

I taught Huckleberry Finn in one of my classes this year, and at one point asked my students how they determine whether or not entertainment is "good" or "bad". Being the wonderfully conservative creatures that they are, most of them repeated lessons they've learned (I'm sure) from their parents and from well-meaning Sunday School teachers who insist that one bad part of a movie ruins the entire thing.

We've all had the lesson. Someone bakes brownies with a bit extra salt. Someone serves ice-cream with mud instead of chocolate sauce. The point of the lesson is to prove to us that if there's an ounce of wickedness in something, then it's evil and needs to be shunned.

I've always hated this lesson. I think it's a terrible way to teach what they're really trying to teach, which is that we need to keep our thoughts pure, and viewing things that aren't pure (heedless of context) is frustrating to me for three main reasons:

1. First, it's a little too easy for people to say that there is absolute evil in the world and absolute good and not acknowledge the grey. OR, they acknowledge the grey and then discount it, too, as not worthy. This becomes a problem when you consider. . .

2. That the majority of people and what they create and how they live on this earth lives in that grey area. I've never met a person that wasn't flawed. I've also never met anyone so wicked that I couldn't find at least something good in them. Maybe I'm sheltered. Maybe I'm naive. But I doubt it: people aren't all good or all bad. And if we teach our youth to treat entertainment that way (don't watch it unless it's 100% free of anything that might in any way taint your thoughts), then how do they end up treating other human beings? Well, at the extreme, like the former students of a friend of mine who end up believing - truly, honestly believing - that there are people on this earth that are not worthy to be with them. I find that rather tragic. In fact, it goes very harshly against the values that the Savior set for us.

3. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I am infinitely more offended by trite, boring, cheap "clean" entertainment (books, movies, TV) than I am by entertainment that earns it. I mean the kind of stories generally produced by a large number of LDS Filmmakers or playwrights or authors. I mean books that emotionally manipulate or films that don't honestly earn the story they try to tell. I find those stories more offensive because they cheapen the beliefs I have fought so hard to earn and to maintain. I find them frustrating because they scratch the surface of human existence. Not that every movie with violence or swearing or sex is good by comparison - that's not at all what I'm trying to say. What I mean, ultimately, is this:

The brownie/ice cream metaphor is not completely without merit. It just needs some tweaking. The dirt brownies only apply to entertainment (or people) where there is an extreme that can't be ignored or associated with. Pornography. Mass murderers. These are things that just can't have any place at all in the brownie without ruining it completely. The better metaphor is this. Ingredients like baking powder or flour or salt or even chocolate and eggs all belong in a brownie. They are all good ingredients. But they need to be used well, and in appropriate amounts, and with appropriate context to be understood correctly and appreciated.

The King's Speech, for example, has a scene in which King George VI lets loose a string of F-words that is quite long. The movie is rated R because of it - but not because of anything else (except incidental drinking, I suppose). Many people would see the rating or hear about the language and absolutely turn it down just because it exists. What they don't take into account is the context of the scene (therapy), or the context of the man (George VI is not a swearing man) or the context of the language itself (it isn't used crassly or insultingly or crudely - they're just words.)

Ultimately, I suppose what I really mean to say is that I have a very hard time understanding how people of faith, particularly those of LDS faith, can honestly allow themselves to be sheltered conveniently away, content with everything they have, when the foundation of our church was built on the power of a single question (and continued to expand because of more questions.) If we are not a people willing to question, to learn, and to grow from everything around us - even those things that are not absolutely pure - then we are holding ourselves hostage to acquiring knowledge. We would do well to remember that the glory of God is intelligence - and we have a responsibility to acquire it.


Brad and Kimberly said...

I guess it is just like dieting... you have to ask yourself if it is worth the calories. I am sure there are great "R" rated movies that have really good messages, but for me they aren't worth the calories. A racy broadway play, or maybe a questionable book is more worth it to me. I think the point of the brownie lesson is to keep us from justifying or rationalizing everything. But I agree, we can't let the absolutes transfer to our relationships with people.

Sarah Moeck said...

I really think you have been READING my mind lately. Adam and I were talking about this last night- and how we want to raise our son. (Mostly because someone condemned us for watching Green Mile.) I had a teacher at BYU who talked about how in the strength of youth pamphlet they don't even print "no r rated movies" anymore because you cant be a film major- even at BYU- without having to dip into something R. We need to know our own limits of what we can tolerate or not, and like everything, and like Kim said with calories- some of the good has to be taken with the bad.

Me said...

Kim - I am a little curious about why you rank movies and books/plays differently?

Sarah - I promise I'm not TRYING to read your mind, but if I am, I hope I'm doing a decent enough job of it to not feel intrusive :). And yes, I agree - the MPAA is a very small group of people not associated with the church at all, and I don't like basing my film-watching on the standards that they decide. Because, really, there are some disgusting/racy/cheap movies rated G-PG-PG13 that are much more offensive to me because they waste my time. But maybe I'm just a snob . . .