Looking for a Better Movie

Emily Suzanne Johnson

Today's guest post is by Emily Suzanne Johnson. Emily is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Yale University, currently in residence as a Dissertation Fellow at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. Her dissertation, "Activists, Authors, Apostles: Women's Leadership in the New Christian Right,"examines the careers of nationally prominent evangelical women who contributed to the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s and 1980s. 

"Looking for a good movie? (or at least a better one?)" This is the question that prominently greets visitors to Focus on the Family's movie review website, Plugged In. The site seeks to be a resource for conservative Christians who want to consume mainstream popular culture, but who want to do so safely, with limited exposure to the vulgarities that lurk therein. As such it is also a extraordinarily rich resource for anyone who wants to better understand contemporary conservative Christians' complicated relationship with American mass media.

Plugged In began in the late 1990s as a monthly magazine published by Focus on the Family, intended to provide its conservative Christian readership with reviews of films through “a biblical worldview filter.” The print version ceased publication in 2008, but Plugged In lives on in the form of a website, a mobile app, and weekly radio podcasts. In addition to movie reviews, it now offers reviews of music, television, and video games – everything from Robin Thicke to Final Fantasy in both English- and Spanish-language versions.

The site's name invokes the ambivalence of the mandate to "be in the world but not of the world" - a mantra drawn from 1 John 2:15-17, which Christian groups have interpreted in any number of ways, from the complete rejection of technologies deemed too modern, to the creation of alternative cultural products like the "God's Girlz" dolls that Laura Leibman discussed on this blog last month. Indeed, one of the most important trends in twentieth-century American evangelicalism has been the flourishing of conservative Christian subcultures - from reinterpreted romance novels to praise-band punk rock. And while “evangelicals” and “fundamentalists” are notoriously difficult groups to pin down, these subcultural phenomena have helped to draw together far-flung conservative Christians into imagined communities and common causes.

Yet Plugged In reminds us that even as these subcultures have expanded into nearly every corner of Christian cultural life, conservative believers continue to consume – and to want to consume – Hollywood movies and network television, albeit with certain caveats in mind. Plugged In throws those caveats into stark relief.

One of the great things about Plugged In reviews, for earnest readers and interloping scholars alike, is their consistent organization around particular core concerns. Every movie review includes – between a standard introduction and conclusion – subsections on the film’s “positive elements,” “spiritual content,” “sexual content,” “violent content,” “crude or profane language,” “drug and alcohol content,” and “other negative elements.” These divisions offer an evocative look into readers’ major anxieties about mainstream American media. In particular, the imbalance of categories leaning heavily toward “negative” rather than “positive” elements highlights the overarching trepidation and sense of alienation that undergirds the service.   

Perhaps most interesting is the category of “spiritual content” – poised between the single section on “positive content” and the roster of troubling elements that follows. It is notable that there is no categorical distinction here between right religious practice and any other kind of spiritual or religious content, although the text within the section typically makes these distinctions clear. Indeed, this section has recently housed references ranging from the appearance of the archangel Michael in I, Frankenstein to “echoes of Revelation and John Milton” in Thor: The Dark World to the references to ancient Egyptian polytheism in Mr. Peabody and Sherman.

The newly released Son of God provides an unusual opportunity for a lengthy theological discussion, on the ramifications of leaving the devil out of this latest messianic biopic. And it stands in sharp contrast to the “spiritual content” section of the review for Non-Stop – released the same weekend – which consists of a single sentence, on the appearance of a Muslim character. Neither movie is precisely representative, but Non-Stop is closer to typical than Son of God in this regard. Indeed, a survey of the “spiritual content” section in recent movie reviews clarifies the decision not to include separate categories for “good” and “bad” religion. Not only would this be potentially complicated – as the reviewer’s ambivalence about the devil’s absence in Son of God shows – but there is simply not enough “spiritual content” to go around. Perhaps more than anything that is included in the lists of sex, violence, and vulgarity that follow, this absence is essential for understanding contemporary conservative Christians’ relationship to mainstream mass culture. In debates over Harry Potter and school prayer alike, the problem for conservative Christians is not only what is included, but also the values and assumptions that are not.

Each of the five categories that follow this section describe unambiguously negative content from the perspective of these reviewers. In each of these sections, details are minutely enumerated.

In the above-mentioned Liam Neeson vehicle Non-Stop, for example, Plugged In reviewers note under “drug and alcohol content” that one character smokes and drinks throughout the film; another has a mixed drink, a small bottle of liquor, and a large Scotch; and still another attempts to smuggle cocaine. The section on “violent content” details a neck-snapping, two poisonings, three shootings, several beatings, a slashing, and an explosion. And for “crude or profane language,” Non-Stop’s single “f-word,” half-dozen “s-words,” and dozen misuses of Jesus’s and God’s names (six times “combined with d--n") pale in comparison the Oscar-Nominated Wolf of Wall Street’s literally hundreds of enumerated swear words and blasphemies. 

This careful cataloging raises some interesting points, beyond the obvious logistical question of how one keeps track of every drink, every obscene gesture, and every off-color word. (And here I must note that I am truly impressed by this feat). Although the purpose of this service is to shield readers – and to help readers shield their children – from unsavory content, the condensed lists provided in Plugged In reviews necessarily draw more attention to this content than the films themselves do. 

Yet this paradox is probably unavoidable, not least because of the diversity of political, moral, and theological perspectives represented by the Focus on the Family constituency. Though I have been talking so far here about “conservative Christians” as a reasonably cohesive group, any scholar of American Protestantism knows that this is a nebulous community marked by significant denominational, demographic, and even political diversity. So while nearly all Plugged In readers would likely be offended by the bacchanalian displays of the Wolf of Wall Street (indeed, the reviewer of this film wondered openly in his concluding remarks why readers were still reading), perspectives on Non-Stop are harder to predict. While Plugged In editors make certain assumptions about shared concerns and beliefs among their target audience, they do not seek to act as a straightforward ecclesiastical or cultural authority. Rather than providing clear “do’s” and “don’ts,” Plugged In reviews provide readers with all of the information that they need to make their own choices about these media.

The carefully detailed work of Plugged In reviewers offers insight into conservative Christian's anxieties about mainstream mass media, but it also highlights the multiple perspectives that coexist within this broad community. Across reviews, different writers evince divergent and sometimes surprising viewpoints. (Most notable lately was the tongue-in-cheek but remarkably laudatory contention of one reviewer that Thor: The Dark World “is all about delivering quality universal health care.”) The structure of the reviews highlights the shared concerns of this imagined community, as well as an overarching assumption that mainstream media will not have their values in mind. However, the tone of the service and the inclusion of paradoxically explicit detail also reveal the nebulous nature of cultural regulation in a community unbound by a single religious authority. For scholars of the religious right, whether focused on the movement’s past or its present, this website offers a helpful reminder of what it means to study a community that is at once so significant and so difficult to neatly define.


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