PG People in an R-rated World

At the beginning of the Iraq war, I heard an American military analyst on CNN talking about how young American troops had a major advantage over their enemy due to the fact that most of them grew up playing video games. He went on to say that training time for pilots and drivers had been drastically reduced since most of the military machinery (fighter jets, tanks, etc.) had been outfitted with interfaces and controls that mimicked the those of video games. I thought that was interesting. It also makes me glad that Japan is an ally- those kids play video games in their sleep!

I wonder about that element of desensitization, too. You know, when a kid sees however many thousand acts of violence on TV before he reaches the age of twelve, it’s bound to make him flinch less when he sees people being shot. From a parent’s perspective, this is an outrage. From a military strategist’s point of view, however, it can actually be a good thing. It means that your soldiers aren’t going to be distracted from the job they’ve been assigned to by the violence it requires. Of you’ve seen it in “Saving Private Ryan” and “blackhawk Down,” you’re going to expect it in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Which brings me to the meeting we had the other day. Our leadership team was going over the information we use in training new personnel before they come to the field. One of the hardest things about preparing folks before they come is getting them ready for the postmodern Western European worldview. We assign books like Stan Grenz’s “A Primer on Postmodern” that teach about postmodernism, and we have them check out websites like Andrew Jones’ blog. But we still have people come over who have no concept of life beyond their modern rational worldview. So I put together a list of movies that do a good job of showing postmodernism as we seen it in Western Europe. The list included movies such as Fight Club, American Beauty, and Vanilla Sky. Oddly enough, almost all of the films on my list came out between 1999 and 2001. Unfortunately, all of them are rated R.

Even though there are many films that do a great job of illustrating postmodernism, we will not be sending this list of movies to new personnel. There is no way we can even suggest, much less assign, an R-rated movie as preparation and training material for new missionaries. The reasons, I think, are obvious.

I think there is value in studying the culture and those things that influence it. What if we could get our people used to European culture before they got here? The problem, of course, is that so much of the culture is defined by it’s sin. There is value in being exposed to the relativism, anti-consumerism, and cynicism that define this culture. But how can we expose ourselves to those attitudes without sitting through the foul language, sex, and violence that usually accompany them?

On the one hand, I want to say, “Watch the movie. Life and ministry in Europe (and the States, for that matter) requires that we be exposed to things that are not God-honoring. If you’re going to be offended by lost people doing lost people things, how are you going to spend time with them? That’s what the spiritual armor is for.” But on the other hand, I would say, “We’re surrounded by sin. We see it every day. What good can come from exposing ourselves to any more of it?”

So the question remains: How can we be PG people and yet minister in an R-rated world? I guess my answer would be that if we equip our people to be in tune with the Holy Spirit and to be students of the culture, we can be incarnational without becoming carnal.

13 thoughts on “PG People in an R-rated World

  1. Hey there -

    Great questions you raise, man. I’ve seen two of the three movies you suggest, and they do portray what is commonly called “postmodernism” pretty accurately (if, of course, we do end up with a definition of the word someday). My struggle is less about being offended by material in these movies, but more about being influenced by them. I’ve always thought that I should keep up with these kinds of movies so I would be able to identify with the emerging worldview. However, its hard to watch American Beauty without being tempted to think about illicit sex. I may be one of the few who struggle with this, but I’m very influenced by the arts. Hence it’s difficult for me – how do I learn about the lost world without being influenced by it too much?

    Sometimes I wonder if my presupposition is wrong. Do I really need to watch these movies to have a handle on emerging worldview? I’m reminded of the trite illustration preachers use about how federal agents are trained to spot conunterfeit currency only by studying the real thing – they never see the funny money in training. Shouls it be the same with us? If Christianity is a religion that assumes absolute truth, then should we spend so much of our time trying to deal with the conterfeit? Should we merely share the truth and trust the Spirit to lead people into the understanding that a “postmodern” worldview (with the absence of absolutes) in illogical and incompatible with the God of the universe?

    I know these are not questions that are easily answered. Nevertheless, these are my struggle and I’d love to hear what others have to say.

  2. Anonymous,
    Thanks for your comment. It’s encouraging to hear from someone else who struggles with studying culture.

    Is it necessary to watch these movies? No. I think it may be helpful, though. I’m not saying we should expose ourselves to sin, I’m saying that it might be beneficial to our ministry if we expose ourselves to the worldview that celebrates that sin. Is Paul quoting popular secular poets in his speech to the philosophers in Acts 17 not like me quoting Fight Club to postmodern students?

    You wonder if we shouldn’t “merely share the truth and trust the Spirit to lead people into the understanding…?” To me, this seems like the opposite of incarnation. The problem is that without some cultural understanding “merely sharing the truth” isn’t possible.

    Though the “postmodern worldview (with the absence of absolutes)” is certainly illogical, I’m not convinced that it is “incompatible with the God of the universe” as you said. I think Christianity is only “a religion that assumes absolute truth” in a modern context.

  3. I’m so glad you didn’t say you can’t spell incarnational without c-a-r-n-a-l. I think we just have to look to Jesus. We are to do what he did in this world. And the simple truth is that he got his hands a lot dirtier than a lot of Christians are comfortable with, yet without sin. Jesus also said it’s not what goes in from the outside that defiles, but what is in the heart. In other words, it’s what is already there. I know Jesus was specifically talking about food going in, but the principle is the same — defilement does not come from outside of us. And thankfully, through Jesus we’ve been washed (cleansed), sanctified, and justified. And Jesus, not ourselves, has become for us righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. (Isn’t it interesting these previous two sentences come from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians!)

    This is why we can be IN the world (getting our hands dirty) without being of the world.

  4. I think it’s going to be difficult to prepare anyone for a different culture by merely reading about it or watching it on TV. I understand the need to have somewhat of a grasp on what kind of culture one will be going into, but nothing can take the place of learning by experience.

    Before going to WE, we, of course, had required reading like “Houses that Change the World” and “Sowing, Reaping, Keeping” which was great to get us thinking about different ways of doing “church.” But no reading could have prepared us for the funny mannerisms, the appropriate ways of conversing, the unspoken expectations of being a neighbor, and the like of our people group.

    For example, we knew the scriptures regarding the sin of homosexuality. We had seen TV shows and movies in which homosexuals were portrayed in stereotypical ways, with stereotypical lifestyles. But we could not have been prepared for one of our best national friends to come out as a homosexual to us (knowing we were Christians it took him a while to trust us for fear of us judging him). But we only did what the Spirit led us to do. We continued to love him. We continued to have him up for tea every day. We threw him a birthday party where he had his first ever birthday cake. We continued to answer his spiritual questions. And by allowing Christ’s love to overflow from us to him, we continued to alter his prejudiced view of how judgemental he thought Christians to be.
    We have to get involved in the world, and when we do, we will witness sin. But we are dead to it:

    “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” (Romans 6: 11-14)

    I believe that as we mature in Christ, we will garner more strength and power from the H.S. to withstand sin. We must pray that the Spirit will guide us in knowing what we can handle.

  5. There is a difference between the classroom and outside. We can struggle with tensions in preparation for the postmodern world(or other contexts). Whether we stuggle with being offended or with being influenced are good questions for the preparation time. However, for me, I think in the end, the stronger questions is: What do I do when I go “outside” into the R-rated world? What do you do when you are not preparing, but you are entering and engaging this world you have prepared for.

    I am not sure who originally came up with the quote, but it has been said if you want to see people come into the Kingdom of God you have to be willing to sit in the smoking section. For me that says a lot. I don’t smoke and as best I can tell it does not offer me any enticement, however, to hang out in a crowded bar or coffee shop, I will undoubtedly be effected by smoke. The intersting thing for me is that over time I have come to miss the smell of smoke, if I am not around it for a while. Not because I want to begin a new, bad habit, but because I miss the honest conversation with someone about their life and the exploration with them of what God has to offer all of us. I share this because I have seen people try to come into the postmodern setting and have real difficulties, because they can’t handle the smoking. I am not talking about physically not being able to handle it, but with their attitude. It kind of says to others, you need to quit smoking before I will even talk to you. I do not believe that attitude will bear anything fruitful.

    However, to look at another reality, a real struggle for me would be going to the beach in a European setting. Where it is normal for beachgoers, in family friendly beach settings, to wear half a bathing suit, what do you do? Of course, Paul’s admontion to “be all things” doesn’t apply. But what do you do? Go, not go? What do you do when people you are getting to know invite you for a day at the beach? What about a “beach ministry?” For me these are real questions.

    I think this is where your answer about being in sink with the Holy Spirit reveals itself as a foundational to one’s life. It is crucial to have that regular, walk-with-Him kind of realtionship. For the person that God has called to stand by the edge of all that sin, things can get distorted real quick, if your vision is clouded. However, I think this is something we should not only equip others in, but constantly encourage and find ways of accountabilty to help new and veteran workers live and work in the R-rated world.

    I think if we are honest, there are areas of our lives where we have greater sin struggles, and perhaps, for a time( or indefintately) the Holy Spirit might guide us into keeping certain areas of the postmodern world at a distance. This may not necesarily say anything about our maturity in Christ, but simply be more honest in who we are and what we can handle.

    ?I’m Thinking?

  6. The postmodern world is not the only context where people “smoke.” There’s as much “smoking” in the modern world as in the “post” modern world.

  7. True. True. That’s why I wrote “(or other contexts).” However, smoking isn’t the only vice that permeates pre-, post- and modern worlds. Sex, violence, etc. exist in all.

    The challenge is not only the facing the “act” itself, but the attitude or perception of that “act.” This I think is where living in the pre-, post- or modern world differs. There is a differnt reality, or way of seeing and thinking about these “acts.” The worldview is different. For example, what the modern world might permit or allow, the postmodern world might see as normal and routine, or a non-issue.

    I agree that defining modern/postmodern, etc. can be difficult to nail down. This may be where the experience factor (of being exposed to both worlds)comes into play to help see the difference.

  8. Amen, bro. The term incarnational, of course, comes from John 1–”the Word made flesh”–and a huge part of being like Christ is leaving our comfort zones to deal with the real world. Jesus hung out with sinners and was criticized for it by the religious leaders of his day. We risk the same criticism, but that is the reality of why we are here. Probably most of us didn’t realize the layers of comfort zones we came from until we got here and didn’t have them any more. Imagine leaving the ultimate comfort zone of heaven to go to 1st century Palestine! We watched movies like The Commitments before we came over. Our delicate sensibilities were a bit offended (and probably would have been more if we could have under more of what they were saying!), but that was and is an accurate reflection of what we have come to and as such, was good preparation. The dark will keep on being the dark until the light comes in. We better be prepared!

  9. Over the weekend my husband and I rented the musical “Rent.” From my drama days, I knew the storyline revolved around a group of bohemians in NYC casting off all cultural restrictions to flaunt homosexuality, drug use, poverty, rebellion and debauchery. I went into the movie knowing this and sure enough, just about every song celebrated some vice. My husband finally left the room when the singers began lauding sexual perversion. But for me, the story was more than about entertainment – it was about seeing a culture that I’ve never experienced. I didn’t watch the film to become desensitized to the sin, but with the intent that if God ever leads me to encounter a drag queen, AIDS patient, drug addict or homosexual that I won’t be so disturbed by the sin that I can’t see the person.

    With each scene I became more bewildered at the obvious loneliness and confusion that the characters were facing. What was even sadder was to realize how desperate each person was to find acceptance and love, and that each time a person went looking for that acceptance there was a pimp or drug dealer or fellow searcher willing to help fill the void.

    I think the key to being exposed to such icky stuff is to look to Jesus’ example. He didn’t go to the parties to kick back a few drinks and blend with the crowd. He went to stand out and to show the fellow revelers that there is a better way to life. That’s what made Him so attractive to the people who were searching for hope and love. Using Jesus’ model, I think it’s ok to watch R-rated movies and even to go to less-than-desirable locations (like bars) if we’re doing so in order to build relationships with the people and lead the searchers to Jesus (rather than to become another searcher ourselves).

  10. Thanks, OverMountains, for your comments. I agree that there’s a lot we can learn if we carefully wade through the “icky stuff.” That said, I also think it’s cool that your husband left the room when he felt he needed to.

    By the way, nobody has answered Anonymous’ question above about going to a beach in Europe. What do you you all think?

  11. Regarding going to beaches in Europe, I beleive we have to acknowledge our own vulnerabilities. Those of us prone to the sin of lust probably ought to avoid that scene. Some of us could go there and not be tempted and find great opportunities for witness. For others, we need to flee that temptation!

  12. I watched Vanilla Sky with my wife on our anniversary a few years…what a total downer it was! I did not retain one shred of it in my memory – I do remember the burger joint we ate at before attending the showing, though. But there again, I guess I’m telling on myself for watching an R-Rated movie, but I AM of legal age…haha! Anyway, I just don’t get how that movie teaches anything at all. Maybe I should watch it again, with design to observe for postmodern ideas?

  13. Dubld,
    I’m sorry you didn’t like Vanilla Sky. I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t recommend it to you ;-)

    I don’t think it teaches about postmodernism, but Vanilla Sky does a goood job of showing it; especially as we find it in Western Europe. It is actually a remake of a successful Spanish movie. You mention that it was a downer. That reflects the postmodern tendency toward cynicism, fatalism, and pessimism.

    The film also plays with the themes of relationships, conciousness, and technology. The real “lesson” is actually in the “plot twist.” Not so much this particular twist, but that the movie even had one. Postmoderns realize that “happily ever after” is a myth and that reality as we know it can change in an instant. I think that’s why the “plot twist” is so popular these days.

    If you didn’t like it the first time around, you probably won’t like it the second time. But I think you’ll find a big difference if you go into a movie intentionally as though you were doing research as opposed to passively, as though you were watching strictly for entertainment. Try another!

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