Saturday, August 16, 2008

Comedy Movies and Christian Ethics

I recently walked out of a movie. I hate paying to see a movie at the theater and then not being able to watch the movie all the way through. If the movie has bad acting, I usually try to look for something entertaining about the movie. However last night the movie was absolutely horrible. Kym, I and some friends went to see Tropic Thunder. The movie attempted at (and for some succeeded) making humor out homosexual sex, heterosexual sex functions, mental retardation, and death and destruction. In this post I want to explore the idea of ethical norms for comedy.

I want to say, up front, that I have not always acted with integrity when it comes to comedy. I have often found myself laughing at something that is rather base. Sometimes in my life I have justified my ability to laugh under some concept of pseudo-Christian freedom. I recently went to a church planting conference that was very missional (in the contemporary sense of the term). At the conference one of the speakers made a joke that none of the people at the conference watched The Office because we are all Christians here. He made clear that it was only a joke and that in fact he did watch the office. Many of those who fall into the contemporary reformed missional movement ( which, I think I am apart of that, but I don't really care either way) are often reacting to socially constructed ethic norms of evangelicalism that do not find their basis in scripture. This gentlemen, that spoke at the conference, was simply making a joke within that missional context. It is a danger to be too ethically constructive (I like this term better that legalistic because legalistic gives the impression that one cares about the objective forensic code) when dealing with particular issues. However, on the opposite side of the coin, is the danger of moral apathy. I would guess, rough guess, that the latter is more prevalent within my generation. Therefore, I want to think aloud about ethics and movies, with particular reference to comedy.

It is at this point that I will consider a common objection to ethics and comedy. Perhaps some one reading this has already thought this objection out while reading that I thought Tropic Thunder was not right for the Christian to watch. This objection would go something like this, "but it is only comedy!" or it might be urged, in a slightly more sophisticated way, "comedy has a particular license that allows it not to be held so tightly under moral constraint."

Now for the Christian, who takes the Bible seriously as his/her ethical norms this is quite easily refuted. Consider Ephesians 5:4 Paul writes, "Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving." Now it is important that we take seriously the command. This passage obviously places certain limitations, ethical speaking, on comedy. There are certain jokes that the Christian has no right to make nor find funny.

When we read scripture we have to, before applying in to our particular circumstance, read it with the authors original intent. It seems that the adjective "crude" in verse 4 refers to sexual jokes. I takes this from the emphasis found in surrounding verses, verse 3 and 5. Paul says in verse 3 that sexual immorality should not be instantiated among the Ephesian church. He also says in verse 5 that sexual immorality will result in eternal damnation. Instead of sexual immorality being funny we should see it as that which leads to damnation. It is something not funny but rather grotesque.

Now concerning jokes about mental retardation. I too, though I am ashamed to admit, have found such jokes funny and amusing. When I was an elementary school kid I would call those who I did not like a retard. In the early days of my college I had some friends that did an impression of mentally retarded people. I laughed. Every one I knew laughed. However, I think, upon reflection, that was inappropriate and wrong to do. Now it is quite clear to me that there is no biblical passage that says, "You shall not make fun of those who are mentally retarded." However, Christian ethical theory is not so impotent as to be limited to specific commands. There are biblical principals that can be applied to present situations. To know right and wrong, a person has to be equiped with at least three things; a.) bible knowledge (thus its principals) which supplies the Christian ethicist with his/her ethical norms b.) cognitive ability or existential apprehension ( I like both terms, yet they can roughly refer to the same thing, for a fuller illustration of what that broadly means see Plantinga and especially John Frame) and c.) an understanding of the situation that the Christian finds himself or herself in. Without all three perspectives the Christian lacks the ability to make ethical statements in every day life.

Now back to the issue of jokes regarding mental retardation. It is simply wrong because it betrays the law of love. We are called to love one another and build each other up (1 Thess 5:11 and Jas 2:8). We are also called to be compassionate and kind (Col 3:12). By taking delight in a persons weakness one is not being loving, compassionate nor kind. When a person makes jokes about mentally retarded people they are taking delight in that persons weakness. Moreover, that person is not having compassion or empathy for the broken hopes that the parent of the retarded person may have had while pregnant. May God grant me forgiveness for my sins and compassion for others.

Written by Stephen Stanford


Jeff said...

What kind of "ethical norms" were you expecting in a rated R movie?

SS&SG said...

While R rated movies can certainly be terrible. I think that some movies with an R rating are justified to watch. For instance, if we turned the OT into a movie, it would certainly be R-rated. So I usually do not pay as much attention to the rating. However, I should have payed attention to the reasoning behind the rating. I think they usually give a reason for the rating. I did not check. I have indeed learned a valuable lesson.

Jeff said...

I'm certainly not arguing against R rated movies - I like plenty of R rated movies.

I'm just surprised that you were surprised that an R rated comedy with this poster and this preview didn't fall in line with your Christian comedy ethics.

SS&SG said...

I guess my ability (and my friends ability) to interpret that poster and that preview (although I did not see the preview)are not as good as yours are. Perhaps you should not be surprised that I am not at ethically mature as you are, since we do not know each other. But, He who began the work of grace in me will see it through....

Jeff said...

When did I say I was ethically mature? I wasn't condemning you going to that movie, I was just trying to say "it's 'Tropic Thunder', seriously, what did you expect."

SS&SG said...

Ok, here is what I expected. I expected a movie about a guy that could not get out of character no matter the situation he is in. Another guy that was unsure of his own abilities. And a bunch of actors that thought they were making a movie and that their enemies were other actors when in reality their enemies were real enemies. Sounds amusing to me. However, they decided to dump their vulgarities in their movie. That violates scripture. Could they have made the movie funny and not been so vulger... yes. That is what I expected. said...

Thanks for this posting! I'm a parent of a child born with disabilities. (and of course, when I was younger I've been guilty of more than my fair share of "retard" humor/humiliation.)

Obviously, I too have repented from my evil actions of taking joy in others' weaknesses. I also appreciate your comment, "broken hopes that the parent of the retarded person may have had while pregnant."

I personally know what you mean by that sentence, but I do think you should "unpack" it. Mainly, because it would be beneficial to everyone. While we were expecting Junior, we had no idea until after he was born that he was diagnosed with Down Syndrome & Cerebral Palsy. We thank the Lord, for the peace we found through searching His Word and the theology of our pastors through that very difficult time.