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Volume 14, Issue 2: Childer

Children and the Movies

Douglas Wilson

It used to be possible to say that a child's formal schooling was—after the influence of the child's parents—the most important formative influence in the life of that child. But I have come to the conviction that in most instances, formal schooling has dropped to third place. Parents still occupy first, if for no other reason than for what influences they allow to follow after them. But in most cases that second place has been taken up by pop culture.

In referring to the effects of pop culture, I mean all the influence exercised by top-40 radio, CDs, movies, videos, book crazes like Harry Potter, television shows, fashion crazes, athletic fads, and so on. Children may be taken to church, educated in a Christian school or homeschooled, but the gaseous nature of pop culture still makes it possible for it to fill up every available crack. From that position, filling every void, pop culture exercises an enormously destructive influence. But it does not do this automatically. The destructiveness always requires a certain kind of naive simplicity on the part of the victims.
Let us consider just one aspect of this—children and the movies. If parents are grounded in certain basic principles, they can ensure that their children learn to acquire those same principles. But if the parents are not so grounded, or they refuse to apply what they know as they teach their children, then those children are going to be discipled by the culture of reprobates.
The first principle concerns discrimination and the amount of movie-watching. The natural tendency of "much movie-watching" is to blur and smudge the mind. It is always difficult to smell the atmosphere you breath. If you grow up near the railway, you can't hear the trains. Now it is not necessary to smell the atmosphere you breathe, provided it is healthy. But if you live downwind of the paper mill, the fact that you can't smell anything anymore is not a good sign. In order to maintain perspective about movies, it is necessary that children be unable to say that in movies, they live and move and have their being.
As our children were growing up, one of the house rules was that there was to be no video (television or movies) on school nights at all. An occasional show or movie was permissible on the weekends. It is important that children grow up being aghast at the fellow in line at the video store with a stack of ten for "tonight and tomorrow."
A corollary of this is that parents should discourage in their children the desire to watch "a movie, any movie." A movie should be seen because there are good a priori reasons for wanting to watch it, and not because the adolescent viewer has a need to be watching something. Mom asks, "Why do you need to get a movie?" "I'm bored." Such an one should clean the garage.
A second principle is closely related, and that is a humility of mind which does not reject centuries of sanctified nervousness out of hand. Parents should recognize that the historic Christian church has had a long (although not unbroken) tradition of nervousness over drama, theater, and all such kindred arts. From the early church fathers on down, "plays" have consistently been regarded with strong suspicion. With the Reformers Martin Bucer and Theodore Beza, I do believe such an across-the-board rejection is misguided. But at the same time, because I want to respect my fathers in the faith, I want to honor the heart of their concern, which is legitimate. Paraphrasing Chesterton, some errors are too ancient to be patronized. If I were in an debate with John Chrysostom about the corrosive effects of "theater," the overwhelming majority of young people I know who are into movies would supply his case with a good deal more evidence than they would mine. This second principle is simply that the burden of proof lies with the one who calls loudly for entertainment—will this also be edifying? Is it pure? Noble? Lovely?
The application of this in the home works this way—worldview thinking in this whole area has to be positive, not negative. In other words, most parents get turned around backwards in discussions with their children about this. Let us say that the parents have said, "We do not want you to go with your friends to see Stupid in Seattle." The kid then asks, naturally, "Why not?" and the burden of proof is now on the parents to show why they have made the prohibition, and so off they go to to count the hells and damns. But the inculcation of a biblical worldview means that children should be taught to do everything they do as Christians, and they should be required to interact with their world intelligently as Christians. So let us say that they were allowed to go to see Stupid in Seattle. When they return, they are asked, "How was it?" The natural answer invariably comes back—it was not unacceptable. But parents should not be content with this. They should want to hear from their children a distinctively Christian review of it—something more than what they could get from a review in Time or Newsweek. If the kids cannot do this, they are not to be trusted to watch any movies by themselves, not even Bambi Among the Smurfs. And when a question about the next movie arises, the parents should say they are making no claims about the movie; the concern is that their children do not yet view or review movies like thinking Christians. The issue is not any alleged "evil" of the director and producer, but rather the lack of wisdom in the teen-aged viewer.
Someone who can't handle a handgun shouldn't walk across the city at two in the morning with $500 in his wallet.

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