I was reading last night in a book about movies and T.V., and I heard the argument again that we cannot necessarily criticize explicit content on the silver screen without also criticizing much of the Bible’s content. After all, doesn’t the Bible include all kinds of R-rated material? I mean the story of Cain and Abel is only four chapters into the long book, and already a guy is murdering his brother out of jealous rage and lying about it.
And things only go downhill from there. We have drunken sexual encounters (Noah and Ham), incest (Lot and his daughters), mob violence (Sodom and Gomorrah), prostitution and incest at once (Judah and Tamar), brutal city-wide murder after forced circumcision (Dinah, Shechem, and Jacob’s sons), wars, deception, lies, idolatry, betrayal, execution, and I could go on and on–and that’s just in the book of Genesis! Don’t even get me started on the content of Song of Solomon, Ezekiel’s visions, the book of Esther, or the book of Judges. Wouldn’t any of these stories be R-rated if it hit the screen?
Medium Shapes the Message.
We first have to admit that books and screens are two totally different mediums. Consider this illustration. This summer I began reading through the Harry Potter series for the first time. As I read the pages of the book, I couldn’t help but picture Daniel Radcliffe. Why? Because J.K. Rowling said that her character looked just like Daniel Radcliffe? No, it was because I had seen some of the Harry Potter films before reading the books. My wife, on the other hand, has been a Harry Potter fanatic since she was in middle school. She bought and read the books long before any movies came out. Was she picturing Daniel Radcliffe when she read about Potter’s triumphs and challenges? Of course not.
Books ignite our imagination. Words on a page give our mind material to fashion and create fleeting images in our minds. When we hear or read a story, we the listeners are given the opportunity to picture and imagine using our own creativity.
A movie is different. Unlike words on a page, images on a screen override our imagination. The story is told using pictures. We no longer imagine how Professor Dumbledore might have sounded. We no longer picture the scowl on Professor Snape’s face every time he sees Potter. Our imagination sits passively disengaged as the images on the screen supply all of these visual details.
The Bible operates in the realm of words and imagination, a medium that is quite different from the realm of images.
It’s Not What You Say, But How You Say It.
The second thing we have to recognize is the distinction between form and content. Media are types of form. But even within a distinct media there are different forms. Take writing, for example. The Bible itself contains poetry, prose, prophecy, prayers, psalms, and many other different forms.
Content, as I’m going to define it, is the basic events being narrated by a story. Many times, what makes a thing explicit is not the content but the form. There is a difference between saying, “Sarah slept with Johnny,” and, “Sarah and Johnny began to undress each other, kissing one another’s bare skin as things began to get steamy, and Sarah’s hand reached for…(you get the picture).” Both of these statements narrate the same content, the same basic event. However, one narrates the event with restraint and the other with a sense of voyeurism.
When it comes to determining how explicit a story really is, many times it boils down to how it is told, not what is told.
Don’t Get It Twisted.
The authors of Scripture–especially in the Old Testament–are the kings of understatement. They leave so much to the inference and imagination of the reader. Yes there are events like the slaying of Eglon where the sword’s penetration into his immense belly is narrated in every gory detail. Yes there is harsh speech like Paul’s in Galatians 5:12–“I wish those who are troubling you would cut the whole thing off!” But how often do these come around? In an R-rated movie, nearly every scene is littered with obscene language and offensive images. Is this how the writers of Scripture typically narrate their stories? (Indeed, the scarcity of such gory details indicates to us that the rare inclusion of these details is not for mere entertainment purposes but for the furthering of some plot or theme in the story.)
As profound philosopher Timbaland once said, “Don’t get it twisted, baby girl.” The Bible is not like an R-rated movie. The Bible is written in a medium that allows for imagination and creativity, while movies override our visual imaginations. The Bible exercises restraint and nuance when narrating events that are violent, sexual, or wicked, while most R-rated movies depict sex acts and violence with little creativity or restraint.
One last note: After reading Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative, I came to realize that biblical narrative is primarily dialogue driven. The most important parts of Old Testament stories take place when characters are speaking. This adds a whole other wrinkle in comparing movies and the Bible, since movies these days are a lot of visual images and a lot less script.