This past weekend, Focus On the Family’s media outlet sent a representative to watch and review a wildly successful, wildly inappropriate movie. I shall henceforth refer to this movie as Nifty Blades of Hay (adapted from the wildly successful and inappropriate novel of the same name). If you have any idea what I’m talking about, you will understand exactly why I’m not even calling this toxic cult phenomenon by its real name. If you don’t, that’s just fine too. I really have no interest whatsoever in discussing this movie. I am interested in the fact that Focus On the Family chose to review it, and I’m interested in the considerable backlash from other Christians and Christian ministries that they’ve incurred as a result. Especially since the Christian film critic who wrote the review has become a friendly acquaintance of mine over the last few months.
Without going into any details, suffice it to say that this particular movie probably shouldn’t even have qualified for an “R” rating—by which I mean “R” is too soft. The abusive relationship that it chronicles is that vile and twisted. It may not be marketed and sold as “a p*rn film” in so many words, but that’s essentially what it is, in the guise of a Valentine’s Day blockbuster. So, naturally, some fans of Focus on the Family preemptively wrote and urged its “Plugged In” reviewers not to bother informing us that this movie is Bad. Even those of us who have striven mightily to avoid reading about it have managed to piece that much together. Wrote one concerned follower, “I’m fairly confident anyone who visits this website will not be interested in seeing the film, and I am troubled at the thought of sending one of your employees to go see it.”
But Plugged In disagreed. In a blog post written before the review went up, editor Paul Asay explained that he believed it was his duty to see and review this film. He begins with an uncomfortable but sobering fact: Not only are a lot of Christians very interested in reading about this thing, but some of them are even buying the tickets.
Paul goes on to share some statistics about the amount of traffic they’ve gotten on pieces related to the book and the film. They don’t lie. Many readers, it seems, do want to hear what Focus on the Family has to say about this cultural juggernaut. Paul writes that “the culture, including Christian culture, is deeply curious about [Nifty Blades]—not necessarily a prurient interest, but a deep-seated desire to understand why this book and now movie, which would seem to cater to a small subset, has become such a phenomenon.”
I am not one of those people. I have no desire to understand anything better about this book or film, including why other people are obsessed with it. I agree with another blogger, who wrote, “Why is the Christian populous even thinking about it? Why do they even know what [‘Nifty Blades of Hay’] is? Why do Christian leaders even have to tell us not to watch it—shouldn’t it be obvious?” But Paul’s argument is that if Plugged In is to live up to its mission statement of “shining a light on the world of popular entertainment,” then they have to say something about everything popular, no matter how vile. This includes not only movies but TV shows and music as well.
I have to say, it’s a job I don’t envy. And on the whole, I’ve been pleased with how Plugged In handles deeply problematic cultural trends. I can see how they could be a particularly valuable aid to Christian parents who are sending their kids to public school. Unfortunately, many Christian kids are still picking up vile things by osmosis from their friends and from the surrounding culture, and disengaged parents will only perpetuate the disaster. I’m saying this as someone who grew up in a very sheltered atmosphere where tools like Plugged In were unnecessary. Just because my own parents never needed it doesn’t mean other parents don’t. So I want to begin by sincerely applauding Plugged In’s work. What’s more, I applaud their view of it as an unpleasant job that somebody has to do. There is a subset of Christianity, which I shall dub “hipster Christianity,” that views outlets like Plugged In with contempt. The idea of parsing out inappropriate content and giving numerical estimates of swear words is just laughable to them. Not to me. I respect what reviewers like Paul Asay do, and I understand that his motivation is not an arrogant one.
And yet, here he is, coming under fire from Plugged In’s own readers. The question is, if even one person reads Paul’s review and makes a wiser choice, does that make it worth sending Paul to see and review this movie? As a matter of fact, they’ve already received a thank-you note from a woman who sent the review to a (married, Christian) friend, persuading her not to go see it with some unsaved friends. My takeaway from this is that many people think a lot less about watching movies than I do. Again, I did not grow up in an atmosphere where it was taken for granted that one sometimes just goes off to “see a movie” with friends, without caring too much about what the movie is. Yet apparently, this married, Christian woman was prepared to do just that until the Plugged In reader pointed her to this review. I find this mind-boggling, but there it is.
Still, I truly am sorry that Paul felt compelled to see this movie. Ultimately, I don’t believe it was his duty to do so, and I find his reasoning to be very flawed. In the post linked above, he calls himself a “watchman on the wall” and compares his work to the work of missionaries. This is a terrible analogy. Missionaries bring light where other people can’t or won’t go. The people they minister to may not hear it from anyone else. But when it comes to the latest pop culture phenomenon, we can learn far more than we ever wanted to know about it with a simple Google search. I mean shoot, even Dave Barry has a column about how awful the book is (which actually manages to be rather funny, in its inimitable Dave Barry way, but should also make it abundantly obvious that this thing is garbage). Focus on the Family is not personally responsible for the souls of people who are mindlessly consuming pop culture because all their friends are doing it. I can understand their desire to shine a light on pop culture, but when it comes to something that is this bad for your soul, a simple “We’re staying far away, and you should too” can and should suffice.
I am also perplexed by a follow-up post Paul wrote on his personal Patheos spot, where he said that watching the film caused him to feel compassion for the lost souls of the two main characters. He writes that instead of replaying the most lurid, abusive scenes in his mind on the way home, he was thinking about the characters’ general emotional brokenness. While he hastens to add that this doesn’t come close to redeeming the movie, or making him glad he saw it, he argues that he still needed to watch it all the way through to bring out that point in his review. And he hopes that maybe “someone feeling pretty broken himself” will find the review and benefit from it, somehow.
That’s a pretty nebulous hope to be setting against the concrete fact that a Christian movie reviewer just added an essentially p*rnographic movie to the furniture of his mind. And in fact, while he says he wasn’t thinking about the most lurid scenes, the scene he chooses in that post to showcase the characters’ “brokenness” is still incredibly disturbing and quite frankly not worth thinking about at all. I think Asay is partly justifying his choice to himself with the reasoning that he’s strong enough in his faith, marriage, etc. to withstand it spiritually, so the sacrifice is worth it to help someone who might be on spiritually shakier ground. But I regard the darkening of his mind as an evil and a tragedy in itself, even if it doesn’t throw his eternal destination into question.
I’m not going to join the chorus of people saying that Paul Asay is going to Hell for reviewing this movie, or that Focus on the Family is jumping the shark. And the fact that at least one person was aided by the review is both alarming and encouraging. But I’m still very disappointed by this decision. I’m glad somebody is out there going through the culture’s junk for parents and other people looking for streamlined guidance… to a point. Beyond that point, I don’t think any Christian has an obligation to go. In fact, I would say they have an obligation not to. And if there is someone out there so monumentally clueless that they need a Plugged In review to stop them from seeing something like this, that is their problem, not Plugged In’s.