Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Sin of Omission: Reflections on Censorship and Christian Values

Like Nicolette Bethel over at Blogworld, I am disappointed that the film Amazing Grace is not being shown in the Bahamas. Bethel offers a number of possible reasons as to why it has not shown, including Galleria Cinemas' monopoly over the local commercial theaters or the possibility that the Bahamas Plays and Films Control Board has decided to prohibit the screening of the film. [UPDATE: Bethel has just updated her blog to indicate that Amazing Grace was released only in the U.S. on Feb 23rd, not worldwide as she had originally stated. The film is slated for release in the UK on Mar 23rd, leaving open the possibility that it may still come to the Bahamas. That being said, I believe the major thrust of my argument below is still valid.]

Bethel along with other Bahamian scholars and journalists (see here, here, here, here, and here) have publicly questioned the seemingly inconsistent criteria that the Bahamas Plays and Films Control Board has utilized to determine which films can and cannot be shown in the Bahamas. Likewise, they have expressed concerns about the undue influence of the Bahamas Christian Council and other clergy on the outcome of the Board's decisions. For the most part, I am in agreement with their conclusions.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that it is good public policy to regulate what types of films the public should see and, further, that such regulation should be done on the basis of Christian values (keeping in mind that the precise definition of "Christian values" is a hotly debated issue itself). This, of course, is a position that many--but not all--religious Bahamians would strongly agree with. By taking such a position, we would not be surprised to see strong opposition to films that present morally controversial or theologically heretical (not to mention historically inaccurate) content as was the case in last year's debate over whether or not Brokeback Mountain and the Da Vinci Code should be allowed to show. (Interestingly, the former was banned while the latter--which was considered by many to be a deliberate and scathing attack against Christianity--was permitted to screen). Conversely, we would expect to see strong public support for films that powerfully communicate Christian values and heritage.

But in practice, this rarely happens. Opposition to films that do not measure up to Christian values tends to be selective and we can all readily identify numerous films, apart from the Da Vinci Code, that have been shown despite their dismal failure to meet this one simple criterion. On the other hand, high-profile vocal support for explicitly Christian movies--not to mention secular movies that are consistent with Christian values--has been deafeningly silent. It is this latter point--the lack of support for good Christian movies--that I wish to elaborate on here. Consider, for example, the following five films that—to the best of my knowledge—have never been screened in a Bahamian theater and, most likely, remain unknown to the vast majority of pundits who have eagerly sought to ban other movies deemed to be of "no value to the Bahamian public."

Beyond the Gates of Splendor (2002) – This documentary narrates one of the most compelling missionary stories of the twentieth century, showing how five young American missionaries (Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming, and Ed McCully) were speared to death in 1956 while trying to evangelize the Waodani tribe in the Amazon basin of Ecuador. But the story doesn’t end there. A few years later, Elisabeth Elliot, the wife of one of the men, and Rachel Saint, the sister of another, went to live with the Waodani and successfully evangelized their tribe. Decades later, Steve Saint, the son of one of the slain missionaries was reconciled with the Waodani man who killed his father and, as a result, moved his family to Ecuador to live with the Waodani and continue the ministry started by his aunt Rachel.

Mart Green, the producer of Beyond the Gates, also made a feature film version of the same story, which was released as End of the Spear (2006). The film is not overtly evangelistic but instead strongly emphasizes the themes of truth, love, and forgiveness. Christianity Today reports that the cinematography was even of sufficiently high quality to receive “measured praise from the mainstream press,” which is rare for a Christian film. Both of these films won awards at the Heartland Film Festival and Beyond the Gates also won an award at the Palm Beach International Film Festival (see here and here). Naturally, one would expect that both of these films should be of great interest in a country that is making increasingly significant contributions to the global church.

Luther (2003) – This film explores the life of Martin Luther, the sixteenth century priest who spearheaded the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s legacy is not just limited to the history of the western church. His life and work significantly impacted other areas of European thought, politics, economics, and society, making him a major figure in the history of western civilization, apart from his contributions to the development of Christianity. Even though the Bahamas touts its identity as a Christian nation and, in fact, is predominantly Protestant, I am routinely surprised by the disproportionately large number of students in my church history classes who—when we get to our unit on the Reformation—get confused because they think that I’m talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. instead of Martin Luther. This highly acclaimed award-winning film, of course, does an outstanding job of bringing this important history to a more general audience.

The Second Chance (2006) – Unlike the above movies, which are all based on actual historical events, this award-winning film is purely fictitious. It is about two American pastors—one from a white middle-class suburban mega-church and the other from a poor multi-ethnic inner city congregation—and the conflicts that result when they are forced to work together. It’s a film that demonstrates how Christianity—at its best—is about overcoming our prejudices of race and class and breaking down the barriers between the streets and our sanctuaries. While the film strongly challenges Christians to recommit themselves to these goals, it refuses to downplay the difficulties that one will face when trying to live up to such a vision. Given the growing disconnect between church and society, this is a message that we all need to hear.

Amazing Grace (2006) – Currently playing in theaters around the world, this film shows how William Wilberforce, a member of the British parliament, and John Newton, a former slave trader turned Anglican clergyman, and others teamed up to bring about the end of the Atlantic slave trade in the British empire (1807) and, eventually, slavery itself (1834). Given that this year is the observance of the bicentennial of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and that the Bahamas was one of the primary beneficiaries of this legislation, this seems like an especially timely film as we seek to reflect on what this legacy means for us today.

I have shown (or intend to show) all of the above films in the theology classes that I teach at Atlantic College. And with the exception of Amazing Grace (which, for obvious reasons, I have yet to see), I can personally vouch that these are all films that embody important Christian values and/or document important events in our Christian heritage. Undoubtedly, the astute reader will readily identify additional films that achieve these objectives as well but—for reasons unbeknownst to us—have never been screened in the Bahamas.

If our genuine desire is to promote Christian values and heritage, then perhaps we need to consider how we might go about that task in a more productive way. Instead of seeking to ban movies that are inconsistent with Christian values, perhaps our time and energy would be better spent advocating for films that do reflect our values. In other words, perhaps the Gospel message is best served by clearly articulating the positive things that Christianity is about rather than defining ourselves by the negative things that we are not.

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At Thursday, March 15, 2007 at 6:24:00 PM EST , Blogger Nicolette Bethel said...

Great post, and very instructive.


At Friday, March 16, 2007 at 7:59:00 AM EST , Blogger haitianministries said...

Thanks for stopping by, Nicolette! Glad you enjoyed the post.


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