Some friends recently asked what my criteria are for choosing movies. As I discussed with them the ins and outs of the question, I realised that much of what we were discussing also applied to books. In no particular order, here is my answer:
What influences your decision to choose a particular book or movie?
1. Availability, obviously. As a ‘professional’, ‘visionary’, or ‘stay-at-home’ daughter I don’t have a regular income and thus there are lots of books I’d like, but can’t get my hands on; whereas I read many of the books that float my way for whatever reason. So first of all, I’m only going to read books or see movies that are available to me.
2. Reputation or importance of the book or movie. There are a lot of books and movies that are OK, and there are more that are worth reading, but one only has a limited amount of time. So—is the book or movie important to the culture? What has its impact been? How have its ideas or imagery permeated our culture in the past—or do its ideas and imagery need to permeate our culture for the future? Is this one of the great books, one of the great novels, one of the great movies of our civilization? If so, I’m likely to want to read it (or see it).
3. Content of the book or movie. Is there stuff in this book or movie that is defiling or corrupting? Am I going to end up saying, “I will never un-see that”? I mean this in the most basic and obvious sense. Is the content pornographic, or does it revel in excesses of graphic violence? Does it include bad words? Now I am not an obsessive counter of h—s, d---s, and worse; they are words I will use correctly (if there is a correct way of using them); but I don’t desire to normalise their misuse in my reading, my thoughts, or my speech.
4. Technical excellence (or absence thereof), in both the story itself and the way the story is presented. Technical excellence is good in itself and pleasing to God. In the way the story is presented, this means writing style and imagery; or in a movie, dialogue, camerawork, acting, special effects, score, &c. Now of course we all know that a story with a terrible worldview can be presented in a very alluring way through use of highly accomplished story presentation. (We twenty-first centuryites are very good at discerning good technical skills in a movie, because we’ve seen so many of them, but the next person who says, “Admittedly, Dan Brown is an excellent writer” should be locked in a room for about a century with a collection of the canon of Western literature in audiobook form constantly playing over the PA system.) But in addition, technical excellence in the story itself—its structure, the arc of its characters through creation, fall, redemption, and glorification—will go far to making the story itself a good one. Because stories naturally echo the pattern of redemptive history, it takes a lot of denaturing to wholly exclude redemptive themes from a competently-constructed story. They are based on God’s perfect plan for history, and so they will be degraded by fallen human touch. But the better they are constructed, the more honouring they will be to God. And the more the author tries to leach them of the themes of redemptive history, the less honouring they will be to God. There is a direct correlation between the technical excellence of a story’s structure and its moral excellence.
5. Worldview of the book or movie. What’s its message? I have read thousands of books and seen hundreds of movies, and I rarely (if ever) come across one I totally agree with (and even given the possibility of error in my own thinking, it’s unlikely that the ones I totally agree with are totally correct, themselves). So, does the book or movie tell you to believe in yourself, to find the strength you need within yourself? Or does it tell you to find that strength in the grace of God? Does it tell you to follow your heart and your own desires, or does it tell you to give up your dreams for the service of others? Does it tell you that truth is what you choose it to be, or that there is ultimate meaning? Does it exist purely in order to disturb, shock, and horrify, or does it exist in order to encourage, uplift, and beautify? In other words, is the movie preaching a message that is good, true, and beautiful, or is it preaching evil, lies, and ugliness? There is an absolute, objective standard for these things and all authors and filmmakers are called to adhere to it—and readers and viewers are called to discern it. For this purpose I actually recommend that you read as many books as possible, in order to become discerning. Don’t simply say to yourself, “Oh, look, the book has redemptive themes! The heroine sacrifices herself for her little sister in the second chapter!”—and then allow that to justify all the awful things the heroine does from then on. After all, as we’ve already seen, all halfway competent stories must mirror redemptive history.
6. Purpose of seeing the book or movie. So, are you viewing a movie in order to decide whether it would be suitable for your family to see together? I’ve done this with many, many books and movies; because beyond a certain point, one must decide for himself and let the story speak for itself. Or, perhaps you are watching a movie you know to have a false worldview—perhaps it promotes New Age humanism, like Star Wars, or existentialism, like Batman Begins, or postmodern agnosticism, like the stories of Jorge Luis Borges. These are all outstanding examples of the storytelling of each of these worldviews, and can be extremely helpful in learning how a false worldview is usually presented in art and literature. Finally, perhaps you are simply watching the movie or reading the book for relaxation and recreation. That’s fine too. Stories are designed to rebuild and refocus and relax us. They are designed to feed, and even stories with faulty worldviews can do this, because (like food) stories are basically nutritious: it takes a lot of denaturing to remove all nutrition from a loaf of bread (although this has nearly been accomplished in the white sandwich loaf and in the movies of Michael Bay). This mental nutrition, however, should never be mistaken for sleep! This is the only category in which I make an absolute pronouncement for my and others’ conduct, and that absolute pronouncement is this: Never, ever read a book or watch a movie with a blank and undiscerning mind. Always be diligent in discerning worldview, both the evil and the good.
To conclude, there is no clear line between Books Nobody Should Read and Books Everybody Should Read. A book or move may contain good things and bad things: one's job is to discern those things and make a wise decision about whether the bad outweighs the good to the point that it is not worth partaking of, or whether the good outweighs the bad in such a way that the book or movie may be profitable. In addition, one's purpose may call for viewing a bad movie or reading a bad book for the purpose of discerning its bad points. But, as Douglas Wilson has pointed out, there comes a point where discernment has been gained, and the book or movie should be turfed.