In Defense Of Dirty

In Defense Of Dirty 150 150 Joy and Matthew Steem

The only reason why I agreed to watch the movie War Room was because my date asked to see it together in theater. Still in the early stages of going out, I wanted to make a good impression before letting loose my angst about Christian movies. Let’s just say, if I had the choice between free tickets to movies like God’s Not Dead or Left Behind and shoveling snow, I probably wouldn’t have to think too hard about it.

I came to this perspective honestly. My family background was of the rated “G” variety. There was never a good reason to go beyond that rating – ever. And as the world progressed, even G became suspect. Best just stick to “Christian” movies. You know, the ones where scriptures are mentioned often, and shirts are buttoned up right to the chin – why risk inciting lustful thoughts, I was told.

Increasingly, I found myself relieved to watch “real” movies when the opportunities arose. “Real” movies that were about the real world and real people who live in it. As time has gone on, I have become increasingly convinced that many of the Christian movies/art/novels I’m acquainted with do an inadequate job of interacting with the culture I live in. Christian productions have a reputation for catering to a subculture: being “safe”; refusing to meaningfully engage in difficult issues; candy-coating things; withdrawing from culture.

Unfortunately, whenever I am informed that some well-meaning Christian has produced a movie, I avoid it like anthrax. Who wants goods so thinly disguised that it would make Victoria’s Secret blush – like at that point … what’s the point! I suppose there is a “point” in there somewhere, but this is most assuredly NOT G rated.

Because of my strong feelings on this, when I am in the position of interacting with a Christian production, I am relieved to hear the word $h!t. Similarly, a little popped skin warms me. I feel this way because now I know the movie will have a better chance of engaging me and my culture. It’s not sanitized; it’s not “safe.”

Enter the recent Canadian-produced movie, She Has a Name. I knew that this movie was Christian, and right away I was perniciously prejudiced. My hint that that the movie had more promise than I had anticipated was at the aforementioned naughty word. (I should mention that the screening was at a notoriously Christian venue.) But then came depictions of real life. And then there were the bar scenes with the poles! I was actually cringing in my faux theatre chair for the sake of some of the older conservative people. Now, granted, the pole scenes were slightly tamer, and the underwear was a tad bit more covering of the essentials, but it was NOT a G rated movie. Later, the producer told me it was rated 14A in some Canadian provinces. (I shook his hand vigorously.)

Based on true events, the movie brings attention to the global issue that there are 2,000,000 individuals who experience exploitation in the sex trafficking industry every year.  The story consists of a rather gangly looking fellow (Giovanni Mocibob) and a quite grizzled and gruff government employee (Deborah Fennelly) who plan to entrap a suave pimp. Said scumbag pimp who owns girls in Thailand is appropriately played by an actor who creates an established air of wickedness (Will Yun Lee). Think way too young girls, and leering looks from the men that any good human would want to fix – as in  “fix” your dog, except minus the anesthetic. Throughout the movie we get to know Number 18, one of the trafficked girls (Teresa Ting). By the end of the movie we learn not only of Number 18’s horrific abuse, but also her humanity. We learn of her dreams, of her childhood, of her personality. We learn that she has a name.

Now, the story itself is not that original: elements of good and bad are shoved in the viewer’s face pretty early on. And with viewers being forearmed with the knowledge that everything is based on true events, the heart strings are pulled with an above-average heft. This movie is not for the faint of heart. It is not a sanitized version of reality. It, like many Biblical stories, deals with the real issues of human life.

Watching this movie challenged me to consider my preconceptions that all “Christian art” is subpar art. Actually, historically speaking, the statement about something being Christian produced is quite dangerous and self-destructive. We know that not that long ago good literature could be most seamlessly Christian. Think of any older literature: Dante, Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, T.S Eliot, C.S Lewis, Tolkien, and these are just the better known authors. These writers never went about making sure that what they wrote was Christian: they, being Christians, just wrote it. Now, however, it seems like many Christians have tried to separate themselves from modern day culture, and have, horrifically, succeeded. Luminous voices like Gregory Wolfe and Andy Crouch, among others, have outlined the destructive effects of cultural withdrawal. Indeed, I am reminded of Wolfe’s appeal to Christian makers,

fear of the imagination…has led many Christians in America to create a subculture with Christian publishers, Christian record labels, and Christian art galleries. The underlying message conveyed by these products is that they are safe; they have the Christian seal of approval. But this is the devil’s bargain: in exchange for safety, these products have given up their imaginative power.

This is exactly what the production team behind She Has a Name has refused to do. They refused to write something safe and sub-imaginative; instead, they wrote something challenging.

My point in all this is not that I like skin, or swearing, but rather that I want so badly for good messages like this to be imbibed by our culture that I smile when I hear and see things “un-sanitized” shown on screen. For certain, there are lines that should not be broken, and I still have that sweet but persistent nagging voice of my mother when I watch or read things, “would Jesus watch that with you?” So no, I don’t think 18+ is something that we should watch – Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ aside – but then the world in which we live isn’t like the Christian bible book store covers: so little skin exposed that the poor women absolutely suffered from vitamin D deficiency. Paul said I will be all things to all people. I don’t think he would have been found dining on the delicacies of cannibal cuisine, but he had no problem eating certain “gentile” foods either.

Erasmus, as an example alongside numerous other Christian humanists, made it an essential part of his life’s work to not only imbibe the “pagan” culture – because it had truths that pointed to the Truth – but also create artistic work that would be broadly appreciated to the culture of his time. He was a moderate whose influence was felt from within the Catholic church during the time of the reformation and onwards. He refused to disengage from culture. Two cheers for Christian movie producers to be brave enough to employ a few dirty words and a bit of realism in order to deliver their message to a waiting world – not just the Christian world, but THE world. Because we all live in it.


Joy and Matthew Steem

Matthew and Joy Steem are passionate about exploring a vibrant spiritual life: a tradition all too frequently perceived, from both inside and out, as drab and bereft of true joy. Since obtaining grad degrees in the humanities, they have contributed to Off the Page (a ministry of Our Daily Bread), Relief Journal: Art and Faith Unbound, Mythlore, White Gulls & Wild Birds: Essays on C.S. Lewis Inklings and Friends & Thomas Merton (St Macrina press), Converge Magazine, Clarion: A journal of Spirituality and Justice, and Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics.

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