Objectionable Elements in Books and Film

Christians vary widely in what they consider objectionable material.

On one side are those who don’t restrict themselves from reading or watching just about anything. Any suggestion that some material might not be appropriate is met with accusations of legalism and censorship.

On the other side are those who, if they applied their preferences to everything they read, would not even be able to read their Bibles.

Most of us are somewhere in-between.

The difficulty is that the Bible doesn’t give us specifics such as: these words are okay, these words are not, these words are tolerable up to three times. Only this amount of skin is acceptable. These sins are okay to read about, but these are off limits.

So we have to draw from other truths and principles in the Bible. But we have to make sure we’re not pulling one thread and disregarding others.

Some would immediately go to Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” A great verse. Our mental health would be much better if we followed this verse.

But is this verse saying we can’t watch war movies? Or murder mysteries? Or any book that has sexual sin in it?

The Bible contains a great deal of violence. Here are just a few samples:

And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out (Judges 3:21-22).

At that time Menahem sacked Tiphsah and all who were in it and its territory from Tirzah on, because they did not open it to him. Therefore he sacked it, and he ripped open all the women in it who were pregnant (1 Kings 15:15).

So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia (Revelation 14:19-20).

The Bible tells us about sexual sin. Judah visited a prostitute, which was bad enough; but then he discovered she was his daughter-in-law. Amnon was guilty of both rape and incest when he assaulted his half-sister, Tamar. David called for the wife of Uriah, one of his mighty men, while Uriah was away in a battle. After committing adultery, impregnating Bathsheba, then trying to cover the whole affair up, David had Uriah put in the hottest part of the battle so he would be killed. Then David married Bathsheba. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.

And the Bible shows us an array of deception, injustice, and just about every kind of sin imaginable.

Some might say, there you go. All of this is in the Bible, so it’s okay to watch or read it in other venues.

Well, before we jump to that conclusion, we have a couple of things to consider.

The Bible is honest in reporting people’s sins because none of us is without sin. This honest acknowledgment of sin shows our need for a Savior.

But no sin in the Bible is there gratuitously, just for scintillation and excitement. Only the bare minimum of details is given to convey what happened. When sin is portrayed, it’s shown as wrong.

God often cites violence as one reason for His judgment. Have you ever noticed, for instance, that one reason for Noah’s flood was that “the earth was filled with violence”? (Genesis 6:9-14).

We don’t see details of David and Bathsheba or Amnon and Tamar in the bedroom. The warnings against the “strange woman” of Proverbs are enough to show her danger but not enough to cause one to lust just from hearing about her.

So just because a sin is cited in the Bible doesn’t mean it is okay. If you read the whole counsel of God, you see what He thinks about each one.

But because people do sin, the Bible tells us about it.

I heard someone say once that they didn’t read a certain book because two characters committed adultery.

Personally, I would not toss a book or movie just because there was adultery or murder in it. It would depend on how it was handled. Is the author presenting the sin as okay or wrong? Are there disturbing details that put negative images in my head? Is the need for forgiveness and redemption shown?

I don’t really care for books or shows where adultery is the main story arc. However, I have read books that show the devastating effects of adultery on the wife and children who were left behind in a broken marriage. I’ve read some that showed the hard work needed to come to a place of forgiveness. And I have seen redemptive stories where the broken couple worked through their issues and the marriage was restored. These things happen to real people in our world today. They can help us empathize with what people in such situations go through.

And the same could be said of most other sins in literature or shows. A murder mystery is more about figuring out the puzzle of “whodunnit” rather than glorifying murder. Most portray murder and violence as wrong: the whole purpose of the plot is finding the offender so he or she can be brought to justice. But there are shows and books that play up the violent part of such a story, seeming to delight in the gore or the perverted thinking of the perpetrator.

After the success of the 1985 film version of Anne of Green Gables, starring Megan Follows, a TV series called Road to Avonlea aired based on some other books of L. M. Montgomery. A friend was telling someone how much she enjoyed the series, when her companion said she didn’t watch it because of some characters’ tendency to gossip. I did not see the series. I know from reading many of L.M.M.’s books that gossip was a besetting sin of many characters in her stories. But gossip wasn’t presented as admirable or acceptable. In fact, innocent characters suffered due to gossip. So whether or not the author spelled out the wrongness of gossip, she showed it. On the other hand, if watching this program caused this woman to be tempted to gossip or to think lightly of it, then she was right in avoiding the show.

1 Corinthians 10:6 says, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” Paul then warns against the practices of some in the OT: idolatry, sexual immorality, putting God to the test, and grumbling (funny, but we don’t see people objecting to the latter in modern literature). Then he says in verse 11, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” Just as the Bible teaches from both good and bad examples, so can stories in film or literature.

So how do we determine what’s acceptable or not in reading or viewing? How the wrong is handled is one factor. Is it written in a way to glorify the wrong, giving more details than necessary, showing no consequences? Does it cause me to sin in watching or reading? This is my objection to “steamy” scenes even in Christian fiction, not to mention secular works. Even if I can discern between right and wrong in the work, does the wrong lure me or put wrong words or images or desires in my head?

These principles guide me as well:

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up (1 Corinthians 10:23).

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12).

If a show or book is tearing me down rather than building me up or bringing me under the power of wrong, I need to step away from it.

Another guideline is conscience. Conscience is not a perfect guide and needs to be trained by the Word of God. But we shouldn’t ignore conscience lest it become seared or numbed.

Of course, this topic could be expanded exponentially. We haven’t even touched on wrong philosophies. Reading the Bible and other books helps us develop discernment. But we don’t have to restrict our reading to what we agree with. We read everything with Christian eyes even if what we’re reading isn’t Christian. We evaluate as we go along. But if I sense a wrong philosophy is filtering into my thinking, it might be time to pull back.

Though I’ve been discussing secular books and shows, these same principles guide in Christian viewing and reading as well. Once I picked up a book aimed at helping teen guys battle lust. I scanned the first few pages to see whether I might bring the book home for my then-teen boys. But then I put the book back down. I felt if they didn’t have a problem with lust before they started, they would before they finished. The authors were way too explicit in describing the kinds of problems and situations they wanted to counsel guys to avoid.

These are some of the guidelines I use in evaluating what to watch or listen to. What are some of yours?


I’m thankful to Dr. Ronald Horton, chair of the English department of my college when I was there and my Literary Criticism teacher, for a lecture on this topic when I was a student. What he taught formed the foundation of my thinking. Some years later, his lecture was turned into a booklet and sold in the university bookstore. When I was about 3/4 of the way through this post, I decided to see if he had posted his notes online anywhere. I found them here on A Biblical Approach to Objectionable Elements in a chapter from a larger volume titled Christian Education: Its Mandate and Mission. If you’re interested and have time, this is an excellent read. He goes into a lot more detail and nuance than I can here. 

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

Booking Through Thursday: Objectionable Elements

btt  button Booking Through Thursday is a weekly meme which poses a question or a thought for participants to discuss centering on the subject of books or reading.

Today’s question is:

How do you feel about explicit detail in your reading? Whether language, sex, violence, situations and so on … does it bother you? Faze you at all? Or do you just read everything without it bothering you?

I do not like explicit detail in my reading and try to avoid it.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand there has to be a “bad guy” or something wrong in order to have a plot. I know there is adultery and violence in the real world. But we don’t need explicit detail.

Any war story is going to have some degree of violence, but I don’t need details about eyes bulging out or blood spattering or whatever that are there just to titillate or disgust or increase the gore factor. Ditto for sexuality. As one friend once said, sex is not a spectator sport.

Since I am a Christian, I take my cues from the Bible. The story of David and Bathsheba tells us all we need to know of their tryst, but there is nothing in the description that would cause arousal in the reader.

Language is a bit harder. For the most part I avoid profanity or taking God’s name in my reading because I don’t want to fill my mind with it and increase the chances that those words are going to filter into my thoughts and possibly come out of my mouth in an unguarded moment. But if I were going to try to eliminate them completely, I’d have to unfriend some of my relatives on Facebook. 🙂 There are a few “damns” even in some of the classics (like The Brothers Karamazov, which I am reading, or rather listening to now). I think sometimes a story can transcend those elements (like Unbroken), but I’d still rather they weren’t there. A character can be shown to be a profane character without giving us the full brunt of his profane mouth.

In fact, I think it takes much more talented writing to show a profane character or a violent or sexual scene without explicit detail. In one of the most violent scenes I have seen on film, nothing was shown but the victim’s feet. A bit of restraint and leaving some details up to the reader’s imagination are far more effective.

To weigh in on this week’s question or read other responses, go here.

See also:

The language of Christians.
YA Censorship.