Uncategorized — September 24, 2011 8:47 AM

An Open Letter to “Plugged In” Magazine

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Dear sirs and madams,

First off, I want to say I’m a longtime reader.

I went to a Christian elementary school and they used to have your magazines in the library.  Maybe my memory has re-colorized the visuals from my past, but I seem to remember they were always printed in sepia tones.  All the boys in my grade used to get together and read your movie reviews, which catalogued in precise and clinical detail every violent or sexual act depicted onscreen in any given film.  This carried on until our librarian (who would go through books on the Holocaust with a sharpie to blacken out the private parts of the nude victims in the photographs, apparently convinced that nudity would be worse for our psyches than genocide) realized what we were doing and stopped shelving your stuff.


Luckily, I discovered the Internet not long afterwards.

As I matured (well, grew older, at any rate), my interests and attention wandered, as is wont to happen at that stage of life, and my devotion to reading you wavered, as did my faith.  By the grace of God, somehow I wandered back into faith, and one of my first projects was to immerse myself in apologetics, since they were what had hooked me back into the Christian creed and I wanted to use them to hook everyone else, too.  I soon learned that one of the best ways to capture a person’s heart is through their imagination, so I went back to your site to learn how culture, in its arts and entertainment, revealed the state of the North American soul.  Since then, I’ve checked your website with a certain frequency almost every Thursday or Friday to check out the new roster of movie reviews, and I don’t expect this will change any time soon.

So let me start off with a compliment.  You probably influenced me a lot more than I realized, or maybe even realize now.  I’m one of those people who can’t just relax with a summer blockbuster or a trashy detective novel without being constantly alert to what worldviews are being propagated, or at least assumed, by the creators.  You were my introduction to and initial, informal training in critical analysis (along with the compilations of Roger Ebert reviews I read as a pubescent film critic wannabe), and the stuff that today resonates with me in the work of Northrop Frye, Leland Ryken, and Joseph Pearce probably makes this impression on me because you prepared the soil for them.

And I have to say that I still really enjoy a lot of your reviews.  You guys have some great writers working for you, and you are very good at discerning exactly what philosophies are implicit in the products of Hollywood and Nashville.  Christians sometimes seem so desperate for any acknowledgment from the movie industry, for example, that they’ll accept with delight any positive Christian role model or stray Biblical allusion, and it’s refreshing to see you guys challenge the assumptions of seemingly pro-faith movies like Signs or The Fighting Temptations.  Keep it up, because we need such discernment.


On the other hand…

A lot of what I read on your website these days frankly disturbs me as a Christian who’s concerned about the condition both of secular and of church culture.  There are times when I fear that what you do might even be (God forgive me if I accuse you unjustly) harmful for the cause of Christ.  I will explain why I think this and pray that you will receive this in the spirit it comes from.


“Pro-Social Content”

One of the things you seem very concerned with is what Martin Luther called “civil righteousness”, that is to say, being a “good person” by the world’s standards.  For example, your music reviews always open by discussing an album’s “pro-social content”.  You also frequently praise movies for promoting loyalty, friendship, and various other cardinal virtues.  I guess your intention here is to applaud artists for encouraging responsible, ethical behaviour.  That is to say, for encouraging their audience to be good people.


This really troubles me.


Not only is it perfectly possible for someone to die without Christ all while being a perfectly good citizen who loves their children, shovels their neighbour’s snow, pays their taxes, and enjoys John Tesh, but it may even be that such a person is even less likely to repent of their sins simply because they are much better at convincing themselves that they have no sin to repent of.  This is such a predominant theme in the Gospels that proof-texting almost seems redundant, but one obvious example is the parable of the marriage supper thrown by the king, where we find that the respectable people–the obvious candidates to be in the company of royalty–were too busy with their commendable secular endeavours to attend.  The king instead summons the dregs of society to his supper, “both good and bad” (Matthew 22:10), “the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind” (Luke 14:21).

Let us remember that, in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, nothing the Pharisee said about himself was wrong, and everything he said was potentially praiseworthy; but the publican had no illusions about his own morality because he had nothing to fall back on except the grace of God (Luke 18:9-14), and thus Jesus announces, explaining why He and His disciples dined with people of notorious lifestyles, “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick…I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:12-13).  So far from praising respectable, “good” people, the example of Christ is to shatter this sort of comfortable socially-acceptable goodness and reveal it all to be…well, a term that will be discussed later in this letter.


“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets….”

With this in mind, consider your treatment of Eminem and Marilyn Manson.

Around the turn of the century, when these two were at their respective peaks in terms of popularity, you went after them with a vengeance.  Pro-social content?  Often, they had “absolutely none”.  All they did was describe vile and hideous things, assaulting the youth of America with their filth.  The artists themselves were described in vituperative terms: Manson was ”spiritually oppressive, socially irresponsible and downright hateful”, while Marshall Mathers was ”short two sandwiches, chips, a thermos, plastic-ware-and the basket” of being a picnic basket.  They were basically destroying America with their trash, and you couldn’t cluck at them disapprovingly enough.

Now, that both these men fill their lyrics with repulsive language and imagery, I won’t for a second deny, nor will I defend them for it; on the other hand, one thing I consistently noticed in your reviews was a lack of compassion for these men.  No one can get to a state where they’ll describe their family being raped and murdered with glee without being a tragic, broken figure desperately in need of salvation, and yet rather than respond by reaching out to him (as the Christian rapper KJ-52 did) or by questioning where this pain came from and imploring families to pray for him, all you did was denounce him in terms that would make middle-class parents shudder and feel good about themselves for not having any interest in such dreck, all while their suburban-bred teenagers were drawn to such albums for reasons you never bothered to even speculate about, as if perhaps the same problems that produced men like Eminem and Manson were still present in their own homes and schools.

And this, in fact, is what Eminem and Manson were writing about: The increasing commercialization of everything, including religion.  The hostile environments at school.  The basic vapidness of the American dream.  I submit Eminem’s song “Who Knew” from The Marshall Mathers LP, a breathtakingly honest album which consistently gets voted one of the greatest ever, as evidence (“[You] told me that my tape taught ‘em to swear/What about the make-up you allow your twelve-year-old daughter to wear?/So tell me that your son doesn’t know any cuss words/When his bus driver’s screaming at him..?”)  You described this as him “whin[ing] about being a scapegoat for teen violence” rather than an indictment of a glibly psuedo-Christian culture with a great, yawning emptiness behind a carnival of phoniness.

I am terribly afraid that this is the sort of attitude that would leave the poor and the maimed out in the highways and by-ways because of how unsuitably dressed they are for a wedding.

I am reminded of a Flannery O’Connor story called “A Circle in the Fire”.  The story depicts a seemingly pious woman who in fact (a la Satan’s accusation of Job) really only “loves” God because of her material blessings; and she particularly idolizes her farmland.  When three rogueish teenaged boys wander onto her farm, she offers them a cold sort of hospitality, but is constantly warning them to be careful lest their cigarettes burn down her precious woods.  It becomes clear as the story goes on that she really has no human kindness or compassion for these boys, and they finally lash out at her by doing precisely that.  Interestingly, throughout the story, O’Connor continually comments that the woods seem to be holding back the sky, which appears to be trying to break through them, and when they finally go up in flames, it is like the sun–a familiar symbol in O’Connor’s imagery for God–has conquered the trees.  The final line compares the three boys, the three shifty, coarse, unruly and disobedient ruffians to the three Hebrew prophets who were protected from Nebuchadnezzar’s fire by the angel.  They were thrown there, recall, for not engaging in idolatry.

I can’t help but compare many artists you condemn to those three boys.  Sure, they may not be polite, God-fearing choir boys, but they also see through the insincerity that churches have thrown at them and won’t kneel to the Ba’als that Christians so often conflate with God Himself.  Maybe we should heed the words of such unlikely prophets more often.


“O wretched man that I am!…”

And this leads me to maybe my biggest problem with the reviews I read in your magazine, which in turn are part of an even wider problem I have with Evangelical culture in general: It presents a Christianity which, in my view, is utterly unprepared to deal with the real world.  What I mean by this is that it demands of people a belief that simply doesn’t accord with their own nature or their experience of reality.

Take, for example, the album Along Came a Spider by Alice Cooper, whom you describe as a “professed Christian”.  (Kerry Livgren of Kansas gets labelled a “committed Christian” because his lyrics are really happy.)  This is a concept album about a serial killer who calls himself the Spider setting out to kill eight women, wrap their bodies in silk, and cut off a leg from each of them; thus the Spider can be actualized.  But the Spider, in fact, is the voice in the head of an embittered ex-convict named Steven, and when he falls in love with one of his potential victims and lets her be “The One That Got Away”, there is briefly a fission between him and the murderous impulses within him, though they quickly overtake him.  Finally, Steven is brought to repentence and turns to Christ (“Salvation”), and the album concludes with Steven in a prison cell for 25 years haunted by the Spider, who whispers mockery and temptation in his ear (“I am the Spider”).

Your review was elegant enough: “The point of all this?  It’s hard to say.”

Now, if the album had ended on the song “Salvation”, the point would have been obvious to you: Jesus forgives us of our sin and heals us of our past.  But because it ends with the much more ambivalent “I am the Spider”, it somehow becomes confusing.

This is what I mean when I say the popular Evangelical brand of Christianity isn’t prepared to deal with the real world.

Alice Cooper is an alcoholic–a successful recovery, due largely to his own conversion to Christianity, but an alcoholic all the same, one who works with struggling addicts.  I have no doubt that the monkey of alcoholism is on his back to this day, continually whispering temptations at him, and no matter how devout he is, that isn’t going to change.  I think Steven’s final fate is a picture of this: Imprisoned forever with a demon constantly challenging your commitment to Christ.  The ending of the story, as far as this world is concerned, is rarely completely happy, and had Cooper depicted Steven utterly conquering the Spider, I think he would be untrue to his own experience and, indeed, making a false presentation of what it means to be a Christian to the world.  And yet, as grim as the album’s conclusion appears, Steven never gives in to the harassment and abuse of his psychological cellmate; he remains quietly committed to Christ right to the end, and we can project onwards to what will happen in eternity.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s an awesome ending.

Of course, it doesn’t exactly fall neatly within the framework of “pro-social content”.  But, then, Christian rock, in its early years, rarely conformed neatly to the framework of “pro-social content”.  Larry Norman often ran into trouble with Christians for his frank discussion of life without Christ (“you’ve got gonhorrea on Valentine’s Day/and you’re still looking for the perfect lay…”) to the point where some considered his album So Long Ago the Garden a repudiation of his faith.  Daniel Amos was similarly blunt, and their concept album Songs of the Heart, about a traditional (“respectable”) couple’s conversion to Christianity on a road trip, was only slightly less ambiguous than Alice Cooper’s suspense-thriller storytelling.  Bob Dylan’s work during his “born-again” phase was still protest music, though it protested the protestors just as much as the Establishment.  Even Keith Green, a transparently reverent musician if ever there was one, was willing to defy some of the Finneyite theology he’d been taught which demanded perfection of a Christian life by writing a song based on “Romans 7″.

This was when Christian music was still respected, by both the mainstream world and by Christians; but now “Christian music” is generally expected to reflect only one aspect of the Christian experience, the part where everything obviously gels together and makes sense (in other words, an extremely slender portion of the believer’s life).  Documentary filmmaker David Di Sabatino writes in his article “Why I Would Follow Bono Into Hell”, “U2 has made a long, arduous and well-planned trek, astutely avoiding the cultural ghetto of Christian music. (Can you imagine what would have been lost had U2 been signed to Word Records?)”

If you honestly look at why it’s a good thing that U2 was never signed to a Christian label, you will understand the problem I have with the perspective you continually espouse.  The sort of problem-free Christianity you seem to want to limit Christian art to representing is destined to shatter on the rocks of reality–and, in many cases, this will mean apostasy.

That said, I do owe you guys; I only found out about Along Came a Spider by reading your negative review of it.


“All things are lawful for me…do all to the glory of God.”

The Christmas Carol is a happy story first, because it describes an abrupt and dramatic change. It is not only the story of a conversion, but of a sudden conversion; as sudden as the conversion of a man at a Salvation Army meeting. Popular religion is quite right in insisting on the fact of a crisis in most things. It is true that the man at the Salvation Army meeting would probably be converted from the punch bowl; whereas Scrooge was converted to it. That only means that Scrooge and Dickens represented a higher and more historic Christianity.

-G.K. Chesterton


Tied in to this are the things you single out in your film reviews.  For example, you’re notoriously punctilous in profanity-counting and always tally up exactly how many d-words, s-words, b-word and f-words the characters utter, sometimes more accurately than the other quotes you attribute to them.  Often you’ll indicate that the only troubled spot in a movie is the vocabulary, which “unnecessarily” uses these tabboo expressions.


I will admit that I am really tired of this.


People have historically used “bad language” to express extreme emotions that the regular vernacular can’t do justice to.  In other words, to be rather blunt, it often turns up when people are at their most alive, their most animated, their most “plugged in”, so to speak, with the world around them, when they care the most.  Sometimes “dang it” just won’t cut it.  And we have sacred precedent for this.

In Philippians 3, St. Paul gives us a forceful and powerful denounciation of the Jewish legalists who tried to impose the Mosaic regulations on Christians.  He details his own immaculate record from his time in Judaism: “Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.  But,” he hurriedly adds, anxious to exalt grace above works, “what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.  Yea doubtless”–and here his prose swells with emotion–”and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ.”  (verses 5-8)  The Greek word underlying the Authorized Version’s “dung” here is skubalon, and the Evangelical New Testament scholar and textual critic Daniel Wallace has confirmed that this term was “a vulgar expression with emotive connotations (thus, roughly equivalent to the English ‘crap, s**t’)”.

Why would the Apostle, capable as he was of such lofty and noble writings as 1 Corinthians 13 and Galatians 5:22-23, resort to such viscereal gutter talk?  Because nothing else would do to indicate how worthless and unworthy human effort was in contrast to the merits Christ earned for us in His suffering on the Cross.  To use a weaker term (like most of his English translators do) would almost be an insult to Our Lord’s salvation.  It would almost be a lie.  And our Western world is so gorged and bloated with its own self-righteousness that it needs to hear that its prayer breakfasts, bumper stickers, free-trade coffees and political preoccupations are shit without redemptive power or merit, that it needs Christ before it is too late.  It does not, I repeat, need more “pro-social content” in its art.

This is why I got so frustrated that the single f-word on Mumford and Sons’ debut album, which you otherwise highly praised for its “beautiful and spiritual messages”, got almost an entire article dedicated to you wringing your hands over this one silly syllable.  And remember that “Little Lion Man” is essentially one long Act of Contrition–it is the singer’s sin that he is mournfully referring to when he asks, “I really fucked it up this time, didn’t I, my dear?”  Is sin not vile enough, in the context of repentence, to warrant language stronger than the sort you’d hear in a nursery?

Remember too that when Christianity was in one of its most vitalized eras–the Reformation–theologians used this sort of language all the time.  Read the debates between Luther and St. Thomas More and you’ll find they were incredibly creative in their use of “bad language”.  But these men were discussing the single most important issue in the universe: Salvation.  It warranted getting worked up enough to cuss a bit.  And, once again, this is why I fear that the brand of Christianity you present to the world isn’t prepared to deal with the world.  We are an increasingly desperate age, and a faith which is ruffled by choice words seems bloodless, lifeless, sanitized, weak, and irrelevant to an increasingly large portion of the population.  A more legitimate concern is the frequency and frivolity with which profanity is used these days, which weakens its power to express strong emotions.  Perhaps you should record how profanity is used in a movie as opposed to how often.

The same can be said for your attitude towards alcohol use, which is also, for you, a negative point in any movie.  Yet not only is wine approved of in the Bible, it is actually used as a symbol for the Gospel, as, for example, when Jesus turns water into wine, as opposed to Moses who turned the water into blood.  Psalm 104:15 indicates that God gave “wine that maketh glad the heart of man”, and, in discussing tithes, Deuteronomy 14 decrees that, “when the LORD thy God hath blessed thee: Then shalt thou turn it into money, and bind up the money in thine hand, and shalt go unto the place which the LORD thy God shall choose: And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household” (verses 24-26).

In fact, I have often wondered whether a proper appreciation of alcohol might not be the sort of pre-evangelism our culture needs.  In the Middle Ages, the culture that was marked by abstinence from alcohol was the Islamic one; the Christian culture was identified as the one with all the booze, often brewed by clerics.  As Dostoevsky says in The Brothers Karamazov, “There would have been no civilization if they hadn’t invented God…And there would have been no brandy either.”  Now, of course, alcoholism is one of the horrors haunting the West, but I think the approach here is to rescue the baby from its bathwater.  As C.S. Lewis has a demon say in The Screwtape Letters, “You are much more likely to make your man a sound drunkard by pressing drink on him as an anodyne when he is dull and weary than by encouraging him to use it as a means of merriment among his friends when he is happy and expansive. Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground.”  Abusing pleasure may lead to damnation, but Lewis believes healthy pleasure often leads to salvation; and once again it would be safer to record how a film depicts imbibing rather than simply that it does depict it.


“And the sword shall devour, and it shall be satiate and made drunk with their blood…”

I realize that you are part of Focus on the Family and thus a large part of what you do is with the intention of giving parents the information they need to decide whether or not to allow their kids to check out one of the products you review; but you hardly supply “just the facts, ma’am”, as I wish to address in my final point: Your phobia of violence in a movie.  Here, I do not believe the objection that Christians want to protect the minds of their children will hold.

G.K. Chesterton famously wrote in his essay “The Red Angel”, “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.”  Picking up this theme, the blog “Faith and Theology” says, discussing the violence in Lewis’ Narnia story The Silver Chair, “There are people – mostly people with PhDs who have never met a real child – who say the old fairytales and adventures are too violent. For my part, I tend to avoid contemporary children’s writing because it is, for the most part, not violent enough.”  There is undeniably something wild and violent about our nature, and writers like John Eldredge are willing to openly admit it and try to find ways of embracing it that cohere with Christian faith.

In contrast, in your review of the explicitly Christian The Book of Eli, your anxiety over the violence was palatable to the point of being amusing.  ”Does the violence eradicate Eli’s message? No. Does the message redeem Eli’s violence? No.”  The most interesting moment comes when your reviewer writes, “The overall tone of the film is far removed from the Sermon on the Mount. Rather, it recalls the Bible’s bloodiest passages—where legions of soldiers massacred whole people groups, where kings and queens were left in the street to be eaten by dogs.”  Whether this critic feels the Bible would have been improved by dropping this “gratuitious violence” is not stated, but it does raise the glaring and uncomfortable question–which, I might add, applies to sexuality as well–if the Bible can depict it so explicitly, and often without obvious purpose, why can’t the Hughes brothers?

This is, once again, untrue both to historic Christianity and to the human experience.  A faith which gets squeamish around violence is not going to hold any sway in this increasingly desensitized and calloused culture.  Plugged In’s reviews consistently fail to see a way of redeeming the things that pose a problem to our culture; instead, there is almost always a wholesale condemnation or rejection of it which will end up harming the cause of Christ, I believe.



Finally, should anyone actually have read this far, I want to reiterate that I did not intend for this to be hostile or antagonistic.  In fact, most of the observations come out of years of prayer and reflection that, as I said before, were largely inspired by your work.  I still refer people to your website and your reviews and still enjoy them and are often edified by them.  But we are in a war, and I can’t help fearing that your work will in some way continue to fail us if these problems are not addressed.

Forgive me if I have ever been harsh or erroneous in my evaluation of you and may God continually bless you.



Postscript: Plugged In’s response

Thanks for your e-mail addressed to Plugged In Online, sent via the Focus on the Family Canada web site.  Our colleagues in Vancouver have in turn forwarded your message here to our Colorado Springs offices.  Given the responsibilities competing for the Plugged In team’s attention, I’ve been asked to get back to you; I consider it a pleasure to do so.

We appreciate the time you took to express your in-depth thoughts about our Plugged In reviews.  You have obviously put a significant amount of time and effort into considering these matters, and we’re gratified by the vote of confidence you have conveyed not only by sharing your perspective, but also the tone you’ve taken in the process.  We recognize that you feel deeply about these issues.  Contrary to what you might expect, several of us here at Focus have read your message in its entirety, and we’ll be happy to pass it along for due consideration.

Of course, we also trust you can understand that while the Plugged In team values feedback, it’s fairly unlikely that any wholesale changes in approach or style will be incorporated.  Plugged In has never been designed or operated as a platform for discussing and debating the artistic and/or philosophical aspects of media – while there is obviously a certain amount of foundational background in that regard to any given review, for the most part our staff’s assessments are intended as brief snapshots that will allow parents, in particular, to make their own decisions regarding entertainment choices in their homes, based on basic content observations.

I won’t even attempt to intellectually wrestle with you in this arena, since I’m neither a media critic nor a philosopher.  Still, your closing comment – “[Plugged In’s] work will in some way continue to fail [readers] if [the changes you suggest] are not addressed” [italicized emphasis added] – presupposes that we are not meeting your expectations, but doesn’t necessarily equate to the result that we are failing all of our readers.  Simply put, most people aren’t looking for the type of analysis and exposition you’ve proposed, at least not in this venue.  No offense intended, but some discussions lend themselves better to face-to-face interaction around a table at Starbucks, rather than an e-mail exchange or even a published media review that is fairly brief by design.

One more thought, expressed by the noted Christian apologist, the late C.S. Lewis:

“…To my mind [Art and Literature] can only be healthy when they are either (a) admittedly aiming at nothing but innocent recreation or (b) definitely the handmaids of religious or at least moral truth… the great serious irreligious art – art for art’s sake – is all balderdash; and incidentally never exists when art is really flourishing.  One can say of Art as an author I recently read said of sexual love, ‘It ceases to be a devil when it ceases to be a god.’  Isn’t that well put?”

Letters of C.S. Lewis, 16 April, 1940.

Again, thanks for taking the time to share your views.  We value your longstanding interest in Plugged In and wish you all the best.  God’s blessings to you!

Craig Johansen





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