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Spring 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 1 · pp. 59–67 

Are We Too Strict in Our Attitude toward the Commercial Movie?

F. C. Peters

Introduction to “Are We Too Strict in Our Attitude toward the Commercial Movie?” by F. C. Peters

Vic Froese

Frank Cornelius Peters (1920-1987) was born into a Mennonite family in Ukraine. Just two years later, his family moved to Canada, where they ultimately settled in Yarrow, British Columbia. When World War 2 broke out, Peters registered as a conscientious objector and spent several years in alternative service on Vancouver Island. Immediately after the war, he and his new wife moved to Hillsboro, Kansas, where he earned degrees at Tabor College and Emporia State Teachers College. The family returned to Canada in 1948, and in the following year Peters became the pastor of the Kitchener Mennonite Brethren (MB) Church in Ontario. During his first term (1949-1954), he found time to complete a BDiv and a MTh.

In 1957 Peters joined the faculty of the Mennonite Brethren Bible College (MBBC) with a ThD in hand and a nearly completed PhD in psychology (University of Kansas). Among his many gifts was writing. Peters contributed about fifty articles to The Voice during his time at MBBC—thirty or so in English and the rest in German. “Are We Too Strict” was published in the October 1959 issue of the journal. Appearing on the eve of the centennial of the MB Church, the article differs from his essay in an earlier booklet he and David Neumann published* by the addition of a short section titled “Our Mennonite Brethren Position.”

The article’s title raises the question whether MBs have been too strict about filmgoing. By the end of the article, it is clear that Peters’s {60} answer is, No. The commercial movie is worthy of the protest that has been raised against it. He declares in no uncertain terms that “The greatest protest against the present-day commercial movie which a Christian can register is his absence at the box office” (emphases are Peters’s).

Peters does, however, reject some arguments used to make the case against seeing movies. The advancement of science is not evil, and the commercial film, as an instance of such advancement, is not in itself evil either. Nor are movies evil because they bring pleasure to viewers. “We are not Stoics in disguise.”

For Peters, valid arguments against movie-going consider the greed that motivates movie producers to create the lurid films that make them money. The chronic immorality of movie actors alone justifies avoiding the cinema. The fact that those most likely to frequent films “[do] not represent America’s highest in moral and intellectual standards,” is also good reason to keep one’s distance. Moreover, scientific research confirms the deleterious effect of movie-watching, especially on children.

The key faults of most movies, in Peters’s view, are that they present unrealistic extremes as if they were normal and thus model unrealistic behavior; they glorify crime; they undercut personal purity; and they cast war in a heroic light, which subverts Anabaptist teaching.

An “MB position” on movie-going, as Peters sees it, would recognize the priority of teaching over “dogmatic restrictions,” although the latter have their place. Requiring all members of the MB Church to observe “guiding principles” would make for a robust corporate witness. The MB position should also emphasize “personal commitment on the part of each member to ‘seek the things that are above.’ ” In other words, “Our yearning for the ‘lesser’ should be replaced by a deep craving for the ‘greater.’ ”

The article shows its age in many respects—Peters has the nerve to suggest requiring observance of guiding principles, to name one—but the concerns that animate Peters’s closing thoughts may be more valid today than they were in 1959. Our yearning for the “lesser” things has shown itself to be highly resistant to being “replaced” by a craving for “greater” things. The education of our stubborn desires is as important and difficult a task as ever.

* F. C. Peters and David H. Neumann, The Christian in Relationship to the Commercial Movie and Amusements (Virgil, ON: Niagara Press, [ca. 1955]).

Are We Too Strict in Our Attitude toward the Commercial Movie?*

F. C. Peters

Several times this summer I have been asked to comment on our attitude toward the commercial movie. These questions were asked at youth camps and seemed to occupy the mind of many of our young people. It appeared to me that the general philosophy behind these questions was this: Since there are so many of our people attending the commercial movie, would it not be time to re-evaluate our stand and bring it “up to date”?

Christians must always rethink their discipleship in the light of new demands and the principles of the Word of God. The demands may change but the Word does not. When I was a boy, there was no television; it was no problem. Today we are faced not only with television but with a host of other problems which demand an answer of the sincere Christian.

One of the greatest questions which faces our brotherhood is the question of change. How does a brotherhood which holds to group standards finally effect a change? Do we wait until such a large portion of the membership is practicing something which was considered wrong that we are unable to hold the line and finally give in to the pressure? Very often this is what actually happens. However, I believe change can also come as a response to a renewed effort on part of the brotherhood to find the will of God in ethical matters. In such a search, and a search it must be, certain people will always take the lead and supply the brotherhood with the necessary data, both as to the problem and to the Biblical answer.

The Scriptures do not explicitly name all the evils which the church of Jesus Christ will face as it moves through the centuries. If Christ {62} and the apostles had specifically named those evils which we were to avoid, the Bible might have been a book for one or two generations. Evil takes on different form in different generations. The term “movie” as used in this article does not appear in the Bible, and yet the church has recognized it as a threat to discipleship. Those who would want the author of the article to quote chapter and verse will be disappointed. However, there are certain biblical injunctions which speak to the problem, and these must guide us as we, together, seek an answer.

INVALID ARGUMENTS

There are certain arguments, which are used in opposing the commercial movie, which we would consider invalid. The Christian is not opposed to an advancement in the field of science. God has placed his laws into the universe and man is to find and utilize these laws for good. Science has made great strides in the field of visual education.

The motion picture can be a great asset to the teaching program. Two sense gateways are employed simultaneously with the result that learning is greatly facilitated. The Christian should appreciate this aid in teaching. Dr. John J. Tigert, former United States Commissioner of Education, once said: “For the purpose of making and influencing public opinion and thought, the motion picture in its present stage is the most powerful influence now known, and as its use increases and its field of operation develops, its power to influence the public will increase.” 1

The Christian does not oppose the commercial movie simply because its effects might be pleasurable. We are not Stoics in disguise. Christ did not teach that Christians were to deny themselves everything that was pleasurable. They were to enjoy God’s provisions. However, pleasure must always be the effect of a useful activity. It must not be the “pleasure of the flesh” [Eph 2:3? KJV, passim]. To enjoy pleasure merely for its own sake is hedonism and un-Christian.

The Christian believes in recreation. He would, however, insist on a proper definition of the term “recreation.” Recreation is that which re-creates. It renews and replenishes the individual and leaves him better than he was before he participated in that particular activity. Unfortunately, much that is classified as recreation does not deserve the name, because it is more of an indulgence than a recreation. The participant is morally and physically degraded.

It is fair to say that few amusements are thoroughly evil in themselves. The evil grows out of certain associations, certain abuses, and certain tendencies that are involved. The Christian is willing to endorse any recreation which leaves his soul, mind, and body better {63} because of his participation; but he reserves the right to judge all forms of amusement by his standards. A few questions might be used to settle the doubtful in his mind:

  1. Does it harm me emotionally, physically, or spiritually?

  2. Does it harm others?

  3. Does it do harm to my testimony as a Christian?

  4. Do I really benefit from it?

The Christian must not follow tradition blindly. To argue that the commercial movie is wrong because it has always been held to be wrong would scarcely be sufficient for the earnest seeker. The Christian must constantly evaluate and re-evaluate the pressures of his environment by judging them in the light of his understanding of the Word of God. He must be prepared to offer sound reasoning from the Word of God when asked to define his position. Simply answering “because” when asked for reasons for abstaining from movie attendance is hardly a proper approach to the question. Neither is it scriptural. Peter says: “And be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you” [1 Pet 3:15b KJV].

VALID ARGUMENTS

Our arguments against the commercial movie must be based on a careful analysis of this social institution as it appears today in the American culture. We recognize that some countries may be more exclusive in their censorship and would thereby not come under the scope of this criticism.

The producers of the commercial movie must be investigated. Tremendous investments are made by capital for the purpose of realizing dividends. Those who control the movie industry of Hollywood are not primarily interested in the advancement of our national morals, but rather seek to advance their financial interests.

Some might advance the counter-argument that all business is primarily motived by interest in profit. The Christian does not oppose the profit-principle involved, but rather protests the exploitation of morals in the interest of profit. It is certainly evil to pursue personal gain at the expense of harming others.

We all recognize the influence of leadership upon the life of a nation. A nation accepts certain individuals as ideals, and then society takes its moral standards, consciously or unconsciously, from that leadership. The actor has become the ideal for many young people. This immediately raises the question of their influence on those who {64} look to them for example. Do the lives of these people tend to elevate the morals of our nation? Do they represent standards worthy of leadership?

Anyone who reads our papers knows how often Hollywood marriages end in divorce. Not too many years ago a certain Hollywood union was heralded as “the perfect marriage” on the basis that it had survived five years. The sacred marriage vow has been degraded into something resembling a temporary contract between two people for publicity purposes. The American divorce rate is a tragic reminder that Hollywood’s example has left its imprint on our society.

Another common occurrence in Hollywood is unfaithfulness in marriage. Adultery is prevalent. The newspapers are constantly presenting these “scoops” to the public so that marital infidelity no longer shocks the American mind.

It is clear that the movie industry stands ready to give the American movie-goer what he wants to see. Paul F. Heard says correctly that “to the tune of millions of dollars producers cannily tailor entertainment films to give the public what the public genuinely wants, to please the senses, to stir the heart.” 2 It would seem that public taste determines the offerings on the screen. The box office receipts control the ethics of the producers.

What does the American movie-going populace desire to see? To answer this question properly, we must see who attends the cinema. One investigator, Henry James Forman, found that 37 per cent of the movie-goers were below twenty years of age. 3 That figure was published in 1934; today we are told the percentage is higher. Generally speaking, the movie-goer of America does not represent America’s highest in moral and intellectual standards. The famous Emporia editor, William Allen White, 4 once said: “Speaking rather broadly, and allowing for exceptions, the outcasts from the moving picture world are the intelligent people. They have no time for the movies because the movies generally have no time for intelligent people.” 5

Since the movie-going populace does not represent the intelligentsia of our land, it follows that the movie is not tailored for thought but primarily for feeling. Most often the feeling content appeals to the baser rather than to the nobler in man. Furthermore, since such a large portion of the movie attenders are young, and since their tastes are being catered to, a precarious situation arises: the formation of our national ideals is influenced by the tastes of the immature and inexperienced.

The effects of the movie on the minds of the patrons are varied and many. One of the best investigations of the effects of the commercial movie on the “information, attitudes, emotional experiences and {65} conduct patterns of children” was conducted by the Motion Picture Research Council, an organization interested in radio, motion pictures and reading in relation to children and youth. Twelve independent studies were carried on, and the findings are summarized by Henry James Forman in the book, Our Movie Made Children. 6 It was known that dramatic pictures were powerful emotional factors for all of us, even for mature adults.

Drs. Christian A. Ruckmich and Wendell Dysinger, psychologists of the University of Iowa, were charged with the task of obtaining some kind of measurement of the emotional effect. 7 The investigators found that movie attendance greatly affected the sleep of children. Of course, the same would be true for television today, since the films of yesterday are the T.V. offerings of today. The researchers observed continual motility, or restlessness in children, expressed in turnings and tossings throughout the entire night. The study revealed that boys, after seeing a movie, showed an average increase of about 25 per cent, and girls of about 14 per cent greater hourly restlessness than in normal sleep. They also found a direct connection in children between movie attendance and nervous disorders. Such children often showed retardation in their school work.

The movie provides people with an emotional release from the frustrations of their lives. Many films deal with the secret desires of man’s heart—desires which he enjoys as they are enacted for him on the screen. One author summarizes it well when he says: “We thrill at the daring of illicit love, a carefree drunken ride in the country—we disapprove, oh yes—yet we flock again and again to enjoy disapprovingly the kind of life we want and dare not have.” 8

The movies have several distinct points against them. We do well to consider these in the light of our convictions as children of God. Let me just mention four:

1. The movie tends to glorify the extreme and thereby does not present a fair picture of life. In this it is misleading and draws people away from a realistic attack on life. Marriage is seldom presented as it really is. Either marriage is glorified as something very idealistic, where no conflicts exist, and thus people are led to expect more of their marriage than realistic, sincere adjustment, or the opposite occurs: a debasing of the marriage relationship by the stress on the sensuous. On the other hand, hard work and fair play do not make the headlines too often. People are led to believe that someday much will come to them for little effort. Of course, many of our T.V. and radio quiz programs have the same effect on the people. {66}

2. Crime is glorified. By constantly presenting crime movies the public is being conditioned to crime. Our generation has lost its horror for crime. Too often public opinion is against the law and in favour of the criminal.

3. Personal purity is not encouraged. Let us never forget that we think with the materials which we store up in our minds. If our mind is filled with impure suggestions, we will follow their lead in the hours of meditation. The same applies to our reading.

4. War is presented in an heroic light. Here we as Anabaptist people have a special concern. We would always want to protest any attempt to put war into a favorable light.

One investigator estimated that only about 5 per cent of the movies shown today would pass the censorship of a good moral conscience.

OUR MENNONITE BRETHREN POSITION

What should be the Christian’s attitude in the light of such an examination? The Christian must protest the evil in the world if he is to be salt which counteracts corruption in society. The greatest protest against the present-day commercial movie which a Christian can register is his absence at the box office. He will not even identify himself with the occasional “good” picture for fear that this might weaken the total impact of his protest.

What, then, is the position of the Mennonite Brethren Church? I cannot speak for the entire Church. However, I might suggest several points for the consideration of the brotherhood.

1. The answer is teaching, not only dogmatic restrictions. We must build up inner restraints by way of convictions rather than mere outward fences for those who have otherwise no inner controls in the matter. However, let me quickly add that outward restraints have their place if we take Christian nurture of the immature seriously. When a child is too young to act on the basis of personal experience, parental experience must seek the good of the child. If Christians cannot see clearly in matters of ethics, the brotherhood sets up its concerns in terms of guiding principles to be observed by all who have voluntarily joined the group. It is also important that the group give a positive witness, not only the individual. This necessitates group standards.

2. A personal commitment on the part of each member to “seek the things that are above” [Col 3:1]. Our yearning for the “lesser” should be replaced by a deep craving for the “greater.” The more our Church will lose its sense of commitment and dedication to the task which Jesus has left us, to that extent other things will become the vexing problems of the {67} church. Sometimes I feel that we are being tempted on too low a level. Where we ought to struggle with “Gethsemane issues” we are bickering about the things which can never help us fulfill our purpose and calling. We need to become more deeply committed Christians who can rise above such things as movies, lipstick, earrings, and flirting.

May God give us a “society of the concerned” in these days of preparation for the Mennonite Brethren centennial. May we bow in humility as we repent with Daniel who said: “And I prayed unto the Lord my God, and made my confession, and said, O Lord, the great and dreadful God . . . we have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments” [Dan 9:4b–5].

NOTES

  1. Cline M. Koon, Motion Pictures in Education in the United States: A Report (Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Office of Education, 1934), 18.
  2. Paul F. Heard, “Secularism in Motion Pictures,” in The Christian Faith and Secularism, ed. J. Richard Spann (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1948), 65. Heard (1913-1964) was an American film producer, director, and scriptwriter of religious films.
  3. Henry James Forman, Our Movie Made Children (New York: Macmillan Co., 1934), 25.
  4. William Allen White (1868-1944) edited The Emporia Gazette and was also a politician, author, and leader of the Progressive movement in the US.
  5. William Allen White, “Chewing-Gum Relaxation,” in The Movies On Trial, ed. William J. Perlman (New York: Macmillan, 1936), 3.
  6. Forman, Movie Made Children.
  7. Wendell S. Dysinger and Christian A. Ruckmick, The Emotional Responses of Children to the Motion Picture Situation (New York: Macmillan, 1933).
  8. Heard, “Secularism in Motion Pictures,” 65–66.
* This article was first published in The Voice 8, no. 5 (Oct. 1959): 4–8.

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