Thursday, December 16, 2010

Calling good evil.

Isaiah warns against calling evil good, and about calling good evil. The latter warning is something I think many of us (especially here in Provo, Utah) forget about. We excel at calling things evil, at avoiding things that might harm us. We take anything that isn't explicitly scriptural (any music that isn't hymns, any book that isn't from Deseret, you name it), and we label it as "the world." We put it in a little bin in our mind and shut it off, call it "evil," forget about it, avoid contact with it. We therefore are safe from accidentally calling something evil "good," and cannot be poisoned by it. We forget that however safe this practice's intentions are, it is very, very dangerous.

When we shut out "the world," we are in danger of calling good things "evil." We are in danger of closing our minds to things that could have edified us. We are in danger of rejecting the profound in our efforts to be pious. We try to be shielded, but we just end up sheltered.

The other day, while cashiering at Subway, I mentioned that the Christopher Nolan film "Inception" had recently came out on DVD. Of course, film is something I'm more passionate about than anyone I know, and "Inception" in particular is a film I can never seem to stop talking about. As many of you know by now, it is just ... so good.

The customer mentioned she had not seen "Inception." I told her that she should. She told me that she does not watch PG-13 movies, out of principle. Jokingly, I said, "oh, so you're twelve then?" She laughed. "Eleven, actually," she replied, playing along.

Then, abruptly defensive, she got a very serious look on her face, and said: "filth is filth, no matter how old you are." Sure, it was a self-righteous and pretentious thing to say, but I don't blame her for standing up for her values in the face of ridicule (that I'd admittedly started); I just think her values are flawed.

Drawing a Pharisaical line in the sand to rule out PG-13 movies in an effort to avoid "filth" has the right intentions, but for so many reasons it is the wrong way to act out those intentions. Think of all the good you're ruling out ("Inception" is but one example of literally thousands), in an effort to block out evil. And think of all the evil you're still allowing in ("The Graduate" and "Airplane!" are both rated PG, but they can more easily qualify as "filth" than most of the PG-13 movies I've seen).

I'm not suggesting that we should embrace All Things, that we should take evil things into our homes and pat them on the back and allow them to degrade and demoralize us. I am suggesting, however, that there are a lot of wonderful, edifying, thought-provoking, soul-building things out there in the world that will be missed by those of us who draw too many imaginary lines.

A counterargument: "Sure, by limiting the films I watch, I might miss out on some good things, but isn't it more important to keep evil out? Why take the risk of being exposed to evil, when I can get my fill of 'good' things from Church, where I know it's all actually good?"

My answer: The 13th Article of Faith as written by Joseph Smith (sorry, non-LDS readers) says that if there is anything "virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy," we don't just passively wait for it to fall in our lap; rather, "we seek after these things." Emphasis on the word "seek." You see that elsewhere in the scriptures, and it always implies something very active. Seek, and ye shall find. Lovely and praiseworthy things are to be actively sought, and of course that includes art. Since film is the culmination of all past art forms, I would say it qualifies as something we ought to vigorously monitor: something we ought to actively--aggressively!--look for the good in. When we find that good, that truth, no matter what its source, we ought to embrace it. Another little thing Joseph Smith taught, that we are so quick to forget: "one of the grand fundamental principles of 'Mormonism' is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may." Again, the idea of "receiving" truth implies action. We use the word similarly when we say you "receive" the Holy Ghost. In Gospel context, "receive" is very much an action word.

Furthermore, let us remember that God's creative powers come from His ability to make order out of chaos, so if we are to become like Him, we must learn to make order out of the chaos we see here in the world. That cannot happen if we ignore the world and its chaos. We have to acknowledge it, and make edifying sense of it. That is why the best and most significant films are often rated PG-13 or R; they take serious and chaotic and dark subject matter (things like gang violence, drug use, or the Holocaust, things that actually happen in the real world), and portray it honestly and maturely. Enlightenment comes when we can be mature enough to pay attention to these sorts of things, and walk away with a better understanding of existence.

I hope none of you think this post is just about films. This post is about truth and light, and our responsibility (not just privilege) to embrace it no matter from whence it comes. There is truth in art, and therefore in film, so let's embrace it. But there is truth elsewhere also (in other religions, in other cultures, et cetera), and I hope we can eventually learn to embrace it everywhere.

If we do not, we are doomed to call good evil, and to turn our noses up to things that perhaps God wants us to experience. All in the name of what we would like to call "purity." And that sort of exclusive philosophy is, in some ways, the exact opposite of Mormonism.
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