VidAngel, ClearPlay, and the Role of Proper Christian Discernment

A week or so ago I was greeted with a humorous tweet in my Twitter feed:

While I had a good laugh at the image (even though Jar Jar Binks is hardly the worst thing that has happened to Star Wars), it got me thinking, especially after receiving a (common) response to my reply regarding my immediate thoughts about VidAngel. I’ll confirm here what I wrote in my original reply – I’m fairly opposed to the services that VidAngel provides and advertises to Christians like myself. Because Facebook’s algorithms are fairly intelligent, I get sponsored ads from VidAngel at least once a day scattered throughout my FB news feed. (I suppose if you “Like” enough Christian-themed pages or share articles written from a Christian worldview, you get ads for Christians – imaging that!) These ads look like the following:

Because making jokes about vulgarity sells even to Christians!

And here’s one more curious example:

It’s telling when your Christian service censors stories revolving around a historical Yeshua figure.

I’ve heard and read many first-hand accounts from people who use the service, and if I have the opportunity I always make sure to ask them why they believe it’s necessary for them to subscribe to this service. I usually get a range of answers that can essentially be boiled down to two responses:

  1. I want to be able to enjoy watching a movie without being subjected to questionable or controversial material that the movie showcases.
  2. I want my family (i.e., kids) to be able to enjoy a popular movie without seeing or hearing inappropriate acts or dialogue that could make them either emulate or repeat said acts and vocabulary, or ask questions about what they just saw.

My opposition to VidAngel relates to these two responses as well, but before any counter-responses can be offered, it’s best to have tried out the service in order to offer a proper critique of it, right? Fair’s fair, after all. While I will admit I have never subscribed to VidAngel, I have witnessed what a similar service called ClearPlay offers. Much like VidAngel, ClearPlay offers filters for thousands of movies that the user can configure to their own family’s value systems.  Content such as vulgarity, sensuality, nudity, violence, and substance abuse can be cut from the movie you’re viewing, and as ClearPlay’s website proudly claims, “…your family will be protected from the content you don’t want them exposed to—and they’ll enjoy the best content from the latest releases.” However, what ClearPlay offers that VidAngel doesn’t is a specialized Blu-ray player that has the service built-in, so you can easily download the content filters automatically and wirelessly with whatever movie you decide to watch.

The film I watched with ClearPlay filters attached was 2007’s 3:10 TO YUMA, a remake of a popular western movie about a desperate father that takes a daring job – a member of an escort group taking a renowned gang leader to a train leaving for Yuma, where the gang leader will live out the rest of his days behind bars. While rife with themes regarding sacrifice, good vs. evil, man’s fallen nature, and honorable persistence, the movie is rated R for a reason – it does showcase course language and a fair share of violence that is seen both close-up and long range. In short, this movie isn’t for kids, and it shouldn’t be. Not every movie needs to be.

From my recollection, the family I watched 3:10 TO YUMA with had a substantial amount of the offered filters turned on. There were quick, jarring cuts as profanity was edited out, sensual scenes were removed, and the typical shoot-em-up elements expected with westerns were neutered more than the violence typically seen in silent pictures from the 1920s. Because of this, scenes involving violence and deaths of main characters were incredibly confusing. In one particular scene, there’s a stand-off between two characters, and after the quick draw, ClearPlay quickly presents the audience with a long shot of the shootout aftermath. One body is on the ground, and one is still standing, but because of the distance we have from the characters to the camera, none of us could tell which character had gotten shot until we were able to piece it together ourselves a short time later. This situation would continue throughout the movie even towards the memorable ending, and after my first viewing, I immediately went out and bought the film on DVD. From what I had seen, YUMA was a notable story, and I wanted to see the film as the director intended it to be seen. Needless to say, the movie made much more sense on my second viewing.

I can only imagine that this experience happens with almost every film that has ClearPlay or VidAngel filters attached to them. I can think of many examples where if the violence filters were consistently utilized, you would miss an integral scene that could cloud your understanding of the film as a whole. What if Darth Vader cutting down Obi-Wan Kenobi in STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE was cut right before it happened, and the next thing we see is Luke yelling “No!” How scary would JAWS be if every time the shark attacked we wouldn’t see it? How respectful is it to the memories of fallen soldiers when a movie like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or GLORY doesn’t show the realistically recreated war scenes that display acts of courage, sheer terror, or ultimate sacrifice?

Better yet, I’m very curious about the following – does ClearPlay or VidAngel, two companies designed to appeal to “Christian values,” edit out the historical violence enacted on Jim Caviezel’s portrayal of Jesus in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST – the same violence which is described in the pages of the New Testament?

I imagine that subscribers of these family editing services know the answers to these questions. With that being said, I am curious if they’re consistent with this kind of filtering in other aspects of their lives. For instance, what do they do when they go to an art museum and see sculptures or beautiful paintings of naked humans or depictions of graphic violence? How do they handle listening to the lyrics of Top 40 songs they hear every day on the radio? (Don’t say they just listen to “Christian Contemporary” music instead – those hits are ripe with questionable content as well.) During a study or meditation, do they read certain Bible passages that have violent, disturbing, or gory content, or just browse right past them, especially when reading with the whole family?

I believe a response to these questions would be something similar to the following:
– I can choose to look at another exhibit in the art hall if a particular work is making me feel uncomfortable.
– I can choose to turn the radio station if I don’t like lyrical content of the song that is currently playing.
I can choose to skip ahead past problem Bible passages that may be questionable in content in regards to family readings.

Choice is a very “American” idea, is it not? Freedom was the foundation of what the United States was built upon, and if you have freedom, that means you have choices. When we have the ability to choose something, whether it’s custom-ordering a pasta without mushrooms in the sauce, picking options on a new automobile, or deciding what font to use on your next PowerPoint presentation, we’re presented with choices every day – if not every minute – of our lives. After the process of customization and creation, we have a sense of ownership over what we have created. If we don’t get to choose from a variety of options for something, we feel limited or confined.

Companies like VidAngel and ClearPlay know that the more choices people have, the happier they are. ClearPlay even writes this doctrine on their FAQ page: “ClearPlay is all about choice.” Unlike an art museum, where you can walk to the next exhibit if you don’t like the work you’re viewing, a movie is, on average, a 1.5-2 hour excursion where you’re not as able to know what’s around the corner (unless you’ve already seen it before). The choices that were made during the film’s production were all made before we, the audience, get to order and digest it. We don’t know how all of the pieces will fit together at first, and we certainly don’t know what the finished product will look like. It’s a medium like no other, but because of that, audiences are left with discovering ways to enjoy a movie they just watched more than they did the first time around. For instance, J.R.R. Tolkien fans who loved the LOTR movies but hated the Hobbit trilogy make separate edits which they believe surpass the director’s original vision. The same goes for the Star Wars prequels. But if we consider these examples, this is essentially what VidAngel and ClearPlay provide – edited versions of movies that fit our vision and preferences, and not the vision of the original creator.

We live in a time where, by and large, people don’t consider movies to be an art form any longer. “Artistic” movies (also respectively branded as “independent films” in the minds of many) are generally sneered at, allegedly reserved for only the most pompous of film buffs and not the wider audiences. These kinds of films will open in less than 1000 theaters nationwide, while mainstream films like NEIGHBORS 2 and ANGRY BIRDS will have thousands of screenings taking place every two to three hours. However, even though someone can attempt to dismiss a film like LAST DAYS OF THE DESERT because it’s too “artsy,” we have to realize that a film like ANGRY BIRDS has a vision behind it just like LAST DAYS does. Each film had a director who called the shots and made the creation what it is. And like all art, each film will speak to us on some level – if we let it.

The problem with using content filters is that one isn’t seeing the artist’s original creation and intent if it’s hacked up into pieces. Instead, one is simply seeing the parts they already know they may approve of. They’ve essentially sliced the proverbial apple into tasty bits and have thrown the core away. To use a term that is increasingly common in the parlance of our times, VidAngel and ClearPlay are the created “safe spaces” for Christian moviegoers. If someone watches a film like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK but uses content filters to view it, sure, they won’t see faces melting or guns a-blazing. But have they really seen RAIDERS, or just a version they feel morally justified in viewing so they can join in with the larger cultural discussion about the work?

This leads into the first response I mentioned earlier –

I want to be able to enjoy watching a movie without being subjected to questionable or controversial material that the movie showcases.

In the conversation I had with the same person that wrote the tweet featured above, he sarcastically mentioned that VidAngel allowed him to “watch Deadpool without the bewbies and butts.” But if you take away the nudity and explicit sex scenes from Deadpool, you still have a film featuring a main character whose worldview runs contrary to the Christian faith. If a Christian isn’t willing to see the content that logically follows from the main “protagonist’s” worldview, why are they willing to watch (and in some cases even celebrate) the film at all?

The one thing that content filters can’t weed out are the worldviews, messages, and thematic material presented throughout the film, spearheaded by the writers’ own personal worldview. Characters in movies exemplify worldviews, and actions taken by characters are influenced by them. If that character’s worldview is something that a Christian doesn’t necessarily approve of, how are Christians supposed to be consistent in blocking out content that we don’t want to be subjected to?

The quick answer to this is that Christians need to be able to control their own minds, and be wary of what we’re putting into them. Proper Christian discernment can go a long way – much longer than anything that could come from letting a machine automatically do the work for you.

Of course, this leads into the second response, regarding family members (especially kids) who are still learning discernment:

I want my family (i.e., kids) to be able to enjoy a popular movie without seeing or hearing inappropriate acts or dialogue that could make them either emulate or repeat said acts and vocabulary, or ask questions about what they just saw.

Kids are some of the best recorders you’ll find. They’ll act out just about anything they can and repeat everything they can pronounce (and massacre the ones they can’t). That being said, I completely agree with the response above – I also want my future kid(s) to be able to enjoy movies without seeing or hearing controversial things.

But they’re going to. It’s inevitable. If they’re not going to get it from the movies, they’ll hear it on the streets or in the stores when they’re tagging along with you. If they don’t hear it there, they’ll hear it when they go to school. If they don’t hear it there, they’ll… Well, you get the picture. As it was mentioned earlier, even if you have frequent Bible studies with your children, they’re going to get a dose of controversy, and they’re going to have lots of questions.

What movies offer the discerning Christian is an opportunity to privately talk to your child (or children) in a controlled atmosphere about inappropriate or controversial content – not just inappropriate for them, but for humanity writ large. It’s an excellent time to ask questions to your child, and to listen to theirs while responding to them in kind with truth.

I can hear the objections now: “Are you advocating for showing children raunchy comedies and extremely violent revenge flicks?” Of course I’m not. This is where our discernment comes in. We have ratings systems that, while arguably flawed, give us a synopsis of the content showcased in the film in question on trailers, posters, and other advertisements. We have websites like IMDBCommon Sense Media, Kids-In-Mind, Parent Previews, and more that give us a rundown on the content each movie displays. And of course, you can always do it the old-fashioned way and watch the movie first before showing it to your kids. Yes, I was quite angry that all of my friends’ parents let them go see JURASSIC PARK when it was first released in 1993 while my parents, after seeing the movie, didn’t allow me – a dinosaur fanatic – to see it in theaters. When they finally let me watch it in the familiar atmosphere of our own living room (and at a slightly older age),  I was elated to see the T-Rex charging after jeeps, but was still disturbed enough by the velociraptors hunting the kids in the kitchen that I had nightmares involving raptors breaking into my house for years afterwards. Did I still love Jurassic Park? Intensely, and it remains one of my top 5 favorite films to this date. But my parents were correct in their assessment – I was probably too young to see that movie in a big, dark theater when it released, especially since a portion of it still freaked me out years later.

In an age of automation and ease, parents are all-too-willing to let a device do the hard work of parenting. By utilizing a censorship service, I fear that parents will miss out on the deep, meaningful discussions with their children that will help them grow spiritually. A child’s first funeral they attend will usually be etched upon their minds their whole lives, and it would be borderline abuse to let a child go in to a memorable situation like that without a parent talking about it with them before, during, and after the service. In the same way, parents need to be willing and able to discuss the dirty and ugly with their children the same way they discuss the beautiful and clean.

Fantasy and horror fiction writer Mike Duran, who is also a Christian, wrote a nonfiction work called “Christian Horror.” It’s one of the best books I’ve read in the past ten years, and I frequently refer back to it. While it primarily discusses the merits of the horror genre from a Christian worldview, Duran takes a good segment of the book to talk about what he calls “clean fiction” and “clean art” – “clean” meaning devoid of elements (such as vulgarity, sex, or violence) that would deem the work in question controversial in evangelical circles. While Duran’s critique on this is quite thorough and worthy of sharing, you’ll have to purchase the book to see the full context of his arguments. I did want to highlight one piece of his critique, however, because it pertains to the VidAngel/ClearPlay discussion at hand.

After making the claim that “the desire to consume only what is free of profanity, violence, nudity, etc., may itself be a form of spiritual deception,” [1] Duran writes a compelling argument against avoiding potentially controversial material:

“Avoiding the horror genre simply because it contains dark, disturbing images is a form of ‘white magic.’ Whereas ‘black magic’ assumes to empower objects, practices and people for nefarious purposes, ‘white magic’ assumes the exact opposite. The belief that not hearing profanity or not seeing the grotesque ‘protects’ one from evil and keeps one holy, is reverse divination.” [Ibid]

He continues a couple of pages later:

“Similarly, subscribing only to ‘clean’ art is a form of ‘evangelical divination’ or superstition. The problem with this approach is that it puts stories and images in the category of magic. We come to see the correct combination of words or the exclusion of specific words as possessing an inherent power for good or evil. We come to see certain images and the exclusion of other images as possessing an inherent power to corrupt or sanctify. As such, Christian art becomes the ‘white magic’ that counters the spell of secular art, which is ‘black magic.'” [2]

Duran echoes what journalist E. Stephen Burnett wrote back in 2014 on his flagship blog Speculative Faith:

We must challenge Christians, starting with ourselves, to reject such “white magic” notions about the world. We must see that actual sin-corruption comes not from evil objects, symbols, or Things, but from our own hearts (Mark 7). And we must find the solution not in worthless and pagan worldly rules (Col. 2), but in our holy loving Savior. [3]

It’s true that we’re told to think righteous thoughts and focus on the truly good things in life, but this doesn’t mean we should ignore the bad that persists around us everyday. The scripture recited with this sentiment leads by saying “whatever is true,” and the fact of the matter is, sin is true – it’s as real as you and I because we embody it.  Looking away from the sin in our world, in all the forms it takes, is one of the worst things that a Christian can do. Purposefully turning away from the darkness is completely antithetical to the actions and teachings of Jesus Christ, as He dealt directly with the worst of sin in all of us – not to mention displaying a hands-on approach to actual demons.

In a must-read essay, acclaimed film director Scott Derrickson discusses the consistency that Christians fail to hold when applying their content-driven censorship to their preferred visual media:

“Much of the Bible is profane, violent, and lurid, yet it’s a profoundly moral book. The moral quality of a movie is not determined by its MPAA rating. Of course, there is such a thing as excessive violence or gratuitous sex, but we have to become much more thoughtful about how we determine what constitutes excessiveness or in acceptability.” [4]

The creators and managers of VidAngel and ClearPlay know their clientele well. They’re able to latch onto the fear that many Christian adults have of secularism invading our culture and becoming more pervasive and unavoidable. They’re able to appeal to cherry-picked scripture to make the case for their business from a religious standpoint, but unfortunately miss how effective Jesus’ teachings were by unflinchingly facing down that which is not good. I’ve combined this fact with the number of Christians who have openly admitted to me that they just watch movies solely for entertainment and don’t bother with thinking about or reflecting on any potential deeper themes that could be present within the work, and it astounds me. If this is truly the case, and that some Christians are letting the mind that God has given them idle for multiple hours on end, exactly how glorifying is that to God?

Does this mean we should all go watch movies with graphic sex scenes and bloody violence? Again, I have to stress, this is hardly the case. The Christian should be aware of the things that his or her conscience could be betrayed by, and there are many ways one can find out what content is in a movie before seeing it. However, it’s better to not watch a questionable movie at all than to butcher it to your own liking, running the risk of compromising your conscience nonetheless while you simultaneously disrespect an artist’s work. If they want to watch a certain film that could feature questionable content, Christians should be willing to let directors and screenwriters speak for themselves regarding their own creations, having faith and confidence that the Truth which is given to us will always override whatever lies and falsities Hollywood may try to sell. Take courage, fellow believers: the creative products that come out of Hollywood don’t have power over the Creator of all things. After all, He has already overcome the world.

 

————————————————————————————————————

[1] Duran, Mike. Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre (p. 97). Blue Crescent Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Duran, Mike. Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre (pp. 98-99). Blue Crescent Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] E. Stephen Burnett, “Christian Parents, Please Stop Practicing White Magic,” Speculative Faith blog, http://www.speculativefaith.com/christian-parents-please-stop-practicing-white-magic/, 2014.

[4] Scott Derrickson, “Behind the Lens: A Christian Filmmaker in Hollywood,” The Christian Century,  http://www.christian-fandom.org/horror/derrickson1.html, 2005

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