Is Explicitness Necessary?

The post title is a question that I see asked quite often, especially by Christians, whenever a depiction of historical events, or events that happen in real life, depicts those events in great detail. See the controversy over the brutal violence depicted in The Passion of the Christ, which is essentially two hours of watching a man be tried, tortured, and executed–emphasis on the latter two parts–for an example. For a more recent example, see Twelve Years a Slave, which includes graphic depictions of whipping and rape, and historically accurate renderings of slave auctions, including full nudity.

Now, here’s the question: in both cases, was including all of that necessary to get the point across that the events shown onscreen–the crucifixion of Jesus and slavery–were unimaginably horrific?

There’s a couple of different schools of thought on this. There’s the school of thought followed by such gentlemen as the directors of those movies, which claims that it is necessary that audiences fully understand the horror of what they’re watching, and that in order for them to do so, what happened to the people involved should be depicted in full and agonizing detail–or at least as far as you can get without earning an NC-17 rating. This school of thought in a more extreme form can also be seen in film critics who believe that showing death without going into detail about the blood and guts and whatnot is “whitewashing violence.”

Then there’s the school of thought that leans a bit more towards “less is more,” and tends to want to leave things to the audience to take as far as they want to go–describe verbally, imply vigorously, but don’t just throw intestines and naked bodies on-screen–you can get the point across without those. While there is something of a dearth of recent examples of this school in mainstream cinema, examples in previous eras include most movies made between 1930 and 1960.

The primary criticism of the former is that is too graphic, sensational, and desensitizing, while the latter is criticized on the grounds that it is safe and sanitized and allows the audience to get away with not thinking about what’s actually happening.

Here’s the thing: there’s a reason you sanitize things–it’s so you can avoid getting sick. On the other hand, it’s also true that sometimes you can avoid catching a disease by being exposed to a weaker version of that disease–inoculation, as it were.

On the other hand, what’s the likelihood that you’ll have to deal with watching your friends dismembered, or slavery? And, more importantly, what is the likelihood that watching graphic depictions of the above will actually help more with that than simply understanding that such things have happened and do happen?

In other words, let’s not automatically say that a “serious” film is artistically better because it has graphic depictions of sex and violence, and let’s not say that such a film is artistically worse because it doesn’t have those elements. Simultaneously, let us not make the opposite assumption. Because here’s the the thing about realism–it’s not about what people do with each other or to each other, but rather about the people themselves, and you don’t need lots of graphic content to explain what people are like.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness



One thought on “Is Explicitness Necessary?

  1. Is explicitness necessary? Should we willingly view it, as persons, and as Christians? I think that sometimes we DO need it. From time to time, we need to see the full impact of explicit evil. In order to hate it more, and to long and strive for the Good more. In order to “set our hope fully on the grace to be revealed when Jesus returns,” viewing explicitness reminds us of human evil, and that we cannot save ourselves. However, we cannot stay there. While occasionally taking the bitter herbs of such art may be helpful, we should set our minds on things above, and not on earthly things. Anything good, wholesome, right, pure, and so forth. That kind of stuff. Too much dystopia and nakedness and sword does not further that end.
    Now how much is too much I think is between the individual, the Spirit, and the church body. Namely, there are three good reasons to not engage in consuming such goods. First, does it cause personal and spiritual growth or decay, on the whole? Is there anything worthwhile about the work of art that redeems it? Second, does the particular kind of explicitness involved touch on a particular weakness or struggle with sin? If I struggle with lust, I probably should not watch nudity. If I struggle with violence, I should probably not watch gore. If I’m fantasizing over rather than hating evil, that explicit content is not good. “All things are lawful, but I shall not be overcome by anything.” Third, if the content I watch leads another person to sin, then I should not watch it in front of them, leading them to consider violating, or raping, their conscience. That is a dangerous thing for them to do, and I should never lead someone there. I do not live up to these three considerations all of the time, and that is a reminder of the first point. We need grace. Repentance and going forward freely forgiven in the Christian walk is the only response to failure in wisely discerning how to engage with explicit content, as grace and freedom is likewise the only positive response when it is consumed aright.
    Lastly, there have been several good articles around the blogosphere and web on these topics recently. This one by MereOrthodoxy directly talks about “Twelve Years a Slave”:

    And this one is a worthwhile review of a whole book on the topic of consuming culture well:

    May we learn to engage with culture and like Paul in the Areopagus use the literature of the culture we find ourselves in to point out that “in Him we live and move and have our being.”

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