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Watching Saw for Jesus

If you're a Bible-believing Christian, you can avoid popular culture — or you can study it

Imagine that PETA provided detailed reviews on its website of, like, steakhouses. That's sort of what Focus on the Family, a deeply conservative and powerful Christian organization based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has been doing for more than 20 years. Focus has written extensive entertainment reviews on everything from Beyoncé's Lemonade ("a dizzying artistic tour de force plumbing the chaotic depths of agony, abandonment, betrayal, resurgence and forgiveness") to Saw ("In a (very) twisted sort of way, the movie highlights living gratefully").

Focus on the Family opposes abortion, gambling, premarital sex, marriage equality, and LGBT visibility; has voiced support for "conversion therapy" for LGBT kids; and until 2009, operated Love Won Out, an "ex-gay ministry." Before the 2008 presidential election, it sent out a mailer to thousands of people saying that Israel would be hit by a nuclear bomb if Barack Obama was elected. The group's conservative bonafides are so unquestioned that founder Dr. James Dobson's endorsement of Donald Trump (Dobson called him a "baby Christian") marked a critical moment in Trump's attempts to appeal to evangelicals.

But where many evangelical Christians respond to popular culture by rejecting it or creating their own version (think: God's Not Dead), Focus on the Family embraces mainstream entertainment — sort of. Since 1991, its team of reviewers has been watching, listening to, and playing nearly every popular movie, album, and video game on the market.

I've been following Focus on the Family's reviews for 15 years, having stumbled upon them while trying to learn about becoming an evangelical Christian myself. I was raised Catholic, but growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, being Catholic was like being into breathing or drinking water. Some Christians don't even think Catholics are Christians in the first place; I wanted something stronger. I was also gay and desperate for purity and absolution and increasingly stricter rules, because if I followed them, maybe this feeling that I was made wrong and there was nothing I could do about it would go away.

Focus on the Family certainly didn't make me straight, but I never lost my interest in how people so set against the elements of popular culture with which I identified most (or just plain enjoyed) managed to engage with that culture, and do so thoughtfully. When they disapproved, they didn't seem to simply say "no" — they said, "no, and here's why." I've long since abandoned my attempts to become an evangelical, but I have kept up with Focus on the Family's reviews. Naturally, I’ve had a long time now to think up some questions for them. Adam Holz, senior associate editor for Plugged In, Focus's review website, had answers.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you get into doing movie and music reviews? Did you have a history of doing reviews for any other publication?

Adam Holz: I have a degree in English and Religion from the University of Iowa, and I’ve always had a desire to write. … I bumped into a friend of mine at a coffee shop who was having coffee with her sister. It turned out that her sister was leaving a position at Plugged In and suggested that I apply. I did, and I got the job. That was in September of 1996.

I never really thought of pursuing a “reviewer” job when I was in college. But I find that what I learned in school about trying to look carefully at a text and to interpret it fairly continues to be a skill set that I use all the time in this job. I had a Shakespeare professor in college who would begin every conversation about a particular play with the question, “What’s going on here?” I think it’s a great reviewer question, because it forces us to look carefully before we begin to interpret. It’s a great question for studying the Bible, too. So, in many ways, I don’t see reviewing movies or music as that much different from reading and interpreting classical literature. We still must look, observe, try to see clearly, then ask the “so what?” questions that inevitably follow.

Do you find it challenging to balance "art" with the qualities you're looking for when you review a film? Do you ever find yourself recommending a movie that you think is not particularly, say, good?

Holz: We spend most of our reviews trying to give people a sense of what a movie is about and as detailed as possible a description of the content that they'll experience there, so that they can make a good decision for themselves and/or their family.

In terms of the way we review movies, it's a bit different from most other reviewers out there. We're not as focused on the aesthetic or artistic qualities of a film as much as we are the content, worldview, and overall messages – I'd say we're about 80 percent focused on content, perhaps 20 percent focused on aesthetics. So there are movies that may not be excellent from an artistic point of view, in our opinion, that we would nonetheless give a fairly positive review because of positive content, message, or worldview.

Our constituents are, for the most part, conservative, evangelical Christians. There are exceptions, of course. We know that not everyone fits that demographic. But that's who we're writing for, and the people we have in mind when we give a high or low "Family Friendly" rating (the colored plugs at the top of the review).

In contrast to that, do you ever find yourself enjoying a film or a movie you know you couldn't possibly recommend? How do you feel when that happens?

Holz: I actually like quite a broad spectrum of films — even though that might come as a surprise to some folks! And, sometimes, I do find movies that I couldn't recommend engaging or enjoyable.

Here's how I deal with that tension. In a general sense, I think that there are three primary ways viewers may respond to culture: avoidance, caution, and dialogue. There are movies out there that we would probably just flat-out suggest avoiding. Sausage Party is a recent example. Most things, however, fall in the caution category. This means that there's content that you (and/or your family) should be really cautious about and think about critically. Then there are movies that we enter into dialogue with.

This is a simplified grid, to be sure. But I'd say that there are probably movies I, personally, would be able to engage with — to dialogue about — that, for content reasons, I likely wouldn't recommend to anyone. A recent example: The movie War Dogs was an intriguing film in the questions it raises about personal integrity and compromise as well as how the international military arms procurement process works. I found it to be engaging, but with 130 F-words, I know that content is absolutely going to push it out of bounds for the vast majority of our constituents. In my review, I tried to give it credit for being a kind of "cautionary tale," while acknowledging that it's got content that many people in our audience are going to find offensive.

In the last five to ten years, have you found yourself enjoying "Christian" movies more? Do you think movies that genre of movies is getting better?

Holz: I do think that the Christian movie genre is improving. In the past, there have been some films that combine preachiness with not-very-good moviemaking. In the last year, I'd cite Risen and The Young Messiah as movies that have raised the bar, both artistically and storytelling-wise. I think Christian moviemakers as a whole are getting better at telling stories and not feeling compelled to spell out the answer to everything, altar-call style, in the end.

I think that Christian filmmakers are slowly learning that we don't have to provide all the answers,we don't always have to connect all the dots for a movie to be effective in raising questions and delivering a message or moral. That said, there are times when a story does require those things, and I think many in the Christian movie industry are trying to strike that balance.

An interesting example of just hanging a question out there is Scott Derrickson's 2005 film The Exorcism of Emily Rose. It adapts the story of a real-life exorcism that ended in a woman's death. Half the movie, roughly, is a horrific depiction of her possession. The other half takes place in a courtroom as it's suggested that the priest made a mistake, that all Emily's maladies were explainable via mental health problems. The film presents two different explanations for what happened to her, one physical/biological, one metaphysical/spiritual, and lets viewers grapple with what really happened without absolutely trying to answer the question.

I think Christian filmmakers are still trying to figure out when it's OK to ask questions without answering them, and when we need to point people toward the truths and convictions we believe deeply.

What do you think about the politicization of movies aimed at evangelical Christian audiences? Do you think that is responding to what that audience is looking for?

Holz: I think that there's a significant segment of evangelical Christians in America who believe — and with evidence to support that belief — that their understanding, their values, and their beliefs are under assault in the media, from the elites and in academia. There's a sense that we're on the defensive. I think it's natural when it feels like you're under attack to long for someone out there to tell "your side" of the story.

Movies like God's Not Dead (both of them) tap into that feeling, and they provide a vehicle to express what many Christians in America are feeling about the state of culture today. The fact that those two movies, in particular, have done so well would indicate that there's a market of Christians who want their side of the story told. Movies like God's Not Dead are an expression, I think, of coming to terms with a changing culture in which the ideas and ideals we've held to are no longer mainstream but in fact increasingly countercultural themselves.

What is the most controversial review Plugged In has ever done? Like, the one you heard about most from readers?

Holz: I’d have to say that title goes to last year’s Fifty Shades of Grey. [Editor's note: the site called it "a lopsided love story of sorts — a longing for real intimacy, a desire to partner with someone in every capacity."] We had a lot of criticism about a film that, for many of our constituents, seems self-evidently problematic on many levels. That said, the review of that film is one of our most-read ever, and we’ve heard from many people who thanked us for tackling it and said that the review helped them make a decision to pass on seeing it.

Are there elements of a movie that will automatically make you feel like, "oh no, this is not going to be good" when you're reviewing? Gay or lesbian characters, etc.?

Holz: Obviously, there are massive discussions taking place in our culture with regard to sexuality in particular. These are not easy things to talk about, in part because we're very aware that mainstream culture continues to move away from any semblance of a traditional, Judeo-Christian understanding of the purpose and place of sexuality. These are difficult issues to deal with fairly and in a way that is true to the convictions about sex that we believe the Scriptures spell out clearly. I don't fear engaging with these issues — and I don't believe any of our other reviewers do either — but I don't relish them, either. They're not easy things to deal with, but it's part of our job.

I read the comments on Plugged In's blog and sometimes people seem very surprised you are even reviewing certain movies or albums because to them, it's obvious that they should be avoided. How would you respond to those commenters?

Holz: We look closely at which reviews our people are reading, and it's amazing to see the kinds of things people are interested in. Take a movie like 2012's Magic Mike. This was a movie about male strippers. It's exactly what you're talking about: Why would we need to review an explicit, R-rated movie about male strippers? Self-evident, right? And yet, we had 60,000 people read that review in the first three days after it was posted. It was staggering and shocking how much traffic it got. So even though it might seem self-evident to many in our audience that something is obviously "out of bounds," many others are still coming to us to see what we have to say about those films.

The same thing is true of a lot of the music we review. You wouldn't think that metal and hard rock would be among the most popular musical genres on our site, but they are. People want to know what we think about that genre.

We want to help people think critically and, as much as possible, theologically about the stuff that's happening out there in pop culture. And we can't help people do that if we shy away from the entertainment that the culture is producing.

What's surprised you most about the responses you get from readers? Do you think your readers are more or less conservative than you are?

Holz: Though I think we have a core, evangelical constituency that largely shares our convictions, we have readers of all kinds out there. We have folks write in who are far, far more conservative than Focus on the Family itself is. And we have folks write in who I'm surprised would ever look at Plugged In or any Focus on the Family website. We had a guitarist for a well-known secular band write in years ago and give us props for how fair he thought our reviews were. And we have people write in and say vile, hateful, violent things to us as well — just as I'm sure you probably do. The internet is an amazing, sometimes awesome, sometimes really scary place.