Vile Things

No vile thing? Well, that pretty much kills off anything that’s not animated, though we’re not terribly sure about the soundness of Buzz Lightyear or Shrek or, for that matter, even St. WALL-E. One’s interpretation of the biblical tone here depends, of course, on translation and the vagaries of denotation/ connotation strategies. The NIV uses “vile,” the KJV says “wicked,” the Amplified Bible “base,” and the NAS fudges with “worthless thing,” a term that could possibly cover one’s car or brother-in-law. All of these presume the ease of identifying the “wicked” and the “vile,” an assumption that the realism of most biblical treatments of evil makes more than tricky. After all, evil comes in many guises, usually elegantly deceptive, and telling the sheep from the goats is best left to the deity. And on it goes, the muddle of meanings, small and great, especially when we’re dealing with ancient words wrenched from lost settings smack into the post-pomo present.

In any case, the psalmist’s stark prohibition seems to derive mostly from ancient Israel’s fierce codes designed to prevent all manner of contamination. Interestingly, this same mood often persists in contemporary critiques of media, even though much of Protestant Christianity resoundingly rejects legalism, at least theologically. In the anti-contamination approach, mere proximity to deficiency or sin somehow sullies or corrupts, purity and grace being, in this view, so gossamer, ephemeral, as to vanish at the slightest touch. One fundamentalist media group, for example, praises notable films but urges not seeing them because they contain the word “damn.” Can we maintain, even furtively, our belief that we can keep ourselves, as one college claimed to do, ten miles from the nearest source of sin?

Of course, there is a point to the contamination concern. Many movies out there simply pander booze, crime, sex, and violence–especially either of the last–and it is a toxic, corrosive brew. Social scientists have long bemoaned the dire effects of “violent pornography,” by which they mean slice-and-dice slasher flicks whose chief appeal is the stalking and mutilation of young women (notable example: the Nightmare on Elm Street series by Wheaton College grad Wes Craven). Other films excite our pleasure in violent retribution–Mel Gibson flicks, for instance, or the early Eastwood, whose late career, ever since Unforgiven, has been one long contrition. And of late we have the comedies of writer-director Judd Apatow (Knocked Up), who venerates the jollies of permanent male pubescence.

When it comes to art, both fine and pop, there’s a long distance between what panders and what is honest. And there’s the rub, for artists and consumers: how to look hard, meaning truly and deeply, but eschew the pander. Two of HBO’s most celebrated series–Deadwood and The Wire, both of which skillfully blended the horrific and the gorgeous–also swam in extremities verbal, sexual, and relational. They were by no means, understandably, everyone’s cup of tea; nor should they be. In the arts, happily, one size does not fit all. Still, these shows exerted a defiant, transfixing power that vexed and harrowed the soul, if only to rouse it.

Art is one of the three great mysteries, said the late, great John Updike (the other two being sex and God). Whatever art is, is not readily definable, though we ceaselessly crave its multiple forms. The venerable Apostle Paul himself scrambles language, mixing moral and aesthetic categories, to capture that elusive stuff to which we may give ourselves: whatever is true, noble, lovely, pure, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8; NIV). An instruction to counterbalance the psalmist’s stern, perplexing code? If so, not bad; we get a drift, to be sure, but no tidy rules. And there’s the hope always, cribbing from Updike again, that in art as in life, “Deepest in the thicket, the thorns spell a Word.”

Roy Anker is professor of English at Calvin College. His new book is Of Pilgrims and Fire: When God Shows Up at the Movies (Eerdmans, 2010). He persists in watching Mad Men a year late, even though he laments in the third season the complete lack of moral insight or progress on the part of any of the major characters.