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Sex in Movies: Was John Piper Right All Along?

November 3rd, 2017 | 5 min read

By Jake Meador

So Kevin Spacey is in the news this week for what increasingly appears to be a Weinstein- or Cosby-level history of sexual abuse. In Spacey’s case, however, his typical target was allegedly young boys he met through his work as an actor. The story began when actor Anthony Rapp accused Spacey of attempting to seduce him when he was only 14 years old. Spacey promptly apologized and tried to distract from the horror of the accusation by coming out as part of his apology. It worked for a minute, but then more victims came forward. Now, predictably, Spacey has announced plans to “seek treatment.”

The revelations about Spacey also put a very different spin on some of his past work: The Oscar-winning film American Beauty is about Spacey’s marriage breaking down due in part to his lusting after his teenage daughter’s best friend. More recently, one of the big storylines in season one of his much-discussed House of Cards is his ongoing affair with a female reporter who is 25 years his junior.

Both storylines felt extremely dark at the time, but I think I could rationalize my decision to watch the movies by telling myself that those were just movie scenes, they weren’t “real life,” (whatever that means) and they were only one aspect of stories that had tons of other engaging, interesting material in them. The Spacey accusations, along with the many other allegations coming out about other leading men in Hollywood, have me rethinking that position. Specifically, they have me wondering if John Piper was right all along.

Piper, you might remember, has said on multiple occasions that he refuses to watch any movie that has nudity in it because, while other things in movies can be “faked,” in the sense that it is a person playing a part, the nudity is real:

I have a high tolerance for violence, high tolerance for bad language, and zero tolerance for nudity. There is a reason for these differences. The violence is make-believe. They don’t really mean those bad words. But that lady is really naked, and I am really watching. And somewhere she has a brokenhearted father.

I’ll put it bluntly. The only nude female body a guy should ever lay his eyes on is his wife’s. The few exceptions include doctors, morticians, and fathers changing diapers. “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” (Job 31:1). What the eyes see really matters. “Everyone who looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Better to gouge your eye than go to hell (verse 29).

Brothers, that is serious. Really serious. Jesus is violent about this. What we do with our eyes can damn us. One reason is that it is virtually impossible to transition from being entertained by nudity to an act of “beholding the glory of the Lord.” But this means the entire Christian life is threatened by the deadening effects of sexual titillation.

In the past I remember looking at Piper’s advice and feeling conflicted by it. On the one hand, it’s always seemed basically right and sensible to me to say that millennial Christians are generally too free with their media consumption and could learn something from the stricter guidelines that you would routinely run into with older evangelicals. On the other, Piper’s advice seemed overly rigid. After all, there are many otherwise-excellent movies that would fail his test plus Scripture itself often describes sex in fairly frank ways.1

That said, his underlying point—that you can’t really separate the sexuality you see on the screen from “real life”—is looking more and more indisputable by the day. It’s not just Spacey facing these accusations after all. There are tons of leading men in Hollywood being accused of similar things. Indeed, the best explanation for how Harvey Weinstein got away with so much for so long may well be that so many other leading men were doing the same things. Moreover, they’ve been doing the same things for a very long time—consider the notorious story of Marlon Brando and his director not informing co-star Maria Schneider about the details of a rape scene so that they could film a more “realistic” reaction.

It seems increasingly probable to me that there is a strong link between much of the behavior we see depicted on screen and the things being reported in these various allegations against Hollywood’s leading men. Certainly in the case of Spacey there are a number of scenes in American Beauty and House of Cards that, somehow, look even creepier today than they did when they first came out. And if that is the case, then it would seem to follow that younger Christians who have generally adopted more liberal attitudes toward media need to return to this question and ask how much we should be willing to look past when it comes to a popular movie or TV show.

To put it differently, those who would argue for a more permissive approach to watching movies that depict nudity need to answer two basic questions, I think: First, how confident are you that the things that actor or actress is doing is really just acting? Certainly in the case of Spacey it seems reasonable to think that the line between real life and acting became very blurry in several cases. Second, how comfortable are you with the possibility that you may be supporting this behavior through your decision to consume this media?

I am still not entirely sure how I answer these questions for myself and I am leery for many reasons of making laws on the matter. But it is becoming more apparent almost with each passing day that the people who have been entertaining America are themselves guilty of some of the most horrific moral offenses one can imagine. If that is what our entertainment dollars are supporting, is it perhaps time for us to look away?

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).