One of the hardest days of my life was when Clint Eastwood and I parted ways.
Before we get there, a bit of background. The way I view things, there are three categories of expected behaviors in the LDS Church. At the top of the pyramid are commandments that are sufficiently serious that violation of them most likely would affect your standing in the Church (like murder, adultery, child abuse), or would limit your ability to enter into the temple, our most sacred place of worship (not obeying the Word of Wisdom, not paying your tithing, dishonesty, etc.). At the next level are commandments that you are supposed to keep, but we expect most folks to struggle with them, so it doesn’t affect your membership, your ability to hold callings, or your worthiness to attend the temple. These are things like loving your neighbor, keeping the Sabbath day holy, regular church attendance, accepting callings, and so forth.
Then there is significant amount of counsel given that isn’t binding, but is offered as a way to help you improve your discipleship, become more like Christ and, truth be told, avoid violating some of those “bigger” commandments that have greater consequences to your own spirituality and your standing in the Church. This counsel may shift in emphasis slightly over time, or new counsel may be given based upon what is happening in society. Because we believe that the President of the Church and the other General Authorities are led by revelation through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, we tend to take such counsel seriously, although how you respond to such advice is a personal decision. Some folks take it quite literally and absolutely. Others are more casual about it.
One example of such counsel is in the selection of our entertainment. Over the years, there have been several occasions when the leadership of the Church has discouraged members from attending R-rated movies. (One of those had a loophole that I exploited for years: Mormons shouldn’t be seen in an R-rated movie. I figured I could just go into the theater after the previews started, when it was sufficiently dark). It has never been expressed, to my knowledge, as a THOU SHALT NOT kind of commandment, and I know plenty of Mormons who attend R-rated movies with little or no reservations.
That’s the more-or-less official answer. The principle on which the counsel is based is that disciples of Christ should be very cautious about the kinds of material to which they expose their minds and spirits. But there is a wide spectrum of entertainment choices running between Sesame Street and hard-core pornography. Establishing any “line” over which you should not cross admittedly is difficult. For many of us, avoiding R-rated movies is an easy way to avoid some of the decision-making. We assume that most stuff in that category is inappropriate to one degree or another, so we avoid it entirely, and then try to use our best judgment about everything else.
I don’t watch R-rated movies myself, but that was not always the case for me. My parents didn’t care much one way or the other, and I watched all of the Dirty Harry movies in the theater, starting from when I was in grade school. It wasn’t until long after I was married that my wife and I decided to take the counsel against R-rated movies to heart, feeling that it wasn’t great for us to watch those movies and even worse to permit our kids to watch them. Although walking away from Clint Eastwood movies initially hurt a lot, I don’t think I’ve been particularly deprived as a result. My daughters find that it is a helpful standard, and they ask to be excused if R-rated movies are shown in school (which happens at a rate that frankly surprises me). So it works for me, but I’m not going to call anyone to repentance for watching Die Hard.
Now there are a couple of objections to this counsel that probably deserve a response. The first is, why should we delegate our moral decision-making to the MPAA ratings guide? That’s a fair question, given how inconsistent those ratings can be. In my mind, you have to use something as a guide if you want to avoid entertainment that you feel is inappropriate. I don’t want to blow 10 bucks on a movie, only to find out 20 minutes into it that it has material that I find offensive. That still happens with some PG-13 movies, which frequently have more graphic language, sex or violence than I would expect, but if I ignored ratings altogether, every movie would be a roll of the dice. The MPAA rating system isn’t perfect, but it certainly is helpful.
The second objection, which I hear more frequently from inside the Church, is that many movies are rated R for violence or language and have no sexual content. I think that misses the point entirely. Sexual content is not the only thing that makes entertainment inappropriate. I think that it is difficult to maintain your spiritual sensibility and sensitivity if you subject yourself to a constant stream of profanity and violence. After all, one of the most significant indictments made by God against Sodom and Gomorrah was that they were “full of violence.” I believe that we need to be careful about more than just sexually explicit content if we want to stretch our discipleship to a higher level.
I’ll admit to many heartfelt “RATS!” during movie previews when a particularly enticing flick ends up being rated R. But trying to live as a follower of Christ means that you give up some stuff that appeals to you in exchange for better stuff that enlightens you. So, I’ve chosen to defer my gratification until certain movies come out edited on broadcast TV, or I just forget about them altogether. It’s just my good luck that I’m a sucker for cartoons.