Acton Institute Powerblog

PBR: Film and the Felix culpa

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

We welcome guest blogger Bruce Edward Walker, Communications Manager for the Property Rights Network at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. This week’s PBR question is: “How should conservatives engage Hollywood?”

It is true that liberal depictions of dissolute and immoral behavior are rampant in modern cinema and justified as the desired end of hedonistic tendencies, but conservative critics too often come across as cultural scolds, vilifying films and filmmakers for not portraying reality as conservatives would like to see it. For many conservative critics, the only worthwhile contemporary movies made are adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series or those that feature Kirk Cameron in a starring role. The verisimilitude inherent in all compelling storytelling is neglected in favor of presenting idealized worlds in which a clearly defined good always overcomes easily identified evil.

Such an approach is simplistic and insults those of us that can recognize the presence of moral themes in the works of Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor and Tom Wolfe, and don’t automatically blanch at cursing, violence, sex and nudity when it serves a real dramatic purpose. Humanity, of course, is fallen and it’s foolish to expect conservative audiences to respond only to films that depict all marriages as salvageable, all protagonists as heroic metaphors for Christ and all heroines as virgins until the wedding night. Reality teaches us that these scenarios are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Felix culpa – the fortunate fall from whence one can experience God’s grace – is the phrase St. Thomas Aquinas used to explain how God allows evil to exist in order to allow for the greater good of His redemption. For all the decadence he depicted, for example, French poet Charles Baudelaire was perceived by none other than T.S. Eliot as still entering the Church albeit through the back door.

It is in this light that God’s creatures are the flawed but teachable characters in Judd Apatow’s films just as much as the disciples in “The Passion of the Christ.” In any event, Apatow’s characters are more relatable to modern filmgoers who have experienced or witnessed much of the same randy behavior, salty talk and personal challenges. His characters end up doing the right things after recognizing that becoming a true adult requires truly adult behavior, which includes personal sacrifice and accepting responsibility for one’s actions.

In between the laugh-out-loud funny parts of Apatow’s “40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” are tremendously affecting apologia for fidelity and marriage in the context of the predominant hookup culture, having a baby instead of an abortion and, perhaps most radical, displaying the unsexiness and violence of childbirth to young audience members who can’t foresee the logical outcome of a fetus carried to term. Show, don’t tell has been the mantra of fiction writers since time immemorial, and Apatow’s movies sneak their conservative messages under the radar of four-letter words, scatological humor, illegal drug use and raunchiness.

Dramatic films can often teach positive Christian messages by showing us the end results of persistently un-Christian behavior. The 2004 Academy Award Best Picture “Million Dollar Baby,” for example, was attacked by many Christian conservatives for its perceived endorsement of euthanasia. While I admit I was among this group after the first viewing, a subsequent viewing forced me to look deeper.

Frankie Dunn, played by the film’s director Clint Eastwood, is worse than a lapsed Catholic. He delights in taunting the local parish priest, for example, and is guilty of an unnamed sin that has exiled him from his daughter’s life. The loss of his daughter and inability to stop a fight 25 years earlier in which Scrap (Morgan Freeman), a fighter he managed, loses an eye leads him to seek redemption by mentoring a young female boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), who is tragically paralyzed during a championship bout. Maggie beseeches Frankie to help end her life and he eventually complies.

Frankie’s act can hardly be considered heroic, however, as it flies in the face of the counsel given him by his priest. Frankie lives the remainder of his life alone – exiled to the diner he owns, and never reconciling with his daughter, his past or his Savior. He exists in a purgatory of his own making, and we in the audience are left to analyze the morality of this deeply flawed man.

The main theme of Christianity is redemption and often the best way to depict this theme is to document what human actions require redeeming – and what in the eyes of our Creator may be worthy of salvation. One may hate the sins of Graham Green’s Whiskey Priest in “The Power and the Glory” (cinematically recreated by director John Ford and actor Henry Fonda in the 1947 film “The Fugitive”). Or Sarah Miles in the 1999 film “The End of the Affair” (based on another Graham novel) but that’s entirely the point. It is from the depths of their lurid behavior that they finally are able to accept God’s truths.

The modern world presents us with challenges of flesh and conscience that mature Christian artists and audiences alike must address in order to serve as responsible witnesses of Christ’s mercy. To pretend reprehensible behavior doesn’t exist and, furthermore, dwell on our hatred of the sins rather than our love and the belief in the potential redemption of the sinner will marginalize further the cinematic depiction of Christian principles.

Bruce Edward Walker has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. Most recently, he was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2007 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past three years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Midland, Mich., with his wife Katherine.


  • Well said.

    I still flinch at nudity in film though. I doubt I can let that go.

  • I was struck by the relentless drive of the father (Liam Neeson) to rescue his daughter in last year’s “Taken.” To me, the film’s value went beyond its clear recognition of good guys win/bad guys lose; it could also be seen as an exploration of the depths of a father’s love for his daughter, and the lengths he would go to in order to rescue her.

    And if we, who are fallen, can love our children that deeply and fiercely, how much more does our heavenly Father love us?

    Thanks for the reminder to search for the moral themes.

  • Neal Lang

    I agree entirely with Mr. Walker’s assessment of Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby”. I saw the movie on 60th Birthday Party, compliments of my daughter and her husband who arranged for the tickets for my wife and myself, and invited several dozen of my family and friends to a party at one of the shankiest Movie Theatres in town.

    The impact of the movie was watching Eastwood aganize with the decision of whether or not to end the life of the young girl that obviously had taken the place of his own daughter in his life. What made the movie even more pungent for me was the circumstances occasion on which I was viewing the flix. I could not imagine have I could possibily dealing with a similar situation involving my own daughter, or any of my other beloved children or wife for that matter. It made the Frankie Dunn character all the more sympothetic. As for Frankie Dunn being a lapse Catholic, of that I not so sure. It was plan that he was separated from his wife, however, as a good Catholic he had not taken another wife. While teased the priest, that it seemed to be the way dealt with all those close to him including the female boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald, and his close friend, Scrap. In fact, when faced with the great moral dilemma of doing what his beloved substitute daughter wished and what he knew to be morally correct, he sought advice, as would any good Catholic, from his priest.

    It is not necessary for a movie or any literary creation to end with the main character making the right moral decision. All that is necessary is for the audience to understand that the featured character made the wrong moral choice and thus suffered the consequences.

  • Deborah Conley

    I understand your argument as I have heard it & read it before. What I can’t get past is why is it a good thing to keep going so deeply into sin & dispair & depravity? The message of redemption should not require so much (what seems to me) wallowing in the dreadfulness to find that little glimmer of goodness. The culture is so filled with sin that these works of art are almost indistinguishable & most people don’t get the point. Good art shouldn’t be that hard to understand. I am reminded of the classic tent evangelist whose graphic descriptions of their past sins they committed before they were saved actually served as a pornographic experience for their audience. Are such movies doing the same thing? I also think of St. Paul teaching that our souls are enriched by the good & the true & the beautiful but this sort of story seems just the opposite so that people can have pornography rationalized as redemption stories. Just a thought.

  • Bruce Edward Walker

    Thank you for your comments, Ms. Conley. My only response that applies to your concerns is that Jesus didn’t hang out only with like-minded individuals, but with sinners, Saul was a bit of a pill prior to his fateful trip to Damascus, Dante journeyed through Hades and the Purgatorio prior to Paradise, and Shakespeare crafted beautiful art containing universal truths within his depictions of history, comedy and tragedy.

  • Becky Hahn

    I have to disagree. I have seen great movies without hearing any swearing or seeing any naked people. Movies such as Grapes of Wrath, All About Eve, To Hell and Back, etc. There are times when it’s necessary to show how low someone has fallen to set the scene, such as the prostitute scene in ‘Sea Biscuit’ but you don’t have to dwell on it. The movie showed enough to get their point across. That’s all that was needed. Another instance would be the movie ‘Crash’. Powerful movie,portraying how much harm sin actually causes people. There was a scene in there that was very physical which set the scene for what happened later. But the entire movie wasn’t that way. So, I can’t agree that violence and nudity have to be included.

    As for real life. I exist in real life and I go day after day without hearing hardly any swearing and seeing no naked people or people having sex. And if I happened to walk in on someone naked or having sex I would quickly remove myself and not sit there and watch. That’s real life.

    Also, redemption occurs when you stop doing what you did to cause yourself to be redeemed and use whatever knowledge/compassion you gained to help other people recover or keep them from making the same mistakes that you did. It’s not repeating the same behavior over and over again hoping that it will turn out right next time.

    I would warn you about something I’ve labeled, ‘poison-laced Christianity’. It’s movies, books, or talks that include just enough Christian ethics/morality to get people thinking that it’s a Christian theme, so they will swallow it. Instead there is always that poison dart and the Christian theme gets twisted just a bit so evil comes off looking moral. How about a movie where the guy has faith in God and his teaching of ‘thou shalt not kill’ and the corresponding grace that God pours out on him when he doesn’t kill the girl? The same grace that God poured out on Gov. Sarah Palin once she decided not to abort her down-syndrome diagnosed son (she talks about this in a speech given in Indiana recently. The speech can be seen at

    Lastly, the good guy always wins. It may not seem like it all the time, but God has it set up that way. And I love to watch it in movies. There is nothing so satisfying in a movie as when the good guy triumphs.

  • Bruce Edward Walker

    Respectfully, Ms. Hahn, I, too, have seen many great movies w/o swearing, nudity and violence. But does that mean those are the only movies that can be labeled “great”? I sincerely doubt it. If we attempt to bring others into the Christian fold, or at least allow them to witness the goodness of our respective faiths w/o turning them off with proselytizing or depiction of characters with whom they cannot relate than we are merely preaching to the choir. Again, Christ intentionally walked among sinners to remind us that we are all fallen. It is always better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

  • Deborah Conley

    If the only alternatives are lighting a candle or cursing the darkness, then indeed choose the candle lighting. But, that is not the choice. We can do both & should do both. Not cursing the darkness can lead to so much more darkness, like good people doing nothing in the face of evil. I would still assert that using pornography (or whatever evil you wish to name) to combat pornography doesn’t make much sense. More importantly, though, I am convinced that the images & stories we watch & listen to have an direct impact on our souls ultimately. The more goodness we see & think about strengthens our souls & the more violence & degradation we see & think about diminishes us. That there may be a candle somewhere in it does little to counteract the damage evil does to us. Why do we have to settle for little candles when we know that many & brighter lights can be lit?

  • Bruce Edward Walker

    Measured by such a hubristic standard we should curse the violence and sexuality of the majority of the Old Testament and portions of the New Testament. But I know you’re not suggesting this in the slightest. I would agree that a film such as “The Bad Lieutenant” — regardless the theme of redemption — is a very difficult film to watch and I would hesitate recommending it to anyone. Verisimilitude, realism and dramatic structure sometimes — not always as this is not a zero sum conversation as some of the comments seem to imply — require or are at least have their messages enhanced by inclusions of violence, nudity, sex. If you choose to avoid these films, fine. But my point is that too many Christian critics throw out the baby with the bathwater when disparaging films for perceived non-Christian content while at the same time containing Christian themes that should be identified and embraced. And too many Christian films, as John Couretas just posted, contain the dreck factor because they don’t present a compelling narrative. Graham Greene, Flannery O’Conner recognized this. Let’s go back to the Bible. Are Paul’s letters remembered only because they represent the best of Christian thought? Perhaps, but aren’t his ideas made even more relevant by the fact that Paul began as Saul — a fella that would’ve been comfortable hanging out with Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men? I direct you to Couretas’ most recent post for making an even stronger argument.