Frodo and Sam, characters from JRR Tolkien's epic story, the Lord of the Rings

Christians have long viewed Hollywood with suspicion as a corrupting influence for children. There is too much sex, violence, and coarse language in movies, books and on television. As parents we are right to filter the stories our kids read and the movies they watch. But where do you draw the line? How do you decide what is appropriate and what isn’t?

While I am wary of Hollywood, I must confess that I love movies because I love great stories. As Christians, we shouldn’t fear stories because stories are God’s turf. It has been said that all good stories are loved and embraced because they remind us of God’s Great Story. Think about the story arc of the Bible. God creates a paradise, but that paradise is destroyed by betrayal. God, the hero of the story, refuses to accept things as they are and by struggle and sacrifice defeats the powers of evil at the cross, restores creation and in the end gets the girl, his church. Running through the Bible are themes of love, betrayal, redemption, forgiveness, hope, courage, risk, friendship, the journey and struggle. Now think of all the movies you’ve seen. Which of them lack these themes?

This is why I’m drawn to movies and books as a man, but also as a father. I want to expose my kids to great stories, great books and great movies, because I want them to grow to love the Great Story that these lesser stories echo. The question is, how do you identify a great story? These decisions are far more complex that simply limiting my kids to “Christian” books and movies (much of what  is marketed to Christians is frankly junk), or coming up with a litmus test (are there swear words, sensuality, violence, drug/alcohol abuse)?

I do have absolute standards when it comes to younger kids. I don’t want to expose my nine year old to foul language because she will probably start repeating it. She is also too young to deal with issues of sex and love no matter how compelling the story may be. But what about older children? If we said, “no violence, no sensuality, no drug/alcohol abuse, no foul language” then we would have to keep them from reading the Old Testament which has all of these things. When it comes to choosing movies and books for my older children I don’t first ask is there sex, violence and vulgarity, I ask: Does this story make the good attractive? Does this story portray evil and its consequences for what it is, or is evil glamorized?

The series Friday Night Lights features a brooding, bad-boy, heart-throb character (so my wife tells me) named Tim Riggins. Tim is a flawed character portrayed with Biblical realism. He’s a womanizer, an alcoholic, and a criminal, yet you see flashes of God’s image within him. Tim’s story is told with all the dark consequences that flow from his sinful heart so that you are moved to pity, not worship him. At the same time the story moves you to root for that goodness and true manhood to emerge.  It finally does when Tim takes the fall for his older brother and does five years in prison, so that his newborn niece would not grow up without a father. Here is a series with references to teen sex and depictions of drugs and alcohol that I recommend to my older kids. Why? Because it is good story. It echoes God’s story of redemption, makes the good attractive and is honest about the wages of sin.

Again, we must also remember to take the maturity of our individual children into account. The movie Gladiator is a great story that paints a powerful picture of true, courageous, and sacrificial manhood, but a ten year old boy may not be ready for the graphic violence that runs through the film. It’s a great story, but it’s not age appropriate.

I have come recognize that great movies and great books are an important part of discipling children. Chosen wisely they can, as CS Lewis called it, “baptize the imagination.” He recognized that the stories he was raised on shaped his heart to love the themes of self-sacrifice, love, loyalty, and redemption that when he picked up the Scriptures he fell in love with the Great Story and its hero, Jesus Christ.