Movies are an important diversion in Juneau, Alaska, especially during the long, dark winter.
So when Hona Burkholder, a 26-year-old youth pastor at that city's Auke Bay Bible Church, wasn't sure whether "We Were Soldiers," a film about the Vietnam War, was worth the trudge to one of the town's two theaters, he didn't take any chances.
Burkholder sat down at his computer, signed on to the Internet and went to Christiancritic.com. There, he sought the advice of the site's founder, Michael Elliott, an Orlando, Fla., businessman and former actor who devotes his free time to divining "Christian parables" from commercial movies. Recalling the old saying about there being "no atheists in foxholes," Elliott gave the movie 31/2 stars out of a possible four.
"This incredibly honest and graphically violent film about a nearly forgotten Vietnam battle brings us as close to hellish conditions as we should ever want to get," he wrote. "Asking God for deliverance from such a place is not only reasonable, it often seemed to be the only option at hand."
That was exactly the information Burkholder was looking for.
"Mike's rating reassured me that I could comfortably attend and recommend 'We Were Soldiers' to parents who felt that their child would benefit from a realistic picture of the horror of Vietnam," he said, via e-mail.
"I use Christian Web review sites for the same reason people watched 'Siskel and Ebert' for so many years: to make an informed choice before I plunk down $8 for a movie," Burkholder says.
"Michael's site provides you with a good overview of content in the movie so you can make a decision. I like Michael because he doesn't eliminate the value of movies just because they are rated 'R' or aren't 'Christian.' He leaves it up to each person to make their own decision. Plus, he does a real good job of seeing the teachable moments in movies. Even if a movie is rotten, he provides food for thought to the viewer."
Elliott's is one of about three dozen Web sites that offer movie reviews to millions of believers who would like to go to the movies without being shocked or offended. These sites started showing up in the mid-'90s, and their popularity is more evidence of a decision on the part of evangelical Christians to engage popular culture--albeit selectively--rather than to reject it wholesale as decadent and evil, says David Bruce, founder of Hollywoodjesus.com.
"Movies are the common language of our culture," Bruce says. And Christians don't want to be left out of the conversation. "We can no longer say, 'Don't see this, don't watch that.' We can't do that--it's all around us."
Although evangelicals don't want to be left out of the culture, they don't want to be seduced and corrupted by it either.
"They want to encounter it before they criticize it," says the Rev. Skip Parvin, pastor of Tuskawilla United Methodist Church and former editor of the magazines Reel to Real: Making the Most of Movies With Youth, and Reel Faith: Where Meaning Meets the Movies. "One of the tendencies of Christianity has been to criticize the culture without encountering it."
When Kimberly Sapp's father decided that she shouldn't see the movie "Rush Hour 2," the 14-year-old recalls, "I was very disappointed, but I had to trust my dad because I knew it was the best decision."
Are Movie Fans Too
Movie fans dominate the Sapps' Winter Springs, Fla., household. Ellen likes romantic comedies and anything based on the work of novelist Jane Austen. Her four children, ranging in age from 11 to 17, prefer suspense and action films. The family's biggest movie fan is Dad, a 45-year-old marketing consultant who keeps 30 soundtrack CDs in his car.
"I love movies," says Brent Sapp. "I love everything about them. I'm a filmaholic."
But as evangelical Christians, the Sapps don't want to be put off by what they see on the screen, including extreme violence, coarse language, nudity and sexual situations. So before Brent and Ellen head out for a date, or drop their teens at the neighborhood multiplex, they consult Screenit.com, a values-based Web site that rates and analyzes commercial films.
Screenit.com provides a comprehensive appraisal of films, with an overall rating on a 10-point scale. It also offers a grid listing such categories as: alcohol/drugs, blood/gore, disrespectful/bad attitude, guns/weapons, violence, sex/nudity and profanity. For profanity, the exact words are listed--with asterisks for some letters.
"For parents who are concerned about what they and their kids see, it's a valuable tool," he says. "It helps you to establish your own guidelines as to what you will or will not see. It makes you make a choice."
Like many aspects of life in the Information Age, Christian and morality-based movie criticism has now entered cyberspace, providing detailed guidance to tens of millions of believers. Hollywood has taken notice.