The entertainment industry needs more films that handle sexual themes with biblical frankness and biblical restraint. Faith-based movies tend to avoid the former, while mainstream movies tend to avoid the latter.
On one hand, there’s nothing inherently virtuous about avoiding sexual topics in storytelling, even sordid ones. The Bible is filled with tales that aren’t exactly “family-friendly.” On the other hand, there’s nothing inherently necessary about actors depicting sex in front of cameras. As even secular film critics like Richard Brody have noted, sex scenes are typically superfluous because they “simply check boxes for viewers” while contributing “no additional dramatic or emotional significance.”
Within this context, a movie like Redeeming Love—adapted from Francine Rivers’s best-selling novel, inspired by the book of Hosea—might represent the first entry in a new subgenre of faith-based film. We might call it “gritty godliness”—exploring human depravity without simplifying or sanitizing it. This runs the risk of offending those who expect only “clean” stories. Nevertheless, it can address the human condition with greater realism and transparency, and point more effectively to the redemptive power of the gospel.
The plot of Redeeming Love is well suited to such an exploration. Forced into prostitution at a young age, Angel (Abigail Cowen) battles inner and outer demons in nineteenth-century California. Then she encounters Michael Hosea (Tom Lewis), a man who offers her the chance of a new life.
Some Christian critics have acknowledged the film’s redemptive elements. Ted Baehr writes, “The movie has some powerful metaphors of the true depiction of love as shown in a committed married relationship.” Similarly, Adam R. Holz writes, “Redeeming Love captures the beautiful story of what unconditional love truly looks like, especially when our sins may be too difficult for us to bear.”
However, in dealing with numerous sexual topics, Redeeming Love may be the first prominent faith-based film whose two main characters have on-screen sex, in what Holz calls two “lengthy and very sensual” scenes that “involve explicit movements, ecstatic facial expressions and sounds that definitely strain at the boundaries of what’s allowable in a PG-13 movie.”
Debates among Christians about the presence of nudity and sex in media are certainly not new. But it’s an important topic to continually reengage and thoughtfully consider—especially as the boundaries of sexual content on screen continue to be pushed. The release of a “sexy” faith-based film like Redeeming Love offers a chance to revisit this discussion, albeit from a new vantage point.
Consider the Actors
On-screen sex and nudity are typically evaluated by their effect (real or imagined) on viewers. When addressing such material, emphasis is often placed on how much skin is shown on-screen—what we as an audience see. Caveats often sound like, “Yes, the actress is technically naked, but her long hair keeps us from seeing too much.” Or, “Yes, the actors are grinding against and fondling each other, removing each other’s clothes, and engaging in libidinous kissing—but we don’t see any critical body parts, which eliminates the ‘real’ danger of the situation.”
This paradigm for evaluating sexualized visual media leaves out an important part of the equation: those on the other side of the screen. In the economy of the kingdom of God, Christians aren’t called to act primarily as consumers, but as neighbors. And according to Jesus, our neighbors aren’t just the people we live near. They’re also the people we drive behind on the road, the people who take our menu orders, and the people we pay to entertain us. This includes a lot more than just the actors who populate our screens (e.g., pro athletes who subject their bodies to a litany of potential dangers)—but certainly not less.
‘Everything Stays Covered’
A concern for actors and entertainers as our neighbor rarely enters the public consciousness. For example, consider this description of one of Redeeming Love’s sex scenes by Christian cultural commentator Michael Foust: “They kiss and begin undressing. They embrace. Their hips thrust. They breathe heavily. They fall to the bed, with his hand covering her [naked] breast. Lasting about two minutes, it’s not a short scene, either.” But there’s a caveat: “[E]verything stays covered.”
“Everything stays covered.” That’s the deciding factor. We the audience don’t see any vital parts, which ostensibly sanctifies the material. Never mind that two actors who aren’t married to one other were required to spend hours on a film set in various stages of nakedness while simulating sexual acts with each other—acts which Scripture confines to the covenant of marriage (with no exception clause for performers pretending to be married).
Some might argue, “But the actors didn’t engage in actual sex.” Such a position honors the marriage bed only if one views sex through a reductionist lens. A biblically informed view of the sex act, however, is more holistic. I’ve written elsewhere that reducing sex to mere coitus “makes no more sense than reducing a meal to eating dessert, or reducing the Olympics to the closing ceremonies, or reducing a story to its climax. . . . Sex cannot be defined merely by how it ends.”
Filming Immorality to Promote Morality
Christians are called to be salt and light in the world (Matt. 5:13–16). This calling involves experiencing and sharing with others how the “blood of Christ . . . [can] purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14). How antithetical, then, is it for a Christian movie to require actors to numb their conscience through engaging in immorality—in order to draw people to Christ, no less?
Or, to put it another way, in calling audiences to the purifying and restoring love of God, Redeeming Love required its two main actors to perform sexual acts that only a couple of decades ago would have been considered soft-core porn (or what we might call secondhand porn). Inviting actors to pornify themselves for the camera functionally pushes them away from the purifying and restoring love of God in their own lives.
Inviting actors to pornify themselves for the camera functionally pushes them away from the purifying and restoring love of God in their own lives.
While Redeeming Love’s filmmakers seem oblivious to this double standard, others are not. The Aisle Seat writes, “The movie wants to be a faith-based tale with a hint of eroticism, but at the same time, it wants that eroticism to be wholesome, which is contradictory.” Blu-ray.com suggests director D. J. Caruso “spends too much time dancing around the Christian foundation of the story, trying to give the film some extra heat with grind-happy sex scenes.” Flickering Myth says “the camera work. . . [goes] to hilarious extremes blocking nudity of everyone involved while trying to be explicit.” The A.V. Club succinctly describes the film as “horny holiness.”
Irredeemable Sex Doesn’t Redeem God’s Love
If there’s a problem with a movie like Redeeming Love (which I have chosen not to watch), it’s not the subject matter (prostitution), nor the characters (prostitutes and lecherous men), nor the grievous and immoral acts explored (rape, sexual slavery, etc.). No, the problem is the sexual objectification of human beings made in the image of God—all for a message designed to point people to God.
The end doesn’t justify the means. The wrong thing for the right reason is still the wrong thing. And using actors as steamy, erotic pawns to promote a message of redeeming love is not only the wrong thing—it’s irredeemable.
The Gospel Coalition