“No Strings Attached” starring Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman edged out competitors to be this week’s number one movie at the box office pulling in $20.3 million. In case you missed the ads for this latest romantic comedy, the premise is that Portman and Kutcher are friends who hook up for casual sex. Portman is an overworked doctor-in-training who lacks the time for romance and Kutcher is a sensitive writer who lost his last girlfriend to his TV star dad. So they make a pact to continue having as much casual sex as they want without the entanglements of a committed relationship. It doesn’t take a Netflix member to guess that feelings develop and the plot swirls around the relationship that isn’t supposed to happen. Just another boy meets girl, boy and girl have sex, boy and girl develop feelings story, right?
Casual sex leading to a romantic relationship is not new for Hollywood, seen recently in “Love and Other Drugs” and appearing again in an upcoming film entitled “Friends with Benefits”. This should no longer come as a surprise. As one movie critic remarked, the premise is “not exactly shocking.” Why doesn’t this shock us? Because popular entertainment has been preaching this sexuality for years and culture has been listening. James Harleman, a pastor at Mars Hill in Seattle who maintains cinemagogue.com, writes this about the role of cinema:
Cinema is a modern day pulpit. Movie theaters are not so different from church assemblies; people flock to their local multiplexes, group together, and find themselves moved by a worldview revealed in story form, allowing themselves to be emotionally led by directors and screenwriters who influence how we feel, think, and even act.
A worldview underlies every movie and is expressed creatively through the medium of storytelling. This includes concepts of God, reality, the nature of man, morality, ethics, spirituality, and even sexuality. As much as we resist the idea that our entertainment has any effect on us, anyone who has cried at the end of “Braveheart” or felt their heart warmed by the ending of “Toy Story 3” knows that it does.
Therefore, “No Strings Attached” and its predecessors are preaching a view about human sexuality to anyone who will part with $8.50 to hear it and they have heard it well. U.S. Census figures estimate over 6.4 million cohabitating opposite sex couples. Sociologist Michael Kimmel, reporting on The Online College Social Life Survey administered to 7,000 students on nine campuses, said:
What may be surprising, though, is how many young people accept that hooking up – recreational sex with no strings attached – is the best and most prevalent arrangement available to them… Now, hooking up is pretty much all there is; relationships begin and end with sex. Hooking up has become the alpha and omega of young adult romance.
Janet Reitman of Rolling Stone magazine reported on the dating situation at Duke University writing:
Much to the disappointment of many students, female and male, there’s no real dating scene at Duke—true for a lot of colleges. “I’ve never been asked out on a date in my entire life—not once,” says one stunning brunette… Rather, there’s the casual one-night stand, usually bolstered by heavy drinking and followed the next morning by—well, nothing, usually. “You’ll hook up with a guy, and you know that nothing will come out of it,” says Anna. The best thing you can hope for, she says, “is that you’ll get to hook up with him again.”
Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Did Hollywood drive this view of sexuality or does it merely reflect it? The answer is both. Just like in a Baptist church the preacher’s message shapes the congregation and the congregation comes to the preacher’s message with certain expectations.
As Christians, what is our response to a film like “No Strings Attached”? The approach of a previous generation – to boycott or ignore this kind of entertainment – failed, even if it was well-intentioned. It created a gap between the church and the wider culture and left Christians poorly equipped. Our response should be to critically engage with entertainment and display the glory of Christian marriage to the culture.
Our entertainment influences us. It influences many Christians more than the Word of God as they consume more entertainment in a week than they do the Word. Thus, some films would be unwise to consume because the worldview they preach so dishonors Christ or the content they contain so feeds sinful desires that it would poison our hearts which are the wellspring of life (Prov. 4:23, Phil. 4:8). But we also need to critically engage and not just enjoy or avoid film. What view of God lies behind the film? What does it say about humanity? About truth? About sexuality? Who are the heroes and who are the villains and what do they champion? James Harleman expresses our task this way:
It is our hope that people would enjoy and engage cinema and storytelling mediums not just as “diversion” but with discernment, engaging the culture around us and reflecting on how it distorts and reflects the larger narrative of our lives.
Christians also need to portray the wonderful vision of biblical marriage as an alternative to the culture. The sexuality preached by “No Strings Attached” is a lie that is ultimately empty and unfulfilling. A Michigan State study revealed only one in ten “no strings attached” relationships end in romance with 90% adding stress and ending friendships. The sexuality preached by the God of the universe is radically different and more glorious. In Genesis 2:24 he declares: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” This is a story of boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy marries girl, boy and girl become one flesh and enjoy the pleasure of sex in the security and joy of marriage.
“No Strings Attached” is preaching a message and the culture is listening. Are we willing to critically engage that message and offer a compelling alternative?