I recently finished reading The Goldfinch, a novel that’s a bit difficult to explain. What it is purportedly about (a boy who loses his mother in a terrorist attack and then loses his way, perhaps for the rest of his life, to lies and debauchery and moral turpitude) is not what it is actually about, which is the obstinate human quest for beauty.
I was aware of my Mormon biases as I read the story. My moral outrage extended first to condemning the behavior of almost every adult character (those selfish bastards!) and then the actions of Theo himself, who devolves into a nihilistic, lying addict.
Yet the novel is a profoundly moral one, demanding that readers confront the pain of life head on, without flinching. I’d go so far as to say it is the most morally rigorous book I’ve read all year.
What’s more, the book itself suggests that great works of art have a responsibility to actually care about such things as moral rigor and uplift. Quaint. In the final pages, Theo reflects that art should strive to make people better, which is a charmingly old-fashioned notion nowadays, and very much in keeping with Mormon sensibilities.
Yet this is a book that Mormon mores would condemn sight unseen simply because of its foul language, sexual promiscuity, and rampant scenes of drug abuse. If novels had ratings (God forbid), it would most certainly receive an R.
I have long struggled with my religion’s knee-jerk Puritanism in rejecting any film that the MPAA has labeled with a scarlet R. (See here for an article I wrote over a decade ago about R-rated movies that had strengthened my spiritual testimony.)
The “never see R-rated movies” approach is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, adult Mormons take a guideline that is intended for teenagers in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet and expand it to all Mormons in all times and places. This all-or-nothing tactic goes beyond even what our church leaders have advised adults to do.
The idea behind that extrapolation — that a 50-year-old has no more sense than a 15-year-old about the moral acceptability of whatever behavior is depicted in a work of art (or, let’s lower the bar here, any form of entertainment) –- is just silly.
And we lump all ages and individuals together for a dark reason: to avoid moral discernment. Many of us just don’t want to do the hard work of deciding what is appropriate and what is not, so we surrender that decision-making to others.
Second, it astonishes me how Mormons who on the one hand have nothing good to say about the moral state of Hollywood exhibit total trust in the ratings system that those same folks in Hollywood devised. These good Saints are so eager for someone, anyone, to present them with a shorthand system of evaluation that they never stop to ask what’s in it for Hollywood, which is often more concerned with commercial viability than helping parents flag objectionable content.
That’s why some of today’s PG-13 movies would have been R-movies in the past, a phenomenon this Harvard study calls “ratings creep.” What the MPAA considers a PG-13 movie is very much a moving target, yet many Mormons cling to that PG-13 rating as if it were an imprimatur from Almighty God.
It’s true that some movies, books, and music that would merit an “R” rating have little to offer, either in artistic value or moral strength. But others absolutely do. Closing ourselves off to those cultural truths sight unseen is ridiculous.
I’ll be thinking about The Goldfinch for a long time, possibly for the rest of my life. I am richer for having read it. And as this profane, wild, beautiful and true novel puts it, “Can’t good come around sometimes through some strange back doors?”