Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

R-rated content in a PG Mormon life

Admit one movieI 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?”

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • I agree that the hard and fast anti-R rule makes as much sense as some of the Sabbath keeping laws practiced by Orthodox Jews (no riding in cars, only allowed so many steps, etc…). The intent was good, but we all know what the road to Hell is paved with.

    15 years ago, my wife and I took our kids to an LDS therapist. He suggested that taking my kids to see Schindler’s List would be good for them. We did. It was R rated…probably for the naked Jewish women (old, young, fat, thin, etc…) shivering in fear as they were standing in at group at the mercy of the Nazis. It was hardly tittilating. Could the story have been told without that? Sure. Would the story have been as moving? Hardly. It helped the viewers to understand the horror of the Nazis. Most of today’s R rated movies use nudity, sex, profanity, etc…not as an essential part of a story that teaches/uplifts, but to excite and enflame.

    We LDS should follow the spirit of the law rather than the unthinking hard and fast “no R” rule.

  • I don’t know if I agree with this as a blanket application for all people. I think some people have the cognitive abilities to be morally strengthened by just about anything they watch, read, or listen too. But most people have a varying ability to learn from media depending on their own cognitive abilities and personal situations.

    For example, I recently left a job in public service where I got sworn at a lot by client unhappy with how the government does things. When I hear or read a swear word, it sometimes sends me into a panic attack. When I have the panic attack, I’m physically unable to continue with whatever work contained it. I would rather not have to have a panic attack because it can mess me up for days, so I avoid media with swear words. For that reason I am grateful for rating systems.

    Another example, I know some people who were abused as children. There is a book I read that deals with healing from abuse. The book has won awards. It’s a book for people who haven’t experienced abuse. I don’t recommend it for people who have experienced abuse as the author depicts childhood abuse for a couple hundred pages before discussing how the characters heal and recover from the abuse. My friends that have suffered abuse probably won’t make through the first fifty pages before the opening of old wounds would leave them nearly incapacitated. Though in time, some of them might be able to read the whole book; and they will probably just dismiss the author for being naive.

    Each reader or viewer or listener gets to have his or her own experience with the work. The intentions of the author is irrelevant to most consumers.

    I do disagree with the Hollywood system in that I don’t feel a simple letter gives enough information. I prefer rating systems that tell me how much violence, sex, or language is in the book, music, or film, so I can decide for myself if I am stable enough to deal with it. I feel that each person should be able to decide on their own.

    And I don’t feel it is right to judge people who can’t handle a particular book, film, or piece of music. A person who can handle something with more violence, sex, or language, isn’t stronger than someone who can’t. I believe they have other trials to face.

    But I feel that a rating system is helpful to those of us who have been damaged by books, music, films, or life in general and are in the back-and-forth process of healing.

  • Well said. The spirit of the law is what we should be focusing on, most definitely.

    I think the “Schindler’s List” rating was as much for violence as nudity though. And it would have been impossible to tell the story of the Holocaust without violence . . .

    I remember that when SL came out, a BYU professor went on record as saying that he had seen it and recommended it. And there were actually complaints by some Mormons about his recommendation. I couldn’t believe it. Come on, people! The film was a rendering of an important chapter of history, and that history would have been cheapened had its horrors not been accurately portrayed.

  • Jana, you hit almost all the points related to R-rated movies and Mormonism. But I think you left one significant point out: The primary reason Mormons feel they should never watch an R-rated movie is because it often (or usually, in the minds of many Mormons) means there is nudity and/or sex in the movie. And therefore an R-rated movie is thought of as kind of a PG-13 version of a XXX-rated movie, i.e., pornography. And it appears that many Mormons feel any kind of nudity, or worse indications of sexual activity, even if it is in classical art or sculpture, can lead to temptation in almost any adult, let alone teenagers.

    I’ve discussed some of the aspects that you described in your article with various Mormon friends over the years, and among those who feel that the R-rated movie prohibition really is one all Mormons are supposed to follow, probably about half would be willing to allow the viewing of an uplifting R-rated movie if they could be guaranteed that the R rating was only for violence. It seems that a lot of these kind of friends of mine are much less bothered by R ratings due to excessive violence only, than those due to even the tiniest amount of R-rated nudity and especially R-rated sex.

  • It’s interesting that the R-rated thing is still an issue with so many members, when I don’t think you can find it mentioned in General Conference in the last ten (maybe even twenty) years. It had its moment, and then it disappeared. Probably for a reason. The way repetition is used to teach in the church indicates to me that it’s no longer a thing.

    The standard in For the Strength of Youth is actually INCREDIBLY strict. Here’s the quote on movies and TV: “Do not attend, view, or participate in anything that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way.” Don’t view anything that’s violent in any way? I think we’d be hard pressed to find any member who lives that standard.

    As members we love to have things defined for us. It’s why the Pharisees were so popular in their day. That’s why so many members hold onto the R-rated thing for dear life. We believe that the commandments which are well-defined are the most important (modesty, the Word of Wisdom, double ear piercings), when actually the opposite is true.

    One of the most spiritual moments of my life was watching the R-rated Dead Man Walking. It helped me understand the Savior’s love in a profound way. Would it do that for anyone else? Who knows. But for me it did.

    Let’s all just follow the Spirit the best we know how–and hold off on judging the actions of others.

  • During my 20’s, when I wouldn’t watch R-rated movies, my movie entertainment consisted largely of fun action flicks and frilly fairy tale romances. Entertaining fare but not often provocative (as in, provocative of thought and self-reflection). I’m glad I finally trusted enough in my own moral compass to sample from among the more adult-rated (and themed) films. To be honest, my husband and I almost exclusively see R-rated films these days. Sometimes, as after a recent viewing of the film Nebraska, I leave a film so moved that I am saddened to realize most of my family will refuse to see it because of its rating.

  • I felt the exact same way when I finished reading The Exorcist. I might go back and read that one yearly because of how uplifted and redeemed I felt after I finished it. But I would never recommend it to any of my Mormon friends because if the terrible language even though it’s the most poignant book about good versus evil and God’s redemptive power I’ve ever read.

  • I read your Sunstone article and enjoyed it very much. Discernment is such an important spiritual gift to be cultivated. Each person must decide for herself what she will allow to influence her, with potentially very long term consequences–why would we delegate these choices to the MPAA?

  • Take a look at the Book of Mormon. There are parts in there that would absolutely get an R rating, or worse, if made into a movie, i. e., when the lamanites kidnapped, raped, tortured to death, then ate the skin of nephite women. There are other parts that show the depravity of mankind in more depth than anything I have ever read. But, those accounts are there for purpose, to show what can happen to people when we lose the Spirit, among other things.

  • Jana wrote: “…this is a book that Mormon mores would condemn sight unseen simply because of its foul language, sexual promiscuity…”

    Jana, I think one of the most destructive aspects of Mormonism is its corrosive influence on morality. Mormons would find my comment puzzling because Mormons have a self image of being very “moral.” The problem is that the Church has so altered the meaning of morality that it’s lost much of its meaning within the larger LDS community.

    Let me explain.

    Within LDS culture, morality is almost exclusively reserved for things relating to sexual behavior. It’s about hem lengths, bare shoulders, petting, masturbation, and sex before marriage. Ask a typical Mormon what it means to be “moral” and they will almost always respond with examples related to one’s sexual behavior.

    Jesus and other influential philosophers defined morality differently. They defined morality in terms of how we treat other people. I think this was the message that Jesus sent when he chastised the Jewish leaders (comparable to Mormon leaders today) who refused to associate with women they deemed as immoral, while at the same time engaging in true immorality by oppressing the poor.

    This is exemplified by a comment I read from a Mormon “housewife” last week. She lives in Idaho and was being questioned about her opinions on Global Warming. She admitted that she sees global warming to be a problem, but she couldn’t bring herself to vote for politicians who were opposed to global warming because they didn’t share her “values.”

    I was shocked! Her values?! How can someone be so blinded as to think that Global Warming — with all its repercussions for the world, and especially the poor, isn’t a “values” issue? What an inverted sense of “morality” when it’s considered to be “just” a “political issue” to raise the earth’s temperature by 5 degrees Celsius, causing mass human displacement, desertification, and extinction — but that a personal choice whether to use (for example) birth control or wear a sleeveless blouse is a “moral” issue!

    I was reminded of the verse in Isaiah (5:20) which says: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.”

    In truth, I sometimes wonder if the power brokers didn’t plan it this way — distract simple-minded persons, and excite them about issues that don’t matter (like using the “f” word, having three piercings in one’s ear, or wearing a sleeveless shirt) — and then, while they’re distracted, commit true atrocities like abusing/ignoring the poor and destroying the planet.

    As I said, I think the Mormon Church does society and its members a great disservice in redefining morality in terms of hem lengths, bare shoulders, or premarital sex. True morality, the morality that Jesus taught, is how we relate to other people.

    War is immoral.
    It’s immoral that we have starving children
    It’s immoral when children go without health insurance
    It’s immoral when workers are robbed of their wages
    It’s immoral to destroy the environment
    It’s immoral to drive species to extinction

    But it’s *not* immoral to say the “f” word.
    It’s *not* immoral to use birth control
    It’s *not* immoral to have premarital sex
    It’s *not* immoral to have a tattoo or multiple piercings.
    It’s *not* immoral to drink tea or coffee.

    Those behaviors may or may not be *wise,* but none of them are *immoral.* When Mormon leaders preach otherwise, they are simply promoting part of Corporate America’s great bait and switch.

  • I think Debbie makes a very pertinent point. In fact, I just saw a quote last night on another site from a non-LDS Christian whom our leaders love to quote (for good reason) that agrees with Debbie. From C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity (Book 3, Part 5):

    “Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.”

  • I think if you side step the issue of “immoral” and as a covenant Latter-day Saint simply ask if what you are viewing is putting you on the path to sanctification by helping you to become more holy, you can better evaluate what kinds of content to consume.

    Unfortunately for our modern lifestyle, if we’re honest with ourselves, this kind of approach would mean we should avoid consuming most types of entertainment, even the lessor-than-R stuff.

  • I think your missing her point — which I took to be that this kind of book did exactly that. It helped sanctify her by making her more compassionate and understanding. It allowed her to look on at both the sinner and the saint with the more compassion and more charity (see Mathew 5:38-48) where Jesus describes what being perfect or complete is really all about.

    “The Father is “complete” because he is not “partial.”

    To be like him, you must love completely. You must love not just your friends but even (especially) your enemies. You must love not just the just but the unjust. You must make your sun shine on all. You must make your skies rain on everyone.

    Perfection consists in being im/partial. It is equanimity.

    This is the gospel: be impartial in your love by greeting whatever comes, good or bad, friend or enemy, with the same care, attention, and compassion.”


  • Jana: of course I had to look at your list of inspirational movies. ‘The End of the Affair’ is one of my absolute favorite movies too!

    There are so many excellent comments here.
    I never used the MPAA rating system to determine what was appropriate for my kids, I use a Christian movie critic. Its not scenes of nudity, or sex, as much as the message communicated that I worry about.

    Another example of why the rating system is too flawed to be useful: Another movie I love, the squeaky-clean, ‘A Room with a View’ is ‘unrated’, because of a scene of boys running-around a swimming-hole naked. That gets it ‘unrated, yet, were these boys fully clothed while being stabbed, shot, or dismembered by an alien, it would be rated PG-13.

  • Maybe this has been mentioned but for the strength of youth book does not mention “R” r rated movies, yet guideline given is good for any individual.

  • Folk need to move to Canada where the rating system is different. I found it hard to understand why ‘The King’s Speech’ received an R rating in the US and remember many angst filled discussions from LDS speech therapists who wanted to see it but we’re bothered by the rating. I don’t use ratings to determine whether I want to view a movie. I’m a grown up!