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FIRST-PERSON: ‘Million Dollar’ is popular, but is it good?

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–What is good literature? It’s a question that every teacher who assigns reading has to address and every student that reads claims to know.

The popular answer is, “Good literature is what I like to read –- it’s what I enjoy.” As much as I want to dismiss this answer, it carries with it a kernel of truth. After all, if the “Harry Potter” craze has taught us anything, it’s that literature is meant to be read.

But good literature should not simply be “read.” It should be consumed, inhaled, absorbed. Those who have stayed up into the wee hours of the night to finish a novel know what I’m talking about.

Today, the novel has been replaced by the screenplay. Americans are more likely to stay up into the wee hours of the night at the local megaplex, where they can watch a book by one author, converted into a screenplay by many authors, and finally transformed into a cinematic attraction to be viewed by millions.

Now that director Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” has pulled in so many Academy Awards, it’s a sure thing that millions more will take notice of Hollywood’s latest success. If we use the Harry Potter equation (that which is read by many is good) and add the Oscar equation (that which receives Academy Awards is good), then it must be true that “Million Dollar Baby” is great.

But what if popularity and quality don’t correspond? What if there are other standards to be applied when trying to determine if “Million Dollar Baby” is, for lack of a better word, “good”? I believe there is another rule that literature and cinema must meet to warrant this credit. Here it is: Literature ought to evoke a love for that which is noble and contempt for that which is not.

Let’s get practical.

“Pulp Fiction,” a movie by Quentin Tarantino, gathered quite the following after its release in 1994. When watching the movie audience after audience actually laughs out loud when one of the movie’s characters is brutally shot. An act that should have produced horror, sadness or at least shock became humorous. Strange.

Compare this to Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” (1997), another successful and controversial film. Some objected to the humor in the movie since it covers the topic of the Holocaust. And yet, the viewer is never tempted to see the Holocaust as anything but horrid, despicable and evil.

Some Christians are tempted to argue that any work of fiction — whether read or watched — ought not to portray the seedy and sinful sides of human existence. I understand. After all, it’s Paul who admonishes us to think about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable….” (Philippians 4:8). And yet, it is for this very reason that I value literature and movies that tackle human depravity.

For example, it is true that adultery leads to heartbreak and pain in this life, as surely as it can lead to eternal separation from God in the next. Therefore, I value those artists who treat the truth of adultery as an act that breaks marriages and harms children. This can be good literature. Likewise, literature is commendable when it presents murder in its proper light: a heinous disruption of God’s created order. To the extent that I expose myself to books and movies, I yearn for themes that buttress biblical truth -– even if the fiction isn’t explicitly Christian.

This brings me back to “Million Dollar Baby.” To the extent that audiences walk away feeling — or, even worse, believing — that euthanasia is permissible if performed in the context of a loving relationship, a fundamental truth has been warped: killing is wrong.

Movies like this may be popular and they may be acclaimed, but they never will be “good.”
Aaron Menikoff is a Ph.D. student in the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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  • Aaron Menikoff