Focus on the Family Watches “Saw” for Jesus



Imagine that PETA provided detailed reviews on its website of, like, steakhouses. That’s sort of what Focus on the Family, a deeply conservative and powerful Christian organization based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has been doing for more than 20 years. Focus has written extensive entertainment reviews on everything from Beyoncé’s Lemonade (“a dizzying artistic tour de force plumbing the chaotic depths of agony, abandonment, betrayal, resurgence and forgiveness”) to Saw (“In a (very) twisted sort of way, the movie highlights living gratefully”).

Focus on the Family opposes abortion, gambling, premarital sex, marriage equality, and LGBT visibility; has voiced support for “conversion therapy” for LGBT kids; and until 2009, operated Love Won Out, an “ex-gay ministry.” Before the 2008 presidential election, it sent out a mailer to thousands of people saying that Israel would be hit by a nuclear bomb if Barack Obama was elected. The group’s conservative bonafides are so unquestioned that founder Dr. James Dobson’s endorsement of Donald Trump (Dobson called him a “baby Christian“) marked a critical moment in Trump’s attempts to appeal to evangelicals.

But where many evangelical Christians respond to popular culture by rejecting it or creating their own version (think: God’s Not Dead), Focus on the Family embraces mainstream entertainment — sort of. Since 1991, its team of reviewers has been watching, listening to, and playing nearly every popular movie, album, and video game on the market.

I’ve been following Focus on the Family’s reviews for 15 years, having stumbled upon them while trying to learn about becoming an evangelical Christian myself. I was raised Catholic, but growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, being Catholic was like being into breathing or drinking water. Some Christians don’t even think Catholics are Christians in the first place; I wanted something stronger. I was also gay and desperate for purity and absolution and increasingly stricter rules, because if I followed them, maybe this feeling that I was made wrong and there was nothing I could do about it would go away.

Focus on the Family certainly didn’t make me straight, but I never lost my interest in how people so set against the elements of popular culture with which I identified most (or just plain enjoyed) managed to engage with that culture, and do so thoughtfully. When they disapproved, they didn’t seem to simply say “no” — they said, “no, and here’s why.” I’ve long since abandoned my attempts to become an evangelical, but I have kept up with Focus on the Family’s reviews. Naturally, I’ve had a long time now to think up some questions for them. Adam Holz, senior associate editor for Plugged In, Focus’s review website, had answers.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you get into doing movie and music reviews? Did you have a history of doing reviews for any other publication?

Adam Holz: I have a degree in English and Religion from the University of Iowa, and I’ve always had a desire to write. … I bumped into a friend of mine at a coffee shop who was having coffee with her sister. It turned out that her sister was leaving a position at Plugged In and suggested that I apply. I did, and I got the job. That was in September of 1996.

I never really thought of pursuing a “reviewer” job when I was in college. But I find that what I learned in school about trying to look carefully at a text and to interpret it fairly continues to be a skill set that I use all the time in this job. I had a Shakespeare professor in college who would begin every conversation about a particular play with the question, “What’s going on here?” I think it’s a great reviewer question, because it forces us to look carefully before we begin to interpret. It’s a great question for studying the Bible, too. So, in many ways, I don’t see reviewing movies or music as that much different from reading and interpreting classical literature. We still must look, observe, try to see clearly, then ask the “so what?” questions that inevitably follow.

Do you find it challenging to balance “art” with the qualities you’re looking for when you review a film? Do you ever find yourself recommending a movie that you think is not particularly, say, good?

Holz: We spend most of our reviews trying to give people a sense of what a movie is about and as detailed as possible a description of the content that they’ll experience there, so that they can make a good decision for themselves and/or their family.

In terms of the way we review movies, it’s a bit different from most other reviewers out there. We’re not as focused on the aesthetic or artistic qualities of a film as much as we are the content, worldview, and overall messages – I’d say we’re about 80 percent focused on content, perhaps 20 percent focused on aesthetics. So there are movies that may not be excellent from an artistic point of view, in our opinion, that we would nonetheless give a fairly positive review because of positive content, message, or worldview.

Our constituents are, for the most part, conservative, evangelical Christians. There are exceptions, of course. We know that not everyone fits that demographic. But that’s who we’re writing for, and the people we have in mind when we give a high or low “Family Friendly” rating (the colored plugs at the top of the review).

In contrast to that, do you ever find yourself enjoying a film or a movie you know you couldn’t possibly recommend? How do you feel when that happens?

Holz: I actually like quite a broad spectrum of films — even though that might come as a surprise to some folks! And, sometimes, I do find movies that I couldn’t recommend engaging or enjoyable.

Here’s how I deal with that tension. In a general sense, I think that there are three primary ways viewers may respond to culture: avoidance, caution, and dialogue. There are movies out there that we would probably just flat-out suggest avoiding. Sausage Party is a recent example. Most things, however, fall in the caution category. This means that there’s content that you (and/or your family) should be really cautious about and think about critically. Then there are movies that we enter into dialogue with.

This is a simplified grid, to be sure. But I’d say that there are probably movies I, personally, would be able to engage with — to dialogue about — that, for content reasons, I likely wouldn’t recommend to anyone. A recent example: The movie War Dogs was an intriguing film in the questions it raises about personal integrity and compromise as well as how the international military arms procurement process works. I found it to be engaging, but with 130 F-words, I know that content is absolutely going to push it out of bounds for the vast majority of our constituents. In my review, I tried to give it credit for being a kind of “cautionary tale,” while acknowledging that it’s got content that many people in our audience are going to find offensive.

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Jane Coaston

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