Set-apart Femininity Review #5: Hollywood and the Sacred-Secular Divide

Welcome back, literary-minded people, to the next installment of the Set-Apart Femininity book review series. Today we’re looking at the chapter Sacred Decorum, p. 67-106.

Ludy’s writing continues to be confusing, with mixed and sometimes contradictory messages coming within a few pages of one another. And what’s perhaps most tricky about her teachings is that on most things, she’s not totally wrong. Within her far-out opinions are many pieces of actual good perspective and advice. This half-truth, half-lie setup can make for confusing mixed messages, but it also makes it difficult to unravel and detect lies when they are so tightly woven together with scraps of goodness and sold as a package deal of absolute truth.

Flat-out falsehood is bad, but it’s easy to spot. Half-lies are dangerous, and can begin to mess with the minds of even the most astute Christians.

How to find God: Fast from pop culture

In pages 67-78, Ludy outlines a problem she sees in “countless thousands” of modern young women: that of feeling like God is distant, or not really there.

The question of why God is not more obviously present is one that I’ve grappled with from time to time in my own faith. Ludy gives her input on this problem, and offers her take: if a Christian is not experiencing God, it’s because that Christian is not really seeking after God.

Jesus Christ reveals Himself to those who follow in His steps. He draws near to those who build their entire lives around His pattern. If we feel far away from Him, it is very likely that we aren’t truly building our entire existence around Him; that we are living far more for self than for the glory of His nature (p. 68).

We can complain all we want about the fact that God seems, distant, but the reality is that He is not far from anyone who actually seeks Him (see Acts 17:27) (p. 69).

Is there some truth to this? Of course. Practically, if you spend more time with God (whatever that means to you), you will probably feel closer to God. In my experience, attending liturgy and observing the cycle of feast and fast days helps me feel that God is present. I don’t drive home from Pascha complaining about how distant God is.

Yet at the same time, there have been seasons in my life where I’ve put more effort into my devotion but still felt distant from God all the same, especially when I’ve been dealing with mental health issues like anxiety and depression. And there have been moments where I have experienced a real manifestation of the divine when I wasn’t looking for it at all. Is there a correlation between devotion and feeling close to God? Yes. Does correlation equal causation? No.

Ludy goes on to elaborate on what she means by actually seeking God. For her, this meant cutting out things that distracted her from God, namely TV and movies. She explains that she used to have an unhealthy attachment to these things, at one point saying that they filled her mind “day and night” (p. 73). She said that she began to feel convicted to give up these obsessions, and in fasting from TV and movies found freedom from her addiction and a new refreshment in her life in Christ (p. 76).

I think it’s great that Ludy realized her addiction and took practical steps to step away and stop it. I think fasting (not just from food) is an effective tool that can be used to cut out unhealthy patterns and re-focus on what matters. It’s good to remember that challenge isn’t the enemy, and that it’s sometimes worth it to push yourself to be temporarily uncomfortable for the sake of growing stronger.

However, while her thesis seems to be that we should engage in spiritual discipline to overcome addiction, the rest of the chapter elaborates on her conviction about how movies and TV are “unclean,” and how other Christians are making excuses for sin if they aren’t convicted about the same thing.

Harry Potter and the Weaker Brother

Ludy tells readers that Hollywood is profane and sinful and that no truth can be conveyed through a sinful medium like Hollywood (p. 81). She likens watching movies to participating in Jim Jones’ mass suicide (p. 82), and scoffs at those who think they can watch movies without experiencing spiritual death. Now, I agree that Hollywood certainly depicts characters sinning, with relative frequency (only a really bad story has 100% perfect characters), but she goes further than that to claim that the entirety of pop culture (save for a few explicitly Christian productions) is devoid of God’s presence.

A Christian young woman I know recently told me that she didn’t think her obsession with American Idol was wrong, despite the fact that the very title of the show promotes idolatry. She was convinced that she could see God’s nature somewhere amidst all the hype, human glory, and celebrity worship. Pretending that God showcases His truth or His nature through ungodly channels is just a clever excuse for participating in worldly allurements (p. 82).

This paragraph is a perfect example of the discord between Ludy’s thesis and her elaboration: she mentions this woman has an “obsession.” She says the young woman didn’t see a problem with her obsession. But rather than deal with the problem of obsession and addiction, Ludy instead elaborates on how none of God’s nature can be seen through TV shows, because he does not work through “ungodly” mediums.

She goes on to quote 1 John 2:15-16 and James 4:4, citing those verses as proof that it is impossible to “be dazzled by the images of pop culture and be captivated by the King of all Kings” (p. 83).

A truly set-apart woman is marked by sacred decorum. She hates the things that God hates and loves the things that God loves. . . .Does God stand up and cheer over American Idol? Does He smile with delight over the new Harry Potter movie? Does He get excited about the latest Coldplay album? Or does He grieve over our distracted, wandering, divided hearts?

If our Lord does not take delight in the things that charm and ravish the world, neither should we. (And if you believe that God actually applauds the distorted messages of pop culture, you need to become better acquainted with the God of the Bible) (p. 83).

Ludy explains how following the Bible will show you that movies are sinful, quoting 2 Corinthians 6:16-17, where God says to touch nothing unclean.

Scripture makes it very clear about what it means to be the holy temple of God. . . .We are not to touch what is unclean. We are to be, as Amy Carmichael put it, “completely separate in spirit from the world and wholly devoted to Christ.” But most of us prefer to take those verses as “allegorical” instead of letting them influence our practical, real-life, day-to-day decisions (p. 85-86).

We find some concerning thoughts and theology in these examples. We see that Leslie Ludy claims to have direct access to the mind of God, is certain that he hates human creativity (because Harry Potter and Coldplay are distorted) and eschews anyone who finds God’s nature in creative works as not really knowing God.

We see Ludy’s opinion that God can only be found through certain “spiritual” mediums and is not present in everyday creative works, like filmmaking.

And we see that Ludy is convinced that those who consume non-Christian media are touching something “unclean” and take biblical commandments as allegory (despite the fact that those who consume media may very well be following the Bible literally, and avoiding what the Bible defines as unclean, for its definition of unclean things does not include reading books and watching movies).

But here’s the thing: Ludy probably does experience non-Christian art as unclean, and to her, those things may, in fact, be unclean. However, her convictions go awry when she begins to prescribe them onto the lives of others and assume it impossible for others to see God’s nature in fiction. The Bible actually addresses this exact issue of criticizing the freedom of other Christians:

Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats: for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? (Rom. 14: 1-4)

So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean (Rom. 14: 13-14).

In these passages, Paul is talking about how some Christians felt fine eating meat sacrificed to idols, and other Christians (weak in the faith) felt that that was unclean. His answer? You’re both right! If you feel something is unclean, it is, so stay away from it; if you feel something is not unclean, it isn’t, and you’re free in Christ. So when Ludy is emphasizing how pop culture is unclean, it probably really is unclean…to her.

However, she has the responsibility of giving an account before God for herself, and not judging her stronger brethren for their freedom and starting disputes over doubtful things.

In giving pastoral advice to girls, Ludy is right to call attention to areas of obsession. But she is wrong in prescribing her own convictions about uncleanliness and scoffing at Christians with freedom in these areas. We are to express love to Christians struggling with thinking something neutral or good is unclean, so certainly if you were to know Ludy in person, it would be unkind to suggest she watch a non-Christian movie or TV show with you. However, for those who don’t know and interact with her personally (like people reading this book), you are causing no offense if you can enjoy books and movies without turning to sin, and even see God in them.

God is not only found in the Bible and prayer

I think what is most concerning about this chapter is how far Ludy wanders into the sacred-secular divide, or the idea that God can only be found in certain “sacred” activities and not in other “secular” activities. This is widely recognized as a problematic view, so it’s surprising to see Ludy seemingly embrace it.

As A.W. Tozer writes about the sacred-secular divide in The Pursuit of God:

One of the greatest hindrances to internal peace which the Christian encounters is the common habit of dividing our lives into two areas, the sacred and the secular. As these areas are conceived to exist apart from each other and to be morally and spiritually incompatible, and as we are compelled by the necessities of living to be always crossing back and forth from the one to the other, our inner lives tend to break up so that we live a divided instead of a unified life (p. 117).

We come unconsciously to recognize two sets of actions. The first are performed with a feeling of satisfaction and a firm assurance that they are pleasing to God. These are the sacred acts and they are usually thought to be prayer, Bible reading, hymn singing, church attendance and such other acts as spring directly from faith. . . .

Over against these sacred acts are the secular ones. They include all of the ordinary activities of life which we share with the sons and daughters of Adam: eating, sleeping, working, looking after the needs of the body and performing our dull and prosaic duties here on earth. These we often do reluctantly and with many misgivings, often apologizing to God for what we consider a waste of time and strength. . . .

This is the old sacred-secular antithesis. Most Christians are caught in its trap. They cannot get a satisfactory adjustment between the claims of the two worlds. They try to walk the tight rope between two kingdoms and they find no peace in either. Their strength is reduced, their outlook confused and their joy taken from them.

I believe this state of affairs to be wholly unnecessary. We have gotten ourselves on the horns of a dilemma, true enough, but the dilemma is not real. It is a creature of misunderstanding. The sacred-secular antithesis has no foundation in the New Testament. Without doubt a more perfect understanding of Christian truth will deliver us from it (p. 118).

When Ludy writes that a woman cannot see God’s nature in performers singing on American Idol, she is participating in the sacred-secular divide. When she calls sleeping past your alarm “selfish” (p. 92) and that getting up early to read the Bible is godly, she is participating in the sacred-secular divide.

Rather than analyzing which daily living activities are holy or worldly, Tozer suggests engaging in the sacrament of living, or seeing all of life as a chance for devotion to, and connection with, God. Is there room for discipline? Certainly. Are there a few activities God has prohibited for Christians? Yes. But as Tozer writes,

Common modesty is found in the Sacred Scriptures, it is true, but never prudery or a false sense of shame (p. 120).

You do not need to be shamed into giving up “secular” activities. You do not need to limit your activity to “spiritual” things to allow God to grow in you: He’s plenty capable of giving growth before you become perfect. You do not need a small God that is limited to a few set-apart activities.

A big communication breakdown

Well, after those wanderings Ludy brings the chapter back around to talk about letting the Spirit call you and being prepared to listen and come away, before ending with some checklists girls can use to decide if they have issues with clothing, magazines, books, and movies.

Honestly, this chapter felt like one big communication breakdown, with some sketchy theology thrown in as an aside.

The promise of a discussion on fasting from addictions turned into a multi-page ramble about Ludy’s personal convictions about media, which she assumes applies to everyone. Then, Ludy seems confused about why some Christians disagree with her message and think she’s trying to claim that all movies are evil, when she apparently isn’t (p. 79). But I guess this breakdown comes from the lack of synthesis between her thesis about obsession and the bulk of her wordcount about media being unclean.

Sigh. There’s a lot more I can say, but this chapter was such a mess that I’m pretty much ready to be done. Note: Next week there may not be a book study post, or there may be a mini-one from a chapter we’ve already covered. We’ll see. But the week after we’ll read Sacred Mystique and talk about boys (again), but then we’ll be halfway done!



7 thoughts on “Set-apart Femininity Review #5: Hollywood and the Sacred-Secular Divide

  1. I don’t get it. Don’t these books go through some sort of editing process? Like, wouldn’t somebody at some point before it’s printed read it and be like, “Um, hey, your argument doesn’t actually support your thesis”? I don’t know. But I think a lot of Christian books have this problem!

  2. Ah, the sacred-secular divide… the bane of God’s existence… can that be a thing?

    Hey Rae,
    Just catching up on your series on the crazy book. It’s taking me back. Yikes. But your analysis is great. You’re doing a great job debunking the hype that so many are somehow saddled by!

  3. It’s been a while since I read this book, because I forgot how much Leslie slams any sort of non-Christian media. I found this chapter unsettling as a teen, because I felt a deep love for Hollywood, and saw it as a missions field, not the pit of Hell and the source of all evil.

    I did a three month intensive film school, and part of our education was to watch 100 films from their film list. The school was Christian, but they believed story trumps content. Swearing, sexual content and violence is not the problem, it’s how that’s portrayed. An r-rated movie like Django Unchained was on the list because it revealed truth and beauty. In showing how Django pursues and rescues his wife, we see how God loves and pursues us. This possibility, that a story with swearing and violence can show us truth, doesn’t even exist in Leslie’s world. It’s sad that she’s missing out on some powerful and life changing stories because they’re not squeaky clean. But again, if that’s her conviction, then I admire her for sticking to it. For me, personally, I learned so much from the movies on that list. My life (and dare I say it, my relationship with God) has been greatly enriched by Hollywood.

    Also, this really struck me.
    “You do not need a small God that is limited to a few set-apart activities.” I love it!

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment! That sounds like an amazing program, and I’m glad you’ve found a passion that’s both creatively and spiritually enriching–what a gift. Couldn’t agree more about how content is portrayed. Is it for shock value or to depict a troubled character? That makes all the difference!

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