American Ultra: Is it ok for Christians to watch violent films?

I went to see American Ultra this week... and I loved it. Much praised by discerning critics for its witty script, endearingly low energy leads and tightly woven storyline, it's a clever little action film which manages to breathe new life into the tired secret agent genre. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are both excellent in unlikely roles, and director Nima Nourizadeh treads an almost impossible line between pacy action flick and quirky indie comedy. 'Stoner Bourne Identity' might not sound much of a high-concept movie pitch, but American Ultra is a crowd-pleasing hit even if no-one saw it coming.

Or... it's a relentlessly bloody, needlessly over-violent glorification of guns, drugs and bad language, peppered with more f-bombs than a DIY mishap at Gordon Ramsey's house. It's a film with no real redemption; certainly not one that doesn't spell further death and destruction. The characters are directionless drifters with very little to aspire to, and nothing really happens of any consequence, save for the all the violence.

Which of these two reviews should a Christian lean towards?

Rewind 30 years, and my counterpart on 20th Century Christian magazine probably wouldn't even have made the trip to cinema for a film like that (unless it was to protest outside). Back then evangelical Christianity operated a pretty black and white policy when it came to cultural engagement: 15-certificate movies were questionable (though they might sometimes be watched by mature married couples); 18s were entirely beyond the pale. You seldom walked into a pastor's office in 1988 and found a Betamax copy of Aliens sitting among the concordances.

As culture got comfortable with grittier, ruder, more violent cinema, the church slowly seemed to relax too. I can still remember watching Robocop on ITV when they'd dubbed over the worst language (apparently he was one bad mother-crusher), but today post-watershed movies air basically unedited. The conversation among Christians has evolved in a simlar way. In 2002, I delivered a seminar at a British youth ministry event where we discussed what was and wasn't ok to watch, and even then it was clear that the red '18' logo was no longer the barrier it had been.

Another decade on, and I find myself watching a film that would certainly have been classified more strictly in the past due to its violence, extreme bad language and drug use. I find myself enjoying it hugely, and learning that many of my Christian friends have too. That represents no sudden change in the wind; Christians can regularly be found eulogising over the latest episode of uber-violent fantasy Game of Thrones; while upcoming Marvel anti-hero film Deadpool has got plenty of the faithful excited, despite the fact that the glorification of violence is pretty much its raison d'etre.

There are of course many who've taken a very different approach. They're the people who have buried themselves deeper into the religious subculture; who prefer films with explicit faith-affirming content. They're certainly protecting themselves well from the kind of violence and darkness to which I regularly expose myself as a film fan, but they're also divorcing themselves from the culture they hope to reach with the gospel, unwilling to listen to the stories and ideas of the age.

I'm not, you'll be glad to hear, about to debate the rights and wrongs of what we should and shouldn't watch. Paul clearly tells us to 'think upon such things' as 'whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable' (Phillippians 4:8), but he's also the forefather of Christian cultural engagement, thanks to his antics at Mars Hill in Acts 17. It's a complicated issue.

I think we need to start further back than that now, and ask whether the content of what we watch is something we even think through as Christians anymore? We might have abandoned that rather pharisaic approach of rules and things to avoid, but have we actually replaced it with any kind of thoughtful means-testing? Do you think twice, pray or stop to consider the implications on your heart, mind and soul before you click to book those cinema tickets?

The consumption of more 'adult' material has the potential to affect the way we think and act. Our culture has become much more relaxed in its approach to what's depicted on screen, it's perhaps no surprise that the church has too. The question is, have we ever stopped to question this, or have we simply been swept along by a current of cool and entertaining things because it's much easier than swimming against the tide?

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders