Posted 19/1/09

There is a popular view among the Manly Men of Co-Mission (By which I mean our pastors – to generalise: The Bible, Sport, Kids, War Movies, Grrrrr) that violence depicted on screen is less harmful than sex. At times it may even be presented as virtuous and valid. This shouldn’t be surprising – Matt Fuller has an Army background, Perks the Navy. These are not pacifists. They are keen we know that men should be willing to fight self-sacrificially for loved ones and faith when righteously called upon.

In practise this has often led to the use of examples from the likes of 24 or James Bond in sermons, as well as an environment where the 18-rated likes of Die Hard are comfortably bandied about church folk as cited personal favourites. It’s often only when people start getting their kit off onscreen that people start getting concerned. An imperfect illustration of this would be the church screening of Atonement during a mission event. A lot of concern was expressed at the sex scene shown (fairly steamy and certainly not within a marital context) but none whatsoever at the scenes of a character slowly dying amidst the carnage of Dunkirk.

Now, before I get my Co-Mission Manly Membership revoked, I’m not necessarily about to oppose any of this. I just wish to recount, as food for thought, a fascinating conversation I had yesterday with Jeab Burstow, director of the Good Book Company and all-round good egg. He very strongly opposes this line and has some interesting things to say about the matter. I don’t wish to misquote somebody more than able to speak for himself, but I’d paraphrase the gist of Jeab’s argument thus: We are commanded in Phil 4:8 to dwell upon ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is admirable’. Such instruction does not cover those violent, hateful acts often presented as popular entertainment. He suggests that our hearts have been hardened to the murderous, visceral material often included in prime-time broadcasting to such an extent that we don’t see it for the sin it is. Having watched the first series of every Co-Mission boy’s favourite, 24, he stopped tuning in due to the upsetting and lingering impact of scenes such as that when a teenage girl, helpless in a hospital bed, is murdered by a man purporting to be a father; or that when a graphic description is given of a gruesome form of murder employed in the Russian gulags (the implication being that a character is about to suffer the same). In each case, I think Jeab is better than me at seeing both the wrong and the reality in the scenario; it is diabolical that someone would abuse the trust of parental position to murder a girl in her hospital bed… and people really did suffer that way in the gulags! What I forgot 10 minutes after the credit rolled, he found lingering and disturbing to this day.

So is he right? Well, The Wrestler (on current release – likely to garner Mickey Rourke a ‘Best Actor’ Oscar) was an interesting movie in this regard. I felt uncomfortable in the strip club scenes (the tragic central character frequents one particular bar, trying to find a meaningful relationship to compensate for his loneliness) and was pleased with myself that I did. With great self-righteousness I recounted to my wife how aware I was of the apparent sin and seediness depicted there – of how wrong it was to be presented with naked bodies for entertainment. However, I was aware of nothing untoward when the same character was being attacked by a staple gun or thrown through a plate glass window onto nails, each in lurid detail, and each again presented ultimately for the sake of entertainment… It’s sin to which I am utterly desensitised.

There are two common counter-arguments. One is that we need to engage with our culture; be it Lord of the Rings or Reservoir Dogs. To that, Jeab makes the valid point that, if we’re serious about identifying the interests of our culture, it’s Eastenders we should be watching… it just happens that Reservoir Dogs better suits our tastes and the demographic we are comfortable trying to reach! (ie not the grannies and those on the local estate). Second is that the Bible itself is a very violent book, and one that rarely shies from giving us the vivid detail. However, I can see for myself that the Bible seldom if ever depicts violence as entertainment; rather as just punishment for those who have displeased God – a precursor of judgement which we should take seriously indeed.

Nevertheless, I would add a couple of other arguments which I’m not entirely sure I could yet refute. I’m not sure that viewing violence does necessarily damage us. It’s very different to sexual images, the lasting mental imprint of which is clearly going to make more difficult our sexual purity later on. It is one area where I think the age certification does its job. I think violent images can be utterly unsuitable and damaging to the young who don’t understand their context. It can be disturbing to adults as well, but in this case each person IS different and has different levels of susceptibility. We need to know ourselves – if such images do make us more angry, more accepting of conflict, more likely to cuss, or less able to focus on godly things later on, then it is clearly bad for us. However, I know that I watch The Wire (An acclaimed TV series, again 18-rated, featuring some strongly violent exchanges) and emerge with a heart for social justice, not a desire to own fire-arms. This links to my second point: Such programming CAN be instructive. Violence onscreen, and I’m sure this is where Perks finds his enjoyment, is very often employed for righteous ends, in order to restore order or unveil injustice. We do sometimes need to know the hardship, risk and sacrifice made in order that freedom and certain values can be restored, or the suffering endured daily by others denied our peaceful existence in the suburban West. This is where war movies, in particular, come into their own. It would perhaps be irresponsible and doing a disservice were we to present the struggles of our grandfathers as bloodless and tame. There may be a time when we need to step up to the plate, knowing what we’re letting ourselves in for…

And then, against that, I could say things like ‘it is for God to judge and wield punishment, not Jack Bauer’ or ‘the ends don’t justify the means’ or many other things… but I’ll draw a line. I’m also aware that there’s scope here to slope naturally into an examination of some Christians’ ability to applaud the real life massacres of children in Iraq or Gaza for the sake of ‘righteousness’… but that’s for another day. I’m not really sure what to think, other than we probably shouldn’t be whooping and applauding the television whilst a serial killer dismembers his innocent victim… or mindlessly chewing popcorn to the pyrotechnics of a recreated wartime assault. All ‘entertainment’ represents a worldview and either a rejection or an embracing of God’s rule. We need to, at the very least, be aware of what sins we’re seeing and what it is to which we’re giving our approval. I’d be keen to know your thoughts.


1 comment so far

  1. Phil C on

    William Lane Craig has put up something on this:

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