Why do American evangelicals embrace violence in our entertainment, while shunning depictions of other sins?
I believe there are some legitimate reasons, but we would do well to think through the issues and remember our own tendency to approve what we enjoy.
Why do we shrug off violence?
American evangelicals often have no qualms about über-violent movies or books, but do word counts on curse words and boycotts over nudity.
Sexuality is an issue where we have deemed entertainment to be inflexible. Language must be monitored. But violence is almost a free-for-all.
Karen Swallow Prior dubbed it the “John Wayne Fallacy.” The Duke represents a hyper-masculine man who likes his punches stiff and emotions stiffer.
I do, however, think there are legitimate reasons for our much more willing acceptance of violence and not sex or nudity.
The Bible is comfortable, to a degree, speaking of violence and using war as an analogy for the faith.
In a similar discussion, novelist Mike Duran writes:
The typical argument is that the world is a violent place. Christians aren’t immune to death, disaster, and criminal behavior. So why should we scrub our stories of it? Likewise, Scripture tells of wars, dismemberment, torment, and grisly crimes. Of course, the Bible does not go into graphic detail. We are told that David removed Goliath’s head, without a play-by-play of the hewing. Either way, it happened and our minds are left to fill in the gory blanks.
You tend to view violence a certain way when growing up reading a book that describes a bear coming out of the woods to maul a bunch of teenagers who mocked a prophet for his hair loss (2 Kings 2:23-25).
Many are not explicitly tempted to sin by depictions of violence.
I think this is the most appropriate reason to me personally. It’s not something I want to do.
When I see the portrayal of a gruesome murder, I feel no desire to perpetrate a similar act, nor does it tempt me to gleefully mull over the sin. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about a sex scene.
However, I do not believe my personal temptations to be universal. Those who grew up in a society marked by an obsession with violence, as ours is by sex, may have the exact opposite reaction.
But I do believe that most males in the Western world face stronger, more regular temptations to misuse sex than to respond to a situation with cinematic-style violence.
Why should we be more concerned about violence?
Still, as situations like the one in Ferguson prove all too well, violence is a reality for many. And the church is not only the church for white men in essentially safe suburban neighborhoods.
We should be aware that while fictitious violence may not be problematic for some, it can absolutely be harmful for others and our acceptance of it may be unhealthy for us as well.
The perfect illustration of our casual, and sometimes too comfortable relationship, with fictional violence is our fixation on Jack Bauer.
Let’s be honest, every pastor and Christian blogger has made at least an allusion to Bauer being a Christ-figure, myself included. But it’s long since past time, we moved beyond that.
In the most recent season of 24, Jack emerged from the shadows to, yet again, confront an international crisis. As he did so, his own rage and anger frequently got the best of him.
Instead of attempting to question terrorists or place them under arrest, he killed them. He threw Margot Al Harazi out a window to her death. Later, he decapitated Cheng Zhi. There is nothing Christlike about either of those acts.
That is not to say the show or his character is irredeemable, but it is to say he is not the hero many of us so desperately long for him to be. Jack Bauer is not Jesus.
He has, however, become an idolized, patriotic American version of Jesus for many – one who’s not afraid to use any means necessary to accomplish his goals. He’s our Jesus with more guns and less grace.
Our embrace of fictional violence can often desensitize us to actual, real violence.
There is a reason companies pay so much money for commercials and product placements in movies and TV shows – they work. What we see influences our behavior.
Researchers noticed that children who watched programming that featured violence would incorporate more aggressive, violent behaviors in their play with others. Over time, such exposure may lead to decreased physiological responses. Just as people seeking treatment for phobias may get better after repeated exposure, people may experience diminished emotional response to violence after witnessing it in movies, television and video games.
That doesn’t mean playing a first-person shooter game will make you a serial killer, but it can’t not influence the way you view the world.
Think of all the times you have seen pictures or videos of an actual war or a horrific accident and your immediate response was, “Wow, that looks just like a movie scene.” I know I’ve already said it this week.
I’m not arguing that we must never be exposed to violent images, I watched 24 after all and enjoy action movies. But I do think we should be aware of the impact it can have on others and, subconsciously, ourselves as well.
Followers of the Prince of Peace should not be known as lovers of violence, but rather as those with a realistic, yet hopeful view of this fallen world. Violence, fictional or otherwise, may sometimes be tolerable and even needed, but that doesn’t mean it should be taken lightly – even when on the screen.
It is not impossible to take up your cross and carry your sword, but to handle them well it requires much more thought than most of us give it.