February 09, 2009
Violence and Christian Conscience
Dear Dr. Lane Craig,
Is it alright for a Christian to play or watch violent media for entertainment? I must confess that I like violent movies like Gladiator and games like resident evil. The media in question is violent but I console myself with the fact that the media mentioned is about good triumphing over evil. Is this ethical or am I just trying to get what I want?
Josh, I suspect that like the frog being slowly boiled alive in the kettle, you’ve absorbed unconsciously the debased mores of our culture and have not been sufficiently critical as a Christian. Paul advised the Philippians: “Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4.8). Can you imagine New Testament Christians enjoying violence as entertainment?
Your mention of “Gladiator” is interesting because we do know the attitude of the early Church Fathers toward the spectacles in the Roman coliseums: they were unrelenting in their denunciation of these violent shows (see, for example, Tertullian’s On Spectacles). Now, of course, there’s a huge difference between men and animals’ actually being killed, as they were is these shows, and the mere portrayal of such violence on the screen, where we all know it is merely pretense. But I think the Fathers would have been very puzzled by our enjoyment of such blood and gore in terms so realistic as to make what is seen indistinguishable from the real thing. The rush that some people feel from on-screen violence shows that they are entering into the world of pretense and experiencing the sordid thrill of violence.
I’m troubled by how I myself have become accustomed to much of this graphic violence. I remember as boy seeing black-and-white films made during the 1950s in which on-screen violence was almost non-existent. Instead, what you’d see would be, say, two shadows on the wall with a voice-over of one man pleading, “No! No! Don’t shoot!” And then there’d be a gunshot and one of the shadows would slump to the floor. I remember how horrified I was by such scenes. Today they seem almost comical. I’m sorry that I’ve lost that childhood innocence and no longer feel the horror I once did. In today’s films we settle for nothing less than a scene of the victim doing a macabre dance of death as he is riddled with machine gun bullets. Such “entertainment” appeals to the worst of our animal nature and does not build us up morally.
It’s not enough to say that one enjoys this sort of entertainment. Every red-blooded man would enjoy, at one level, sexually explicit films, too, but that’s no justification for flouting Scripture’s warnings about keeping one’s thought life pure. Nor is it enough to rationalize such entertainment because good wins out over evil in the end. The end doesn’t justify the means, or anything could be justified in that way. If you need to satisfy your aggressive urges, why not watch sports like football, which has plenty of hard-hitting but has rules to protect the participants and is not violence for violence’s sake?
I know that some story lines require violence. But there are discreet ways to handle this. What I find disturbing is the wallowing in the graphic portrayal of violence, a morbid delight in shooting, cutting, dismemberment, torture, and so on. As Christians I think that the minute we see an “R” rating on a film, we are in the vast majority of cases well-advised to stay home.