Wrong, Right, and R-Rated: Part Three — Killing the Violence

This article was originally published at Christianity Today in August 2001.

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You have probably seen the episode of Friends in which Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) bounces into the living room to find her pals watching the tragic conclusion of Old Yeller. She exclaims, “Why are you guys so upset? It’s Old Yeller. It’s a happy movie. Come on. Happy family gets a dog. Frontier fun!”

Then, suddenly, Phoebe panics. We realize she has never seen the end of the movie before. She explains that her parents always turned off the movie before Old Yeller gets rabies and is shot. We laugh with the laugh track as Phoebe’s face reacts to the harsh reality of the story’s conclusion.

It’s a hilarious scene. And yet, there’s something a little sad about seeing Phoebe’s happy illusions erased by the sight of real-world brutality. I know many Christian parents who, like Phoebe’s parents, “turn it off” to protect their kids from scary or the tragic episodes. Some reject television and movies entirely. Others even consider it a sin for a grownup to attend an R-rated film, and many blame violent movies for provoking acts of real-life violence.

We are creatures that learn by example, and as Christians, we are exhorted to keep our minds focused on what is honorable, excellent, and worthy of praise. But does that mean we should seek to remain ignorant of such real-world behaviors as sexuality, strong language, and violence? Should we teach our children to “see no evil”?

Film Forum invited critics and readers to respond to questions about violence in the media — just as we did previously on subjects of nudity and foul language — and we were buried in e-mail as a result. Here are a few of those responses, which we hope will provoke further conversations on the subject.

Should we turn off the violence?

Storytelling has been a part of human culture since long before television and movies. And so has violence. Clearly, the media are not the source of all the world’s brutality though it maybe the catalyst for some. But the abuse and indulgence of violence in media today may cause us to be desensitized and influenced by it. Should we, then, withdraw and wear blinders? Or is censorship the answer?

Steve Lansingh, webmaster at www.thefilmforum.com, has heard many opinions on what “quantity and quality of violence to trim … The burden is always placed on the movie not to offend, not on us to dialogue with the art form. A more productive approach to violence is to ask why violence attracts people in the first place.”

Lansingh believes audience enthusiasm for violent movies can come from an honorable desire: “Although we tend to assume it’s our sin nature or American bloodlust, I believe a stronger attraction is the order these movies impose on a chaotic world. The real-life violence we read about in newspapers is so often senseless and unsolved, but in the movies, there’s a reason why things happen. Movie violence is usually contained within a framework of justice, where the ‘bad guy’ is punished and law restored. These movies cry out for a righteous God to show his face.”

Perhaps that is why as children we laughed to see “the wages of sin” when Wile E. Coyote’s violent ploys to catch the Road Runner went off in his own face. So, should we then guiltlessly indulge in violence as a form of justice? “A steady diet of violent movies is hardly beneficial,” says Lansingh, “since in real life justice comes rarely or slowly. The fantasy of a two-hour resolution does not equip us to live in the real world, where Christ calls us to administer social justice, and real change is hard-fought. Complete immersion into the film world can be just as lazy as skimming off the ‘safe’ end. The key for Christian moviegoers is to keep wrestling, questioning, and seeking God in all they see, rather than placing the burden of worthiness on any film in particular.”

“We live in a violent world. Films naturally reflect that.” That’s the view of Michael Elliott, film critic at Movie Parables. “In a proper context, depicting violence can be used to send valuable messages to those mature enough to view it in its context. Saving Private Ryan‘s opening half hour provided a more honest look at the horrors of war than any of the televised/sanitized images which were shown of the actual Desert Storm/Gulf War conflict.” (The example of Private Ryan was the film most often mentioned by those defending properly framed violence in film.) Portraying violence in a proper context, he argues, is the responsibility of the filmmaker. He faults “those who use their artistic freedom as an excuse to go to extremes…. the horror films and crime dramas which almost appear to be in competition with each other to find new and increasingly bizarre ways to depict acts of evil. Ideally, each filmmaker would … use only that which is appropriate for the story he is telling … without becoming titillating or exploitative. Alas, ideals are rarely realized.”

He adds a caution:

I do believe that continued exposure to violent stimuli (or any negative stimuli) can lead to a certain ‘desensitization’ if the viewer fails to feed his/her mind with a countering influence. [But] if our filmmakers completely omit the depiction of violence from their works, they would be presenting an unbalanced, and thus false, view of the world in which we live. There is evil in this world and to pretend otherwise can be just as damaging as overexposure to it. It reminds me of the cartoons that showed ostriches who, expecting trouble, would stick their heads in the sand thinking they could avoid it altogether. Even as a kid I thought that taking such a position just makes it easier to get kicked in the rear. God tells us not to be ignorant of Satan’s devices. Jesus warned Peter to be aware of the fact that Satan desires to ‘sift (him) like wheat.’ A key to life is one of achieving balance…. thus, we need to be aware of evil without engaging or embracing it.

Peter T. Chattaway, a film critic for Christianity Today and Books & Culture, and an associate editor at B.C. Christian News, agrees that onscreen violence has its place: “It’s a question of how those things are portrayed.” He points us to an interesting essay in The Journal of Religion and Film that focuses on the relationships between religion and violence. He was surprised to find the essay highlighting Pulp Fiction — one of the violent films most often criticized by conservative critics. The writer, Bryan P. Stone, argues that Pulp Fiction is one of those rare films which “features an explicit rejection of violence out of a clearly religious motivation.”

Indeed, Pulp Fiction is an interesting case. Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-nominated crime caper has been widely condemned for “glorifying violence.” But close attention to the story reveals that violence is the very thing the heroes are learning to reject. The hit man named Jules (Samuel Jackson) even encounters God and immediately decides to leave the violent life behind. His partner, Vincent Vega, chooses to keep his killing job, and meets an appropriate fate. Meanwhile, a murderous boxer named Butch (Bruce Willis), encounters his worst enemy in a state of severe suffering, and in a moment of moral decision he has compassion and ventures to save the man. In the end, Butch rides off into the sunset on a motorcycle that has the name Grace emblazoned on the side. Pulp Fiction is a story of moral growth in the hearts of wicked men who just might encounter God along the way.

The question that perhaps we should be asking about Pulp Fiction is this: Who is the appropriate audience for such stuff? Yes, the violence is shocking. Most people describe the movie as “hyperviolent,” but really there are only a few brief moments of violence. What shocks and disgusts people is the honesty of the violence: gunshots are deafening and jarring, and there is quite a mess to clean up later. Audiences are more accustomed to seeing onscreen violence that is quick, easy, and incidental, and that might eventually be more deceptive, making violence an appealing problem-solver. The film is certainly not for everyone — there are a few graphic moments that could be argued as unnecessary or too extreme. Any discerning parent will see that the movie requires more discernment than young viewers have developed. But those condemning the movie should rethink what Pulp Fiction (and other films like Natural Born Killers) are suggesting about the violence they contain.

Rich Kennedy of The Film Forum argues that when used by serious artists, violence is not just thrown in — it has a purpose. “This reminds me of the Aesthetics class example of the guy looking at a Miro painting or Matisse cutouts saying ‘My kid could do that!’ The fact is that the kid didn’t — Matisse and Miro did. Good directors choose what they choose for their reasons.”

For Kennedy, violence in a film points to something that the violent character is “protecting.” This highlights whether the character has integrity. “Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro) in The Godfather Part II begins his descent into the underworld through his murder of The Black Hand after the Hand forces him out of an honest job and into petty crime as a means to provide for his family. Less rational is Tommy DeVito’s (GoodFellas) bludgeon murder of a ‘made’ man after trading insults with him in a bar. Tommy was protecting a distorted sense of pride. If one is willing to see violence depicted in art and entertainment in this way, one can begin to sort out the defensible from the extreme.”

By paying attention to the way violence is portrayed, rather than engaging in her blissful ignorance, we might learn something about the violent world we live in. Or we might determine that the violence was unnecessary, gratuitous, and that it weakened the work. Either way, these encounters can strengthen discernment. Now, as critics emphasized in their responses, each person’s conscience must make the determination. Everyone comes with different strengths and weaknesses. We must always remember the apostle Paul’s revelation that all things are “lawful” for us in Christ, but not all things are “profitable.” As a storyteller and a writer, I have found some violent movies to be profitable and have learned much by studying them; other films have been indulgent or poorly made, and I’ve forgotten about them. But I certainly wouldn’t presume that you would have the same experience.

And however profitable, they certainly shouldn’t be accessible to kids.

Do violent videos make violent kids?

As children, we learn to laugh at cartoons. Cartoon violence is funny because it is so far removed from the real world around us. We recognize that those things could never happen, and perhaps should never happen. And yet, as stated before, something “rings true” metaphorically about Wile E. Coyote meeting the consequences of his actions. We are born crying at the world’s harshness, and we crave resolution, justice, and (as Steve Lansingh said) order. But movies present many degrees of variation from reality. Some action movies — Raiders of the Lost Ark, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Star Wars, and The Matrix — are just sophisticated cartoons or myths for mature and sophisticated viewers. But some — Full Metal Jacket, The Godfather, Unforgiven, The Accused, Raging Bull — occur in a more realistic world that could truly disturb and damage the security and even the faith of children, and perhaps of some grownups.

My own experience watching Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick’s graphic war film, was miserable. The man in front of me had brought his young child, who was crying and distressed. I was startled to read in Bill Romanowski‘s wonderful book Eyes Wide Open: Finding God in Popular Culture that he had the exact same experience. He writes: “It kept me from experiencing the film because I was so perpetually horrified that he would let such an untrained, vulnerable mind be exposed to such graphic violence, such chaos and noise. Like food, some films are suitable for young audiences to ‘stomach’ while others require more maturity, more discernment, more understanding of what a work is ‘saying.’”

Parental responsibility is a serious problem today; otherwise, how could so many kids so regularly consume “violent meals”? How could so many get their hands on guns to act out what they see on television?

Peter Chattaway suggests that protecting children from all violence in entertainment and storytelling, cinematic or otherwise, is a tall order. “A lot of children’s literature down through the ages has contained a fair bit of violence. The boys in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books actually go to war against enemy armies, and of course the Harry Potter books have been criticized for their violent elements, too. Violence of various sorts has always been part of children’s literature, it seems to me.”

He goes on: “Many Christians complain about copycat violence when a kid who may or may not have seen The Basketball Diaries shoots up a school — but what about the stories of violence in the Bible…David slaying Goliath, or of Israelites being punished by God because they failed to kill as many Canaanites as God ordered them to kill, and so on? And what do we do with the cross? In the play Equus, one of the characters complains that it’s harmful to expose children to crucifixes and other violent religious symbols. If we are going to censor films because people use them for violent ends, would we not leave ourselves open to censorship, too?” (Chattaway mentions an essay published in Mother Jones arguing that some violent media can be good for children.)

Clearly, most movies being made today are heavier meals than a child is prepared to take in. Even if movie ratings are enforced, a determined youngster can get into an R-rated film, or else bring one home from the video store … if his or her parents aren’t paying close attention. It is all too easy to blame a child’s violent behaviors on television, movies, even literature. Frustrated children turned cruel long before the World Wrestling Federation came into being. Perhaps the wages of sin manifested in today’s youth sometimes reflects the Bible’s exhortation that the “sins of the father” will be visited upon the son. Sometimes the very thing that provokes a child to violence is a deep-rooted feeling of loneliness or abandonment. Parenting is a larger responsibility than many want to admit. A close-knit, caring, and loving family will do wonders to nurture loving, caring, thinking children, preparing them to face life’s more difficult challenges.

Readers respond

Film Forum readers testified that they too have encountered meaning in the midst of violence. But they are also disturbed at the way young people are increasingly engaging such volatile media.

Mark Watkins writes, “Sadly, violence is a way of life in the real world and most mature, thought-provoking movies will have some level of violence in them in order to be realistic. Hopefully they will also include the more powerful aspects of God’s grace and love.”

Jay Phillippi concurs: “The violence of Saving Private Ryan…is clearly part of the central story. Pretending that war is some nice, clean, heroic endeavor creates more problems than it solves. Jurassic Park III … is about the conflict between the humans and the animals. Violence is an integral part of nature and the world that God created. Retreating into a kind of spiritual ‘Amish-ness’ on the subjects of violence, nudity, or profanity ensures that we are incapable of dealing with it in real life, and equally incapable of instructing our children.”

On the other hand, Don Smith cautions us to watch closely how we respond when we witness violence. “Proverbs says not to rejoice if your enemy suffers, and cheering when the Death Star blows up [in Star Wars] might fall into that category. If the media inundate us with images of people using violence to solve problems, those are the models we will have available, the tools in our toolbox.”

Russell F. Francis agrees that we must consider the appropriate audience, even for Spielberg’s beloved war movie: “Saving Private Ryan helped me to empathize with the costly American experience and this gave me a more holistic appreciation of those doing the fighting and dying. This translated into real gratitude from me.” But he adds that the film “should not be viewed by [young people] unless parents are worried about an overly enthusiastic teenage weekend warrior who thinks there’s no bullet with his name and address written on it.”

James White sees a threat to children in more than just movies: “I have seen some of my grandchildren’s video games and they struck me as being more senselessly violent than Private Ryan.” White sees parental irresponsibility as a tragic but not unexpected problem, “an evil that has grown with each succeeding generation. We have been told in the Scriptures that the world is not going to improve; rather we can expect rather more evil until the appointed time.”

Christopher Tomkinson agrees that young children aren’t ready for a grownup story like Ryan, but can benefit from stories intended for them — even the violent ones. “I cried when Bambi’s mother was killed, but I don’t think that was an inappropriate movie for me to see as a child. I think rather than harming children, many of these stories get them thinking about morality and ethics in a constructive way.”

Nick Alexander says we should focus on “Context, context, context.” He adds that Pulp Fiction, by portraying the nonchalant violence of the criminals as preposterous acts of ignorance, played a part in the film’s theme of redemption and moral development. “Instead of desensitizing one’s attitudes, it actually affirms the value of life.”

Jason Cusick points out, “It’s not always the thing being done, but the context and motivation behind it that makes it so violent. I have been untouched by big gunplay scenes but have jumped back in my seat after seeing a truly rage-filled punch in the face. I am trying to be extra careful about my son seeing violence until he can discern the morality of confrontation and the immorality of rage. He will learn enough about violence on the schoolyard and with friends.”

William Holston invokes Romans 14. “I would not go to a movie with a couple from church that I suspect is easily offended. On the other hand I would not let the most conservative member of the church dictate to my family what movies I watch, books I read, or music I listen to.” Scripture is not silent on these things. Putting on “the full armor of God,” we can grow from encountering the world around us in all of its ugliness, even and perhaps especially through its stories. But not all things are profitable. The closer we draw to God the Father, the more Christ the Son’s sensitive and yet courageous heart, and the more attuned we are to the Holy Spirit within us, the healthier our discernment will become.

Meanwhile, we might do better to focus on the proper time, place, and venue for controversial art, and cultivate intelligent after-movie conversations. Perhaps then the Phoebes of the world will not suffer shocking disillusionment when they encounter their own Old Yellers; instead they will be challenged to hang on to hope even in the midst of tragedy and chaos.


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