Let Not Violence Entertain You
Article by Dr. Kathryn Butler, Regular Contributor to desiringGod.org, and an author.
I trusted the friend who’d recommended the movie. When the opening scene depicted a murder in graphic detail, I shot her a nervous glance. A chase sequence ensued, with innocent bystanders slashed and bludgeoned. Then the vigilante protagonist tortured the villain with pliers.
My friend, enrapt, elbows on her knees, leaned toward the screen as I shrank into the couch. The directors had crafted a retribution narrative designed to stir up adrenaline. We were supposed to glory in the vengeance and the gore, to cheer with the disarticulation of each bloodied finger. They’d disguised brutality as entertainment.
“Please turn it off,” I blurted.
My friend laughed, assuming I was joking. When I repeated my plea, her eyes widened.
“You’re a trauma surgeon!” she cried. “Surely, you’ve seen worse than this!”
I gritted my teeth. I hadn’t seen worse, but I’d seen more. Blood-and-guts movies like this didn’t reveal the full aftermath of tragedy. They didn’t explore how blades, shrapnel, and shattered windshields meant grieving wives and orphaned sons. They didn’t elaborate on the language of wound edges, how the ragged tissue in blast injuries guaranteed months of future surgeries, how the clean margins of a bullet wound could hide a death sentence.
I’d seen the anguish that lingered among the heartbroken long after we’d cleaned the blood from the trauma bay. I’d witnessed the power of a trigger pull to demolish lives.
“I’ve seen enough,” I said. “Please turn it off.”
Does Violent Media Harm Our Kids?
Debates about violence in the media have broiled in the scientific community for over half a century. A decade ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued its statement alerting parents and pediatricians to a link between violent media and aggressive thoughts. Studies since then have reinforced their concerns, correlating violent film and video game exposure in young people with anger, desensitization to real-world violence, and diminished compassion.
And yet, while ardent, opinions on this issue aren’t unanimous. Some critics accuse organizations like the AAP of proclaiming unfounded conclusions. In particular, they note that most studies on violent content have focused on thoughts and feelings elicited in the laboratory, with comparatively little data about how media exposure affects real life behavior. Although watching gory movies can stir up aggressive thoughts, no study proves that these thoughts inspire violence against others. Without such data, skeptics argue, stern warnings about media are unsubstantiated.
The contentiousness in the medical community spills over into the public sector. Last year, when a series of high-profile shootings stunned the nation, politicians cited movies and video games as potential contributors. The backlash was swift and vehement, with protests riddling the internet. After the assaults, Universal Studios canceled release of its horror film The Hunt to avoid inflicting further grief. A few months later, the film Joker sparked controversy for its potential to inspire copycat killers. The dispute churns on, with tempers flaring on either side.
When Entertainment Harms Love
How does a disciple of Christ respond to this controversy? When our screens offer atrocities as entertainment, do we watch, or should we look away?
While no data links violent media to malicious actions, the current evidence should still give us pause. One systematic review states the following: “Violent media can also desensitize people to violence, making them less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others.” Even if a bloody scene in a film doesn’t inspire us to commit violence, it can deaden compassion.
As followers of Christ, this should grab our attention. Our two primary calls as disciples are to love God, and to love our neighbors:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:37–40)
Loving neighbors requires that we view others as image-bearers, infused with inherent worth and dignity. We’re called to extend compassion toward those who, like us, buckle beneath the burden of sin and cry out for help. As Christ loved us, so we also are to love one another (John 13:34–35). As the apostle John says, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for others. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:16–17).
When we indulge in gratuitous violence on screen, we risk detaching ourselves from the plights of our suffering brothers and sisters. We threaten our ability to love them. We exchange open hearts for a perverse CGI thrill.
Pain After the Credits
Not all media violence corrupts. When designed to convict, rather than to entertain, cinematic realism can confront us with our own depravity. Films that depict war truthfully, unveiling its power to destroy both body and soul, can unsettle us into contemplation, and emphasize our need for a savior. When approached with honesty and sensitivity, rather than recklessness, realistic film can prod us to repentance.
Too often, however, films exploit brutality, rather than condemn it. They treat it as a forbidden fruit, a rousing spectacle, rather than as sin unleashed. While graphics technology depicts exploding tissue and splattered blood in unprecedented relief, they gloss over the impact of such travesties on the soul, mind, and heart.
They don’t explore what any clinician in an emergency department knows: that violence leaves children maimed, and infants fatherless. That the easy pull of a trigger afflicts the grieving for decades. That a single outburst of anger can destroy the lives of people who love, and dream, and hope, not just for a moment, but for generations. That rather than cause for excitement, inflicted wounds are signatures of evil: God’s workmanship torn open, the Adversary’s handiwork in flesh and blood.
How to Know What to Watch
For guidance when we gaze upon media, be it film, video games, or print, we can turn to Philippians 4:8. In a beautiful exposition of discernment, Paul advises, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worth of praise, think about these things.”
When we watch a violent film, does it elaborate upon what is honorable and true? Does it reflect what is pure, lovely, and commendable? Can we discern excellence in its frames?
Do its unsettling images convict us, and drive us to repentance? Do they enlighten us? Do they enhance our compassion for others? If the answer is “yes,” then with discerning eyes, minds turned to Christ, and hearts open to other, watch on. If the answer is “no,” then out of love for your neighbor, turn the screen off, and feast your eyes, instead, upon what is true and lovely — on what accords with God.
Kathryn Butler is a trauma and critical care surgeon turned writer and homeschooling mom. She is author of Between Life and Death: A Gospel-Centered Guide to End-of-Life Medical Care. She lives north of Boston, and writes at Oceans Rise.