Several years ago, Robert and I went to see The Dark Knight in the theater. We both liked the film, but there was a moment near the end that haunted us for quite a long time: Harvey Dent taking Commissioner Gordon’s young son hostage, threatening to execute him based on the flip of a coin.
“Man, children in peril,” Robert said as we drove home to relieve the babysitter. “I can’t look at that stuff like I used to.”
Children in peril. I’ve used that phrase to explain why I’m not interested in watching Breaking Bad, despite its reported brilliance. I was open to it initially—the show appears to address issues of morality in a very interesting way, so maybe I could go with it. Then I heard a spoiler about an episode last August and said, “Nope, that’s it.”
Friends say in response, “Well, it’s not like children are singled out. Pretty much everyone is in peril on that show.”
Just so you know, that doesn’t help your case.
Fast forward from Harvey Dent to Aurora. I still haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises. I would have, before. I like good action movies. They can be fun, even cathartic. The Dark Knight series is rich. And the word “rises” is right there in the title, beckoning this Christian minister who likes to sleuth around for Jesus hiding in unlikely places.
But I can’t see it now. I won’t. In my mind, knowing that the gunfire in the film provided auditory camouflage for actual terror and death puts it two degrees of separation away from a snuff film.
(This isn’t about the culture wars, by the way. I don’t happen to agree that violent video games and movies turn people violent. After all, other countries consume the same media that we do and don’t have nearly the talent for killing each other that Americans do. I will leave it to you, Gentle Reader, to ponder just what it is that allows Americans shoot each other with such alacrity.)
Something broke in a lot of people that day in December, but it broke us all in different places. One of the things it broke in me is an ability to see extreme violence on the screen and put it in a different cognitive location than where I put the knowledge of what eleven bullets do to a first grader. I’ve waited to see whether that fracture would repair itself with time. But no, the limp remains.
Other people are having similar discussions. Linda Holmes writes on pop culture for NPR and recently explored this topic in a post, “The Spatter Pattern: Does All the Good Television Have to Be So Bloody?”
It’s like we have an army of dazzlingly fluent poets who all write in one language. That doesn’t, of course, make all the poetry the same, any more than all English-language poetry is the same. These shows are varied in many ways: The Wire is not the same show as The Walking Dead just because people get shot and otherwise brutalized, and American Horror Story and Boardwalk Empire are hardly identical twins. But they share elements, one of which is that the stakes involve — not solely but largely — avoiding being violently killed. And for that reason, they ask the viewer to want to watch people being violently killed now and then, and sometimes now and then and then and then, because otherwise the threats are false.
This blog post is not a line in the sand, by the way. It’s not an announcement: I don’t consume violence for entertainment anymore. It’s also not a judgment on others who make different choices. Rather it’s an opportunity for self-examination, to explore how the choices I make define who I am. Where are the boundaries in the stands we take? What’s in and what’s out?
Is it gratuitous violence that’s the issue? Many people I respect say that Django Unchained was the best movie of the year, but I can’t do Tarantino. Except I don’t want to see realistic violence either. Robert and I were trying to make a plan for date night last weekend, and he didn’t have “Zero Dark Th—” out of his mouth before I said “No.”
But wait. Wasn’t LOST one of my favorite TV shows of all time? And wasn’t it pretty violent? Yes. I’m pondering what makes that show OK, or whether I’m just hypocritical on the point.
Second, didn’t I just re-read The Hunger Games? And doesn’t that book consist of children in peril (and children causing peril)? But the book is a critique of that violence. In fact, the heroic acts in the book are those that demonstrate forbearance and restraint. (The second and third books chronicle the insurrection against the Capitol and tell a more traditional war story, which is partly why I don’t like them as much.)
I’m thinking about these things this week, this Holy Week, as Christians prepare to come together on Thursday and Friday to tell an incredibly violent story, a story that we strain to find redemption in. And maybe that’s another word I’m looking for: redemptive. Maybe it’s the idea of redemptive violence that I can’t be a witness to: Revenge. Ends justifying means. Might making right.
It’s not the violence against Jesus that’s redemptive. In fact, there’s something thuggish about a God who would send His [sic] son to die on a cross to provide payment for our sins:
As I said from the pulpit two weeks ago, I’ve gotta think that an infinitely creative God could’ve come up with myriad ways of bringing reconciliation and shalom. No, it was the powers and principalities, not God, that sentenced Jesus to death. And it’s Jesus’ incomprehensible posture of forgiveness (Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do) that gives the story its power.
Where do you land in these things?
Followers of Jesus, how are you telling the story? And how are you hearing it?