We Are All Romans Now: Some Thoughts on Violence and Culture

In the 2016 remake of the classic Ben-Hur, Morgan Freeman’s Ilderim approaches Pilou Asbæk’s Pontius Pilate after Judah Ben-Hur wins the climatic chariot race against his adopted-brother turned antagonistic champion of Pilate. Pilate congratulates Ilderim on winning the bet and Ilderim offers condolences on Pilate’s financial loss. Rather than accept, Pilate shrugs off the loss and indicates satisfaction with a political victory. Gesturing to the crowd mobbing the Circus and carrying off the now discarded champion, Pilate simply says, “Look at them, they want blood, they are all Romans now.” Pilate’s job as Roman prefect was to bring submission at minimum and loyalty if possible. A critical step, either way, is assimilation, removing the barriers between Roman and Jew such that there is little noticeable difference between their manners of life. Pilate’s words here are easily missable if one loses the background of Roman occupation and Jewish eschatology on which the story of faith, forgiveness, and brotherhood is set, but in many ways these words are substantial warning to us, or at least myself, today. The question must be asked us, are we Romans too?

As I have been reading the Psalms over the past few weeks and have been struck by the negative language relating to violence. While there is certainly a conversation to be had concerning the total warfare of the book of Joshua, the feeling one gets from the Psalms is that there exists a thick line that separates those who are violent men or men who love violence and the people of God. Thus David writes, “The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Psalm 11:5). Consider also this themes appearance in Proverbs, “Do not envy a man of violence//and do not choose any of his ways,//for the devious person is an abomination to the LORD,//but the upright are in his confidence” (Proverbs 3:31-32). Similarly, when the message of God comes to Nineveh through the prophet Jonah, the king of Nineveh commands “but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.” Having spent time in an evangelical youth group as a teen, I commonly associate godlessness with sexual lust, but my reading of the Old Testament this year, I have noticed that violence may be a more common association with those who are outside of God’s people.

This causes me concern as I think we tend to overlook how problematic certain content can be for our spiritual lives when it is not sexual. We live at a time when sexuality and sexual content is regularly in the media. The sexual revolution, conservative commentators tell us, has gripped the society and is redefining our lives and our culture. Such concerns are valid, but often lead to a narrow mentality of sin and brokenness. As they say, to a hammer everything is a nail, but what if to a hammer the only things that are relevant are nails? Much will be missed. So shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones are condemned for their pornographic content. But some Christians then simply write it off—lust is not my struggle so I can then watch things full of nudity and sex without sinning. While I have a number of issues with such an argument, one might ask about other struggles or sinful tendencies, like violent thoughts and the storing up of hate or animus, are they present in GoT? After all, in the sermon on the mount, before Jesus speaks of lust and adultery, he speaks of violence and hate:

21 You have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not murder; andwhoever murders will be liable to judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who isangry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother willbe liable to the council; and whoever says, You fool! will be liable to the hell of fire.23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brotherhas something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First bereconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quicklywith your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand youover to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say toyou, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.


At this point I feel that I need to hit pause before I lose some readers and get written off as a prude who wants to sterilize the entertainment industry. Critical to the impetus behind writing this post is the desire to inform and and unmask. That is to inform about what I think the Christian worldview has to say about the consumption of violent content and to unmask entertainment as subversive in particular circumstances.

In graduate school I took a fun elective from which I have stolen the name for a category of posts—Faith, Film, and Philosophy. The professor, Dr. Doug Gievette, a notable philosopher and film lover, commented to our class on the first day about the difference between entering the movie theater and entering a debate hall. “When you go to a debate, you put your defenses up. You marshall intellectual energy to call to mind arguments for your view and against the view of the debater that you disagree with. But when you go to the cinema, you go to be entertained. You are not thinking about arguments—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.” For the rest of the semester we learned and practiced skills related to analyzing the worldviews of art, specifically in film. Here is the first point of this little aside: art and entertainment make arguments about metaphysics (what exists), epistemology (what/how we know or what is true), and ethics (what is good vs. what is bad). A second point is this little aside is this, we often miss these arguments and may be letting them sneak past our intellectual defenses simply because we forget or were not aware that what we consume as entertainment is making such arguments.

Forthcoming, the third and final installment of James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies trilogy is widely anticipated by those who have engaged with the first two. FYI, though the books can be a bit academic at times, he wonderfully sums up the first two books in a popular level book titled You Are What You Love, which received wide praise across the theological spectrum last year.

Now a third and final point for this aside. James K.A. Smith, philosopher and theologian, has written in his Cultural Liturgies series (more on these later) that simply knowing that cultural products are devices or instruments of formation allows us to mentally defend ourselves against the worldview attacks embedded in art, entertainment, and even cultural structures (i.e. the shopping mall or sports arena). These three points I hope moderate the tenor of this post as they draw attention to why I am concerned about our consumption of violence (it may be shaping us to be lovers of violence rather than lovers of God) but simply knowing that such formation may be happening allows us to defend against it as we would a debate.


Returning then to the primary issue of the consumption of violent entertainment by Christians, which I want to say I write concerned about for myself as my iTunes library contains films like The Book of Eli, Fury, and V for Vendetta. So allow me to speak personally for a moment. I have heartily enjoyed each film I own. They have entertained me. They have provided me with questions. They have impressed me artistically. That said, the more I spend time in scripture and prayer, the more I am concerned to set my mind on certain things, as Paul describes in Philippians:

[8] 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 worthy of praise, think about these things. [9] What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (ESV) Philippians 4:8-9

As Dr. Kenneth Berding writes in Walking in the Spirit, “As you walk in the Spirit, depending upon the Spirit and being filled with the Spirit, your desire to sin will minimize… Walk in the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. Be so full of the Spirit that your craving to sin lessens.” In a similar way, as I have been trying to fill myself with God’s word, I find that what is not true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable is less desirable. This is not, by any means, to say that I am without sin. Rather I find such content undesirable. I receive nothing from it, I see that the more I am in the Scriptures, the less I want what at best is the spiritual equivalent of eating junk food and at worst is consuming battery acid.

So much of the verse sited above stands out to me. Specifically the descriptor words—true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise. As I reflect on my film library, there are films which I have deleted because (while I still find them entertaining) I cannot honestly say that the film helps me to think about the true, honorable, just, pure, and lovely. As I reflect on the popularity of GoT or recent years surprise hit films like Deadpool and John Wick—and specifically their popularity among Christians, I wonder if any part of these pieces of film could be aptly described by those words as well. Does the story of a man’s hunt for revenge display honor? What about justice? Does a wisecracking, sexually deviant hitman display what is lovely and pure? Maybe it does, though I tend to be skeptical.

Now, you may be thinking, “what about Christian liberty and freedom in Christ?” To start with, I agree. You are free to watch Game of Thrones or Westworld and their ilk. Christian liberty is something to be taken seriously, and I might invoke the same concepts and arguments concerning my enjoyment of the occasional beer or cocktail. Let’s not forget, however, that Christian liberty is tempered with the idea of what is beneficial. It is not simply that all things are free to us, but they still must be weighed in terms of how they might or might not benefit our lives as Christians. I also resonate with Owen Strachan’s comments regarding his review of Brett McCracken’s Gray Matters from a few years ago:

This leaves conscientious Christians in a potentially hard place. Enjoy the political theatrics of the bawdy Game of Thrones? Savor the curse-driven humor of Veep? What should a Christian do? McCracken’s exhortation to know one’s areas of temptation and seek holiness is on target. One question nags at me, though. Sure, I can watch shows that depict the darkness and complexity and desperation of life—but should I? Do I need to?

Strachan concludes the review by agreeing with McCracken’s thesis (grey areas are to be abstained or enjoyed on the basis of one’s own personal temptations and struggles) in theory, but also stating:

Christian freedom entails several revolutionary realities: liberation from the law, from guilt, from a moralistic—but demoralized—way of life. Above all, though, Christian freedom is the freedom to obey Christ, and in so doing to savor the goodness of God above all else.

To Strachan’s comments I would add my own concern that we are not adequate judges of our areas of spiritual vulnerability. Many a recovering addict—be it alcohol, drugs, or sex—may well be aware of their primary temptations to sin, but for those of whose temptations are less obvious (say retail therapy or sloth) or whose sinful tendencies may win them favor in their friend group (like crass joking), ought we to expect that the actions of our sinful flesh be immediately clear and internally accessible to us? Is sin not deceptive? To pull this back to the consumption of violent content, is it possible that an affinity for action films is really a love for violence and fascination with revenge?

I might add to this the version of Christian masculinity popularized a few years ago by then-mega-church-pastor Mark Driscoll, who regularly commented on his enjoyment of MMA and UFC, see the video below as an example.

 

Driscoll, prone to hyperbole, states that there is not “anything purer than two guys in a cage” and that men are “made for combat, men are made for conflict.” While we might gloss over such comments, the actuality is that these are at least theologically troubling in their overstatement. It is possible that some unintentionally deceptive editing took place here, but there is definitely something more pure than two guys fighting in a cage. A man sacrificing himself humbly and quietly for another comes to mind. Similarly, there is something awkward about saying men were made for combat since human-on-human warfare is certainly a result of the Fall. We were made to combat Satan I suppose, but that is a contextual stretch in this interview.

So what do we do with violent entertainment, whether real or acted? At minimum we must ask ourselves whether we have violent tendencies, thoughts of revenge, or any other reason to believe violent content might be feeding a present sinful urge.

However, I am not convinced that such advice goes far enough. Consider recent work on spiritual habits. Authors like Smith and Tish Harrison Warren have tapped an oft neglected aspect of Augustinian theology, specifically the idea that the connection between that which we do and that which we believe has more exchange than we usually think. Smith’s work advocates taking on habits or disciplines which might feed the soul truths about who God is and who he made us to be. Smith calls these liturgies and he divides his work between pointing out cultural liturgies and how they might train us away from that which is Christian and how we might adopt liturgies that will remind us of our theology/worldview and draw us into worship and neighborly love.

Consider that first part, pointing out cultural liturgies. These liturgies that Smith points out are things present in culture that have an implicitly pedagogical effect. That is they teach us and train us without our conscious awareness. In other words, the question with cultural liturgies is ‘can this action change me over time?’ Or put into the context of violence and film, can watching violent films make me a more violent person? Are we asking questions like this when we tune into HBO?

A fantastic example of this theology applied to a sector of life that is difficult to be self-critical about is Andy Crouch’s latest (and arguably most important) book The Tech-wise Family. In it Crouch advocates rejecting technology’s “default settings” or said poignantly, “you don’t have to become Amish, but you probably have to become closer to Amish than you think.” Similarly I think there is room for graphic violence in film, but the vast majority of times it shows up are unnecessary. Thus, I am not saying we need to deny ourselves the enjoyment of any film with blood, but I am saying we should probably be skipping much more than we currently do because they might be, in fact I think it is plainly clear that they are, changing us as individuals and as a culture.

So here is where we find ourselves, we might be prone to violence or we might find our souls drawn toward it by violent films. So we are throwing out violent films, and since we can say the same sorts of things about foul language and sex, we are back to the mid-90’s standard that real Christians don’t watch R rated films? Not necessarily, though it is possible that this might be a functional outcome. Rather than suggesting that Christians give up on R rated films (as this would eliminate The Passion of the Christ and films about war and courage like Saving Private Ryan), I think films should be assessed on the basis of story and content. Consider last years surprise blockbuster Deadpool. Based out of the X-Men franchise, Deadpool has long been one of my favorite characters because of his wit and sarcasm, but I had to rethink my fandom when the character was no longer limited by the medium of the comic book. The film version of Deadpool was decidedly sexual, crass, and violent including a slow-motion triple headshot that made the trailer cut for advertising. While I am sure Deadpool would have been enjoyable, I did not need to invest much thought into whether I would see it. The answer was no. Again, true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise did not seem to be accurate descriptors. Beyond the content, the story did not seem all that compelling, no character development, basic revenge/save the girl plot.

This can be juxtaposed to Marvel’s last addition to the X-Men franchise, Logan. While excessively violent from the very first scene, the story of the film is deeply moving. Not a run-of-the-mill action flick, nor does it fit the comic book/super hero genre. Many critics compared Logan to Shane (a film which is referenced in Logan), a classic western about an aging gunslinger trying to do one final good deed before his time is up. Logan is also a film about family and fatherhood. Will Logan/James Howlett/The Wolverine take responsibility for a child that bears his DNA or will he simply fade away with Professor X, living in obscurity just over the American/Mexican border? What does it mean to be a father? Or to be a family? As such, I debated whether or not to see Logan, its violence seemed to get redemption in its story and themes.

Having weighed the content and the message, there is something else I need to take into account. Household rhythms. It is one thing to pass a simple test about having content that is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise, but just because a film is an important cultural artifact and bears redemptive value doesn’t mean that I will watch it. My time is a very limited and exceedingly precious resource. I love spending time with my family and for my wife (who would not appreciate the violence of Logan) and my son (who is far too young for most things in Logan). Between, family, ministry, work, and personal projects (like this blog and my reading) I don’t have that much time for films. As such a film must not only pass the test of content, but also the test of the rhythm of my life. I must be able to watch it with my family or structure a project around it (i.e. Faith, Film, and Philosophy blogs). Though I know that many who consume such cinema as GoT and Deadpool are not father’s of young children or even husbands of sensitive wives, but it is a good liturgy to ask what rhythms one might want in their life. Do you want the television on before the Bible is opened? Do you want to listen to scenes of violence more than you listen to the word of God? I do not mean these questions to shame, only to provoke thought. For I believe we must engage in film and television intentionally and thoughtfully or we will find that we have long been Romans, longing for blood, even if it is cornstarch and red dye.

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

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