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Violence, Film and the Pursuit of Shalom: A Pathway to Re-Sensitisation

And the sound of music you know played on, and on, and on.
And once upon a time I was sure that life goes on.

– Catch-22 (the band, not the book)
So this turned into a much longer ramble than I intended. I do end up repeating a bit of what I said in a much earlier post entitled “Christian Snuff Films.” …
Hauerwas and Willimon can recall the day when movie theatres first began showing films on Sunday (cf. Resident Aliens). According to them, on this day, “the world shifted.” Film has become an increasingly influential medium within contemporary society. John Stackhouse suggests that it may be the single most influential medium and, as such, cannot be ignored by Christians who seek to formulate a coherent theology of culture. This reflection will address the general theme of a Christian interaction with film.
In particular, I wish to focus upon a Christian response to violence in film. This is a broad and much debated topic and so I will limit myself to responding to the argument that graphic violence can be used in film as a means of sensitising the audience. Therefore, I don't care to address “slasher” films, or films that glorify violence for the sake of violence, although my conclusions to have implications for how a Christian should respond to such films. Rather, this reflection addresses films that employ graphic violence regretfully, recognising that it is a part of public life. There are three recent films that use graphic violence especially powerfully in this regard, City of God (2002), Irreversible (2002), and The Passion of the Christ (2004). All of these films were hailed as successes within their particular niches. City of God won the Palme D'Or at Cannes, Irreversible gained notoriety at Cannes and garnered a cult following, and The Passion was a blockbuster that gained popular mainstream success.
City of God employs graphic violence to draw attention to the real life stories of kids that are raised within the worst slum in Rio de Janiero. The violence is especially horrific because it is performed by, and against, children. Irreversible employs graphic violence in order to reveal the horrors of violence against women. An uncut nine minute long rape scene (of a woman who just discovered she is pregnant) culminates in the assailant kicking in the woman's face. The Passion does not merely contain violet scenes, it is an entire movie of torture, bleeding and dying.
Yet violence is shown graphically in these films in order to sensitise callous audiences to the true nature of these events. As Gaspar Noe, the director of Irreversible says, “I needed to show rape in all its gory details so that we could grasp the true horror of the event.” Mel Gibson, director of The Passion makes similar assertions, arguing that Christians and others need to realise the true horror of Jesus' sufferings and the extent of his sacrifice for the world. Gibson reveals the cross for what it truly is, an instrument of torture — not a piece of costume jewelry. These directors claim to have good intentions. Indeed, it is likely true that at least Gibson's intentions are pure. Because of the goodness of the intentions should Christians embrace the production and viewing of such movies, as a means of sensitisation?
When one surveys the Christian voices on this topic it is not surprising to discover a wide variety of perspectives. One one end of the spectrum are those who embrace H.R. Niebuhr's first type — Christ against Culture. These Christians argue that film is inherently evil and compromised, a propagator of all sorts of perversion. They point to movies like the three mentioned here and argue that they actually make society more violent regardless of the directors' intentions. Therefore, they conclude, Christians should have no interaction with film whatsoever.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who belong ot H.R. Niebuhr's second type — Christ of Culture. These Christians argue for freedom of expression and assert that no censorship should be imposed on the arts. D. Posterski's “Accomodators” fall into this category (cf. True to You). Therefore, films such as those mentioned above are an integral form of free expression within free societies.
Those who belong to H.R.'s third type (Christ above Culture — similar to Posterski's “Cocooners”) would likely see no connection between their faith and film and would, therefore, not be inclined to engage or think to engage, in this debate.
Those of H.R.'s fourth type — Christ and Culture in paradox — would be more willing to recognise the complexity of the issue. Ultimately, they would conclude (with R.R. Niebuhr's sense of irony well-established) that there is a place for such films, even if they do produce some negative impact.
Finally, those who belong to H.R.'s fifth type — Christ transforming Culture — are the ones most engaged in this debate. Posterski's “Reclaimers” fall here, seeking to bring film back to more conservative presentations and, therefore, standing in opposition ot such as films as City of God, Irreversible, and The Passion. Posterski's “Collaborators” also fall here and they seek to present more Christian films while also allowing others to present films that express their values.
Within this plurality of voices how is the individual Christian to discern the correct approach? As both H.R. Niebuhr and Stackhouse note, many good, wise and influential Christians have belonged, and do belong, to each of these positions. Perhaps it is best to employ what Glen Tinder calls “prophetic hesitancy” (cf. The Political Meaning of Christianity). Recognising one's limitations and inability to be certain of God's will (recognising what Stackhouse calls “finitude and fallenness”) perhaps one can only respond to this situation as an individual. Perhaps there is no one Christian response.
Yet the voices of both C.S. Lewis and D. Bonhoeffer argue against this. Lewis argues for an objective reality that can be known in the same way as scientific facts. Bonhoeffer, formed by the crisis in which he lived, argues that God does speak clearly into the contemporary cultural situation and Christians are called to respond with decisive action. With due respect to Tinder's sincerity this reflection sides with Lewis and Bonhoeffer arguing that a clear response can be formulated on behalf of the Christian body, not just on behalf of individual Christians.
Christians are called to bring about Shalom. Therefore, they are called to engage with culture in the pursuit of Shalom. In following in the footsteps of those who belong to H.R. Niebuhr's fourth type, Christians must engage culture with “holy pragmatism” (Stackhouse) enacting what Posterski calls “redemptive resistance” (of course, it is somewhat ironic that Posterski employs this term. Between his embrace of patriotism and his classification of acts of civil disobedience as acts of lawlessness, one wonders how much Posterski's approach is actually resistant — or redeeming). The directors of the films mentioned above, in seeking to sensitise their audiences, are, therefore, arguably engaging in the pursuit of Shalom.
The the Christian must ask if these films attain their goal. Here it is worthwhile to pick up R.R. Niebuhr's emphasis on empirical analysis. One may immediately note that all three films did elicit strong emotional responses. Supposedly hardened critics fled the theatre in tears, and some even vomited, when Irreversible debuted at Cannes. The Passion caused audiences to return for multiple viewings and tears were just as present on the cheeks of those who watched for the third time as those who watched for the first. I myself, a street-youth worker, wept powerfully when I saw City of God. Yet feeling strong emotions is not equivalent to being sensitised or building Shalom. In fact, there are two especially strong arguments to support the conclusion that the production, and viewing, of such films is actually detrimental to Shalom.
The first detriment to sensitising and Shalom is the fact that these films are presented as entertainment. The first way that this is accomplished is through marketing. Poster, television ads, and online reviews lead audiences to view these films as something entertaining. Potential viewers have their interest stimulated, and, depending on what sort of emotion they want stimulated, they determine what movies to view. The venue in which these films are presented only strengthen the impression that these films are purely entertainment. Ads play before the movie and, as the movie ends, neon lights re-ignite and Top 40 songs play over the speakers. The viewer can sip a soda and munch on a candy bar while children are murdered, women are raped, and Christ is tortured. The fact that audience members are willing to pay $12.50 to view these movies only strengthens this conclusion. As consumers audiences pay for a specific product, seeking a specific type of gratification. When this is recognised movies like those mentioned above become especially dangerous because of the type of emotion that they stimulate. When understood in this light viewing these films is an expression of insensitivity and one's distance from Shalom. Yet, because tears have been produced, the illusion of sensitivity is accomplished. Christians who leave The Passion weeping gain a sense that they are “good Christians” who know they love their Lord deeply because they wept so strongly. Yet, when one takes into account that these Christians paid $12.50 to see this movie and feel this way, one cannot help but wonder if they have not, in fact, joined the throng chanting, “Crucify him!”
When one listens to the voices of those who have actually experienced trauma like these movies portray this conclusion is only strengthened. As a friend of mine who was raped, stabbed, and left for dead, once said to me, “It's one thing to know there are people out there who commit such atrocities. It's another thing to know that the general public is willing to pay to see such atrocities enacted.” Such films are thus detrimental to Shalom because they further alienate and isolate those who have suffered deeply. Watching Irreversible does not make me more sensitive to the sufferings of one who is raped. It actually makes the loved ones I know less likely to ever share their stories, and their burdens, with me. Neil Postman argues that television (and film by implication) is most dangerous, not in the production of fluff, but when it seeks to address religion, politics, and philosophy. THe same conclusion can now be drawn in relation to sensitisation and the production of Shalom.
How then should Christians respond ot this? First, they must allow those who have experienced such forms of trauma to set the standard of what is appropriate and what is inappropriate viewing. For example (to use the more ambiguous, less visual medium of literature), it seems that I can decide to accept the portrayal of rape as it appears in Tess of the D'Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy: a sensitive portrayal that highlights the psychological trauma), reject the portrayal in The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand: the woman is described as enjoying rape, thus perpetuating false stereo-types) yet be unsure of what to do with The World According to Garp (John Irving: a graphic rape that does not condone violence but highlights the horror). In this case I need the guidance of those who have suffered to know how to properly respond. A P. Freire asserts, in the pursuit of Shalom we must not only speak out on behalf of those who have suffered but also enable them to find their voice so that they can set us free from our commitment to systems of oppression (cf. Pedagogy of the Oppressed).
Here the insight of Hauerwas and Willimon is especially significant. They issue a call to the Church to return to being the Church. It is by being true to its identity that the Church will transform the world. The the Church is the social strategy of Christians. Here the redemptive call of Christians to fulfill the new commandment (“love one another”) and the great commandment (“love God and love neighbour”) becomes essential. To be true to their identity Christians must be committed to love relationships. In particular they are called to journey in love relationships with the oppressed and with those who have suffered and continue to suffer. It is exactly in these love relationships that true sensitisation occurs. Once Christians exist in love relationships with survivors of trauma they will not need films to make tears flow. They will realise the power that lies in the word “rape,” to actually watch a film like Irreversible becomes absurd.
Of course, this leads me to wonder how much of a genuine love relationship exists between many contemporary Christians and Jesus. If the family and friends of Leslie Mahaffey (a girl from Ontario who was kidnapped, raped, tortured and murdered — the perpetrators, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka filmed Leslie Mahaffey as they did all these things to her) would not even consider watching the films in order to “know what she went through,” why would Christians consider watching the beating, torture, and murder of their beloved Lord Jesus? Just as journeying in love relationships with the suffering sensitises us to their situation, so also journeying in love relationships with those who are crucified in our contemporary society sensitises us to the suffering of the crucified Christ.
There is a place for discussion of rape, murder, and torture within film. TO make such things a topic that cannot be addressed contributes to the taboo that such things are unspeakable and further isolates survivors. There is a place for meditations on the sufferings of Christ. Without such meditations one would be deprived of Luther's brilliant theology of the cross and Moltmann's masterful work, The Crucified God. Yet there is a distinction to be made between a voyeuristic pornography of violence and a portrayal of such events that contributes to Shalom. Only by journeying in love relationships with those who have suffered and listening to their voices can Christians discern which films contribute to Shalom and which do not.
Until then films such as City of God, Irreversible, and The Passion of the Christ will continue to be the centre of tumultuous moral debates. Many reject such films and believe that in doing so they have contributed to Shalom — never realising that they are called to go and journey alongside of the suffering. Many others embrace such films believing they are sensitising themselves by doing so — never realising that they have only further isolated and re-victimised those who have suffered deeply, be they children, women, or our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ultimately, any discussion about film should not be approached as a moral debate but as a kingdom debate. As a Christian I am committed to standing within the Kingdom of God and seeking to live solely under the Lordship of Christ. That means that I will inevitably come into conflict with the kingdoms of the world. The kingdom of the entertainment industry seeks our allegiance just as much as the kingdom of God. As comfortable North American Christians we tend to think we can have the best of both worlds. We think we can just pick and choose the movies we view, we can stand with one foot in God's kingdom and one foot in the entertainment industry. However, if we choose to give our money to the lords of Hollywood we are contributing to their kingdom — which is antithetical to God's. Jesus demands that we pick sides. There are some situations where we cannot be neutral. To have the foot in the door of another kingdom is to be wholly compromised. I may only choose to pay for movies that I can support as a Christian but, at the end of the day, the money ends up in the pockets of those who make movies I cannot support as a Christian. It is the same all over corporate America. I won't wear certain running shoes because my money would then be supporting the exploitation of the poor, I won't support certain Canadian businesses because they are raping the planet, and I won't support the entertainment industry because of the violence, apathy, idolatry and moral bankruptcy that it offers to us. This is a lordship I am not willing to recognise or support. The early Christians refused to pinch incense to Caesar and I will refuse to pop into theatres every now and again to view movies that I, as a Christian, find palatable. The kingdom values of the lords of Hollywood are not values I will lend my money to.

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  1. Hey, thanks, I’m glad you liked it. I have a feeling that my posts are getting so long that people can’t really be bothered to read everything. Thanks for wading through it all!

  2. Hauerwas and Willimon can recall the day when movie theatres first began showing films on Sunday (cf. Resident Aliens). According to them, on this day, “the world shifted.”
    To be fair, I don’t think that H&W were really making a point about film, but were making a point about Christendom breathing its last breath in the US.
    Lewis argues for an objective reality that can be known in the same way as scientific facts.
    And of course Lewis found in this “objective reality” his own ethical perspective. For Lewis (in Mere Christianity) the death penalty or killing an enemy could be a means of loving someone.
    Christians are called to bring about Shalom.
    To bring about, or to be? There’s a big difference. If you say that our mission is to bring about peace, a much stronger argument can be made for war. Because it is seen as an effective tool to bring peace by so many. if we are called to BE peace, then our ethic is much more clear
    Marketing leads audiences to view these films as something entertaining.
    I don’t know a single person who said that City of God or The Passion of the Christ was entertaining. Quite the reverse, people said that these were in no way entertaining, but were moving. They had felt like they had been given a message, that what they saw in this film had a claim on their lives from that point on in a way that entertainment to be consumed never will. Hotel Rwanda for instance wasn’t the kind of movie that you watch again and again because it’s just so darn entertaining. Most people I know rarely watch these movies again, just for that reason. Popping in City of God on a lazy Saturday afternoon seems irreverent. The “moving” part of these films goes far beyond emotionalism for many people I know. I know people (myself included) that are now struggling with a real way to respond to the genocide in Sudan that doesn’t mirror the apathetic response from the West in HR.
    Once Christians exist in love relationships with survivors of trauma they will not need films to make tears flow. They will realize the power that lies in the word, “rape,” to actually watch a film like Irreversible becomes absurd.
    I totally agree that film will always be a pale shadow compared to love relationships with real people. I also think that as an artistic medium, film (like all art) is a great way to open people’s minds. How many good hard-working Christians think about prisoners, much less ministering to them? Well I know several who are doing just that because films like Dead Man Walking opened a door in their mind to go out and connect real people in real love relationships. If the reaction to the film ends just in the tears of the viewer, then perhaps all we have is someone who has a more compassionate mindset but who has yet to act that out. But for so many these films open doors that weren’t being ignored, but that we were just ignorant of. Of course showing a 9 minute rape scene would be beyond justification to me, but a film dealing with the trauma or opening up people’s minds to what’s going on… I’m all for it, because that’s all it will take for some people to open up to God’s calling to be present with those people.
    Until then films such as City of God, Irreversible, and The Passion of the Christ will continue to be the centre of tumultuous moral debates. Many reject such films and believe that in doing so they have contributed to Shalom — never realising that they are called to go and journey alongside of the suffering. Many others embrace such films believing they are sensitising themselves by doing so — never realising that they have only further isolated and re-victimized those who have suffered deeply, be they children, women, or our Lord Jesus Christ.
    Okay… well now I think we agree. Clever you, tying it up with a “third way” in the end… or if you’re a H.R. Niebuhr fan… a 6th way.

  3. Just as a final side note… I agree with Yoder’s criticism of Christ and Culture found in Authentic Transformation. Niebuhr really sets up his “five choices” in such a way that you have modalist options, and anyone with a high Barthian-style Christology will find themselves floating between many of his “options” but satisfied with none of them. I think that a more Christian way of being in relationship to Culture is one of active engagement and unafraid vulnerability. If we can let go of our need to make the world into the Kingdom of God (as the Fundamentalists think we must), then we can be free to use the means of the Kingdom rather than that of the world. If we’re secure enough in who Christ is, we can be free to engage the world (like you said, to have real love relationships with people), and not throw our “Christian hand-grenades” of judgement, etc. out in to culture from behind our Family Christian Bookstore culture of Christian Barricade.

  4. I also agree with Yoder’s critique of “Christ and Culture.” I actually end up in a very different camp than either of the Niebuhr brothers. I just used H.R.’s types because they were convenient.
    Without getting into a debate about the pros and cons of Barth’s Christology I think that H.R.’s types are extremely biased. Thus, those who belong to the Niebuhrian camp tend to use the types to caricature the works of people like Hauerwas and Yoder. Properly understand I think Hauerwas et al belong to Niebuhr’s “Christ Transforming Culture” not “Christ Against Culture,” it’s just that they put a very different spin on the way in which one engages in, or embodies, transformation.
    I like what you say about giving up the idea of making the world into the KOG. I like your combination of engagement and vulnerability. Of course, I prefer to phrase that as suffering love.

  5. Suffering Love… sounds awfully Christian to me. This has been a very engaging and challenging discussion, thanks for the dialog. Who knew that those two books in my stack would open up such a large discussion. What were the books that you had recommended to “move up the stack” as it were? I’d really like to get around to the Chomsky book before my friend returns from Syria so that we might be able to talk about some of its contents. This’ll be the longest Chomsky read for me to date, most of his stuff have been “tasty snacks” as it were. Little (but great) books like Media Control, 9/11, etc. Good stuff. I had just rented his DVD on Manufacturing Consent and was watching it with like 5 or 6 other Seminary students and after 2 1/2 hours we finally got to the INTERMISSION! So one day we need to finish that as well. But that’s life, a constant state of being unfinished I suppose.