Violence as Entertainment and the Christian Walk

When I was a young man in my twenties I loved “action movies.” I remember that we guys often talked about the “kill ratio” as a way of rating the movie. High kill ratio movies were “good,” and low kill ratio movies were poor and dangerously on the way to becoming a “chick flick.” Car chases, buildings being blown up, and the bad guys being killed in large numbers, was the recipe we looked for.

In fact, I’ll save you some money and give you the plot of every adventure movie ever made or to be made. The movie opens with some bad guy, a guy who is unambiguously evil, doing some terrible thing. Perhaps he kills some one, takes hostages, or engages in a terrorist act. After this our hero steps on the scene. And, after about ninety minutes of car chases, blowing things, up and killing people, he exacts vengeance, restores justice and walks off the scene, girl in arm, burning city in the background, roll credits. (There is usually a sub-plot which involves the girl wherein she enters the scene, complicating things for our hero, and is usually a combination of an insistent partner to our hero, and also plays the role of damsel in distress. OK, so save your $15. You’ve just had them all presented to you. There is almost no variance to this theme and it is usually downright cartoonish.

In recent years I have lost interest in these movies. Some of it is age. But a lot of it is my Christian walk. I no longer love these movies because it is clear to me that the Lord does not love them. For a Christian of some depth, it becomes clear that, violence should not be proposed as entertainment, or be experienced as entertaining. Violence is always regrettable and is a cause for sober reflection, not exuberant joy.

I am no pacifist, there are times when the police have to repel or restrain criminals with violent force. There are times when nations, for a grave reason, and as a last recourse, must go to war. But this is always lamentable, and surely not entertaining. People often die terribly in war, and in other violent ways.

The adventure movies and video games often present simplistic and cartoonish notions of violence. For example, our hero may be involved in a high speed car crash. Despite this, he often walks away from it and remains quite fit to do further battle. But in reality no one walks away from a high speed car crash unscathed. The whole body is wrenched and there are almost always neck and back injuries that require months to recover from. Some never recover. Further, as our hero kills bad guys left and right, we are never invited to consider that in real life death has terrible ripple effects as families, children and others, related to the dead, experience the tragedy and often never recover.

The CBS video below speaks of an area I know little, the world of video games. I will admit, that video games are simply not, and never have been a part of my world. When I was in high school the only video game available was “PONG” (a simple monochrome tennis game). Pac Man and Donkey Kong were just on the horizon, but I never warmed up to them in college years.  The first video shows that a new rating system has come into play for these games, many of which are horribly violent as well as being saturated with sex and bad language. I am personally glad to see it and hope it will guide parents to be more sober about what their kids are playing.

I intend no crusade here. I am not calling for abolishment of such games, or of adventure movies. I will even say I oppose those who refuse to let little boys have toy guns and play war. I figure for them it is just a stage, a boy thing. But that is a central point, it should be just a stage.

So what I do propose is that, as we grow in our Christian walk, the notion of raw violence as a form of entertainment, becomes increasingly untenable for us. Violence is something we increasingly mourn, increasingly find troubling. If it ever did appeal to us, it appeals less and less. The voice of Jesus echoes in our conscience: Put away your sword (Matt 26:52).

And as we grow in grace, that still small voice of Jesus gradually has its way. The swords are sheathed, the video controllers are set aside, the movies look silly, and violence becomes unappealing, lamentable, and a subject for prayer, rather than a form of entertainment.

Photo credit is a snap from the second video

The first video is from CBS News and details some of the problems with violence in video games. The second video is a humorous description of how silly adventure movies really are. Pardon a could mild profanities. One of the lines says, Cool guys don’t look at explosions, they blow things up and walk away, and never think of the people they’ve killed.

33 Replies to “Violence as Entertainment and the Christian Walk”

  1. The reason that action movies are appealing, in my opinion, is not really the violence. It is a kind of morality tale in which bad guys lose and good guys win – and it all wraps up nice and neatly by the end of the play. It’s comforting, I think, for men who often don’t have clear cut enemies to fight and whose battles are often never truly over to watch these kinds of movies. It fuels the ability to continue believing that the fight is worth fighting, and that there is good worth fighting to preserve. The violence in these movies is appealing because it’s a sign of victory over the enemy, a sign that the end is coming closer and the fight is nearly done. The hero doesn’t get hurt no matter how reckless his behavior because his motives are “pure” and because this is a perfect world – a world in which justice is done here on earth and nobody has to wait until final judgment to see it happen.

    As we grow in Christ, though, we begin to understand that the reason our battles in real life are not so clear cut is that our enemies are not pure evil. We mourn their death because we mourn the loss of the good that God created in them. The battle is still worth fighting, but the battle grounds have changed and we begin to understand that we are not fighting the person in front of us but the evil that oppresses them and manipulates them. We learn that our greatest weapons are not in explosives, or in guns, or in knives, or in any kind of earthly weapon but in our prayers and our ability to love others as Christ has loved us.

  2. For me, as a catholic and a avid gamer, it depends on the context of the violence. I rarely if play games where it is wholly senseless, games like Grand Theft Auto. For me, there has to be a reason, like you’re fighting a just war (The Half Life series), a historical reimaging (the original call for duty games, which were based in WWII) or protecting others or fighting together to protect yourself and your friends (Left for Dead 2), or just games that emphasize teamwork (BF 2142).

    But these days I’m not big on First person shooters, Typically these days I play games that emphasize tactical and strategic decisions, (Europa Universalis III, Frozen Synapse, Hearts of Iron III), where there is war and such (for EU3, peace never lasts too long, but then again it was the middle ages), but you see it from a leaders perspective, but you send armies/soldiers to fight. Another favorite is the space sandbox (X3, EVE Online, Freelancer)

    To me, it depends on whether the violence is meaningless or has some meaning, where a person of good will would have to fight if put in that circumstance.

  3. The difficulty is, of course, in ensuring that violence is a means to telling a story that ultimately edifies. The Epic tales of the Maccabees come to mind, with their gruesome descriptions of torture and death, and sacrifice plays of men with spears fighting battle-armored elephants.

    The difference between the stereotypical ‘action hero’ movie and the Maccabean revolt is that one does violence for the sake of monetary profit through the shocking of our sensibilities, while the latter notes that at times violence has been done to the people of God, and they have at times had to respond with violence in kind, be it during the Maccabean revolt or World War II against, not only the Nazis, but the Eugenics philosophy which they so hideously and effectively championed.

    Insisting, however, that we aren’t god Christians unless we drop *all* violence out of *every* form of entertainment is just as big an error, albeit in the opposite direction.

    It is akin to suggesting that we make every character in a story dress the same, to protect the reader against potential sins of envy, or ordering all women to go about with veils over their faces, to protect men from potential sins of lust…

    Oh, wait. Some folks do that, don’t they?
    And they are just as wrong, for the same reasons, IMO.

    1. The movie Saving Private Ryan is an illustration of violence as a means to telling a story. There were times that I had to cover my eyes, but without the images of people being wounded or killed, the story would have been much less powerful.

      Unfortunately such movies are few and far between, Most action movies use a thin plot as an excuse for a gross-out fest.

    2. Thanks for making this reply. The Maccabees are a good example; I was thinking that the Exodus is another, beginning with the slaughter of the Hebrew infants and ending with the Tenth Plague and the passage through the Red Sea.

  4. Epistle 181
    My some ideas of “the homily” of Msgr. Charles Pope are here below:
    Firstly, reading and comprehension of Msgr. Charles Pope’s homily are very essential.
    The title of the homily told inversely with the whole tenor of the homily.
    In the homily, Msgr. Charles Pope depicted violence in “action movies” or “adventure movies”.
    However, Msgr. Charles Pope didn’t praise them, but vice versa the Father criticized them strongly.
    Gist of the homily is Lord Jesus’ teaching: “Put away your sword” (Matt 26:52).
    Secondly, now we discuss additionally about the Father’s homily.
    In Gospel according to Matthew 26:52, the sentence “Put away your sword” was written fully as “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword”.
    We can read Lord Jesus’ teaching here:
    Up to now, I read and commented all 181 homilies of Msgr. Charles Pope, I notice that the Father’s homilies always have some themes of theology in them.
    The Father’s purpose is to want us to discuss those themes of theology.
    Sentence “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” is a Causal principle.
    “Put your sword back into its sheath” is cause, and “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” is effect.
    I have imitated St. Paul the Apostle to write epistles, this is cause. And what effect do I must bear?
    My answer is that my destiny will be similar to Paul the Apostle’s destiny.
    We can read St. Paul the Apostle here:

  5. I agree completely, my husband and I are having difficulty monitoring our kids who have become quite passionate about video games. It does carry over into their and our everyday lives if we don’t keep a lookout for the tendances that you’ve mentioned in your post. Thank you Msgr. Pope for this timely article and for sharing your explanations.

  6. A few years ago, I walked out of a movie because of the violence. I told my husband that I would just sit outside the small theater for the remainder of the show so he could finish watching it. The fellow who ran the projector came out and sat beside me while he smoked. I told him there should be some kind of notice that there was horrendous violence in the movie. He said that, because of his job, he watched the show over and over – and that when he came out of each show, if he had a machine gun he would probably get everyone in sight. He said his adrenalin calmed down again after about 15 minutes. That is scary.

    Thank you, Msgr. Pope, for well-balanced coverage of this timely topic.

  7. Msgr.,
    I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of your overall message but I am confused by a seeming contradiction:
    You say “For a Christian of some depth, it becomes clear that, violence should not be proposed as entertainment, or be experienced as entertaining. Violence is always regrettable and is a cause for sober reflection, not exuberant joy” but then you say “I oppose those who refuse to let little boys have toy guns and play war. I figure for them it is just a stage, a boy thing.” If the Lord is not pleased with it, how can we justify allowing our children to play in a way which is not pleasing to the Lord? Some in our culture use this same attitude towards sex among teens and college students claiming it’s “just a stage” and eventually they’ll outgrow it and settle down. Could you clarify? thanks

    1. I realize the seeming contradiction. The fact is that I struggle with forced attempts to merely refashion human nature (even the fallen version we have of it) by mere fiat. Most of the parents I know say that if a boy doesn’t have a toy gun, he will make one. I remember as a boy that I would even open up a stapler and make it a gun as I ran around the house blasting everything in sight. So, merely as a prudential judgment, I offer that it is probably better to let a boy grow out of this. I realize that in some matters parents must simply command that certain bad or sinful behaviors stop. But some other things are best appreciated as stages. As a prudential judgment I realize you or others may disagree. What I am emphasizing here is growth, and that as we grow in the Lord, violence, as entertainment. will recede.

      1. Would you not say that, even at its best, war (and police work) requires terrible sacrifices, but that (1) the alternative is worse (remember I’m talking about the *best* war and the *best* police work), and (2) those who make such sacrifices are worthy of honor, including the honor of holding them up as examples to be emulated? After all, the idea that the military keeps us free is a myth, but they *can* at least set an example for how a free man should respond to the threat of tyranny. Over the long haul, the example is more important than the victories.

        1. I would agree with this. It is at times necessary and even honorable to repel unjust aggression with force, even lethal force or the threat of it. I would only add that it would seem we ought to temper triumphalistic notions with lament and regret that violent means were necessary, that it had to come to that.

          1. No, I’m afraid I can’t agree that “we ought to temper triumphalistic notions”. In fact I must strongly disagree with just about any use of the word “triumphalistic” or “triumphalism”. The lie that has been put out is that anything hinting of “triumphalism” is taboo — it’s a display of personal pride. On the contrary, by denouncing “triumphalism”, the person so doing is usually finding a way to be condescending to those who are more successful than he — in war, in sports, in whatever. Loosing is *supposed* to hurt, and winning is *supposed* to feel good.

            When you honor heroes, REALLY honor them; when you celebrate victories, REALLY celebrate; when you mourn the dead, REALLY mourn.

            This is how it is done in the Catholic Church. Good Friday is meant to be a day of real sadness, and Easter Sunday is meant to be a day of real joy. Too often today, we get by with “fasting” on Good Friday by eating only one full meal, and for most of us it’s a work day. Easter Sunday doesn’t really feel that special either, if we haven’t done much for Lent other than give up something easy, like chocolate.

            We average out all our national holidays now. We dare not celebrate Independence Day without blending it with Memorial Day, and we never observe either Memorial Day or Veterans Day without getting them confused. September 11 is not just a time to mourn the sudden and unexpected deaths of three thousand people — more importantly than that, it’s a time to celebrate how brave we are for flying flags from our car windows. (And, of course, we mix in Memorial Day and Veterans Day again.)

            Back to the Catholic Church: How many people use fear of being “triumphalistic” as an excuse not to talk about the Church to their Protestant friends and neighbors? How many “Catholic” politicians would say, “Well, I can’t impose the beliefs of my Church about the nature of marriage on others, because that would be triumphalism”?

            Sorry to jump on you like this, but you touched a nerve.

      2. I will have to agree with Daniel here. I’m 31 and as a boy I grew up playing war with my cousins. Video games and movies are simply the new toy gun. The age we live in immediately leads boys with toy guns to video games, where you can actually visually “run around the house blasting everything in sight.” I was an avid gamer and I also have to disagree with Jason Fairfield, games are destructive. No matter the argument over moral value of the game, it is still entertainment of a sedentary and mindless manner, which takes you away from the reality of the world (in which God has given us plenty to be entertaining) and it takes you away from any number of important things, prayer, family, work on your property, giving time to the poor, the list is endless.

        There can be the argument that before guns boys fought with sticks, but it is all about culture and what is allowed in the home and the environment around the children. But to say “it’s just a stage,” I don’t necessarily know, I think I’m going to have to disagree with that.

        With movies and video games the “stage” lasts longer and becomes a lot more real and desensitizing. This readily available avenue is simply toy guns on a broader and more realistic scale. So at some point you have to say, enough is enough, we don’t play with toy guns here. There is no stage, get to work helping your mother wash dishes or work in the yard or explore the woods, etc. Nip the stage in the bud before it begins, now start chopping some firewood.

        1. I would only emphasize one point you have made that, I think that my boyish “shootem up” play was far less graphic and desensitizing that what kids today experience on these “games.” Once again, I am engaging in prudential judgment here and reasonable people will differ, but it would seem that something of a continuum might be valuable to explore rather than an all or nothing scenario, which is what I think I hear you saying in your last paragraph. I suppose, if I were a parent I would largely disallow the video games which are violent and involve killing, to win rather than competing to win. I would be less concerned with a son running around in the yard playing “war” and presume he’d largely grow out of that. Here too reasonable parents will differ and individual situations will temper or change the outcome, requiring more or less severity and restriction.

          1. I can easily agree with allowing them to run around in the yard and to let them grow out of it, were I to move my family away from cities, never allow tv and keep my kids homeschooled (something I actually want to do :))

            I only have a daughter at the moment but even now my wife and I can see the difference in how she acts during the year while being kept with four other children at a babysitter’s house compared to spending the summer with my wife (thank goodness she’s a teacher). I have so little control over what my daughter eats, how much tv is thrown in front of her, what the other kids are doing, speaking, teaching her, etc. This past spring she became aggressive, used bad language, was disagreeable, had contrary mannerisms (ha, even though I’ve been told she’s taught all the other kids how to make the Sign of the Cross). After one week with my wife at home, all that went away.

            But these are the fruits of our “affluence,” our desire to keep with the Jones’s rather than taking that pay cut and keeping a parent home to actually be a parent. Parental influence is so diminished these days, we allow so many demands on our time that we don’t do enough of the influencing of our own kids. And it truly takes a community, a village, to raise a child, but these days people are so corrupted (i.e. lukewarm values) that it’s really hard to keep the consistent message hammered home. Maybe these are the ramblings of a fearful father 🙂

    2. When a kid points a toy gun at another kid and yells “BANG!” the other kid may fake getting killed (most likely he will yell “YOU MISSED ME!”) and then get back up and continue playing or just go home. Teens having sex or getting involved with pornography involve the real act, not just a simulation.

      1. Agreed. I also think pornography is in a whole different category from violent movies and video games, in that the amount of temptation in the moment is far less, asexual scene can and usually does tempt one immediately and strongly to unchastity. It would seem that violent games and movies have more of a cumulative effect that too many people ignore. Seeing one violent movie may not tempt some one to go out and kill or be violent, but a steady diet of the stuff must surely desensitize most people and reinforce the notion that violence is a “reasonable” response to problems.

  8. Yeah, quite a lot of adventure movies are like that. I do think that adventure movies that contain violence can be considered morally good films- occasionally. You know, films like Spiderman, Star Wars (the original, not the awful new ones) or maybe even Transformers tend towards plots that involve the plucky underhero overcoming and defeating evil, and even though this does involve a lot of action it’s all about the good/evil struggle.
    In more mature films things get more complicated. Take Quentin Tarantion, for instance. In Reservoir Dogs we only see the aftermath of the robbery, where the consequences of their actions are ugly to watch. On the other hand, practically all of his other movies feature stylised, over-the-top violence with no regard for consequences. This is pornography, essentially.
    Games are more complicated, as your fun in them derives from the actions you take in order to complete your goals. For example, when I play a strategy game I take great pleasure from defeating my enemies in battle and taking over their territory. Is there something morally wrong in that? Hard to tell.
    However there have been modern games that are very concerned with questions of right and wrong amidst the violence. Take the game Bioshock. In this game you play a man fighting through a decrepit underwater city in order to escape. Undeniably the game is extremely violent. You use pistols, rifles, shotguns and psuedo magical powers to destroy your enemies in a variety of ways, and the player takes pleasure from this. But at the same time the game manages to make some pretty effective statements. The city you are trying to escape, Rapture, was built as a Utopia based upon the ideals of Objectivism (the city’s founder is one ‘Andrew Ryan’). The city was torn apart because of the selfishness of it’s citizens, who by now have become mindless addicts to a drug like substance. A finer ‘Take That!’ towards Ayn Rand you will not find anywhere else.
    So Msgr., any thoughts about this? Can a sort of satisfaction with violence coexist with moral statements?

  9. Msgr, I wonder what your take on guyns is? Specifically on guns and shooting as a hobby/sport, in hunting for food, and kept as self defense. I know wonderful Catholics who are in favor of “gun rights” and have read at least one Catholic article that claimed the Church was quietly but emphatically against private gun ownership.

    1. I don’t know of any Church postion on gun ownership. I personally think its OK and that the Consitution allows it for in order that a melitia many be available. One can also envision in a major unheaval, when even the governement is in chaos when, people may need to defend themselves. I personally hate huntin and the killing of anything. But, that is personal. I DO eat meat and realize that we DO kill for food. I just don’t think of it as sport and cannot bear killing anything. I do not support banning hunting however. I would question someone who does it merely for sport and does not make use of the meat.

  10. Clearly you have not seen Pale Rider.

  11. “And, after about ninety minutes of car chases, blowing things, up and killing people, he exacts vengeance, restores justice and walks off the scene, girl in arm, burning city in the background, roll credits.”

    Sodom & Gomorrah got what they deserved.

  12. Not all action movies and video games are the same. Some are more humorous or kid-friendly than violent or repulsive. Books, movies, games, and other forms of media shouldn’t be generalized, but be seen through the lens of human nature: Some people like things that are evil because of ignorance, desensualization, wickedness, or other poor factors, while other people like other things due to better factors. So, some forms of media reflect and reinforce evil, while other forms of media reflect and reinforce good. Evil media can include good morals, while good media can include evil snares. Not all for the same reasons, and not all for good reasons, either. In general, evil is more popular than good in some respects, and good is more beloved than evil in other respects. So one can’t same it’s all the same. Instead, we ought to be praying for purer and holier media.

      1. Yep. The acknowledgement of and struggle against evil – which also includes prayer and penance – goes hand in hand with prudence, the virtue by which we discern good and evil.

  13. While I agree that many violent themes in the entertainment industry have no redeeming value (e.g. slasher flicks), I must disagree with your overall theme. I frequently hear similar criticism leveled against martial arts – that it is bloody, gratuitous violence serving no purpose. Yet, the people I’ve known in the martial arts community, many of whom have spent plenty of time in bloody cage fights, have exhibited Christian virtue in their lives to a greater degree than the people in the various parishes I’ve belonged to. A war simulation video game can teach teamwork, history, and develop friendships. The attacks on games and sports which contain violence is just part of the ongoing attempt to feminize our society. The Church, in the last 40-50 years, unfortunately, has been leading the way. Maybe we should all just go play with dolls? It would be good preparation for becoming a modern Jesuit. Personally, I think every parish would benefit from dumping the altar girls and starting a boxing club.

    1. Many of your distinctions go too far and using words like “just” and “play with dolls” aren’t particularly helpful. I have written before on the feminizing of our boys and why this is wrong. Martial arts, at least as classically define can demonstrate fine discipline and legitimate competition. Cage fights however are not prauseworthy as I understand them. That they exhibit virtue in other areas of their life is fine, but beside the point.

      1. Msgr.

        Professional MMA events (cage fighting), while often more violent in appearance, have far lower incidents of serious injury than other sports and competitors rarely intend to injure each other. The fans tend to be better behaved as well.

        I apologize for the gratuitous ‘dolls’ remark but the most vocal critics of violent video games tend to be radical feminists.

        1. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me. For I am gentle and humble in heart. – Jesus

  14. Monsignor Pope makes an good point that there are differences in some kinds of gun play, when I was a child I played “army” And mostly what we imagined doing as we ran around in the woods was something virtuous. Fighting to defend the country against some enemy invader. Similarly some video games might simply be gory and some are relatively benign ( Top Gun, has fighter pilots destroying chemical warfare factories for example)

    The same extends to stories involving violence. I think “Lord of the Rings” had violence but the underlying entertainment, if entertainment was the right word, was the story and the heroic deeds of the protagonists, same could be said of classic war movies such as a the Great Escape. I think Monsignor has a point when the movie depicts the violence as thrilling in and of itself, or used in a manner disconnected from any moral context just for the rush per se, you typical Dirty Harry movie for example.

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