these violent delights | consuming too much violence and not nearly enough

Violence is one of the most ubiquitous motifs across the entire history of human storytelling, and it’s no real surprise. An act of violence is the purest form of drama, conflict refined to its simplest expression. It’s easily implemented and easily understood, making it both the perfect catalyst and perfect climax for imparting some form of emotional resonance upon an audience.

While violence has been a part of our stories for millennia, the rise of cinema and television has changed our experiences with it and certainly warrants a reconsideration of our ethics of violence in arts and entertainment. That reconsideration thus far has shown itself in a couple of curiously juxtaposed ways: simply judging violence at its face value (where blood and gore are considered a “more inappropriate” expression) and an insatiable lust for violence as a form of amusement.

The aversion to violence in cinema, a phenomenon I’ve noticed amongst American evangelical Christians in particular, is curiously fickle, generally abiding by hard guidelines along the same lines as the MPAA’s rating system while sometimes affording exceptions to both war films (modern and medieval) and films depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (I’m sure you can guess which one I’m thinking of in particular). This is admittedly an oversimplification to some degree, as many individuals will have convictions that err in either direction, but for the most part, outside of the aforementioned genres, if there’s blood, gore, or anything grisly involved, then a film is almost automatically classified as “inappropriate.”

The issue I have with this concept of adjudicating the “appropriateness” of violent content is it fails to consider the context of the violence or the nature of what the director is trying to communicate by including it in his or her film (while also severely underestimating the viewer’s ability to separate fantasy from reality). It’s a haphazard attempt to use an objective measuring stick to draw conclusions about a subjective matter, a symptom not of good Christian discernment but of the artistic illiteracy plaguing the evangelical church and the cult of positivity that rejects things that are unpleasant without first asking why they are unpleasant.

Maybe that sounds a bit forceful, and I certainly don’t mean to disregard people who genuinely just can’t stomach it. By all means, much as I said in my previous article regarding the horror genre, stick to your convictions and don’t engage with violent content if it’s not something you can bear. But I implore you to respect it and refuse to denounce it without first giving it the proper consideration. Explaining what that consideration entails would take up far too much space in an already overlong blog post, but for an entirely too simple illustration, just start by contemplating the difference in presentations of graphic violence between this scene from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and this scene from Thir13en Ghosts (just reiterating, both scenes contain contain graphic violence and the latter some nudity). Consider not just what but why. What is the motivation for each of these scenes? What do they hope to accomplish using violence?

As you dig deeper into film, you’ll notice the “why” of violence can get increasingly more complex, which is the beauty of it as a storytelling device. It’s malleable and able to spark virtually the entire spectrum of human emotion. The truth is that violence is an immense and unwieldy tool that has the equivalent capacity for profundity in the hands of a master storyteller and bawdiness in the hands of someone more juvenile.

However, I find that it’s that more juvenile understanding that drives our culture as a whole, resulting in a bizarre sort of bloodlust in entertainment. Sure, we’ve long since moved away from things like gladiator deathmatches where human lives were sacrificed for the enjoyment of others, but there remains this sort of vicarious engagement with that form of entertainment that exists in the cinema, on television, and especially in video games. Of the top ten highest-grossing films so far in 2017, six are action/adventure films, and another is a (brilliant) horror film with a violent climax. TV dramas are in a fairly similar position, while the bestselling video games are usually first-person shooters, with the vast majority of games involving killing/maiming of some sort or another. And that doesn’t even include other forms of entertainment like sports, of which in the US American football is the most popular thanks in part to explosive plays involving big hits and brutal tackles.

It’s not that I think any of this is wrong on the outset. There’s an innocence to our desire for action; I believe the motivation behind watching Terminator 2 or The Avengers is similar to the thrillseeking that leads to something like riding roller coasters. There’s some primal piece of us that longs for excitement, and what better way to get that than the one that provides zero risk of bodily harm to ourselves?

But then there’s the whole matter of just how dismissive of human life some films seem to be. When watching films like Transformers, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, The Avengers, etc., it feels like the director is instructing us to take pleasure in the utter destruction of humanity and the world around us. And not to make any immediate moral judgments about that, but it’s hard for me to understand how each of those PG-13 films where millions (if not billions) of people die with minimal consequence and horribly emotionally immature thematic elements attached develop a healthier understanding of violence than notoriously grisly films like No Country for Old Men and Taxi Driver. Visceral violence of some sort seems to be an essential ingredient in a blockbuster, and it’s something that Americans not only tolerate but seem to encourage. Someone taking a bullet to the face on screen is more readily accepted than showing a woman’s nipple – admit it, you were more perturbed by the half-naked woman in the clip from Thir13en Ghosts I linked earlier than you were about the man being sliced in half by a door. Surely it must say something about us if we’re more willing to tolerate the destruction of the human body than admire its beauty.

I’m not really sure what to say beyond that, because honestly I have no answers for this puzzle, only the question. I love gritty action films like Die Hard, The Raid, John Wick, and Hard Boiled, and I love blowing enemies up in Battlefield or smashing people to bits with my giant robot in Titanfall 2. I’m just as “guilty” of this bloodlust as everybody else, and I’m not even sure whether or not it’s something I ought to feel guilty about. I’m aware of the differences between reality and the screen, and my belief in the sanctity of human life is as strong as ever. But if I believe human life is sacred, is it right for me to derive laughter and joy from murder and death of any sort, even if it’s pure fantasy?

I don’t know where that line is or how far we’ve crossed over it. I’m not even sure that there’s a “line” at all. I know there are films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Unforgiven which handle violence with a brilliant grace and gravity, and there are other films like The Belko Experiment and Hostel that have such an abhorrent attitude toward human life that it makes me genuinely sick to watch them. And then there’s the entire spectrum of film in between. Maybe that’s the thing, though, that violence is far too complex to be discussed in such black-and-white terms as “right and wrong” or “appropriate and inappropriate.” And maybe that’s what makes it such an essential and engaging piece of human stories.

I guess what I want is for us to change our way of thinking, whichever side of the spectrum we approach entertainment from. I want us to stop considering art from a strictly moralistic viewpoint and start diving into its murky waters. I want us to stop asking the irrelevant questions we’ve asked before, and I want us to stop asking no questions at all. Then we can begin to engage this critical aspect of the human experience with a level of nuance that is sorely lacking.

hideously beautiful | a defence of horror

Nosferatu

October is here again, and along with it inevitably follows the classic debate amongst the Christian public on what to do with Halloween and, by proxy, horror. The holiday is often vilified for its suspected pagan roots, often (and I would say incorrectly) viewed as a celebration of the occult, and along with it the horror genre of art in general is accused of similar things, with horror cinema being a particularly ubiquitous recipient of criticism.

There are a number of complaints I hear about horror films, some of the wider ones typically being the genre’s transfixion with blood and gore, the very fact that it instills fear in people, and the perception that it celebrates or glorifies evil, thereby empowering it. I’d argue that a lot of these criticisms stem from wider human behaviours and entertainment issues, such as the thrill-seeking adrenaline addiction that fuels the love of things like roller coasters or people finding joy in wanton destruction (which rears its head in more socially acceptable fashion in films like Transformers and 2012), nor are they things of which the filmmakers and critics working within the genre are not aware. Let’s be honest here: most of the population thinks Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Jason Goes to Hell are trash, not cultural cornerstones or works of art that will stand for eternity.

Rather than simply refute the common reasons Christians cite to condemn it, all of which could be the basis for their own entire posts, I want to speak about horror from the positive. This is an extremely misunderstood genre for the sole reason that it is deliberately off-putting, an unadulterated examination of humanity’s demons. Horror is beautifully ugly, and it speaks to me in a way that nothing else can begin to emulate. Perhaps it’s because it appeals to my affinity toward pessimism and nihilism; my natural inclination is to see the worst in the world and fall into a downward spiral questioning whether there’s any point to any of this, and I carry any hope with me only by the grace of God. Not that all horror is an inherently hopeless affair, but it explores those darker undertones of reality in a way that often removes any of the gloss and sugar coating that make other presentations so easily digested. The macabre is often a painfully difficult pill to swallow.

Modern-day American evangelicals have been raised and nurtured in a culture that shuns the negative, the dark, the depressing, endlessly suckling at positivity’s breast. Certainly it’s problematic to overly dwell on the gloomy and bleak, but refusing to acknowledge it and let it simmer and exist is a recipe for emotional immaturity. The human experience is a broad, all-enveloping wave of chaos, and every piece is essential and will be known in some capacity by the end of one’s life. Sadness, pain, and evil need to be understood just as much as hope, joy, and goodness.

Art, then, is the voice by which we express and begin to understand our lives, giving words, images, and sounds to those feelings and circumstances that shape us and everyone around us, and I am of the opinion that no aspect of the human experience should be exempt from this process. Every piece needs to be expressed and to be understood, even the most unsavoury or dour or grotesque elements. Drama is capable of conveying feelings of sorrow and despair in a way that is potent and palpable as well as palatable, but where horror demonstrates its value is its ability to look at all that is wrong with the world with an undiluted gaze. Drama will help us grapple with our hurts, and horror will reveal them for the monsters they truly are.

When the blinds are pulled back and evil is unfiltered through the eyes of horror, there’s a uniquely powerful opportunity to engage with darkness in a way that isn’t normally afforded along a wide breadth of subjects. In fact, horror can often be particularly incisive and effective when exploring abstract concepts due to the often fantastical natures of the film and story premises, a variation of Tolkien’s philosophy of using fairy stories to reveal truths about reality. While there are certainly those that simply seek to thrill (and are quite justified in their desires to do so in the most general sense), I’ve seen horror films that are far more affecting that tackle subjects such as grief and loss (The Babadook); loneliness, bullying, and unrequited love (Let the Right One In); and the inevitability of death (It Follows).  In addition, The Exorcist is one of the most thoughtful and compelling explorations of spiritual warfare I’ve seen in any medium.

I’m not saying that we should replace our positivity bubbles with total immersion in sadness and morbidity. And I’m not saying that you should force yourself to watch horror anyway if you don’t appreciate being scared or made to feel extremely uncomfortable. What I want is for people to simply acknowledge the genre for the value it presents to human expression (and even worship) rather than writing it off entirely due to its shortcomings, often more pronounced due to its nature and often merely the result of misunderstanding. The world is wonderful but twisted by sin, and we ought to cease demonising horror for shedding its piercing light on what our true demons are.

an act of contrition

The-witch-movie-review

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I first sat down to watch The Witch, and it still managed to catch me off guard. A creepy 17th-century period-piece monster movie, I thought I could at least assume that the witch herself would be a continuous menace, and yet most of the time she was nowhere to be found.

While the titular villain certainly had a presence, the film eschewed typical tropes to instead dwell on a theological horror – damnation to hell. The family at the centre almost never fears physical attacks or ailments that come upon it, not even aware that a witch is in the woods until the third act. Rather, the source of their terror is their own sin and the eternal consequences of its filth being upon them.

It’s a far more personal fear, though intangible, and it was fascinating to observe how the family processed it. When a baby is stolen by the witch early in the film, the mother is not angered nor fearful of what may have taken it but is instead bedridden in anguish, crying out to God to forgive her sins and to not cast her away, to allow her to remain His child. Later, as a boy helps to hunt in the woods and gets lost, he frantically repeats a rhyme begging God’s forgiveness for his trespasses. Every character is seen in some way coming to terms with their own sin, and they fully believe that whatever curse has been brought upon them is the direct result of their own unholiness, agonising at the very thought that God may well have cast them from His sight.

As someone who bears less puritanical theological standards, my initial sentiment toward the characters might have been questioning whether they’ve stopped to read Romans 8. However, I instead found myself enraptured by their attitudes towards their grievances against the Lord. While I might not stand in agreement with their ultimate reactions, these people on the screen in front of me had a remarkable understanding of the gravity of their sin, of how putrid and vile of a thing it was.

I haven’t felt that way about my sin in a long time. Not that I should feel guilt beyond on all measure or that I will be cast out of God’s presence forever, as that’s not healthy either. But simply to be able to acknowledge the weightiness of the wrong I do every time I defy God – it seems like it’s something that’s lost on me unless I stop and try. Surely I notice my sin, and then I pause and ask God for mercy, but the whole thing is so commonplace, so rote. I’m so locked in to the mindset of grace, of my sin being ineffectual in removing the bountiful blessings that have been sealed for me, that the actual cost of my actions has oft been lost on me. Should I be feeling more guilty?

I had a conversation with some friends on a rooftop in Seattle recently about the culture of guilt and shame we live in. While far more understated than the Puritans, we still, perhaps unintentionally, drive ourselves toward holy living by way of guilt-tripping. Part of my desire even for writing this is that I feel guilty for not always feeling guilty. Our motivation is our sin rather than our God, and the result is feelings of shame, both public and private. We are reluctant to confess our failings to one another because of fear of judgment upon our character, even from our closest friends, while things like purity rings make our “holy” behaviour a matter of public knowledge, and likewise our potential shortcomings, creating an added pressure that stems not from a desire to honour God so much as a desire to not be openly humiliated.

Surely it’s all done with the best intentions, but guilt and shame are not things that the Christian should bear anymore. It drives us away from the truth of our status with God, united to Christ, that there is no more condemnation, no more shame. Yet we are also instructed not to treat our sin lightly and simply do what we like while grace covers us. Sin is an abomination, and it must be recognised as such. I must recognise it within me and weed it out, but every time I allow myself to I descend into a spirit of self-loathing and fear that I am hopelessly repugnant before God.

The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin, but it does not weigh us down with the burden of condemnation. We do that to ourselves. Perhaps I’m getting caught up in semantics, but there is a difference between contrition and guiltiness, between understanding the wickedness of our actions and feeling shameful. That difference is so subtle, so precise, but the balance it delivers is something I believe to be essential to the healthy life of a Christian. I want so badly to be able to see both sin and grace as does the mind of God while they endlessly war inside me and finally be able to walk in that centre of comprehensive remorse and spiritual invincibility, but I’ll likely spend a lifetime searching for that place and still miss the mark.