Violence in films, books, and the Bible

Sometimes when someone objects to bad words, nudity, or sexual scenes in a media, someone else will bring up violence. Some are quite incredulous that anyone could object to a word or image which “doesn’t hurt anyone,” yet have no problem someone getting killed in a movie.

Well, words and images do hurt people. I’ve discussed that before in other posts. But violence in media may be acceptable or not, depending on how it is handled.

There has to be conflict in a story, or else there is no plot. Sometimes the conflict is physical: war, a robbery or murder investigation, a woman fleeing from an abusive husband, etc. These things happen in real life, so of course they make for real conflicts in stories. But they can be shown in ways that makes the danger real and suspenseful, or they can be handled in ways that are gratuitous, just for the shock and gore factor. The dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable portrayals of violence has to be determined by more than just our feelings or what we think we can handle.

I decided to do a little Bible study, looking up verses that contain the words “violence” and “violent” in the ESV. I discovered violence is a bigger topic than I had thought, because there are many passages that describe something violent without using the word. So I did not look up every single violent act in the Bible at this time, but I came up with six pages of references and found some good principles.

There is, of course, violence in the Bible. A murder occurred among the first children born on Earth, and it seems violence has been part of the culture ever since. Just a few chapters later, “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them'” (Genesis 6:11-13). In the major and minor prophets, part of the condemnation they preached was due to violence on the part of those they preached to. For instance, Jonah did not tell the people of Nineveh to repent, but then king called the people to”Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands” (Jonah 3:8), in hope that God would forgive. In Ezekiel 28, a passage that talks about the king of Tyre but also references Satan, the power behind the king, Satan is described as being “filled with violence” (Ezekiel 28:16).

God condemns violence.

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 3:1-2

Be not envious of evil men, nor desire to be with them, for their hearts devise violence, and their lips talk of trouble. Proverbs 24:1-2

Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. Jer. 22:3

Thus says the Lord God: Enough, O princes of Israel! Put away violence and oppression, and execute justice and righteousness. Ezekiel 45:9a

Words often associated with the violent in many of the verses are wicked, treacherous, scoffer, evil, devious. The wicked are said to “eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence” (Proverbs 4:17); “The mouth of the wicked conceals violence” (Proverbs 10:6,11); “pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment” (Psalm 73:6).

I looked up the Hebrew or Greek words for violence for just a few of the verses I found, and words often occurring there were cruelty and injustice.

There are acts of God that would be considered violent, though the word is not used in those passages: the worldwide flood, the killing of the firstborn in Egypt and the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the wars of Israel against Canaan, to name a few. But these acts were not the result of cruelty and injustice. God is the righteous judge. He is longsuffering and gracious, but his “spirit shall not always strive with man.” At some point, time is up. If there has been no repentance and faith, judgment must come.

God promises in several places to punish violence. Sometimes He acts directly, sometimes He uses the human authority system He set up: and authorizes them to use a “sword” (in that day, other means in ours, but He gives them authority to punish wrongdoing).

Jesus condemned not only human physical violence, but the hatred of heart and anger that leads to violence:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” Matthew 5:22-23

And James reinforces the truth that violence starts in the heart:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?  You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. James 4:1-4

But there is hope for people with violence in their hearts (which includes all of us since, as Jesus said, hatred and anger are sinful as well). Paul said in 1 Corinthians 6, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (verse 9). He then lists several types of sinners and adds, “And such were some of you.” Were. Past tense. What happened? “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (verse 11).

God says the overseers (spiritual leaders) of the church must be “not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome (1 Timothy 3:2-3) and “not…arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain (Titus 1:7). And those who are filled with God’s Holy Spirit display His fruit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

Back to viewing or reading about violence: we see that the Bible condemns personal violence towards others. But it also tells us about many violent acts, like any other sin. Yet it doesn’t present violence in a way that glorifies it and it doesn’t share unnecessary gory details. Take, as one example, one of the oddest stories in the Bible: the man who cut into pieces his concubine, who had been raped, beaten and killed, and then sent the pieces among the twelve tribes of Israel to enlist their support for is revenge. The Bible says that “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). This is one of those extreme examples of someone doing right in his own eyes apart from any instruction from God. The story itself is gory enough, but it doesn’t expand on the details unnecessarily. There is no description of dripping blood, bulging eyes, entrails, sounds, smells. etc.

One of the most compelling verses I found in my study was Psalm 11:5: “The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” The one who loves violence. I think that’s one key. A villain in a story may display a love for violence, but is the story told in a way that appeals to or stirs up a love of violence in the reader? Is the violence glorified or made appealing in any way? To me that’s one difference between, say, a war movie and a slasher or horror movie.

The other extreme might be desensitization, indifference. I don’t recall a specific verse which spells that out, but it might be indicated by several passages which show people considering violence as just normal when it should not be. Years ago my husband and I were watching a TV how when a character in the program was shot – not an uncommon occurrence.  But this viewing took place shortly after a close friend’s mother passed away at a fairly young age. The thought of death was still fresh, and seeing it displayed so easily and carelessly disturbed me greatly. It’s easy to let TV or movie violence float past us because we know it’s not “real,” but I don’t want even fictional violence to dull my sensitivity to it.

Violence is a humongous topic, and this one blog post can’t do it justice. I’m not sure why this was on my heart to write about this week. It’s an area I have been interested in and have thought about a lot and wanted to study a bit further, but I would rather have written about other subjects today. Yet, since this topic was on my heart, perhaps these thoughts will be of help to others.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story, Let’s Have Coffee, Porch Stories, Faith on Fire)

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6 thoughts on “Violence in films, books, and the Bible

  1. WOW…very good presentation, Barbara! You’ve given me something to think about even though I don’t watch or read about anything that gives gory details, etc. I can’t stand that kind of thing.

    I wanted you to know that over the weekend I read BOTH of the Chris Fabray novels that you mentioned recently. Oh my goodness! I couldn’t put them down. I do have to say though that I was a bit disappointed in the end of the second one. There was all of the suspense through the entire book and then it ended like a “happily ever after” story. But I was only slightly disappointed. Carroll and I both enjoy his writing.

  2. Good thoughts. I agree with you. I don’t like to read or watch violent or sexually explicit things. I appreciate this post!

  3. A very thought provoking post. I have kind of in the back of my mind been mulling thoughts about this too. There is so much violence in movies nowadays. All the comic book renditions are full of it. Some have more gore than others, but there is still much violence and to the detriment of the story. We as a society seem to have become addicted to this “not real” violence and can’t get enough. I do believe it does condition our minds and our hearts and as Christians we need to know when to draw the line.

  4. An insightful observation on violence. I agree that movies and TV have become more violent and I think there is something to be said about leaving a little to the imagination of the audience. We really don’t need all of the gory details to understand the big picture. I personally have given up watching several shows that I thought I would really enjoy. In the beginning of each of these shows I was pulled in by an actor that I liked or a plot I was interested in. But in the end, I gave them up because of violence, sex and in my opinion the worst thing a show can do, sacrilegious content. Thank you for shining a light on something that affects us all in this modern society. Blessings to you!

  5. You have reminded me how violence has become second nature in our culture. I don’t want to ever become desensitized to violence. For me, I try to stay clear of certain situations or programs that pull me away from God.

  6. Pingback: Just chatting | Stray Thoughts

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