A quick thought on the constant discussion of the “ethics of cinematic violence” among intelligent Christians

Did you know that probably a majority of churches in the world have a permanent fixture, front and center in the church, that portrays what we are to believe is a completely innocent man undergoing one of the most horrifying and humiliating methods of death ever devised by humankind? And that even if they don’t have that particular sick decoration, they probably have a lot of other portrayals of said event — in some cases even staging annual plays where this man’s execution is acted out on stage in front of the whole church, including children? And that there were churches that were sponsoring trips to go see a movie portraying this very same execution in exquisite detail, in what amounted to an appalling snuff film?

In that context, I find it hard to get really tied up in knots about whether it’s okay to watch Inglourious Basterds.

40 thoughts on “A quick thought on the constant discussion of the “ethics of cinematic violence” among intelligent Christians

  1. Wow, I guess I’ll have to start subscribing to Screw magazine now because I think The Birth of Venus is kinda cool.

    I’m surprised to see slippery slope arguments in such a high-falutin theology blog.

    Also, if there were some cosmic morality exchange I could trade on in which I could get rid of all the crucifixes in the world in exchange for Quentin Tarantino never being born, I would be so down with that deal.

  2. Maybe he’s saying that the people I’m making fun of are making a slippery slope argument? That’s perhaps more plausible — “You start off innocent enough, watching Tarantino, and before long you’re scalping people!”

    Does anyone remember the song “Input-Output” from church when you were a kid?

  3. Every time I run into a testimony of some blogger’s yesteryears (for instance, the input-output song here, which I’m thankful I was never subjected to), I learn a little more about what informs their blog posts.

    Seriously. I think half of theology bloggers that are caught up in criticizing careful considerations of the sort that Brad offers were 1) raised evangelicalish, 2) attended Multnomah or some Nazarene school, and 3) at some point since then have read Zizek, to varying effect.

    Not to get all psychoanalytical. But you did bring up the input-output song.

  4. Okay–how WILL you explain it then? There seems to be some connection made between the rejection of viewing violence in the public quarter and the worshipping of the crucified Jesus. And don’t use the ‘Constantinian’ argument that this is just transposing the worship of power/death over to religious cult.

  5. Honestly, I don’t know offhand if it will come up. I didn’t make any special effort to make sure that the text I use address this problem and I can’t really remember if any of them do. If it comes up, we’ll talk it out and see what we think. (It’s a discussion-based class.)

  6. Myles,

    Just so we’re clear, you’re talking about ACTUAL VIOLENCE that the Church Fathers rejected, right? You know, going to the arena, watching some people kill each other, eating a light lunch before puking and eating a bigger lunch. That sort of thing, right? The sort of thing that, you know, isn’t at all related to ART and THINGS ON A CINEMA SCREEN. I’m just trying to figure out how this is at all related.

  7. No, I misunderstood. I get your hypocrisy argument. The Passion was a horrible movie, and I think it belongs with Saw in the torture porn genre that our Abu Ghraib/Gitmo culture gets off on. At first I saw Crucifix –> The Passion, and that’s what I was reacting to.

    That said, Q.T.’s work is a moral abyss, and I think it’s highly questionable that anything good can come from watching his films. The analogy to Christians attending the circus is spot on. It may not make you a killer, but it corrodes the soul.

    And for what it’s worth, I’m a lifelong vanilla ice cream mainline Presbyterian, so let the psycho-analyzing commence!

  8. I’m not so sure that Tarentino is a moral abyss or what that even means. After watching one of his movies I surely don’t think going into crime is going to do me very well! Usually no one lives and if they do it is because they walked away. However, good film is rarely about its didactic content. Tarentino is a good filmmaker not because he teaches us moral lessons, but because the way he makes movies, in his case it is the constant referencing to bygone genres, excellent dialogue, etc. I agree that there is something damaging about Saw, but I wouldn’t put it with Inglourious or The Passion (which, for all its flaws, actually presents a pretty human, ie full of pathos, Christ in the traditional passion narrative, the kind of pathos only given in the non-traditional Last Temptation). We can be adults about choosing what kind of violence we choose to see and what violence we do not. So, watching people actually die is morally repugnant, but watching a revenge film that is sort of a marvel of cinema… not so much.

  9. Well I suppose the real question here is how does violence affect the quality of art? Does the purpose of the violence matter, or just the graphic nature of it? Granted, deciding on whether something is artistically good or bad is incredibly difficult, but consensus can be reached.

  10. Here’s what I’m wanting to push with the patristic stuff:

    We’ll grant that both the coliseum and the crucifixion are actual violences. But in the worship of Jesus, there’s the continuation of the violent event via its simulacra, while the coliseum is rejected, as well those events which simulate this actual violence (i.e. the theater).

    How is one adjudicated to be an acceptable simulacra after the fact, while the other will not (i.e. in the exhortation not to attend theater as well as the coliseum, the avoidance of actual violence and its simulacra)? I have my suspicions as to an answer here, but that’s the crux I’m wanting to push: that the worship of the crucified and the rejection of simulated violence, from the patristic lens, aren’t inconsistent positions.

  11. A brief second to Myles’ point, as well as appreciation to Anthony: I couldn’t agree more. Tarantino’s work is profoundly moral in numerous ways. Your response is exactly the sort I was hoping to engender by way of posing a question (rather than assuming from the outset). If my post implied an outright rejection of violence in film, or an uncritical acceptance of biblical/christological violence, or even the idea that Tarantino or filmmakers like him aren’t going about thoughtful or ethical work — none of that was the intent. My questions are about the extremely realistic simulated violence seen by our eyes: the effects of it, the content, the ethics, the amount, the purpose. Whatever else may have creeped in, that was the goal.

    Regardless, I appreciate the thoughts and critiques shared. Thanks to all who took the time to read it.

  12. “So you apparently have no theories about Brad’s own background and its influence on his nuanced theories.”

    Apparently? I dunno.

    I read Brad’s post with some interest. He spoke a bit about his background, too, so I guess he sort of did the job for us.

    I appreciated how he took a stab at separating out the purpose of staged violence, which I think is Myles’ point here. And he did go and see the movie- this wasn’t some sort of “boycott Hollywood” post. I just don’t see him getting “tied up in knots about whether it’s okay to see Inglourious Basterds” the way that you described it. He wasn’t unaware of the Passion of the Christ/Inglourious Basterds (non)dilemma (although he stuck more with other movies like Schindler’s List as stand-ins for the more ultimate meaning of the crucifixion as violent).

    It seems plausible, though, to entertain a distinction between some instances of violence as worth reflecting upon (not condoning or condemning or participating in, but reflecting upon) and other instances of violence where reflection implies unedifying condoning/condemning/participating in/etc. Brad strikes me as carefully entertaining that distinction, where you’ve assumed that such a distinction doesn’t exist, and that until crucifixes are trashed, no one should (lest they become hypocritical) get “tied up in knots” about other representations of violence that strike you as indistinguishable from the crucifixion in purpose or ethical justifiability.

    Your response to Brad is consistent enough, but he’s the one that’s openly considering whether and how distinctions should be made here. You seem to short circuit (or come to the table with a conclusion in hand about) such consideration by assuming that everything’s of a piece.

  13. Marvin
    Surely those who are most comfortable with detention and torture at Gitmo (ie the American right) would also baulk (properly) at the likes of Saw?

    I’m personally very conscious of trying to avoid films that glorify violence. I found the violence in IB not really a glorification – I winced, as most viewers did, at the scalpings and the beatings. As Anthony’s post points out, the violence here wasn’t stylised at all and was not akin to his earlier grind house style films, but of a more realist kind. Like most viewers, I thought the best scenes in the film featured no violence at all, but a slow, masterful building on tension and suspense.

  14. “We’ll grant that both the coliseum and the crucifixion are actual violences.”

    The crucifixion was. But crucifixes aren’t. They’re statues, or paintings, or things like that. Not actually violent. A play about an axe-murderer isn’t actually violent, either; no one really gets killed with an axe when you go see it — which is radically different from the Coliseum, where the whole point is to see actual dudes actually dying, just for shits & giggles. This is presumably APS’s point with the capital letters above.

    I don’t remember any patristic source for hating the theatre because of all the pretend violence. Augustine stops himself from going to the theatre for good Platonic reasons: It’s not real. Theatre gets your passions riled up for people who don’t exist. Actors are liars who make a living of not being who they are. Plays with absolutely no violence are not any more acceptable than plays with violence to someone like Augustine. “Lady Windermere’s Fan” might as well be “Mad Max”; they are both fakes made by liars that distract you from the real world you should be worrying about. I will need citations to remind me of the patristic guys who fret about simulacra of violence, and think that theatre is a paradigm of such.

    If there were patristic guys who hated theatre because of the pretend violence: I’m betting they didn’t reenact the crucifixion at their Good Friday service every year, like the churches Kotsko mentioned do.

    Also: Were there any Roman plays that were set in the Coliseum and whose plot revolved around re-staging the sort of violence you’d see there? That would seem like a really dumb idea. If you wanted to see that sort of thing, there’s an actual Coliseum to go to. Theatre is for stories about how hard it is to be a good citizen or how fate is capricious or how isn’t life the darndest thing?; we are millenia away from really being able to present good fake violence to audiences like Tarantino can. Classical dramas all have lots of talking and basically no one ever gets their heads caved in with a bat. Or if they do it’s offstage, or looks really fake.

  15. I find it really amazing how many people responding here are so stuck within the frame of fake violence and real violence being the same that they’re basically unable to read my post with any kind of comprehension. It’s a simple accusation of hypocrisy — “you think portraying violence is a serious moral issue, yet your practice contradicts that belief.” There’s really nothing more complicated going on here than that. Nothing shutting down the actual discussion of filmed violence. Nothing calling for the end of crucifixes and passion plays — just pointing out hypocrisy, pure and simple.

  16. But Adam, what your response to Brad seems to miss is engagement with his attempted distinction between… not fake and real violence… but various levels of formative value in fake violence. As I said before, you may disagree about whether such distinctions should be made, but you’re arguing as if Brad is on the same page as you, when it seems clear that he’s not. Objecting to Inglourious Basterds while praying in front of a crucifix or watching The Passion of the Christ is only hypocritical given that fake violence is fake violence is fake violence. But that’s the very thing that you disagree with him about, isn’t it? How can you expect people to comprehend an accusation of hypocrisy when its premise is what’s in dispute? Won’t the accusation only be comprehensible once there’s some level of agreement about the basic comparability of different instances of fake violence?

  17. I’d like to thank Adam for the psychotic break that I narrowly avoided upon viewing the linked pdf.

    Also, I think a bit more anthropological subtlety would be helpful: in my experience, church communities more likely to indulge in corporate condemnation of violent film are less likely to display crucifixes (instead favoring naked crosses). Likewise, those more specifically attached to (and indeed insistent on the display of) crucifixes as opposed to naked crosses tend to be more open-minded towards potentially redemptive modes of the depiction of violence. The same holds with things like passion plays.

    I really think that The Passion of the Chris is a cultural outlier in this sense. My personal experience is that, for some reason likely related to ad hoc political alliances, large chunks of fundamentalist Protestants ended up thinking that “they ought to see this movie” and found themselves moved, in a laudable way, by the humanity and pathos portrayed there (helpfully described by Anthony) that militated against their overly-spiritualized Christ.

  18. He says at the very beginning that our brain “understandably receives [movie violence] as real”!

    And I think your response to it over on Resident Theology is well-made. I guess I just don’t see that as the heart of Brad’s thoughts… the question of whether or not to see a (fake) violent movie seems more to revolve around whether staged violence can have a varying amounts of redeeming, edifying, or formative purposes.

    No need to give me any particular response or continue the conversation, either… I don’t disagree with some aspects of your point here, I guess I just would have picked another reflection on violent films as an example. Brad’s struck me as pretty thoughtful and considerate of your point as compared to discussion amongst Christians elsewhere.

  19. I suppose that this post could be read as a response to that one line, itself understood as encapsulating the “Sunday School”-type thinking that seems to me to underlie so many other posts in this genre. The rest of Brad’s post wasn’t as bad as I was making it out to be.

  20. It seems to me that when talking about the representation of violence one needs to ask: with what subject position is the viewer being asked to identify with? In Inglorious Bastards, the viewers are being asked to place themselves in the position of the Jewish/Apache squad and they are being asked to cheer (even while being made queesy) the scalpings, the beating, and the machine-gunnings. There is no pity whatever for most of the victims (maybe one exception: the new father). Is there a moral problem with this? Tarrantino shows us a Nazi film that shows a sniper, and in the film the audience takes the subject position of the shooter and cheers at the deaths of his victims. Is Tarrantino saying his film and the Nazi film are one and the same in their intentions? I think it is significant that Tarrantino uses a sniper as the hero of the Nazi film. The sniper is someone who inflicts violence from a distance and precisely does not confront his enemy. Nazi violence is portrayed as hiding its face as it coldly snuffs out victims from afar (in the first instance of it, the victims are not even visible to the perpetrators.) The Jewish/Apache violence is face-to-face and hot. Is this a better way to commit violence? If such face-to-face, hot violence is somehow only possible against an enemy who shoots from a distance and commits cold-blooded murder, if it is revenge against this kind of cold violence, then perhaps it is better. One can argue that Shylock’s violence is of this sort, a protest against the hypocritical violence of the Christians that hides its face behind the mask of justice. When hot violence takes vengeance against cold violence, it arouses our sympathy. But any representation of this vengeance becomes questionable when there is collateral damage, when it becomes blind to whether it is attacking a perpetrator or just someone who looks like a perpetrator. Hot, face-to-face violence must never be blind; it must have the courage to look its enemy in the eye. I think Tarrantino is very careful in IB to show us this kind of courageous hot, face-to-face, violence for us to cheer. Are we better off for seeing this movie? I for one think so, precisely because we come to feel what kind of violence is evil and what kind of violence resists evil.

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