Violence in Media: How Much is Too Much?
I recently witnessed the horrific scene of a head-on collision with fatalities, caused by someone texting while driving. The sound of screeching tires, grinding metal, shattering glass, terrifying screams mixed with the horrible sight of bruised and bloodied passengers, limp inside the twisted carnage, left me breathless and sickened to my stomach. My head was reeling while my pulse was attempting in vain to stabilize.
Talk about the impact of media; not just texting, but the short video I had just watched which was produced in Britain by the Gwent Police force as a public service announcement meant to reach the local youth with a message that warns them of the danger of texting while driving. This short video is so graphic that YouTube has blocked it from viewers under 18.
I have to confess that I have regrettably sent and received text messages while behind the wheel at stoplights on a couple of occasions… but never again. I was impacted. Does the impact justify the use of graphic violence in a video clip like the one I watched? That’s a debatable subject and one that I hope to address in this article.
One of the more frequent questions I receive about media is in regard to violence. It is also one of the most difficult subjects to address. Where should you draw the line? Should there be a zero tolerance? If not, where’s the threshold?
So where do we start? We must start with God’s word. I recently finished reading the book of Genesis and in chapter four there’s the account of Cain killing his brother Abel. Then Lamech kills a man and a boy by the end of the same chapter. By Chapter six we read “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.” (Genesis 6:5-6) In verse eleven we read “The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.”
It doesn’t stop there and it doesn’t take long to realize that the Bible is full of violent stories. Sometimes those are stories of wicked people committing violent acts, as in the case of Cain killing Abel. Other times we read stories of violence that is a result of God’s judgment on His enemies or even on His own people. Some of those stories have limited detail while others have more graphic content like the one I read recently in the book of Judges that tells the story of a woman who drives a tent peg through the head of a man whom she had lulled to sleep.
So… does that justify gratuitous and graphic violence in media that is geared towards satisfying a violence thirsty audience? I personally don’t believe so, based on my Biblical understanding of violence. Here’s one example of what the Bible has to say on this subject, “The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked, and the one who loves violence His soul hates.” (Psalm 11:5) Obviously there is a distinction between the historical narratives of violence in the Bible and someone who loves violence. How does that apply to today’s media? How are we to discern what is acceptable from what is inappropriate? That is what often stumps us.
Let’s consider some basic principles from the Bible. First, violence in media must be appropriate in certain contexts because God depicted violence in the Bible. Second, God’s inclusion of violence must certainly not be intended to foster a love for violence since God informs us that He hates it when people love violence. That should also lead us to consider whether God might also hate violence inserted into stories for the express purpose of feeding a person’s love for violence.
Before we go any further you must be honest and ask whether or not you have possibly been over-exposed to violence in media and desensitized to the subject. That would be my story and because of that I cannot trust my own tolerance levels to be the litmus test for what’s appropriate. I share the following story in my book “What Wouldn’t Jesus Do? Media Choices in the Light of Following Christ.”
“An acquaintance of mine shared a story with me about a young man he was friends with who had grown up in an Amish home. The Amish do not use electricity and do not have televisions in their homes. There came a time in this young man’s life when he chose not to remain Amish. While at someone’s house watching television he saw a person shot and killed in an old Western movie. He had not been desensitized to Hollywood violence so his reaction might be a bit shocking to most. He was so troubled by what he saw that he bolted from the house and threw up in the yard. Our culture is so accustomed to depicted violence that it should be shocking how little shocks us.”
With that in mind it is going to take some wisdom, not necessarily a list of rules. It is going to take some prayer and study in God’s word to help us have a transformed worldview that comes from God’s word and not from our entertainment crazed culture. You may need to take a break from violent media for awhile to allow time to be re-sensitized. If you apply that former advice then hopefully the following will help; INTENT, CONTENT, and CONTEXT. I’ll give some examples of questions you need to start asking and then I’ll follow up by applying these questions to the violent video clip I described above.
Intent: What is the intent and purpose of the violence being portrayed? Is it gratuitous violence that is not necessary? Has it been inserted for the sake of entertaining a violence thirsty audience? Does it seek to glamorize violence or a violent person? Or is the intent to teach a moral lesson or to accurately portray an historical event? Is the intent driven by a Biblical worldview or a secular humanistic view of life? Is there a specific audience intended and if so, why? There are more questions along these lines that you can ask but these can help us get started.
Content: Even if something is historical or intended to be educational that does not necessarily mean the content should be graphic. For example, there are many true stories in the Bible of sexual sins that people have committed. That doesn’t justify watching a dramatized scene that graphically depicts that sin. What may be appropriate to relay in the right context may not be appropriate to portray graphically. To what extent should violence be graphically portrayed? That depends on the intent, and the context, and sometimes the audience. We need to be careful not to assess this based on an already desensitized heart that needs to be re-sensitized. Many of us have not been careful to guard our hearts from gratuitous violence that has had a numbing effect on us over the years. We cannot depend on our own personal threshold to be a standard for ourselves or others.
Context: The definition of context is “the circumstances or events that form the environment within which something exists or takes place”. That’s not enough in itself to discern any level of appropriateness until you consider the other factors as well. Good discernment will consider the context in relation to the others.
Let me try to put all this together for you by using the text messaging collision video as an example.
The INTENT of the producers was to portray a sobering picture of the potential danger to oneself and others when driving and texting at the same time. The violent crash scene is intended to have a beneficial impact on the audience that could potentially save innocent lives. The intended audience is young drivers. The purpose of the violent scene is not intended for entertainment but for impact.
The CONTEXT is a fictional but realistic scene dramatized to portray a deadly car crash. The scene is believable and based on the growing number of accidents being caused by those who drive and text at the same time.
The CONTENT of the video is graphically detailed to give a simulated view of what happens before, during, and after the crash. It shows the consequences of foolish and avoidable behavior while driving. The consequences are demonstrated as being beyond personal, but also affecting other innocent people. The extent of the violence portrayed in the video leaves very little to the imagination. The producers were creative with the violent scene and did not make it excessively gory but focused on making it extremely tragic and heart wrenchingly dramatic.
Conclusion: My personal opinion is that the video was a good use of violence in media and will hopefully be effective. All media has a message and the message given in this video is an important one. I don’t believe the video is appropriate for younger viewers but if we are talking about teens who drive and own cell phones, then I wouldn’t hesitate recommending the video.
That being said, I’m not trying to have the final say on this subject or even on this video. I confess that at one time I had been very desensitized to violence but over the last 19 years have been in the process of being re-sensitized and more careful with media choices. I’m still in that process.
I want to encourage you to think it through and if you come to a different conclusion based on your understanding of the Bible and your walk with God then I invite you to contact me with your thoughts. There is much more that can and should be said on this subject. My hope is that this will be a helpful starting point to build from.
Phillip Telfer has ministered to youth and families for over 25 years, sharing at camps, retreats, schools, conferences, and churches around the country. He is the director of Media Talk 101 which is a non-profit ministry dedicated to teaching media discernment in the light of following Christ. Phillip authored the book Media Choices: Convictions or Compromise? He also produced and co-directed the award-winning documentary Captivated:Finding Freedom in a Media Captive Culture and founded the annual Christian Worldview Film Festival and Filmmakers Guild. Phillip is passionate about family-integrated church and ministry and serves as the teaching pastor at Living Water Fellowship in Bulverde, TX. He and his wife Mary have been happily married for 26 years and have been blessed with four wonderful children, one fantastic son-in-law, and one precious grandchild.