Viewer Discretion Advised

Where do Christians draw the line when it comes to blood, guts and gore?

Last year I wrote a review of David Fincher’s film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, for a Christian audience. Despite the disturbing elements which earn its R-rating, the movie is also exceptionally well-made—and I gave it three stars.

Some Christian readers didn’t like that.

“Shame on you for presenting this as something acceptable,” wrote one commenter.

“What is broken can still remind us of the need for wholeness.” —Greg Wolfe

I’ve gotten used to these kneejerk “Christians shouldn’t watch this!” reactions, but I’ve come to see that the discussion is actually worth having. The answers aren’t always clear cut, but it’s important to ask them honestly. Should Christians subject themselves to in-your-face rape and torture scenes, such as those we see in Tattoo? Should we anticipate Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming hyper-violent Django Unchained, or watch the new beheading-laden episodes of The Walking Dead?

Does consuming media full of violence, brutality, blood, carnage and other horrors have a place in the Christian life? The short answer is yes, because when it comes to vivid gore and horror, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Eli Roth and Nicolas Winding Refn have nothing on the Holy Bible. The cross itself—the focal point of our faith—contains more horror and bone-crunching carnage than most movies.

The fact that the Bible—and some of the best Christian art in history—contains horrific elements is not a justification for a regular diet of blood and gore. One should be temperate in exposure to these things. Still, it would be a mistake to altogether avoid art that is difficult, risqué, R-rated. Something about the way the world is (that is: difficult, risqué, R-rated) tells us that to be truthful, art must grapple with darkness. As filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once said, “The artist is the one who does not look away.”

The fact that the Bible—and some of the best Christian art in history—contains horrific elements is not a justification for a regular diet of blood and gore.

But aren’t we already keenly aware of the messiness of life? All we have to do is visit CNN.com to learn about the world’s latest shooting, bombing or human violation. Why do we need art to reinforce the reality of such horrors?

One answer, perhaps, has to do with the idea that even though we may not understand it, God has purposes for evil in his world—that He is the author of both light and darkness, wellbeing and calamity (Isaiah 45:7). Horror is part of God’s grand symphony of goodness doing battle with (and ultimately overcoming) evil, which is the narrative of the Bible. As Rebecca ver Straten-McSparran suggested recently in a Princeton lecture on “The Dark Side of Beauty,” perhaps there is “a potent and necessary dark side to God’s beauty.” And out of this darkness, God reveals His truth.

ver Straten-McSparran—who teaches Christian students at the L.A. Film Studies Center—calls for a vision of art that includes “that combination of beauty, terror and grandeur.” She argues that “holy” cinema is not defined by beautiful cinematography and an inspiring story (The King’s Speech is her example), but it is that which truly “peels” and jolts us. She says, “The truly holy requires us to pay attention, to struggle to grasp hold of it. It is difficult. It may be disturbing. It requires, oh dear … suffering?”

In depicting darkness, art not only “peels” but can also serve as a vivid reminder of the world that ought to be. Darkness makes the light shine all the brighter, illuminating our eschatological hope. As Image Journal editor Greg Wolfe has pointed out, “What is broken can still remind us of the need for wholeness.”

We need to consider the value that darkness plays in art, particularly in juxtaposition with the light. God uses the darkness—even evil (Genesis 50:20)—to bring about His good ends. But we shouldn’t get too comfortable with the darkness, either. Darkness has its place and purpose, but we must remember that the narrative of the Bible doesn’t stay in the darkness. Evil is overcome in the end; light wins out over darkness. But the redemption journey moves through all manner of blood-curdling atrocities and skin-tingling horrors along the way—and the Gospel is all the more beautiful because of it.

28 Comments

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Phillip B commented…

True, but I didn't mean that Looney Toons are bad, it was just a reaching argument based on a common principle. But yes, I suppose it is an unfair assumption, but a weird one?

Plenty of people laugh at and enjoy Looney Toons, they're incredibly popular.

And I don't think it's necessarily an American type of humor, as most all large entertainment cultures possess some form of slapstick humor.

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SandraB commented…

I think it's probably smart to make some mention of both discernment and personality. I happen to be okay with a certain level of blood and gore (the Underworld and Resident Evil franchises, for example, are guilty pleasures) but I'm grateful to have been raised in a loving, protective environment that sheltered me from graphic images until I could handle them with maturity - and even now, I draw the limit at slasher movies and psychological horror. One step further, my husband doesn't like seeing blood at all (he can't even watch House, which is a shame ... but I digress). No one should subject themselves to anything visual that they're uncomfortable with or that they don't feel they can process in a balanced way, but neither should anyone cast judgment upon Christ-followers who can handle a little blood and guts. (Otherwise we'd have to toss Tolkien out with the bathwater.)

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LMT commented…

My family in itself is split on the violence in the movies topic. My father has given up watching R-rated movies because he feels like it hurts his witness. I, on the other hand, think this is rather rash. I agree with the author that oftentimes the most stunning beauty and realization can come out of brokenness and pain. And it just so happens that R-rated movies can show the truth of that brokenness and pain. Personally, I believe that the decision as to whether violence in movies is too far should be left to the individual and how the spirit convicts them. If you are watching something and have the feeling that you shouldn't be, then stop. That is your decision. These circumstances do not all have one clear cut answer, they are left up to the individual. I recently watched "The Green Mile" starring Tom Hanks. While this movie is rather violent and unsettling, I personally had one of the most personal realizations of Christ's sacrifice that I have ever had. Movies show us brokenness that most of us could never come to understand and within that God can reveal the beauty of Christ and his pain and sacrifice. Before watching "The Green Mile" I had never personally felt and resonated with Christ paying my debt and dying for something that he didn't do. I personally believe that God can use media and any means he wishes to communicate with a person's heart. Therefore, I believe that this cannot be a clear cut issue. This is a personal matter between a person and God.

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Pastorruss commented…

Brett McKracken has crossed the line. What a poor representation of the Gospel itself. Light and darkness cannot coexist. Salt water does not come from a fresh fountain. Seriously, to justify mans carnage by comparing it to God's righteousness is outlandish. Hollywood darkness is purely for entertainment purposes. God's ways are above our ways, His thoughts above ours. To somehow decide you understand why God used graphic stories to describe His love is arrogant at the minimum. Come on RELEVANT screen what you produce!

Jeremy Olson

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Jeremy Olson commented…

I don't try to find some deep meaning from movies. It's entertainment, it's telling a story. That's it. It's like trying to make some spiritual connection between the hamburger you're eating and the sacrifice of Christ. Just eat the hamburger and enjoy it. There is nothing wrong with seeing a rated R movie (there isn't a single bible verse to support that belief that there is something wrong with it) And if you can't tell the difference between movie violence and real life violence then not only should you stop watching movies...but you may need to seek professional health. Because there is something not right with your mind.

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