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.
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.”
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.
Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based writer and journalist. He is the author of Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker, 2013), Hipster Christianity (Baker, 2010) and has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN.com, The Princeton Theological Review, Mediascape, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, RELEVANT magazine, IMAGE Journal, Q Ideas and Conversantlife.com. He speaks and lectures frequently at universities, churches & conferences, and is a regular blogger. You can also follow him on Twitter @BrettMcCracken.