I still remember my first experience with a horror movie. I think I was six, and we had a vhs claymation movie about prehistoric times. Triceratops and a T-Rex got into it with one another. T-Rex took a chomp out of Triceratops, but Triceratops came back by goring T-Rex’s stomach. There was clay blood. It was scary.
I never really liked watching that movie, and I always closed my eyes at the scary part. It wasn’t graphic at all by today’s standards, but at the time it was terrifying for me. I don’t think the death itself really bothered me, though. It’s just that it was so calculated, so protracted, and so inevitable. Even though T-Rex started the fight, I still felt badly for him as he was disemboweled. Of course, this type of thing happens among animals every day, from insects in my backyard to lions and antelope on the Serengeti. You gotta eat, and in the animal world, for many species that entails chasing something down and defeating it in battle. I always identified with Wilbur from Charlotte’s web. He understood cruel reality, but he never quite got over the fact that Charlotte had to kill her trapped insects. If he could change things, he would.
He couldn’t, though.
Charlotte still sucked the blood of her victims. Bambi’s mom still caught a bullet. Even king Mufasa was run down by a stampede of wildebeest.
So when I think about the harsh reality of death in the animal kingdom, I’m supremely glad to be a human. In most scenarios, I won’t have to face off against a predator. It’s very unlikely that I will be hunted down for food. In fact, I do not have to hunt my own food either. I don’t have to kill if I would rather not. I can even choose to be a vegetarian if the idea of animals dying for my sustenance bothers me.
Cartoons aside, real animals do not have the ability to plot out a murder in malice. Most certainly, they do not have the wherewithal to torture a victim. Of course, some animals have it worse than others. Cats play with their food all the time, and sometimes the prey dies slowly. However, no animal inflicts pain or distress on another for the purpose of seeing it suffer.
This is where I’m not quite as glad to be a human… because while we don’t have so much to worry about from the animal kingdom, we have a lot to be concerned about from one another.
I was reminded of this recently when I saw a trailer for the new Saw movie. I’ve never watched the series, but from what I understand, the antagonist traps victims and puts them in scenarios where they must gore, maim, or otherwise torture themselves to live. While it’s true that I have a particularly weak stomach, I’ve never been able to understand how anyone who values human life could enjoy watching torture. It is so abhorrent to me that I refuse to watch anything to do with it. The thought of a person causing fear and pain like that on purpose angers me. Last year, I went to see a movie with some friends. Within the first two minutes, it was evident that it would be focusing on torture. I asked the girls I was with if we could leave and watch something else, and they were kind enough to agree (I don’t think it bothered them like it did me).
I’ve asked friends what they enjoy about this type of entertainment in the past. I’ve never been able to understand how someone who values human life could enjoy watching torture. Some have defended the Saw series by explaining that it actually extolls the value of human life. Apparently, it teaches us how far we should be willing to go to protect it.
I cannot see how watching multiple gruesome scenes does anything but lower the value of human life in our eyes. Of course, I am not saying that everyone who watches these movies is in support of torturing and maiming people. In fact, many people who seem to enjoy watching Saw movies are the same ones who call for swift justice upon hearing news stories where someone is kidnapped and tortured. So apparently, while a situation is horrid and vile in reality, it is… entertaining when posed as fiction?
Politically, I hold libertarian views, so I’m not calling for government censorship of these types of movies. What I am asking is for those of us who are Christians to think about what we consume. Some will tell me to get off my high horse and recognize that there is a difference between fiction and reality. Truly, there is. Why not use that argument with pornography? Sexually immoral behavior in real life: sinful. As entertainment? OK. I think we have bought into too much of our culture’s assertions about fantasy. Namely, that what occurs in the heart is not as important as what occurs through our bodies. Jesus taught that what comes out of the mouth reflects what is in the heart, and that what is in the heart makes someone “unclean”. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” Similarly, when it comes to physical sins like murder or adultery, Jesus taught that entertaining the act in one’s heart amounts to the same thing as committing it.
I believe our culture is beginning to face the consequences of that truth now. We have continued to expand the outer limits of what is considered acceptable in terms of violence and sexual deviance. Of course, we are not the only culture to have done this. Toward the very end of Rome’s existence as a Republic, gladiatorial games came into mainstream use as a form of entertainment. POWs, slaves, and sometimes volunteers fought to the death for the entertainment of the populace and at the behest of political leaders. It is telling that only animals and second or third class citizens acted in this capacity. Legally speaking, citizens were forbidden from acting as gladiators because it would endanger their lives (this was not always enforced). In other words, the Romans respected life for some groups, but not others.
The patron of the games (or the crowd, in many instances) could determine whether an obviously defeated gladiator would live. The preference would be indicated by pollice verso, or “with a turned thumb”. It’s not clear whether this gesture is the same “thumbs up” (or down) with which we’re familiar today, but either way, the defeated gladiator was at the mercy of the audience. Now, we’re talking about people who were entertained by watching a fight to the death. Unless the defeated was popular, he had a very good chance of dying for his loss.
When I look at my culture, I see a people who is increasingly bloodthirsty. I see a people who requires more and more suffering to be satiated. I see the beginnings of barbarism creeping into mainstream acceptance.
I can think of no time in our country’s history in which we have more closely identified with the Romans. For many decades now, our legislature has eschewed the values of a republic and moved towards the perceived virtues of empire. If we are to repeat history, this change will continue to our own demise. Whether the decline of the state instigates the moral failure of the people, or whether the reverse is true, we would do well not to ignore the symptoms of this move. The devaluing of human life combined with the thirst for suffering can only lead to disaster.
An early Christian writer, Tertullian, commented on his culture’s ambivalence toward the gladiators:
On the one and the same account they glorify them and they degrade and diminish them; yes, further, they openly condemn them to disgrace and civil degradation; they keep them religiously excluded from council chamber, rostrum, senate, knighthood, and every other kind of office and a good many distinctions. The perversity of it! They love whom they lower; they despise whom they approve; the art they glorify, the artist they disgrace.
Could we not say the same of ourselves? If we patronize faithfully an art that glorifies torture, how can we condemn those who practice it in earnest? We have already done this in the sexual arena. If, in private, we are sexually immoral or consume pornography to no end, how do we then look down on prostitutes and use words like slut in our vitriol? Indeed we have fallen prey to the same attitude Tertullian condemned, and we are accelerating down that path even still.
The Roman empire which provided such excesses of cruelty in entertainment did not avoid it in public practice. It adopted the form of execution, which, even by its own standards was excessively cruel. This “ultimate penalty” is what Jesus of Nazareth suffered under the orders of Pontius Pilate.
I do not write this to condemn those who have chosen to patronize movies like Saw, most particularly if they do not consider themselves followers of Jesus. Certainly, it is not the place of Christians to judge those who do not believe. I do, however, want those of us who are Christians to consider what we are approving. Perhaps more importantly, we should ask ourselves where we are headed. After all, the cruelty of the arena was ultimately extended to Christians under Nero, Domitian, and even the relatively benign Marcus Aurelius.
It would be a shame to find ourselves giving the thumbs up to our own demise.