Christian Artists Should (Not) Use Violence

How Christian artists can best use offensive content, and why they should think twice before they do.

There is a frequent debate on the use of objectionable content in Christian art. The argument tends to go like this: “We need to protect our minds from gratuitous violence and sex” versus, “Art needs to be dangerous in order to be profound. One should not be judgmental of it.” Every once in a while there seems to be a new attack from one side or the other, but what is not commonly done is to try and figure out what violence in art is meant to do and if it is even effective in its work. I’m using the term “violence” in this article to describe a broad range of extreme material, including explicit sexuality and coarse language. Perhaps one could frame the debate on different grounds: instead of arguing whether it is moral to include violence in our art, let us first ask if it is original.

Why Use Violence?

Walker Percy’s article “Notes for a Novel About the End of the World” is a short treatise on the specific challenges that Christian creativity faces in the modern world. Though Percy deals with novelists in this text, his question applies to Christian artists of all disciplines: How does one write, play, sing, film, choreograph or sculpt the radical message of the Gospel to a world that is profoundly bored with Christianity and religious questions in general?

“... He calls on every cunning, craft and guile he can muster from the darker regions of his soul. The fictional use of violence, shock, comedy, insult, the bizarre, are the everyday tools of his trade.”

When the world’s religious identity slumbers, you hit them in the face. Percy’s favorite example is Flannery O’Connor’s use of the image of a death by drowning to represent baptism. Because to the common American, baptism is “already accepted but accepted by and large as a minor tribal rite somewhat secondary in importance to taking the kids to see Santa Claus.” Violence acts as a sharpener to help an important message stand out from the common run of things. This sort of extreme content is actually beneficial in preaching the message of the Gospel to those lulled to sleep by the siren song of modernity, which tells us to eat, spend, consume, fornicate and get on with our fellows without offending anybody, and everything will be all right. When asked why she went to such extremes in her stories, O’Connor responded that when an audience does not hold the same beliefs as you do, "then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing, you shout and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.”

This provides us with an excellent definition for the role of violence in Christian art: violence is a tool that jolts complacent minds into a state of comprehension of religious themes. Of Mice And Men just wouldn’t have the same impact if Lennie didn’t accidentally kill his puppy, then Curley’s wife. Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, not “Peace and Peace.” For the Christian, violence is a tactic used to strike deep into the soul and bring people back to the foundations of humanity and morality.

When Violence Stops Working

But what happens when tactics stop working? What if there comes a time when violence is just not that shocking anymore? We don’t have to imagine it because that time, if ever, is now. Americans are fed on such a steady diet of extremity that we are no longer pushing the envelope—we are just sampling different flavors of irreverence. In the realm of cinema for example: there are fun, raunchy sex comedies (No Strings Attached), deep, independent dramas with uncomfortable sex scenes (Blue Valentine) and progressive dramedies with sexual dialogue (The Kids Are All Right). The same is true of physical violence. Not even Mel Gibson could top the latest string of “torture porn” films (Hostel, Saw 1-7), stylized Grindhouse flicks (Machete, Planet Terror, Death Proof, Sin City), and their more "high art" cousin: the Tarantino intellectual shoot-em-up (Inglorious Basterds). In March, Los Angeles will be leveled for the umpteenth time (Battle: Los Angeles) and the next epic romance will take place against a backdrop of global pandemic (Perfect Sense).

The question isn't whether or not these films use violence responsibly. It is: How do you wake someone up to the madness of the human condition after sitting through Kill Bill and Bruno? One could argue any of these films use violence “well,” but it’s impossible to get away from the fact that everybody is doing it. Extreme content is a drop in the bucket these days, and it must escalate in order to break through the audience’s toughening skin. Once salt has lost its flavor, how can it become salty again?

So, What Should Christians Do?

Violence, once the weapon of the illumined artist to combat the forces of complacency, has become complacency itself. Like the tolerance a user builds against a drug, the modern media denizen is significantly less affected by extreme content than in Percy's and O’Connor’s eras. They were writing in times when people’s moral codes were more fixed, and generally all of America subscribed to some definition of homogeneity. This is no longer the case. They needed to be shaken up by the Gospel; we need to be calmed down by it. The siren song of modernity has become a pair of headphones, blaring counterculture over a 3G connection.

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The Lord spoke to Jonah in a storm, but he spoke to Elijah in a still, small voice. He used both violence and serenity to grasp the attention of His servants and tailored His messages to their situations. In like manner, Christian artists must take the pulse of their age and speak in a way people will hear them clearly. I will leave the question of just how to do this to artists themselves (all the while pointing enthusiastically to Makoto Fujimura’s “The Four Holy Gospels” illumination) and add a few thoughts.

Whatever should be done, it is clear the Christian artist faces a peculiar enemy today: the expanding boredom of the modern age, which has the power to wash out even the severest expressions, and violence is its latest casualty. It is the constant duty of the Christian artist to outwit this amoebic tendency to consume and excrete, to make retail of riches. She must forge new paths of expression and restore old ones. When the world builds for itself a Tower of Babel, then she must paint a pile of rubble, and then when it is knocked down and the peoples wander in the refuse, she must paint a glittering city with jasper walls and foundations of precious stone.



Mdkiehl commented…

How is one good if they do nothing? I think we have many examples non-violent resistance. For example we have Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. Was Martin Luther King without masculinity? There are plenty of non-violent ways to use our bodies to uphold what is right. Mostly these methods use our voices, and actions of love an grace to others. Even the police use non-violent methods like arresting people and giving them fair trials. I think that maybe your definition of violence is larger and more broad than my own, I do not consider it violent to wrestle with an unruly child or dog so long as I do not harm them (even if it means getting bit).

It may seem to you that I'm suggesting a position that is completely monastic, where prayer is the only way we can resist evil in the world... And yes, I most certainly have some arteries in common with the monastic, because growing up in the reformed tradition I felt that too many people live a worldly life in parallel to their faith. I do not want my faith to be a faith that is more about beliefs and creeds than it is about the heart and hands of Christ. If I say that I am devoting my life to Christ, I want to explore that in all ways and forms; from the questions I ask to the food I eat, to how I manage my money, to the kind of place I live in, to the work of my hands, I want Christ to influence all of my decisions. (not that I pursue Christ in a legalistic way, but shouldn't I honestly want to look to Him always?). I feel like the reformed tradition has too often made Jesus into a utilitarian thing, that belief in Him will provide me with worldly benefits. Too often I hear prayers for worldly blessings and thankful prayers for worldly blessings received without a moment of prayer devoted to issues of spiritual significance. Sometimes it seems like the heart is forgotten even though it is the core of Christ's teachings. This is not necessarily a problem just in the reformed tradition. (Thankfulness is good, but it is better when it is focused on things of spiritual significance rather than worldly significance).

Let me give an example, "God, thank you for my job, please put the circumstances in my path that will bring me to greater success in my career" in contrast with "Lord let your will be done, come and commune with me so that I can bring greater peace, patience and kindness into my work so that others will come to know you. Thank you for the grace you have demonstrated to me, in the love you have given me for my co-workers".

However, there is also a stigma that goes along with monasticism. There seems to be a perception that the monastic is a secluded individual, who communes with like-minded men, who prays and practices day in and day out a ritual lifestyle, hidden in some monastery. My concern with this lifestyle is that it is too ritually self-focused. I'm afraid that the monastic trades in a life of worldly self-focus in for a life of spiritual self-focus. I think that if we want to walk in the shoes of Christ we need to become more ritually, Christ focused and other focused. Rather than continually trying to clean ourselves of evil thoughts, we need to move in the world introducing others to Christ, because He is like medicine that needs to be delivered to others. He is certainly close to us when we share Him with others. I think that sometimes the monastic can become too focused on self purity, while forgetting that he has no purity but the shroud of Christ surrounding him. I'm reminded frequently of St. Peter as he walked on water to Jesus - that Peter started to sink the moment he took his eyes off Jesus - I've felt that this is symbolic of how we can falter just by trying to asses how well we are doing because, in the moment I look at my circumstances, and myself, I've taken my eyes off Jesus (and I begin to sink). The monastic lifestyle perhaps makes too much room for considering how well we are doing, lots of room for sinking. Another way of saying this is... yes monastics have turned away from worldly problems and pursuits, but have they really taken on the spiritual problems that burden sinners in their communities?

I do not think that utilitarian ministries are very useful unless they also address issues of the heart. Ministries to the poor and needy are crucial in building connections, finding those who are lost, and demonstrating love, but if we can't go farther and address issues of the heart than we have simply given food to corpses when they needed to be brought to life. I could be very easily misunderstood here so let me try to make this clear: a starving man needs both Jesus and food, but he needs Jesus more, Jesus will feed the man's soul forever, but a meal can only go so far. We need to be sure that utilitarian ministries are ministries first and foremost.


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Anonymous commented…

I agree with Joshua. Yeah it's talking about salvation. But if my family was to ever come against me for being saved, and they were to threaten me or something like that, heck yes I would stand up and fight for my faith. Including physically if it's necessary. Against anyone, family or not.

Christianity is all about fighting for what's right. Even if you're alone. I can honestly say that I am ready to fight for my faith. No matter what the cost will be. and yeah, He's talking about a metaphorical sword, but we are still called to physically fight for our faith if and WHEN that time comes.

Esther Aspling


Esther Aspling commented…

Although not a 'Christian', I think the artist Pink does a good job of using violence in her performances to highlight domestic abuse.
It has it's place, but I think maybe it should be saved for message purposes, and not entertainment.

Jason Ingolfsland


Jason Ingolfsland commented…

Once we start "limiting" ourselves in terms of artistic expression, we might as well stop artisticly expressing ourselves all together. Should I not write about any sin? If not violence, then why not lying or stealing or adultery or hatred or yelling or disobeying parents. Without it you have no conflict, you have no antagonist you have no character flaws. Should the sin and wickedness be ripped out of the pages of the Bible because Christians should never read the Song of Solomon? Art is art. Its subjective humanity trying to grapple with the human condition through different and various ways. Once we start clamping down some kind of moral standard and rules around it (ie. no more violence) we tie the artists hands behind their back and rip out their eyes, plug up their nose, and cut off their ears. If you do not want to read about violence, then don't, but the act of artistically expressing oneself through painting, fiction, not a sin. Furthermore, I think we'd be surprised at how a good artist can use anything to wake up someone who might be desensitized. Anytime Christians talk about limiting artistic expression they immediately prove to the world why they no longer are the leaders in artistic expression. We lost that battle a long time ago and its a shame because there was a time when we created some of the most beautiful works of art. I think its time we stop preaching against artistic expression and started unleashing, once again, our artistic expression out to the world.

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