The Common Good

The Bible and Movies and Violence – Oh My!

David and Goliath illustration, Milena Moiola / Shutterstock.com
David and Goliath illustration, Milena Moiola / Shutterstock.com

This Thursday I’ll be interviewing Gareth Higgins on the Raven Foundation’s Voices of Peace radio show. Gareth is the founder of the very popular Wild Goose Festival. If you attend this summer, you will meet Raven friend James Alison, who will talk about his latest project, Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening to the Unheard Voice. Gareth is also a film critic and analyzes films from a Christian point of view on his website God Is Not Elsewhere. He wrote a book called How Movies Helped Save My Soul and, with Jett Loe, he is the co-host of Film Talk, an award-winning Internet radio show of cinema reviews and interviews. Since we are in the heat of the summer movie season, I’ll be talking with Gareth about both the Wild Goose Festival and his passion for religion and films.

Before talking with Gareth, I'd like to ask this: Do movies and the Bible have anything in common? Fill in the blank with either the word “Bible” or “movies” and you will be asking a familiar question:

Why is there so much violence in the _____?

Whenever I hear someone lament that kids these days need to read their Bibles, I tell them that the Bible should be rated R for violencenudityrapedrug deals, and even genocide – and that’s just in the first book! Of course, as a youth pastor, I’ve found that the best way to get kids interested in the Bible is to tell them that if someone made it into a movie, it would be rated R.

The Bible and movies tell stories. Gareth points out the importance of stories in his article “It’s the Movies’ Fault/It’s not the Movies’ Fault” in which he brilliantly states that, “we could benefit from recognizing that the relationship between storytelling and the formation of human identity is crucial.” Indeed, the stories we tell are crucial to the formation of human identity, but the Bible and movies tell stories that are permeated with violence. So, the question becomes, how do we make sense of those violent stories in terms of human identity?

René Girard has changed the way that I interpret violence in the Bible, and, indirectly, in movies. Girard calls the Bible a “text in travail.” In other words, the Bible is a text that struggles with its own violence. Part of that struggle is its mere reflection of human violence, but where the Bible is unique in human history is that it challenges its own violence. While many stories in the Bible merely reflect human violence, other stories in the Bible reveal that violence will only lead to our own destruction and that God never demands violence. Girard writes that the Bible’s travail against its own violence and against a violent view of God “is not a chronologically progressive process, but a struggle that advances and retreats. I see the Gospels as the climactic achievement of that trend” (Violent Origins, 141).

Girard claims that the Sermon on the Mount is one of those major advancements in the Bible, because in it Jesus “shows us a God who is alien to all violence and who wishes in consequence to see humanity abandon violence” (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, 183), but Girard also points to the Joseph story as another major advancement. Indeed, you only need to finish reading the first book of the Bible for evidence that the Bible is a “text in travail.” Yes, in Genesis you will find all the violence mentioned above, but if you read to the end, you will discover the Joseph story – a story that provides the only true answer to the problem of violence.

It’s a familiar story, so I won’t go into much detail. Joseph’s father loves him more than his 11 brothers, which makes his brothers jealous. Filled with jealousy, Joseph’s 11 brothers violently unite against him. As they leave him for dead in a pit, one brother suggests that they spare Joseph’s life and sell him as a slave. Joseph, now a slave, arrives in Egypt where he thrives and becomes Pharaoh’s right-hand man. Years later there is a famine and his brothers come to Egypt looking for help. They meet Joseph, who recognizes his brothers, but his brothers don’t recognize him. At this point in the story, Joseph held all the power. He could have responded to his brothers’ request by continuing the cycle of violence. It would be a mere reflection of human violence if Joseph said, “Remember when you planned to kill me, but then sold me as a slave? Well, I spent years in jail, and now you will too!” But that’s not how Joseph responds. Rather, Joseph reveals the only way out of violence by responding to his brothers with compassion and forgiveness.

Many Christians have seen Joseph as a Christ-like figure. Indeed, Jesus responded to violence in the same way Joseph did. While hanging on the cross, Jesus prayed for his persecutors to be forgiven, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Then, in the resurrection, Jesus only offered words of peace to those who betrayed him.

Why is there so much violence in the Bible? Because human history shows that we have a tendency to be violent. Yet violence is not inevitable. As the Bible struggles with its own violence, it also reveals that forgiveness is the only solution to cycles of revenge.

So, when it comes to storytelling, whether in the Bible or in movies, our concern shouldn’t be whether or not there is violence. Our concern should be whether these stories merely reflect human violence, or whether these stories are in travail against human violence. Good stories are like the Joseph and Jesus stories. They transform our identity away from violence and into an identity of forgiveness. That, I would offer, is the litmus test for any good story.

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.

Image: David and Goliath illustration, Milena Moiola / Shutterstock.com

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