God, violence, and what I watched growing up

posted by Mike on April 1st, 2007

goodwar_small.pngMost young Americans don’t have a firsthand experience of war. Many grow up with no experience of intense violence at all. Their attitudes towards these things are shaped by art: books, TV shows, the news, and movies.

David Griffith, author of A Good War Is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence In America, is one of those people. So am I.

My peers and I really didn’t question violent entertainment while we were growing up, I think in part because we figured the stories told by adults were probably a good reflection of the world. (Today’s young people may be naturally more skeptical of these sorts of stories, since they can easily share their own videos with their peers over the Internet, and because their video games are more immersive—they can all use adult tools to act out their own stories. For people of my and Griffith’s generation, access to these tools implied some sort of legitimacy.)

In the essay “Some Proximity to Darkness” in Good War, Griffith revists the movies that shaped his sensibilities as a young man, this time taking a cold, hard look at them. I was shaped by many of these movies, and while reading the book I felt that Griffith was taking a cold, hard look inside my own head. Quite a trip.

Some of these movies left me confused about violence, not because they’re bad movies, but because when I first saw them I lacked the courage or clarity to investigate the darker corners. For example, I’ve had many conversations about “Pulp Fiction.” I’ve shared my excitement about Samuel L. Jackson’s performance, about the crazy chronology, about one guy or another getting shot. But I never asked anyone, “How did the rape scene make you feel?” And nobody asked me, either.

Griffith naturally turns his attention there:

Watching “Pulp Fiction” with my dad, I sensed there was something deeply wrong at the core of the scene. I began questioning why on earth it ever seemed anything less than horrific to me. Then a thought hit me: What if Marsellus Wallace was not gagged during his rape? What would have come out of his mouth? What if someone had turned down the blaring chainsaw sax solo so we could hear what was going on in that room? Would we hear him curse Zed and Maynard? Would he yell “stop”? Would he call for help? Would we see his rape differently now that we could hear him scream? The drowning out of the human voice creates complicity in us—because Marcellus can’t cry out in anguish and pain, the consequences seem to be lessened—and we, like Butch, are sworn to the same vow of secrecy, to pretend that this never happened.

It’s not only movies. The other essays in this book cover all sorts of territory: the Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor, the Abu Ghraib photos (speaking of art and violence), “The Electric Chair My Wife’s College Boyfriend Built in His House.” But always there is violence, and, in the end, there is God.

I think this combination is an important one. For a Christian, God is reality. Speculation about violence that doesn’t lead you to reality isn’t very helpful–it’s just cheap thrills. A God who isn’t present even in the worst horrors isn’t much of a God.

In this final week of Lent, we’ll be meditating on the presence of God in the horrors of Christ’s torture and death. As an American who grew up at the end of the twentieth century, I’ll be using movies to aid my meditation. Breaking the Waves is on my list, one of those violent films that wouldn’t have appealed to me as a teenager (Emily Watson is a lousy action hero), but nails my adult understanding of suffering and grace better than anything outside the Gospels. I don’t think Dave Griffith has seen it, but I think he’d like it.

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