By Jonathan Decker (Family therapist, film critic)
Author's note: I have a great respect for the beliefs of others and have learned much from them. Although I am a devout Latter-day Saint, I do not impose my beliefs upon my clients and I support their worldviews in therapy. I include this article here so that all of my writings can be found in one place.
This article originally appeared in Modern Mormon Men. I do not own the images; they are used here for educational purposes. For more of my thoughts on media standards, check out my book 250 Great Movies for Latter-day Families.
When it comes to media, it used to be that General Authorities warned us mostly about pornography. In recent years, however, the Brethren have increasingly turned their attention to the portrayals of violence that are so prevalent at the cinema, on TV, and in video games. We are directed, in the most recent version of the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, to “not attend, view, or participate in anything that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way. Do not participate in anything that presents immorality or violence as acceptable.”
Accepting, as I do, the words of modern prophets and apostles as if from the Lord himself (D&C 1:38) this poses a conundrum, as I love action films, a genre of entertainment that absolutely portrays violence as acceptable. Of course, if it were necessary, I’d like to believe that I would sacrifice my favorite manly movies in order to “be diligent in keeping the commandments of God as they are written.” (Alma 37:20)
Violence in Church Media
But wait just one minute. Isn’t there violence in Church movies? Should we avoid The Testaments because it shows the Lord being whipped and crucified? Is Joseph Smith – The Prophet of the Restoration inappropriate for my kids because it portrays the great restorer gunned down at Carthage Jail? Can I get an edited version of The Whole Armor of God, as it has a sword fight representing our battle with sin? Could O Ye Fair Ones be run through VidAngel? After all, I don’t want to sit through that scene of a river flowing with blood after the Nephites are wiped out.
Please don’t misunderstand my humor as calling the Brethren into question. I’m absolutely not. I stand by my testimony that the kingdom is led by living prophets and apostles. But how do we account for this supposed discrepancy between the counsel we’ve received from Church leaders and the films they themselves have overseen and approved? Is violence ever acceptable in arts and entertainment?
“There Are Exceptions to Some Rules”
Elder Dallin H. Oaks offers insight that may be applied to this topic: “As a General Authority, it is my responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don't try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules…But don't ask me to give an opinion on your exception. I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord.” (The Dedication of a Lifetime, CES Fireside, May 1 2005).
If we look at his words closely, of course, he never says that we are let off the hook to do whatever we want without consequence. What he does say is that we have our agency, and exceptions to general rules should be worked out between ourselves and the Lord. In other words, the word of God combined with the whisperings of the Holy Ghost should be our guide. As Joseph Smith taught: “That which is wrong under one circumstance can be, and often is, right under another.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 256)
I believe that this is true of portrayals of violence in media. Not all of it deadens us to the influence of the Spirit; if it did, it’d have no place in Church films. Not all of it inspires aggression or dulls our compassion; sometimes it provides a sober reminder of the pain caused by sin or inspires us to be courageous. That said, there is absolutely some media that glorifies hatred and destruction, devalues human life, and seeks to titillate through the depiction of pain, gore, and terror (hence the need for prophetic warning). So how do we distinguish the good from the bad?
How Do We Know Good From Evil?
Mormon taught that “every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ … but whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil.” (Moroni 7:16-17) When it comes to media, then, that which persuades us to believe in Christ and to do good is that which either testifies of Him directly or promotes causes and values that He would promote. When it comes to violence at the cinema, we must ask ourselves under what circumstances fighting is acceptable to the Prince of Peace, who admonished us to “love our enemies” and “turn the other cheek.”
The clearest example, of course, comes from Captain Moroni, who did “not delight in murder or bloodshed, but he delighted in the saving of his people from destruction.” (Alma 55:19) Time and again Moroni showed leniency, mercy, and compassion on his enemies. He let them go free if they’d give up their weapons of war and make an oath never to return. However, this same man who said “we do not desire to be men of blood” (Alma 44:1) had also “sworn with an oath to defend his people, his rights, and his country, and his religion, even to the loss of his blood” and taught his armies “to defend themselves against their enemies, even to the shedding of blood if it were necessary [in order] to preserve their lives.” (Alma 48:13-14)
The Church created a short film about Captain Moroni called Firm in the Faith of Christ which, you guessed it, has scenes of battle violence. However, the purpose of the film is to portray Moroni’s faith, honor, courage, and mercy. It seeks to inspire those qualities in viewers. As is the case with all good action films, the capacity to harm is balanced with the moral imperative to use that ability in the pursuit of justice and defense of the innocent, not for vengeance or punishment of one’s enemies.
Violence in a Moral Context
This righteous code is perhaps best described by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. While training Luke, Yoda clarifies that “Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will … A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”
The character of Bruce Wayne/Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is another fine example of an action hero whose “battle values” parallel eternal principles. When pressured to kill a murderer as part of his crime-fighting training, Bruce firmly refuses. “I will go back to Gotham and I will fight men like this, but I will not be an executioner” he explains. “Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share” he is told by his mentor, to which Bruce brilliantly responds: “That’s exactly why it’s so important. It’s what separates us from them.”
Bruce’s commitment to seeking justice instead of vengeance, as well as his dedication to preserving human life, is put to the ultimate test in The Dark Knight. He has the opportunity to kill The Joker, a villain who has wrought immeasurable havoc and caused horrible suffering for Bruce, his loved ones, and the city he defends. The Joker believes that everyone’s morality has a breaking point, but when Batman spares his life he gives the hero his due, inquiring with begrudging admiration: “You truly are incorruptible, aren’t you?”
Portrayals of defense and justice aren’t the only acceptable forms of media violence. Entertainment can also be used to illustrate the tragic consequences of unrighteous force, such as vengeance. Brigham Young explained: “Upon the stage of a theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and follies of man, the magnamity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to shun it.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, 243)
The character of Jason Bourne is a fine example of this. Years of suppressing his conscience (in order to function as a government assassin) leads to a mental break, after which Bourne spends three films seeking refuge and redemption from his past. “I don’t want to do this anymore” he tells his ex-superior at one point. After his change of heart, Bourne uses his skills only to protect himself and others. He seems genuinely weary whenever doing so forces him to take a life. In my favorite scene in the trilogy, Bourne confronts a teenage girl whom he orphaned by assassinating her parents. He confesses to her, both for the sake of his own conscience and to give her a measure of peace in the knowledge that her mother and father didn’t die in a murder-suicide, as she’d been led to believe. It’s a heartbreaking and poignant moment of accountability, a somber reflection of the pain violence causes.
Jet Li’s character in the martial arts epic Fearless likewise learns the awful consequences of unrighteous force. His arrogance and thirst for revenge lead to the loss of everything he holds dear. His intense sorrow catalyzes a change of heart, sincere repentance, and a commitment to use his skills honorably.
Violence Without Conscience
Compare this to Taken, the hit thriller with Liam Neeson as a retired CIA agent who uses his “particular set of skills” to bring the hurt on sex traffickers who’ve kidnapped his daughter. I was disturbed at how much I found myself enjoying the brutal vengeance inflicted on the villains in this PG-13 film. Neeson guns down unarmed men and fatally electrocutes a man after he’s tortured him for information. This is all portrayed as acceptable because the bad guys are such monsters; there’s no evidence of remorse or the personal toll such actions take on Neeson’s character. Similarly, the revenge thriller Colombiana (also PG-13) features a protagonist who is as brutal, unscrupulous, and bloodthirsty as the “bad guys” she goes after.
I can't wrap my head around the popularity of characters like Jigsaw, Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, and others. I'm not judging, I just don't get it. Unlike villains such as Voldemort and Darth Vader whose lives serve as cautionary tales (and who highlight the heroes' virtues by comparison), these horror icons exist solely to excite audiences by killing civilians in the most gruesome ways imaginable. Gore is often paired with graphic sensuality and nudity in these films, linking sex with violence in the minds of viewers. The influence of the Holy Ghost, I believe, is diluted by media that offers murder and sex as titillating entertainment, devoid of conscience and with barely a pretense of morality. Remember that Alma taught that adultery and the shedding of innocent blood are two of the most serious sins. (Alma 39:3-5)
Similarly, I do not know that any good can come from the Grand Theft Auto series and similar video games which, although doubtlessly well-made in terms of graphics, gameplay, and storytelling, nevertheless cause players to vicariously engage in morally abhorrent behavior such as murdering police officers, hooking up with prostitutes (then killing them, natch), dealing drugs, stealing cars, and more. What happened to wanting to be the good guy?
“If All Men [Were] Like Unto Moroni”
It is not my purpose here to draw specific conclusions about what you should and shouldn’t watch or play; I’m an imperfect judge on the issue. We’ve been blessed with our agency, the light of Christ, the teachings of the Savior and his prophets, and the gift of the Holy Ghost to guide us. I’m merely trying like to stimulate thought and conversation on this important matter. I also feel strongly that, in choosing the media we watch, the roles we play, and the heroes we admire, we and our children would do well to remember the example of Moroni:
“And Moroni was a strong and a mighty man; he was a man of a perfect understanding; yea, a man that did not delight in bloodshed; a man whose soul did joy in the liberty and the freedom of his country, and his brethren from bondage and slavery…Yea, and he was a man who was firm in the faith of Christ, and he had sworn with an oath to defend his people, his rights, and his country, and his religion, even to the loss of his blood…Yea, verily, verily I say unto you, if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men.” (Alma 48:11,13,17)