It seems to be happening everywhere: a grade school in suburban Connecticut, a movie theater and high school outside Denver, a grocery store near Tucson, the rough parts of inner-city Chicago, idyllic parts of rural Kentucky, an Amish schoolhouse, college campuses in Illinois and Virginia. The list goes on and on. These shooting massacres are the very definition of senseless.
Steering Clear of Violent Images
Parenting magazine recently identified several high-violence video games that kids simply shouldn’t be playing. Here are the worst of the worst:
• In “Dead Space 2,” players engage in a “horrifically scary battle for their lives” and “must avoid or kill the enemies that are manifested as horrific corpse-like creatures.”
• “Mortal Kombat” encourages “violent killing sprees.”
• “Call of Duty: Black Ops” features firefights that are “among the most frenetic and intense ever created for a video game … blood often soaks soldiers’ clothes and the ground. Plus, the series’ online play has proven exceptionally habit-forming.”
• “Naughty Bear” gets a “Teen” rating rather than a “Mature” rating like the others. Yet it “is one of the most violent and disturbing games of the year,” according to Parenting. It features a “sociopathic bear who spends his time choking his peers with golf clubs, slamming their heads in car doors, and frightening them until they commit suicide.”
Americans — no matter what they think about guns — are sickened and saddened by the killing. And many of us have a sense that something’s deeply wrong with our country. So what went wrong, and can we fix it?
The Earth is Full of Violence
Before we start exploring how to fix 21st-century America, some perspective may be in order. These mass shootings make some of us long for the “good old days,” when this sort of thing just didn’t happen. But depending on how far back we look into history, some of the good old days were just as terrifying as today. For example, the deadliest attack on school property in American history happened almost 90 years ago when a man bombed the Bath Township School in Michigan, killing 44 people. Still, the frequency is higher nowadays — and even worse, the victims and assailants seem increasingly to be younger.
Of course, if we look beyond our own history, we find that senseless violence and mayhem are the norm, and tranquility and predictability the exception. Consider humanity’s first family. The murder of Abel made no sense; Cain had no right to kill his brother. Yet he did it, opening the door to a brutal and bloody world for the rest of Adam’s children.
Genesis 6 describes the earth as “full of violence.” Abraham lived in a time when fathers eagerly sacrificed their infant children to please the gods. In Moses’ day, Pharaoh ordered the killing of all newborn Hebrew males to keep his army of slaves manageable. Those who survived, he simply worked to death. Herod executed an unknown number of baby boys in a mad attempt to eliminate any threat to his throne. Yet no one in power batted an eye, let alone tried to stop him or punish him. In Paul’s day, Rome’s coliseum was part arena, part theater. And human beings played the lead roles in blood sports, battle reenactments, and gladiatorial combat — all ending with dead bodies on the coliseum floor and cheering throngs in the stands.There’s a reason Jesus called our ancient foe “a murderer from the beginning.” Through the centuries and to this day, humans have devalued, debased, and destroyed human life. Consider the laogai slave-labor camps in today’s China; the child soldiers in Uganda; the suicide bombers and their victims in Afghanistan; the endless wars in Colombia, Burma, Kashmir, and Somalia; the sex trade in Thailand; the man-made famine in North Korea; the quiet plague of euthanasia in Europe; the ghastly toll of abortion in America.
The devaluation of human life is as old as, well, human life. The reason: Mankind is broken. Our hearts are full of anger and rage. Sometimes it’s contained within us; sometimes it explodes in spasms of violence.
Culture plays a role in this process. A culture that challenges people to aspire to something more than mankind’s base impulses will rechannel those impulses. A permissive culture will tolerate or even celebrate them.
Values Matter in a Free Society
Looking for fast and easy answers, well-meaning policymakers blame this epidemic of violence on the availability of guns and the presence of poverty.
When I hear this diagnosis, I can’t help but think of my grandfather and my wife. Both lived in homes full of guns. Both were born into deep poverty — the kind where the next meal is not a certainty, where kids stop going to school because they have to work — and yet neither ever walked into a classroom, movie theater, or mall and started shooting people.
Not everyone who plays violent video games or listens to “gangsta rap” becomes a mass murderer. But all of today’s mass murderers played violent video games and tuned into hyperviolent music.
One reason is that they understood — and were made to understand — the deadly power of guns. Another factor is that the culture around them valued life. To be sure, values are a sensitive subject. Values are a statement of what matters to a person or to a nation, and so they can be exclusive or subjective, which makes some people uncomfortable in an age awash in moral relativism. But values matter in a free society. As George Washington said, “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” He was talking about how faith and values undergird culture.
The mass murderers of Columbine, Newtown, and Aurora were desensitized to violence by a culture soaked in violence and stripped of references to God’s law. Think about it: God has been stricken from textbooks, muzzled at the lectern, and chased out of education officialdom — no prayers at commencement, no “Christmas” break, no mention of “one nation under God.”
Such a culture — one that devalues human life and then airbrushes God out of public view — is brewing a toxic mix. Make no mistake: The nexus between violent cultural inputs and violent behavior is real. A 1972 report by the U.S. surgeon general concluded that there is a “causal relationship between televised violence and antisocial behavior.”
“Songs with violent lyrics increase aggression-related thoughts and emotions,” according to an American Psychological Association (APA) study. Authors Barbara Hattemer and Robert Showers, citing studies indicating that “heavy metal and rap music today contain an element of hatred and abuse of women of a degree never seen before,” note “a fascination with heavy metal music was an indicator of adolescent alienation and possible emotional health problems.” Brad Bushman, Ohio State University professor of communication and psychology, adds that hundreds of studies show “a link between violent media exposure and aggression.”
Now consider those assessments alongside a recent APA study, which reveals that a typical American child sees 8,000 murders on TV by the time he or she finishes elementary school. Perhaps worse, a growing body of research suggests that violent video games might be more harmful than violent TV shows and movies because playing video games is active whereas watching TV is passive. Moreover, “Violent games directly reward violent behavior … by awarding points or by allowing players to advance to the next game level,” Bushman adds. Speaking of rewarding violent behavior, the APA study found that killers on TV “are depicted as getting away with the murders 75 percent of the time.”
The mountain of evidence connecting violent cultural inputs and violent behavior is composed of more than stale statistics:
- According to an FBI report, violent drug-trafficking organizations employ “songs with lyrics that glorify the drug lifestyle” to recruit members. “Law enforcement in several jurisdictions … attribute the increase in gang membership in their region to the gangster rap culture.”
- The Aurora killer, who turned the opening night of “The Dark Knight Rises” into a bloodbath, called himself “The Joker” and even dressed like the supersadistic villain from the latest “Batman” trilogy. Classmates describe him as “obsessed” with violent video games.
- Adam Lanza, who murdered 27 people in Newtown, Conn., spent “hours on end, alone in his windowless basement den” killing “virtual victims in violent video games,” according to published reports.
- First-person shooter video games were an addiction for Jared Loughner, who killed six people and seriously wounded 13 others near Tucson, Ariz. As The Wall Street Journal reports, not long before his shooting rampage, Loughner posed this haunting question in an online gaming forum: “Does anyone have aggression 24/7?”
- Steven Kazmierczak, who murdered five people and wounded 18 at Northern Illinois University, planned “his shooting spree as if it were one of his beloved video games,” the Chicago Tribune reports.
- Nehemiah Griego, a New Mexico teenager who killed his parents and three siblings, was “involved heavily” with violent video games, according to the local sheriff. News reports indicate that Griego “got excited when he had the chance to discuss his penchant for violent video games with investigators, especially the game ‘Modern Warfare.’”
- In their study on violent video games and aggressive behavior, psychology professors Craig Anderson and Karen Dill report that the Columbine killers “enjoyed playing the bloody, shoot-’em-up video game ‘Doom’, a game licensed by the U.S. military to train soldiers to effectively kill.”
To be sure, not everyone who plays violent video games, listens to “gangsta rap,” or cranks up “death metal” becomes a mass murderer. But it does seem that all of today’s mass murderers played violent video games and tuned into those hyperviolent genres of music.
The Link Between Seeing, Hearing, and Doing
Many people reject any link between what we see and hear with what we do. But Scripture makes a strong case that culture affects us. In the Psalms, David warns us not to walk in “the counsel of the wicked” and to turn our eyes away from the “worthless things” around us (Psalm 1 and Psalm 119). Jesus declares, “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out” (Mark 9), clearly identifying a link between what we see and what we do.
Moreover, common sense tells us that what we see and hear affects how we think, and what we think affects how we act. Consider an example we’ve all heard a thousand times. The purveyors of pop culture often tell us — usually when trying to raise awareness and money for their latest cause — that film, television, and music can inspire people and change how they think, what they do, and what they aspire to be. Anyone who has read Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky, gazed at the work of Michelangelo or Monet, listened to Beethoven, Bach, or Bono, or been transported by a Capra or Spielberg film, must admit that the purveyors of pop culture are right: There is something transformative about culture; the words and images and sounds produced by culture can move us and change us in profound ways.
The Sacredness of Life
Our culture may treat human life like trash, but Scripture reminds us why human life is sacred:
Because God created life
• Genesis tells us that God created man in His image and blessed humanity with a part of Himself — “the breath of life.” John writes, “Through Him all things were made.” According to David, God actually knits us together in the womb. Solomon explains that God puts eternity in our hearts. And Paul points to conscience as evidence that God’s signature is written on every heart.
Because God entered into life
• Not only did God breathe our first breath, He became Immanuel, “God with us.” He actually entered into our humanness. By becoming one of the created, He made an unequivocal statement about the sacredness of His crowning creation.
Because God is synonymous with life
• Jesus equates Himself with life. “I am the way, the truth and the life,” He proclaims. Just as earthly life comes from God, so does eternal life. So, we should not take life outside the narrow parameters defined in Scripture, tolerate the taking of life outside those parameters, or minimize the taking of life through culture.
What’s puzzling — and telling — is that the same people who say cultural inputs can inspire us refuse to admit that they can also do the opposite: poison us and lead us into darkness. “The eye is the lamp of the body,” Jesus explained. “If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matthew 6). We know He wasn’t talking about the physiology of the eye, but about what the eye allows into the mind.
Called to be Agents of Change
Of course, no one reading this produces music that glorifies violence, TV shows that turn murder into a punch line, movies that ooze with death, or video games that dehumanize and desensitize their players. In fact, it’s safe to say that most everyone reading this tries to keep that junk out of their homes.
But as God’s people, we are called to be more than simply “not part of the problem.” We are called to be part of the solution, to offer the remedy to mankind’s brokenness. God has always been deeply concerned about the culture surrounding His people. He called Abraham to be set apart from those around him. In Exodus, He implored His people, “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong.” In Leviticus, He commanded His people, “Do not follow any of the detestable customs” of neighboring nations. And in the Gospels, He called on His followers to be salt and light for the world.
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus said. “You are the light of the world.” Let’s ponder that rich imagery for a moment: Salt adds and enhances flavor. Salt preserves and protects things from rotting. Light helps us see what is hidden and chases away darkness. Most plant and animal life depends on light to live.
But what happens if the salt loses its saltiness? What happens if the light is hidden, if it doesn’t point the way out of darkness? If we don’t try to make the culture better, then what good are we?
Jesus wants us to influence our culture. We can have an impact by not doing certain things — not going to the latest horror movie, not watching the gory crime drama, not shrugging our shoulders when children play violent video games. We can also have an impact by doing certain things — watching films that challenge us to aspire to something beyond our brokenness and baseness, watching programs that value life and honor the Author of life, defending life, and praying for our country and culture.
It’s our responsibility to intercede for our land and to call upon God to help us. “The real business of your life as a saved soul,” Oswald Chambers wrote a century ago, “is intercessory prayer.” God promises, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
Remember: Mighty Rome, which once laughed at the strange little offshoot of Judaism known as Christianity, would one day convert to Christianity because a handful of Christ followers believed that promise and shared the Good News. Closer to our own time, it was Christ followers who sparked the revival that ended slavery.
Our challenge — taking on Hollywood and other purveyors of violence — is easy by comparison. If our culture seems like a wasteland at times, we have ourselves partly to blame. According to Pew Research, more than 75 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian, and 43 percent of Americans are weekly churchgoers. Jesus prayed that all believers might be one because He knew how hard the enemy would try to divide and weaken — and conquer. But if we worked together and stood together — united by Christ — then nothing could stop us.
Imagine all believers in America —75 percent of us equals 236 million people; 43 percent equals 135 million — standing up to the networks, record companies, and software firms that cram senseless violence into innocents; imagine us turning Hollywood around by turning away from the trash; imagine us saying “enough” to judges and school boards that confuse “freedom of religion” with “freedom from religion”; imagine us voting for candidates who would use reason and law to protect innocent life in all its forms.
Our impact would amaze everyone this side of eternity.
Alan Dowd, a writer and researcher in Fishers, Ind., is the author of more than 700 articles.