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How Should Christian Authors Depict Violence?

October 29, 2018

Editor’s Note: This article is the third installment in our five-part series on how to portray tricky subjects in Christian fiction. To learn why we’re doing this series and how we’re approaching these topics, read our introductory post.

 

Should you write a scene of human sacrifice where the priest cuts out the victim’s [bleep] with a stone knife, the body [bleep], and the blood [bleepity bleep bleep]? (I’m trying to be sensitive here.)

 

These kinds of questions plague Christian writers—especially beginners and those who have been raised without exposure to brutality. Even writers who have firm convictions sometimes struggle to discern whether a certain degree of violence is excessive or not.

 

This article won’t answer all your questions, but it should help you better understand the violence issue and exercise wise judgment.

 

Why Christians Should Depict Violence

To prove that violence has a place in Christian fiction, we need to examine writing theory. Here at Story Embers, one of the tenets we uphold is that compelling stories should reflect the full human experience. Humans are creatures of reason and emotion, and to “take every thought captive,” we must address both aspects of our nature. Fiction excels at exploring our emotions and humanity in any situation or walk of life. When we ban facets of the human experience from fiction, we’re limiting our God-assigned dominion over the earth. Because violence is one of the world’s harsh realities, it belongs in our fictional worlds to expand our emotional development—not in every novel, but many. If we always avoid it, we’re being dishonest.

 

But how graphic should we be? I would argue that vividness is necessary at times. We do this, not because we want to highlight violence, but because we need to. If an author omits all the details, he isn’t dealing with violence at all. Compare these two scenes:

 

#1: I turned away. I couldn’t watch Billy die.

 

“And now, for my ultimate victory!” Ruthgar shouted.

 

When I dared to look, Billy was dead and Ruthgar was putting his ax away.

 

#2: I turned away. I couldn’t watch Grandpa die.

 

“Any moment now,” the doctor said.

 

When I dared to look, Grandpa was dead. The doctor fidgeted awkwardly with his glasses.

 

With the specifics of the beheading removed, the first scene is almost indistinguishable from the second. But the two should be markedly different. I’m not asserting that violent details are imperative or right for every story, but if Christians have the power to shine light on any dismal circumstance, we can do the same as novelists.

 

A raw portrayal of physical and emotional anguish, properly handled, has multiple benefits:

 

  1. It exposes man’s fallenness, prevents us from being overly trusting, and prompts us to consider our own sin and spiritual helplessness.
  2. It reminds us of our frailty and mortality. In our age of medical breakthroughs and rewritten fairy tales where all the grimness has been extracted, we rarely think about death, and the consequences are significant—pride, love of the world, apathy for the human condition.
  3. It debunks people’s romanticization of battle.
  4. It prepares us for hardships we may encounter down the road. Readers who hide from affliction might be unable to cope when they face it in real life.
  5. Finally, to state the obvious, it builds intensity in a story.

One of the biggest advantages of violence, though, does not involve its dark attributes but how it magnifies times of healing. The Count of Monte Cristo was correct, at least in part. People who have endured suffering do tend to cherish happiness and peace all the more.

 

A Word of Caution

Although violence can be expertly used in the hands of a master storyteller, we need to be aware of the hazards before diving in. Even if some violence is permissible, we may try to shy away from it as much as possible. I disagree with this mentality, but I know the downsides to violence firsthand, because one of my readers felt wounded, betrayed, and defiled by a scene I wrote (though it wasn’t extremely violent).

 

Violent scenes are powerful and can scar people. This article’s purpose is not to discuss whether writers are responsible for protecting readers from emotional harm, but if you wish to study the topic, check out my post about guarding our minds and hearts while choosing reading material.

 

We can never predict readers’ sensitivities. When violence distresses us, it’s usually because we sense an overpowering, invasive darkness, not because we’re squeamish. However, the content that causes one person’s skin to crawl may be something we don’t expect—as in the instance I referenced above. Hopefully this mystery will be unraveled, but until then we can only do our best.

 

Writing violence can also negatively affect us. If we’ve created a vicious world and forget to include glimmers of hope, we could become cynical and lose our grasp on objective truth. Even worse, we might start reveling in the pain we inflict on our characters.

 

Finally, an inordinate amount of violence could tarnish our Christian witness. If readers leave our books with the impression that we relish sending characters through hell, they may be confused when they discover that we believe in a God who gave His Son to save people from hell.

 

The cost of writing violence appears high, but remember the proverbial baby in the bathwater (such a violent metaphor, sheesh). Surely a solution exists, but what is it?

 

How to Depict Violence Appropriately and Effectively

The time has come to untangle this conundrum. Violence has inescapable dangers, but it is also necessary. If you’re like me, a paradox makes you want to tear the world apart to find an answer.

 

When I read James 3:1, peace settled over me: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly.”

 

Although this verse about pastors may not seem comforting at first, it contains a surprisingly encouraging principle for novelists. All pastors will be judged for their teaching, but how many pastors preach pure truth their entire lives as if they were the mouth of God? Since pastors are human, they will err occasionally.

 

However, James isn’t urging listeners to stay away from teaching because they might stumble. Instead, he’s warning teachers to be vigilant. In a sense, novelists are teachers and thus risk communicating falsehoods. But as long as we understand the gravity of our task, we’re ready to put pen to paper.

 

Although we’re unlikely to write a foolproof novel that would never disconcert anyone, we can try by following seven guidelines.

 

1. Seek counsel from various sources. Everyone will yank us in different directions and we’ll have to disappoint some people, but even if we reject a viewpoint, we may glean insights from it. For example, I might write a murder scene from the killer’s point of view despite someone’s objections, but that critiquer might help me realize that the killer’s internal monologue is disturbing and needs toned down. If we only heed advice that affirms our opinions, we could easily become misguided radicals.

 

2. Keep the target audience in mind. If we’re writing for middle graders, we should restrict the violence to that level. If we’re writing for adults, we can scale it up.

 

3. Never glorify destruction. Battle is not without honor, but sometimes an author represents a cataclysm as awesome and unquestionable like a god. I hesitantly mention The Sword in the Stars by Wayne Thomas Batson. It’s a wonderful book, but violence overwhelmed the final scenes. Perhaps this tactic isn’t inherently faulty, and I believe Batson was trying to make his villain intimidating (which I admire), but evil seemed to possess all the power throughout the story. Ending on a note of desolation dimmed the positive elements that had been woven in. The spotlight was slightly more on evil’s vigor than the search for truth. In contrast, I bring up Hero of Ages. In one chapter, a character blatantly worships violence and destruction, but his behavior is meant to be ironic. Readers aren’t supposed to sympathize with him. People were butchered, but the massacre was displayed as tragic. To offset death and ruin, we need to demonstrate that hope is greater.

 

4. Funnel the horror. Violence tends to evoke one of two reactions: shock or an oppressive feeling of darkness. Sometimes these two occur together, but they don’t need to. Shock can be culture changing. For instance, abolitionists once told me that people shrug when they learn that babies are aborted in a nearby building. But, upon hearing that babies are killed there, people exclaim, “Whaaaat!” Ghastly details are alarming, and the key is to channel this response. Shocking readers for no reason is unkind. Violence should have thematic impact, testing characters’ faithfulness to their convictions, punishing them when they’re foolish, and shaking how they view the world.

 

5. Never endorse unbiblical justification for violence. In a scene from The Inheritance Cycle, Roran decides to kill two guards to help his crew escape. Allowing a character to act pragmatically isn’t wrong, but in this case the author seemed to personally support the choice. Maybe another reader would have interpreted the scene differently, but that was my impression. To keep from promoting humanistic rationale for violence, we need to study Scripture.

 

6. To be extra safe, we could print a content advisory at the beginning of our books.

 

7. Pray.

 

Staff Perspectives

In film, one of the most repulsive depictions of violence I’ve seen wasn’t the gory battles in Hacksaw Ridge or any of the other R-rated movies I’ve watched—it was the arrow scene in Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Though the violence was relatively minimal in that film, showing hundreds of characters dying to the rock-and-roll beat of “Come a Little Bit Closer” painted the slaughter as comedic. Sure, people are dying and screaming in agony, but these are the antagonists—their lives are worthless, right? Aren’t we free to laugh at their deaths?

 

On the contrary, if we truly value human life as Christians, that needs to extend to how we portray violence and death in fiction. In my opinion, violence becomes problematic when we use it improperly, regardless of how graphic or rampant it is. We can either remind readers that human life is precious (Hacksaw Ridge) or cheapen it for the sake of a joke. If every human being, whether good or evil, is created in God’s image, treating any life as worthless is, in a sense, a form of blasphemy. If we want to honor God in our storytelling, that means striving to ascribe value to human life—no matter whose it is.

 

–Josiah DeGraaf, Editor-in-Chief

 

Some girls can handle blood and gore, but not me. That’s one reason why I write children’s books. I don’t have to deal with those things—or do I? Many children’s authors make the mistake of distorting violence. Villains are entirely unthreatening and commit nothing more treacherous than squashing the protagonist’s cupcake. This may be fine in some instances or in picture books, but a story full of sunshine will give children the wrong impression of the world and cause them to lack discernment regarding danger. I would shudder if I ever ruined a child’s innocence, but if I exclude all violence, I would be hurting children in a different way.

 

How do we balance reality yet maintain the purity and wonder of childhood? Children’s books can have the same violence as adult books—minus the graphic descriptions. For example, dinosaur attacks are common in my books. Instead of reporting that the person’s intestines oozed out, I could have the character hear screaming that suddenly stopped, and later he’d find bloodstains and T. Rex footprints on the ground. This implies violence rather than showing it, yet the threat is still real. Also, violence can be counteracted by introducing a strong sense of light into the story. The Last Battle could be considered violent, but C. S. Lewis never tarnished children’s innocence because of the overarching theme of hope.

 

–Mariposa Aristeo, Public Relations Director & Graphic Designer

Preparing for Battle

I’ve always enjoyed an exciting fight scene or murder mystery. Violence can enrich a story, but like a fire that either heats a house or burns it down, it’s dangerous as well as useful. Thankfully we have the Holy Spirit to guide us. Let’s not quench the Spirit, but listen to our consciences and walk in humility. Then we can take the leap.

 

Tune in next week as Sierra tackles foul language. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you approach violence as a storyteller and what guidelines do you follow? Share your perspective in the comments!

54 Comments

  1. Katherine Baker

    Very good, thought-provoking article.
    I tend to be very sensitive to violence, but I know that even those dark things are important. It always was hard for me that the Bible would describe such terrible wars and deaths, but I this article helps bring to light why: even in the violence, there is a purpose that shines God’s light.

    Recently, my sister has been working on a speech bringing up proofs for the resurrection and countering theories against it. In order to counter the “Jesus didn’t really die” theory, she detailed a medical description of what happens during the crucifixion, and it’s brutal. As I thought about it, I realized that understanding the weight of the brutality was, in many ways, what she had to do in order to further strengthen the cause of Christ.

    All that to say, I believe there are times when depicting violence is the best way to honor Christ. It all comes down to our heart, and my sister’s heart was completely on showing people that there is hope in Christ, not just to shock. I hope some of this can be helpful to others.

    On a different note, I’m so glad you mentioned the Guardians of the Galaxy arrow scene. That was probably one of the darkest scenes I’ve ever seen depicted. I never knew why it hurt so much until reading this. What you said gave me insight on that feeling, and also helped me to know how to avoid that mistake myself. Thank you!

    Reply
  2. Amy

    Thank you so much for this article! It is an answer to prayer, as I have been wondering about the topic of violence in Christian writing.

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      You’re very welcome.

  3. Eden Anderson

    Great article, Daeus! It forced me to consider my motives for writing violence and how far I should go in depicting it. This is a subject that I’ve thought about often, especially since I enjoy history and have created several his-fic plot lines. It’s foolish and I would go so far as to even say it’s wrong, to brush over the horror of such times as the Holocaust or 9/11 when writing fiction, because we think it’s too gruesome. We would be portraying the events dishonestly, and that’s not okay. Yes, we need to consider our audience, the ones we are targeting with our message, but it still gives us no leave to brush aside things that were violent. We need a healthy balance.

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      Absolutely. In fact, like the Holocaust and 9/11 prompted major pushback in free countries, I think properly handled violence in a book can powerfully awaken people to take action. In fact, while I haven’t read the book and can’t confirm how violent it is, I believe that’s exactly what happened with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Abraham Lincoln (somewhat facetiously) blamed it for causing the war between the states because of how powerfully it horrified and motivated the north. Now there’s the separate issue of the author not having done a thorough job with research, but that’s unrelated.

  4. Christianna Hellwig

    Very well done. Thank you. I have to say, violence was one of those things I never much minded until about four years ago when a couple of my siblings took me to see Kingsman which I would not recommend to anyone. Like the guardians of the galaxy scene you all mentioned the part that was most disturbing was when they played up beat music while all the bad guys were dying in a way that was portrayed to look funny. It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever witnessed. I think it comes down to exactly as you said, we can’t take up the mantle of writing lightly and when it comes to violence it needs to be taken extremely seriously and never treated as anything better than it is: horrible. As such, I completely agree that we shouldn’t avoid violence but God forbid that I ever take the slaughter or torture of people with anything but sadness and disgust.

    Reply
  5. Ariel Ashira

    Thank you, Daeus! This was especially helpful as I have scenes where Christians are martyed in the arena, and I want to portray their deaths well, but not not so much that I actually glorify what happens.

    Reply
  6. Steward of the Pen

    All very good points, Daeus, thanks! I especially agree with what you said about debunking the romanticization of battle. I feel that in our culture, with all the battle oriented video games where players are rewarded for killing people, war is glorified and made to look like something good. Which it is not. War in itself is not honorable, rather the courage to fight in a war for a good cause is honorable. By portraying the ugly side of battles, we are showing it for what it truly is instead of making it look like something fun and enjoyable.

    Josiah, thanks for your input! That has always bothered me about villain deaths. The terribleness of the death itself is often glossed over or even ignored in the victory. However, in one series I recently read the author spent time on the villain’s death and made it clear that his life mattered even though he was evil. I was touched and actually cried—not for what happened for the heroes, but for the villain himself. Because of that the ending was so much more meaningful.

    Thanks SE team, this has been a very helpful and though-provoking series so far!

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      “War in itself is not honorable, rather the courage to fight in a war for a good cause is honorable.”

      Ah, that’s a helpful contrast.

  7. Serenity

    Man, Daeus. This is a really good article!
    I really appreciate how you clearly and concisely give your advice on this subject. I personally struggle with this one quite a bit, and I think you did us as writers and readers a great service.
    Thank you.

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      You’re welcome.

  8. Keturah Lamb

    Very well said! While I used to be able to watch the most violent movies without batting an eyelash or having a nightmare, I’m not longer able to do that. I still could. I don’t have nightmares. But somehow violence bothers me now, when it used to now. I’m not really sure why? Except it’s more real for me and I know more compassion than I used to? When I have to write it in my stories I cringe. I close my eyes in movies now. I don’t watch something if I think it’ll be all gore, though that doesn’t necessarily keep me from watching if I think it’ll be a good watch. Books don’t bother me as much, maybe because I can skim over the words.

    keturahskorner.blogspot.com

    Reply
  9. Rebekah Gyger

    I’m glad to see that someone else felt the same about the arrow scene in GOTG2. My family had not understood why I was so repulsed by it or Baby Groot’s behavior in that scene (and a few others). But just because they were the villains didn’t mean that we had to glory in their deaths. The arrow scene in the first movie was also violent, but not so vial. The attitude and portrayal of an action is far more important to me than the description of it.

    Reply
  10. Vienne

    Why so squeamish about depicting violence in your writing? I mean, it’s not like Christianity is a religion of peace or anything. The Bible is full to the brim of violent, misogynistic, xenophobic hate and Christianity’s history is chock full of the same. I understand that not everone wants to write graphic details of violent fights, rape etc, but don’t pretend it’s because your ‘peaceful Christianity’ prevents you from doing it. Be honest in your reasons why you don’t include the violence, not just the ‘I’m a Christian and we don’t do that’ rhetoric, which is blantantly untrue. Bur hey, you do you.

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      Hey Vienne, maybe you can help me. I’m not seeing why you called my position squeamish. One of the main purposes of the article was to show that violence is an important topic to cover. Wouldn’t a squeamish person state the opposite?

      But perhaps your comment is more about the Bible than my article. That’s fine (though off-topic). I’m somewhat curious though, is your understanding of the Bible based on your own scholarly study? The Bible is certainly a hard book to understand unless you read it very methodically (sometimes several times) and in-context, without modern cultural biases that could lead to a misinterpretation or exaggeration. Of course, you’re very correct that the Bible contains lots of violence, but then, so do almost all books claiming to recount historical events.

  11. Laura VanArendonk Baugh

    A lot of good thoughts in here, especially about rehearsing for real world difficulties through experiences in fiction.

    I have to disagree with the assertion that writing violent or difficult stories will undermine the idea that our God offers salvation, that we endorse hell if we put our characters through intense trial. Any reader who thinks a writer who puts a character through metaphoric hell cannot follow a savior offering redemption from a non-metaphoric hell is a reader who (perhaps willfully) misunderstands both story and theology.

    The reminders that violent scenes serve as contrast for scenes for peace, hope, love and demonstrate the stakes in a story are good. If there is no threat, there is no need to preserve what is light and good, no action to be taken, no reason to value what is made more precious by its potential loss.

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      Quite true. I probably worded that a bit too black-and-white since it was in the warnings section, but my intent was to say that it is possible to write violence in such a way that it can seem like you enjoy making your characters suffer. This would most likely happen in a story stuffed with violence, but that does not mean a story can’t have violence every page and still and still be a good book. It may even add power to the gospel message. I could envision a book on the Inquisition for instance of that sort of flavor.

  12. Elixa A. Parr

    How should I portray horror as a Christian writer? The cold horror when a character realizes what’s going on in her world and what she did and can’t fix, and then there’s the other horror in a kind of sci-fi disturbing story (2 different stories I’m talking about here). Should Christians even write horror/disturbing-type stories?
    Did that make sense?
    Help!

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      Well, personally I can’t see how traumatizing or putting dark or fearful thoughts in readers’ minds can be reconciled with Christian love. While I’m no expert on the genre, I think this rules out some common tropes in horror fiction. However, horror itself is a proper response to horrific things. So to write horror as a Christian writer, write so sin and evil horrify people. They shouldn’t be horrified of the evil itself as if it’s out to get them, but they should be horrified that they have the potential to do those evil things and that others do them. The horror should move the reader to action. To change society or themselves.

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