“Are you not entertained?” yelled Maximus to the stunned crowd. He repeated himself, “Are you not entertained? Is this not why you were here?” He spits on the ground as he throws his sword down and begins to walk away when the crowd erupts, cheering on his incredible performance in the gladiatorial arena.
For many of us, this powerful scene from Gladiator, brings to mind thoughts of heroism, victory, and courageousness in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. This begs the question, would we be among those in the audience who cheered whilst watching this violent display?
Since antiquity, human beings have been entertained by and seemingly infatuated with violence. For the Ancient Greeks and Romans this hunger would have been satiated by gladiator fights and tragic plays. Today, these forms of entertainment have been replaced by professional sports and violent films. While the modern equivalents are not perfect translations of these ancient activities, the parallels between them cannot be denied.
As Christians, then, should we model the reaction of the early Christians to gladiator fights and plays by labeling professional sports and violent films sinful and detestable to God? I would suggest that we avoid reacting in such a manner for two reasons. First, it limits that which can provide entertainment to only what is essentially non-violent and wholesome. Secondly, it mischaracterises portrayals of violence in film and sports by generalizing them into a category to which not all of them belong.
When asked what entertainment means, a majority of people would likely describe it as something which invokes feelings of happiness or other positive feelings. If this is to be an accurate definition of entertainment, what should poems and art which invoke feelings of sadness, pain, and loneliness be classified as? By limiting entertainment to that which causes joy, we fail to appreciate the full spectrum of human emotions. Instead, a more accurate understanding would be that entertainment, at least when referring to film, poetry, sports, etc., is something which solicits an emotional and cognitive response.
By limiting entertainment to that which causes joy, we fail to appreciate the full spectrum of human emotions.
This brings me to the second point; how are we as Christians supposed to respond to violent entertainment? I suggest that our response to violence in whatever medium it is being communicated in should depend on how it is being portrayed. Take, for example, a movie like Deadpool, which uses violence as a comedic device. On the other hand, Saving Private Ryan shows us the grim reality of violence and the terrible effects war has on families. In fact, American Sniper plays on this theme as well, showing that the violence Chris Kyle’s character used as a means to protect his family, friends, and country failed to give him the satisfaction and results he strived for.
The three “families” which he was trying to protect ultimately fell victim to the same violent means which he used to protect them.
Clearly violence is not handled the same way in every film, and film is simply one medium through which violence can be conveyed. Music, art, and literature are all fully capable of being used as mediums through which one can convey violence.
For Christians, no piece of literature paints the reality of violence more poignantly than the Passion story in the Bible. Christ’s dramatic death on the Cross is seen as the pinnacle of human violence; it is the moment when God’s own creation attempts to kill that through which it was given life. The depravity of humanity and its insatiable hunger for violence in its pursuit of power come together in this gripping climax and yet through the Crucified God, that same humanity is shown the reality of God’s love, grace, and mercy.
We don’t often consider the Crucifixion of Christ to be an entertaining story, but when entertainment is understood as something which solicits an emotional and cognitive response, no story will ever compare. We empathize with Christ’s sadness, we experience his pain, we feel the shame that he bore in our stead, and we recognize that we are a part of the problem to which he was, is, and always will be the solution.
So, Maximus, in response to your question I would say, “Yes. We are entertained. In fact, we are deeply moved by what we have just witnessed and want to let you know that we do not stand by the needless violence you were forced to participate in today.” How can this be? How can we claim to be both entertained by and in accordance with Maximus? It’s because he brought to light the reality of the violence that the gladiatorial battles sought to glorify. Those battles required a sincere and firm denunciation from early Christians, but that still leaves us with the issue of entertainment today.
The truth of the matter is that when we see violence in any form of entertainment, we must respond to it theologically.
When violence is glorified we have to recognize that it is ultimately humanity’s lust for power that is being glorified and so should look to the Cross as the symbol of humanity’s inability to achieve power and happiness through violent means. When violence is portrayed honestly, however, we recognize and experience the painful brokenness that violence causes, but also feel the peace of God that results from Christ’s triumph over violence on the Cross 2000 years ago.
It should serve as a reminder that we are living in the already-and-not-yet of God’s Kingdom as participants in God’s plan to restore humanity and all of creation. Through God’s grace we can be champions of peace in a violent world and bring about change in the hearts of all people, pointing them towards the day when we will all come together in solidarity with one another and in perfect union with God.