By now, everyone has heard about the sequential massacres in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. Different shooters, different locations, different motives, different weapons, but ultimately the same purpose: to take as many lives as possible. I’ve written about gun violence in entertainment before and I’m not going to add my two cents to the fray, aside from saying that I don’t expect the government to fix this problem. The failure lies with friends, family, and most importantly, the individual.
As is common after such unfortunately common occurrences is that society tries to identify contributing factors. Besides irrationally blaming the weapon, the media, the government, and the public often points to the glorification of violence which permeates our world, and American culture in particular. This is of course by design, where we the people are given conflicting messages for the sake of corporate profits. “Assault rifles should be banned. Now check out the latest Grand Theft Auto video game!” We see this intentional dissonance in numerous other advertising tracks: “Ladies, your bodies are perfect just the way you are! Now starve yourself to look like this model, who is obviously leading a much better life than you are.” “Being a parent is a dream come true! But why would you miss out on all the fun of your youth by having kids?” etc. etc. etc.
It’s no stretch of the imagination that glorification of violence has its strongest effect on-screen. There is a visceral thrill in watching our hero mow down the enemy hordes with superior firepower and this sensory bonanza is best experienced on the big screen, and this is easy to latch onto as an instigating factor. Remember the outcry against The Matrix, which was released just a couple of weeks before the Columbine shooting? Black trench coats were as scary as assault rifles.
But what about books? As with movies and video games, pinning a massacre on a book is difficult and often unfair, but there have been some distinct connections between works of fiction and real-life slaughters. Some famous examples are the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh, who was inspired in part by the anti-government novel The Turner Diaries, as well as a number of school shootings and hostage incidents where the perpetrator was a known fan of Stephen King’s book Rage, written under the pen name Richard Bachman. Stephen King actually took that book out of print following the 1997 school shooting in West Paducah, Kentucky, where the shooter had a copy in his locker.
The question I’m leading up to is this: what is our responsibility as authors? Do we share any of the blame if our words put ideas into people’s heads or ignite the brittle underbrush that already exists in depraved minds and is just waiting for the spark? Personally, my books contain a wide range of violence, such as terrorist bombings, Satanic ritual slaughter, racist attacks, anti-Semitic massacres, public executions, domestic abuse, and more. How would I feel if someone directly referenced my books in connection with a similar act of violence? Honestly, I couldn’t say, though I would surely feel some degree of guilt. Yet there is a distinct line between the depiction of an action and the encouragement of an action. Yes, Neo and Trinity look “cool” as they march into an office lobby and blow everyone to pieces, but there is nothing that would make me want to commit a similar act, because I know that murder is wrong (and we don’t live in the Matrix, so this sort of action in real life would be actual murder). No one of sound mind would read the horrors that I describe in my books and think, “I think Mark is telling me go to out and do likewise.” Of course, it’s rarely people of sound mind that commit these horrific crimes, and in their warped perceptions, they may in fact feel that a particular book or movie was the catalyst for their explosive reaction.
So to answer my question in the title of this article, I would say, “No, as long as we walk by the Spirit.” As creative people, and Christian writers specifically, we have the unique charge of glorifying God in everything we do, and we must follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit through our conscience when we depict acts of violence. We should not revel in bloodshed, nor should we want anyone to come away from our books thinking that violence is cool, regardless of whether it is right or wrong. I know that I sometimes went too far in my own writing, but those mistakes are part of my writing journey and I would not want them to be whitewashed. As with all things, the main issue is the heart. Does what you write – and read – lead you closer to God?