Vulgarians at the Gate

Turn on your television set any night of the week, and you'll see entertainment that would have delighted the most bloodthirsty citizen of ancient Rome. Channel-surfing one night, I saw a program featuring a screaming woman being mauled by a polar bear at a zoo. On another channel, a police officer was attacked by an irate driver and beaten unconscious while the man's children begged him to stop. Welcome to the world of "shockumentary" television, a new breed of programming that turns real-life tragedy into entertainment. Shudder at these other examples. One recent reality-based program featured a 911 call made by hysterical children whose father had just shot their mother—five times. A program called "Caught on Camera" features a cornucopia of explosive plane crashes and car accidents. "Shockumentaries" are so popular that during ratings weeks, networks pull their regular shows to provide extra helpings of real-life blood and gore. But Christians ought to hit the mute button long enough to ask themselves what impact these shockumentaries are having on us. The early church faced something very similar: They took a strong stand against the bloody gladiator games. In the second century, the Bishop Tertullian criticized Christians who enjoyed these spectacles, and warned that their own degradation would result from nourishing a "passion for murderous pleasure." A story from Augustine's Confessions helps us understand why. Augustine had a friend named Alypius, who was disgusted by the brutality of the gladiatorial games: He vowed to avoid them. But one day Alypius met some friends who persuaded him to join them at the arena. Augustine writes that the arena "was seething with the lust for cruelty. Alypius shut his eyes tightly, determined to have nothing to do with these atrocities. If only he had shut his ears as well! For an incident in the fight drew a great roar from the crowd." Alypius could not contain his curiosity. He opened his eyes, and, Augustine says, "his soul was stabbed with a wound more deadly than any which the gladiator had received in his body." Alypius reveled in the gore, drunk with bloodlust. He was hooked, and would return to the arena again and again. The Roman playwright Seneca warned that when we make sport of maiming and killing human beings, we render ourselves less humane. We destroy the respectful kindness, the humanitas, characteristic of the virtuous person. Modern research bears him out. Criminologist James Q. Wilson describes studies that link violent television with real-life copycat crimes. There's a lesson here for modern-day Christians. Those of us who would never dream of watching a trashy film think nothing of sitting down to an evening of real-life murder and mayhem. We have to understand that programs that turn human suffering into entertainment coarsen us, making us less sensitive to the pain of others. So, the next time we're channel surfing, we ought to surf right past those programs that show people being shot and smashed up in car wrecks. And let's make sure we warn our kids why they should avoid these forms of "entertainment." Programs that destroy our humanitas—our compassion towards those for whom Christ died.


Chuck Colson


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