Movies, Guns, and Violence

As prayer vigils and Sunday services that reflected on the Aurora, Colorado, shooting that killed 12 people at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” have receded into the background, discussion has turned to what causes young men to become mass murderers. Before we address this issue, it’s worth stopping again to pray for the families of these 12 people who lost their lives and for the many others who were injured and/or traumatized by the shooting. Perhaps we can even find it within ourselves to pray for the alleged gunman (and his family), as UrbanFaith contributor Rev. Robert Gelinas asked his Denver area congregation to do yesterday. The suspect appeared dazed, and possibly drugged, in court this morning, Yahoo News reported. But, what made him a killer?

Movie Violence

At Charisma, Ted Baehr, publisher of Movieguide and chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission, argued that the content of the latest Batman movie cannot be blamed for the tragedy. But Baehr also noted that, although most viewers are either desensitized to or scared by movie violence, “more than 500,000 studies, capped by the latest Dartmouth University study, show that violence in the media influences susceptible youths to commit violence.”

Roger Ebert agreed that it wasn’t the content of the latest Batman installment. Writing at The New York Times, he said, “I’m not sure there is an easy link between movies and gun violence. I think the link is between the violence and the publicity. …Whenever a tragedy like this takes place, it is assigned catchphrases and theme music, and the same fragmentary TV footage of the shooter is cycled again and again. Somewhere in the night, among those watching, will be another angry, aggrieved loner who is uncoiling toward action.”

However, at The New Yorker, David Denby expressed ambivalence, writing, “Who knows whether the killer … wanted to be a mass murderer like the Joker, or if he was just using the event as a staging ground to render himself immortal. … Whatever his intentions, the sophisticated response to movie violence that has dominated the discussion for years should now seem inadequate and evasive.”

At The Wrap, Sharon Waxman said, “Movies are not the cause of real-life violence. But that does not mean they have no impact on us. We love the movies because they affect us deeply — often to the good. But if that is true, than so must be the reverse.” Waxman also said obsessive fans can lose touch with reality. “Playing shooter games touches some primal urge in the human psyche, not necessarily our most civilized impulse. And since Columbine, movies and videogames and television shows have only become more violent,” said Waxman.

Fanboy Culture

Because the alleged shooter reportedly died his hair red and identified himself as the Joker at some point Friday, the culpability of “fanboy” culture is worth considering.

“We have a new breed of fanboy, who are more contented by fictitious realities and attack anything that remotely deviates from their film expectations, shattering often overtly fragile sensibilities,” said Levar Polson at Not So Reviews, noting the irrational reactions of some fans following negative reviews of Dark Knight Rises. (The website Rotten Tomatoes was forced to close down its comments section when angry fans leveled death and rape threats at critics who had the nerve to post negative reviews.)

But at Primary Ignition, Rob Siebert defends fanboys, saying, “I’ve been to comic conventions, I’ve been to midnight screenings, I’ve been to autograph signings, and most of the people you see there aren’t violent, cruel or malicious. Some are a little socially awkward, I guess. But that’s the extent of it. … It is still okay to love Batman and superheroes, it is still okay to see The Dark Knight Rises, it’s still okay to be passionate about all that stuff.”

Even movie critic Marshall Fine, who was on the receiving end of some of the most vicious death threats following his negative review of Dark Knight Rises, cautions against making a direct connection between real-life violence and the kind of passion ones sees from fanboys. He writes at The Huffington Post: “It’s the peculiar avidity of the Comic-Con crowd, a passion I don’t particularly share but won’t knock here. … While I’m a little amazed at the size of the response, the intensity of people’s passion for the things they truly love — whether it’s a comic-book movie or a sports team — should never be underestimated. They may not have any actual connection to the thing itself — other than that passion for it — but, to them, it’s personal.” Fine attempts to put matters into their proper context by dismissing his situation as trivial compared to what happened in Aurora: “My 15 minutes are up. Tune in next week when normal life resumes. Except, of course, for the people in Denver.”

Easy Access to Guns

Whatever the psychological and spiritual causes may be, many are calling for stricter gun control laws, including religious leaders. Others are apparently arguing for more liberal concealed weapons laws.

At USA Today, Cathy Lynn Grossman asked if Jesus would “pack heat.” She quoted one writer who said gun control is a “pro-life” issue and referenced a 2011 ABC News/Washington Post survey that found “the most support for stricter [gun] laws came from black Protestants (71%) Catholics (59%) and the unaffiliated (55%)” while “solid opposition was expressed by white evangelical Protestants (60% )” and “mainline Protestants were more divided (47% favor, 51% oppose).”

Patheos blogger Ellen Painter Dollar wants to know “why Christians aren’t bringing the same dedication to talking about guns as we do to other issues, notably abortion and homosexuality.” She said, “Gun control is not about winning or politics or fantasies of well-played vigilante justice. It’s about taking weapons of mass murder out of the hands of those who would use them for ill (such as James Holmes) as well as those who would use them for good but possess the universal human capacity to screw up (such as George Zimmerman).”

At Loop 21, Keli Goff called New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to account for using this tragedy to argue for gun control while “passionately” defending the city’s “stop and frisk” policy that targets people of color—a policy that would have presumably allowed the Aurora killer to “slip through the cracks.”

The Week, like many other outlets, asked if the tragedy will change or reignite the gun control debate. New York Times columnist Gail Collins sounds doubtful, saying advocates (who also tend to be survivors) just keep slogging along in a seemingly hopeless fight. But at Media Matters, Matt Gertz says the media meme that gun control is a no-win issue among Americans is inaccurate. “Polls indicate public support for a broad range of stronger gun restrictions, including the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban,” said Gertz.

What do you think?

Do violent movies and the culture that crops up around them bear any responsibility for this tragedy and will stricter gun control laws help stem the tide of violence?

If ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ So Can We

On the eve of the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, I ended up in a heated Facebook debate over the nature of President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comments — the latest furor in a series of election-year political clashes over tax policy, economic interventionism, class warfare, and the Occupy movement.

After seeing the film, I realized this is no mere coincidence. Because the political themes and allusions in The Dark Knight Rises run thick and rich, especially considering the whole Bain/Bane connection.

Not that the conclusive installment of this latest Batman trilogy has an overtly political agenda. Rather, its script, co-written by director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, clearly resides in the context of our current, fractured political climate. As British-American filmmakers raised in Chicago, the Nolan brothers offer a unique take on blighted urban political decay. So their epic depiction of Gotham, and the way it captures our gestalt, the spirit of our time, owes just as much a debt to David Simon’s The Wire as it does to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

I’m sorry, did I just say “owes a debt?” There I go again.

See, as much as there is to love about this film, there’s just as much to object to — that is, if your goal is to use it as political ammunition.

(Mild spoiler alert.)

One story, two sides

Liberals can choose to see it as a story of corporate greed and hubris, and see the Batman as a hero of the people, the Ninety-Nine Percent. Conservatives can choose to see it as a story of a city hijacked by a runaway mob intent on redistributing the wealth of the One Percent, foiled by the ingenuity and grit of an American business-owner.

And you know what? They’re both right.

And not just because the Nolans deliberately tried to connect with broader emotional themes rather than align their film with specific political messages.

They’re both right because political factions never have exclusive rights to the truth. There are truths that liberals and conservatives both understand and embrace more or less compared to their counterparts. In the cultivation of these truths, we are drawn to political ideologies. But the pain and bitterness we feel from the losses incurred in the unrelenting allegiance to these ideologies … well, it blinds us. It traps us. We become slaves to the system. As a result, we end up doing things we regret, things we never thought we would.

Different kingdom, different mission

That’s the bad news, that when it comes to systems of this world, we are not in charge. But the good news is that in the scope of eternity, we are not in charge. The kingdom of God is not a democracy, but a benevolent dictatorship. As such, the kingdom goes by a different set of rules than what we’ve come to expect.

After all, Paul famously told the church that in Christ, there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, but we are one in Christ. He also told us that the same spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in our bodies. So there’s no reason why we have to remain trapped inside the identity of the closest prevailing political bloc. The more we acknowledge His Lordship, the greater basis we’ll have for humility, unity, and cooperation.

That sense of humility in action is what I found so moving in this latest film. Part of Batman’s redemption was in the way he was able to get beyond his pain and see more value in trusting and working with others. Most of us will never experience Bruce Wayne wealth, but all of us, if we put our faith in Christ, can rise above our fears and work with others for the common good.

Not only that, if we as the church are to fulfill our mission, we must rise above. Because there are others who need to experience Christ, and they don’t have the luxury of waiting for a sequel.

So let’s keep showing up, engaging, and rising above the conflicts that divide us. Because when it comes to saving the world, I have more faith in a risen savior than any caped crusader — even one as cool as Batman.

Praying for the People of Aurora

CRIME SCENE: Police cars and emergency vehicles gather around the Century 16 Theatre in Aurora, Colorado, where early this morning a gunman opened fire on moviegoers during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” (Photo: Jonathan Castner/Newscom)

“A lone gunman dressed in riot gear burst into a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., at a midnight showing of the Batman film ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ and methodically began shooting patrons, killing at least 12 people and injuring at least 50,” ABC News reported this morning.

The outpouring of prayer has been swift. President Obama, speaking from a campaign event in Fort Meyers, Florida, asked for a moment of silence and prayed that the Lord bring would bring the people of Aurora “comfort and healing in hard days to come.” He also promised to “stand by our neighbors in Colorado during this extraordinarily difficult time” and expressed heartbreak on behalf of “the entire American family.” The president didn’t hesitate to call the shooter’s violent rampage “evil.” But he also said the tragedy provides us with an opportunity to reflect on “what makes life worth living.”

“If there’s anything to take away from this tragedy it’s the reminder that life is very fragile.  Our time here is limited and it is precious.  And what matters at the end of the day is not the small things, it’s not the trivial things, which so often consume us and our daily lives.  Ultimately, it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another,” said President Obama.

Both Religion News Service and The Huffington Post published round-ups of tweets from faith leaders regarding the tragedy. Charisma magazine followed with condolences from politicians, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who said, “Confronted with incomprehensible evil, Americans pull together and embrace our national family more tightly. I join President Obama, and every American, in sending my thoughts and prayers to the victims of this awful tragedy. We will all stand with them, as one nation, in the days ahead.”

At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf referred to a 2000 Atlantic article about how police in Colorado and elsewhere have changed their training and protocol for mass shootings in public places. Before Columbine, first responders “never rushed in,” but now, “they are being taught to enter a building if they are the first to arrive at the scene, to chase the gunman, and to kill or disable him as quickly as possible.” Sadly, in Aurora, they were too late for 62 people or more.

“It is time we acknowledge US has a domestic terrorism problem with carnage multiplied by easy access to firearms,” tweeted Mercer University ethicist David Gushee.

The city of Aurora is holding a “dark night prayer vigil” at the Aurora municipal building tonight at 7:00 pm, said Colorado Community Church pastor Robert Gelinas on his Facebook page.

Let’s join all these voices in praying for the Aurora community, the families of those who’ve died, the survivors whose lives are forever changed, and for an end to domestic terrorism.