byFaith | Summer 2013
By Alan Dowd
It seems to be happening everywhere: a grade school in
suburban Connecticut, a movie theater and a high school outside Denver, a
grocery store near Tucson, the rough parts of inner-city Chicago, the idyllic
parts of rural Kentucky, an Amish schoolhouse, college campuses in Illinois and
Virginia. The list goes on and on. These shooting massacres are the very
definition of senseless.
Every American—no matter what they think about guns—is
sickened and saddened by the killing. And all of us have a sense that
something’s deeply wrong with our country.
So what went wrong, and can we fix it?
Before we start exploring how to fix 21st-century
America, some perspective may be in order.
These mass-shootings make some of
us long for the “good old days,” when this sort of thing just didn’t happen.
But depending on how far back we look into history, some of the good old days
were just as terrifying as today. For example, the deadliest attack on school
property in American history happened almost 90 years ago, when a man bombed
the Bath Township School in Michigan, killing 45 people.
Still, the frequency is higher nowadays—and even worse, the
victims and assailants seem to be growing younger.
Of course, if we look beyond our own history,
we find that senseless violence and mayhem are the norm, and tranquility and
predictability the exception. Consider humanity’s first family. After all, the
murder of Abel made no sense; Cain had no right to kill his brother. Yet he did
it, opening the door to a brutal and bloody world for the rest of Adam’s
Genesis 6, it pays to recall, describes the
earth as “full of violence.” Abraham
lived in a time when fathers eagerly sacrificed their infant children to please
the gods. In Moses’ day, Pharaoh ordered the killing of all newborn Hebrew
males to keep his army of slaves manageable. Those who survived, he simply
worked to death. Herod executed an unknown number of baby boys in a mad attempt
to eliminate any threat to his throne. Yet no one in power batted an eye, let
alone tried to stop him or punish him. In Paul’s day, Rome’s coliseum was part arena,
part theater. And human beings played the lead roles in blood sports, battle
reenactments and gladiatorial combat—all ending with dead bodies on the
coliseum floor and cheering throngs in the stands.
reason Jesus called our ancient foe “a murderer from the beginning.”
Through the centuries and to this
day, humans have devalued, debased and destroyed human life. Consider the laogai slave labor camps in today’s China,
the child soldiers in Uganda, the suicide bombers and their victims in Afghanistan,
the wars without end in Colombia and Burma and Kashmir and Somalia, the sex trade
in Thailand, the man-made famine in North Korea, the quiet plague of euthanasia
in Europe, the ghastly toll of abortion in America.
In short, devaluing and destroying human life
is as old as, well, human life. The reason: mankind is broken. Our hearts are
full of anger and rage. Sometimes it’s contained within us, sometimes it
explodes in spasms of violence.
Culture plays a role in this process. A culture that
challenges people to aspire to something more than mankind’s base impulses will
re-channel those impulses. A permissive culture will tolerate or even celebrate
Looking for fast and easy answers, well-meaning policymakers
blame this epidemic of violence on the availability of guns and the presence of
When I hear this diagnosis, I can’t help but think of my
grandfather and my wife. Both lived in homes full of guns. Both were born into
deep poverty—the kind of poverty where the next meal is not a certainty, the
kind of poverty where kids stop going to school because they have to work—and
yet neither of them ever walked into a classroom or movie theater or mall and
started shooting people.
One reason is that they understood—and were made to
understand—the deadly power of guns. Another factor is that the culture around
them valued life.
To be sure, values are a sensitive subject. Values are a statement of
what matters to a person or to a nation, and so they can be exclusive or
subjective, which makes some people uncomfortable in an age awash in moral
relativism. But values matter in a free society. As Washington said, “Reason
and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in
exclusion of religious principle.” He was talking about how faith and values
The mass-murderers of Columbine, Newtown and Aurora were
desensitized to violence by a culture soaked in violence and stripped of
references to God’s law. Think about it: God has been stricken from the
textbooks, muzzled at the lectern and chased out of education officialdom—no
prayers at commencement, no “Christmas” break, no mention of “one nation, under
Such a culture—one that devalues
human life and then airbrushes God out of public view—is brewing a toxic mix.
Make no mistake: The
nexus between violent cultural inputs and violent behavior is real.
A 1972 report by the U.S.
Surgeon General concluded that there is a “causal relationship between
televised violence and antisocial behavior.”[i]
“Songs with violent lyrics
increase aggression-related thoughts and emotions,” according to an American
Psychological Association (APA) study.[ii]Authors Barbara Hattemer and Robert Showers,citing studies indicating that “heavy
metal and rap music today contains an element of hatred and abuse of women of a
degree never seen before,” note that “a fascination with heavy metal music was
an indicator of adolescent alienation and possible emotional health problems.”[iii]Brad Bushman, a professor of communication
and psychology at Ohio State University, adds
that “hundreds” of studies show “a link between violent media exposure and
Now, consider those assessments alongside a recent APA study, which reveals that
a typical American child sees 8,000 murders on TV by the time he or she
finishes elementary school.[v]
Perhaps worse, a growing body
of research suggests that violent video games might be more harmful than violent TV
shows and movies because playing video games is active whereas watching TV is passive. Moreover,
“Violent games directly reward violent behavior…by awarding points or by
allowing players to advance to the next game level,” Bushman adds.
Speaking of rewarding violent behavior, the APA study found that killers
on TV “are depicted as getting away with the murders 75 percent of the time.”
The mountain of evidence connecting
violent cultural inputs and violent behavior is comprised of more than stale
According to an
FBI report, violent drug-trafficking organizations employ “songs with lyrics
that glorify the drug lifestyle” to recruit members. “Law enforcement in
several jurisdictions...attribute the increase in gang membership in their
region to the gangster rap culture.”[vi]
The Aurora killer,
who turned the opening night of “The Dark Knight Rises” into a bloodbath, called
himself “The Joker” and even dressed up like the super-sadistic villain from
the latest “Batman” trilogy. Classmates describe him as “obsessed” with violent video games.[vii]
Lanza, who murdered 27 people in Newtown, Conn., spent “hours on end, alone in
his windowless basement den” killing “virtual victims in violent video games,”
according to published reports.[viii]
shooter video games were an addiction for Jared Loughner, who killed six people
and seriously wounded 13 others near Tucson, Ariz. As The Wall Street Journal reports, not long before his shooting
rampage, Loughner posed this haunting question in an online gaming forum: “Does
anyone have aggression 24/7?”[ix]
Kazmierczak, who murdered five people and
wounded 18 at Northern Illinois University, planned “his
shooting spree as if it were one of his beloved video games,” The Chicago
Nehemiah Griego, a New Mexico teenager who
killed his parents and three siblings, was “involved heavily” with violent
video games, according to the local sheriff. News reports indicate that Griego
“got excited when he had the chance to discuss his penchant for violent video
games with investigators, especially the game ‘Modern Warfare’.”[xi]
In their study on violent video games and
aggressive behavior, psychology professors Craig Anderson and Karen Dill report that the Columbine killers “enjoyed playing the bloody, shoot-‘em-up video game
‘Doom’, a game licensed by the U.S. military to train soldiers to effectively
To be sure, not everyone who plays violent video games or listens to “gangsta
rap” or cranks up “death metal” becomes a mass-murderer. But it does seem that all
of today’s mass-murderers played violent video games and tuned into those
hyper-violent genres of music.
Many people reject any link between what we see and hear with what we do. But
scripture makes a strong case that culture affects us.
In the Psalms, David warns us not to walk in “the counsel of
the wicked” and to turn our eyes away from the “worthless things” around us.[xiii]Jesus declares, “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out,”[xiv]clearly identifying a link between what we see and what we do.
Moreover, common sense tells us that what we see and hear affects how we think,
and what we think affects how we act. Consider an example we’ve all heard a thousand
The purveyors of pop culture often tell us—usually when
trying to raise awareness and money for their latest cause—that film,
television and music can inspire people and change how they think, what they do
and what they aspire to be. Anyone who has read Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky,
gazed at the work of Michelangelo or Monet, listened to Beethoven or Bach or
Bono, or been transported by a Capra or Spielberg film must admit that the
purveyors of pop culture are right about this—that there is something transformative
about culture, that the words and images and sounds produced by culture can
move us and change us in a profound way.
What’s puzzling—and telling—is that the same people who say cultural
inputs can inspire us refuse to admit that cultural inputs can also do the
opposite—poison us and lead us into darkness.
eye is the lamp of the body,” as Jesus explained. “If your eyes are good, your
whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad,
your whole body will be full of darkness.”[xv]
We know he wasn’t talking about the physiology of the eye,
but rather about what the eye allows into the mind.
Of course, no one reading this produces music that glorifies violence,
or TV shows that turn murder into a punch line, or movies that ooze with death,
or video games that dehumanize and desensitize their players. In fact, it’s
safe to say that most everyone reading this tries to keep that junk out of
But as God’s people, we are called to be more
than simply “not part of the problem.” We are called to be part of the
solution, to offer the remedy to mankind’s brokenness.
God has always been deeply concerned about the culture
surrounding his people. After all, he called Abraham to be set apart from those
around him. In Exodus, he implored his people, “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong.” In Leviticus, he commanded his people, “Do not follow any
of the detestable customs” of neighboring nations. And in the Gospels, he
called on his followers to be salt and light for the world.
“You are the salt of
the earth,” Jesus said. “You are the light of the world.”
Let’s ponder that rich imagery for a moment: Salt adds
flavor and enhances flavor. Salt can be used to preserve and protect things
from rotting. Light helps us see what is hidden and chases away darkness. Most
plant and animal life depends on light to live.
But if the salt loses
its saltiness, if it
doesn’t enhance flavor or preserve, if the light is hidden, if it doesn’t point
the way out of darkness or sustain life—if we don’t even try to make the
culture around us better—what good are we?
Jesus wants us to influence and improve our culture. We can
have an impact by not doing certain things—not going to the latest horror movie,
not watching the gory crime drama, not shrugging our shoulders when the
children in our sphere of influence play violent video games. We can also have
an impact by doing certain things—watching films that challenge us to aspire to
something beyond our brokenness and baseness, watching programs and networks
that value life and honor the Author of life, defending life and defending
those who defend it, and praying for our country and our culture.
In fact, it’s our responsibility to
intercede for our land and to call upon heaven to help us. “The real business
of your life as a saved soul,” as Oswald Chambers wrote a century ago, “is
intercessory prayer.” God promises, “If my people, who are called by my name,
will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked
ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal
Remember: mighty Rome, which once laughed at the
strange little offshoot of Judaism known as Christianity, would one day convert
to Christianity because a handful of Christ followers believed that promise and
shared the Good News. Closer to our own time, it was Christ followers who
sparked the revival that ended slavery.
Our challenge—taking on Hollywood
and other purveyors of violence—is easy by comparison.
If our culture seems like a wasteland at
times, we have ourselves partly to blame. More than 75 percent of Americans
identify themselves as Christian, and 43 percent of Americans are weekly churchgoers.[xvi]Jesus prayed that all believers might be one because he knew how hard the enemy
would try to divide and weaken—and conquer. But if we could work together and
stand together—united by Christ—nothing could stop us.
Imagine all believers in America—75
percent of us equals 231 million people; 43 percent equals 134 million—standing up to the networks, record companies and software
firms that try to cram senseless violence into innocents; imagine us turning
Hollywood around by turning away from the trash; imagine us saying “Enough” to
judges and school boards that confuse “freedom of religion” with “freedom from
religion”; imagine us voting for candidates who would use reason and law to
protect innocent life in all its forms.
Our impact would amaze everyone this side of eternity.
[i] Brad J. Bushman, Ph.D. Professor of Communication and
Psychology, The Ohio State University, "The effects of violent video
games. Do they affect our behavior?" http://www.ithp.org/articles/violentvideogames.html , 2011.
[xii] Craig Anderson and
Karen Dill, “Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior in the
Laboratory and in Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, April
[xiii] Psalm 1 and Psalm 119.
[xiv] Mark 9.
[xv] Matthew 6.