Violence in the Bible and other Christian books

A little while ago, the discussion on the CSFF blog tour turned to the violence, or lack of it, in Donita Paul’s Dragons of the Valley. Becky LuElla Miller wrote a couple posts about violence in Christian fiction, and particularly fantasy. I’ve decided to throw in a couple thoughts of my own.

It can be tricky to set standards for violence. There are at least two issues that complicate it. For one, violence – unlike, say, crude humor – may be either moral or immoral. For an example of moral violence, let’s go to the Scriptures:

While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, 2 who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. 3 So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the LORD’s anger burned against them.

4 The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the LORD, so that the LORD’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel.”

5 So Moses said to Israel’s judges, “Each of you must put to death those of your men who have joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor.”

6 Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand 8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman’s body. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; 9 but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.

10 The LORD said to Moses, 11 “Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honor among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them. 12Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. 13 He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.” (Numbers 25)

This is the irony of moral violence: You save life by taking it. Phinehas killed two people, and God rewarded him with a covenant of peace. But for all that Phinehas’ act is commendable, I wouldn’t want to see it on a screen. I wouldn’t even want to read it in any more detail than the Bible already gives.

Which brings us to the other issue of presenting violence: It’s the how as much as the what. It’s not just a head count of how many people died, or a page count of how many fight scenes were narrated. What violence the characters experience, and what violence the readers experience, can be very different things.

Let’s look again at the Bible. It has a large amount of violence, but a small amount of description. It relates gruesome deaths, but with a great tendency to avoid the gruesome details. The Bible tells us that Jael drove the tent peg through Sisera’s temple, and Saul fell on his sword, and Herodias got John’s head on a platter – and leaves it at that. Apparently it was necessary that we hear about certain violent acts; apparently it was not necessary that we wade through the carnage of those acts.

Becky asked if we must all follow Donita Paul’s lead. I don’t think we have to follow her in keeping things “light”, or in avoiding battle scenes. But I think we would all do well to have a general chariness about violence. Violence is a dark thing even when it’s a good thing, and there are places we can go but shouldn’t linger. It ought to be true of violence in Christian fantasy – as it is true of violence in the Bible – that a great deal more could have been told than was told.

And it really is possible to write an awesome battle scene without pelting your readers with gory details and grisly images. There’s more value to it; there’s even more art. For proof positive of this, I send you to The Two Towers, to read the battle of Helm’s Deep.

A quick word on the CSFF blog tour: The next one begins February 21, and the book is The God-Hater, by Bill Myers. I finished it this past Sunday. Stay tuned, folks. This is going to be a fun one.

2 thoughts on “Violence in the Bible and other Christian books

  1. Great post, Shannon. I’m glad you took up the discussion on violence. I was actually surprised that the subject didn’t generate more debate. I think it’s definitely worthy for us to consider. I like what you said about moral and immoral violence. I think that’s important to establish. I think there’s a trend today, and not necessarily from Christians, toward all violence is immoral. That then becomes the basis for some saying God is an immoral tyrant.


  2. A lot of people assume that all violence is bad, hence their categorical rejection of war, corporal punishment, and the death penalty. And the viewpoint leads logically to condemning God’s justice. But the odd thing is where the viewpoint doesn’t lead. People who reject violence against murderers in the real world aren’t known for rejecting violence against innocent people in entertainment.

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