Django, The Dark Knight, and the Mystery of Mercy


I go to the movies for a lot of reasons. I love adventure (John Carter, The Hobbit, The Avengers). I love watching another person’s imagination work its way out in light and color (Life of Pi). I love the way that movies use sprawling images and wild tales to wrestle with intimate, personal questions (Tree of Life), and eternal mysteries—even if they don’t necessarily succeed (Prometheus). But if I had to narrow my love of movies (or stories in general) down to a single defining factor, I think I could make a good case for “moral complexity worked out to an honest end.”

What the heck does that mean, Pete?

Let me explain—no, there is too much. Let me sum up. The Man-With-No-Name in Drive is so driven to protect what he loves that he becomes a monster, destroying himself, and therefore separating himself from the object of his love and protection. Drive takes a single compelling idea and works it out to its conclusion. Happy ending? Not really. But it delivers an ending that feels true. It doesn’t sacrifice its integrity. Warrior works on a similar level. It’s about two brothers, both of whom we want to see win the title, but one of whom we know must lose. Warrior finds a way to resolve that complex problem with integrity.

A story gets really interesting, you see, when a character is faced with having to do the wrong thing for the right reason or the right thing for the wrong reason, or even more to the point, when a character has to choose between more than one equally right (or wrong), but exclusionary, decisions. This is, of course, the definition of “drama.” And that brings me to two movies that I was looking forward to seeing this year: The Dark Knight Rises and Django Unchained. They each appealed to me on this level of “moral complexity,” and while both movies delivered what I’d hoped for in some fashion, they also let me down in pivotal ways.

In the run up to the release of The Dark Knight Rises, I rewatched the first two movies, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and coerced my wife into watching them with me (because she owed me for having watched Anne of Green Gables in its entirety—I even liked it). In Batman Begins, we discover Batman’s origins and meet Ra’s al Ghul, leader of the League of Shadows. Is he an evil man? That’s not immediately clear. Perhaps he is. Perhaps he isn’t. As an antagonist, he’s the sort that’s compelling precisely because he doesn’t think he’s evil. He sees himself as a savior, fighting corruption by destroying everything it touches, the innocent and the depraved alike. Ra’s al Ghul’s is a world of black and white; a society is either good and it deserves life, or it’s corrupt and it deserves death. There’s no room for grace in Ra’s al Ghul’s view; he’s the Javert of Gotham City, so to speak.

Bruce Wayne on the other hand believes that people can change and he’s fighting to let them prove it. Fighting not with guns but with wits. Batman is the “world’s greatest detective.” Batman doesn’t kill. Instead he uses the weapon of the enemy: Fear. He turns his fear into his strength. Is that wise? Maybe. Maybe not. The story aims to explore the answer, though, and by the end of Batman Begins, an ominous escalation has begun. The good guys are wearing capes; the bad guys are becoming the Joker.

In The Dark Knight the story becomes, not only more complex, but terrifying. The Joker is hate for hate’s sake. He’s evil that wants nothing more than to be fought. “Come on! Hit me!” says the Joker. “I want you to do it.” The Joker preys on our deepest instincts for justice and corrupts them. He doesn’t want to destroy Gotham like Ra’s al Ghul; he wants to blacken the souls within it so that its citizens will destroy themselves. And more than anything he wants to corrupt Gotham’s protector: Batman. He doesn’t want fame, or money, or to put forth an ideal. He wants corrupt and burn. He’s chaos incarnate. True anti-Christ. The only way to defeat an evil that wants to be fought, is to refuse to fight at all.

I confidently put The Dark Knight in the same league as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. Each of those films provides a fascinating exploration of the nature of evil and the ways in which we respond to it. They each force us to look at the state of the world and ask ourselves how it got this way and how we ought to go about setting it right again.

So then arrives The Dark Knight Rises, and I was anxious to discover what conclusions the director, Christopher Nolan, might draw from all this exploration of evil and violence and escalation. In the new villain, Bane, we have Ra’s al Ghul and the Joker combined. He’s a man who believes he’s saving the world from corruption, and he does so by unleashing the base human emotions of envy and entitlement, sitting back to laugh as society tears itself apart. And what are his tools? The very tools used to stop Ra’s al Ghul and the Joker—Batman’s own personal arsenal. Bane takes what’s meant for good and turns it to evil. So what new method of war will Batman employ to defeat his own tools used against him? And where will it escalate from there? War without end. Amen?

Up until this point, Nolan’s movies, despite their flaws, had done an admirable job of maintaining the integrity of their characters’ moral complexity. There were few easy decisions, everything had consequences, and the resolutions were generally as complex as the problems they solved. But it’s at this point that The Dark Knight Rises lets me down. The culmination of all this escalation of violence ultimately boils down to a fist fight. Batman, who couldn’t best Bane with brute force in Act 2, comes back in Act 3 to best him with the same brute force (even though he’s just recovered from a broken back). This is not a satisfying resolution because there’s been nothing to break the cycle of escalation and violence. Oh but wait, you say, Batman saves the city by making the “ultimate sacrifice,” thereby showing us that the the final solution is something higher. Well, I could buy that if Nolan had the insight to end it there, but he didn’t. The final scenes are of a continuing promise of escalation in which someone new finds Batman’s arsenal and takes on the protective mantle. So has anything changed? Has anything been learned? Has all of our exploration of evil come only to this? A fist fight, and Catwoman pulling the trigger that Batman wouldn’t? I cry foul. I still enjoy the movie and applaud it for what it does well, but I mourn the complexity it failed to maintain.

This brings me to Quentin Tarantino. He’s one of my favorite directors. From Reservoir Dogs to Inglourious Basterds, his films have tickled my film-lovers fancy in complex and often troubling ways. Foremost and most simply, he speaks the language of cinema so fluently that even when he hasn’t got much to say, it’s a delight to hear him say it. But that’s also a frustrating thing. What does he have to say, if anything, and how long am I willing to listen?

In some ways, Tarantino makes me feel like I’m a parent waiting for a talented child to grow up. With each successive film, I sit down in the theater hoping to discover that he’s arrived and set about the business of his masterwork. Pulp Fiction certainly established such a promise with its denouement of unlikely mercy proclaimed by the “tyranny of evil men.” There have been ups and downs since, but Inglourious Basterds, an incredible film, hinted again at those old promises with its bold ironies and its apparent indictment of violent entertainment. So enters Django Unchained.

Django is a fantastic piece of cinema. The dialogue is sharp, the direction (and by extension the acting) is top-notch, the (camera) shots, edits, and music are all the stuff of film-geek heaven. What’s behind it all, though? Anything? A lot of people accuse Tarantino of indulging style over substance, and in that respect I’ve often been one of his defenders. With Django, Tarantino is interested in legend-building. One of the characters in the film recounts the Wagnerian tale of Seigfried and Brunhilde in which the “princess” Brunhilde is imprisoned in a ring of fire to await rescue by a hero who knows no fear. Django’s wife in the film is actually named Broomhilda, and her ring of fire is a barbaric plantation; the analogy is clear. That’s the kind of idea I can really appreciate, and on that level I enjoyed the film. In Django, Tarantino is giving us a legendary African-American hero that Spaghetti-Western cinema has never really had. That’s a great idea to build a story around, and it’s potentially a story well-worth the telling.

I worry, however, that Tarantino has begun to repeat himself. Django indulges in the same vengeful fantasies we’ve seen in previous movies, but shows us very little of the accompanying moral complexity. The complexity isn’t gone completely, but it’s certainly not in the forefront as I’d argue it is in Inglourious Basterds.

Vengeance is a real thing. We all feel the need for it. We all enjoy seeing justice carried out. We enjoy seeing a bad guy get his comeuppance. But however righteous vengeance may feel, vengeance is not a virtue, and human history is a testament to the damning circular logic of revenge. Attempting redemption through vengeance is a recipe for destruction, and while I certainly admit the enjoyment of the occasional revenge tale (The Crow, Kill Bill, The Princess Bride—mentioned all in the same sentence for the first time ever), it’s not only unsatisfying in the end, it’s dishonest. The answer to the “tyranny of evil men” must, in the end, be something better than the tyranny of vengeful men. If you want to draw me in and show me the pain, price, and nature of human evil, you are going to have to come up with a better resolution to the tale than a spirited fist fight (The Dark Knight Rises) or a gory and inconsequential shootout (Django). In Kill Bill The Bride got her revenge, but she suffered for it, was changed by it. In Inglourious Basterds the gang gets their moment of wrack and ruin, but they pay for it with their lives, dying in the theater alongside the Nazis they hated. But Django dances into the sunset, unscathed emotionally or physically, after killing dozens of people and even lowering himself to the level of a black slaver to do so. Make of Django a 19th century gunslinging Seigfried if you will (please do!), but leave him his complexity. Let us believe his journey has cost him something. Leave us hoping he’s come to the end of his story with a better idea of right and wrong than his antagonists had.

That’s where Tarantino seems stuck. That’s where Nolan loses his battle. The final answer to evil and violence cannot really be more violence. I don’t need to see Batman and Django become pacifists, but I certainly don’t enjoy seeing them become the new tyranny, which is arguably where they both end up. I think it betrays, cheapens, and undermines the power of their stories and presents a destructive answer to a world that is full of questions and looking (rightly or wrongly) to society’s storytellers for wisdom.

Imagine, if you will, the way we’d have felt had Frodo defeated Sauron in a duel? Would that have been a story for the ages? Would we still be singing Victor Hugo’s praises had Valjean and Javert squared off and traded blows on the banks of the Seine? I don’t think so. And that’s why I’m disappointed in Nolan and Tarantino. I still like their movies, but I had dreamed that they’d dig a little deeper and hit upon something true in the end.

All this led to several solemn talks with my wife about gun control, war, pacifism, and the human instincts of defense and vengeance. We didn’t come to any clear answers, and that’s rightly the case. The world is a morass of complexity, and the stories we tell about violence, evil, and human nature should reflect that. We live in a grey mist of moral paradox that none of us can fully navigate, and anyone who offers easy answers is offering the revenge cycle of Django or Ra’s al Ghul. Anyone who claims there is no answer is enslaved to the Joker’s chaos. Somewhere in between is Bane, demanding what is merely fair rather than what is just, and everywhere we turn, what we mean for good is used for evil. When Bob Kane created Batman, the “world’s greatest detective,” he set out to tell fun stories that upheld decency, justice, and law. When The Dark Knight Rises premiered, his dream was corrupted by a madman in a theater with a gun.

God tells us that what man has meant for evil, He has turned to good. He untangles the knots we make. He unravels the evil of the world and makes of it beauty, truth, justice, peace, and he does it in ways infinitely complex and beyond our limited understanding. It’s the lack of this mystery that leaves me unsatisfied when films like Django Unchained or The Dark Knight Rises insist that eye-for-an-eye comeuppance are enough. The paradox of our fallen world is that all of our good is turned against us, and yet we must not cease from the good work we do, because we have the assurance of one greater than the world, one who has overcome the world, one truly and eternally incorruptible. Our great hope is of the day when tangling at last shall cease, when of strands both old and new the world shall be remade—incorruptible, unfallen, eternal, yet no less complex—no longer spiraling and twisting in cycles of moral ambiguity and vengeance, but becoming more and more clearly its true shape and self.

Until then, we wrestle our broken natures; we strive, like Batman, to be more than merely men, but less than new forms of evil. And like Batman, we often fail. We are tragically and inevitably tempted toward revenge. Do we dare reduce it to the simplicity of just deserts? If we aim to tell stories that are true, then our telling ought to reflect, not merely the false finality of vengeance, but the complex and eternal mystery of mercy.

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


  1. yankeegospelgirl

    Although you are right that Frodo’s sacrifice is the pivotal victory in _The Lord of the Rings_, there is much that is beautiful about the war itself. Tolkien intended to evoke the glory and majesty of good arrayed in splendor against evil in battle. This isn’t “violence versus violence,” it’s light against dark. Think of Eowyn’s restlessness when she is detained in the Houses of Healing. The battle is beautiful to her, and we are to think that it should be. Some of the most magnificent moments of the entire series occur in the heat of a literal battle.

    There is a time for peace and a time for war. There is a time to sacrifice and a time to take up arms. For love of home. For love of good. For love of those we love. That is something worth fighting for.

  2. Paige

    You have incredible insight on the storytelling structures of our time. If I wasn’t aware of my own corruptible human nature, and my corruptible imagination, I would absorb them whole as you do without restraint. ..I’m glad that you yourself can detect the beauty of these deeper themes, but I fear that your approval and intellectual analyses of some of these movies might send the wrong people to go see them..

  3. Connie Cartisano

    So often the author (or film-maker) did not intentionally incorporate the complexities we discern in the work, but your analysis, taking the movies and seeing another perspective that involves great truth and its implications, is what makes watching other artists’ work so valuable to me. I could not have articulated what you wrote, Pete, but I get it. Thanks.

    May my own writing inspire others to look at the world in a new way. To see greater issues than mere entertainment–a good and necessary thing but ultimately insatiable.

  4. Ryan Szrama

    Great post, and agreed (though I skipped a bit of the Batman analysis, as I’ve sadly not yet seen Rises). That said, the tone of Django ventured toward the slapstick in the second half of the movie, especially in the interactions between Candie and Stephens. I’m not sure it would’ve lent itself well to introspection, especially after the comical death of Candie’s sister in the final reckoning. (Had to work an AP idea in there.)

    Shultz’s death was the most surprising thing in the movie to me. I expected him to depend on Django to save him, but obviously his spur of the moment decision didn’t lend itself to such salvation. If Django had just escaped then with his wife, we could’ve seen a victor mourning the loss of an apparently righteous friend (albeit with a grim vocation and extrajudicial final act), elated at the reconnection with his wife but torn over the fate of the slaves left behind. Who knows; I’m still not sure it would’ve worked.

    And besides, if things ended earlier, Tarantino wouldn’t have had a chance to blow himself up. : P

  5. Kristen P

    Pete –
    I regret to say that I have not yet seen either of these films, but I appreciated your thoughts here all the same. I so often look around the world and feel the weight of violence begetting violence, wondering when, at long last, humanity will cease to be “inventors of evil” as Paul describes us in Romans 1.

    But then, when all seems darkest, I am reminded of hope. That God “unravels the evil of the world and makes of it beauty, truth, justice, peace, and he does it in ways infinitely complex and beyond our limited understanding.” It is rare to find that hope in film, but I do love it when the RR can point me to the hidden True Truths.

    I think that’s why, in spite of some weak casting decisions and strange camera shots, Les Mis still brought tears to my eyes in the final scene. After such violence, such hardship, it is unspeakably moving to see a portrayal of “the day when tangling at last shall cease, when of strands both old and new the world shall be remade—incorruptible, unfallen, eternal, yet no less complex—no longer spiraling and twisting in cycles of moral ambiguity and vengeance, but becoming more and more clearly its true shape and self.”

    They will live again in freedom in the garden of the lord
    They will walk behind the ploughshare
    They will put away the sword
    The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!

  6. Jonny

    Great, GREAT thoughts. I haven’t seen ‘Django’ but this is a fantastic analysis of Nolan’s Batman and I love the fact that the focus is not on reaching a conclusion, but opening a dialogue.
    [Spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises] You know, I can get behind what you’re saying about Bane now that you mention it… but in the theater, I wasn’t bothered by the denouement at all, because I was too distracted by Talia al Ghul showing up.. I was delighted that Nolan had managed to surprise me with that one, because I should’ve been expecting it. In my mind, Bane may have been the heavy in the film, but Talia was the real villain, taking up the work of her father in film one, combining Bruce’s fatal weaknesses into a plan that forced him to lose everything, one way or another.
    Just wondering how Talia factored into this assessment of the film, if at all?

  7. Tony Heringer

    Great post Pete. I enjoyed the clips too, couldn’t watch the all as I am on a lunch break but well done with the use of mixed media here.

    Not a Tarantino fan but I appreciate your deft analysis of his work. The Dark Knight worked for me because it was a comic book story that carries on that serial comic style at the end. I get what you are saying here though and like your re-imagining of the final chapter of this series.

    I kept thinking of young David and Saul when you spoke of the restraint needed to avoid becoming the new tyranny. In fairness to these particular story tellers or any others it’s hard to avoid these sorts of pit falls. Sin tends to tastes sweeter than grace in the short run but in the end it leads only to death (Proverbs 14:12).

    My prayer is that prose like yours inspires all to continue to seek out these stories an d, more importantly, incarnate them in a world that longs to hear/see them.

  8. Loren Warnemuende

    A lot of Godly wisdom here. Thanks, Pete.

    This struck a chord, particularly in light of some situations I’ve rushed against recently:
    “The paradox of our fallen world is that all of our good is turned against us, and yet we must not cease from the good work we do, because we have the assurance of one greater than the world, one who has overcome the world, one truly and eternally incorruptible.”

    There is always a reason to continue to do what is good and right. I need to remember that.

  9. Fred Putnam

    Thanks, Pete.

    Well said, about “Dark Knight” (I haven’t seen “Django”). This is also what leaves me vaguely unsettled about the ending of “Lucky Number Slevin”, more satisfied with “Taken”, and completely sold on “The Count of Monte Christo” (the book only–no movie comes close).

    Thanks again for a thoughtful post.


    “Let me explain, no, there is too much; let me sum up.”

    This was “sum up?”

    Yiker snikes!

    Pete – Love that you love the most quotable movie ever, The Princess Bride.

    Love that you love movies as passionately as your ardor comes across in this post of yours.

    I too think that Tarantino is fun to watch in many ways. For me, I think he nails the neverending chin-wags perfectly. He also has many movies with great scenes in them but that the movie as a whole maybe doesn’t fly with me. This last note is true with Django.
    To me, it was a wonderful delight for about two hours. Then when the bloodbath unfolds and, you-know-who is forced into his taking of a dirt-nap, the movie becomes “I’m gonna get you sucka” meets “Passenger 57.”

    [Edited: Spoiler]

    No wonder Will Smith turned the role down.

    Here’s a thought:

    When the biggest piece to complete a person (that of course would be, Jesus) is missing,… much can they “dig a little deeper” and, “hit upon something TRUE?”

    I would argue that the prettiest, most interesting most awesome version of us that we can ever hope to have is when our lives have Christ at the center. Then and only then, as writer’s or film makers or singers can we glean the very best from this world and then go a step further by adding the love of Christ, the influence, the hope of the good news and the joy that comes in the morning.

    Tarantino doesn’t have that seventh gear or that frame of mind or that “field” that we sold everything to purchase.

    Pete – what are your thoughts on M. Night’s The Village?


    Fred Putnam – I was reading The Count of Monte Cristo as well, I think 400 pages in I was…

    Then I found out that AD had a team of researchers and writers that actually would do most of the work, suggest big portions of story, actually frame rough drafts for him, wherupon AD would step in and fill in the rest.

    Plus he beat up women and slept with more ladies than Solomon and Wilt Chamberlain combined.

    …uh, no thanks.

  12. James Witmer

    Pete makes a great editor/curator here at the Rabbit Room.

    But dad gum, I love it when he writes.

    Thanks for some great analysis and food for thought, Pete.


    Ryan –

    I was LOVING the book.

    I was extolling the tome to everyone hiding under rocks what didn’t know about it.

    I like movies on a level tied or even more so than Pete. And The Count of Monte Cristo is currently my number one movie of all time.

    So yeah.

    But if in fact AD did what it is said of him, I can’t be down with the book anymore. Which saddens me.
    It’s like, when I found out that Three Dog Night never wrote any of their songs…..kinda bummed me out a bit.
    If we here at RR are going to be completely honest then its worth noting that one of the things we love about AP, PP, Chris Rice, James Taylor, JG, Paul Simon, EP, Josh Ritter, Josh Garrels and many more are their keen and creative insights and their volcanic imaginations and their love affair with words.
    What if you found out that none of the above ever wrote a single lyric (hyperbolic a bit but you get my point) Would your “like” or “love” of them drop off a bit?

    Yes, it would.

    Forget the “why” or “to what length” or even the issue of “right or wrong”

    It just would.

    On a related note: I had a team of people writing this for me while I watched Bama beat ND on DVR.

  14. Ryan Szrama

    @Jon – It’s hard to say for such a classic work. But I see your issue was more with his original authorship than with his hedonism – I was getting a little confused, because we were in fact reflecting on Quentin Tarantino. : P

    That said, I’m not sure how you could write a serial work like Monte Cristo (or any of his others) without a team of people helping and keeping you sane. However, I suppose I’ve never interacted with Monte Cristo, Three Musketeers, etc. as a relationship with Dumas so much as I have with classic, swashbuckling adventure tales. In this case, in a way I probably would disagree with myself for contemporary authors that I happen to have interacted with who have passed off their works to me as their own, I have to say it doesn’t lessen my love of the works one bit. It just mediates my understanding of Dumas’ genius. : D

  15. Jared

    Excellent thoughts Pete. I too felt underwhelmed by the conclusion to Nolan’s trilogy, and your thoughts help describe my own feelings. I have yet to see Django, but am a huge Tarantino fan and was sad to see a couple spoilers in your post without warning! No hard feelings though. 🙂

    Your post also brings to mind another popular story that will reach its heavily anticipated conclusion this year: AMC’s Breaking Bad. Creator Vince Gilligan has summarized the show as “a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface.” It certainly meets your moral complexity criteria, as week after week Walter White makes a serious of decisions that turn him from chemistry teacher to drug lord… wrecking his life and family in the process. Now there is much debate about what would be a satisfactory conclusion, an “honest end” to such a compelling story. Redemption? Devastation? Sacrifice? Destruction? I think Walt’s death is a foregone conclusion if the show is to retain any credibility, but it will be interesting to see how many of his loved ones meet a similar fate.

  16. Kevan Chandler

    Great post, Pete. You hit the nail on the head with The Dark Knight Rises. My favorite display of “moral complexity” in film right now is the CBS show Person of Interest. It is, ironically enough, helmed by Jonathan Nolan, who penned TDKR. I have two theories on this – either he was putting his all into Person of Interest so TDKR suffered, or Hollywood took some liberties on his TDKR script (after all, the original draft was 600 pages long). Anyway, with Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and Person of Interest all in his bag, I’ll give him a break on a few shortcomings in The Dark Knight Rises (namely, the ending).

  17. Tony Heringer

    Jon. I kind of get what you are saying but it would depend on the artist. I doubt Pavarotti wrote anything but he is appreciated for his gift as a vocalist. Certainly there are numerous film stars that fit the bill too. As for Dumas, too bad for him personally, still a fantastic work and a wonderful film too.

  18. Ryan Szrama

    I can’t help it – I was incredibly disappointed, and the added “comic relief” was enough to spoil it for me. However, what really bothered me was how the movie changes the Count from a man who orchestrates situations in which his enemies secure their own downfalls into a man who directly executes vengeance. I found the Count of the books to be more of a (hashish smokin’) righteous man who was content to let the Lord bring about the destruction of his enemies.

    May be time for a reread of the book to make sure I’m not full of it. Haven’t read or seen it in years. But if I may make a LOTR comparison, it’s a subtle but similar distinction to the change the movie wrought on Faramir. Moviemakers don’t seem to understand righteousness.

  19. Bob Price

    Great post, Pete! I like your insights into these films, but your mention of Tarantino’s films created some questions in my mind. Personally, I am not a fan of Tarantino’s work, and I struggle to find any redeeming value in his films.

    In fact, this is one of the areas that I’ve been thinking through lately–how as Christians we may find different areas of inspiration or revelation of God’s truth. I find that I have less and less tolerance for those who say that Christians must all have the same perspective on things, especially pop culture such as movies and TV. On the other hand, I also recognize the truth of what James wrote when he said that one to the main characteristics of a true follower of Jesus is that we keep ourselves “unstained from the world”.

    So here’s my question: how can we as Christians entertain ourselves with the content of movies like Pulp Fiction and still remain “unstained”? This is an honest question, not a trick one. I’m not interested in trying to criticize your entertainment choices, I would truly like to know your perspective and how you approach a movie such as Pulp Fiction so that it might help me think through these questions.

    One of my favorite things about the Rabbit Room is the ability of the folks here to discuss and debate things without it getting ugly. To me, this is what “sharing the journey” is really all about. Thanks!

  20. Pete Peterson


    That’s a good question, Bob. For me, the key is to understand what I’m getting out of a particular movie, or song, or painting and based on that understanding, that discernment, I can know whether it’s an experience that I ought to continue to engage with. Is it an experience in which the Holy Spirit is working in me, or is it an experience in which something else is “staining” me? There are certainly films, books, songs, etc., that I walk away from because I have a firm conviction that they aren’t good for me. The TV show Dexter is a good example; despite high recommendations from people I trust, and people who I know are edified by it, it just makes me feel dirty. So I don’t watch it. I’m glad, however, that others see in it the things that I didn’t, and because I know these people rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I trust the discernment they are using.

    In the case of a movie like Pulp Fiction, it’s not only a fine work of dramatic writing and cinema, it’s a movie that’s ultimately about the complex nature of grace and redemption, and that’s why I love it instead of merely admiring it. In fact, I’d say it proclaims real Truth. But its content makes some folks uncomfortable and those folks are right to steer clear of it.

    Participating in a work of art (such as a movie) is like participating in a relationship. In fact it is a relationship. A film gives you something (a story, a situation, a problem), and you give something back (an interpretation, a reaction) and the nature of that interaction is what enables us to derive meaning or edification from the work. If that relationship is a negative or abusive one, it might be best to step away from it. It’s certainly possible to feel abused by a film (or any other work of art), and that’s not a good thing. But it’s also important to remember that sometimes the point of the work might be to disturb and move the audience out of its comfort zone, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But an interaction that intimate requires some trust on the part of both the audience and the artist. The artist has to trust the audience to see into the subtext, and the audience has to trust the artist to deliver something worth seeing. If you aren’t willing to give that trust to the artist, in the hope of being given something admirable in return, then don’t participate, and don’t feel bad about it.

    Here’s a good cautionary example: I saw a movie a few years ago called Shoot ‘Em Up. It was profane and violent, but I trusted the artist to deliver a point. He didn’t. The result is that I felt dirty and betrayed and wished I had walked out after the first fifteen minutes. On the other hand, I gave Quentin Tarantino that same trust when I saw Pulp Fiction, and he didn’t betray it, he showed me that there was a deeper point being made, a deeper interaction to be had. The result is that throughout his career I’ve continued to trust him, and for the most part, he’s continued to deliver (hence my partial disappointment with Django).

    So even when you’re engaged, you can still be burned. But on the other end of the spectrum, if your experience with a movie or book is a one way relationship, meaning that you’re merely receiving instead of actively participating, then that’s a huge open door and an invitation for all sorts of undesirable consequences. The movie Shoot ‘Em Up is, again, a good example. I’d say it’s an unhealthy movie for anyone. It’s not healthy for mere entertainment, and not healthy for any sort of deeper interaction. There may be people out there who would claim otherwise, and if so I’d be happy to hear their case, but I’d be hard-pressed to agree.

    I think a lot of people are troubled about movies particularly because they assume that everyone participates in a film at the level of mere entertainment. That’s not the case. Films are works of art (good or bad) and, for me, the act of watching a film is a active thing in which I am constantly evaluating what I see and hear. This is especially important in the case of films like Tarantino’s because his work is engaged in a conversation with, and interacting with, not only the independent viewer (you or me) but also a much larger cinematic history and even our culture as a whole. A person watching the film for only what the film gives him or her, hasn’t seen the half of it. You’ve got to bring in with you your knowledge of Westerns, of 70’s film, of African-American history, of the history of the depiction of slaves in cinema, even an appreciation of 80’s television stars in the case of Django.

    I suppose that what I’m trying to say is that interacting with a work of art is rightly complex, and it’s in that complex interaction that the discernment of the Holy Spirit works and moves, enabling us to see “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” and to “think on such things” (Phil 4:8). If the interaction we experience isn’t complex, either because the work of art is shallow, or because we aren’t engaged at a level deeper than mere entertainment, then the specific content of that work is likely to do little more than leave a stain. Different people will have differing abilities with which to conduct those interactions, and it’s up to each individual to know where their danger zones are and to steer clear of them. My wife, for example, is a brilliant and insightful artist, but she would never sit through a movie like Django because the content would disturb her in ways not worth whatever admirable qualities she might find in the end; she does, however, enjoy hearing my thoughts on it because she trusts my judgment and trusts that I’m in submission to the Holy Spirit when I interact with such a film—a film which does in fact, reward me greatly for having in seen it (even if only in that it resulted in the spiritual and mental wrestling that resulted in the writing of the above post).

    Some people want to lay down hard and fast rules for what’s okay and what’s not. They want clearly drawn lines. But art is rarely so simple. And that’s as it should be. So perhaps the best answer I can offer is to challenge you know what kind of content crosses your own lines, and be attentive to the voice of the Holy Spirit when you sense a film encroaching on those limits. I know I hear the Spirit loud and clear when my limits are threatened; I pray his voice will be as clear to you when you’re listening.

  21. Didi

    I really apprecaite and agree with everything you had to say, Pete! Its hard for me sometimes, when people that say things like “defiling yourself with worldly entertainment for the sake of finding and trying to analyze some seed of ambiguous moral truth is like digging through a pile of manure for a nickel. Sure, you’re five cents richer, but was it really worth wading through the garbage, when you could read the bible and recieve exponentially more benefits without any of the filth?”

    See, I don’t entirely agree with that. CS Lewis once said “the mark of a certain kind of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting everyone else ot give it up. That is not the Christian way…the moment he starts saying things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who enjoy them, he has taken the wrong turning.”
    Though i DO believe there are some things that are just inherently bad (bad for EVERYBODY), it doesnt mean EVERYTHING is that black-and-white.

    I wanted to share something that this article made me think about- an episode called A Town Called Mercy from this most recent season of Doctor Who. I’m not sure if you know the backstory, but The Doctor is a time-traveler who goes around saving people, trying to make up for his past. When his race was threatening to destroy the universe to end a war they were in, he destroyed his planet, killing everyone, to save the rest of the universe. (i know it sounds lame when i try to explain it, but bear with me).Add to that the fact that for every world he saves, theres an entire group that he has defeated (who see themselves as the victims, and not the villains) that think he’s a genocidal monster. And knowing that he’s the “big bad” of someone else’s legends totally torments him, because deep down he considers himself a pacifist.

    Anyway, this episode was set in an old western type era (coincidentally) and featured a “villain” named Kahler Jex. Jex had created a serires of war monsters, essentially living WMDs (from unwilling participants) in order to end a war on his home world; his justification was that they would end the war quicker with less loss of life. But then out of guilt he fled to the old west and tried to start a new life helping people, like curing the town (named Mercy) of cholera. But one of his monsters (originally named The Reckoner) tracked him down and was trying to kill him, for turning him into a machine and forcing him to kill his own people. The real question was who was the real villain, and if either of them “deserved” a second chance. When the Doctor found out everything that Jex had done (since before, he had just thought he was a physician that healed the town), he was mortified, and tried to kill Jex because, though The Doctor had always been an advocate for mercy and letting the bad guys go free instead of killing them, they always came back worse later on, and he thought that maybe killing the villain instead of giving him a second chance would be the right answer. Thankfully, he came to his senses and didnt kill Jex in cold blood. But should he have? i don’t really know.

    When the town tried to give Jex to the Reckoner in order to save themselves, the Doctor (who had been placed in charge of the situation) said something that I will always remember; “Violence doesn’t end violence; it prolongs it.” He wasn’t necessarily condoning pacifism, or that fighting is always wrong, but it was a quote that really made me think.

    Later on, he said to Jex “What right do you have to set the terms of your redemption?” It was an internal struggle as well as an external one; here was a man trying to do good for another world, when he essentially committed genocide on his own people, but ultimately for the greater good. Really, Jex was in exactly the same position as the Doctor, and it became obvious that The Doctor couldn’t possibly pass judgment on Jex without simultaneously damning himself.

    Eventually, Jex commited suicide in order to save the town of Mercy from the Reckoner. The episode wasn’t saying that suicide is a good solution, just like it wasn’t saying pacifism is a good solution. It wasn’t really trying to answer any of those questions, but just to make you think about them for yourself. It made me consider my own beliefs about mercy and second chance and justice and forgiveness and war. Thats why, even though its definitely not a “Christian” show, i really think its valuable and has a lot of insightful things to offer, and i think that can be said of a whole lot of other shows too. However, you’re right about how people should follow the Holy Spirit’s leading and know their limits.

    i can tell that you and I like a lot of the same things (like the Hobbit and LOTR and the princess bride), but even though I’m not the kind of person who REALLY enjoys movies like Nolan’s batman trilogy, and you might be the kind of person who would never in a million years be into Doctor Who, that doesn’t mean either of those things is inherently bad… it just means that they each have something different to offer to different people.

    PS- sincere apologies to everybody, i didn’t mean to write so much! :p i’m a bit longwinded.

  22. Bob Price

    Pete and Didi, thank you so much for your insightful replies! Pete, I appreciated your likening of interaction with art to a human relationship. In human relationships, we don’t usually get to know in advance which ones will be abusive and which ones may actually harm us in some way. Some lessons are learned the hard way. In the same way, we can’t always know in advance how a particular movie or book will impact us. The risk is that sometimes we’ll realize that we need to walk out of a movie after we’ve already seen some content that crosses the line for us.

    What started me thinking about all of this is some study I’ve been doing lately in Romans chapter 12. In that chapter, Paul talks about the way the body of Christ is a community of people whose talents and abilities are supposed to work together for the Kingdom. As I reflected on the kinds of Christian community I’ve experienced, I realized that most of the time I’ve selectively revealed myself to people in the church. To some, I feel safe to let them see more of my interests and points of view. To others, I don’t feel safe to do that, so I hide the more controversial things from their view. The result is I’m not truly living in the kind of community that God designed.

    Movie choices are one of the areas that can cause sharp debate. You know what I mean: “how can any Christian watch THAT movie?”. Usually, it’s just easier not to mention that you’ve seen a particular movie and avoid the debate altogether. How much better would it be to be able to share our thoughts on the movie with each other, even if we don’t agree! Then there might actually be some edification in the body of Christ instead of just tearing down.

    The things that you guys have shared here have really given me something to think about. While I’m not sure I’ll ever become a Tarantino fan, I may be willing to look at some of his work with a different perspective. At the very least, I appreciate the opportunity to hear how the Holy Spirit works in the hearts and minds of others, and shows me how I may be closing myself off to opportunities for Him to work in me in the same way. One of my favorite things that you wrote above, Pete, is that you trust the discernment that others use in making their own choices. Oh, how I wish that all of us would give each other that courtesy!

    Didi, thanks for the story you shared. I have not had the pleasure of watching Doctor Who, so this was new to me. I appreciate the point it made, and didn’t mind in the least that it was long!

    Thanks again for taking the time to share your insights with me. I am richer for the experience!

  23. yankeegospelgirl

    Pete, maybe you can clarify something in your comment for me. You give the example of a movie you wished you hadn’t seen and then further say you don’t think it’s healthy for anybody. Then in a later paragraph, you say, “Some people want to lay down hard and fast rules for what’s okay and what’s not. They want clearly drawn lines. But art is rarely so simple. And that’s as it should be.” But it seems like you laid down a “hard and fast” rule of your own to the effect that _Shoot ‘Em Up_ is not okay for people. Maybe it’s the word “rarely” that’s doing the work here, but I would argue that _Shoot ‘Em Up_ isn’t an isolated instance of art that’s unedifying for everybody. Ultimately, I guess what I’m noticing is that we all lay down “hard and fast rules” as far as objective acceptability (not just “what’s good for me”) at some point. It’s just that we stop at different points along the way.

  24. Brave Sir Robin

    Wow, great conversation guys!! I’ll just throw in my .02 and say that I’ve definitely made choices I regret when it comes to trusting the artist, I mentioned _The Office_ a while back and I still say that was a poor exchange. Sometimes I can enjoy something only if I skip certain parts of it. I think there are GREAT movies out there that people should still watch, just maybe not every scene. I don’t mind saying that I’m like a child in that I still need to guard my heart and my eyes. Aren’t we all like children in the end?

    Pete, this may sound like a dumb question, but I would enjoy seeing you explain more what you meant per what YGG was raising. I’m sure it’s obvious but I’m a little tired today. 🙂 Thanks a ton!

  25. Thomas McKenzie


    I am thrilled that this conversation is happening here and not as a result of my review of Django (which I think I liked more than Pete did).

    One great thing about Pete is that he has the patience to respond to questions that he has already addressed on this blog in the past. He has a unique gift, I think. I am not as patient as Pete. When someone says something I think is baiting, I don’t answer at all. Just one more way that 1 Corinthians 12 gets lived out.

  26. Pete Peterson


    Forgive me if I wasn’t clear enough. I said: “There may be people out there who would claim otherwise, and if so I’d be happy to hear their case…”

    For instance, Thomas and I disagree on quite a number of films. He loves some stuff that I think is really, really weak, but because I know Thomas, because I live in community with him and trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in his life, because I see the fruits of his faith and ministry on an almost daily basis, I pay attention to his insights and opinions, and I’m often impressed when he gleans things that I don’t. On other occasions, I might still think he’s completely wrong, and unless I perceive that his habits are producing unwholesome fruit in his life, I choose to trust his judgment and extend grace. The Holy Spirit is a whole lot smarter than I am, and if life has taught me anything, it’s taught me that he can and will show up just about anywhere. It’s my job to look and listen for him, not to tell him where he doesn’t belong.

    I hope that makes things a little more clear.

  27. Brave Sir Robin

    Okay Pete, so bear with me here… you’re right, I did notice when you said that you thought _Shoot ‘Em Up_ was bad for everybody, you also said you were willing to listen to what others had to say about it. But then you said you’d be hard-pressed to agree. If I’m understanding it right, you’re saying that was still just a statement about you and not the movie. So there’s no ONE objective answer to the question of whether it’s healthy/unhealthy. Is that even close to what you meant? Thanks for your patience.


    “One great thing about Pete is that he has the patience to respond to questions that he has already addressed on this blog in the past. He has a unique gift…”

    Poor Pete…

    After a praise like that from Thomas Mckenzie, what choice does he have? LOL

    He HAS to respond now!

    I feel like asking Pete 41 questions right now. But this Youth Pastor is slap-worn-out!

  29. Jennifer Peterson

    Hi folks, I’m usually the silent listener in these blog discussions, because I just really dislike debating things with people I don’t know on the Internet. I’m going to venture my opinion on this one . . . but please, if you reply and I don’t respond to you (which I probably won’t), don’t take it personally. I’m just waiting until we can have a face-to-face conversation in “real life.”

    I think the point Pete is making is a plea for humility. And here’s the further point I want to make: humility and subjectivism are two very different things. A subjective view of morality says “There is no absolute truth or goodness; it’s just about what’s right for you.” Humility says, “There is absolute truth and goodness, and I will spend my life seeking it in Scripture and trying to align my life to it, but I do not have the mind of God, I am fallible, and God has mysterious ways of working in the lives of other people that I may not fully understand.”

    To take our own marriage as an example: Pete and I are coming from the same core of beliefs about what is True in the absolute sense. We also cannot always watch the same movies. Our lines are in different places—NOT our lines about truth and morality (which we agree on) but our lines about how things affect each of us emotionally and spiritually. Certain things send me into a tailspin of sadness over the brokenness in people or horror over the evil in the world and because of my personality I don’t come out of these dark emotional places easily; they can send me into a depression for days or even weeks. (Don’t get me started about Braveheart!) I have learned this about myself, and so I am careful about what I let into my sensitive imagination. But I’ve learned that Pete, while just as disturbed and horrified by the depiction of evil in a story, is drawn through this darkness to the glimmer of light and grace, and that severe contrast between darkness and light makes the story even more powerful to him emotionally. God uses different kinds of art to work in each of our hearts. And we both walked out the theatre during Cloud Atlas. Because it was just stupid.

    Context is also a big factor. Some friends of ours are independent filmmakers who recently made a short film about the secret world of sexual trafficking that exists in our own neighborhoods. It was brilliantly and brutally honest, and it was difficult to watch—because it was supposed to be difficult. The filmmakers wanted me, as a viewer, to be uncomfortable and disturbed at certain scenes, because the reality is horrifying, and it hits frighteningly close to home for some men. I am glad I saw it, I am glad I was so disturbed, because beneath the scenes that some Christians would label inappropriate was a deeply Christian motivation to expose an evil in order to bring redemption for those involved. If this film obeyed “rules” it would not have been the gracious smack in the face that is needed as long an evil like sex trafficking still exists.

    My need for humility also goes in the other direction: I constantly have to remind myself that God can use even the most sugary, preachy, and cliché-filled Christian art to move people—because he is greater than the art. I have to remind myself that he has used books I find theologically abhorrent to take people I know a step closer toward the place where they can mature beyond such books to higher stuff. That throughout history he has worked in and through denominations with completely opposite doctrinal positions. And not because there are all equally true (they are not). And not because there’s no point in theological discernment or artistic excellence (there is). But because of grace. Because God uses the weak to shame the strong and he uses the foolish to shame the wise.

    So that’s all I’m going to say on this subject for now. Peace, fellow rabbits.

  30. Brave Sir Robin

    Also forgot to say THANK YOU to Jennifer for the long response, I can tell you have a beautiful heart!!

  31. Bob Price

    Jennifer, thanks for your input. I think you hit it exactly–humility is what is needed. For the last year or so, God has impressed upon me the need for humility in my own life. It discourages me that so many Christians feel free to blast each other on Facebook over the personal choices they make about things like entertainment. What is sorely lacking is humility and trusting the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of others.

    As I continue to wrestle with doing what I know I should do, there’s always the temptation to justify participating in something that I shouldn’t just because there may be some value in it. I’m good at justifying things (the heart is deceitful), so I have to keep my own boundaries in mind, as you mentioned. Along with that, though, is the need to be humble enough to recognize that God is working in the lives of others in different ways, and at a different pace. It’s not my job to make sure that everyone sees things the same way I do. On the other hand, we do need to share our thoughts and struggles with each other so that we can learn and grow together. Again, humility comes to mind, because our admonitions to others will fall on deaf ears if we are prideful and haughty.

    I so appreciate the spirit that I see here, and the willingness of people to jump in and help each other as we share this journey of the Christian life. Thanks!

  32. Silmarila

    I love what everyone is saying! And even more, I love how we can have this loving and learning discussion abut a potentially controversial topic, without getting rude or mean.
    I wanted to point out a verse, 1 Corithians 10:23- “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things are edifying.”

    In addition to convicting me on my personal choices, this verse always reminds me of my friendship with one of my closest friends. She has purple hair, facial piercings, tattoos, wearing skulls all the time, smokes, listens to angry-sounding music, and absolutely LOVES horror movies. We really are an odd pair 🙂 Now, I used to really uncomfortable because I’d always feel like I was judging her, in the back of my mind. I knew that for me, God didn’t have any of those things as part of His plan, so I assumed that it was the same way for her. Back when I thought that many of those things were sinful, I found that Bible verse and I had to realize that no, for her, all those things were lawful (except smoking, which was obviously against the law, considering that she started befor she was 18). But her were “helpful”? are they “edifying”?

    I don’t know! And I’m not meant to know! Thats none of my business, and its not my place. It’s between her and God. She’s a solid Christian, and I trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in her life, so who am I to say that He isn’t using her nose ring and tats for His glory? He probably is! (In fact, her first tattoo is a cross and a Bible verse) For all I know, it’s a part of His plan. For me to assume otherwise just shows pride and judgment, not to mention distrust and disrespect for her own discernment of God’s will for her life.

    Just like Aslan said, “you are only told your own story”…all you can do is make sure that YOU are following God’s plan for YOU, and stop worrying about everybody else.

  33. aimee

    “There is absolute truth and goodness, and I will spend my life seeking it in Scripture and trying to align my life to it, but I do not have the mind of God, I am fallible, and God has mysterious ways of working in the lives of other people that I may not fully understand.”

    jennifer, beautifully and truthfully said. so glad you snuck in to share.

  34. Chip

    I think The Dark Knight Rises’s final scene is more ambiguous than Pete seems to take it (or at least I like to believe that, anyway), but I agree that Nolan didn’t offer a compelling moral vision in the end. He decries terrorism but offers no hope other than individuals being willing to fight for the good, and even that is presented as iffy in its results. There’s a strong sense (even if unintentionally) of original sin, but no correspondingly powerful sense of redemption.

    Peter Jackson similarly failed when it came to The Return of the King by eliminating the most important scene in the books: Sam’s forgiveness of Gollum and willingness to let him live just outside of Mount Doom. Without that scene, you totally miss Tolkien’s ultimate theme, as Sam had to come to the point where Frodo did of pitying Gollum and leaving his fate to providence. Contra Yankee Gospel Girl, I sense far more war weariness in Tolkien, as evidenced by Frodo’s turn to pacifism in the scouring of the Shire. (And even Eowyn is corrected by Faramir to look away from war and instead take hope in the peaceful, with the ultimate result being that she comes out of depression.)

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