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Out of a sense of decorum, television news programs usually omit the most horrific images of crime or tragedy. But for those who relish every bloody detail, we now have "shockumentaries"—and they have no problem living up to their names. They seem to be getting worse.
One recent program showed police photos of the naked corpse of a young woman, lying by the road where her killer dumped her. Another program routinely shows murder victims in the blood-spattered rooms where they died. Narrators describe every detail of how victims are kidnapped, raped, tortured, and killed.
And if that’s not enough to turn your stomach, tune into shows that include "dramatic reenactments" of the actual crime—reenactments that dramatize every sickening detail.
"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 off button long enough to ask themselves what impact these programs are having.
The early church faced something very similar: It took a strong stand against the bloody gladiatorial contests. In the second century, 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 dragged 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." He reveled in the gore, drunk with bloodlust. He was hooked.
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 research that links violent television with real-life copycat crimes.
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. But programs that turn human suffering into entertainment coarsen us, making us less sensitive to the pain of others. And, as Alypius discovered, they’re addictive.
So, the next time you’re channel surfing, surf right past the "shockumentaries." And whatever it takes, don’t let your kids watch these programs. For so-called entertainment programs like these literally destroy our humanitas—our compassion towards those for whom Christ died.
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