Vengeance or Justice? How to look at film through a 'biblical lens'

How and why do we need to look at film through a biblical lens? Can't we just go to see a film to be entertained? Yes and no. 

Film is ultimately supposed to entertain us. We should laugh when we are supposed to laugh and we should cry when we are supposed to cry. The film industry wants people to get emotionally involved with all types of film. From Spike Jonze (Her) to Michael Bay (Transformers), everyone can come out of the theatre with different reactions to the same film. Why? Because we all have different life experiences or a different 'lens' we put the film through. 

Entering the theatre, we may go in to be entertained, but ultimately the film can provoke us to anger, joy, hope, tears and even action. As a Christian, I cannot get past the fact that the 'lens' that is supposed to influence my life is the Bible. Not to say I meditate on the Bible minutes before going into a theatre, but if it truly is the central part of my life. As a Christian, it is the lens that I need to consider when watching a film.

When considering watching a film through a Biblical lens, I am not encouraging people to only go and see 'Christian films.' (I will not administer that sort of unjust act on anyone). I will admit that I prefer good film making over what is usually put forward as Christian cinema. In the broader discussion, it is wise to go into see a film with a level of discernment to ensure it will not cause you to sin. But when I am challenging people to watch film through a 'Biblical lens', I want the viewer to consider the whole experience to be done through the Bible. Watching the story and seeing it as entertainment, but finding the biblical applications. Being careful to not apply something to the film that is not there, but to look for hints of God's story in the film. In reading through many of the books on entertainment theology, we can see themes throughout film: brokenness, death, fear, sacrifice, power, community, love, mercy, grace and justice. Working with good friends at Reel Dialogue, I have enjoyed going deeper in film viewing. 

Let me give you an example of what I am suggesting. Sitting on the lounge the other night, my son and I had an opportunity to pull out an old western favourite, Open Range (2003). A brief side note: This is a film worth another look. 

Synopsis of the film: The classic battle between open range heritage the free graze cattleman and progress of settlements in the American west. Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) find themselves in the small town of Harmonville, the cowboys encounter a corrupt sheriff and powerful rancher. Due to the injustice of the rancher on some of their fellow cowboys and friends, Boss and Charley find themselves pulled into an inevitable showdown with the leaders of the town. They have to consider the reasoning behind their actions, is it justice or revenge? In amongst the story and inevitable gun battles, life suddenly takes an unexpected turn for Charley when he meets Sue Barlow (Annette Benning) and he has to decide between life on the range or settling down. There are psychological and relational battles within the gun fights. Many issues in the lives of the characters come to light and bigger questions have to be considered. 

Key line in the film: 
Boss Spearman: We come for justice, not vengeance. Now them is two different things.
Charley Waite: Not today they ain't.

Revenge and justice are the key drivers of this film and it makes for great cinema. Yet, why should revenge cause anyone to feel a bit uncomfortable. Justice is something we all should desire, but revenge is not something we should be putting into action. The topics of revenge and justice bring up bigger things considered. Who determines what is right and wrong and who has the moral authority to enact the justice? 

Let's look at the definitions first:
Revenge: to exact punishment or expiation for a wrong on behalf of, especially in a resentful or vindictive spirit.

Justice: the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness and the the administering of deserved punishment or reward. 
Definitions from

The key difference is the intent and heart of the action. Also, does the person have the authority to administer the punishment? 

Biblical lens:
Romans 12:19
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

Luke 18:7
And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?

Justice is only administered by those put into the authority to administer it. Exacting revenge on someone who has done you wrong in your life only leads to more pain and difficulty. People need to bring offenders before those who can actually exact the justice in those situations. I know that sometimes the authorities of this world fail us, but there is one authority that we can trust with the wrongs of this world. God sees all things and will avenge all wrongs in his time and in his way. Why is that comforting? Because ultimately God determines what is right and wrong and he is the one with the true authority to administer the justice. 

On the topic of justice, we have to consider the 'mirror effect.' In most situations of revenge, the mirror can be turned around on the person trying to administer the unjust punishment. Aren't we all guilty of wrongs and do we have the authority to go through with the action? Also, if you look deeper at what the Bible has to say about these topics, Jesus has already paid the price for those wrongs. Do not misunderstand, we should help in defending the defenceless and seek justice, but revenge is not the solution.

This leads to other key areas to consider: forgiveness, bitterness, anger. For this article, we do not have time to go into all of these areas. That is for another movie and another day. But on this topic of revenge and justice, here are some questions to consider from this cinematic glimpse at on of life's big question:

1. What wrongs do you need to forgive of others? 
2. What areas of your life are you holding onto that you need to trust God to administer the justice?
3. 'Mirror effect' - In the realm of wrongs, have you taken time to consider the wrongs you have done and who ultimately can forgive you?

Take time to read what the Bible has to say about these questions. Start with the ultimate 'Based on a true story' experiences of on the biographies of Jesus, such as the Gospel according to Luke. 

Matthew 12:18
Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.

I hope this helps you to see the value of watching 'Film through a Biblical Lens.'

'Film through a Biblical Lens' by Russell Matthews @ Russelling Reviews