Jack Bauer Is Back

Jack Bauer Is Back

During the past week or so I have been thinking a lot about torture. My thoughts have been occasioned by two factors. One is that I have been preparing a keynote address on the topic for a conference on “saying no to torture,” sponsored by a Presbyterian group. The other is that Jack Bauer is back.

I cannot tell a lie: I am a “24″ fan and I’ve been looking forward to Jack’s return. Jack Bauer has reguarly resorted to torture during previous seasons, and we can expect this to continue. But this time he has himself been subject to torture for two years in a Chinese prison, and it will be interesting to see how the story unfolds morally in light of that experience.

The “24″ treatment of torture ought to make all of us more aware of the seductive power of popular entertainment on moral matters. Rick Warren has rightly observed that Christians who care about moral issues in public life often concentrate too much on political and legislative remedies, while ignoring the ways in which the battle is often being waged effectively by the entertainment industry. This is certainly true of issues of violence. The ways in which cruel practices are depicted–with sympathetic portrayals of those who engage in the practices–have a profound influence. I have watched not only Jack Bauer, but also Tony Soprano and the marooned community on “Lost” do some pretty horrible things–and I have on occasion, to my horror, even found myself quietly cheering them on.

On questions of torture, these portrayals function in a quietly secuctive manner. But there are also more blatant seductive forces at work. Recently the Los Angeles Times ran some articles on “mixed martial arts,” also known as “extreme fighting” or “ultimate fighting.” These organized events–attended by thousands–feature two fighters in a cage-like arrangement who get at each other with almost no holds barred, invoking images reminiscent of the ancient Roman stadium, with crowds roaring in approval of the infliction of pain while calling for more blood.

What is this doing to us as a people? What, for example,will the folks who have witnessed “mixed martial arts” say when they go home and a pollster asks for their opinion about whether it is legitimate to torture political prisoners? Scary stuff! We need to find ways of addressing these issues as a Christian community.


  1. Wow. You manage to raise issues in shows you admittedly enjoy (I’m a Lost fan myself), without ordering everyone to turn their TV off or risk becoming an awful Christian. Thank You, we need more thoughtful critiques of the good and the bad in pop-culture.

    Comment by wezlo — January 19, 2007 @ 4:58 pm

  2. Ultimate fighting, of which I am a fan, is not about blood–at least for me. I enjoy watching it for the skill and high level of training involved for each fight. I really like martial arts of various kinds; ultimate fighting gives the best of all martial arts at the same time, making for some very difficult matches that are fun to watch. The amount of blood involved is equivalent to a regular boxing match, by the way. This sport, I declare as a fan, is not about subjecting oneself to torture any more than American football. I wouldn’t ever vote for torture, not even after watching ultimate fighting, because they are not related to each other with the exception that both have the possibility of containing blood.

    Comment by James Gregory — January 19, 2007 @ 5:42 pm

  3. I Feel Much Better Now

    I was feeling a bit badly about my 24 obsession and that I had blogged about it (on a church website, nonetheless) until I saw that Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, was also blogging about 24 — though…

    Trackback by St. Paul’s Blog :: St. Paul’s Collegiate Church at Storrs — January 19, 2007 @ 9:31 pm

  4. Thank you for your thoughts. I find myself in the same place. I deplore torture. I have been against Bush’s treatment of prisoners, post 9-11. Yet, I too, am a fan of “24.”

    Comment by Dan Brennan — January 20, 2007 @ 7:18 am

  5. I was at Bel Air when you posed that question. After watching the Premier, I suspect Jack will not rethink his methods all that dramatically.

    At the end of the fourth hour, my son commented, “We needed this.” That is to say, we needed a fresh look at the stakes in this, the Third World War. “24″ seems to have given us just that.

    A question: Who will work on the other four “visitors?”


    PS: Hope I got the html tags right.

    Comment by Dave Jones — January 22, 2007 @ 4:40 pm

  6. You raise a question I find myself asking, although a little differently. While not a viewer of ‘24′ (although friends tell me I should be) your question about the affects of violence on society is one I’ve been asking after attending the last three movies. This weekend we saw the film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ which received rave reviews for its use of imagination among other things. Set in Franco’s fascist Spain, the portrayal of violence was terribly sadistic. While you can make the argument that wartime violence is sadistic – even in ‘24 – I question whether filmmakers are really obligated to show us the violence in such detail. Does this really make us understand that war is horrible, or is going to war really the only way that point will be made? If indeed, their purpose is to make us ‘understand’ then I ask understand to what end. Do we not know that exposure to violence only hardens our compassion?

    Public Television occasionally runs a well done series on the American Cinema. In the episode chronicalling (sp?) the period when the ’sex code’ was in place what ‘those in the know’ (filmmakers and critics) say is that the prohibition against portrayals of sexuality compelled a more creative, humorous plotline to tell about romance.

    I share that comparator not to advocate censorship, but to recognize that the energy and airtime given over to portraying graphic torture and violence shortens the actual storyline and, if there is one, the moral point. In ‘24′ if you are exploring torture do you really need to see fabrications of torture to understand how torturous it is?

    Viscerally I know that ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ put me in a sour mood that wasn’t alleviated for over a day. When Kathy Bates was wacked on the back with a 2×4 in another movie, I felt nauseous. And, ultimately, for the period the violence lingers in my mind my relationships with those around me suffer.

    In this house, after our last movie experience, I made the unequivocal pronouncement that I wasn’t going to anymore violent movies, no matter how great a review it has received. This will mean fewer films.

    Comment by Diane S — January 23, 2007 @ 4:46 pm

  7. Dr. Mouw,
    You raise some important issues for us to consider as Americans, but especially as Christians. As a former infantry officer in the Army who felt called to seminary to become a chaplain, I definitely identify with James Gregory’s comments here also–I too enjoy watching fights. However, as my relationship with Christ has changed over time, I find myself squirming and wondering if it’s “OK” for me to participate in this type of activity, even as a spectator.

    Soldiers are trained, of course, to close with and kill the enemy, and the Army currently uses Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as its method for training hand-to-hand combat. (This style is one type of mixed martial arts that you referred to.) My most recent commander before leaving active duty, a man whom I greatly respect, periodically set up fighting tournaments to inspire and instill the warrior ethos in our Soldiers. Having never fought in a formally sanctioned fight, I participated in one of the boxing competitions and I won the first bout but I was flatly knocked out in the second. It was an important experience for me as a man, as a Soldier and as a leader of Soldiers. While I abhor the death matches of ancient Rome to which you refer and struggle with how to reconcile my warrior ethos with my Christian calling, I find myself ambivalent about the fighting issue in general because of the utility that I see in it for character development when it is used appropriately.

    I will spare you from my thoughts on the “24″ and torture issues in the interests of time, but suffice it to say that you have also captured the dilemma in our human spirit on that equally dicey topic. Like “wezlo,” I appreciate your candor and honesty about your mixed feelings while watching these sorts of things.


    Comment by Dana Krull — January 24, 2007 @ 11:12 pm

  8. As us 24 “fans” saw in the last couple weeks, Jack did in fact resort to torture (of his own brother no less) with little or no reflection on his own experiences in a Chinese prison. However, shows like this cause us to reflect on the ethical questions involved. In 24 it seems to almost always come down to the “Greater good” argument.



    Comment by Brad Blocksom — February 1, 2007 @ 11:33 am

  9. Is torture still considered evil? Not so much anymore
    as there is now a TV show where the hero is a torturer.

    What about pedophilia, is it still considered evil?
    I think so, since I believe that a TV show where the
    hero was a pedophile would not be at all acceptable.

    If you really are against torture, then I would urge
    you to boycott 24 since it glorifies and justifies

    Comment by Terry — February 7, 2007 @ 11:11 pm

  10. Dr. Mouw

    Thank you for your thoughts on the matter.

    I have to admit that I strong agree with James Gregory who committed on the subject of ultimate fighting. While blood does play a role in the entertainment value of the fight, it is not the main and most appealing element. Rather, I feel that the skills involved to fight at this level are the main attraction. Most of the fighter involved have been fighting for most of their lives and spend countless hours perfecting their styles and preparing for bouts. If the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) celebrates anything it is excellence. I know young fighters who find discipline and add structure to their lives through training and competition.

    The reality of the situation is that these fighting organizations have rules that protect these fighters. If for just a moment one fighter loses consciousness, the fight is over. In a sport that has been readily accepted in our society, boxing, a fighter can lose consciousness many time and continue in the fight.

    I see that way that Ultimate Fighting can be misinterpreted and I hope to help other understand and appreciate this sport.

    Comment by James Abraham — March 3, 2007 @ 10:46 am