Bread, Circuses, Nature, and Grace

The front page of the October 7 edition of the Sunday New York Times featured an article that described how certain Protestant denominations have been using Microsoft’s rapaciously popular video game Halo 3 to lure youths to church. They promise the avid youngster large screen televisions and multiple control options so he and his friends can join forces to utterly annihilate the enemy (and then pray afterwards).
Halo 3, however, is not a game for the faint of heart. It is rated M for mature audiences and cannot be purchased by children under the age of seventeen due to its graphic content. The game player wields guns, lasers, missiles, and everything else imaginable to destroy the enemy. Of course, such a game is anything but new; as graphics have become more advanced, games have become bloodier and more vicious, as they have become more lifelike. The link between reality and virtual reality narrows by the day.
Leaving aside the question of whether churches that adhere to the Ten Commandments should offer such a game for the next generation, one is struck by the enormous popularity of graphically violent games such as these — the Times reports that Halo 3 has passed $300 million in sales in just two weeks. But not just video games, either: Hollywood seems determined to outdo every previous film in the amount of bullets, bombs, and other fantastic weaponry that explode in an action movie. The more mind-blowing the violence, the more tickets seem to sell.
Why is human nature so fascinated — so entertained — by violence? One recalls the Roman fixation with circus games in which gladiators fought wild animals, or each other, to the death as the crowd cheered them on. As Juvenal observed in the second century A.D., the Roman people were driven foremost by their desire for “bread and circuses,” both of which wealthy aristocrats willingly threw at them in exchange for votes. Virtually all Romans consented to this form of delectation. Even Cicero, who famously condemned gladiatorial combat in one letter, sanctioned it as instruction in “pain and death” when the combatants were criminals.
In the legacy of Adam, there must be something in human nature that craves such depraved activity, and this proclivity transcends time. The argument that we moderns are much more civilized than the Romans because we entertain ourselves by shooting pixels instead of arrows does not hold: We differ in degree, but not in kind, from our ancestors. A quote by the Times of a twelve-year-old church-goer and video-gamer in Colorado summarizes the matter nicely: “It’s just fun blowing people up.” The proof for original sin is in the warning label of the video game.
Providentially, we have been given the remedy to this ill by Jesus Christ and the grace He generously provides His Church. When Christianity was officially recognized and then adopted as the religion of the Roman Empire, the vice of the gladiatorial games came to an end. But since original sin continues to exist and since we all too often refuse the grace given by God, the fascination with and desire for violence prominently remain in the furious cycle of entertainment and profit.
While this appetite for violence will linger until our Lord comes in glory, the temporal cure remains: His grace perfecting our nature, particularly through the sacraments. A recent Postcommunion prayer neatly captures the essence of the mystery of original sin, the temptation to violence, and the saving grace offered by God: “May Your healing grace, O Lord, mercifully free us from our perverse inclinations, and always make us cleave to Your commandments.”
To which, in any age, we can only respond, “Amen.”

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is an associate editor of The University Bookman.


  • David G. Bonagura Jr.

    David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches classical languages at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism (Cluny Media).

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