On Christmas Day—while Americans were still grieving for victims of the Newtown elementary-school massacre—Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's latest film, opened nation-wide.

Set in the 1850s, a slave (played by Jamie Foxx) is freed and trained by a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to help him kill bad guys. Eventually, they set out to rescue Django's enslaved wife from a sadistic plantation owner. Extravagant shootouts, sickening carnage, and vigilante justice ensue.

Did the wounded American public boycott the movie and condemn Tarantino for insensitivity? Hardly. Django Unchained earned more than $60 million in the first six days. And Hollywood, being a business-minded town, will get the message: "More, please."

Before we flog Tarantino for his extreme depictions of violence, or condemn Django Unchained outright, or call for censorship of artists who paint scenes of atrocity and bloody vengeance, consider these questions.

1. Are people really so bloodthirsty?

Stories of vigilante justice and revenge oversimplify the world into good guys and bad guys, and glorify individuals who resolve by force whatever grieves or offends them. They answer violence with violence, ad infinitum.

Such art lacks any vision for peace, reconciliation, or the redemption of enemies.

Homer, the Brothers Grimm, Shakespeare, Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy— great storytellers have consistently borne witness to violence.

But it is also unfair to convict audiences of mere bloodlust. Many are compelled by an honorable passion, a perception of injustice, a desire to see order restored. When the audience cheers for the rescue of Django's wife, or for the punishment of a man who castrated slaves, there is genuine conscience at work.

It falls short of a mature respect for love, mercy, and grace, but it's a step in the right direction.

2. If gratuitous violence is harmful, what about dishonesty?

When a culture tells stories that deny or excuse its own evils long enough, the pendulum is sure to swing the other direction, revealing and even exaggerating what has been left out.

Tarantino's vision of the 1850s is more truthful and less romanticized than most films about that period. He isn't afraid to acknowledge the murders, cruelty, and racism that should weigh heavily on America's conscience.

Violence that is easy to watch is potentially more damaging than scenes that make us sick to our stomachs.

3. Didn't Paul tell us to dwell on "anything excellent or praiseworthy" (Phil. 4:8)?

We should be just as quick to acknowledge and honor what is "excellent" and "praiseworthy" in Tarantino's movies as we are to object to his offenses.

Tarantino's screenplays are driven by sophisticated, quotable, nearly musical dialogue. His engaging characters are often brought to life in exquisite performances.

But if you find his films too troubling, steer clear. Writing to a church whose members disagreed about consuming pagan culture, Paul said, "One person's faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables …. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind" (Rom. 14:2-5).

Elsewhere, he said, "'Everything is permissible for me'—but not everything is beneficial" (1 Cor. 6:12, niv 1984). Some of us can stomach Tarantino's work, others can't. Both can be faithful responses.

4. Are we remembering the violence in the great stories?

Homer, the Brothers Grimm, William Shakespeare, Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy—great storytellers have consistently borne witness to violence.

The Old Testament paints a world in which violence is a method for committing sin and achieving justice. Samson. David and Goliath. God's armies slaughter men, women, children, and animals. A woman drives a stake through a villain's head. Ehud shoved a dagger so deeply into an evil king's guts that "the handle sank in after the blade, and his bowels discharged" (Judges 3:22). That's some gory, violent justice right there.

To a world without Christ, these stories were necessary. To those who love him, they're a reminder of how much we need him. To a world that rejects his example of sacrifice and grace, they remain a pleasing fantasy, but insufficient.

The apostle Paul walked among altars built to false gods and observed how they revealed a culture's incomplete vision. He did not condemn altars or worshipers, but engaged their longing for the missing piece, the "unknown God."

By listening to the conflicted and troubling visions of our own culture, we can answer Christ's call to love our neighbors. Moreover, we can learn to share, celebrate, write, and even film visions of something better than vengeance, a way that reconciles all of creation and breaks all captives' chains.

Jeffrey Overstreet, author of Auralia's Colors, The Ale Boy's Feast, and Through a Screen Darkly, reviews films at patheos.com/blogs/lookingcloser.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.