Should Christians Watch Squid Game?
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Patrick Miller: When our team first envisioned Truth Over Tribe, we wanted it to be a cultural commentary. And so, obviously, we've talked a lot about politics, gender, all kinds of cultural issues. And yet, we haven't talked a lot about art and culture. Recently, Squid Game has become the most popular show on Netflix ever. And so, it's hard to talk about culture without talking about our cultural artifacts, of which Squid Game is inevitably one. So this review is a little bit different than what we normally do. It's not an interview. It's not a conversation. I guess it's like a monologue. In the first third, no spoilers. Don't worry. But I want to ask the question, should Christians watch Squid Game? And then the last third, I want to explore the ending and what the entire show actually means from a Christian perspective. So if you're interested, tune in. I think you're going to like this episode. So should Christians watch Squid Game? Outside of anime, Americans are not known for embracing art from across the Pacific. But occasionally, a piece of art has such broad and deep appeal that it transcends language and culture. Nine years ago, for instance, the Korean music video Gangnam Style... It made the journey, but let's just be honest. Most Americans laughed at it, not with it. But in 2021, a new piece of pop art has made the transpacific voyage with much less to laugh at. It is called Squid Game. And it is perhaps the most popular show ever made for Netflix. Maybe it's a sign of our outrage, verbally violent, constantly freaking out moment, that the show that makes it across the ocean is a hyperviolent, blood- soaked cultural commentary that's asking transcendently ethical questions in a format that recalls America's most popular video games, Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Warzone. These video games drop players into arenas, where they literally battle to the death, last man or woman standing wins. They approximate, at least in virtual reality, actual reality, which, if we're going to be honest, increasingly feels like a winner- takes- all battle royale. Well, Squid Game follows suit. Players find themselves in a life- and- death battle over playground games. And its success suggests that there is profound catharsis in watching someone else undergo the violent discourse horror that has totally characterized the culture wars of 2021. And of course, this begs the question, that I think every thinking Christian is asking. Is Squid Game too violent? So here's my no- spoilers answer to your question. Is Squid Game too violent? Yes, absolutely. Squid Game will make you feel sick, but it's not the kind of violence you're used to watching. It's not the stylized, revenge killing of a Quentin Tarantino movie. It's not the gratuitous murder porn of John Wick. The violence in Squid Game feels violent, real, gratuitous, but in the right way. Because in reality, real violence is always gratuitous. It's always evil. It's always destructive. In episode one, during a game of Red Light, Green Light, computer- operated snipers murder anyone who moves after the red light is declared. Now, here's the deal. If I was watching it alone, I would've fast- forwarded through this entire scene, the entire slaughter, because it was absolutely awful to watch. You feel every single death palpably, even though you don't know any of the characters. In the game, they're all just numbers, but the creators never lets you feel like they're numbers. They're humans. In Christian theology, we'd say that they are image bearers of the living God. And this means that they are imbued with inestimable worth. When the snipers start firing, you don't think," This is awesome." Instead you feel this gut- wrenching anxiety and horror. You know that what's happening is evil. You know that what's happening is wrong. In fact, if you find yourself enjoying the games, I think you can be certain that you completely missed the point. The only people who enjoy the violence in Squid Games are the sadistic VIPs who fund the entire system. And that's the show's most fundamental meta- critique. It turns the mirror on the viewer and asks you this question," Do you enjoy violence or do you want it to end?" I think of the apostle Peter. He takes up the sword to defend Jesus. And he goes straight for someone's head, but he barely misses. I guess it wasn't a very good aim. And he only cuts off the guy's ear. Jesus heals the wound. He looks at Peter with exasperation. And in Luke 22: 51, he says this," No more of this." No more of this is exactly the response the creators of Squid Game want the viewers to feel. In fact, no more of this, make it stop, is basically the moral heartbeat of the show. It's repeated from top to bottom, from the few characters who don't lose their souls in the game in order to gain the world. All of this explains why I never personally found myself cheering for violence in Squid Game. Death never stops feeling shocking, awful, and nauseating throughout the entire show. And this is as it should be. I mean, in real life, death is never fun. Death is never cool. Death is never a game. It's always horrible. And the show's heroes... Well, they actually share your horror. They remain morally sensitive. The heroes do, at least. Even in the final hour, the heroes choose to hate death. And by that choice, they remain human. The superb acting totally underlines this point. I mean these characters, they're always showing the gravitas of death on their faces. They're agonized when their friends die. They're sickened when their enemies fall. And they're earnest when they sacrifice their interest for the sake of others. But of course, that's not every character in the game. The most hardened players, the most twisted players, they become numb to the violence. And when they do, they become animals. They lose their humanity. Again, great acting. It totally underlines us. These characters... They spit with anger. They bear their teeth like animals. They howl with violent delight. They stoop over their prey like predators. And they show no remorse for their wrongdoing. In Hebrew Bible, humans also become animals when they grow numb to death. Sin is depicted as this wild, violent animal tempting cane. And when he gives into the temptation, he becomes like the animal. Daniel, the prophet... He depicts the violent empires of Babylon, Persia, and Greece. All of these monstrous predators who were glutted on blood. You see, embracing violence always makes us less human. And thus, Squid Game... It turns the mirror on us. It says," Are you numb to the weight of every human death? Have you become an animal? Or do you, like the show's heroes, still feel the moral weight of every human life?" We live in the era of cancel culture, social media takedowns, and self- righteous crusades against thought crimes. All of this virtual violence tempts us to become digital Darwinians, who buy into the lie that the survival of the fittest is just the way of the world. We become online animals just to survive. And like the hardened players in Squid Game, we use the big game of it all to just justify what we're saying, to justify our verbal violence. But this is not the path to survival. It's the path to losing your humanity. Now, I have to say, asking the question," Is Squid Game too violent?" It only sketches the tip of the Squid Game iceberg, but it's an important question. And conscientious Christians will answer that question differently. If you enjoy the violence inside of Squid Game, then I'm just going to tell you what, you should probably stop watching. But if you're able to stay sick, as the creators wanted you to, if you're able to continually feel the nauseation of the violence, then I'd say you're getting the point. And you'll leave Squid Game hating violence more than when you started it. Below the surface, the Squid Game iceberg is a punk rock, postmodern takedown artist, whose slam dunks would make the worst Twitter troll proud. Like a good Dave Chappelle, Netflix's Squid Game leaves nobody unscathed. It is a sober and cynical take on secularism's ideological bankruptcy. In fact, bankruptcy doesn't go for are enough. Secularism is, like every player in this show, in such terrible debt, that no amount of blood, no amount of luck or toil, could ever possibly pay it off. But that's the second half of this review. So let's hop in. And this is, by the way, your official spoiler warning because we are going to talk about the ending of the show and the meaning of the whole thing. What should Christians take away from the Squid Game ending? Okay, well, Squid Game ends with the winner, Seong Gi- Hun, slipping into a depression. He pulls out of it at the end because I guess he beats the creator. And then, after that, he gets a... I don't even know if you can call it a cool haircut. And also, suddenly decides to, maybe, enter the next Squid Game in order to stop it. But it's all a little bit confusing when you first watch it. But to understand the ending, we really have to understand everything that led up to it, which takes me to The Hunger Games because I've been asked this question a million times. So is it basically The Hunger Games? And the answer to that question sets you up for what the whole show means. So is Squid Game basically The Hunger Games, except in Korean? Heck, no. Squid Game is a highly original show and it's at least 10 times more intelligent and more interesting than The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games series is, what art aficionados like to call, high concept. In other words, it's a simple story with simple premise and a simple execution. So Hunger Games is a simple story because you can guess every single plot twist. Trust me. I did. And it's also a simple premise. What if a totalitarian state forced society's most downtrodden members to fight to the death for the entertainment of the elite, which leads to a simple execute? We watch players fight to the death. A few token characters sacrifice themselves, throw in a little love triangle, and then you just repeat the whole thing in two successive novels or movies. You make a little bit of money. Now, I know what you're thinking. Doesn't Squid Game ask the exact same simple question? Well, sure, but that's just the tip up of Squid Game's hyperviolent iceberg. Beneath the surface is a sustained critique of human nature and the broken systems, that we naively believe, are going to make our world fair and equitable, but in the end, always fail. The thinking person will find a lot to think about in this postmodern coup de grace. It deconstructs reality. And it shows that secularism, again, like all the players, is sinking beneath the terrible debts. It's racked up running the world without any moral capital. Squid Game is a knife- wielding loan shark, making secularism pay in blood, but it can't pay in cash. So let's talk about the show. And again, spoiler alerts... They are coming. It's here. So turn it off if you haven't finished the show. Or if you just don't care, you can roll along with me. Let's talk about six ways that Squid Game takes down reality. Number one, it shows the pathologies of capitalism. Okay. About halfway through the show, we discover that one character, a woman, is a North Korean defector. And her mother, her father, her younger brother... They all paid a steep cost to escape communism in North Korea. Her father ends up dying on the journey. Her mother ends up getting sent back. Only she and her little brother escaped to the capitalist paradise of South Korea, but for what? Well, her brother lands in a state- run children's home. She joins a crime ring and becomes a pickpocket just to make ends meet. In an effort to help her mother escape a second time, she takes out loans with unpayable interest, and that doesn't even work. For all these reasons and more, she ends up choosing to play a life or death game, overseen by its own set of dictators, and soldiers, and enforcers, and whose constant surveillance, and threats, and food rations, and behavior control... Well, they all make North Korea look a little bit humane. Welcome to the capitalist paradise of South Korea. She escapes totalitarianism only to find herself in a worse place. And of course, she's not alone. Every player in the game is saddled by debt. And it shows that there are winners and losers in capitalism. The mythology of capitalism says that markets pick winners and losers based on their merits, or at least, based on their economic utility, which means, that those who win can feel tremendous pride, but those who lose are faced with a stark, soul- sucking reality," I am a loser." Squid Game begs us to ask, whether the terms of this game are actually honest, whether they're humane, whether they're fair, whether they're sincere. It highlights this by showing how all of these losers in this game of capitalism find themselves magnetized to behaviors that are risky. And all of these behaviors, they're designed to either make them into winners or to anesthetize their pain from being losers, gambling, crime, cons, drugs, alcohol. But here's the deal. Capitalism does not merely prey upon the poor. It also makes the wealthy sick, though, in a very different way. The entire game exists because one wealthy man got bored making money. The VIPs... They're all billionaires who bet on players like horses. Now, all these guys... They seem totally mentally ill and morally defaced. They laugh at violence. They demand sex. They eat and drink without ceasing. And they dress like gold- studded animals. And of course, they are animals. They've all bought into the megalomaniacal lie that wealth makes you superior to others, superior morally, mentally, physically, and a lot more besides. Those are the dual pathologies of capitalism, that you're either a winner or a loser, and all the things that come along with believing those things about yourself. But don't think that Squid Game lets state- run systems like socialism off the hook. Let's go to number two, the evil of state- run systems. In the world of Squid Game, there are soldiers who wear masks, which hide their identity. And they function as the strong arm of the front man and the host, the people who lead the game. And they're always armed. They're constantly killing players. But this is all just a false image of power. The soldiers are actually as powerless as the players. They only speak when spoken to. The front man actually calls them disposable. In other words, from the perspective of the people in charge, the soldiers are no different than the players. They call both players and soldiers by numbers, not names. They use cameras to surveil both groups' actions. They demand that both groups follow draconian rules and social arrangements without any question. Thus, the entire game is analogous to an authoritarian state- run system, where individual identity is lost to collective identity, where individual life is disposed for collective interest, where individual liberty is subsumed by the collective will. The state enforce its interests through surveillance, through threats, and fear, and force. They promise equality and equity. But in the end, only a few people actually experience that. In the end, a few people always end up a little more equal than everybody else. The few who sit atop this social pyramid look down on the masses. And they congratulate themselves from running such an efficient and predictable game. And this is the takedown of state- run systems. Let's go on to number three, the mirage of meritocracy. The front man says, at one point in the game, that the most important element of this place, of this game... This is what he says. He says is that" Everyone is equal in these games. Players compete in a fair game under the same circumstances. These people suffered inequality and discrimination out in the world. And we offer them one last chance to fight on equal footing and win." In other words, Squid Game is a pure meritocracy, where all people start equally and compete equally. Their success is based purely on their own performance in merit, except it's not. The winner of Squid Game wins in spite of himself. Seong's personal merits get him nowhere. He's not smart. He's not decisive. He's not a leader. He's not charming. He's not physically strong. He's not strategic. But he is the constant beneficiary of luck in the sacrifice of others. Let me give you some examples. During Red Light, Green Light, a friend coaxes Seong into running after he's given up. A stranger rescues him from tripping to death. During tug- of- war, the strategies of other players rescue Seong from certain death. During the marble game, Seong's opponent sacrifices himself and his place. During the glass bridge game, Seong almost ends up going first. If he had done that, it would've been sure death. But by pure luck, he ends up trading his spot with the player who was going last. Again and again, Seong wins, not by his merits, but by luck. Now, compare Seong to the three most intelligent players in the game. There's a doctor, an investor, and a math teacher. Now, all these guys have great strategies and they all die. Or compare Seong to the strongest characters in the game. There's a thug and there's also a day laborer. They all dominate physically and they all die. In the real world, merit doesn't always win. Luck matters tremendously. The sacrifice of others matters even more. Meritocracy is a mirage that allows us to think that the world's fair, but it's not. Let's go to number four, the emptiness of religiosity. In the fictional world of Squid Game, God's name is present, but His reality is definitely not. When Seong first meets a representative of the game, Seong thinks this guy is a street evangelist and he starts getting angry. He says," Look, I don't want anything to do with Jesus." A different player shares how her father, who was a pastor, physically and sexually abused her. She ends up murdering him. Yet another player... He's constantly praying. He's the weird praying guy. But when he's not praying, he's verbally abusing or murdering other players. So how's that go for religion? In these stories, religion is not the opiate of the masses. It doesn't soothe their pain. Religion is just an absurd, useless fairy world that cripples people who are already immoral. So there goes religion in the takedown. Number five, the shallowness of educational elitism. Okay. So the game winner... Again, he is a simple man with no education. And this is perfectly summarized by the photo he takes at the very beginning of the game. It tells him to smile, and he gives this big toothy, almost foolish- looking grin. And again and again, that's the picture that we see of him. In a different poignant scene, he actually admits that he knows he's a simpleton. Seong's foil is his childhood friend who's turned into an investment banker, Cho Sang- Woo. Now, his photo, when it's taken, is serious. He's sophisticated. He's highly intelligent. And most importantly, he has an elite education. His intelligence takes him to the last round, but the cost is tremendous. No scene illustrates what his elite intelligence does to him, in his moral character, more than what happens during the marble game. You see, Cho finds himself in a life- and- death marble game with a character named Ali. Ali is the game's most dull, but noble- hearted character. Before the game, Cho repeatedly tells Ali," We're in this together. We're going to go to the end together." And he also tells Ali not to treat him with special honor. Cho tells Ali," Don't call me, Sir." And it makes you wonder, maybe Cho, despite his education, isn't really an elitist. Maybe he does think that he's equal with others. But the facade crashes down when Ali beats Cho in marbles. And Cho proceeds to trick Ali into losing. And the trick actually preys on Ali's kindness. The trick only works because Ali is a good man. And the trick ultimately results in Ali's death and Cho's survival. Juxtapose this, again, with Seong's simplicity. He is simple, but he is not stupid. His simplicity is moral. You see, again and again, Seong shows that he's not self- interested. And so, he takes an old man as a partner in his game. He puts other people first. He doesn't abandon his friends. And at the very end, rather than killing Cho and take home all of that prize money, Seong decides to end the game and save Cho's life. So again, we see that elitism leads to moral bankruptcy. It leads to the destruction of your character, whereas simplicity takes you to a better place. Number six, the last way that Squid Game takes down reality. It shows the bankruptcy of democracy and consent as an ethical system. See, a lot of modern Americans have this anemic understanding of what is right and what is wrong. We seem to think that something is okay, as long as, first, someone gives their consent, as long as you don't hurt someone else apart from their consent, and as long as you're okay with whatever happens to you, well, hey, you gave consent. It's okay. Yes. We realize that, maybe doing drugs, or having lots of sexual partners, or changing your gender, isn't the best thing. We realize those things are dangerous. But as long as you're a consenting adult, that's your choice. That's moral. That's the first rule of morality in America. Well, let's go on to number two. We believe that, as long as the group agrees, that an activity is moral, well then, it must be moral. In some ways, this is a might- makes- right mentality. So if most people agree that legalizing prostitution's a good thing, then go for it. We all agree. It must be okay. Okay. So you've got the two basic ideas. Something is right, as long as we give consent, and as long as the group agrees. And Squid Game takes this anemic ethical system to its logical conclusion. All of the players have to give their consent to play. So, hey, that makes it moral, right? And to end the game, they have to take a group vote. So as long as the group agrees that the game is good, it's moral. If they agree it's bad, well, of course, it's immoral and we can leave. Again and again, the players are reminded that what is happening is okay, because, well, they agreed to it and the group could've said otherwise. But of course, there's nothing moral about putting hundreds of people into a life- and- death contest for a big pot of money. It doesn't matter whether they agree or they vote on it. Unfortunately, most people have such weak ethical muscles, that they can't quite explain why it's wrong. At the end of it all, Squid Game deconstructs everything. It sees through capitalism, democracy, meritocracy, communism, elitism, and religion. And what are we left with? Well, nothing but impotent anger. At the end of it all, that's all we've got, impotence and anger. And this takes us, finally, to Squid Game's ending. You see, Seong... He doesn't actually defeat the game's creator at the end. The creator just dies. He's totally powerless. The actor who played Seong said that he personally picked the haircut and the crazy hair color that Seong has at the end of the show. And he said that, to him, it represented Seong's anger at what happened. And he's right. Seong is angry. But what can he really do? I mean, maybe Season 2 holds the answer. But for now, we're left clueless. Here's the bigger point. It's not hard to see through everything. It's not hard to take everything down. All human plans, systems, and interventions come with unintended consequences. They never quite work out. Apart from God, everything is meaningless. Apart from God, all we have is anger. All we are is just pissed off, pissed at a world that isn't delivering on its every promise, pissed at a world that forces us into a game that we didn't choose and in which most people just lose and die. At the end, Seong finds purpose in his anger. Perhaps, he'll turn around and stop the game in Season 2. But here's the deal. Anger is an emotion that burns hot and fast. You can't build a life or a world on anger, which is too bad, because our world is more angry than it's ever been. And maybe that's why Squid Game resonates so deeply across cultures. We're all angry at the empty promises of secularism. They haven't delivered. We all know we're made for more than this, but no one knows what that thing is. Well, actually, we do because we don't live in the fictional world of Squid Game where God is absent. He's here, He's real, and His promises don't fail. The story of Jesus comes with the promise that God will make things right in the end. And if you don't believe in this reality, your heart longs for it. You have a hunger for things to be made right, for things to be in the world as they should be. Here's the deal. Every other hunger we have can be satisfied. If you're hungry for food, you can find food to eat. If you're thirsty for water, you can find water to drink. It's our hunger for another world, for a better world. Not the same? Isn't that a desire that can be satisfied? If Squid Game makes you hungry for another world by showing how empty this world is, that's exactly right. But Jesus is the only answer on the table.
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BONUS episode! This episode is about the top-rated Netflix show Squid Game. In the first part of this show, Patrick answers, "Is Squid Game too violent?" Spoilers follow this question in the next half, where Patrick takes us through 6 takeaways from the series and how Squid Game takes down reality you won't want to miss. Listen now!