How to approach the evil in true crime podcasts

The first podcast that I ever listened to was a true crime podcast. After I listened to all 12 episodes on a cross-country road trip, I immediately re-started the series, desperate to find any detail or clue I might have missed the first time around, expecting to form the correct conclusion on who was guilty while I was driving on some of America’s longest highways.

I learned later that the victim’s family, a family who tragically lost their teenage daughter and for decades thought they had closure on who had taken her life, were opposed to the podcast’s production. After years of peace, all of their trauma and grief were brought to the surface again because of a journalist’s pet project.

After doing some research of my own, I learned that it was not uncommon for victims of violent crimes and their families to object to true crime media being produced about their lives, but they have little to no recourse to stop it. While there are also some families who value the awareness that media brings to the crimes that have impacted their lives, especially if they have been unsolved, these seem to be the minority of cases.

Seeing the faces of grieving mothers and extended family members begging people to stop listening to or watching the series about their family members gave me a reason to stop and evaluate whether or not engaging with true crime media is in line with my Christian values. In short, I was asking myself the question: Would Jesus listen to true crime podcasts?

Glamorizing evil in media

True crime media is quite possibly one of the most popular genres of media available today. The difference between the latest streaming docuseries and an Agatha Christie novel, though, is that true crime media covers real people. While there is certainly some craft in how the stories are told, the writers did not come up with the stories themselves and do not decide where it’s going. Instead the narrators tell what happened to beloved sons and daughters of God and their families. The perpetrators of the crimes are not super villains imagined by the author of a comic book, but are real people who have rejected God’s love and succumbed to temptations to be instruments of evil in the world.

There is certainly an argument to be made that it is impossible to engage with the latest murder podcast or streaming series. After all, it is pretty disturbing that so many of us unwind after a long day at the office or keep ourselves entertained while exercising by listening to the true stories of bodies found in national parks. For some people, deciding to disengage with true crime media might be what’s best for them and their spiritual lives. But I would also like to propose an alternative option.

As Christians, we have a certain responsibility to engage with the culture around us, to live within it so that we can transform it and make it align with God’s loving plan. This is the particular role of the laity, according to the Second Vatican Council: to live within the world so that we can bring the Gospel as a light where there is darkness. Of course, there are some kinds of media that are so antithetical to our human nature, like pornography, that we cannot morally engage with it in any way.

True crime media can be dehumanizing in a way similar to pornography when we find ourselves genuinely entertained by the deaths and evil perpetrated by our brothers and sisters. Engaging with true crime media in this way is not unlike the ancient Romans who would gather in the Colosseum to watch people mauled by lions.

A Christian approach

But that’s not the only way to engage with true crime podcasts and series. It’s also possible to approach these murder series and kidnapping podcasts with an empathetic heart, with a disposition open to understanding the very real effects of evil in this world, especially evil that we have not personally encountered.

To engage with true crime media with an open heart means to be willing to be changed by the stories we hear or watch. Truthfully, we are being changed by them regardless of whether or not we do so intentionally. In many cases, people become desensitized to the horror of evil that is recounted in true crime media. That is not how we, as Christians, want to be formed by the media we watch, listen to and read.

Instead, Christians can watch and listen to true crime shows while adopting the heart of Christ, desiring to listen to and understand our brothers and sisters who have been through unimaginable pain and suffering, experiencing it for ourselves. When we hear about horrific crimes being committed, we can remember Scripture tells us that “[God] understands every human deed” (Sir 15:19); we, too, can try to understand what drives a person to commit such crimes in an effort to see them as God sees them.

Being willing to see the deep-rooted effects of evil in our world is an important aspect of the life of a mature Christian because it is in accepting the horrors of our sin that we are able to stand in awe of God’s unconditional love and his sacrifice on the cross to free us from our sin. We must never despair in the face of this evil, for God has already conquered sin and death.

Listening to the stories of real people being murdered or kidnapped for pure entertainment is debasing for humans, as God has created us for community, to engage with one another rather than to simply watch from afar. But if a Christian intentionally learns from these stories so as to better understand the human heart and the effects of sin in our world, true crime media can be a valuable insight into our need for a savior.

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