You, gentle readers, get a bonus this month. That’s right, two – count ‘em, two – reviews for the price of one. Amazing grace indeed!
The first is William D. Romanowski’s Pop Culture Wars: Religion & the Role of Entertainment in American Life. This is a fairly accessible historical overview of the evolution of cinema in the United States, with some attention paid to the tenuous relationship between the film industry and conservative religious denominations and organizations. Major themes in this book include the evolution of high art vs. low art, and the further development of what once was considered low art into a lower category of basic entertainment. Romanowski also argues effectively that for those concerned about the sorts of movies Hollywood produces, the best way of dealing with the issue is not through the economics of boycotts or regulation, but rather through the education of people at home, at school, and in faith communities to be intelligent consumers of media. So long as cinema is written off as entertainment rather than treated as the powerful communication mechanism it is, people will continue to miss much of what is being said in the movies and how what is being said in movies shapes our culture or reflects shiftings within it. This is an intelligent book that struggles with some hard questions about the role of cinema in our culture and provides an excellent background on those issues.
The second book is Ted Baehr’s The Culture-Wise Family: Upholding Christian Values in a Mass Media World. Baehr has been an outspoken critic of the film industry’s pandering to lowest-common denominator appeals such as sex and violence for decades. The book is by and large a venting from Baehr, Pat Boone, and others against the moral lassitude they see in our culture at large, in our politics, and in the media. While there are plenty of statistics thrown around, these statistics are not contextualized. I might not have recognized that fact or known how to analyze it had it not been for Romanowski’s book – which in part addresses the concerns Baehr raises, and has been raising for some time. Unfortunately, Baehr’s book is very slim on actually providing tools to help families seeking to educate themselves on media, and devolves into little more than an admonition to avoid naughty movies and see wholesome ones. While this is good for the very young, it ultimately is intellectually short-sighted. Is the worthiness or appropriateness of a movie solely dependent on whether or not it shows breasts , or whether it drops the f-bomb or uses witchcraft? Baehr seems to argue at some points that it is not, but overall this is the track he takes. He spends just a handful of pages at the very end of the book hastily summarizing some things that parents should consider educating themselves and their children on, but no practical assistance towards this end.
So what’s the big deal? Plenty.
Every movie has a message. As does every song, every television show, every advertisement, every political speech, and, more and more, even news broadcasts. Messages are implicit and explicit in everything that we absorb from the world around us. Given that studies show that young people absorb media for literally two-thirds of every day, knowing what it is that is being said to us over and over again is crucial. As Christians who are called not to conform to the standards of the world (Romans 12:1-2), we need to know what the world is saying, and how to evaluate what we are offered so that we know how best to respond. Simply avoiding the world does not do justice to the Great Commission.
As young adults, this is particularly important for several reasons. Young adults and youth are the major purchasers of media, whether music or movies or video games. Young adults are often beginning families and starting the process of raising children who will need to be equipped to navigate the media-saturated culture we now take for granted. Young adults are participating in the workforce and academic institutions and social hotspots where the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussion about important issues encapsulated in media can easily happen. And young adults will be taking responsibility for congregations and the Lutheran heritage, facing the challenge of continuing to convey the Gospel in a culture that is growing more and more ignorant of the Bible each year.
These books in their own ways have prompted me personally to begin thinking seriously about what is required to teach children, youth, young adults, adults, and seasoned adults how to engage intelligently with the media they encounter each day. What sorts of topics need to be included? Just as people learn to discern what sort of book they are reading by the way it is written, we need to be able to determine what sorts of media we are consuming. What are the hallmarks of different genres and styles? How do we identify underlying themes and messages? How do we evaluate the way characters are portrayed, not simply in what they say but in the lighting that is used, the musical score associated with them, the types of camera angles utilized? How do we teach technical proficiency at watching media not simply for the skill of technical proficiency, but for the more important task of laying bare what we are being explicitly or implicitly fed through the media mechanism?
If you have thoughts or suggestions or interest in this, I hope you’ll get in contact with me. Churches have an obligation to help us cope with the media culture we live in. Simply turning our backs on pop culture may not be the best way for the church to handle its challenges, We should, at the very least, try to understand why a movie director, author or pop star might choose to use profanity or nudity or other techniques to convey a message. What is the message? Who does it appeal to, and why? Are the techniques what the message is all about, or is there something more being said? How do Christians best communicate with those who love pop culture? How do we help ourselves and our peers focus our attention on things that are “true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy?” (See Philippians 4:8)