Saturday, September 13, 1997
The Culture Wars continue
By TERRY MATTINGLY
Scripps Howard News Service
Four years ago, ABC's "NYPD Blue" started yet another
fire fight between Hollywood and the cultural right.
In addition to its violence and profanity, the gritty drama
made headlines with a daring move in network TV - glimpses of
nudity. This sent many conservatives to the barricades. Their
protests led 57 stations, mostly in Bible Belt and Midwestern
markets, to nix "NYPD Blue."
While conservatives celebrated their moral victory, some of
these stations filled this prime-time gap with a sexy syndicated
series - "Baywatch." This drew few, if any, protests.
Apparently, Pamela Lee's front side was less offensive than Dennis
This is the kind of dilemma that haunts religious groups that
wade into the media whirlpool. Tell folks to boycott one brand
of slimy entertainment and the odds are good they'll channel surf
on over and watch something just as bad or worse.
"The message we have to deliver is that there's some good
stuff out there and lots of bad stuff and, if people are going
to live as mature Christians, they're going to have to learn to
tell the difference. The church should help them do that,"
said Calvin College's William Romanowski, author of "Pop
Culture Wars: Religion & the Role of Entertainment in American
Right now, the Southern Baptists, Focus on the Family, the
Catholic League, the Assemblies of God and a host of other groups
are taking on the Walt Disney Co. The problem, once again, is
that it's easier to tell people in the pews to zap Mickey Mouse
than it is to ask tough questions about all those other entertainment
decisions that shape their lives. So what should religious groups
Comedian Jay Leno is right. The electronic devices in many
homes flash one message - "12:00, 12:00, 12:00." It
would be a prophetic ministry for congregations to simply teach
people how to program their VCRs. Technology already offers many
ways to make choices, for good or ill. The goal is for believers
to control the media camped under their own roofs instead of letting
those devices control them. If conservatives want to shake things
up, they would start a national campaign to convince parents to
own only one television and to help them set and enforce limits
Content issues do matter. But it's hard to urge people to support
the good and shun the bad without agreeing on some standards.
Ministers should promote and use books, magazines, newsletters
and Internet resources that critique the media. At the very least,
congregations should hold one major media literacy event a year.
This assumes that clergy pay close attention to how people
spend their time and money. Yet this is precisely what missionaries
do. They begin by studying a culture's language, symbols, myths,
family structures and the institutions to which people turn to
for guidance. If pastors did this, they would run smack into the
TV and the mall. Seminaries should require at least one core course
focusing on the role that mass media play in American culture.
Yes, it also would help if there were more creative and committed
traditional believers in Hollywood. However, most religious colleges
and universities major in producing writers and technicians primed
to work in a subculture of religious books, magazines, music and
video. The bottom line: Media studies departments on most such
campuses, if they exist at all, are rigged to produce PR people
and fund raisers, not screenwriters and directors.
Thus, cultural conservatives are reaping what they have sown.
"Why weren't Christians so entrenched in a company like
Disney that it would have been impossible for it to behave in
an unseemly way?" asks Bob Briner, an outspoken Christian
best known for his work leading ProServ Television in Dallas.
"Why are Christians always surprised and outraged to see
non-Christians behaving the way non-Christians behave? ... Why
is Disney not seen as a mission field rather than as enemy territory?
Why do we have compassion for overseas pagans, and none for those
(Terry Mattingly teaches communications at Milligan College
in Tennessee. He can be reached on-line at tmatt(at)sprynet.com)
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