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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 Franz's backside.

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 Life."

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 do?

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 on entertainment.

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 in Burbank?"

(Terry Mattingly teaches communications at Milligan College in Tennessee. He can be reached on-line at tmatt(at)sprynet.com)

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