Frogs, Noonan & God

Peggy Noonan is not a religion-beat writer. But she is one of the rare national-level commentators who truly get the fact that religious faith is at the heart of many of America’s most important trends and debates and, thus, news stories.

Her current WSJ column about Janet Jackson, the NFL and the decline of Western Civilization is a perfect example of how this reality affects her work.

This is not just a story about a publicity stunt by a now-aging pop diva, a stunt that (as the wags have noted) proved that plastic surgery has been kind to at least one member of the Jackson family. This hyper-news media storm really should be focusing on the content of the whole SuperBowl halftime show, a bizarre picture of American culture jammed into a frame created by the best advertising that money can buy.

Noonan notes, for example, the KausFiles observation about how this nasty little glimpse into the American soul will play around the world, including in traditional and/or radical Islamic homes.

What does faith have to do with this? Noonan’s choice of a “frog in the kettle” echoes the views of many other cultural conservatives, including the omnipresent evangelical researcher George Barna.

The whole Janet and Justin scene

. . . might be a frog-in-the-water moment. You remember: You put a frog in a nice cool pot of water, and he’s happy and swims around. But if you put a flame underneath the pot and slowly raise it, chances are he’ll boil to death. On the other hand, if you dump a frog in a boiling pot of water, he’ll jump right out and be saved.

Our culture has been on a boil for years. Then it cooled a bit. The other night at the Super Bowl they put the flame higher and the water began to boil. The frog — that would be us — is still alive. And may, in his shock, jump out of the water.

But the question is: How? How to turn it around. I wonder if all the sane adult liberals and conservatives couldn’t make progress here. But how. Readers?

If Noonan wants reactions from readers, here is mine.

It has always bugged me that cultural conservatives tend to condemn specific moments in popular culture without asking any serious questions about the actual role that the media of popular culture play in their lives. They yell about the flash of Janet Jackson. They fail to notice the changes in the sports spectacular that surround the whole show (and many of those that came before it). That was the topic of a column I wrote this fall on Britney, the NFL and the rockets’ red glare at the Capitol.

They yell about a bad episode of “Will and Grace,” while ignoring that their own MTV teens grew up watching “The Real World” and “Undressed” on cable TV in the solitude of their bedrooms. The whole family might gather to watch “Friends” and “Married, with Children,” except for Dad in another room watching the NFL and the Coors ads with those conservative blonde twins.

So here is my idea. I am not in favor of separatism from the media. Obviously.

I am, however, in favor of people making choices and being aware that they are making choices.

What we need, what many journalists need as they cover these cultural stories, is some more solid information.

So I propose that, say, Focus on the Family, Toward Tradition, The Heritage Foundation and the media committee of the US Catholic Bishops Conference hook up to sponsor a major national study — hire Barna or George Gallup — on the role that mass media usage plays in American life. And, in that study, they break out the data for (a) active Christians and (b) all people who call themselves conservatives.

Do the conservatives live media lives that are radically different than anyone else?

Just asking. It would be new info on which to chew. I think we need to know more about ourselves. It would be the “examine the beams on our own eyes” study.

Just a thought.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Cameron Thorp

    Terry,

    I am excitted about your blog. I’m gonna pass it on to as many people as I can.

    BTW how’s Florida?

    In Christ,

    Cameron

  • Monty

    My take on Janet Jackson:

    It was a boob.

    The ensuing media aftermath was a spectacle.

    One is natural, one is not.

    If only National Geographic could get that kind of coverage for ever black womans breast they show, they would bring in more money than any Super Bowl.

  • sdc

    While breasts are “natural” to women (and men for that matter), this physician-enhanced, CD promoting flash was not a “natural” or beautiful occurrence. In our quest for all things intellectual and all things technical, we (21st. c. man) are indulging in the carnal for mindless entertainment. How very Ancient Roman of us! For those of us who claim (and we should prove it, not claim it) to be Christian, we would be much better off cancelling the cable and using the tv for choices better suited to beauty and knowledge (DVD/Video rentals or purchases…not 300+ channels of brain-numbing nothingness). Thank you, Terry, for the blog and this convicting commentary.

  • RC

    Can’t we kill off that old “frog/kettle” metaphor? Not only is it hackneyed, it’s not even true, according to this summary at snopes.com.

  • Donna Newton

    Hi Terry,

    Thanks for the blog. I have been tuned out to network TV for years and the Super Bowl incident reminds me why. But what puzzles me is that this stuff has been going on a long time. TV interviews with prostitues and pornographers are granted as if they run upstanding corporaitons, and entertainment portrays the lowest form of our society. Hollywood and Madison Avenue are out of touch with the common man.

    In Christ Jesus,

    Donna

  • James Freeman

    And could part of the problem be that many Christians have been so busy creating an alternate universe the past 30 years? So much so that they have ceased to be salt and light — in direct disobedience to Jesus’ teaching?

    Think of it — the only time our woebegone culture ever hears the voice of believers nowadays is when that voice is raised in outrage. Often, the outrage is provoked by shock.

    And why should anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear be shocked at the sheer outrageousness of American culture? Well, probably because those eyes have been averted and those ears closed by the manna and G-rated circuses Christians have established as part of a “family-friendly” fantasyland.

    Peggy Noonan raises the question of our age. If Christians were suddenly evicted from their G-rated, positive thinking, “safe for the whole family” cocoon, what would we have to say to the pagans surrounding us? And would we be able to say it in a language they understand?

    Methinks what the church in America needs more than anything right now is a new Pentecost. Fast.

  • Rod Dreher

    Last night, I was watching Diane Sawyer’s PrimeTime story about a gay male couple in Kentucky who contracted with a woman to have surrogate children for them. She had quadruplets, which were quintuplets until the doctor said one had to be aborted in utero, over the objections of one of the gay men. Anyway, the men got their four kids, but the member of the couple whose sperm hadn’t been used to inseminate the breeder woman decided that he needed a biological child of his own … so the woman agreed to rent her womb out again. Alas, with five little children now afoot, the gay couple decided that their relationship was strained. When we left the two lovelies, they were living in separate bedrooms, and didn’t know if they’d stay together. Meanwhile, five little children under the age of two are running around the house.

    Diane Sawyer treated this like this freakshow family (in whose number I put the rent-a-womb chick, who traded her last baby to the couple in exchange for a promise of plastic surgery) was living in the New Jerusalem, until gosh, the strains of life just kinda got to ‘em. And I’m thinking: We get so bent out of shape over the Super Bowl halftime show — which, don’t get me wrong, was outrageous — but this perfectly ordinary episode of PrimeTime Live presented as something normal and worthy of moral esteem a phenomenon far more destabilizing of the moral order, to say nothing of the fact that FIVE LITTLE CHILDREN are involved here…and that’s perfectly normal.

    What a world.

  • http://www.isi.org Tom Harmon

    Terry,

    Great insights. Answers to the polling questions will, of course, depend on what a “conservative” is and what a “Christian” is. There are plenty of boozin’, porn-consuming frat boys who vote Republican and say they believe in God, and who maybe go to church on Christmas and Easter.

  • http://fantabulouslife.blogspot.com Nelly

    Going along with the comment by Tom Harmon, we need to distinguish the difference between conservative and Christian, because there is a difference. The sad thing is that this has been going on for years. Slowly but surely, this was bound to happen. What about NYPD Blue, Seinfeld, and other television shows that come on broadcast television? Where’s the hoopla there? NYPD shows nudity, albeit brief, with no problem, Seinfeld was loaded with sexual innuendo, but no one says anything. This latest rage about Janet Jackson and Breastgate does nothing more than show how much we are willing to let slide before we get upset. Maybe it’ll take live sex to be shown on tv before everyone gets upset.


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