Red and blue evangelism: Left Behind vs. Will & Grace?

willgraceSorry to be getting to this subject a few days late. I am teaching in Washington, D.C., for the next month or so and it has taken some time (technologically speaking) to get settled in. But I wanted to flash back to Doug’s post about the Newsweek cover story on the “Left Behind” guys (NASCAR team and all).

One of the questions lurking in David Gates’ piece on Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye was this: What impact, if any, is this Rapture stuff having on readers out there in Middle America and (attention paranoid progressives) in the Oval Office? Gates concluded that the books are very popular with conservative Protestants and have been rejected by the religious left. However, as he noted in a Newsweek chat the other day, there are unbelievers out there reading “Left Behind,” perhaps hiding the paperbacks inside their copies of Newsweek.

Jacksonville, FL: David — What do you think is the real appeal of these books? Are there that many fundamentalists out there — or does this book’s appeal transcend religions?

David Gates: there certainly are a lot of fundamentalists and evangelicals out there, and that makes up the bulk of the readership. on the other hand, something like 16 percent of the readers identify themselves as nonchristian — i think 4% are atheists. you’d assume those people are either curious about the theology, worried about the future, or just like slam-bang adventure.

But the larger question remains: What is the impact of this kind of entertainment on values and beliefs in everyday American life? As Americans consume less mainstream news, the assumption is that more and more of their attitudes and actions — especially among the young — are being shaped by their entertainment.

To see this factor at work, flip over in the same issue of Newsweek to reporter Debra Rosenberg’s article on “The ‘Will & Grace’ Effect” in shaping debates about efforts to legalize same-sex marriage. This is the “Left Behind” question turned around. If Newsweek readers are left wondering if Red-zone Rapture fiction is evangelizing anyone in the Blue zones, then it is also possible to ask in Blue-zone entertainment is having an impact out there in Bible Belt turf. And here is what Newsweek has to say about the split on sexuality issues that is developing between the media-defined generations:

Younger people may also be more accepting because they’ve had greater exposure to gay people than previous generations had. Fewer gays are closeted, and the average age for “coming out” is now 16, down from the mid-20s in the 1970s. Knowing someone who is openly gay or lesbian is the single biggest predictor of tolerance on same-sex marriage, says Wolfson. And if you don’t personally know someone who’s gay, you’ll find plenty of gay characters and culture on TV. Recent research by Edward Schiappa, a professor of communications at the University of Minnesota, found that seeing likable gay characters on shows like “Will Grace” had similar effects to knowing gays in real life. In one study, students with few or no gay acquaintances were shown 10 episodes of HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” Afterward, their levels of anti-gay prejudice dropped by 12 percent.

In other words, who is doing a better job of evangelism? The creators of HBO and the world of sitcoms, or the evangelicals who are supposed to actively trying to win people to their view of life and eternity?

We just don’t know. But I would assume that there are more Southern Baptist (to pick on one set of pews) teens and college students who are “Will & Grace” fans and HBO addicts than there are edgy teens in Los Angeles and New York City walking around reading “Left Behind” books and listening to Contemporary Christian Music.

Once again, let me appeal to the George Barna polling people or someone else with the resources to do this: Journalists who cover these issues need more info. Someone needs to do some major research into the impact of entertainment media on the lives of ordinary, supposedly conservative people out there in “Christian America.” Would people like Dr. James Dobson actually want to know the results?

As the saying goes, “It’s the culture, stupid.”

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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.

  • Mitchell Land

    Interesting use of language in the Newsweek article that “anti-gay” automatically equals prejudice. They could just as easily have said “anti-gay philosophy”. I find it fascinating that our word choices always torpedo our supposed objectivity.

  • Lee Anne Millinger

    I’m a Christian, I don’t consider myself leftist, yet I don’t subscribe to the “Left Behind” premillennial view of the end times. It disturbs me that this interpretation of Scripture has become the dominant one, in no small part because of the “Left Behind” books. This is not the view of life and eternity that some evangelicals want to impress on non-believers. That’s like terrifying people into the Kingdom. “You better accept Jesus as your Savior or else the seven-year tribulation is gonna get ya!”

  • bc

    There is no doubt which is the better art. Will & Grace often reaches, in structural terms, fine high comedy. But what happens when the series ends, the stars age unscripted, the TV goes off? And note that the W&G series is unable to camouflage just how brittle and hate-filled camp posturing must be. Cf. preaching or hearing of the grace of the good-will-to-men God of the Scriptures, even the objectionable-to-many premillennialist-interpreted Scripture — is there any doubt, if one is a Christian, which will more robustly see us through the future, dark or bright? The fact that LaHaye, and, indeed, most modern Christian expression revolts my aesthetics seems beside the point, and self-defeatingly narcissistic to rely on.

    Contemporary epistemology however seems to indicate that fictional images (Day after Tomorrow, Will and Grace, …) may provide the new quasi-universal default narrative benchmarks for people’s ideas of Truth/truth, and they will not likely be dissuaded by conceptual arguments. The power of “but I saw it, I know what it is like” may prevail, until the confusion, danger, and bankruptcy of those ideas play out. Puts a whole new experiential spin on Plato, the Second Commandment, and St. John’s “the lust of the eyes,” couldn’t ya’ say?

  • Kendall Harmon

    “It disturbs me that this interpretation of Scripture has become the dominant one…” Leeann the dominant one where? This is actually a hard question to seek an answer to.

    I find it dominant among North American free Church Protestants, but it is a minority view among Christians here.

  • Ed Jordan

    Churches need to teach the alternatives to the dispensationalism of LaHaye, which people I know and love have accepted as the Gospel truth. Hey, Rick Warren, how about a “40 Days of Amillenialism”?

  • Joe

    Terry: Good post. I agree more research is needed on this important subject.

    Mitchell Land: Yes, word choice is interesting. Personally, I think “anti-gay” is vague and try to avoid it when possible. I prefer to use the term “heterosexual supremacist,” whenever possible, as that is much more specific. I don’t expect Newsweek to follow suit any time soon.

  • Lee Anne Millinger

    Mmm. You’ve got me there, Kendall. I should have probably specified North American evangelical Protestants. At least, that is my own narrow impression.

  • Darrell Grizzle

    As a gay man I find “Will & Grace” occasionally funny, but I’m mystified about the “likeable characters” mentioned in the Newsweek article. None of my gay or lesbian friends are as neurotic, self centered, or obnoxiously loud as the characters on “Will & Grace.” Which of the characters on this show is supposed to be “likeable”?