And Now, A Word From Your Culture (1993)

Mass Media, Ministry and Tuning in New Signals

True or false: It is impossible to talk — in terms of practical details and statistics — about how modern Americans live their lives without addressing the role played by television and other forms of news and entertainment media.

True or false: Most churches have little or nothing practical to say about the role that television and other forms of news and entertainment media play in the daily lives of most modern Americans.

True or false: Most churches have little or nothing practical to say about the daily lives of most modern Americans.

True or false: This applies to my church.

Let me stress that, by asking these questions, I am not suggesting that Christian theology and church traditions are irrelevant. I do, however, want to force church leaders to talk about the statistical realities of life in modern America — dollars, cents, hours, pocket calendar, wallets and free time. Our goal is to think in secular terms, for a few moments.

Beyond any shadow of a doubt, the answer to questions one and two is “true.” As a religion columnist and Christian educator, I am convinced that the answer to the third question is “true.”

I will leave the answer to question number four up to you.

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In 1990, I wrote an article for the Rocky Mountain News about the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, an autumn celebration that many of us would know from biblical references to the Feast of Tabernacles.

In order to learn more about Sukkot, I visited the home of an Orthodox rabbi in Denver and we sat in the tabernacle that he had built in his back yard. As we discussed various traditions and scriptures, the rabbi’s teen-aged sons joined us. Obviously, the teen-aged sons of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish rabbi are not the young people that you see hanging out in the food court at your local shopping mall. These young men were dressed very formally and wore ornate yarmulkes, had spirals of hair over the cheeks, twine hanging from their belts and other visible symbols of their faith.

I looked at the two and thought, “How unique.”

Then I looked down. Both were wearing Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes — loose and unlaced.

This is your culture, I thought. You can run, but you cannot hide. Your culture is going to get you.

At that very moment another thought flashed into my mind. I remembered reading a newspaper article about a frightening trend in some inner-city neighborhoods, where some young people were being shot or mugged so that people could steal their tennis shoes. The bottom line: in some cases the value of a young human life is less than the cost of the expensive shoes that they see on the feet of their television heroes.

Then I thought of another image. The Bible teaches that our feet are symbolic. How we walk says a lot about who we really are. And then I remembered the moment in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, in which the Christ-figure, Aslan, breathes on the feet of a giant who has been turned to stone in order to return him to life. Don’t worry, says the Great Lion, once his feet have been set right, the rest will follow.

It is not a good sign, I decided, if the mass media that carry our popular culture have control of our feet. Perhaps this is symbolic of how we live.

What I just did was take a media “signal” — a piece of secular information, a secular parable — and then interpret it in biblical terms. My goal was to offer Christian images in response to an image from popular culture.

I believe that our media are constantly sending out “signals” that can help the church go about its ministry and mission work in this post-Christian culture. Sadly, the church and our seminaries are ignoring both the content and social role of popular culture mass media, which are among the most powerful cultural forces in the modern world.

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So what is a “signal?” I have defined this as a single piece of media or popular culture focusing on a subject that is of interest to the church. It can be a newspaper article, a single episode of a television show, a compact disc, a movie, a new video, a best-selling book or some other specific item.

The 1992 premiere of the television series “Star Trek: Deep Space 9,” offered a perfect example of a theological “signal” from popular culture. In this episode, which was seen by about 20 million viewers, space station Commander Benjamin Sisko tried to grasp the violence that was tearing apart the planet Bajor. Thus, he sought an audience with the high priestess who served as the only source of Bajoran unity.

In a temple filled with chanting and monks in Buddhist-like robes, this Holy Woman framed the Federation officer’s face with her hands and gazed into his eyes. “Have you ever explored your pagh, commander?”, she said. “Bajorans draw courage from their spiritual life. Our life force, our pagh, is replenished by the prophets.”

The only hope for peace — for himself and the planet — was a spiritual breakthrough. Sisko, she said, had to find the Celestial Temple and the prophets who shaped Bajoran “theology,” she said. This was his destiny, his “pagh.” To help in his pilgrimage, she provided a glowing orb, shaped like the symbol for infinity, which had the supernatural ability to bend both time and space.

Later, Sisko finally discovers the Celestial Temple and meets its god-like prophets, whose lives transcend linear time. Their ultimate message: “Look for solutions from within.”

With its talk about life forces, theology, prophecy, a karma-like sense of destiny and hints of reincarnation, “Deep Space 9” is philosophically murky, to say the least. The entire premiere episode is an assault on linear time.

One secular critic said of this “Star Trek” series: Go where no one has gone before and turn left.

Or perhaps we could say turn east. Consider that final message: “Look for solutions from within.” This contrasts sharply with the Judeo-Christian emphasis on absolute truths, and a transcendent God. A Christian theologian from India, Vishal Mangalwadi, has told me that he sees many recurring Eastern themes in the “Star Trek” world. He calls this pop theology “Hollywood Hinduism.”

This is an example of a trend I believe the church cannot ignore. While I do not believe in conspiracy theories, I do believe that a kind of lowest-common-denominator religion exists in America’s news and entertainment media and that it is much closer to the pantheism of Eastern religion than it is to the transcendent faith of orthodox Christianity.

Most seminary graduates — or at least those from seminaries who do not see apologetics as a form of intellectual bigotry — could do a much better job of debating a Buddhist on the nature of God than they can of debating the contents of an episode of “Star Trek” that focuses on the same theme.

What good does it do us to know apologetics, to know systematic theology, to know our church’s moral teachings or to have mastered a host of other religious disciplines, if we cannot recognize when our culture beams theological and moral questions to us in the guise of entertainment?

We cannot debate opponents if we do not listen to them, or take their viewpoints seriously.

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Modern media constantly tell us stories and show us pictures.

This frustrates church leaders. Stories offer lessons for life, but often in ways that are not logical or easy to translate. And besides, how can the church keep up with the waves of electronic media that flow through a typical American home in the space of a week, a month, a year?

Thus, the church tends to ignore the social role and content of mass media. A typical pastor may stand in a pulpit and assume that his listeners understand sermons based on a Greek New Testament or a spiritual classic from then 16th century. But that same pastor will avoid dissecting the religious “signals” contained in a hit movie or television series because the entire congregation may not have seen it. This is one of many signs of a culture gap between the pulpit and the pews.

The point is this: for better and for worse, popular culture has spiritual and moral content. Popular culture offers the church a window into the subjects and images of daily life. Yes, the mirror of mass media is warped, at times. But this does not lessen the power of media to influence our culture. We must be critical as we tune into “signals” from media.

But all too often the church has little to offer, in terms of informed insights into popular culture and the role that mass media play in daily life. I have found this to be just as true of churches on the left as on the right. It is true that many conservatives, and sometimes a few liberals, will attack the contents of specific shows. This is not enough.

We cannot see popular culture’s power because it is too obvious and too close to us. It is this closeness that blinds us. It is like the Chinese proverb, often quoted by media theorists, that says: If you ask fish to describe their lives, they will not mention water. It plays a role in their lives that is too big to see.

We swim in media. This is especially true of Americans born since World War II. Church-growth researcher Lyle Schaller once told me for young Americans, media is not an influence on their culture — it is the only culture they share. In the future, everything young Americans know about their lives will have been shaped by the language, images and style that they absorbed from media.

Why does the church ignore the role that news and entertainment media play in our lives?

It will help to look at what I believe are the five ways in which the church has tended to look at popular culture.

 

(1) Burn the culture: This is the traditional approach of those on the religious right, the “fundamentalists” or “separatists.” Simply stated it says, “When in doubt, burn it.” This is especially true if there are television cameras nearby to record the scene. If the theological left ever uses this approach, it is almost always for reasons of elitism.

Obviously, separatism is appropriate when dealing with many of the extreme forms of media that degrade women and children. But I do not believe this should be the church’s primary approach to popular culture. Today’s media technologies are so pervasive and invasive that I believe we must understand how they work, and know something about their contents, even if we are going to create realistic strategies to help our people avoid them.

I have been told that some members of Amish communities pay attention to trends in the modern world, so that they can devise ways to avoid those very trends. You have to know something about automobiles to know to put red reflectors on the back of your buggies.

 

(2) Baptize the culture: This approach is most often identified with the religious left. This view says that the culture is ahead of the church. The Bible is an out of date, culturally skewed book and its writers didn’t understand life the way that we do today. Modern trends are the test of truth.

Thus, the church attempts to change to fit the contents of the culture. Bishop William C. Frey of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa., has called this “theology by opinion poll.”

Case in point: If millions of teen-agers want to have sex, then the Bible must be out of date in forbidding premarital sex. The left may also use this approach on issues of salvation or images of God. Note: The right often baptizes the culture on issues on economic and military issues.

When a church baptizes the culture it ends up with something that looks Christian, but the culture has soaked in. In many Episcopal and other old-line Protestant churches the liturgies look and sound the same — but the words have been redefined to mesh with the culture. The skin looks the same, but the heart has been changed.

 

(3) Photocopy the Culture: This is the dominant approach among modern evangelicals. The secular culture has radio, TV and video. Thus, Christians have “Christian” radio, TV and video. They have heavy metal and rap, Christians have heavy metal and rap. They have counseling and co-dependency books. Ditto. They have aerobics classes, Christians have “firm believer” tapes.

The secular world adores attractive superstars. So do Christians. Stop and think: How many megachurches have short, fat, elderly, humorless senior pastors?

The church rushes to offer its own version of each innovation by the popular culture. This shadow culture serves many purposes, but it often leads to a retreat from any contact with the very culture the church is trying to reach. This is a strange approach to evangelism and mission.

When modern megachurches use this approach the result is often the mirror image of that used in liberal churches. In this case, the rituals and words are changed, but the doctrinal core remains the same. The skin is changed, but the heart remains.

Note that this approach often fails to take seriously the ways in which media shape messages. A 5-minute sermonette cannot deliver the content offered by Charles Spurgeon sermon. Media critic Neil Postman has said that whatever Native Americans communicated by smoke signals, he doubts that they discussed abstract philosophy and mathematics. Jim and Tammy Bakker did not think that television would change them. It did.

 

(4) Change the Culture. Most of the time, we think of “liberals” or “social gospel” activists as the people who want to change culture through their own efforts. But please note that in the 1980s it was the theological right that stressed this approach. At times, conservatives seemed to think they could usher in the kingdom once they had signed up enough voters and locked up the right number of seats on the Supreme Court.

I would be the last person to argue against Christians being involved in social causes. I would never suggest that the church should abandon what Reformed thinkers call the “cultural mandate” to work for change. All of God’s creation is both good and fallen. We live with that tension. We cannot write off chunks of God’s creation — such as politics, or the media — as beyond redemption.

But, once again, what happens when this is the church’s primary approach to culture? Often, the result is a “save the world” posture.

 

(5) Debate the Culture: Simply stated, this is a missionary approach to culture. I believe that we live and work in a post-Christian, missionary culture.

Yet our churches rarely seem to be structured — emotionally or intellectually — to welcome evangelism and missions. All too often we are not interested in the practical issues of people’s lives. Our blind spot on media and popular culture is evidence of a larger problem, a condition that I call “separation of church and life.”

Don’t hold your breath waiting for seminaries to help clergy wrestle with these issues. Here’s the most cynical observation I can make about this situation: I am convinced our seminaries will require foreign missions majors to study the impact of American popular culture in the Third World before they require pastors to study the impact of media on the lives of people in American pews and neighborhoods.

Before we take a deeper look at a missionary approach to popular culture, I want to suggest that many Christians use a sixth, and clearly non-biblical, approach to mass media.

This option is apathy. Many Christian leaders either ignore, or pretend to ignore, what is being said and done in mass media. They act as if they do not care about the role it plays in millions of lives. I have studied the New Testament and I would like to say that I have not found evidence of a biblical, Spirit-filled gift of apathy. It’s not in there, anywhere.

The bottom line: I do not know why so many Christian leaders have decided that such powerful forces in modern life — principalities and powers, if you will — cannot be addressed by the church.

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The seminarian was puzzled, if not alarmed. Why was it so important, he asked, for Denver Seminary students to learn how to analyze trends in the secular news and entertainment media?

Everyone knows, he said, that the secular media are liberal and opposed to everything the church loves. So why take up classroom time trying to dissect “signals” from our popular culture? After all, these were not the kinds of subjects that future pastors expected to study in their seminary years.

It was the spring of 1991 and I had only been on the Denver Seminary campus for two weeks as “Communicator on Culture.” I knew I had some explaining to do.

I told the class, “Pretend that I don’t speak fluent evangelical. Tell me, in simple English, about a subject that really matters to seminary students.”

A master of divinity student in the front row quickly answered: “Discipleship.”

O.K., I said, what does “discipleship” mean?

He answered by saying that he wanted his ministry to touch people’s real lives. He wanted to affect their views on the big issues of daily life — like marriage and money. “I want the faith to affect … how they live,” he said.

I agreed. Properly understood, “discipleship” will affect wallets, pocket calendars and bedrooms.

Then I pointed at the blackboard, where I had written today’s major forms of media, including television, advertising, movies, the news media, popular music and video and various other print media. The secular media, I joked, have no influence on how Americans view jobs, success, sex, family, divorce, children, life, death or eternity. People in our pews, and the unchurched, are never influenced by the media as they face these “big issues.” And the folks who run the media never ignore or knock Christianity. Right?

Looking around the classroom, I could see lights switching on.

It was while I was teaching and doing research on a seminary campus that I developed a three-part definition of “discipleship” for use in modern America. It consists of three questions:

  • How do you spend your time?
  • How do you spend your money?

How do you make your decisions?

If you can answer these questions without colliding with the power of the news and entertainment media, then you have a promising future in ministry to the Amish. They may be the only Americans whose lives will fit your approach to ministry and mission.

Yes, I admit that this is a secular, highly statistical definition of an important Christian term — “discipleship.” But I believe that it offers insights into the lives of people in our pews and in the communities that our churches claim to want to reach.

Consider, for a brief moment, the role that television plays in most American homes. At least one television set is turned on in the typical American home somewhere between 20 and 50 hours a week, depending the survey that is cited. Meanwhile, other studies have claimed that children may spend only a minute or less a day in communication with their fathers.

Dr. Quentin Schultze of Calvin College has defined the American family as an economic unit made up of people who agree to cohabitate for the purpose of paying their bills and watching television.

In The Plug-In Drug, Marie Winn makes this devastating observation. It is not children who are the primary television addicts, she said. “It is their parents, fatigued by their offspring’s incessant demands for learning in the broadest sense of the word (learning that may involve whining, screaming, throwing things, pestering), who require the `relaxation’ afforded by setting the kids before the television screen and causing them to become, once again, … passive captives.”

Winn’s thesis: Television is a drug administered by parents to their own children to make them docile, because, in the short run, that seems easier than raising the children themselves.

Is television a “discipleship” issue? Does it affect how people spend their time and money, and how they make their decisions? Is it an issue that the church should address?

Stop and think about the typical den or family room. Any student of religious architecture would recognize the shapes of these rooms. Seating is arranged so that everyone can see through an empty vertical space that runs through the room. Everyone has a clear view of one crucial spot in the room, without having to turn their bodies in an uncomfortable manner. This is a religious sanctuary and, in the place of the Holy of Holies, sits the alternative altar known as the television.

If and when churches wake up and decide to address issues of media and popular culture, we must not allow these efforts to be focused only on children and young people. If we are honest, if we are missionaries who are concerned about people in this culture, then we must realize that these issues affect everyone — especially parents.

Consider one more specific issue: what is the number one complaint American wives have about their husbands?

Watching football games on television is only a symptom of a larger communications issue. The boys who are trained to sit quietly and watch, watch, watch — in large part so that they won’t destroy the house — tend to grow into passive men who think communication is a one-way activity that can be avoided by turning on a television. Men sit, as trained, and wives wonder why their husbands don’t talk to them.

————

At this point students almost always ask an important question. “Look, I’m confused,” one will say. “Do you want us to watch more TV, or less TV?”

My answer is simple: “I want you to watch less TV, but I want you to be awake while you’re doing it.”

Of course there’s more to it than that. As I said, I believe mass media carry “signals” that can offer church leaders insights into the strengths and weaknesses of secular faith proclaimed in popular culture. I believe we have to take media seriously enough to talk to people about the programs that influence them. We must ask young people about the superstars that influence their dress, speech and beliefs. We must be prepared to talk to married couples about media issues in their relationships. We must learn about the lives of people who live in our mission field.

Thus, I have developed a four-step process to help clergy and other church leaders think about specific media “signals.”

Step one, obviously, is to select a specific media “signal,” as previously defined.

Step two is tricky and requires honest, open-minded analysis of this specific example of secular media. Our goal is to find the “secular subject” of that “signal,” as it might be defined by its secular creators.People who create popular culture must attract an audience. In one way or another they have to deal with real life issues. They often do a better job at this task than do church people. Secular artists are forced to deal with the “big issues” — life, death, love, hate, money, marriage, sex, fear, children, anger, pride, hatred, war and so forth and so on. In step two, we need to ask: what was the subject that the artist wanted to address?

Step three is a mirror image of step two. Lo and behold, once you have found this “secular subject,” it will almost always have Christian and moral overtones. It will be a “sacred subject,” a “big issue” that also drew the attention of saints and sinners in the Bible. At this point the church, marching through the centuries, can help us.Stories change. Images change. Questions often sound new and strange. But the “big issues” of life are remarkably constant, because the stuff of human experience is the same. Doctrines exist and the Bible speaks to each generation because the “sacred subjects” — don’t change. At this point, seminary-educated clergy and other church leaders are within shouting distance of daily life issues, as they are framed in popular culture.

Step four is the hardest part for most church leaders. At this point Christians need to think like missionaries and create ways in which the church can respond to specific “signals.” This does not require a television network or digital equipment. I believe the church must respond by using its strengths — preaching, Christian education, prayer groups, retreats and other traditional forms of ministry.But here is the key: it’s crucial for church leaders to actually quote the “signal” as part of their response. We must talk to our people about the power the media play in their lives. We must quote Woody Allen on death. We must admit that we heard the voices of female anger in “Thelma and Louise.” We must tell parents the names of the other gods who are slipping into the world of Saturday morning television. When a cartoonist calls his work “Calvin and Hobbes,” we need to laugh and explain to our people why this is theologically important.

Why is this so important?

We must let women and men, girls and boys, know that the church cares about the forces that shape their lives. Like it or not, in modern America this means that the church must be prepared to debate the contents of the news and entertainment media. We cannot begin this debate, let alone conduct it in a critical manner, without studying “signals” from popular culture and then openly discussing them in the church.

Church leaders who dare to do this will find that people want to discuss these subjects — a lot. They will not be dispassionate. They will challenge your opinions and criticize your judgments. They will pull you aside and bend your ear. They will ask questions. Many will ask for help.

For many church leaders these reactions will be scary, at first. The church will have actually addressed a part of people’s lives that matter to them.

This is a reason to address media issues, not a reason to turn and run. We must fight the separation of church and life. Church leaders must admit that most of our people do not have the media under control. If anything, it’s the other way around.

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“Now while Paul was waiting … at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be there.” (Acts 17: 16-17)

The missionary was on the move during his first days in a city that defined truth for millions of people. He listened carefully in the public square, tuning in as old and new ideas collided. He talked with ordinary people, politicians, merchants, academics and religious leaders about the choices that defined their lives.

But mostly the missionary watched and listened as ordinary people went about their daily lives. He was interested in how they spent their time and their money. He cared about the ideas and forces that pulled at them as they made their decisions. It grieved him to see so many people surrendering their bodies, minds and souls to idols.

It seemed as if people were flirting with truth, competing to see who could try out the most new ideas and idols. Change was the true god. People rushed about and worshipped at many different idols and altars, some with names and some without.

Finally, Athens’ Powers That Be decided to hear what St. Paul had to say.

“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: `Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.’” (Acts 17: 22-23)

Paul was a missionary.

Picture this. What would Paul see if he visited our shopping malls, offices and schools? What if he spent time in our living rooms? What are the forces he would see shaping our popular culture and how we spend our time and money, and how we make our decisions?

In his remarks on Mars Hill, Paul argued that it is in God that we “we live and move and have our being.” Media critic Kenneth Myers has noted that, for modern Americans, the truth would be more like: “In television, we live and move and have our being.”

Today, many modern Americans vote for the presidential candidate who tells the best one-liners. Young people turn to rock stars, movies and cable television for advice about private affairs and sexual decisions that, today, can be matters of life and death. Many parents allow their children to be raised by fictional characters. If real-life versions of many of these fleeting characters actually showed up on the doorstep, most parents would call 911.

This is our culture. Today’s media are the merchants, politicos and preachers who compete in the market place. Yet the church seems afraid to respond.

Paul had courage and he didn’t compromise. He spoke from a heart that ached because of what he had seen in markets, streets, temples and homes. He did his home work and then preached with compassion and insight. He dared to recognize both the strengths and weaknesses of the culture around him.

Paul listened to the voices in the market place. He paid attention to the images in the public square. Then, on Mars Hill, Paul was ready to debate for the hearts, minds and souls of the lost.

What would Paul see and hear, if he visited our market place? How would he see us spending our time and money, and making our decisions? What would he say about how we are living our lives?

Paul was a missionary and he founded missionary churches.

Would Paul ignore the media?

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