Orlando, evangelicals & TV Culture (1994)

An essay that no one wanted to publish

DATE: 8/1/94
FROM: Prof. Terry Mattingly
TO: Christianity Today
RE: Orlando and the role of television

This is a short test for evangelicals.
Name three American cities that are known as centers for:

    (1) Cultural liberalism.
    (2) The news and entertainment media.
    (3) Evangelical Christianity.

    Whenever this test is used, two cities always top the list on question No. 1 — New York City and Los Angeles. A number of cities compete for third, with Washington, D.C., and San Francisco usually strong contenders. On question No. 2, New York City and Los Angeles, or Hollywood, win again. In fact, many people cannot think of a third powerful media center. Some will name Washington, D.C.
    On question No. 3, most people name Wheaton, Ill., and Colorado Springs, Co. Picking a third place finisher is a challenge and answers are often based on denominational ties. Some say Grand Rapids, Mich. Others will say Cincinatti, or Dallas, or Tulsa, Okla. Many will nominate Orlando, Fla.
    People use this test to illustrate why evangelicals have so little impact in secular media, and why cultural liberals have so much power. Clearly, when it comes to creating the media signals that shape our society, evangelicals live in the wrong zip codes.
    Meanwhile, it isn’t surprising that evangelical capitols serve as centers for the publishing houses, networks and parachurch groups that create media products for conservative Christian culture. The secular culture has its media capitols and they influence the nation. Most of the time, their messages are liberal, on issues of morality. Conservative Christian media centers produce products for a smaller audience of insiders. In the Bible Belt this is called “preaching to the choir.”
    I got to thinking about this little test this summer when my family visited Orlando, to attend the North American Christian Convention. As mentioned earlier, Orlando is a popular center for evangelicals. It is known as a conservative city, with many powerful churches. Evangelical groups like to hold conventions in Orlando. A few weeks fore we arrived, the Southern Baptists were in town.
    It’s hard to turn on the radio in Orlando without hearing about Jesus or drive down a highway without seeing evidence of Christian life. I was especially taken by a radio spot promoting Central Florida’s hottest Christian beach vollyball tournament. But I also was struck by something else. Orlando is a kind of secular media capitol. A walk through the convention center lobby, or a glance at promotional materials, made it clear that the city’s life was rooted in popular culture. This is, literally, the city that Mickey Mouse built.
    Orlando is a shrine that honors televison’s role in the American home. Every year, millions of people from around the world venture into Central Florida’s hot, humid, flat terrain — miles from the glorious beaches — for one reason: so their children can try to live out their TV fantasies. It is a kind of secular pilgrimage. Many adults spend most of their visits filling camcorder tapes with video images of their children diving into the world of television. Later, they can replay the tapes — on the televisions in their family rooms.
    Few people would travel across the nation or around the world, spending precious vacation days and hundreds or thousands of dollars, to visit a park full of images they have seen once or twice on a movie screen. No, Orlando offers a chance to visit the fantasy world that is carried into homes day after day, year after year, by television. Yes, the Universal Studios theme park centers on movie images. But it wasn’t built until the rise of the VCR, which allows children to see their favorite films dozens or even hundreds of times. They love ET and ET loves them.
    It is not my goal to bash Orlando. But I do want to raise questions about the role television plays in millions of conservative Christian homes. I also want to link this to the absence of Christian influence in mass media.
    Evangelicals love to visit Orlando and consume its images. But note: Orlando is not a city that influences the products of popular culture. It merely sells them.
    Evangelicals love to consume the products offered by the secular media culture. We choose to let television and other entertainment media help shape our lives and homes. Meanwhile, it seems safer to live and work in the capitols of Christian life.
    Evangelicals enjoy paying visits to the commercial world of secular mass media. We believe we are merely on vacation, but it is naive to think that. No, we live there, like everybody else.


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