The liturgy of mass media, parents, young people and TV (2000)

Published in Again Magazine, an Orthodox magazine emphasizing missions and evangelism

I have no idea how many times I have heard church leaders quote the following statement by Bob Pittman, one of the key executives in the development of MTV: “At MTV, we don’t shoot for the 14-year-olds, we own them.”

It’s easy to understand why conservatives keep doing this. This is precisely the kind of laugh-to- keep-from-crying line sound bite that cuts deep with Christian audiences. I’ve used it myself and, truth is, I just used it again.

Pittman was being serious and his boast is fair game, when it comes to sparking discussions of many cultural and moral issues linked to young people in America and, increasingly, around the world. However, I’m getting worried about the frequent use of this quotation, and many other punchy references to MTV and youth culture. Frankly, I worry that adults would rather moan about the sins of the young, and those who cater to them, than focus on the role that entertainment plays in all of our lives.

During the past two decades, I have had many conversations with leaders in churches, denominations, parachurch groups and even seminaries about media trends. Most in most of these interviews, we cover a wide range of issues. But there almost always comes a time when the other person says something like: “You know, we really need to do something about our young people. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff they are exposed to these days. You know, I heard somewhere that the head of MTV once said. …”

Yes, I know: “At MTV, we don’t shoot for the 14-year-olds, we own them.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m worried about the role that music videos, movies, computers, personal stereos, television and other forms of mass media play in the lives of young people. I agree with the statement, made by Dr. Quentin Schultze and a circle of media researchers at Calvin College in their classic book “Dancing In The Dark”: “Usually adults simply ignore youth-oriented popular art and accept only their own views as legitimate. By ignoring youth art, however, adults ignore the children in their care.”

Believe it or not, many Christian institutions continue to ignore youth culture. It is my observation that this is especially true in many small- and medium-sized churches that believe they do not have the time and resources to emphasize Christian education, evangelism and youth work. This would certainly include many, if not most, Orthodox parishes.

But I’m also convinced that many Christians use youth-culture issues — such as MTV’s morality — as a smoke screen. As long as we’re wagging our heads at the latest offerings from Marilyn Manson, or even Britney Spears, we don’t have to look at the role that mass media play in the lives of parents and adults. And that let’s us dodge the most important issue: Who teaches young people to place mass media, especially TV, at the center of their lives?

We have reached the point where some Christians are asking if television and other forms of media have replaced the church as the teacher of right and wrong in our society. This is a disturbing question. But on closer analysis it’s a silly question, because the church isn’t a statistically important enough force in the lives of young people, even Christian young people, to merit such a comparison.

At best, the church has the attention of a few young people for about two to three hours a week. And the media? Depending on the poll that is cited, the typical child or teen watches between 3 and 4 hours of television a day, with a tidal wave of electronic entertainment all but erasing their weekends. Others place the TV-use figure even higher, in this age when television is being used more in schools and a set is almost always on somewhere in public places and in the kitchen or family room.

So forget the church, for a moment. Here’s the real question: Has mass media replaced the family?

When religious leaders talk about youth culture, they almost always link media and peer pressure. This is comforting, because it puts the problem in the context of the school, the mall or other such environments. The bottom line: Blame young people for how they use and abuse media.

But stop and think. Who are the first media teachers for young people, especially the very young? In her book “The Plug-In Drug: Television, Children, and the Family,” secular researcher Marie Winn makes this devastating observation. It is not children who are the primary television addicts. “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 sobering thesis: Television is a drug administered by parents to their own children to make them docile, because this seems easier than making and enforcing rules in the home and raising the children themselves.

Schultze has gone so far as to define the American family as “an economic unit” made up of people who agree to live under one roof for the purpose of “paying their bills and watching television.”

Naturally, it doesn’t take long for children to graduate from the “parental” school of media use into the graduate school run by their peers. A study commissioned by Nickelodeon and USA Today found that 45 percent of children in the first through tenth grades already have their own television set. In one Denver suburb, a firm that produces video yearbooks found that the overwhelming majority of teens — as high as 90 percent — already had their own VCRs. That was a decade ago. I doubt that the percentage has declined.

Consider the following quotations from “Dancing In The Dark”: “Messages flow horizontally within generations rather than vertically across generations — in other words, this society follows the communication patterns used by the media, a pattern that isolates as it connects.” Early in this century, this pattern was already emerging and, by the ’60s, it was firmly established. “Instead of watching TV with their families, teens generally watch it alone or in peer groups and talk little to their parents about their viewing.” In the end, the messages of mass media become virtual “maps of reality” for their consumers, of all ages, providing “stories, metaphors and symbols that explain life and suggest responses to its quandaries and mysteries.”

Who encourages or allows these patterns to become established so early in life? The principalities and powers in mass culture, yes, but also parents. Who has failed to address these issues? Adults who lead churches, seminaries and other Christian institutions. Simply stated, to address the role that media plays in “catechizing” young people, we have to stop thinking of mass media as a mere issue of “youth culture.” We have to place this issue in the context of the family.

For millions of parents, and thus for their children, the use of media has become the liturgy of their lives. Entertainment and news media provide a kind of never-ending backdrop of sight and sound that influences how they spend their time and money, and how they make their decisions.

Let’s briefly look at one omnipresent form of media: advertising.

We live in a numbing age of visual sermons. We are surrounded by them, but rarely bother to take them seriously. Above all, we do not understand that how visual media communicate is just as important as what they communicate. We soak up the symbols and stories — day after day after day, world without end.

One of the few things on which most Americans agree is that we are not influenced by advertisements. Yet most folks walking in the mall can chant dozens of jingles, fill in the blanks in hundreds of ad slogans and their likes and dislikes have been shaped by years of images, by a virtual video catechism of what it means to be alive.

But few ads today make their pitch using lines of type and linear arguments. Instead, they show us images. Some are funny and some are stupid, but they are almost always colorful and gripping. Truth is, these images are the first step in a kind of sacramental system. Step 1: See this image, experience this feeling, feel this need. Step 2: Buy and consume this product. Step 3: Accept, by faith, that using or consuming this product will help you become like the people in the images.

The goal is to be able to say, “I am the kind of person who consumes this product.” Whether they realize it or not, millions of people are making professions of faith at the shopping mall.

This transcends logic. Media theorists Luigi and Allesandra Maclean Manca note that “consumers tend to act toward a product as if it had a soul or a personality of its own. The function of advertising is therefore to suggest or even create this soul in the minds of the consumers. ^Å This is obviously a pseudo-spirituality. Viewing the crime, fear, organized violence, poverty, racism, and genocide that are also part of our daily lives, it seems likely that we actually have a great spiritual void.”

Visual images are especially effective at telling stories and stirring emotions. They paint in broad, symbolic strokes, with the images building in layers, shaping opinions and attitudes.

As one of my mentors, the legendary preaching professor Haddon Robinson, once put it: “We are in an antagonistic environment. It’s an environment that communicates with images. It doesn’t come out and argue. It just simply shows you pictures — day after day after day after day. Before you realize it, in the basement of your mind, you discover that you have shifted your values and many times you’ve lost your faith. That’s a change. ^Å When you watch television, people are robbed and raped and murdered and they never pray. They never seek out a minister. They never bother going to church. That world of television is a world in which God has no place. It’s the world we live in.” If the church doesn’t take this change seriously, he noted, then “we are going to be left in the exhaust fumes of the society.”

Thus, cars and trucks are signs of spiritual freedom. Soft drinks bring joy or promote peace. Clothes change personalities. Chewing gum becomes a sign of teen rebellion. Perfumes inspire love. Tires show that parents love their children. Life insurance bestows a kind of immorality.

And so forth and so on, in other forms of media. Please remember at music videos are, first and foremost, advertisements for songs and musical products. Many movies and entire networks are becoming extended forms of music videos.

Today, the liturgy of the media influences how we elect politicians, gather information and respond, or fail to respond, to preachers and to worship. Consumers search for the “soul” of these products, images, stories and people, seeking to absorb some of those powerful ideas and feelings into their lives and, thus, their own souls. They consume what they want to become, over and over, in a daily process that changes their lives.

This ritual — this liturgy — is taught in the family room. The television brings us our icons.

Church leaders must grasp this reality before they can truly begin to address the role that mass media play in modern life. We cannot settle for tossing rhetorical bombs at MTV and at our young people.



Part II: 20 commandments on television

By Terry Mattingly


Very few Americans watch programs on television.

Now, let me refine that statement a bit. We don’t watch programs on television. We watch television. We don’t sit down and make choices about what to watch and what not to watch. We sit down and watch television — period.

I saw this reality first hand in the early 1990s, while I was teaching at Denver Theological Seminary. During a class entitled “The Contemporary World and the Christian Task,” I asked a room full of future pastors to divide into four groups, choosing from the following options:

They and their families could watch:

  • No television whatsoever.
  • Anything they wanted to watch, but it had to be on a RENTED videocassette.
  • Anything they wanted to watch on a videocassette, but they had to use their VCR timer and tape it themselves.
  • Whatever television they wanted to watch, so long as they kept a journal of what they watched, including each and every channel change.

To my surprise, the students begged and pleaded to be allowed in the “no television” group. Why? They were terrified to have to THINK about what they would watch. They feared the process of making choices. It was easier to unplug the TV, even for one or two weeks, than it was to take this issue seriously.

So when Christian parents ask me for help in controlling their television sets (and other media appliances), I always ask if they are serious. If you are serious, here’s a list of 20 suggestions that I prepared during a recent series of adult-education forums at my home parish, Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church in Linthicum, MD. This list is in no particular order, although the most important guiding principles are at the top.

  1. Have one television set in the home. Media critic Neil Postman has said that people have always had castles in the air and imaginary lives, but that it was not until television that people actually tried (perhaps statistically speaking) to live in them. Multiple sets means members of the same family are living in SEPARATE castles in the air, with their own rules, lingo, myths and creeds. Having only one set at least makes the family confront this imaginary world together.
  2. Get a cabinet for the TV with doors or put it on a cart that goes in a closet. I prefer the cabinet option, because it will let you emphasize the positive. You might consider getting a good multi-media set up, so that the times when you choose to watch visual media a real event. The goal is to choose to use visual media as a form of entertainment or information, note as a mere utility to kill time.
  3. Children should never watch TV alone. If you stick with this rule, it will have an amazing impact on your whole family.
  4. Learn to program your VCR. Jay Leno says that whenever he visits his parents’ house, dozens of electronic gadgets are blinking “12:00, 12:00, 12:00.” That won’t do. If you can program your VCR, you can control what you watch and when you choose to watch it. You can mark up the local TV listings and tape the good stuff. This leads to the rule that we try to follow in our household. We strive to average watching only one hour of visual media a day — on tape. (As a journalist, I allow myself one news show.)
  5. Have a greatest-hits shelf, containing taped programs that are worth repeated use. You can consider getting a “classic” movie cable channel, so that you can teach your children not to be prejudiced against the past.
  6. Read a newspaper. It is amazing how much can learn about the extremes of visual media — the best and the worst — merely by reading and clipping articles in a good newspaper.
  7. Eat together. Allow the family to mix TV and a meal no more than once a week. When you choose to do this, do it all together.
  8. Talk back to the TV. Voice your opinions — especially on the moral and religious content in programs and even in advertisements. Let your children, every now and then, see you reject the content or the quality of a TV show or rented movie so completely that you turn it off.
  9. Allow no TV on Saturday mornings before noon. Ever. This is the time slot in which children are first hooked on niche culture, youth fads and the idea that it is good for them to purchase their own identities at the mall. Saturday morning TV is a parent-free zone.
  10. During Christmas, watch no TV specials and try to skip all the ads. Ban television during family reunions. If you want to watch a great Christmas movie, do it on tape. While you’re at it, try watching classic Christmas movies during the 12 days of Christmas. Don’t settle for watching one in between “Titanic” and “Jurassic Park,” and other Thanksgiving weekend specials.
  11. Dare to consider this: No TV at all during Great Lent.
  12. Men! Dare to consider this: One sporting event a week on television.
    Women! Ditch Oprah, the high-priestess of American pantheism.
  13. Whenever you can, read the books before you watch movies based on books, even if this means skipping a movie for some time. Why? You can teach children a great truth — that stories have creators that shape them and the values contained in them. Plus, there is more story in the book. That’s the REAL version.
  14. Understand what it means to purchase a VHS tape or a DVD. When you do this, you are recommending this movie or program to your children for repeated viewing. You are saying that there is something in it that we want to see many, many times. Why? Why is it that good? Have that conversation.
  15. It is good for parents to have a favorite TV show or movie and to explain to their children why it matters so much to them. We must confess that our entertainment choices affect us and say something about who we are.
  16. Video games are a form of visual entertainment and should count as TV. Also, put the family computer in a crossroads or high-traffic part of the house.
  17. It’s OK to enjoy FUN movies, even if they make little or no sense. God created fun and silliness can be relaxing. Don’t let your children think you are a grouch all the time on media issues. Embrace the Pink Panther and the Marx Brothers.
  18. Tell other parents about your rules and ask them for help, when their children interact with your children. Share your rules with school personnel and after-school workers and ask for their help.
  19. Vocalize exceptions to the rules. We will all bend our media rules for special events, like the Olympics or “Alec Guinness Week” on Turner Classic Movies. But if we speak these exceptions out loud, it will only re-enforce the rules and make them easier to understand.
  20. Demand positive, as well as negative, media feedback from your church leaders. Form an Internet circle for parents, in order to share info and views with friends. Post the addresses of helpful WWW sites on the church’s WWW site. Praise the good and pass on videocassettes.

And, yes, dare to talk to your priest about this part of your lives, including in confession. The condition that I call “separation of church and life” is a heresy.


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