Are You Under Remote Control?
As popular culture sinks into moral relativism, the media pelts us with sex, violence and bad language. What has been the response of Christians?
Following Christ can be hard going in today’s world. As popular culture sinks into moral relativism, the media pelts us with sex, violence and bad language.
Many kids’ movies are packed with profanity, while Halo 3 and other video games teach little hands how to use rocket launchers and assault rifles.
Even if you sell your TV and cancel your broadband subscription, the media in general still carries a message of rampant commercialism and selfishness – as anyone recovering from Christmas will testify.
“The media tend to pander to people’s baser instincts,” says Barrie Doyle, public relations consultant and author of The Media and the Message. “It’s all about the quick fix. That’s why Britney Spears gets more attention than Darfur.”
On top of all this, Christians seem to appear in the media only to be laughed at or criticized. Documentaries like Jesus Camp look at the lunatic fringe (who “pledge allegiance to the Christian flag”) and assume all Jesus-followers are the same. Episodes of The Simpsons include Maude Flanders stating: “I just came back from Bible camp. I was learning to be more judgmental.”
Richard Landau, senior executive producer of balanced programming at CTS Television, agrees that Christians and other faith groups get a raw deal. “Christians are perceived as proselytizing, annoying and intolerant,” says Landau. “The media loves the fringe element who handle snakes and terrorize young kids, and they put all people of faith into the same bundle.”
Resisting the urge to retreat
This kind of assault on the Christian worldview is enough to make anyone climb into a hole and wait for the Second Coming. But that isn’t what Jesus calls us to do.
“Christians have a fear of the media, which is a fear of the unknown,” says Doyle. “The typical reaction is to ignore it and stick your head in the sand. This leads to a great divide – we see ignorance and prejudice in the media, but we don’t see our own.”
So what’s the answer? It’s clear that ignoring mass media won’t make it go away. The average Canadian watches more than 21 hours of TV a week, and nearly 70 percent of North Americans are Internet users. Many Christians have responded by co-opting the media for themselves, bringing about their own counterculture in the hope of winning hearts and minds away from the morally bankrupt mainstream.
Creating Christian media
“The media has lost its way philosophically and morally,” says Timothy Bloedow, the author of State vs.Church who has worked as a media coordinator and speechwriter for two Members of Parliament. “You get far more bang for your buck if you develop your own media. Christian media outlets, especially on the internet, can be a remedy to the mainstream media.”
Christian counterculture doesn’t stop at online news sites like Christian Post and WorldNetDaily. It includes every form of media, from the more traditional newspapers and radio to music, movies, books, and video games (in Left Behind: Eternal Forces, players battle for the streets of New York City and defend themselves from the Anti-Christ). There’s even God TV and GodTube, a video sharing website billed as ‘the Christian answer to YouTube’.
But how effective is all this in superseding the influence of mainstream media? GodTube had four million unique visitors in October 2007 – which sounds impressive until it’s compared to YouTube’s 55 million. Provincial and national Christian newspapers have lower circulation rates than community newspapers in small towns.
Isolation isn’t the answer
By simply creating a Christian copy of mainstream media, not only do we run the risk of merchandizing Jesus, we are also in danger of segregating ourselves.
“If we start our own media, we’re talking to ourselves. That’s not the purpose of communication,” says Doyle. “Christian newspapers are struggling to survive. Radio and TV are virtually non-existent. The market isn’t there.”
Landau, who includes voices from all faith communities in his programming, agrees. “Separate media is not the answer – no-one hears you if you’re isolated. Christians need to be integrated with the mainstream so their stories can be told there.”
Jesus has sent us into the world (see John 17:18) where we’re called to be salt and light (see Matthew 5:13-14). Our mission is not to separate ourselves from the world, but to engage with it and transform it from within. This includes mainstream media.
Brett Ullman speaks to conferences and schools around Canada on current issues affecting youth, including media, faith and culture. “Christians need to get into main-stream culture,” he says. “We don’t need a Christian ghetto, with the idea of Christian and secular, us and them. What we do need is students to go to Ryerson (University) or Hollywood. We need Christians on Broadway and in acting, and we should be supporting the people who do that.”
Ullman points out examples of Christians already living out their faith in popular culture. Bands like Switchfoot and Underoath, performers like Chris Daughtry and Backstreet Boys’ Brian Littrell. Christian journalists who write for mainstream newspapers are regularly featured on Christianity.ca and similar websites. “There are many writers in the secular media whose comments and opinions are often valuable for Christians to consider,” says Daina Doucet, online editor of Christianity.ca. “Lorna Dueck (executive producer of ListenUp TV, a television show that looks at current events from a spiritual perspective) has a column in the Globe and Mail. Lynda MacGibbon, NB/PEI campus ministry director for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, writes for the Moncton Times & Transcript.”
Bombarded with worldy values
Influence, however, goes both ways – and while we need to be engaging with the media, we also need to be aware of its influence on our lives. Believers can look at ratings of mainstream media products based on Christian values (for example, Christian Spotlight on Entertainment) but we also need to be aware that sin isn’t restricted to sex, violence and drugs. Subtler sins like materialism and judgmentalism can just as easily creep into a Christian’s mindset.
The answer, says Ullman, is to focus on what is good and pure, not necessarily ‘Christian’. Sinful influences are not just the preserve of mainstream media (Eternal Forces is just as violent as Halo), and secular movies like Lord of the Rings show that Christians do not have the monopoly on goodness.
Seeking the pure and lovely
“There are positive and negative influences in all media,” says Ullman. “We need to challenge people to think critically, to look at the worldview of the media around them, then make a decision about what to put into their lives.”
By focusing on “whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Philippians 4:8), believers can learn to find a balance – between filling our lives with godly influences and knowing what our friends are talking about when they quote The Simpsons.
“It’s about listening to and thinking of the things of God, while living our lives in relationship with non-Christians,” Ullman concludes. “We should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”
Suzie Chiodo is an editor and freelance journalist based in Niagara, Ontario. Trained in Britain, she has contributed to The Economist, The Daily Mail, and various community papers in London. In Canada she has published articles in the Hamilton Spectator, Grimsby News, Beacon Magazine, The Design Exchange's Express newsletter, and has appeared on CTS's On the Line as well as Behind the Story. Her website is Northern Exposure.
Originally published in Beacon, March/April 2008.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2008 Christianity.ca.