Monday, July 24, 2006

Fantasy Violence and Children

As a kid growing up in suburban Chicago, I loved stories with a violent edge to them: Hansel and Gretel destroying the evil witch, Jack killing the giant by chopping down his bean stalk, Bugs blowing up Elmer Fudd, or Ultraman kicking the behind of a bad Japanese actor in a giant, rubber monster suit. On the playground, these stories took the form of Cowboys and Indians, where no one ever wanted to be the Indians because they never got to use guns.

As I got older, the stories changed but the violence remained. Be it the balletic violence of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, the superhuman violence of Superman or Spider-Man, the widespread carnage in sci-fi or fantasy shows like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, or the more realistic violence of 24, these stories never ceased to resonate with me on some level.

Nevertheless, I am one of the least violent people I know. Despite spending the last 21 years training in various martial arts, I have never been in a real fight in my life nor do I ever want to. I have never owned a gun (although I do confess to an extensive collection of traditional Japanese weaponry) and have no plans to. I detest violence in reality.

When I look at my son, I see a similar pattern taking hold. Ultraman has been replaced by The Power Rangers and the Cowboys and Indians battles of my youth now take the form of epic light saber duels. (For some reason, all of the 14 kids in our complex own toy light sabers and meet behind our place for daily battles). Yet my son is one of the gentlest and most non-violent boys you will meet.

This phenomenon long baffled me. With the consumption of so many violent stories in my youth, why have I not grown into a homicidal maniac? Especially since that is exactly what our society tells us happens. Violence is a problem in our society, as it is in most. Many have decided that the cause of this problem is the portrayal of violent stories in the media. Children who watch violent shows, they say, build up aggression and are taught that violence is the way to release that aggression and solve problems. Thus, they imitate in real life what they watch on screen.

I have long suspected this was a shallow, naive, and ill-informed response to a complex problem. I certainly do not want to minimize the problem of societal violence nor minimize the role that the media may legitimately play, but blaming television or film violence as the primary cause is a bit like blaming the Hostess company for your weight problem. We often crave easy solutions to complex problems.

The truth is that many factors are at play: the abdication of parental responsibility, societal attitudes, school culture, etc. Focusing on the media as the primary problem and suggesting shielding children from all violent content without distinction is problematic for two reasons: 1) It removes the focus from the other significant causes and thus creates a situation where removal of violent content becomes the "solution" that may not solve anything. 2) It distorts the actual role of violent stories in a culture.

When evaluating violence in the media, we must approach it with the complexity that the issue requires, paying attention to the very real difference between fantasy violence and realistic violence, to the form of presentation, to the context in which the violence occurs, to the purpose that the violence serves in that story.

The fact is that violent stories permeate the Bible from beginning to end. We like to tell the flood story to our children because it involves cute animals, but have you actually read it lately? It is a horrific story of death and destruction -- the infliction of violence on a massive scale. Or, why do we tell the story of David and Goliath to our children? A young boy murders another man in the name of God. From Old Testament narratives, through the poetry of the prophets, the parables of Jesus, and the visions of Revelation, violence is never long absent from the pages of Scripture.

One way of relativizing this is to say that these stories are there only as negative examples of how violence is bad. No doubt some are, but in most cases the violence is an inherent part of the message: remove the violence and you distort the message. The violence in the parables of Jesus or in the visions of Revelation serve to communicate a spiritual and moral message.

Do we ignore the role of violence in the Bible or do we acknowledge that violent stories can be valuable catalysts for moral growth?

I did not really know how to address the complexity of the role that violent stories play for children until I read a controversial book by Gerard Jones titled Killing Monsters: Why Children NEED Fantasy, Super Hero, and Make-Believe Violence (If interested, you can find the book at Amazon by clicking the link to the right). Jones has worked both in the media and with children. He argues that fantasy violence is essential for the proper emotional development of children. He tells stories of children who grow up in families where all access to violent stories are removed, and yet the child still cuts their toast into the shape of a gun and plays with it. He consults child psychologists who argue that playing Cowboys and Indians or pretending to be Darth Vader are healthy ways for children to cope with this world and to learn how to live peacefully in it.

And what about all the studies showing media violence makes people violent? Jones examines these studies and demonstrates persuasively that they do not show quite what they claim to show and sometimes actually demonstrate the opposite.

Jones is careful to distinguish between fantasy violence (the focus of his book) and realistic portrayals of violence that are not appropriate or helpful to children. Many would counter that children are not capable of distinguishing between reality and fantasy. For a handful of kids, that is true. But Jones argues, and numerous psychologists back him up, that our children are very capable of making that distinction and often do a better job of it than adults.

Whether you buy his argument or not, we regularly hear so much about how bad fantasy violence is for children that it is important once in a while to look at the topic from another perspective. Jones' book provides that. His book is full of case studies of parents who forbid their children from playing with toy guns or watching superhero cartoons, only to discover that they were depriving them of the very things they needed to learn how to deal effectively with a violent world.

If Jones is right (and you can be the judge of that), maybe there is a reason after all, why we should tell our children the stories of David and Goliath and the flood.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Book Links

I am adding a new feature to my site. Since I occasionally will refer to, review, or discuss books on popular culture and/or religion, I will add under the "Links" section to the right, links to those books. Clicking on the link will take you to that book's page on where it can be easily purchased, should one decide to. I have begun by placing a link to my book on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (shameless plug of the week). I will add additional books as they come up in discussion.

It may be a few days before I post again as I will be going in for arthroscopic knee surgery tomorrow. One of the posts I have planned for then will be on a book that deals with the issue of violence in the media. I have found it to be one of the most fascinating takes on the subject, and will provide a link to it when I do that post.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Christians of the Caribbean

Yesterday I was passing the time watching the last five minutes of Family Feud and mocking the contestants for their cluelessness -- such as when the question is "Name something bricklayers use in their work" and the word "brick" doesn't come to their attention. Of course, when they were asked what parents put on vegetables to get their children to eat them, the first thing that came to my mind was honey. Now, for the record, I have never put honey on a vegetable, have never eaten a vegetable with honey on it, nor have I ever seen or heard of a person putting honey on a vegetable. Nevertheless, that is how my mind works.

Following this stimulating mental exercise, I switched the channel over to see what was happening on the O'Reilly Factor, only to be greeted with the visage of some member of a film ministry website arguing that the recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie has a Christian message. O'Reilly wasn't buying it and neither was I. I listened to the man's points, but in the end, the most that could be said was that the movie contained some general and very sketchy ideas about salvation and eternal punishment that could be made to resonate with some Christian teaching, but the point is that it would have to be "made" to do so. In short, the evidence did not remotely rise to the level of a "Christian message," in contrast, for instance, to the more overtly and intentionally (according to the director) Judeo-Christian symbolism of Superman Returns.

What was really at stake here for the man making this claim was the opportunity to fire another shot in the ongoing culture war. Whether correctly or incorrectly, many Christians feel under attack in our culture and are determined to attack back. Popular culture has become a fashionable weapon in this war.

I am a firm believer in the power of popular culture, for good and ill, and I believe that it is often a significant artistic vehicle for communication of spiritual and theological ideas. But I wonder: why do some Christians feel the need to co-opt every successful film for Christianity? Even if they were able to make the case that Pirates of the Caribbean has a Christian message, what do they expect that to accomplish? Do they expect mass conversions because a few cinematic pirates discussed issues of eternal damnation? Do they think that by associating Christianity with Captain Jack Sparrow, that it will somehow make Christianity more hip to the mall-going crowd?

Popular culture functions best when it is able to generate substantive dialogue about theological and spiritual issues. That substantive discussion, however, gets lost when popular culture becomes simply a tool to serve an agenda. Typically, it has been conservatives (religious or political) who have made the most egregious missteps in this regard. This is because Hollywood has traditionally been a bastion of liberal thinking -- it represents a turf war in which conservatives have lost most of the ground. So many are fighting to retake some territory. (This problem is not solely the possession of conservatives, though. Recently, I read an angry diatribe by a media democrat who was upset by the recent Republican conference that lauded the TV show "24" and engaged several of the creators and actors in dialogue about it. He wanted to claim "24" for the Democrats by insisting that the villainous President Logan was obviously Republican while the heroic President Palmer was clearly a Democrat, even though the show never identifies them as such and President Palmer possessed some traditionally Republican characteristics such as being pro-military and unapologetic about using extreme violence against terrorists. He was even known to willingly violate civil rights in the pursuit of justice. Is that the image Democrats want to claim?)

When popular culture becomes the tool of an agenda, those wielding it often end up looking foolish (like President Reagan who embraced Bruce Spingsteen's "Born in the USA" as the theme song for his campaign because of its seemingly patriotic title without realizing the song is a bitter protest against America's treatment of Vietnam veterans) or they end up getting more than they bargained for. Back in the 90's, Republicans made a big fuss about how Forrest Gump represented Republican ideals. Maybe so, but do you really want to hold up a dim-witted social misfit who only stumbles blindly into success as a symbol for your party?

What is needed in the church's relationship with popular culture is not a Hollywood PR campaign, but a more astute engagement with the material. Our shallow, devotional approach to film short changes both ourselves and the film itself. Films are visual novels and need to be "read" with the same depth and analytical rigor with which we read literature. Learning to do so can open up a wealth of insight and lead to the kind of cultural dialogue that makes us salt and light in the world.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Falling and The Rising, Part 2

In my previous post, I discussed songs on Bruce Springsteen's The Rising that address grief and the desire for revenge in the aftermath of 9/11. These fictional stories help us to work through and process the emotions that such a real catastrophic event provoke.

Another thing that fictional stories and music provide is inspiration and hope. Throughout the album Springsteen balances hopelessness and hopefulness through the juxtaposition of language and imagery: life vs death, darkness/night/evening vs light/day/morning, fire, blood, and tears vs faith, love, and strength. The most pervasive contrast on the album, though, is that of falling vs rising. Ultimately this album, produced in the aftermath of a crisis, is an album about how hope and faith can sustain us all through the darkness. For instance, the song "Waitin' On a Sunny Day" promises that even though "it's rainin' but there ain't a cloud in the sky," we can "chase the clouds away."

The song "Into the Fire" employs the imagery of falling and rising to tell the story of a fireman who gives his life trying to save those in the twin towers, told from the perspective of a loved one he left behind. It opens by telling us that "The sky was falling and streaked with blood." This imagery of falling and devastation is countered by the rising of this fireman into the very building that will fall.

You gave your love to me
and lay your young body down
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire

You can't miss the double meaning in the words ofthe narrator of the song when she says, "I need you near, but love and duty called you someplace higher." This is a song about how the sacrifice of such individuals, about how, as Jesus says, no greater love exists than to lay down one's life for others, can inspire us all to live a more noble life. The chorus of this song takes the form of a prayer on behalf of the fallen hero.

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love

In several songs on the album, this hope takes on an eschatological character, such as "Further On (Up the Road)." This song appears to be sung from the perspective of one who died in the attacks as he tells us that he's got on his "dead man's suit" and his "lucky graveyard boots." But the message of this song links back to that of "Waitin' on a Sunny Day", as he sings "One sunny mornin' we'll rise I know, and I'll meet you further on up the road."

I had the opportunity a few years ago to see Bruce Springsteen in concert as he was touring for The Rising. During the middle of the concert, he launched into a series of five songs, both old and new, that I took to be an intentional comment on 9/11. The middle three songs are fromThe Rising album, but the first and last song are much older Springsteen songs. Taken together, however, these five songs summarize well the entire message of The Rising album. The titles of the songs, taken in order, say it all:

"Darkness on the Edge of Town"
"You're Missing"
"Empty Sky"
"Waitin' On a Sunny Day"
"Promised Land"

They present a journey from suffering and tragedy through the emotional responses of grief and revenge to the hope for a better future. It is the movement from falling to rising.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Falling and The Rising, Part 1

My earlier post on "Cadillac Ranch" got me thinking about the power of fictional stories, particularly within popular music. The fictional narratives composed by great musical artists function in many ways, but the one that intrigues me at the moment is the use of fiction to comment on and cope with a non-fiction event.

After 9/11 many artists wrote songs as a means of national therapy, but no one harnessed the power of fiction as a means of analysis and comfort quite like Bruce Springsteen with his album The Rising -- a compendium of songs addressing 9/11 and its aftermath. In contrast to some songs that were quickly written and aired as a way of tapping immediately into the cultural mood, The Rising came out in 2002. That gap afforded Springsteen a bit of the perspective and reflection that comes from distance.

The songs on this album are mostly fictional tales of people impacted in one way or another by the events of 9/11. As such, they do not represent a unified point of view, but allow us to glimpse the event through the eyes and thoughts of people with very different viewpoints. One song, "Nothing Man," explores the problem of survivor guilt. "World's Apart" holds out hope for healing of the tensions that separate cultures and peoples. Even the perspective of a suicide bomber seems to find representation in "Paradise." Fiction here becomes a means of understanding the emotional responses of others as well as of ourselves.

A good example is the album's treatment of loss and grief. In the plaintive "You're Missing," Springsteen tells the story of a woman whose husband died in the attack. In listening to it, one feels the overwhelming grief of such loss.

Coffee cups on the counter,
jackets on the chair
Papers on the doorstep,
but you're not there. . .
Pictures on the nightstand,
TV's on in the den
Your house is waiting
for you to walk in
But you're missing,
you're missing.

More than just an ode to grief, this song also touches on the problem of evil that often finds expression in such moments. In the last stanza, the widowed woman states, God's drifting in heaven, devil's in the mailbox. I got dust on my shoes, nothing but teardrops. In a world where the devil is in the mailbox (anthrax attacks) and a young mother is left with nothing but dust and tears (grief and loss), it is a natural human response to wonder if God is paying attention or whether he is just drifting in heaven.

Providing another perspective on the topic is "Empty Sky." The situation here is the same. A husband or wife has been widowed by the attack on the twin towers. The sky that was formerly filled with those towers now stands empty as a constant reminder of what was lost. This symbol of a city's loss becomes for the person in this song a symbol of their more personal loss. Yet although the situation may be the same as in "You're Missing," the response represented in the song could hardly be more different. In "You're Missing" the bereaved responds with grief and confusion. In "Empty Sky" the response is the desire for revenge.

I woke up this morning, I could barely breathe
Just an empty impression
In the bed where you used to be
I want a kiss from your lips
I want an eye for an eye
I woke up this morning to an empty sky

The wronged person of the song cries out for vengeance and sees the murder of their beloved in the same light as the unjust murder of Cain (Genesis 4:10) when he/she cries out Blood on the streets, Blood flowin' down, I hear the blood of my blood, Cryin' from the ground.

One person wallows in grief and questions the presence of God ("You're Missing"); another ("Empty Sky") calls upon the biblical text (Genesis, "eye for an eye") as a justification for seeking revenge. A third song joins these perspectives together in a way that provides hope.

The song "Lonesome Day" opens the album and sets the tone. As with the other two, it is sung from the perspective of one who has lost a beloved in the attacks. He/she feels the grief and loss and desires only to make it through each "lonesome day." As with "Empty Sky", the protagonist of the song desires revenge. But this time Springsteen counsels that revenge may not provide the balm that people seek.

Better ask questions before you shoot
Deceit and betrayal's bitter fruit
It's hard to swallow, come time to pay
That taste on your tongue don't easily slip away

In fact, here Springsteen balances the need for revenge with another approach: faith. While addressing the desire to have this storm of horror and sorrow blow over, the protagonist of the song sings A little revenge and this too shall pass. Immediately after though, he/she states, This too shall pass, I'm gonnna pray. The victim in this song feels the despairing grief that prompts the desire for revenge, yet he/she ultimately seems to turn his/her hurting heart over to God, recognizing that the "bitter fruit" of vengeance will not heal the heart and make the storm pass. But prayer can show the way. Thus the song closes by balancing the chorus of "It's alright" with the declaration:

Let kingdom come
I'm gonna find my way
Through this lonesome day

Monday, July 03, 2006

Superman Returns

I finally caught Superman Returns. My wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary by going to a special "dinner and a movie" set up they have at a local theater. For a not-insignificant price, one is treated to a gourmet buffet meal at the theater followed by a showing of a film in a special theater decked out with recliner-like chairs and complimented with all the free popcorn and drinks one would like.

So having been well-fed and seated in my comfortable chair with popcorn at the ready, although a little concerned at how my bladder would hold up through a two hour and forty five minute movie after just downing a humongous amount of Pepsi and having my freshly refilled cup sitting next to me, I awaited the beginning of the show.

First, however, we were treated to the trailer for next summer's Spider-Man 3. Allow me to say again that it looks mind-numbingly awesome! The film is set to explore the dark side of power. The brief shot of the Sandman looked great. The movie is clearly following the black costume saga from the comic books which, as any true fan knows, means Venom cannot be far behind. I dare say that if the trailer lives up to its promise, Spider-Man 3 has the potential to surpass Spider-Man 2 as, in my humble estimation, the greatest superhero movie ever made -- and Spider-Man 2 is a pretty high bar to live up to.

But, oh yeah, this is a post about Superman. I thought the movie was very good. I would probably rank it 6th or 7th on my list of the best superhero movies, thus bumping the Hulk off. I thought the plot was solid and engaging. The idea to have the movie follow Superman 2 in continuity was bold and generally works. Kevin Spacey retains certain aspects of Gene Hackman's version of Lex Luthor while suitably making him more menacing. Brandon Routh similarly captures the essence of Christopher Reeve's portrayal, both sounding and looking like his version of Clark Kent. At the same time, I think Routh's Superman has a little more gravity (pardon the pun) to him.

Oddly what I found to be the most disappointing part of the film were the action sequences. The special effects are outstanding and the plane sequence is one of the more exciting action scenes in any movie, but as a whole some of the action had a "ho-hum" quality about it.

Of course, a feature that will be of interest to many is the christology of the film. Superman has always had a bit of the "Christ-figure" tint to him, what with being an only son sent to earth as a savior for humanity. This film not only does not shy away from this angle but plays it to the hilt, complete with death and resurrection imagery. There is no indication to my knowledge that Jerry Siegel, the creator of Superman, designed him with such implications. In fact, he is on record as stating that the initial inspiration for the character came from Hercules and Samson. But we seem to like our superheroes messianic, whether its the overt Messiah complex of Neo Anderson (The Matrix Trilogy) or Spider-Man's cross-like sacrifice on a hurtling train in Spider-Man 2.

Although I think Bryan Singer did a better job with X-Men 2 as a whole, I found Superman Returns to be an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable movie. It accomplished what any good comic book film should -- making me want to see the next installment.