Saturday, December 02, 2006

Media Morality

I have a theory. How many times have we heard people complain that television or film was so much better "in the old days"? As Steven Johnson points out in his book Everything Bad is Good For You, what they usually mean by this is that it was simpler in a moral sense. Right and wrong was clearly defined (and the wrong rarely depicted). Moral choices were clear cut if not always easy to make. Sex, violence, and profanity were kept to a minimum. The moral landscape of entertainment media today, of course, looks much more rugged. Sex, violence and profanity are rampant and moral ambiguity rules the day.

The standard explanation given for this by moralists and Christians is that the entertainment media is determined to destroy the moral fabric of our nation and panders to the lowest common denominator. This feeds into the culture war mentality that dominates much of the discussion. Without doubt, there is some pandering to the lowest common denominator going on (Temptation Island, anyone?).

But I think something more significant is going on. Steven Johnson, in his book, doesn't address the morality of media other than in a few tangential comments. His focus is on the intellectual benefits of television, video games, etc. His theory is that over the last two decades, these media have grown increasingly complex and mentally challenging. Compare Lost to Gunsmoke or today's Battlestar Galactica to the 1970's version and it's like comparing Dostoevsky to Dr. Seuss.

My theory is that what is happening with the intellectual landscape of entertainment media is the same thing happening to the moral landscape. As television, for instance, becomes more intellectually complex, it simultaneously grows more morally complex. Creators of media have grown less content with the presentation of clear cut moral choices and instead want to explore intellectually and emotionally the grey areas between. Although it has its downsides in particular instances, this is not necessarily a bad thing as a whole. Christians do a disservice to others and to themselves when they present moral choices as simplistic and obvious. The entertainment media is initiating a profound conversation about morality in our culture and rather than standing outside and criticizing, Christians should become a partner in that conversation.


At 10:34 PM, Blogger Ron Cox said...

"I have a theory...could be bunnies..."

At 8:02 AM, Blogger Bruce said...

You put Ted Geisel on the same side of the argument as Festus? "For shame Marshall." Seuss is highly complex -- morally and intellectually. The gauntlet has been laid down. "Lorax of the world unite!"

Seriously though I think there is some relationship between complexity in intellect and morality. I wouldn't say that complexity is necessarily an upgrade on the virtue chart but there is a relationship. My smartest friends can turn any decision into a moral dilemma. My "simpler" friends have a more black and white view of things. In ministry I confess I advance the black and white aggenda more often than not.

I think if we look at the moral advancement of Jesus there is a bit of both is there not? He chides the Pharisees for their intellectual, highly complex legalism which muddles them from the clear teachings of the laws. Jesus is a reformer who calls us back to that simpler understanding of the Law. However in practice, there are a lot of complexities which are carried out. Perhaps the principals are black and white but they must be carried out in the complexity of a varied world. Good stuff.

At 10:20 AM, Anonymous Josh said...


Along these same lines...

I've wondered if Nicholas Sparks (popular writer) will be considered one of the great American novelists in one hundred years though he is mocked by "elite" literary critics.

Kara reads his books like they posess the map to the fountain of youth :)

I've only read one of his books, "Three Weeks With My Brother"--it was outstanding.

At 2:27 PM, Blogger Greg said...

In my defense, I have no intention of besmirching the wonderful name of Theodor Geisel, lest the Loraxes unite against me. In fact, I have in the past talked about "Yertle the Turtle" in one of my classes as a sort of parable about Naziism. There is some evidence that Geisel intended it as a critique of dictatorial regimes.

At 2:29 PM, Blogger Greg said...

It's hard to say. I think Stephen King is one of the greatest writers alive today (and I mean that from a literary standpoint), yet he also gets little respect from the literary elite.

At 9:54 AM, Blogger Eric said...

Going from what you wrote of to another medium - somewhere in all the teaching I had for preaching, I got the idea to be concrete, to be precise and practical.

I still like to be practical, but I also like to spend most of my time as I preach exploring that grey area, the places where things are not easy because that is where most of life is lived.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees as one person has already mentioned, but he also told his disciples unless their righteousness surpassed that of the Pharisees they could not enter the kingdom of Heaven. His harsh reactions to the Pharisees is not combating an enemy, but scolding those who should know better.

At 6:20 PM, Blogger StevenD said...

i don't know if i am allowed to post since i have never really watched an episode of "Buffy" outside of your class, but i appreciate you posting this. i like to watch movies and television that will make me think (i.e. Seven, my favorite flick), not that will guide me to the promised land by spoon feeding me a black and white moral system. i echo some of the thoughts given already and wonder what we as the church should do with that in our approach to evangelism?


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