Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hollywood Morality?

Christians have often tended to oversimplify the issues related to morality and spirituality in entertainment media. We see this in the common stereotype of the Hollywood industry as inherently anti-Christian and immoral. In one section of my book, "Televised Morality," I make the following suggestion: "The battle over morality on television is a battle to determine which worldview will be most influential in shaping our cultural values, and which institution will provide the foundation for moral responsibility. It would be a vast oversimplification to suggest that Christians are interested in morality, while the creators, producers, and writers of television are not. The issue is not interest in morality, but differing approaches to moral reasoning and different methods of moral discourse."

In other words, there are many creative voices in Hollywood who are very interested in morality. The difference is that their morality may flow from a different worldview, may be structured by a different paradigm, and may be communicated in different ways. The better we become at recognizing this, the better we will become at evaluating media's presentation of morality.

When "The Passion of the Christ" came out and did phenomenal business, Christians were overjoyed because they believed that Hollywood would now finally get the message that movies with Christian themes and Christian topics can make money. Therefore, Hollywood would start making more such movies. They were right. A short time after this, another Christian-themed movie came out. It was called "Saved!" The creator of that movie expected it to do great business because "The Passion" had showed that moviegoers hunger for Christian-themed movies. That is not what happened. Many Christian communities were very upset by the film and boycotted it. Why? "Saved!" is a satire of the Christian high school experience. It exposes the hypocrisy that is often apparent in shallow forms of Christianity. Consequently, many churches took this to be an anti-Christian film. The creator of the film didn't see it that way. He did not see himself as attacking Christianity but attacking hypocrisy within Christianity - what one might argue is the same thing Jesus did with Judaism.

The truth is that what most Christians really want is not more films that address Christian topics and themes, but more films that present a very narrow view of Christianity. They want only a pristine, uncomplicated version of Christianity delivered by the media -- a version that anyone who has spent time in churches knows is not the reality. Basically they want Hollywood to preach their message for them.

Is that Hollywood's job? When Hollywood puts out movies like "Saved!" that satirize Christianity or that make Christianity out to be more complex and complicated than the stereotype we would like to promote, are they doing Christianity a service or a disservice?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Short People

I am co-teaching a course right now on “Religion, Media, and Youth Culture. In class the other day, my co-instructor Dr. Stogner played several songs by Randy Newman and illustrated their complicated history of interpretation. He noted that, for instance, the songs "I'ts Money That I Love" and "Short People" were highly criticized due to the surface meanings of the songs. "I'ts Money That I Love" extols the virtues of money above all else – above religion, above compassion, above people. "Short People" suggests that "Short people got no reason to live." Being rather tall myself, I must confess that I am not personally offended by this song. (Although, since I live in a house full of short people, I suppose I could be offended on their behalf, but frankly I can't really muster up the energy to do it.)

What Dr. Stogner argued was that the outcry and even anger over these songs resulted from a fundamental misunderstanding of their true message. Is it possible that "I'ts Money That I Love", despite its glowing adoration of cash and bulging savings accounts, is really a harsh critique of a view of life that confines meaning and value to the acquiring of wealth? Is it possible that when Newman laments the existence of short people that he is really highlighting the intrinsic illogic of racism and bigotry? Yes, it’s possible and it’s an aspect of the distinction that scholars would draw between "text" and "subtext."

The wide cultural misinterpretation of these songs is, unfortunately, nothing new in popular culture. There is a long history of people misidentifying the meaning of pop cultural texts (songs, film, TV, etc.). There are many reasons for this. Sometimes it is because we don't know how to interpret a media text. Often we rely solely on the surface level and don't probe deep enough (as in the case with the Newman songs), though sometimes we don't even do a very good job of interpreting the surface. I'm reminded of Bruce Springsteen's song "Born in the USA," which became the unofficial slogan of the Reagan campaign team because of its strong patriotic message ("I'm born in the USA. Woo hoo!"). The problem was that Reagan's campaign manager never actually bothered to listen to the lyrics very closely, words like:

I got in a little hometown jam
And so they put a rifle in my hands
Sent me off to Vietnam
To go and kill the yellow man

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says "Son if it was up to me"
I go down to see the V.A. man
He said "Son don't you understand"

"Born in the USA" is not a patriotic song; it's a protest song. The message was missed because people didn't listen closely enough.

Such misinterpretations also happen because people don't pay enough attention to genre and methods of communication. Doing so is to realize that many types of media texts deliberately communicate on multiple levels and sometimes those levels, as in the case of satire, intentionally contradict each other. In other words, maybe we need to realize that popular culture might just be smarter than we have traditionally given it credit for.