How do you get an actor to complain? Hire him! An old joke, but I first heard it from televisions iconic Robert Conrad (a fact that allows me to name-drop, another thing actors are prone to).
In the May issue of First Things , I was introduced as New Media Editor, a unique opportunity to serve this journal. I am sincerely honored. Now, let me complain.
Every day I seem to scour the news looking for irritation. I find myself keeping score: tallying insults to my gender, ethnicity, race, country, church”even my favorite quarterback. I have one snarl in the barrel and another in the chamber as I click to the websites of the New York Times and the Washington Post . If Im really in the mood for a barroom brawl, Ill check in with The Huffington Post or Daily Kos.
Well, Im hanging it up. I dont like what it does to me. Dont like the defensive posture. Im not a conservative or a liberal; Im a Christian. Ive been kicking around the television and film realms of pop culture longer than I care to admit, and there are a few observations I can offer. To begin with, there are many, many good and talented people working in these industries”artists, techies, crafts people. Im frequently asked if Hollywood is really as godless as it is often alleged to be. My response is an unequivocal, “No.” A well-known actor on a current hit television show once asked if Id pray with him”and he did so without a trace of self-consciousness. This isnt typical, of course. In Hollywood, public expressions of faith are rare. But so are they in great swaths of the country. The point is, the rank and file of Tinseltown are no more godless than the rest of us.
Then there are the suits. On the West Coast, those pulling the strings increasingly view pop culture as a commodity. If the dominant liberal fancy of such an environment strikes you as curious, youre not alone. Entertainment and vending have gone hand in hand since ads for togas and sandals competed in the pages of the ancient Greek playbills. But, in our time, entertainment is rapidly morphing into a delivery vehicle”both for selling and whetting a desire for whats to be sold.
Titillation is frequently the chassis of that vehicle. Its not my intention to deny the enduring claim that sex sells. Certain signs of the times require our attention, however, including the fact that, more than anything else, what sex sells is sex. The abundance and easy access of porn is leading to new forms of suffering in adults and youth. Click on the television in a Hilton Hotel and the skintillating world of XXX is instantly at your fingertips. A gander at the television music video channels is another an eye-opener”one that makes me glad I was born in an age when the J.C. Penney catalog contained all the accessible temptation I could handle.
We need do little more than to look to our fellow citizens to check the vital signs of the popular culture. I experienced a moment of surreality the other day on the monorail at Newark Airport when I realized that every single person in my car was on a cell phone, urgently engaged with an unseen dimension. The juxtaposition of such close physical proximity and vast psychic distance was startling. And while were on the subject, do you ever wonder whats being delivered into the heads of so many kids whose ears are sealed off to the world by the buds of ubiquitous MP3 players? If those music videos are any clue, Im not cheered.
These examples barely scratch the surface, but what they have in common is eroticization and isolation”a delicious configuration for those compelled to extend profit margins. A person in a state of eroticized isolation is one in a state of agitation. And thats a person prepared to buy. As C.S. Lewis observed, There are people who want to keep our sex instinct inflamed in order to make money out of us. Because, of course, an obsessed man is a man who has very little sales resistance. Commercial success, as its coming to be defined in popular culture, depends more or less directly on inciting blindfolded grasps at self-substantiation while simultaneously distracting the subject from the fact.
There is dark genius here. What Kierkegaard called, tranquilization by the trivial isnt so tranquil or trivial anymore. Im not claiming theres some cabal of vampiric executives who gather when the moon is full to hatch fiendish plots. (Although, I know a couple agents and producers I suspect actually do sleep in coffins.) Whatever conspiracy exists is one of default. The unfortunate effects are the same.
To the eyes of faith this is sad and hazardous. At the center of the gospel is the invitation to transcend the self and thus to experience liberation from the burdens of its illusions. The truly sobering thing, however, is that the road to this freedom passes through the heart of the Paschal Mystery. This is anathema to those who would manipulate. A neurotic customer is a repeat customer”which makes sense in light of Jungs definition of neurosis as the attempt to avoid genuine suffering.
Unless ones ambition is to fit successfully into the existing system, the experience of working in pop culture is especially frustrating for the person of faith. After the astounding box-office success of Mel Gibsons The Passion of the Christ pundits predicted the emergence of a new species of cinema: the Christian movie. Hollywood, it seemed, had found religion.
Not quite. Despite the fact that several studios started up faith divisions, precious little has come of it. For complicated reasons, Hollywood has not found a way to tap the Christian market.
Instead, Christians are beginning to do it themselves. Some evangelicals have reached the conclusion that Hollywood will never get it. Theyve come to feel that trying to fit into the system is a lost cause. As a result, theyre striving to break away and invent their own system of entertainment. If culture war is a type of civil war, what we have here is the unusual case of secession following the initial outbreak of hostilities.
For better and worse, there are signs of success. Its a small surprise that the same secular media they find objectionable pays this story such little mind. How far advanced, for example, was the phenomenon of the Left Behind series before most outside evangelical circles got wind of it.
Left Behind also figures prominently in this idea of a parallel entertainment universe. Three of the books have been turned into films, though they were roundly panned. Co-author Tim LaHaye was so dissatisfied with the outcome that he filed suit against the films production company. But things didnt end there. Sony smelled profits amidst the prophets and, coming aboard as distributors, did something decidedly unconventional. Rather than give the most recent film a theatrical release, it granted licensing rights to some 3,200 churches that then served as makeshift theaters. DVDs (the real money-makers) were released the following week to a primed community. When you consider that a blockbuster like Angels and Demons opened in just over 3,500 theaters, the significance of Sonys strategy becomes obvious and intriguing.
The notion of forging an alternate to the Hollywood system has gotten a mixed reaction, not least from the Christian community. Those opposed to it fear that evangelization will not be served by preaching to the choir; that such a venture will only ghettoize an already misunderstood population; that a closed environment will inevitably turn out non-art by putting message before craft; that such secession will deprive potential filmmakers of the opportunity to be mentored by the giants of the secular industry.
I believe these arguments are correct, though I also understand the instinct of the secessionists. But theres something more that needs to be taken into account, and it is the huge paradigm shift occurring now in the entertainment industry.
In numbers mounting almost faster than they can be recorded, people”especially young people”are preferring to get their entertainment via the Internet, delivered through a growing array of portable devices such as computers and, yes, cell phones.
With a bit of know-how, a retiree in an Alabama trailer park and a kid in a dorm room at Exeter can turn a personal website into a generator of entertainment content. While the monetization of all this has yet to be mastered, its hard not to view it as the future. The Hollywood players certainly do”its what the crippling union actions of the past year and a half have been about.
Through the democratization of the Internet, a parallel system might be operable without the need to disengage from the existing system. The studios and networks employ folks whose jobs consist of trawling the web to find whats hitting or otherwise causing a viral stir. Like so many things that Hollywood does in a mad dash to catch up, some of the deals that have come from this are ripe for parody.
Hollywood isnt the only one playing catch-up. As a Catholic, its been frustrating to witness the often yawning response to the exhortations of John Paul II and Benedict. I appreciate that EWTN is not everyones cup of tea. Nevertheless, Mother Angelicas Herculean achievement deserves praise. It was a pioneering venture clearly ahead of its time. But in the land of Web 2.0, the burgeoning of religious-themed blogs doesnt guarantee a winsome influence anymore than the proliferation of news blogs guarantees good journalism.
I have some concrete ideas concerning what can and should be done. Well be tackling some of them at First Things . In the meantime, Catholic colleges and universities”indeed any religiously oriented institution of higher learning”ought seriously to consider creating Media Studies programs that prepare young people to enter these fields without fear of either needing to hide their faith or jeopardize their chance at expertise. Notre Dame, Villanova, Georgetown, Loyola-Marymount (this is by no means an exhaustive list) are already running various professional programs. What Im urging is greater interface between these and, for example, the theology and philosophy departments, to name just two.
It seems to me that the Catholic University of America would be an ideal place to establish a model of this kind. Situated in the nations capital, the presence on that campus of world-class departments of theology and philosophy, along with schools of law, architecture, and theater, give it powerful ingredients that could be brought into mutually nurturing synergy.
At this point, some might be skeptical. Should we form an army of Christian artists steeled against Jack Warners dictum that message-sending should be left to Western Union? Perhaps not. That hillbilly Thomist Flannery OConnor placed rigorous demands on the aesthetic side of her vocational equation, declaring, Because I am a Catholic I cannot afford to be less than an artist.
Many creators of pop culture take their cues from an elite now militantly anit-theist. Its facile and the trickle-down results are corrosive. We might recall that it took Michaelangelo two years to render the Pieta and a man with a hammer mere seconds to nearly destroy it.
Western culture has long aspired to be an edifying one. The ennobling tradition of Judeo-Christian humanism reflected in its astounding works of art, literature, music, architecture, and science, has no rival in aggressive anti-theism. Clever is not profound. Joseph Bottum recently described First Things to me as popular high-brow. I view my new role as the Media Editor to be a focusing on the popular without subjecting the brow to any lowering.
To that end, I offer the following invitation. Feel free to approach me with whatever projects you think might be simpatico with what youve just read. Please, please know that, for the time being, Im a veritable one-man band. Be assured, your patience and your prayers will be genuinely appreciated.
These are inflamed times with real stakes. If we believe in the truth of love and love the truth, wed better bring more to the game than trash-talk and elbows. Love and truth dont inflame. But, if the tone is right, we can be carriers of what the author of Narnia called, a good infection.
In a personal journal entry that is graciously beyond the bellicose, Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, I think God will forgive everything except lack of joy; when we forget that God created the world and saved it. Joy is not one of the components of Christianity, its the tonality of Christianity that penetrates everything. I cant complain about that.
Tim Kelleher is the new media editor for First Things .