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From movies to streaming video, we live in a numbing age of visual sermons…..

From movies to streaming video, we live in a numbing age of visual sermons…..

This is not a journal article that dates back to my Communicator on Culture days at Denver Seminary. This is an article from early in my life as an Orthodox Christian, when I was asked — by the publishing team with the Antiochian Christian Archdiocese — to explain to clergy and laypeople what I learned from teaching mass-communication subjects in a seminary.

Yes, once again, lots of people hear, “Popular culture apologetics class at a seminary” and immediately think,” Oh! He’s going to teach preachers how to use movie clips to illustrate their sermons.”

Nope, that’s never been one of my goals. Try to imagine video display screens hanging in Orthodox churches. Not gonna happen (and thank God for that).

What we have here is an essay about what I believe is the religious ROLE that mass media — even advertising — play in the lives of millions and millions of Americans. Here’s a short version of what I’m talking about, condensed into one paragraph from a 2001 interview that I did with theJournal of Homiletics (“homiletics is the art of preaching and/or writing sermons”). The focus here is on advertising theory:

… Half the ads on television today make no sense whatsoever in a linear fashion in terms of having anything remotely to do with the product. They’re getting across an attitude, a mood. They’re asking, “Do you want to be the kind of person who uses this product?” One ad theorist has said that “they presume the product has a soul.” If you think as a sacramental Christian, people are taking communion at the mall. They are consuming the product, the soul of the product, to become the essence of the product. It’s a liturgical experience. They’re taking communion at the mall! They are what they eat, which is the essence of the ancient church’s definition of communion.

Like I said, that was in 2001. The essay that I want to share with you — in audio and text form — is from roughly that same time and called “The liturgy of mass media.” It ran in Again magazine, which for years was the print flagship of Ancient Faith Publishing.

The emphasis in this article, again, is on the cable-television era. So when you are reading this, whenever you hit references to MTV or shopping malls (or other antiquated concepts), think about today’s digital omnipresent world of streaming,, social-media and, of course, smartphones. For example, take this quote:

“Depending on the poll that is cited, the typical child or teen watches between 3 and 4 hours of television a day, with a tidal wave of electronic entertainment all but erasing their weekends.”

Now look at the statistics on smartphones and social media in the lives of children, teens and young adults today. Some researchers have given up trying to calculate the amount of “screen time” that we’re talking about. Some have concluded that it’s appropriate to say that Generation Z is constantly on or near a glowing screen of some size.

Here is that Again article: “The Liturgy of Mass Media.

I have no idea how many times I have heard church leaders quote the following statement by Bob Pittman, one of the key executives in the development of MTV: “At MTV, we don’t shoot for the 14-year-olds, we own them.”

It’s easy to understand why conservatives keep doing this. This is precisely the kind of laugh-to- keep-from-crying sound bite that cuts deep with Christian audiences. I’ve used it myself and, truth is, I just used it again.

Pittman was being serious and his boast is fair game, when it comes to sparking discussions of many cultural and moral issues linked to young people in America and, increasingly, around the world. However, I’m getting worried about the frequent use of this quotation, and many other punchy references to MTV and youth culture. Frankly, I worry that adults would rather moan about the sins of the young, and those who cater to them, than focus on the role that entertainment plays in all of our lives.

During the past two decades, I have had many conversations with leaders in churches, denominations, parachurch groups and even seminaries about media trends. In most of these interviews, we cover a wide range of issues. But there almost always comes a time when the other person says something like: “You know, we really need to do something about our young people. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff they are exposed to these days. You know, I heard somewhere that the head of MTV once said. …”

Yes, I know: “At MTV, we don’t shoot for the 14-year-olds, we own them.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m worried about the role that music videos, movies, computers, personal stereos, television and other forms of mass media play in the lives of young people. I agree with the statement, made by Dr. Quentin Schultze and a circle of media researchers at Calvin College in their classic book “Dancing In The Dark”: “Usually adults simply ignore youth-oriented popular art and accept only their own views as legitimate. By ignoring youth art, however, adults ignore the children in their care.”

Believe it or not, many Christian institutions continue to ignore youth culture. It is my observation that this is especially true in many small- and medium-sized churches that believe they do not have the time and resources to emphasize Christian education, evangelism and youth work. This would certainly include many, if not most, Orthodox parishes.

But I’m also convinced that many Christians use youth-culture issues — such as MTV’s morality — as a smoke screen. As long as we’re wagging our heads at the latest offerings from Marilyn Manson, or even Britney Spears, we don’t have to look at the role that mass media play in the lives of parents and adults. And that lets us dodge the most important issue: Who teaches young people to place mass media, especially TV, at the center of their lives?

We have reached the point where some Christians are asking if television and other forms of mass media have replaced the church as the teacher of right and wrong in our society.

That’s a disturbing question. But on closer analysis it’s a silly question, because the church isn’t a statistically important enough force in the lives of young people, even Christian young people, to merit such a comparison.

At best, the church has the attention of a few young people for about two to three hours a week. And the media? Depending on the poll that is cited, the typical child or teen watches between 3 and 4 hours of television a day, with a tidal wave of electronic entertainment all but erasing their weekends. Others place the TV-use figure even higher, in this age when television is being used more in schools and a set is almost always on somewhere in public places and in the kitchen or family room.

Forget the church, for a moment. Here’s the really disturbing question: Has mass media replaced the family?

When religious leaders talk about youth culture, they almost always link media and peer pressure. This is comforting, because it puts the problem in the context of the school, the mall or other such environments. The bottom line: Blame young people for how they use and abuse media.

But stop and think. Who are the first media teachers for young people, especially the very young? In her book “The Plug-In Drug: Television, Children, and the Family,” secular researcher Marie Winn makes this devastating observation. It is not children who are the primary television addicts. “It is their parents, fatigued by their offspring’s incessant demands for learning in the broadest sense of the word (learning that may involve whining, screaming, throwing things, pestering), who require the `relaxation’ afforded by setting the kids before the television screen and causing them to become, once again, … passive captives.”

Winn’s sobering thesis: Television is a drug administered by parents to their own children to make them docile, because this seems easier than making and enforcing rules in the home and raising the children themselves.

Schultze has gone so far as to define the American family as “an economic unit” made up of people who agree to live under one roof for the purpose of “paying their bills and watching television.”

Naturally, it doesn’t take long for children to graduate from the “parental” school of media use into the graduate school run by their peers. A study commissioned by Nickelodeon and USA Today found that 45 percent of children in the first through 10th grades already have their own television set. In one Denver suburb, a firm that produces video yearbooks found that the overwhelming majority of teens — as high as 90 percent — already had their own VCRs. That was in the early 1990s. I doubt that the percentage has declined.

Consider the following quotations from “Dancing In The Dark”: “Messages flow horizontally within generations rather than vertically across generations — in other words, this society follows the communication patterns used by the media, a pattern that isolates as it connects.” Early in this century, this pattern was already emerging and, by the ’60s, it was firmly established. “Instead of watching TV with their families, teens generally watch it alone or in peer groups and talk little to their parents about their viewing.” In the end, the messages of mass media become virtual “maps of reality” for their consumers, of all ages, providing “stories, metaphors and symbols that explain life and suggest responses to its quandaries and mysteries.”

Who encourages or allows these patterns to become established so early in life? The principalities and powers in mass culture, yes, but also parents.

Who has failed to address these issues? Adults who lead churches, seminaries and other Christian institutions. Simply stated, to address the role that media plays in “catechizing” young people, we have to stop thinking of mass media as a mere issue of “youth culture.” We have to place this issue in the context of the family.

For millions of parents, and thus for their children, the use of media has become the liturgy of their lives. Entertainment and news media provide a kind of never-ending backdrop of sight and sound that influences how they spend their time and money, and how they make their decisions.

Let’s briefly look at one omnipresent form of media that many people overlook: advertising.

We live in a numbing age of visual sermons. We are surrounded by them, but rarely bother to take them seriously. Above all, we do not understand that how visual media communicate is just as important as what they communicate. We soak up the symbols and stories — day after day after day, world without end.

One of the few things on which most Americans agree is that we are not influenced by advertisements. Yet most folks walking in the mall can chant dozens of jingles, fill in the blanks in hundreds of ad slogans and their likes and dislikes have been shaped by years of images, by a virtual video catechism of what it means to be alive.

But few ads today make their pitch using lines of type and linear arguments. Instead, they show us images. Some are funny and some are stupid, but they are almost always colorful and gripping. Truth is, these images are the first step in a kind of sacramental system.

Step 1: See this image, experience this feeling, feel this need. Step 2: Buy and consume this product. Step 3: Accept, by faith, that using or consuming this product will help you become like the people in the images.

The goal is to be able to say, “I am the kind of person who consumes this product.” Whether they realize it or not, millions of people are making professions of faith at the shopping mall. Consumers are being transformed, whether know it or not.

This transcends logic. Media theorists Luigi and Allesandra Maclean Manca note that “consumers tend to act toward a product as if it had a soul or a personality of its own. The function of advertising is therefore to suggest or even create this soul in the minds of the consumers. … This is obviously a pseudo-spirituality. Viewing the crime, fear, organized violence, poverty, racism, and genocide that are also part of our daily lives, it seems likely that we actually have a great spiritual void.”

Visual images are especially effective at telling stories and stirring emotions. They paint in broad, symbolic strokes, with the images building in layers, shaping opinions and attitudes.

As one of my mentors, the legendary preaching professor Haddon Robinson, once put it: “We are in an antagonistic environment. It’s an environment that communicates with images. It doesn’t come out and argue. It just simply shows you pictures — day after day after day after day. Before you realize it, in the basement of your mind, you discover that you have shifted your values and many times you’ve lost your faith. That’s a change. … When you watch television, people are robbed and raped and murdered and they never pray. They never seek out a minister. They never bother going to church. That world of television is a world in which God has no place. It’s the world we live in.” If the church doesn’t take this change seriously, he noted, then “we are going to be left in the exhaust fumes of the society.”

Thus, cars and trucks are signs of spiritual freedom. Soft drinks bring joy or promote peace. Clothes change personalities. Chewing gum becomes a sign of teen rebellion. Perfumes inspire love. Tires show that parents love their children. Life insurance bestows a kind of immorality.

And so forth and so on, in other forms of media. Please remember that music videos are, first and foremost, advertisements for songs and musical products. Many movies and entire networks are becoming extended forms of music videos.

Today, the liturgy of the media influences how we elect politicians, gather information and respond, or fail to respond, to preachers and to worship. Consumers search for the “soul” of these products, images, stories and people, seeking to absorb some of those powerful ideas and feelings into their lives and, thus, their own souls. They consume what they want to become, over and over, in a daily process that changes their lives.

This ritual — this liturgy — is taught in the family room in most homes. The television brings us our icons.

Church leaders must grasp this reality before they can truly begin to address the role that mass media play in modern life. We cannot settle for tossing rhetorical bombs at MTV and at our young people.

FIRST IMAGE: Uncredited photo with a Mall of America feature at the Meet Minneapolis website.


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