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Actors, Artists, and A.W. Tozer

C.S. Lewis wrote, while introducing a new translation of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, that people ought to read two old books for every new book they pick up. People’s worldviews change. Not their opinions; their entire way of understanding reality. To paraphrase Lewis, there are places where Barack Obama and George W. Bush are in shockingly close agreement—shocking, that is, to Socrates. We wouldn’t notice very easily, because we share their basic assumptions.

We share many things in common with people who lived fifty or sixty years ago. Certainly there isn’t a gap of the sort that would occur between Obama and Socrates. But there are still some things that we find very difficult to understand. Those were my thoughts while reading A.W. Tozer’s essay, “The Menace of the Religious Movie.”

I’m not a movie fan. My go-to source of relaxation is books, not movies. (A secret vice: when I’m tired, I have a habit of going to poorly written children’s books to let my mind vegetate. I suppose it’s my version of junk television.) I have read and admired Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death, and I agree with Marshall McLuhan that “the medium is the message.” Film has its problems. Emotional manipulation is a major one—and that isn’t even to bring up the damage that some movies have done in religious contexts. Like Postman, I do not believe that any medium is neutral. Tozer, on the other hand, did believe that film was a neutral medium—which makes his attitude toward movies seem even stranger.

Tozer was opposed to religious movies. All religious movies. He quipped that they were making poor attempts to do what what Hollywood could do better—a fair claim, especially at that time. But evidently he considered all Hollywood movies off bounds for Christians as well. A professor of mine told our class that when he was growing up out West, all evangelicals frowned on going to movie theaters. Not fundamentalists—mainstream evangelicals. I guess some of Tozer’s attitudes reflect his time.

Others seem strange, even for the mid-1900s. Tozer opposed acting, period. Pointing out that our word “hypocrisy” comes from the Greek word for “actor,” he argued that all acting is hypocritical. I had thought that attitude had died with the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Apparently not.

Some of Tozer’s concerns, however, are legitimate—even if I do not agree with all of his reasoning. He worried that people were paying more attention to natural gifts than spiritual gifts, treating Christian actors as superior to Christian teachers, pastors, and evangelists. Given our media-obsessed culture, that remains a danger. Or, worse—those teachers, pastors, and evangelists may try to reinvent themselves as media personalities. As Neil Postman worried, the end result of that will be a nation that takes Christianity less seriously. If a pastor is as good as a movie star, he probably won’t be any better.

But, coming more from the perspective of a writer than of a theologian, I worry as much for the Christian actor in that situation as I would for the pastor. Artists of any medium—film, visual arts, the written word—are vulnerable to forces that the church leaders may not understand. Artists do need to be respected, to have their natural talents affirmed within the context of the church. The church, however, must be careful. I recall reading of a church that had a writer-in-residence. That situation—giving someone a prominent church office based on his or her natural talents—made me uneasy. True, churches have secretaries, musicians, and janitors. Those positions are necessary for the church to function. Is a writer-in-residence? And if he or she is, then shouldn’t he be treated as an equal counterpart to the secretaries, musicians, and janitors?

Celebrity is dangerous. Those in holy orders—pastors, deacons, etc.—have higher positions than others in the church, and Scripture itself recognizes that they are extremely vulnerable. That was long before the TV preachers that so concerned Neil Postman, let alone Internet-based megachurches. People in high positions need to be careful. So does anyone, whether an artist or not, whose calling puts him in the public eye. Churches need to reach out to artists, as they need to reach out to everyone. Artists should feel that the church welcomes their gifts. But Christians should be able to conduct outreach without treating artists as a special, “higher” class. As pastors know very well, “higher” can mean “endangered.”

 
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Posted by on July 23, 2014 in Nonfiction

 

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Neil Postman Strikes

When I was about four years old, my mother made an announcement. I had previously been allowed to watch three half-hour children’s television shows. Now, to my great delight, I was permitted to watch four. Four shows! I thought it was wonderful. And if you had told my four-year-old self that, by the time I was a teenager, I would hardly watch TV at all, I would have been horrified.

At this point in my life, I avoid watching TV for two reasons. First, it’s unfortunately too easy for me to sit down to a program I don’t care about and stay there for two hours. Secondly, I can read now, which I could not do when I was four years old. And most of the books I own are more entertaining–to me, at least–than most of the movies I have access to. Not particularly high philosophical reasons. I simply stopped watching TV when I outgrew children’s videos.

C. S. Lewis grew up before cinema became popular, so he had the perspective of adulthood to help him reach his decision in regards to film. His verdict was unfavorable. For one thing, he strongly disliked some popular movies–Walt Disney’s, in particular. His most common complaint, from my reading of his books, had to do with the effect films would have on viewers’ imaginations. Immature or uneducated readers, Lewis argued, exercised their imaginations largely through popular novels. “If so,” he then concluded, “nothing can be more disastrous than the view that cinema can and should replace popular written fiction. The elements which it excludes are precisely those which give the untrained mind its only access to the imaginative world. There is death in the camera.”

But Neil Postman takes a different approach to the subject, with the added benefit of living long enough to see television become popular in the home. In 1985 he wrote his most famous book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, which is an attack against the television.

Yet it isn’t a typical attack against the television. Yes, says Postman, television is very entertaining. That’s the point of its existence. And Postman, unlike C.S. Lewis, was not primarily concerned about anyone’s imaginative life. Let them watch movies all they want–every culture has its own forms of entertainment. The real problem with TV’s entertaining quality is when it isn’t being used for entertainment. News shows and commercials are very entertaining, which is precisely the problem.

Postman’s book has two main weaknesses–neither entirely his fault. First, it doesn’t address the issue of the Internet, because the books pre-dated the popular use of the Internet. Second, Postman doesn’t offer very many solutions to the problems resulting from television. But that’s a very difficult problem to solve in a nation addicted to electronics. Postman cannot solve the problem, but he sheds more light on the problem than anyone else I have read.

For years I’ve heard statements similar to this one: “There’s nothing wrong with technology. It’s all how you use it.” That’s true to a point, or I would be pretty hypocritical right now–posting an anti-technology post on the computer. Technology can be used for good purposes. But Postman says what others don’t like to say–television isn’t evil, but it is different. Being raised on computers and television will produce a different sort of person than being raised on print. And that unfortunate fact is often ignored.

How different? Postman argues that there have been two communication revolutions in history–the change from oral communication to print, and the change from print to electronic media. Oral culture valued people with good memories and who had a lot of life experience. Print culture emphasized the skills of understanding and logical analysis. Electronic culture differs from both, encouraging a focus on images and lowering people’s attention spans. All forms of media are not equal. Unequal does not mean “evil.” But it does mean that we should be aware of what we are doing to ourselves when watch  television or use the internet.

News shows don’t examine problems in detail–because that’s not entertaining. Commercials are about consumer psychology, not the products they advertise. Political debates don’t require extended discussion of the questions–they are about appearance, not logic. And, of particular concern to me, even religion has been affected by the electronic mindset.

Postman, so far as I can tell, was not closely affiliated with any religion. Yet his critiques of TV religion–that it reduces religion to entertainment, destroying feelings of reverence and encouraging the veneration of particular preachers–are right on the money. I would not word his criticisms in the same way, perhaps, but he brought up problems with modern Christianity that I had never considered results of television.

The Koran calls Christians “People of the Book.” It isn’t far wrong. Christianity has been firmly bound to writing for the full length of its existence. To damage that heritage by an addiction to electronics would be nothing less than tragic. Amusing Ourselves to Death is not the Bible. It is not perfect. But it is earth-shattering.

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2012 in Nonfiction

 

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