Saturday, May 25, 2013

faith and media

A few weeks ago, I finished reading Bob Briner's book Roaring Lambs. It's been on my 'to read' list since I first became aware of it some 15 years ago. It was published in 1993 and can be considered a seminal work in regard to Christian cultural engagement, one which encouraged Christians to leave the citadel and become involved in the 'secular' world of cultural production. I feel the book is of its time; it still has some things to say, I think, but it left me feeling uneasy, blinking at some of the rhetoric, and examining how my own thinking has changed over the years.

I drafted this piece a number of weeks ago, but let it sit. I'm not a big fan of critiquing what other people believe. And in Briner's case, he made a significant contribution to Christian cultural development, so I feel a little reticent about a critique here too. My last critique was spring-boarded by something that Madeleine L'Engle wrote about chaos, and I felt a bit guilty, because overall her book Walking on Water is beautiful. On the other hand, I believe that Christian writing and thinking on culture is now rich enough to bear critique. And anyway, this stuff is worth discussing... who knows, maybe in a couple of years I'll have changed my mind about some things, or maybe not.  It's all ultimately borne out of a personal process of sorting through culture, theology, orthodoxy, personal experience and personal inclinations. There's no stasis in that process.

In Roaring Lambs, Brimar's thesis is framed around the concept of a battle for the hearts and minds of the (American) population. He paints a vision of Christians infiltrating the worlds of film, TV, music, art etc - making an incursion, having a deliberate agenda and strategy to influence the media towards Christian values (whatever those might be defined as). Thus, although he wonderfully steers Christians away from the negativity and (he says) pointlessness of boycotts and continual complaining, he still adheres to the idea that Christians are somehow under siege; that we are in some kind of cultural battle.

But if this is a 'conflict', then what is the 'other side' doing? I'm sure there may be lobby groups and interested parties (who have ideas that differ from Christian values) who are hoping to influence media towards communicating certain notions, but on the whole, the industry is not like that. I don't think that it's naive to say that, on the whole, the media industry is simply creating product and material to provide to the individual. We could categorise this material in three ways. At 'top' level, producers are aiming to create 'art' - that is, material that seeks to express and investigate the human condition. Also at 'top' level is the idea of providing material that might expand a viewer's understanding of the world. Next level 'down', producers are seeking to create 'entertainment' - that is, material simply for the viewer's enjoyment and diversion - material that will accentuate certain emotions in the viewer in accordance with the viewer's wishes. Then on the next level down again, producers are simply creating 'content' - that is, material to feed the media machine - doesn't really matter what - just push it through and get it out there - better to have something on the screen than nothing. In reality, these levels are not firm categories - a lot of material will exhibit the characteristics of more than one.

I'm not saying this makes media somehow morally neutral - morals and values are communicated in and through all these types of material, but I am saying that the motives of its producers are not, by and large, the intentional propagation of a particular moral agenda. In other words, the material is not intentionally 'evangelistic'.* They are simply producing material out of their own experience and personalities, and out of (and for) the cultural milieu in which they find themselves, catering for the desires of the audience.

We, as Christians, can envisage the whole thing as some kind of battle, but the imagined 'other side' (ie those in the secular world who don't embrace the Christian faith) do not. They are, by and large, just getting on with doing their jobs.

The problem, for me, is that a fixed motivating agenda always seems to create art or media that comes across as somehow not genuine. When the agenda (no matter what that agenda may be) is the creator's primary motive, the art of storytelling, the nuances of reality, and believability, almost always seem to suffer. The medium begins to function simply as bait on the hook. I'm sure Brimer would agree with me on this to a degree - he would argue for the highest quality material. But nonetheless, still this nagging thought that if an art or media is primarily agenda-driven, at some point it will reveal itself as disingenuous, the viewer will smell a rat, see it for what it perhaps really is - propaganda - and turn off.

In my art (or whatever creative output I'm involved with) I want any 'Christian content' to be utterly natural. If elements of the Christian faith are sitting in the subtext of the piece, they are there simply because they form part of the personality of the artist. My beliefs will inevitably inform the way I see the world (everyone has worldview). I hope that the viewer finds the subtext compelling or even attractive (of course I do - all artists do), but have I created the piece with the aim of converting the viewer to a message that I've intentionally woven into the subtext? No. I know from early, well-intentioned, experience that when I've tried to do that, the artistry always suffered and the piece always came out somehow dishonest.

So, should Christians be involved in the arts and media? Of course, why not? Everybody else is. But I don't think we should envisage ourselves as some kind of special agent infiltrating enemy territory - as if we are involved in some kind of cultural 'jihad'. Being involved in the media and arts should be a question of innate personal passion rather than agenda. It's about telling honest stories. For the Christian, their honest story will inevitably touch on aspects of the Christian faith (implicitly or explicitly). But be aware that as soon as art has the aim of converting or influencing everyone towards the artist's beliefs (whatever those beliefs happen to be), it runs the risk of being perceived as what it most likely is - not art but propaganda.

Salt and light have no agenda; their efficacy, any benefit that the world may obtain from them, comes through simply being what they are. Art and media by Christians should be art and media created by real people who have a natural inclination towards creating art and media (an inclination, shall we say, which would be there whether they were Christians or not), being truthful about how life is and their experience of it, operating out of their talents and abilities, honestly being involved as everyday members of society. Investigate human existence and let faith weave itself naturally through your investigation and life as it is wont to do, but don't envisage it as a tasty morsel to wrap around a hook.    


* The massive exception to this is, of course, advertising.