By Jonathon Van Maren
I was asked recently by a conservative journalist what my opinion on some television show’s decision to include storylines about abortion was—all, of course, being sympathetic, if not enthusiastic. I’d never watched the show (or even heard of it), so I couldn’t supply any insight. But what I do find interesting is the way conservatives and Christians often interact with the television and film industry. For some reason, we seem to believe that we can consume the creations of post-modernists, relativists, and hedonists without imbibing any of those worldviews—and without getting indigestion.
Leave aside for one moment the most prominent problems pervasive within the entertainment industry: Blasphemy, sexually explicit and pseudo-pornographic material, the promotion of anti-Christian views, the consistent mocking of Christianity, and the macabre celebration of horror and darkness. What I rarely see mentioned is that for the most part, this is all we can reasonably expect from the entertainment industry.
It’s just a story, Christians will say when defending some empty, time-wasting TV show they’ve decided to watch. But that is not the case. There is no such thing as “just a story.” Stories have storytellers. If we want to know what the story is telling us, we simply have to look at what the storyteller wants to tell us. Storytellers come with their own worldviews, biases, and beliefs. These beliefs will come through in the stories they tell—especially in the extraordinarily powerful mediums of film and television—whether they are attempting propaganda intentionally or not.
Stories are perhaps one of the most powerful methods of creating emotional responses and transmitting beliefs. The question posed to me by the journalist, concerning how parents should regulate the consumption of such stories by their children, has quite a simple answer. It is the answer to this question: Do you want to let that storyteller tell his or her stories to your children? Many church-going parents allow their children to be raised on a diet of film, television, and music created by storytellers who despise Christianity and create narratives that run directly in opposition to it. They foment rebellion and celebrate lifestyles that run directly contrary to biblical beliefs—but often do so in tenderly-rendered tales that have more power to persuade than a dozen philosophical treatises or political speeches. Friends and Will & Grace did more for the mainstreaming of gay marriage than any academic ever did. Meanwhile, Christians in film and television are generally portrayed as stupid, mean, closeminded, and bumbling. Mockery is a powerful tool.
Compare this to the literature children used to be raised on and the storytellers parents used to invite into their homes, books like the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the chronicles of the March family by Louisa May Alcott, the tales of Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, and so many others. These books celebrate what I call the high drama of ordinary living, and this has been one of the key secrets to the longevity of their popularity. Long after the frontier days passed into history, more than a century after the American Civil War, and many decades since the occupants of Prince Edward Island lived like Anne and her friends, the stories of friendship, puppy love, courtship, and the tiny trials and tragedies that make up childhood arch over the years to remain as real today as they were then. Children still relate to Laura Ingalls and Jo March and Anne Shirley because their childhoods, despite sometimes extraordinary circumstances, were innocent and beautiful.
Even stories that focused on adventure contained familiar elements that everyone could relate with to ground them. Johan Wyss’s wonderful book The Swiss Family Robinson emphasized the essential nature of family while the parents and their children created a new life for themselves on a tropical island where they’d been shipwrecked. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy combined the high drama of biblically-proportioned battles and a fantastical Middle Earth with the utterly ordinary: thorough and detailed landscape descriptions as his hobbits make their journey, the taste of beer, the satiation of a long hunger with sumptuously described meals, and even a poem describing the loveliness of hot water after a long day’s trek:
Sing hey! For the bath at close of day
That washes the weary mud away!
A loon is he that will not sing;
O! Water Hot is a noble thing!
O! Sweet is the sound of falling rain,
And the brook that leaps from hill to plain;
But better than rain or rippling streams
Is Water Hot that smokes and steams.
O! Water cold we may pour at need
Down a thirsty throat and be glad indeed;
But better is Beer, if drink we lack,
And Water Hot poured down the back.
O! Water is fair that leaps on high
In a fountain white beneath the sky;
But never did fountain sound so sweet
As splashing Hot Water with my feet!
These master storytellers created a canon of literature that is often, unfortunately, only known to the rising generation through their retellings by other storytellers of distinctly different worldviews, utilizing television and film instead of the written word. I’m not trying to conflate or compare cinematography to literature—the art forms are too fundamentally different—but something essential is lost in translation, which is why films that seek to dramatize beloved books are nearly always fiercely controversial and generally disappointing to the fans of the written works. Several years back, I had a few email exchanges with J.R.R. Tolkien’s grandson, the poet Michael Tolkien, and I asked him if he felt his grandfather’s work was unappreciated. “I think you are right to use the world ‘unappreciated,’” Tolkien replied. “Is ‘Tolkien’ now to the general public the generator of a series of films or a distinguished writing of superbly crafted fantasy with universal implications and dimensions?” When post-modern artists create their own interpretations of great literature, the stories are often robbed of much of the beauty that made them so beloved in the first place.
Until the Sexual Revolution, much of the literary canon was marked by the assumption of Judeo-Christian values. Not that it was all explicitly Christian literature, but the context that produced it was a Judeo-Christian culture, and thus certain values were simply taken for granted. This fact has proven endlessly disturbing to the rootless post-modernists who can find no fictional heroes and role models in the literary canon and thus, as I detailed in a column earlier this week, they have gone to work revising and reinterpreting until they can conjure up lurid lesbian liaisons in L.M. Montgomery’s tales, something that anyone with the vaguest knowledge of Montgomery’s biography must find laughable. She was a pastor’s wife—one can actually visit her home and church in Leeksdale, Ontario, and sit in her spot in the pews, play her old organ, sit where she wrote the Anne books, and visit the glorious and fiery auburn autumn inspiration for Rainbow Valley. It is the literary vandalism of these pagan profs that made me abandon my English minor in university: I was tired of seeing the wonderful books I’d grown up reading subjected to absurd and stupid reinterpretations.
The question parents must answer when they are considering the question of today’s entertainment industry is whether they want to permit our culture’s current storytellers to have access to their children. What is the worldview of these storytellers? What do they want to impart in their stories? Is any of it good, or consistent with the Christian worldview? Do these storytellers have any values at all, or do their stories promote relativism at best and overt wickedness at worst? And this doesn’t even approach the fact that exposure to the medium of film and television at an early age often has the potential to rob children of the ability to create their own imagination and discover early the worlds contained between the two covers of a book.
It’s important to note that many of Hollywood’s storytellers do not see blasphemy, sexually explicit material, and profanity as incidental to their storytelling—they see it as essential to the integrity (no irony intended) of their work. This is evidenced by the fact that most of the major film studios, at the behest of the movie directors, have worked hard to destroy any attempt to apply family-friendly filters to their films. CleanFlicks was one attempt to offer edited movies, and that company was sued out of existence. VidAngel, the newest company to try offer filtering services, was recently forced to pull down their entire film library as the result of a federal court order. The Hollywood storytellers want people to consume their stories replete with blasphemy, swearing, and pseudo-pornographic material—and will shut down any attempt at editing or what they call “censorship.” Not even greed can explain their motives here—film critic and cultural commentator Michael Medved has spilled gallons of ink highlighting the fact that films devoid of swearing and sexual material generally make a lot more cash than the standard crude fare offered by most studios. The simple fact is that they see the components of cursing, crudeness, and carnality as a vital part of the stories they wish to tell.
The good news is that parents do not have to invite these smut-peddlers and storytellers into their homes. The greatest works of literature ever produced are cheaper and more widely available than at any other time in human history. Skilled storytellers of the highest calibre simply await an introduction. A host of men and women who defined eras and captivated entire generations with the tales and the characters they conjured up in their imaginations and breathed into life with their pens stand ready to usher a new generation on fantastic journeys of wonder, whimsy and imagination, needing only a simple invitation. Their stories capture the great moral truths, the essential principles, and the high drama of ordinary living. Give them a try. I promise you won’t regret it.