Mythmakers: Gospel, Culture and the Media by William F. Fore
William F. Fore received a B.D. from Yale Divinity School and Ph.D. from Columbia University. A minister in the United Methodist Church , he was Director of Visual Education for the United Methodist Board of Missions, then Executive Director of the Communication Commission of the National Council of Churches in New York City. From 1989 to 1995 he was Visiting Lecturer in Communication and Cultural Studies at Yale Divinity School.. His publications include Image and Impact (Friendship Press 1970), Television and Religion: the Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture (Augsburg 1987, currently reprinted by SBS Press, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511), and Mythmakers: Gospel Culture and the Media (Friendship Press 1990).Published in 1990 by Friendship Press, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10115. Used by permission of the author. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted Brock.
Chapter 5: Worldviews in Conflict
And he asked them, "But who do you say that I am?"
-- Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20
As we look for what the media are telling us, we may discover that they reveal more about ourselves and our culture than we really want to know. Today's mass media are the windows of our culture. They provide the myths -- stories and images -- that explain to us who we are, what we can do, what we cannot do, who as nations we once were and who we can be -- in other words, the worldview that explains, unites and guides our lives.
To uncover the media's worldview, we have to look for the symbolic meanings behind the news stories, the situation comedies, the movies and commercials. Here, underlying myths reveal much more than surface story lines, "messages" or "content." They determine what has meaning, including the meaning of social roles in the society -- who has the power, who is the aggressor, who is the victim. They tell us "the way things are." In the media these myths are like the rules of speech: we take them for granted but they control much of what we can say, how we say it, and therefore how and what we think.
Like gravity, air, and mother love, the media's myths are givens, the "rules behind the rules;" it doesn't occurs to us to question or try to change. In the aggregate they summarize the worldview in which we operate. We will see that the media's worldview is quite different from the worldview of Christians, or indeed of the worldviews of all truly religious people. The differences have resulted in a conflict of worldviews, and how that conflict is resolved will determine what kind of world our children's children will live in.
Myths About The Media
To get a fix on the media's worldview, let us look first at four myths about the media themselves. These myths supply the context and situation in which the communication exists. Here are four basic myths about the media -- assumptions about communication which are never stated as such, but are present in almost every media presentation.
1. The media tell us the way life really is. Despite the fantasies which pour out of mass media, there is an accompanying underlying assumption that the media have an inherent validity. Partly this claim rests on the mass audience feeling that because something is duplicated in millions of home, it must be true, or at least "real." Researchers tell us that when people in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake recovered from the shock of feeling the earth move, in many case their next act was to turn on television, because they needed to have their real-life experience validated by the media. There is something about seeing and hearing, together with knowing that millions of others are seeing and hearing the same thing, that, for example, allowed Walter Cronkite to claim at the conclusion of his newscast, "And that's the way it is...."
2. Information overload is inevitable. The media also carry the myth that the tremendous media avalanche of words, sounds and visual images that invade our lives through the media is part of the price we must pay for living in modern society. If we expect to benefit from the wide variety of audio-visual experiences now available, the media tell us we have to expect the demands, sales pitches, commercials and sheer volume that issue from them.
3. The issues of life are simple. Since we live in a world full of information overload, it is necessary and possible to reduce everything really worth knowing into simple good and bad. The media help us identify who and what is "good" and "bad," whether we should respond "yes" or "no" to a particular issue or situation.
4. There exists a free flow of information. Of course the whole import of this book's analysis is that instead of a genuinely free flow of information, there is consistent, pervasive, and effective selection, rearrangement and censorship applied to both content and style in the mass media. Such a view is resisted most of all by the men and women who spend their careers reporting the news in the media. But they are the very ones least able to judge the matter, for they were selected and trained by the system so that they could be depended upon to operate within its assumptions and myths. When was the last time you saw a woman in her sixties or a man with a definite Hispanic accent anchoring the evening TV news? Although the examples may seem bizarre, the point is not: points of view that are outside the existing power structure have almost no opportunity to find authoritative expression in mass media.
The Cultural Worldview
There are also media myths about the society in general, and taken together, these myths constitute the total cultural worldview. In a complex society such as ours, it would be impossible to detail all of the images and symbols that go into creating its myths. However, here are five of the central myths from which many of the media images and symbols spring. 1
1. Efficiency is the highest good. This assumption of the spirit of capitalism is that solving problems, "getting things done," being more efficient is the primary human goal. Everything else, including other human goals and values, are secondary. The right question is "How can we solve this problem right now?"; not, "What is our ultimate objective and how do we reach it?" The ultimate objective is efficiency, and whatever gets something "done" (never mind in relation to what) is good.
2. Technology defines society. Technology is progress, and progress is simply inevitable: it cannot be stopped, regardless of the human implications. Technology thus takes on a reality that is beyond human influence. Society does not decide how to use technology; technology decides how society will be used.
3. The fittest survive. According to sociologist Marie Augusta Neal, a major myth of our Western culture is the concept of "social Darwinianism," the theory propounded by Herbert Spencer in the nineteenth century that the principles of biological evolution could be applied to human societies. This myth proposes that actual genetic differences exist between ethnic groups or social classes, differences distinctive enough that society is justified in allowing "more naturally capable" groups to be responsible for making the decisions that affect everyone. Social Darwinism operates in our policy-making regarding education, jobs, housing, zoning, provisions for recreation, health services, and the uses of human beings to carry on wars.
It is no accident that in the Gerbner TV-violence profile, lower-class and nonwhite characters are depicted as especially prone to victimization, as more violent than their middle-class counterparts, as paying a high price for engaging in violence (jail, death). 2 As this myth suggests, the fittest survive, and the fittest in our media worldview are not poor, nonwhite Americans.
4. Power and decision-making start at the center and move out. In the media world, the political word comes from Washington, the financial word comes from New York, and the entertainment word comes from Hollywood. While watching television, one gets the sense of existing at the edge of a giant web in which someone at the center pushes the right button and instantaneously millions of us "out there" see what has been decided we will see.
Of course, one of the early documents of democracy, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, proposed just the opposite -- that government derives its power from the consent of the governed, in other words, that power should flow from the periphery to the center. But the center-out model is much more supportive of the needs of the industrial revolution, the rise of major nation-states and the demands of the new technological era. Center-out clearly is essential to the maintenance of both centralized governmental bureaucracies and capitalist economies.
5. Happiness consists of limitless material acquisition. This myth has several corollaries.
One is that consumption is inherently good -- a concept driven home effectively by the advertising industry. Another is that property, wealth, and power are more important than people. To see how far this myth has made its way into our consciousness, we need only consider the vast following for Ronald Reagan's proposition that the Panama Canal is "ours" because "we" bought and paid for it . The U.S. did, after all, build the Canal Zone. The fact that U.S. control of the canal today deprives the people of Panama of their human rights is regrettable -- but a deal is a deal. Or recall the riots in some U.S. urban ghettos during the late l960s. It was when looters started to take things from the stores that the police started to kill. Both human life and property may be sacred, but, in the media worldview, property rights are just a little more sacred. Consider this myth in terms of the demands of Third World nations to be forgiven part of their crushing debts to First World banks.
Finally, what are the values that the mass media communicate to us on behalf of our culture? Power heads the list: power over others; power over nature. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, in today's media world it is not so much that power corrupts as that the aura of power, its glamorous trappings, attracts. 3 Close to power are the values of wealth and property, the idea that everything can be purchased and that consumption is an intrinsic good. The values of narcissism, of immediate gratification of wants, and of creature comforts follow close behind.
Thus the mass media worldview tells us that we are basically good, that happiness is the chief end of life, and that happiness consists in obtaining material goods. The media transform the value of sexuality into sex appeal, the value of self-respect into pride, the value of will-to-live into will-to-power. They exacerbate acquisitiveness into greed; they deal with insecurity by generating more insecurity, and anxiety by generating more anxiety. They change the value of recreation into competition and the value of rest into escape. And perhaps worst of all, the media constrict our experience and substitute media world for real world so that we become less and less able to make the fine value judgments that living in such a complex world requires. Within society, the media are the obedient servants of the economic system. The high technology required for our current mass communication system, with its centralized control, its high profits, its capital-intensive nature, and its ability to reach every individual in the society immediately and economically, makes it perfectly suited for a massive production-consumption system that is equally centralized, profitable, and capital-intensive. In fact, our current first-world production-consumption system simply could not exist without a communication system that trains people to be knowledgeable, efficient, and hard-working producers and consumers. The fact that capitalism tends to turn everything into a commodity is admirably suited to the myths of the mass media which turns each member of the audience into a consumer.
In terms of the political system, the media, again reflecting the values held by society generally, give us politics by image, treating politicians and their campaigns as products to be sold rather than as people and ideas to be understood. The whole media approach to the U.S. war in Vietnam was guided by the necessity of a superpower to create for itself an image that would convince the world -- and itself -- that it was number one, the mightiest power on earth. More recently, the U.S. invasion of Grenada and the bombing of Libya were handled the same way to support the same value.
The way the media handled Watergate is revealing in this regard. The public and the media were shocked not so much by what the president and his men did as by the fact that they got caught, publicly, in a way that could not be "imaged" away. But after Watergate we saw an immediate return to the old value system. Those indicted and convicted were overwhelmed with lucrative offers from publishers and television to tell their stories, thus once again driving home the point that society demands "positive" images, including even more lies and fabrications, in order to mitigate the horror of the cover-up, to rehabilitate the criminals in the American TV viewer's eyes, and, above all, to help restore, through imagery, the public's confidence in the political system.
The Christian Worldview
Christianity has its own worldview, its own vision of who people are and are not, of what they can and cannot do, and what is of value and what is not. The calling of Christians has always been to evaluate and understand the historical order in terms of the eternal order, to learn how to live within the present world and yet not be of it, to discern both the signs of the times and the signs of God's reign. But to fulfill this calling today requires understanding and evaluating the current media, and television in particular, from a Christian perspective. It requires theological analysis.
I am not overstating the case to say that theological analysis of media is an essential task for North American Christians today. People need to cultivate the ability to stand back enough to gain aesthetic and intellectual "distance" between themselves and what they see in the media, and then, from a critical perspective informed by their own faith, look at what the media are doing and saying.
Unless we can achieve and maintain this "distance," we easily become victims of our own ignorance and complacency. The world of television quickly becomes our only world. On the other hand, if people develop a stance of critical reflection, they can both clarify their own value system and search for the roots of their faith. This moving back and forth between faith and practice, between spirit and reality, between the realm of God and the realms of this world, is precisely the calling of all who today consider themselves religious.
Theological analysis of this sort is not really so difficult. It is rooted in the Bible, in the history of the church, and in personal reflection. And it certainly is too important to be left to the professional theologians! What it requires is a reasonable amount of biblical literacy and a determination to be completely honest.
The place to begin is with the great themes of the Bible: 4
The creation story. The Hebrew Scriptures begin with an affirmation of the goodness of God's creation (..."And God saw that it was good"). The Genesis creation narrative reaches its climax in God's creation of man and woman, making it clear that we are not self-produced, independent beings, but creatures -- parts of the whole of creation. Genesis thus affirms the fundamental value of each human life, our essential equality as human beings, and our interrelatedness with nature. It demands that we be good stewards of creation, rather than its exploiters. Genesis also reminds us forcibly that sin is an inescapable part of human life, and that sin has its roots in our determination to do what we want to do rather than to live in harmony with the world as God wants us to live. This view of creation stands in sharp contrast to our culture's frequent affirmation of consumption and waste, and the media's view that our nature is to consume -- to use up and exploit both people and things, and to dominate all of creation.
The fall. The recognition that evil can come into the world through the self-centeredness of individuals is a strong corrective to the media's frequent appeals to narcissism, to self-glorification and instant gratification. But sin also appears when the bonds of community and the sense of mutual responsibility are broken, when people lose their sense of self-worth, and this understanding of the fallen state strongly judges the media's tendency to fragment community and to separate people from each other.
The covenant story. Even when the human world plunges itself into sin, God does not give up. Reconciliation takes place after the fall, after alienation and pride and selfishness have separated humanity from God's will. God' blessing of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants affirms that God will be with all humanity if they worship the true God and not other less-than-God gods. This means that the worship of anything that is less than God -- possessions, power, beauty, success -- is a sin. Yet these are the very things glorified (worshipped?) in the mythology of television.
The reign of God. Jesus taught that the reign of God is within us (or among us) -- it is not something "out there." It is present in the Spirit, waiting for women and men to testify to its presence and power in their lives. It also is present in hope for the future, in the expression of that toward which we are called to strive in the face of seemingly impossible odds in the real world. The media, on the other hand, propose a world in which value is "out there," in things external to people. Media tell people that the value of people consists in what they own, but that they can never own enough.
The servant and Savior. Jesus is both servant and Savior, who through his death and resurrection becomes the Lord of history, providing both reconciliation and hope for us all. This key image guides both the Christian's personal life and the church's life. The television image is that consumption is the guide to both personal and corporate life, that the priority task for each individual is to "look out for number one."
Several specific values emerge from this biblical view. Through Amos God calls for justice and righteousness (Amos 5:21-24). Through Micah God requires kindness and humility (Micah 6:8). And through Isaiah God demands that we correct oppression (Isaiah 42-43).
Instead of the media's affirmation of wealth and possessions, Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell all that he has and to follow his way. He makes it clear that wealth has the same chance of entering the kingdom of God as a rope has of threading a needle (Luke 18:18-23).
As for the media's assumption that money can buy anything, Jesus tells the story of the wealthy farmer who decided to build a bigger barn, but then suddenly died, so Jesus asks, "What does one gain by winning the whole world at the cost of one's true self?" (Mark 8:36; The New English Bible, Oxford University Press, 1961).
In contrast to the media's affirmation of the ultimate value of creature comforts and self-gratification, Jesus affirms that anyone who wants to be a follower must leave self-centeredness behind and follow him, which involves taking up the cross (Matt. 16:24).
In contrast to the media's urging us to look out for number one, the Christian worldview urges us to love our enemies.
In contrast to the media's emphasis on power that begins at the center and moves out, Jesus begins with the poor and the powerless.
In contrast to the media's tendency to fragment and isolate people, the Christian worldview encourages the value of creating and maintaining a community of faith in which everyone can be a part.
In contrast to the media's worldview that we are basically good, that happiness is the chief end of life and that happiness consists of obtaining material goods, the Christian worldview holds that human beings are susceptible to the sin of pride, that the chief end of life is to live in harmony with all of creation, and that happiness consists in creating the reign of God within one's self and among one's neighbors -- which includes the whole earth.
In the first five chapters of this book we have analyzed the universal search for meaning, and in particular the Chritian's search for the meaning of the gospel. We saw that "the gospel" itself has meaning only as we recognize that it always comes out of one particular cultural setting and enters into the new setting of those who hear it. We saw that the gospel has been interpreted in scores of different cultural settings during the past two millennia, and that it exists in many of different cultural settings throughout the world today.
The question then became: what does our own culture say today about meaning? To answer this, we looked at ways different communication technologies -- oral, written, print, and electronic -- have shaped cultures in the past, then how our secular culture, conforming to the demands of the capitalist spirit, has been shaped in our time. Finally, we summarized the secular culture's worldview and the Christian worldview -- and saw that they are in fundamental conflict.
What can an ordinary Christian hope to do about this conflict? It is important to remind ourselves that such a struggle is nothing new to the Christian. Christians have always found themselves to be in conflict with the secular culture in which they live. Every generation has had to work out a response that is true to the gospel rather than the demands of the secular world -- faithfulness to God rather than to mammon.
The task of the second half of this book, therefore, is to examine specific problems today regarding the gospel, culture and media in the United State and Canada. (While there are some differences, more than 70 percent of Canadian regularly watch "American TV" during the prime time hours, and the media environments in the two nations are essentially the same.) 5 After looking at some of the problems, we will then suggest positive actions Christians can take about those problems -- creatively and in faith.
1. From William F. Fore, Television and Religion: the Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1987), pp. 63 - 68.
2. Joyce Sprafkin, "Stereotypes on Television," monograph from Media Action Resource Center, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10115 (1975).
3. Hannah Arendt, "Home to Roost: A Bicentennial Address," New York Review, 26 June 1975, p. 3.
4. From William F. Fore, "Becoming Active Participants Rather Than Passive Receivers," in Engage/Social Action, December 1981, pp. 22-23.
5. The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition, (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988), Vol IV, p. 284.