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.
Conclusion: Which is to Be Master?
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.
--Jesus' farewell discourse to His disciples (John 17:15)
As the dominant mythmaker of our time, television has come a long way from what Newton Minow called the "vast wasteland" of the 1960's. Public broadcasting, especially in Canada, has created educational programs for children that have great appeal. For adults there are lessons in cooking, French, gardening, home repair, and even dog training. Nature programs expand our understanding of the earth and its wonders. Some of the world's most insightful thinkers come into our living rooms on a regular basis. Great music and plays are available almost every evening.
At the same time, commercial television is a disgrace. Especially in the U.S., both local and network news is simplistic and presented with a "happy face" geared more to entertainment than enlightenment. The torrent of commercial appeals never ends. Children's programs are often full-length commercials. Nighttime network programming manages each year to reach new lows in common-denominator fare. As the amount of violence increases, the quality and amount of news and issue analysis diminishes. And commercial cable brings language and actions into our homes that we would not condone for adults visiting in our homes, much less for our children.
Here we have the problem in a nutshell. The mass media could be a positive humanizing force in our lives, but it is not, because the culture to which we belong has the wrong values and worldview. The culture, through the mass media, is cultivating the wrong myths. The media promote luxuries, encourage waste, and praise the life of things, while the gap between the rich and poor increases both within and between nations. Technology -- "what works" -- has become our god, expressed in all the most powerful myths of the most powerful media, while the God of justice and love is relegated to the sidelines of life, expressed in antiquated language and obscure stories lacking both clarity and relevance.
However, the current state of the media and its myths does not have to be our future fate. Just because technology is possible does not mean that it is inevitable. Consider a recent speech by the chairman of Eastman Kodak to that corporation's shareholders, which unwittingly reveals that people, not technology, finally can have the upper hand:
About ten years ago, the continuous wave dye laser was invented during research at Kodak. ... But Kodak has never produced such a laser for market, and so far we have no plans to do so. That market has never had the earnings potential to justify the cost of developing it.
I think the point is clear. Just because Kodak knows how to make a product doesn't mean that we should make it.1
Just because the media are dehumanizing in so many ways does not mean that they must continue that way. The media can be reformed. Its myths can be changed. People can learn how to protect themselves from media myths that are distortions and falsehoods. And nations can establish laws that protect their citizens from media monopoly and hence media domination.
While it is true that we are shaped by the technology we purport to control, the solution is not to withdraw from all technology. Rather, the solution is to work through the problem, to insist on shaping the technology which threatens to control us. We are back to the famous debate between Alice and Humpty Dumpty:
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master -- that's all."
We must think of the media less as acting upon us, and more as being acted upon by us. It is the structure of the culture that acts upon the media and, in a sense tells it what to say. And that culture is our creation. True, we inherit a great deal of our culture. But we also can change it.
The task of Christians regarding the gospel, culture and media is to work toward changing culture so that it serves the needs of people in the light of the gospel's myths -- in particular, the need of people for love and justice. The mass media must cease being the willing slave of the capitalist spirit and instead become subservient to human needs.
In 1,400 A.D., more than a thousand years after Ptolemy developed the model that put the Earth squarely in the middle of the universe, astronomers were still bending and stretching that old "explanation" to fit their own observations which told them it just was not so. A painful struggle was required to change a culture's perspective to see that the Earth merely revolves around the sun. Today, more than three hundred years after John Locke spelled out his theory that the greatest good is served by each person following his or her own best interests, some economists and politicians are still trying to bend and stretch this outmoded "explanation" of life to fit social realities that say it just doesn't meet human needs today.
The legacy of John Locke's philosophy is the capitalist spirit and the dependency upon technology -- theories that place efficiency and profits above human fulfillment. That worldview solves problems with marvelous efficiency, but it also brutalizes the weak and robs the poor. The gospel we have been examining challenges that worldview. Instead, the gospel proposes a worldview in which men and women are the children of God, and where human growth and development is a far more important goal than the possession of any power or thing. The gospel insists that human beings are the greatest good, and that everyone's needs are best met when we live in community, caring for each other rather than looking out for Number One.
This worldview requires a completely different set of myths from the worldview of efficiency and self interest: myths that talk about community, connectedness, giving, sharing, helping, and nurturing -- rather than self, things, getting, keeping, forcing, using and conquering.
We have suggested some of the ways men and women of faith in the United States and Canada can work toward that alternate worldview. Fortunately, they have a mighty resource to aid them: the local church. The community of believers in each town, city and metropolis is the continuing presence of God in society, and as weak and faltering as that may be, it is a sign of hope in a world filled with power and greed. The church cannot avoid what happens in the world. Rather it must embrace the world -- including the media -- and attempt to reconcile it with God.
Creating a new worldview and a different set of myths is not easy. It means remaining open to new understandings of what the gospel is today. It demands that we tell our story to others, and to tell it in ways that are meaningful in a world filled with opposing stories of great power and appeal. It requires discovering and inventing new myths for our time. It insists that we respond to today's world in today's languages -- including the powerful visual language of the new media. But it also insists that we maintain a way of standing outside the current media system and its powerful mythology, simply because the media are so strong and entrenched that we are powerless if we allow ourselves to remain totally under their influence.
As we continue our search, it is good to remember that, according to the gospel, the medium is not the message. Life is.
1. Frank Webster and Kevin Robins, Information Technology: A Luddite Analysis (Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing, 1986), p. 21.