We long for meaning. In a world where issues are ever more complicated, where ideas are ever more complex, and where politicians and teachers and preachers are less and less sure of themselves, we ask: what does it all mean? The popular song laments, "I don't get no satisfaction." Comedian Rodney Dangerfield complains, "I don't get no respect." Jobs have become more a way of making money and less a way of doing something of value. We have more leisure time but less satisfying ways of filling it. We are bombarded with reports of carcinogens and pesticides in our food, of asbestos fibers falling from our ceilings, of pollutants seeping into our tap water. We feel we have very little control over the world around us.
So where can we turn for meaning in our lives? Some of us turn inward, shutting out the noise and confusion. Others turn to each new "how to" book, uncertain that we know how to. Some turn to churches, clubs and associations, seeking group support. A substantial number of us turn to the mass media.
The search for meaning is at the core of human life. It is not enough just to work and play and raise a family. We have a deep-seated need to be certain that our efforts are worth it -- that our lives have meaning. One of Paul Tillich's great contributions was to insist that what we mean by God is actually that which is of ultimate meaning. The search for meaning is the search for God.
This book is about that search, but from a special bias. It is the bias of the gospel -- the good news that God liberates and frees people to be the children of God, that is, to be whole and filled with joy and satisfaction in their work, play and family. It is a bias that affirms that for those to whom the Christian faith has meaning, the gospel brings peace and joy, and also the obligation to share it with others. For Christians, ultimate meaning -- God -- is understood in the person of Jesus Christ, in his life, death and resurrection, and in the Holy Spirit which allows us to see God present with us today.
But what do those words mean in today's secular society? Who was Jesus Christ, in his life and death, and what do we mean by his resurrection? What do we mean by the Holy Spirit in this scientific age? How can see "see God" in a world filled with so many other claims? How can families "see God" when in the average American home the television set is on more than seven hours a day -- every day? How can a high school senior "see God" when he reports: "I don't live in my house; I live in my room with my TV."? 1 How can young people "see God" when a teacher reports: "many of the students thought that Shakespeare was born before Jesus; not one member of the same class knew who Cain and Abel were." 2
The search for meaning inevitably forces us to look at our culture. The original meaning of culture comes from the Latin colere, to take care of, to preserve and cultivate. Culture is that which takes care of and preserves and cultivates our meanings and values. It is the system of beliefs and institutions that reflect the reality of our society. If we want to know who we are, we have to look at our culture and its meanings, values and worldview. Today these meanings, values and worldview are expressed primarily through the mass media of communication, and one medium more than any other: particular: television. Television has become the great cultivator of our culture.
Therefore, the search for meaning requires us to look at our Christian gospel on one hand and our mass mediated culture on the other, and then to slowly bring them together in ways that neither violate the spirit of the gospel nor ignore the reality of the culture. It requires the correlation of gospel, culture and the media.
That is the task of this book: to suggest how Christians can relate their understanding of the gospel to their culture, especially as communicated by the mass media.
T. S. Eliot, in his essay on "Religion and Literature," neatly sums up both the approach and the goal: "So long as we are conscious of the gulf fixed between ourselves [as Christians] and the greater part of contemporary [culture], we are more or less protected from being harmed by it, and are in a position to extract from it what good it has to offer us." 3
In writing this book, I bring several assumptions:
1. That people can become accustomed to almost anything, that they often tolerate situations they need not tolerate.
2. That the problems of life are not necessarily out of control; that the situation can be changed.
3. That when things are not as they should be, our task is to identify the underlying reasons and then work to expose and change them.
4. That the task of Christian education is to make it possible for the gospel to be heard in our time.
5. That the task of Christian theology is to help the churches determine what should be taught about matters of ultimate concern in our world.
6. That if theological thinking is to be meaningful today, it must be grounded in ordinary experience.
7. That Christians are always part of a Christian tradition, and that tradition is indebted to scripture.
8. That scripture never exists in a "pure" form, but always is interpreted and understood within the culture of Christians of different times and places.
9. That the mass media in general, and TV in particular, always communicate messages, and that these messages are especially important because they are seen to be trivial and unimportant.
10. That television and other mass media are not inherently evil, but that the way they are used the messages they carry are contending with institutional religion for dominance in articulating our values, assumptions and worldview.
11. That the traditional language of Christian tradition is no longer authoritative and revelatory; that it has lost its meaning.
12. That the task of Christians today -- as in every age -- is to give the gospel new vitality through stories and images which grow out of our own experience.
These are my assumptions, and I hope that reading this book will convince you to make some of them yours.
1. Patrick Welsh, "Our Teens Are Becoming Lookworms -- Instead of Bookworms," TV Guide, May 23, 1987.
3. T.S. Eliot, "Religion and Literature," quoted in Robert van Voorst, "Windows on Our World," The Church Herald, November 4, 1988, p. 8.