Reclaiming the Media Culture

One of the last documents that Pope St. John Paul II presented to the Church was his Apostolic Letter, The Rapid Development.  He wrote this document mainly as a means to “reflect on the ‘challenges’ which the communications media constitute for the Church, which Paul VI said ‘would feel guilty before the Lord if she did not utilize these powerful means.’”(The Rapid Development (TRD), 2).  Among his reflections he recognizes that “[T]he communications media have acquired such importance as to be the principal means of guidance and inspiration for many people in their personal, familial, and social behavior” (TRD,3) and emphasized that Christians should “not be afraid of new technologies! These rank ‘among the marvelous things’ – inter mirifica – which God has placed at our disposal to discover, to use and to make known the truth, also the truth about our dignity and about our destiny as his children, heirs of his eternal Kingdom” (TRD, 14).  I find that the approach many Christians take towards media is either one of indulgence or total avoidance.  Both are unacceptable unless we want to give up the culture completely.  If we are to continue to be a missionary Church then we cannot forget that “[T]he first Areopagus of the modern age is the world of communications, which is unifying humanity and turning it into what is known as a ‘global village’” (Redemptoris Missio, 37).

There is a tendency to somehow personalize “the Culture” and then demonize it without really reflecting on what culture is.  Culture arises out of the fact that man by nature is a social creature that is made to seek the truth.  Therefore, men seek the truth not just individually but also in community.  Culture then is a community’s answers to the great questions.  These answers become ubiquitous, touching nearly every aspect of the lives of the community.  No one, no matter how hard they try can live outside its reach.

There is another aspect of culture that is very important for us to understand which the saintly Pontiff points out, namely that culture itself, prescinding from its content, arises from the very existence of new ways to communicate with hitherto unknown techniques and vocabulary’ (TRD, 3).  In other words, culture is both parent and child in that it is both formed by and forms the community.

Now there are many particular components that make up culture, not the least of which is religion since you can’t have culture without cult.  Each of these components are meant to express in various ways the answers to the great questions but the culture as a whole has the “primary and essential task of education” (John Paul II, Address to UNESCO, 2 June 1980).

Literature and art also play a key role in any culture, but in ours these roles have been taken over by movies and television.  It is nearly impossible to have a culture that simultaneously produces both movies and TV and great literature and art.

To see why this is so, we need to understand the role our imagination in coming to know things.  Because we are material beings, those things that we come to know are known through our bodies.  As St. Thomas reminds us, “nothing is in the intellect which was not first in the senses.”  This comes about either when an object is present to us it is first experienced through the exterior senses or when it is absent to us its image is presented through the imagination.  In either case, every object of knowledge that we have passes through the imagination.  The imagination passes the images (St. Thomas calls them phantasms) through the agent intellect where they are abstracted and judgments are made.  In essence, our imaginations act as filters for what we think about.


What is the point of this?  Motion pictures come at us so quickly that we can very easily lose this filtering ability.  We end up surrendering control over the imagination (by our wills).  We then cease making judgments about the images.  This is the dangerous part because the cultural norms that are present in the movie will become ours.  The judgments implicitly found in the movie will be ours.  So for example, if we see a happy gay couple over presented over and over we begin to associate the two together and eventually judge homosexual relationships as a good thing because of this association.  This ability to overwhelm the imagination is at the heart of the TV advertising industry as well.

To see the point I am driving at, recall what JPII said regarding the culture as parent and child.  We are all children of the culture whether we realize it or not.  There is no avoiding this and to simply abdicate our role as Christians in forming the culture is not an option.  What is needed is to recognize that “a vast work of formation is needed to assure that the mass media be known and used intelligently and appropriately. The new vocabulary they introduce into society modifies both learning processes and the quality of human relations, so that, without proper formation, these media run the risk of manipulating and heavily conditioning, rather than serving people” (TRD, 13).  We need to be properly formed in how media affects us and how it can still act in service of us rather than serving as a tool for propaganda.  Once we do that we can assume the parental role in the culture rather than mere children.  Personally I see three key ways we can affect the media.

1) Mental Prayer

This may seem obvious and probably shouldn’t even be mentioned but I mention it for a very specific reason.  Many people simply cannot pray today.  When they sit down to pray and meditate on the Scriptures they are so driven to distraction that they find it impossible to pray.  It never seems to get better so they give up.  The cause of most of our distractions in prayer is that we are unable to govern our imagination.  Once we gain control of our imagination, our prayer life immediately improves.

If you recall what I said above TV and movies’ effect on our imagination then you can see why this might be the case. The remedy is less TV.

Reading also is a great help.  Again if you are accustomed to a lot of TV and movies it is very difficult to develop the habit of reading.  There is a reason why the “book is better than the movie.”  We must fully engage our minds in a book.  We learn to govern our imaginations especially in reading authors are very descriptive.  Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy was the most popular book of the twentieth century precisely because of his ability to actively engage the imagination and paint a world where beauty, truth and goodness win.

Poetry is also great in this regard because of the word pictures that good poets create.  Along with his many talents, John Paul II was also an accomplished poet.  He wrote a poem on the Conclave of Cardinals that was later printed.  One would be hard pressed to watch a video that would capture what these few words do:

It is here, beneath this wondrous Sistine profusion of color that the Cardinals assemble — the community responsible for the legacy of the keys of the Kingdom. They come here, to this very place. And once more Michelangelo wraps them in his vision. “In him we live and move and have our being.” The colors of the Sistine will then speak the word of the Lord: Tu es Petrus (Mt 16:18) — once heard by Simon, son of John. “To you I will give the keys of the Kingdom.” During the Conclave Michelangelo must teach them — Do not forget: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Eius. You who see all, point to him! He will point him out …

–Meditations on the Book of Genesis: At the Threshold of the Sistine Chapel

Finally I would recommend reading books out loud as a family.  This is something that has completely falling out of vogue.  But families have done this for generations and it has served them well in not only forming them in the true, good and beautiful but forming a bond around the shared stories.  He who controls the stories, controls the culture.

2) Become a discerning viewer and teach others what to look for

Notice that above I said the remedy I mentioned was less TV, not to cut it out completely.  Our goal ought to be, first to become discerning viewers, but also to form discerning viewers.  We have to fight the tendency to use TV as means to “veg-out.”  We need to be active in our consumption and make judgments about what we are watching.  In order to do this we need to limit the amount of time (especially consecutive time) we spend watching.  Use the PAUSE button liberally to stop and think about what is going on.  If you are watching with someone else, pause and talk about it.  If you are seeing it in a theater then stop for ice cream on the way home so you can talk about it.  See if you can label the worldview of the producers and writers.  What did they get right?

Along the same lines, resist the temptation to use the TV as a babysitter.  Watch TV with your kids and avoid allowing them to watch it alone.  Help them too become discerning viewers.  When you see something wrong (like teenager boys objectifying girls or doofus dads) point it out.  Having a family movie night is a great way to do this as well.

Which leads to the third way we can affect the media…

3) Demand Excellence

TV and movies, like all good art, ought to reflect the True, the Good and the Beautiful.  If that is lacking turn it off.  Demand an account for the time you have spent.  God will ask you for an account for all the time He gave you, will you be able to give a good account?

Resist the temptation to voyeurism that drives the “Reality TV” genre.  These shows exploit the families that are a part of them (and has led to the downfall of more than a few) and can be made with very little monetary investment on the part of producers.  Family life should never be on display for the world to see.

An important corollary to this is to demand excellence from so-called Christian film-makers.   Often we’re so happy to see Christian media that we don’t care about the quality.  So often the movies are cliché and the characters are so smarmy that it only serves to make Christianity look even worse in the eyes of the rest of the culture.  “If Christians are that dull and fake, then why would I want to be one?” is what many non-Christians think after seeing them.  But shouldn’t Christian media be better off because of its goals and motivations?  If a movie is meant to spread the Faith then it should meet industry standards.  Think of the effect of a Catholic film like the Song of Bernadette winning the Oscar for Best Picture today.  Certainly critically acclaimed movies like Brokeback Mountain and Million Dollar Baby were instrumental in forming the culture.  There was a time when Catholics controlled Hollywood, why couldn’t this happen again?  The desire in all men for the Good, the True and the Beautiful cannot be stamped out and most know it when they see it.  If we make it, they will come.

And certainly never forget that TV and Movies are consumer-driven.  If we don’t watch it then they won’t make it or show it.

St. Francis de Sales, Patron Saint of the Media, Pray for Us!


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