The Lean Clean Culture Machine
Perhaps the most obvious mark of a Catholic who does not take his Faith seriously enough is his use of the mass media. If this use differs very little from that of the general population, there is some degree of lukewarmness at work. Today’s mass media have a powerful impact on the formation of culture, and all of us are creatures of our culture to some extent. Therefore, it is all too easy to take for granted certain features of the pervasive media culture. Too often, we allow ourselves to be driven less by a medium’s moral content than by the superficial entertainment it provides.
Depravity on Tap
Activist groups periodically attempt to alert the public to the lowering of moral standards in particular media. For example, there is an ongoing legal effort to eliminate the availability of prostitution and other similar services through Craig’s List. And just yesterday I received an email from the American Family Association calling attention to the heavy and favorable dose of homosexuality in a recent television episode of “Family Guy”, sponsored by Pepsi. These media problems have been a feature of daily life for decades, and it is fairly clear by now that the problems will not go away anytime soon, for two reasons. First, many of those with media power are determined to break down the Judeo-Christian moral code; second, too few media consumers take their putative moral values seriously enough to avoid sources of entertainment that offend against them.
My wife has always followed the “living room” rule: If we would not permit guests to behave a certain way in our living room, then we will not permit television, movies, Internet, radio or music that portrays that same behavior. Of course there are limits to how this rule is normally applied. Obviously, we don’t want somebody blowing up cars in a high-speed chase in the middle of our living room, nor would we want a military battle going on there. But what we’re targeting here are media offerings that are obviously morally dangerous or that more subtly portray false values as normal and acceptable—media offerings that may condition us (or our children) to take such values for granted.
You may say that the living room test doesn’t leave much left to watch, and sometimes that’s true. But the obvious response is: “So what?” Apart from certain kinds of information (like weather reports, emergency broadcasts, critical news, and of course this column), one may legitimately question whether we really need mass media at all. Are we going to be somehow imperiled or impoverished if we don’t get our regular heavy dose of supine entertainment?
Flipping the Switch
Each one of us is called to lead a truly integrated life. This does not include a large number of hours spent in passive entertainments; nor does it include the unreflective absorption of whatever entertains us when we’re too shallow or too lazy to do anything else. It is beyond dispute that television, movies, the Internet, radio, and video games sometimes have positive value and can frequently be innocently entertaining, offering legitimate forms of relaxation. But it is equally beyond dispute that the vast majority of us would be better off if we spent less time absorbing what these diverse media have to offer, and more time on disciplined activities which, in the long run, are more useful, more deeply enriching, and more fully human.
In other words, we generally do not need this stuff and we are often noticeably better off without it. Moreover, unless we’ve successfully done without it for a significant period of time, we will never know how dependent we are on it or, to put it another way, how under-developed we are as human persons because of our constant exposure to it. Here I’ll introduce some more family history (remember, we do have the world’s greatest grand-children...).
Early in our marriage, before we had kids, my wife and I felt that we tended to watch too much TV, so we got rid of our television set. Sometimes if we really wanted to watch something, I’d bring home a TV from the school where I was teaching. Later, when we were sure we had this under complete control, we bought a twelve-inch black-and-white set and kept it in a closet, pulling it out only when we really wanted to use it. As we began to have children, we also avoided (as much as humanly possible!) the temptation to use the television as a baby sitter. Finally, as our kids grew older, we set a certain number of hours each week that each child was permitted to watch. As computer use grew, we applied similar limits.
During Lent, as a family, we gave up television and/or recreational computer use. As inconsequential as this may seem, it brings us to something that can be extraordinarily important in any person's life. It is extremely salutary to take whatever media type one most often indulges in (or more than one, if necessary), and simply turn off the switch during Lent: Zero, zilch, nada. Cold turkey. This is another form of fasting, and a particularly valuable form in our media-saturated culture. What we found is that, just as with fasting from food, the sharp withdrawal was very difficult in the beginning but became habitually easy within a week or two. Our kids responded exactly the same way: They found it tough at first, but after a little while they just didn’t think about it anymore.
The value of this spiritual exercise can scarcely be overstated. This purging of excess entertainment very nearly necessitates a cultivation of more important pursuits for the simple reason that almost anything is more important. If we’re married or have children, some of the time saved should go to spouse and family activities; in every case, some time should certainly go to prayer. Other parts of this time can be devoted to good works, a hobby we’ve always wanted to cultivate, or any other worthwhile activity.
Please note that the word “worthwhile” should not be taken to mean “dull”, but it should be taken to mean: “Not a direct substitute for the kind of repeated excitement I was getting—or the repeated passivity in which I was indulging—through my regular media fix.”
Personal and Cultural Consequences
This Lenten exercise can have enormous consequences. Those of us who take advantage of it will learn something about ourselves and about our families, and we will gain the detachment we need to make better decisions about how we use our time. This detachment will also enable us to think more objectively about whether we want to go back to viewing or listening to the same old same old—whether, in fact, we have been overlooking important things that are wrong with our regular entertainment fare, or the amount of time we devote to it. The opportunity for personal spiritual growth is tremendous. It is another step toward emptying ourselves of the world, the flesh and the devil (especially as brought to us by the surrounding culture) and of opening ourselves more fully to God.
The cultural results can be enormous as well. It will most likely be a very long time before those who do take their Faith seriously have the clout to substantially alter the purposes for which mass media is employed in our culture. But it needn’t be a long time before much of the mass media with which we’re surrounded becomes almost completely irrelevant to our own personal lives. This has already been developing for some time, with more and more Christians simply tuning out. What they’ve found is that an effective counter-culture is created simply by flipping the switch, simply by using time more constructively, simply by ceasing to be a passive recipient of every signal the prevailing culture wants to send.
It is exactly this sort of decision that can bind people together, as we are drawn to associate with other people who have also grown through the practice of throwing the switch or pulling the plug. As more and more people do this, the larger culture will gradually shrink in both numbers and influence. But, again, the great thing is that for those who take this step, the larger culture’s apparent reach will become immediately and dramatically shorter, so we do not need to wait for large numbers of people to get on board to see the benefits.
Television has been losing ground for years, despite the proliferation of channels, but this is probably due mostly to the Internet. Newspapers and magazines have been losing ground for years as well, but probably for similar reasons. What we want to do is to bring about the same irrelevance for the enormous dark side of all types of mass media, without relying on a technological shift. For we should not need a technological shift to make this happen.
Success takes self-discipline, the self-discipline that comes from fasting. In fact, fasting is the only way in which such a thing can be accomplished at all. We want, first, the inadequate and often perverted use of media to become essentially irrelevant in our own lives, and then, by extension, we want to make it increasingly irrelevant to the larger culture. Ideally, even if the powers that be continue to spew out garbage, people will hardly notice it — no longer because they take it for granted, but because they’ve turned it off. The biggest step in this direction is the step that prevents ourselves from being adversely affected by either bad media or simply too much media. As soon as we turn off the media switch, the lean clean culture machine kicks in.
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