Monday, April 08, 2013

God and Hollywood: Believers Push Back

Jill Abramson
"In my house growing up, The [New York] Times substituted for religion."

--Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times

Right. The New York Times as the liberal Bible. Here we have it, from one of the newspaper’s editors herself.

Hollywood and the media we know today seem shaped by baby boomers’ late 1960s rejection of the conformist lifestyle they knew as children and youth. Their determination to fight for civil rights, equal rights for women, and against the Vietnam war also meant breaking down the barriers organized religion’s conventional Christian values placed between them and a freer, “if it feels good, do it” lifestyle. In their shared university experiences, future members of our national elite learned to side--decisively--with science over religion.

But as Robert Tracinski, a conservative who writes at “RealClearPolitics,” noted, abandoning religion comes at a cost:
Modernist culture. . . sought to break down traditional values and rules but was unable to replace them with anything better. It left us in a cultural void where, as the New York Times . . . puts it, everyone is afraid that "serious commitment to any belief will eventually be subsumed by an opposing belief, rendering the first laughable at best and contemptible at worst."
In the second half of the 20th century, this corrosive Modernist skepticism brought us the ruling concept of contemporary popular culture: the "cool." Remember the original meaning of the term. To be "cool" is to be emotionally cool, to refuse to be caught up in enthusiasm. . . This is the sense in which James Bond was "cool." But by the end of the 20th century, the culture of cool increasingly came to mean a studied lack of response to values. It meant refusing to be carried away by enthusiasm about anything.
This is the void Hollywood sought to fill, as the well-known and recently deceased film critic Roger Ebert so well understood. Ebert, according to S. Brent Plate writing in the progressive “Huffington Post,” knew that “covering film was not simply to be relegated to the ‘entertainment’ section,”  because movies tap directly into people’s “dreams and fears and desires.”

Yet Hollywood--the dream factory--remains a cultural sewer for that part of the nation still clinging to traditional values. Believers are the people who flocked to the heretofore seldom-viewed History Channel to watch the recent miniseries "The Bible," for the moment making the channel the top cable network. “The Bible’s” March 3 premiere drew 13.1 million viewers, with last episode still holding 12.3 million viewers.

America’s 78 million Catholics, along with millions of other people of faith, have been encouraged by the selection of Pope Francis--a Jesuit priest devoted to the poor and focused on social justice--to head the 1.2 billion member church. As Walter Russell Mead, of the moderate American Interest, wrote about the saint whose name the new pope has taken:
St. Francis holds up a credible ideal for our time, an example that can speak powerfully to the values young people care about. But he’s also a symbol of the opposition between Christian values and the tinselly values of the secular world. Materialism and the quest for prestige and power are the chief ends of life for many. . . The contemporary world admires the virtues of St. Francis, but it cannot live up to them. That gap is where Christians must speak if they are to gain a hearing in these difficult times.
Difficult times indeed for believers, difficulties hardly overcome by a cable TV miniseries or a new pope. Mead, a non-Catholic, is very aware of how the erosion of faith affects those beyond Pope Francis’ flock, having earlier written that Protestant denominations:
are suffering from the same troubles that afflict the Church of Rome.  . . Textual criticism has challenged traditional views about the antiquity, accuracy and authority of the scriptures. The social consequences of cheap and easy birth control have opened a rift between traditional religious teachings about human sexuality and the ideas and behavior of many people in the West. The consumer society and the mass media associated with it constantly pull people, perhaps especially young people, away from Christian ideas even as an increasingly secular civil society pushes religion off to the side of the public square.
Mead identifies the New York Times specifically as a place “where hostility to all things Roman Catholic is a longstanding tradition,” singling out the paper’s Frank Bruni and his article, “The Wages of Celibacy:”
Bruni’s discussion of celibacy omits any possible benefits that might flow from this way of life. . . For millions of Catholic and Orthodox monks, priests and nuns down through the centuries, [celibacy] was a choice that they consciously made. They felt called to sacrifice earthly ties to deepen their relationship with God and to focus exclusively on serving him rather than tending families on earth.
As Mead says,
many great scholars and philosophers have [with Bruni] held [that] God either doesn’t exist or is so much in the background of things that he might as well not be there at all. Satisfaction is to be sought in the here and now; this life on earth offers all we need . . . Forget . . . mystical unions with Christ, forget the ecstasies of the saints, the Beatific Vision, the dream of fulfilling your life by picking up your cross and following Christ as closely as you can. Find an age-appropriate spouse of whatever gender works for you, and lead the rich and satisfying life of an upper middle class professional who enjoys the newspaper of record, and try not to think about old age, death, or anything else that suggests that the natural order is either incomplete or flawed.
That’s the view from Bruni, the New York Times, and much of our national elite. But even if you don’t relate in any way to organized religion, the challenge remains of finding meaning in life beyond an all-too-transitory pursuit of what feels good. Listen to Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute:
Defending a healthy culture of family, community and work does not mean imposing an alien "bourgeois" morality on others. It is to recognize what people need to be happy and successful—and what is most missing today in the lives of too many poor people.
While the national elite mostly preaches a secular culture vividly portrayed by Hollywood, it's the poor who suffer most under Hollywood's value system.  Perhaps Pope Francis truly does offer hope in a largely poor and value-challenged world.

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