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Media wisdom – in America and overseas

Editor’s note: This column is the essence of Dr. Baehr’s recent talks at the World Congress of Families, the European Parliament and throughout Europe.

Increasingly, I am called to speak around the world in far away places such as Poland, India, Japan, Australia or Cambodia. When I step on the plane, I find Hollywood movies and television programs. When I go into the jungle of the highlands of Thailand, I find satellite dishes run by generators connected by exposed wires that shoot Hollywood entertainment into flimsy grass huts. Children in these villages try to dress like the Hollywood stars they idolize, and mimic their behavior – right down to cheating, stealing, sexual promiscuity and even murder.

Hollywood is not a geographic place anymore, but an entertainment industry that reaches the world. It is the United States of America’s voice to people everywhere, especially the planet’s young people. As Jesus told the leading spokespeople of His day, “It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man” (Matthew 15:11, CSB). All too often, what comes out of the mouth of our entertainment-oriented culture are movies such as “Kill Bill” and “Saw 3.”

When I drive to Hollywood to preview a movie at a screening, I visit studio executives to help them understand the influence they are having on the children and grandchildren of the United States and the world. The good news is many of them are listening.

The type of entertainment being produced is gradually moving away from salacious, ultra-violent R-rated movies to family films with faith – movies such as “The Nativity Story,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” “Spider-Man 3,” “Cars” and “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

In fact, since we started our family-friendly, Christian advocacy group in Hollywood in 1985, the number of movies marketed to families has increased from about 2 percent to 40 percent, and the number of R-rated movies has declined from about 80 percent to 41 percent. In that same time frame, the number of movies with positive Christian content, including movies meant for mature audiences, not just families, has increased from less than 1 percent to nearly 51 percent! Finally, since we began handing out the John Templeton Foundation Epiphany Prize for Inspiring Movies at our Annual Movieguide? Faith & Values Awards Gala in 1997, the box office receipts of movies with very strong Christian content and/or worldviews has increased from an average of $17.1 million in 1996 to 1998, to an average of more than $64.4 million from 2002 to 2006, an increase of 276 percent!

Even Rocky Balboa found faith in Jesus Christ last year. Now, every studio is pursuing the Christian faith-based audience.

Even so, there remains a large residue of movies with rotten values in the bloodstream of the culture, and a significant number of rotten movies and television programs are still being produced. So, while much contributes to establishing society’s mores, Hollywood no doubt has a secure foothold as the epicenter of what is popular and what is not.

Clearly, what happens in Hollywood does not stay in Hollywood, and what happens on movie and television screens does not stay there. Thus, what Lindsay Lohan wears, Justin Timberlake sings and George Clooney spouts will ripple its way not only to the heartland of America but well beyond. Indeed, the culture clash thrives from Kansas to Kiev.

When worlds collide

Recently, I spoke in Kiev, a city in Ukraine that’s emerging from totalitarian suppression. The pastor of the church where I preached told me his father had been tortured for his outspoken faith in the very hotel where I was staying. Now this pastor has a mega-church of over 1,000 and a growing group of almost 800 churches.

Yet, on the other hand, Ukraine has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS, prostitutes and women sold into white slavery in Europe. In fact, at night the streets are filled with empty alcohol bottles.

How do people navigate the cultural rapids?

In Japan, a homeschool conference has grown phenomenally in the past few years as families consider taking their children out of schools where materialism is so rapacious that young girls are selling themselves to buy iPods. In search of guidance, these Japanese flocked to listen to my talks on cultural wisdom.

What is happening, why is it happening, and how do the messages of the mass media of entertainment influence us, our children, each society and the world as a whole? Is there any hope? Can we navigate a safe passage to reach the still waters and green pastures?

Decline of nations

Observant pundits on all sides of the political spectrum have correctly noted a steady decline in the last century in the quality of culture. There has been a weakening of faith, an abandonment of values and an eroding of civility in our culture. The work of shaping our culture requires God’s wisdom to use the right tools so He will be glorified.

In their CD “The Decline of Nations,” Dr. Ken Boa and Bill Ibsen point out three symptoms of decline: 1) social decay – the crisis of lawlessness, the loss of economic discipline and, finally, growing bureaucracy; 2) cultural decay – the decline of education, the weakening of cultural foundations, the increasing loss of respect for tradition and the increase in materialism; and 3) moral decay – the rise in immorality, the decay of religious belief and the devaluation of human life.

Boa and Ibsen ask the critical question: What objective measures of social and cultural health can be used to determine how America is doing?

To answer this question, they cite a report published in 1993 by William J. Bennett, the former U.S. secretary of education, who notes that between the 1960s and the 1990s there was:

“Improvements were made in the violent crime rate, welfare and teenage suicide in the 1990s,” Boa and Ibsen state. “However, the breakdown of the family remains of particular concern. Indicators point to nurturing relationships as a key factor to maintaining a stable society, while mass media entertainment often fills the voids left by family breakdown (“The Decline of Nations,” Atlanta, Ga.: Reflections Ministries, 2005).”

What can we do?

One of the primary building blocks of the culture, the mass media, is a tool of communication, entertainment and art. Although anyone may misuse a tool, most people involved in the mass media as creators, regulators and consumers are conscientious individuals who want to do the right thing, as they understand it.

However, those who make up these groups often forget that their mass media choices have ethical weight and are subject to moral evaluation. Therefore, to make the right choices – to choose the good and reject the bad – they need to develop media and cultural discernment and understanding.

Even many of the most astute have become desensitized to cultural degradation. Many do not understand the consequences of different worldviews. They are ignorant of the persuasive power of the mass media of entertainment and do not know how to develop the discernment, knowledge, understanding and wisdom to be more than conquerors within the cultural turbulence. The good news is there are effective ways for us and our families to learn how to be culture-wise and media-wise.

Pillars of media wisdom

As the director of the TV Center at City University of New York, I helped develop some of the first media literacy courses in the late 1970s. Since then, years of research have produced a very clear understanding of the best way to teach media literacy. Specifically, there are five pillars of media wisdom that will help build the culture-wise family.

  1. Pillar 1: Understand the influence of the media on your children. In the wake of the Columbine High School massacre, CBS president Leslie Moonves put it quite bluntly: “Anyone who thinks the media has nothing to do with this is an idiot.” The major medical associations have concluded that there is absolutely no doubt that those who are heavy viewers of violence demonstrate increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and aggressive behavior. Of course, media is only one part of the problem – a problem that could be summed up with the sage biblical injunction, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character'” (I Corinthians 15:33). As the results of thousands of studies on youth violence prove, watching media violence causes violence among children. Bad company corrupts good character – whether that bad company is gangs, peer pressure or violent television programs.

  2. Pillar 2: Ascertain your children’s susceptibility at each stage of cognitive development. Not only do children see the media differently at each stage of development, but also different children are susceptible to different stimuli. As research of the National Institute of Mental Health revealed many years ago, some children want to copy media violence, some are susceptible to other media influences, some become afraid and many become desensitized. Just as an alcoholic would be inordinately tempted by a beer commercial, so certain types of media may tempt or influence your child at his or her specific stage of development.

  3. Pillar 3: Teach your children how the media communicate their message. Just as children spend the first 14 years of their lives learning grammar with respect to the written word, they also need to be taught the grammar of 21-century mass media so that they can think critically about the messages being programmed for them.

  4. Pillar 4: Help your children know the fundamentals of their values. Children need to be taught the fundamentals of values and faith so they can apply their beliefs and moral values to the culture and to the mass media of entertainment. Of course, parents typically have an easier time than teachers with this pillar because they can freely discuss their personal beliefs. Yet even so, it is interesting to note that cultural and media literacy and values education are two of the fastest growing areas in the academic community – a trend most likely due to the fact that educators are beginning to realize something is amiss.

  5. Pillar 5: Help your children learn how to ask the right questions. When children know the right questions to ask, they can arrive at the right answers to the problems presented by the mass media of entertainment. For instance, if the hero in the movie your child is watching wins by murdering and mutilating his victims, will your children be able to question this hero’s behavior, no matter how likable that character may be?

Educating the heart

As President Theodore Roosevelt said, if we educate a man’s mind but not his heart, all we get is an educated barbarian. Cultural and media wisdom involves educating the heart so it will make the right decisions – to choose the good, reject the bad and learn how to overcome evil with God’s goodness, grace and love.

Thus, you can light a candle in the darkness by supporting our efforts to redeem the values of the entertainment industry and the popular culture. In this way, we not only can win the Culture War, we also can make a huge difference for the benefit of future generations, our children and grandchildren.

“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” – II Timothy 1:7 (KJV).