July 23, 2009 by

The Rape of the Media


Categories: creativity, food for thought, Meanderings (look it up), Rantings

Now THAT title ought to get me some Google hits. 🙂

Actually, at first glance, that title might seem to some like a contradiction. It sounds almost like “the media” (meaning the news media) are the victims, rather than the perpetrators as many of us often think of them.

However…that’s not what I mean by “media” here. 🙂 I am referring to the broader definition; any form of communication, particularly public communication, is a medium, not just journalism. Art, music, dance, literature, television, movies…all of them (and others) are the media I’m talking about.

So…who has been raping the media?

You might be surprised.

I was thinking in my mind (where I happen to do most of my thinking) about this the other day. I was thinking specifically about the music industry, about different people I’ve either known or heard about who had to decide whether to make “Christian” music or mainstream music–despite several (mildly) successful crossovers by certain artists, Christian artists are now (still?) in a position where they have to choose between two distinct markets. And I’ve been thinking about artists like Sam Phillips (not the Sun Records dude) who began her career as Leslie Phillips in the Christian music industry but disavowed the whole scene. Or, for that matter, Katy Perry (think “I Kissed a Girl”) who started in Christian music as Katy Hudson.

I wonder what it was that caused these artists to switch (in Sam Phillips’ case, fairly vehemently). I marvel at how much of an anomaly U2 is, having infused overt Christian messages into their music consistently over several decades and having pretty much gotten away with it. And I wonder how it is that songs in the mainstream can spout such diverse (and sometimes perverse) messages, but songs about Jesus are considered too controversial to take the risk on. Why is the music industry (and others) so polarized about this?

I believe I know why.

Who has been raping the media?

The Christians. The Christians have been raping the media.

Here’s what I mean by this. For many decades, and pretty much since the advent of mass forms of communication, the evangelical church has held the conviction that these outlets need to be maximized to carry the message of Christ. The sense of urgency that the gospel must be preached to the whole world seems to be a noble enough cause; what believer would argue with it? With radio, television, printed and recorded media, and so on, we had the potential to reach more people at once than ever before in history. We felt not only a sense of excitement, but also a sense of obligation, to use these media to their fullest extent.

Thus, how this has played out is that almost every chance we get–we preach. We feel compelled to do so. We preach in the songs we sing; we preach in the television shows we produce and the movies we make. When one of us wins a major sporting event, in our televised after-game speech, we shove as much Christian content in there as we can fit in. As a result, it is assumed (by both believers and non-believers) that when a Christian creates art, or makes a speech, or has a public platform of any kind, there is going to be an unwanted agenda attached. Even though this is obviously not always the case, the assumption is there. Watch out–the Christians are coming to the mike.

Now, like just about everything else, this use of the media hasn’t been completely without merit. I came to Christ watching a televangelist, and yes, it stuck. Christian-themed music greatly influenced and encouraged me. There can be little doubt that the printing press (the start of mass media) contributed radically to the spread of the gospel, and possibly the Internet will have a similar effect. This blog you’re reading, although not limited to spiritual matters, certainly carries a lot of content about God. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. (I hope.)

At the same time…when Jesus told us to preach the gospel, He also told us to make disciples–which really speaks of a more intimate setting. They didn’t have mass media then like we do now (unless you count outdoor preaching without a microphone). But if they did, I think Jesus would still have wanted us to share the good news the way He did–sometimes preaching it to groups, but daily living in its reality, and imparting it one on one to people as they walked with Him.

I think this element of discipleship has been almost completely lost on us. In our modern-day, mass-marketing, sales-pitch approach to evangelism, we have gotten the idea that quantity equals quality, and the more people we reach with our message at once, the better. I think this has caused the deeper elements of our faith to get lost in translation, and our so-called message (which is often more about church and church products than Jesus, anyhow) gets reduced to an agenda that people tend to avoid. We get perceived as dishonest (and often rightly so) because every time we release something to the public, there is an ulterior motive behind it.

As a Christian and a songwriter, I’ve felt this unspoken (and sometimes spoken) pressure all my life–if you write a song, make it about Jesus, fill it with the gospel message. Don’t waste the opportunity. Don’t “sell out” to the world. All that kind of thing. It is just this mentality that has caused “Christian music” to be known as the only genre defined by its message. I used to think this was a good thing, to the point that I judged artists who “watered down” their lyrics.

I say I used to think like that. I don’t anymore. I think we’ve exploited the media with our message. I think at times we’ve raped not only the media, but in the process, our own creativity. We haven’t just let our faith come out as we go; we’ve felt compelled to power-inject it into our art, our productions, and our public image. And I think we’ve shot ourselves in the foot in the process, and alienated a lot of people along the way. We’ve hurt our own ability to communicate by our raping of the media, and thus, we’ve been somewhat quarantined. This is why the idea of “crossover” is pretty much over with. This mentality has had the unintended effect of creating a Christian “ghetto”, where songs, literature, and art with Christian themes in them now pretty much just get marketed to other Christians.

Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying the use of mass media is wrong. I’m saying the church’s use of it has been–by our imbalance. I am saying that if we had used wisdom and taken our cue from Christ in spreading the gospel, rather than modern marketing techniques, we might have a much more open field today. We might not have to work so hard to break out of the Christian ghetto we have created for ourselves. When we did produce something that reflected our faith…it could find a bit of respect among a wider audience.

Today, thankfully, there are people who are learning the lesson, and the next generation is starting to take a different approach. I think about my son The Director, who is on a path to enter the film industry. When religious Christians hear he is a filmmaker, they instantly assume he will make movies with a “message.” The Director recoils at that idea. People don’t go to the movies to get preached to, he says. They go to be entertained. I don’t think he opposes a message in the movie when it is appropriate to the moment, but to him…the message is coming forth in a completely different way.

I shared here about a recent film shoot we did, and the impact we had on the unbelievers who were among us. This is where The Director sees his “message” coming out–not in the movie content, as much as in the interaction he has with people who are in the trenches with him, people who see him living his life unto Christ. Really, I think this reflects the discipleship element Jesus had, which we have forgotten.

The mass-marketer gospel gurus might think this is a waste of opportunity. They might even question The Director’s commitment to Christ. I call it wisdom. I call it respect. I call it Biblical.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this topic in upcoming posts, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, what do you think?

Musician. Composer. Recovering perfectionist. Minister-in-transition. Lover of puns. Hijacker of rock song references. Questioner of the status quo. I'm not really a rebel. Just a sincere Christ-follower with a thirst for significance that gets me into trouble. My quest has taken me over the fence of institutional Christianity. Here are some of my random thoughts along the way. Read along, join in the conversation. Just be nice.

4 Responses to The Rape of the Media

  1. Robert Martin

    Amen and preach it. I listen to Christian music almost exclusively basically because I'm an addict. 🙂 But the artists, even in the Christian "ghetto" are ones that are not the preachy or praise ones. Steve Taylor and anyone who has followed in his footsteps are right up there.

    How do we move on? I'm not sure it's going to be that easy. The problem is that the market for any medium (TV, Movie, literature, music, etc) get their best sells out of sensationalism. The biggest flash, the weirdest gimmick, etc, is what the public buys. Will the rape you talk about be a change from the rape of the media to the rape of the message as our message gets lost in the "next big thing".

    If I may suggest, read Shane Hipps book "Flickering Pixels" for a very interesting commentary on the effect media has on the message. Are we sure we want to go that way?

    No answers from me, unfortunately, but when I heard rumors of a group of folks in Texas wanting to make a Christian Hollywood, I cringed…here we go again…

    Meanwhile, films like Wall-E, Lord of the Rings, Hannah Montana (yeah, I have kids) have DEEP Christian themes in them but they aren't a Christian label… does it have to have a Christian label to preach the message?

    I ramble… I'll stop now.

  2. Jeff McQ

    You're right in your observations that modern marketing runs on flash and hype, and I also understand why Christians feel compelled to tap into that. The other side of our wrongful use of the media is that nowadays you almost have to scream just to get heard above the din. And I certainly don't have a problem in principle with products with Christian content, as long as they *aren't* gimmicky. (I sort of draw the line at Christian mints…)

    It's gonna take awhile to unravel the mess of the last few decades–that is, if anyone is even willing to unravel it. But I think for Christians who want to re-think it, "moving on" is probably going to have to start with "stepping back" and remembering that the gospel was never meant to be a product to be consumed, but a truth to be lived. In fact, consumer-based Christianity produces weak, selfish Christians (which is also part of our problem), because it is a watered-down version of the gospel. Truthfully, the message we've been marketing isn't even the whole story, is it? Something gets lost in translation when Christianity becomes a product or brand.

    I think we need to learn how to be present in the marketplaces and in the creative streams without reducing our faith and message to just another sales pitch to compete with other products. I'm not about to suggest that I know yet what that looks like. 🙂 I just know that trust has been broken by the way we've done it in the past, and we need to adjust so that in those moments when our faith does show up in the public forum, we are at least believable.

  3. Reina

    Thanks again, Jeff, for your thoughts. I feel sometimes that you are writing just for me!

    As you probably know by now, I consider myself a Christian, but cautiously. I grew up in a deeply religious household that was freaky in it's devotion and set-apartedness (I know that's not really a word). But everything that was said, done, or worn in public had to shout "Christian" to everyone else. I found it repulsive enough to walk away from it as soon as I was old enough. It didn't help that everything that I saw in private was the opposite of what when on in public.

    For 20 years I would LOL if someone said they were a Christian and feel quite sorry for them. I would never actively seek to dissuade anyone from their beliefs, but I couldn't help the feeling sorry part.

    A few years back I came back. Sort of. I want to believe in God, but my biggest fear was that someone would find out I was a Christian. I want to live my life, the way I think is right, and hopefully live the principles of Christ without preaching the gospel. I'm not trying to convert anyone.

    And therein lies the problem. I feel like I don't belong. Like I shouldn't call myself a Christian because I'm not towing the party line. Plus, I'm pretty tolerant and liberal, so most probably wouldn't call me a Christian anyway.

    Maybe I'm not really. I'm still trying to figure out what that looks like for me. I can only be myself, and myself doesn't look at all like the Christian friends I have who tend to live in a bubble of Christian-only friends.

    I loved the piece you linked about being real on the set of your son's movie. I think, above all, that's the best form of evangelism. Thanks again.

  4. Jeff McQ

    Thanks for your honesty and for offering us a small window into your life.

    I think it's so telling when you say you want to believe in God but are fearful people will find out you are a Christian. (Sort of.) 🙂 If it is any encouragement to you…belonging to the Christian "club" does not make you a Christian, and neither is being part of that club or culture a requirement for being one. What makes you a Christian is nothing more than your belief in, and commitment to, Jesus Christ. You can be identified with Jesus without taking on the identity of the subculture that so much of the church has fallen into.

    God bless. 🙂

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