Prolegomenon: Culture according to Baehr

Our view of culture has a great influence on our view of the arts. And I think it is of utmost importance to come to a clearer sense of what we mean by “culture” since in many circles (most notably evangelical Christian circles), the ‘arts’ are often tied up in what is called a “culture war.” (This dubious phrase I will spend more time on in a future post.)

What follows is an excerpt from a book published a couple of years ago titled So You Want to Be in Pictures?  For all its good intentions, I found it to be a rather trite examination of the relationship between Christians and the art of film. However, it has its uses, most notably in teaching via negativa.

The following section is an example of language commonly used by evangelical Protestants when discussing culture and the arts. My commentary is in brackets.

Whoever Controls the Media Controls the Culture

As a result of the influence of these antibiblical groups, movies and television programs have become purveyors of immortality, blasphemy, and rebellion and have influenced too many viewers to mimic the evil they see on screen. Alan Alda noted in the movie Sweet Liberty that to capture an audience a movie must include the destruction of property (as in the car chase), rebellion against authority, and immoral sex. Of course, the audience he had in mind was the teenagers and young adults who flock to movies. This mirrors Karl Marx’s four goals in his Communist Manifesto: abolish property, abolish the family, abolish the nation, and abolish religion and morality.

The destructive power of the mass media was highlighted by the 1988 television remake of the famous movie Inherit the Wind, which dramatically retold the story of the famous Scopes “monkey” trial. Although the Christians won the trial, they lost the battle in the media. William Jennings Bryan defeated Clarence Darrow in court, but he was defeated by the venomous anti-Christian reporting of H.L. Mencken. As in many cases since then, the Christians won the skirmish but lost the battle to the manipulators of the mass media.

Christians should never forget the lesson of the Scopes trial: it is futile to win the trial only to lose the battle to the power of the media. We need to claim God’s victory and win the war by taking every thought captive to him. [I wonder if this means we have to claim victory over other people’s thoughts? This strikes me as wildly un-Christian. Note as well the level of bellicosity in his language.]

To paraphrase John Locke, “Whoever controls the media controls the culture.” [Is this what Baehr is advocating: controlling the culture? He seems to think culture is something artificial to be manipulated, not something natural to be cultivated. And here is another question: to what end ‘controlling the culture’? And who is it exactly that will be doing the controlling?] In the Scopes trial, the press controlled the language and communicated a strong anti-Christian bias. [I wonder, then, if what the Gospel needs is a better PR department. Is it really in the realm of mass media that people will or will not be convinced of the truths of the Gospel?] Society adopted that bias and moved against the Christians even though the Christians had the law on their side. In the same manner, if those who control the language emphasize rape, pillage, and plunder, the culture will reflect those communications. [This strikes me as an equation far too simplistic. What do we make of the existence of raping, pillaging, and plundering amongst the Vikings, a culture wherein ‘mass media’ was suspiciously absent?]

Like the Christians involved in the Scopes trial, we often forget that there is a war raging around us. This war is not taking place on the usual battlefield. It’s being fought inside men’s minds. It is a spiritual war for the souls of those who constitute our civilization, and it uses the most effective weapon ever conceived: communications. [For an answer to this, I simply appeal to Peter Kreeft’s take on the “culture war” where is explains the culture was is not a war between culture (a point we will take up in more detail later) but a war for culture.]

Jesus was the master of communications. His parables are as pertinent today as they were two thousand years ago. He knew the power of communications and how ideas shape civilizations. His Word toppled one of the most powerful civilizations in history, the Roman Empire, and continues to transform the world today. [Was it Jesus power of turning a phrase that made the biggest difference? I like to think rising from the dead may have trumped his rhetorical skills in convincing the world he was the Messiah.]

Though the tools of communications have changed, the words remain the same. The warfare of ideas and thoughts has exploded through the use of movies and television, revolutionizing our way of thinking. We are fighting against an enemy that is using every possible tactic to control our minds: materialism, secularism, humanism, Marxism–all the “isms” that conflict with Christianity [I will suggest my own ‘ism’: Cru-Sadism, an ‘ism’ to be defined in its own post].

Daily we are besieged with an onslaught of messages that tear us apart–if not from the morning newspaper, then from the nightly news, or from cable television movies portraying a life of drugs, illicit sex, and violence.

That will do. What irks me (and I do try to be charitable) is the capitulation of a vast tradition of thought on art and culture to more trite appeals to ‘control the culture’ through centralized, mechanized systems that relegates the artist to a mere propagandist in a branding war. Culture is something that can, and ought to, be controlled. In short and with all due respect to Mr. Baehr, views of culture like this one betray a myopic and woefully inadequate understanding of man’s social nature, the artist, and the role art has in its cultivation of culture.

In a soon-to-come post, I’d like to present another view of culture, one more promising (and, in my opinion, one closer to the truth).

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