In researching TheoMedia, I read Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You where he takes to task the conventional wisdom that our entire society is “amusing ourselves to death” (so Neil Postman) and reducing our collective minds into media-saturated mush. His claim is that much of this supposedly “bad” stuff in pop-culture is actually helping us to think better. Hence the book’s subtitle: “Why Popular Culture is Making Us Smarter.”
He has made some excellent points.
Let’s take television, for instance. When I was growing up, there were three main networks competing for American viewers. The media-brokers’ mentality towards entertainment seemed to be this: produce shows that demand very little of an audience other than to be entertained. For the most part, the 1980s and 1970s sit-coms offered dumbed down stories that targeted the lowest common intellectual denominator of the watching populace (for Johnson, shows like Hill Street Blues were decidedly different).
Compare this previous TV era with the today’s era of endless cable channels and countless new shows. The most successful television series over the past decade are far from dumbed down in terms of intellectual engagement. For shows like Breaking Bad, Lost, ER, The Newsroom, and even Seinfeld, entertainment is not necessarily easy for the viewers—to catch jokes on Seinfeld, you may have to remember an episode from two years earlier. To follow Lost, you have to endure what feels like insensible plot twists and recall brief character interactions from prior episodes. And shows like The Newsroom and The West Wing demand quite a bit of intellectual brain-wracking along with a textured understanding of politics and current events.
Johnson points to shows like these as evidence that pop culture can actually make us smarter.
I am not sure watching The Newsroom makes me smarter. But what Johnson does demonstrate is that people are not solely entertained by shallow shows with empty plotlines. To the contrary, those series offering difficult, challenging material that engage our imaginations and our intellect are thriving. Not everyone prefers to watch The Newsroom in their spare time, but large swathes of us are willing to endure insensible plot twists and highly intelligent banter between sophisticated, complex characters because the kind of entertainment we most want is entertainment that is meaningfully engaging.
When I watch a film, I have high demands for entertainment. I do not just want to laugh at frivolities. I am not interested in gratuitous “love scenes.” I want the film-makers to make me think and rethink, to engage my imagination and inspire new ways of seeing and perceiving.
Is there anything those of us who are preachers can learn from this?
The Sermon and Good Television: Any Lessons Here?
Perhaps we have something to UNlearn.
It seems to me that many preachers began taking their cues from pop culture trying to make the Sunday sermon entertaining in the way shallow television has attempted to entertain their congregations during prime-time. A lot of preaching was dumbed down. Funny stories empty of real meaning or of any connection to the texts and topics became par for the course.
Steven Johnson might have some wisdom for the 21st century preacher: there are people out there who want to be meaningfully engaged. Not only can they handle difficult content and mystifying plotlines, they are offended when it is not offered. They actually enjoy being entrusted with lofty and carefully articulated material.
Shallow television may well turn our brains into media-saturated mush.
Shallow preaching does the same thing.
But the entertainment industry is picking up on something about human nature: we do not just want to be amused; we want to be meaningfully engaged.
No media form is more uniquely suited for meaningful engagement than preaching. The content of our message demands the highest degree of intellectual wrestling: i.e., There is One God in Three Persons, or a lordly figure has appeared from an ancient line of Kings to end cosmic tyranny.
And no plotline is more insensible and full of more twists than the bullets on this storyboard:
God shows up in the flesh
God gets yanked out of a garden
God gets nailed naked to a post
The Dead God then bursts forth from a grave
[For a post with similar themes, see my "When Preaching Mystifies More than it Explains"]