I’ve been getting some obvious and not-so-obvious criticism for some of the recent opinions I’ve shared on this blog and in magazines on issues like Christian television, fundraising, Jesus junk, and more. Some are of the “who are you to judge” variety, others have misunderstood my arguments, but others are great people who simply disagree with me. Good enough. I love disagreement, and hearing both sides of any argument is always a good thing. But after some consideration, I thought it might be a good idea to write down some of the things that motivate my ideas, exactly what I believe, and what I’m trying to accomplish.
Some have wondered how I could criticize something I do for a living. Why not? I want religious media to be the best it can possibly be, so I want all of us to be called to a higher standard. Do I hate faith-based media? Absolutely not. I write these things because I love what I do.
So perhaps if you knew more about my motivations, it would help clear the air. Better yet, it might help us continue the conversation on an even higher level. To that end, here are some thoughts:
1. The stakes are way too high not to have this discussion. We live in a media-driven culture, and if people of faith are going to make an impact, we have to consider and understand the power of the media. Other activist organizations know this, and have seen the power of moveon.org for the Democratic party, and other media driven ventures as well. The media matters, and to ignore that fact is to begin a short slide into oblivion.
2. We’ve got to be truthful about our projects and their impact. It’s been said that the Hollywood studios make the fake look real, but Christian media makes the real look fake. For decades, Christians have produced a great deal of radio, TV, and movie projects that frankly has been embarrassing. We admit it behind the scenes, but few have been bold enough to go public with our shortcomings and failures. If we can’t have a honest discussion about how we can do this better, the world will continue to view us as out of touch and irrelevant.
It’s not about judging or evaluating people. It’s about judging and evaluating the quality of our work. We need to provide that evaluation in-house to save our perception out there in the world. In the Church media family, we have a few crazy uncles. It’s about credibility, and the need to be transparent in our quest to connect with our audience.
For instance, many TV evangelists, “Jesus Junk” TV offers, prosperity teaching, private jets, bad hair, flawed theology, and extravagant living damages our credibility to the world. It doesn’t matter that those guys help your TV or radio station during telethon time. Do you really believe they’re doing the right thing? Do you really believe that the only way we can finance Christian media is with this stuff?
3. Which is why we must value media strategy. In most cases, I don’t question motives, intention, or integrity. But I often question strategy. The decision to protest or boycott a movie may be driven by all the right intentions and motivations, but it might be a foolish strategy. Communicating in a mass media world is different that communicating in the pre-mass media world. Digital media adds even more new layers into the mix. How we communicate, what tools we use, and how we present our message is a question of strategy. In a post-Christian culture, strategy becomes a tool that is absolutely critical in the expression of our faith. No matter how powerful our message, it doesn’t matter if the audience isn’t listening.
4. The medium is the message. Marshall McLuhan was right. The medium we choose impacts the message in a significant way. We’ve always been deluded into thinking, “The method changes, but the message doesn’t.” Not true. Experiencing a church service live isn’t the same as watching it on TV. Putting your sermon on a cell phone doesn’t convey the same impact as it will in the church. The extensions, changes, and limitations of different media impact the message being sent, and to think otherwise, damages our ability to communicate. We need to spend more time thinking about which medium is an appropriate way to communicate a particular message, and then how to use the unique characteristics of that medium to make it more powerful.
5. Style matters. Biblical truth packaged in a dumpy looking TV program will usually fail. Of course God can speak to people through the worst circumstances. He spoke through a donkey and can cause the rocks to cry out in praise. But for us not to enhance Biblical truth in a way that will make audiences more receptive is wrong. If you’re producing programming in a 3rd world country with limited equipment (as I’ve done many times), I believe God will honor that. It’s not about having a big budget and lots of great equipment. But the truth is, the package matters. Pope Julius could have painted the Sistine Chapel a nice solid color, but he made the decision to hire Michelangelo and let him do his thing. We’re all the better for it.
6. It’s time to be honest about our message. The Bible tells some pretty dark stories, and yet the mantra of most religious media organizations is to be “family safe.” So how do we tell the explicit stories of rape, murder, incest, war, disease, suicide, sex, torture, and more that fill the pages of the Bible? Job went through some pretty dark stuff. Israel’s king sanctioned murder and committed adultery. Paul was imprisoned in a sewer. David paid his dowry to Saul with 200 Philistine foreskins.
Not exactly Veggie Tale material…
If the world is going to believe our story, we need to stop sanding down the rough edges and be real. Authenticity is the cry of this generation, and they have a natural repulsion to our dumbing down what it means to be a believer in Christ.
For instance, we’ve got to stop evaluating movies simply by the number of swear words, acts of violence, scenes of the occult, or nudity. When it comes to kids, great. But we also need to realize some of the most powerful movies tell their stories with the same honesty as the Bible does – honesty, that can often offend.
Let’s worry less about being “family safe” and more about being real.