The Church and Pop Culture: Lecture 5

Church and Pop Culture, 5 Movies
Developing a Christian Worldview in a Pagan Nation

Ethics 111 – 3 Credit Hours

1994, Jefferis Kent Peterson
Lecture 5


The Rev. Jefferis Kent Peterson

The Scholar’s Corner

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A Look at the Movies

You may be surprised, but the movies are a good barometer of our national mood. Not only are they a reflection of our basic beliefs, but they reveal how we feel about ourselves. During WWII, we found evil aplenty outside ourselves, and our movies had clearly defined heroes and visible villains. During the McCarthy Era and during the Vietnam war, we found that, as often as not, the enemy might be ourselves. Traditional villains and cowboy heroes vanished from our screens. Not only was evil murky and our villains less clearly defined, but our heroes were often those at war with the society that gave them birth. But, what ho! The pendulum returns. Our cowboy now pilots a spaceship and the enemy dresses in black. Reagan is elected, and all is right with the world, or at least these United States.

Tonight, we are going to take a look at some classic genres of films and see what they reveal about the American Cultural Belief system.

First, a belief system is a . . . set of answers to basic life-problem questions . . . The five basic beliefs constituting a belief system are the following:

1. Shared views of what is wrong with the present situation.

2. Shared views about what is causing this problem.

3. Shared views of how to solve the problem and defeat the source of the evil.

4. Shared views of what the salvation or utopia would look like.

5. Shared views of what means are necessary to achieve this perfection.

1 & 2) The Nature and Source of the Problem (Evil).

The most consistent character trait of ACR is the externality of evil: “The people who are having the problem are not themselves responsible for it. They are . . .innocent and hence basically good! They may be impotent or afraid, but they are guilty of nothing more. Their deliverance frees them to live . . .the naturally good life they would have lived had nothing previously intervened. From the height of the classic (Western) drama to the anti-Western of today, the externality of evil remains a consistent characteristic of the American belief system…

“The problem that (threatens) the present . . .is a break in meaningful social relations . . .The threatened unit is usually the family or its larger counterparts, community , and nation. There are several regular sources of this threat.” The family may be threatened by extramarital sex, or disease, or an unscrupulous landlord. “Communities are disrupted by… criminal elements who take what they want by force, rather than abiding by the standards of ‘law and order.'” They could be bankers, industrialists, syndicate criminals. “Nations are threatened by foreign armies and alien ideologies. However diverse, all these sources have one thing in common: they are external to the community, or to the group within the community that they attack.”

3) The Source of the Good: Who Will Deliver Us from Evil?

“If the townspeople are impotent or afraid, who will deliver them? The predominance of American cultural faith is in the individual messiah. Where all institutions fail, from the police to the Catholic Church, the individual will succeed. Not just any individual, but one whose individuality combines the essentially human (and good) with some special power source unavailable to ordinary humans.” The power is not necessarily superhuman or supernatural, but can be some human ability honed to razor-sharp efficiency. And it is usually combined with an “imperturbable self-control in the face of evil incarnate.” Dirty Harry, John Wayne, Luke Skywalker, to name a few. “In any case, it will always be necessary for the individual hero to dispatch the villain with an act of violence. This is justified by the righteousness of the cause and the combined inability of the official representatives of law and order and the recalcitrant stubbornness of the evil one (who always draws {his gun} first). This individual deliverer in the ritual drama has a mysterious past, is unmarried and therefore ‘free’ to come and go at will, and invariably male. Finally, the individual’s deliverance of the community is a self-sacrificing deed. Either he dies or his way of life dies. Who needs a fast gun when ” all the bad guys are destroyed?

4) To what are we delivered?

In the classic form, it is to “the family and the family-community, stabilized and promoted by schools and churches, by law and order, by peace, tranquility, and domesticity. Women make it possible. Their strength and centrality in family life is the mark of civilization. The adolescent irresponsibility of men makes deliverance necessary. The responsible life is the married life.” For this reason, the hero must ride off (alone) into the sunset, so as not to disrupt the newly delivered community with his wild and uncontrollable independence. Though he is a man’s man, if he stayed around he would threaten the domestic life of men who would be tempted to follow him as disciples rather than stay at home, work, and take care of the wife and kids. Though he is necessary to deliver the community, he could also become a threat. For he is the Essence of Freedom, and as you remember, individual freedom and family are two tenets of ACR that are held in tension.

5) The way of salvation:

Since the community, or family, is basically good, once the threat is removed, perfection is restored. No other victories need to be achieved. Yet in reality, we all sense this lack of perfection, so we look to the idealized individual who is always and in every situation totally in control (James Bond). Individual fulfillment is one of the marks of salvation, a happy family another. The use of force is a recurrent theme of our deliverance. Rather than pacifism, superior force and violence is seen as the only way for the threats to be totally and completely removed. Evil is finally and completely eradicated when the Magnificent Seven shoot up the banditos or the Terminator polishes off the criminals. But although necessary force is part of almost every ritual drama, the good guys only resort to violence when all other attempts and entreaties fail. In short, the good guys are forced to resort to violence by the recalcitrance of the bad guys. The character of evil makes the use of force necessary.

The Classic American Ritual Drama: The Western

We might ask ourselves why we love “Westerns” so much. They are almost always alike. They have the same plot, the same story, with just a few variations in characters, time and place. But whether it is Gary Cooper, John Wayne, or Shane (Alan Ladd), it is the hero who comes to set us free. In the face of hostile enemies who threaten to rob us and take the lives of innocent women and children, we know that the hero must eventually take up that weapon he put away so many years ago – the one he vowed he would never use again – and use it to deliver us from evil incarnate. We know the end from the beginning, so why do we love it so much?

We love it because it is a ritual. We act through the same story, the same drama again and again. The story is a drama that reaffirms our cherished values. By hurting with the hero, fearing with the townspeople, and by rejoicing in the final victory of good over evil, of right over wrong, of the good guys over the forces of injustice, we partake of the Great American Ritual and the great American belief system. We relive the struggle for the triumph of justice. We tell again and again our American Story through this ritual drama. And this rehearsal of the American story, helps us to define ourselves and our beliefs. It doesn’t matter whether the story takes place in 1776, 1890 in the West, or “long, long ago, in a distant galaxy, far, far away. . .” it is still the American Western in a variant form, with the same heroes and the same villains. And as we go to the movies, or watch the same TV show each week, we worship as our favorite story is told and retold – just as each Passion season we cry as we hear the story of the killing of an innocent man and rejoice in his resurrection. For this reason, the Western is the “High Mass” of American Popular Culture.

Elements of the Western:

The Setting:

Always on the edge of civilization, where the wild frontier and the forces of law and order meet. The town represents the growth of civilization, but it is usually populated with people who are struggling themselves. And when the threat of violence or injustice comes, the forces of justice and law are usually inadequate to meet the threat. The town is beyond the reach of the judge and the army. The “frontier” is the reminder of our own past and our own history, it therefore does not represent a quest for some future fulfillment for our nation, but rather it is a rehearsal of our story, of our identity as a Nation:

“Significantly, we do not doubt the outcome. . .We already know the outcome; it is part of our self-understanding as Americans. The victory of the hero over the villain is not . . . a surprise . . .It is the reaffirmation of what we believe as Americans should happen, and therefore must always happen {the good guys always win}. It is the ritually repeated drama of how . . . we seized the moment, defeated the enemy, and became who we are today. “

The Adversaries:

The Good Guy(s): A man of integrity. Pure in morals, burdened by the necessity of duty and a love for justice. He always abides by our sense of fair play – he would never shoot the villain in the back. A man of peace, who would never choose the course he has been forced to take (Just as we would never start a war.), but who must finally respond to the threat. Finally, he is willing to risk his life for the sake of others (Messiah, deliverer).

The Bad Guys: Men of low morales and ill-repute, who take what they wish by force and threaten basically innocent people with violence. The people, who are like sheep, are unable to deal with this threat. They may terrorize the town, and threaten to kill the women and children in order to make the people surrender passively. Often the bad guys will kill without provocation; and their corrupt character is usually so ruthless, they represent evil incarnate.

The Rest of the Cast:

The Women: of two types – 1) the wives and mothers representing civilization and all that is good in society – they are the sources of stability and order, and 2) the fallen women – who, though of questionable morales, are not basically bad. Usually, they have had miserable misfortunes that have pushed them to their professions. Whether they live in the town bordello or are the girl friends of the outlaws, with the hero’s compassion and the town’s people’s respect, they can be redeemed.

The Sidekicks: the marginal people, the minorities, who help the hero by their faithful obedience – trusted companions who would die for the sake of their master.

The Inheritors of the Torch: those secondary characters who support the hero, when the rest of the town is questioning the need or the advantage of having him around. These are usually married men who, often against their wives wishes, follow the hero into battle and offer support. Men of courage, they are the disciples, who remain to lead when the hero rides off into the sunset.

All the above are basically good people, who are the victims of the unwarranted assaults of the evil ones.

The Corrupt Politicians and Bankers: The only source of evil or weakness in the community itself – all the rest of the evil is external to the community itself. Usually self-interested, and unscrupulous in business, they may have hired the outlaws to make a land grab. Even if not, they usually resent the hero, who represents a threat to their power and authority in the town. The loyalty of the people shifts to the hero, and by his ability to get rid of the outlaws, gives the townspeople enough freedom to consider getting rid of abusive bankers as well. These corrupt authority figures represent what we realize is wrong with civilization and the American Dream: they represent the oppressive and sometimes bureaucratic authority that we all must face everyday. They represent those who limit our freedom with needless laws, taxes, and other restrictions. They also represent our fear that out freedoms will be taken away, not by an outside aggressor, but by the very institutions and economic powers we have created to secure our freedom.

Representatives of the Classic Western Format: Shane; High Noon; Stagecoach; Most of John Wayne’s Westerns; Tom Mix; On TV: Gunsmoke; Bonanza; Lone Ranger. Representative Westerns in Other Settings: Casablanca, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Star Wars Trilogy (With Luke Skywalker and Han Solo); On TV: Star Trek; Superman; Ninja Turtles; Super Hero Cartoons.

The Anti-Western: Skeptics in the Community of Faith:

In the Western, the community is always seen as the basis of wholeness, health, and goodness. But in the Anti-Western, the belief that the common men and women are basically innocent and good is challenged. In the Anti-Western, we have begun to doubt ourselves and to doubt the American Vision of the World.

The Anti-Western genre of movies began to appear in the 1950’s. Several political and social events made us begin to question our integrity and our purity. McCarthyism made us suspicious of people within our midst (evil within the community itself?), the revelation of our racial prejudice stained our lily white view of ourselves, the assassination of Jack Kennedy, and our involvement in Vietnam; all these events caused us to do some soul-searching and self-reflection. We discovered we are not as virtuous as we thought ourselves to be. In fact, we are perhaps as much the cause of our evils as we are the solution.

Elements of the Anti-Western:

“The anti-Western contends that a particular belief in . . .the Western form is untrue, naive, and/or self-serving. . . (it) is . . . critical of a particularly popular view of the meaning of American life. . . (it represents) an increasingly widespread disenchantment with the classic form of American self-understanding. . . . the anti-Western is almost entirely negative . . .The mood is therefore often pessimistic, despairing, and nihilistic. . . But while the dominant belief system comes under attack in the anti-Western, the subdominant system . . .of the hero becomes proportionately more important. As confidence in the American community as the content of salvation (of the good) is diminished, interest has turned toward the self contained individual as representative of what the fulfilled life must be like” So, even in its anti American stance, the anti-western cannot escape the American view of evil as external to the self. It is Western (vs. Christian) in spite of itself. While pretending to be Anti-western, it still preserves the basic western belief system, by defining the Good Guy, the hero, as a man pure and virtuous against a corrupt and evil system: evil is still extrinsic to the good guy.

Evil within the Community:

The primary characteristic of the anti-western is the belief that evil is not an external force which threatens a basically good community, but a force of corruption and evil that is within the community itself. It may be hidden, or it may be the open corruption of bankers and townspeople. High Noon, Bad Day at Black Rock, Silkwood, Three Days of the Condor, and All the President’s Men, Sneakers, represent movies that portray evil as a force within the community itself: High Noon – the townspeople are cowards who will not help Gary Cooper fight the bad guys. Even though he is trying to save the town, no one wants to be involved. In Bad Day at Black Rock – we find that it is the “law-abiding,” upright citizens who are the source of evil, while the sheriff is cowed into helpless silence. In All The President’s Men – we also found it necessary to root out evil within our midst. Nelson attributes the growth of the anti-Western to the urbanization of our society: no longer is evil a force on the frontier which threatens to undermine decent, law-abiding folk who struggle to maintain an honest town; but with the growth of corruption, violent crime, Mafia bosses, our image of ourselves as Americans is changing. We are no longer pilgrims and pioneers, expanding ever westward; we are prisoners of bureaucracy, alienated from our families and friends, and we now must remain locked up inside our houses at night for fear of the hostile forces that dwell all around our doors. (Remember the TV News belief – that virtue resides in small American Towns?) As we change from an expanding, frontier society, to an urban and settled one, our view of the source of evil must also change. We are no longer threatened by Indians, now we are threatened by lawyers, politicians, businessmen, corporations, and by ourselves. The movie Silkwood, may be the best representative of our new hostility and suspicion – has the CIA become our enemy? Is our own government in cahoots with big business to suppress the truth and to lie to the American public?

Examples of the Anti-Western in TV:

Hill Street Blues, – The heroes themselves have problems, however. The Captain has a drinking problem (now conquered), JD is morally corrupt as is the chief of police, Bobby Hill has a gambling problem. Yet even with all their imperfection, they still attempt to hold the forces of chaos at bay. Can this be an art form that has gone past the Anti-Western to a new realism? Other Examples: LA Law. In books: Brave New World, 1984.

The Anti-Western reached its peak in the 60′ s and 70’s. As the wave of doubt has passed over our identity as a nation, the causes of our self-suspicion lessened. We are no longer in an unpopular war, we kicked out the crook in office (Nixon), civil rights laws are on the books if not totally implemented, the economy is returned to normal, and the hostage crisis in Iran & the Gulf War gave us new foci for evil: The enemy was once again external. Truly, our self-examination was wearying, and we carried our cynicism too far, but perhaps we shall never be as naive about our own virtue as we once were. During the Reagan era, there was a resurgence of faith in ourselves, our work, and our destiny on the earth. The resurgence of patriotism and the invasion of Grenada gave evidence of that. And the predominant form of popular movie has once again become the Western: the success of The Star Wars Trilogy, in particular gives evidence of our wish to return to those by-gone days where the good guys and bad guys were easy to see and the line drawn between good and evil was easy to make out.

But with all the good of self-confidence brings, as Christians, however, we should retain a healthy dose of doubt, so that we can examine from a godly point of view the course our nation wishes to take. Caution is the Christian watch-word, governments and nations are never as good as the people believe them to be: their loyalties are divided between serving power and serving God just as individuals are subject to sin and false loyalty.

Other Notes:

Transition from individual-deliverer hero to Family as Deliverer:

As the traditional definition of the Family is changing in America, so are our heroes. Since the existence of the Family as a primary value is part of our culture, we should see it preserved in a new form: The Waltons, and The Little House on the Prairie are shows which hearken back to a simpler, less troubled time – when the family was the source of good and wholeness. They represent the traditional American Vision. But today, we see the concept of Family, still a primary value, embodied in a new form: M*A*S*H*, China Beach, Cheers, LA Law, Seinfeld, and Hill Street Blues, are shows which have all redefined the concept of family, and while it is still the primary good, we see our relationships in community in a new form: not nuclear families, but a group of surgeons and nurses, struggling to survive as a (family) unit in a hostile war. We weep and laugh with these our friends. On Hill Street, our family becomes the good guys on the police department, even if a few of our members are black sheep. On Cheers, our family is our friends who go through all sorts of trials and tribulations. Above all, we do not want our community or family to be disrupted or destroyed by argument and disagreements. And though Dianne and Sam were separated (they were once live in lovers) to the viewers they were still very much a couple – and everyone waited for the day they would get back together. We watched their banter and hidden feelings for each other, and we yearned for their reunion.

The basic difference between these shows and the traditional Western, is that the team or the family is seen as the deliver-hero vs. the individual hero. This reflects the subdominant theme of ACR: the belief in Family as the source of Good in society.

Detective Story:

“the modern detective story urbanizes the Western, creating a new form by placing the Western drama in an anti-Western context. . .the embodiment of good is stained and tarnished. . .The townspeople are no longer clearly innocent and the villains now live in the community itself. It becomes much more difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Everybody is guilty of something, but the villain is guilty of a lot more than most of us (externality of evil). The defeat of the villain does not mean the final victory of civilization over alien anarchy. It only signals a temporary reaffirmation of the presence and power of good, and reasserts the belief that justice will ultimately prevail.”

However, the use of violence as the instrument of redemption is again justified by the incarnation of evil, and the hero-deliverer is embodied in an individual (though he is human and somewhat fallible), who rescues perhaps one individual or one family from the source of corruption vs. the whole community. The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade, Bogart, Mike Hammer, Columbo, are all models of the Detective genre.

“Our major thesis has been that popular culture is to what Americans believe as worship services are to what people in institutional religions believe. . .The primary function of the ritual of worship services is to affirm already-held beliefs and values, not to suggest different options. . Popular culture, besides being entertainment, is a dramatic ritual enactment of the dominant and subdominant American cultural belief systems. It is where Americans worship, where they get their values reinforced, whether they know it or not.” For this reason pop culture and the study of pop culture is very important for Christians, so that we can differentiate between what is truly Christian about our belief system from what is simply American.

Assignment: View a contemporary hit movie and analyze it within the context of the value structures being assumed. Use the existing categories or create a new one if the movie does not fit. Show how the movie reinforces or challenges ACR.

Nelson: pp. 30-86 (chps. 2 &3).

TV: pp. 87-124.

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