By Dan Stout
While at the University of South Carolina I met a professor who taught an Evangelical Sunday school class at his local church; he bewildered me with his tale. Each week they simply watched an episode of the “Andy Griffith Show,” a 1960’s TV situation comedy about a Sheriff in a small southern town. “There’s a moral in every show,” he said. “There is?” I replied. “Yes,” he asserted, “God can be found even in silly TV shows.” It wasn’t the program itself that took me aback; it’s dated and few people under 50 watch the reruns. As a Mormon, I was astonished that a situation comedy was part of a Sunday school worship.
Like the Puritan ancestors of Mormon pioneers, we draw a strict line between sacred and secular media. The Old Ship Meetinghouse of late seventeenth century Massachusetts is an example: no paintings, statuary, or stained glass. Such images might replace God, they feared. Today, LDS chapels appear similar, and unlike the aforementioned Evangelical Sunday School class, you won’t find secular TV programs or pop music playing during Mormon services. I’m not arguing for electric guitars and movies in sacrament meeting. Our interest in this digi-zine is in mainstream media outside church buildings. Do we overlook opportunities for personal growth by not tapping into moral dimensions of popular culture?
Besides Mormon film, theater, and popular music, it behooves us to probe beyond “The Singles Ward” for moral insight in secular media. The term, “family movie” is likely to invoke Disney or Star Wars. But, what about the edgy, grittier films that tell moving stories about families during rough times such as “Ulee’s Gold,” “The Polish Wedding,” and “The Road”? Similarly, romance is equated with Charlotte Bronte stories such as “Jane Eyre” (deservedly so) while many LDS teens prefer the “Twilight” movies (perhaps less deservedly so). Unfortunately, the compellingly honest film “The Age of Adaline” has not fared as well at the box office despite its compelling assessment of the value of love, and why some reject it. The point is, there is much in popular culture to connect with Mormon belief beyond the usual standards.
This doesn’t mean that all media are moral. In fact, the opposite is expected from Mormons Into Media writers as they advocate media literacy or set of critical skills necessary to maximize the moral experience of media, and thereby increase potentialities of enjoyment. Neil Postman warns that we are “amusing ourselves to death” in the media landscape, but what about amusing ourselves to a higher moral plane by becoming more adept critics.
Hopefully, Mormons Into Media, will become a worthwhile experiment perpetuating the adage seek after the best things.
Upon settling in the Salt Lake Valley, a theater was one of the first buildings erected; Brigham Young encouraged the Saints to enjoy plays – where the ramifications of good and evil could be played out. Spencer W. Kimball spoke highly of the power of musical theater. More recently, Gordon B. Hinckley challenged members to give patronage to venues of quality entertainment. Such admonishments are difficult without a sharp critical eye to separate the wheat from the chaff regarding popular culture.
With this first post, it is hoped that Mormons Into Media begins to expand interest in mainstream media from a moral perspective. Let’s see movies, read popular novels and watch TV! And above all remove the stigma that popular culture is banal and incapable of stimulating ideas about ideas that matter most. We live in a mediated society and must speak the language of popular culture to interact with those around us. This digi-zine moves us toward that end.