Friday, September 20, 2013

six decades of sit-com

We've signed up for tata-sky here in India. A little cricket here, a movie over there - that kind of thing.

So far with Hollywood movies there seems to be some censoring with scenes cut out. But I do not know enough questionable movies well enough to be able to tell quite yet. Certainly every time a cigarette is smoked in a movie, a health warning about cancer travels across the screen. With swearing, the audio is beeped - but then with the subtitles on screen, some 'translation' takes place. Take, for example, the most offensive of all swearing - the phrase 'Jesus Christ'. The other night the subtitles simply said 'God'. Fancy (predominantly) Hindu India demonstrating such sensitivity to the name of Christ...?!

But it has got me thinking about censorship a bit more. Hollywood is inherently iconoclastic and taboo-busting and so censorship is troubling for them. With respect to these (sacred and/or silenced) taboos and icons, it is driven by a search and subvert mission. Hollywood cannot bear to have such things exist. It is interesting to watch this play out over time. Gradually, generationally, it messes with peoples' minds by introducing into them worldview-altering substances - like the popular situation comedies, for example.

One of the research topics to which I'd love to give doctoral level attention (but never will) is a study of the most popular situation comedies across the decades. Here they are:

The Andy Griffith Show (1960s)

MASH  (1970s)

Cheers (1980s)

Seinfeld (1990s)

Friends (2000s)

Big Bang Theory (2010s)

Each series would be the subject of careful exegesis. I'd study the settings in which the action takes place. I'd linger in the plot-lines, keeping a close eye on the sources of both conflict and humour. What makes people angry? What makes people laugh? I'd analyse each main character, their virtues and vices, the way they relate to others - but also the way each would answer the big questions of identity ('who am I?') and destiny ('why am I here?). The dialogue would be critical. What are the issues and topics that predominate? So - just a whole lot of basic painstaking take-it-as-I-hear-it-and-see-it empirical research.

Then I'd turn my attention to a couple of other areas. I'd want to get inside the head of the directors. What is shaping them? Identify their soapboxes. What is their agenda? To what is their life in reaction? It might be subtle, more between the lines than in the lines - but it'll be there and it will be influential. What is their 'point of view' and where does it align (or not) with thoughts expressed by characters?  Hollywood preaches - oh yes, it does, and my ear needs to be attuned to its sermons preached in these sit-coms. Once I've studied the director, I'd go to work on the sociological studies of each decade and place each series in its socio-historical context.

Then the fun begins. And not just because of the comedic lines that can ache the ribs... In a manner akin to the way a biblical theologian tracks a theme through the Bible (for example: temple, or rest, or shepherd) to bring a fullness and balance to the understanding of that theme - I'd do the same with topics which emerge in my empirical research. I'd gather together the 'truths' which repeat and which evolve through these series. I'd have an eye for the fullness and the balance in what is being preached. What would those truths be? As I lay awake this morning, three immediately came to mind - just for starters:

(a) the self

(b) sexuality

(c) community

Then the sadness begins. Attention would shift to those who belong to Jesus and who have lived through these shows. As they've laughed, they absorbed unwittingly. Many of them will have spent more time in these shows than in their Bibles and so it follows that their understanding of these topics is shaped more by these shows than by the Bible (or by the Jesus which it reveals). On these topics, they look at the Bible through the lens of these shows, rather than looking at these shows through the lens of the Bible. The lens has not switched yet. The worldview has not altered yet. The deeper conversion has yet to happen. Romans 12.1-2 is still theory, not practice.

And what research project after research project reveals will be revealed yet again. There is no discernible difference in the lives of Christians when compared with those who are not Christians - particularly when with these three topics are in view. This is not just the case with younger people (I hasten to add), but this is often the generation where the studies focus. We have mixed in so well that we have fallen in. There is no contrast, only conformity. We are into salty and gracey - but not so much lighty and truthy. Rather than being distinctive with distinction, too often we are the same with shame.

When will we learn that the attraction of difference can be far more compelling than the attraction of sameness? When will we recognise that the great enfeebler of a missioning and maturing people of God -  all over the world, irrespective of culture - is the subtlety of syncretism in our lives. And a whole lot of syncretism has been sucked up by a whole lot of people through these shows over the years.

[NB (1): the other sadness is that for so many around the world, shows like these define what life is like in America - and what life is like in America is what the Christian life is like, by definition. No wonder there is a terrorism problem. Guardians of some lives want this life to come nowhere near the lives they guard!].

[NB (2): if you want to read a disturbing book that does something similar, but by starting with the sermons (!!) on the Prodigal Son from 80 supposedly unimpeachable and unsullied evangelicals, see if you can track down the little popularisation of Marsha Witten's PhD thesis entitled, All is Forgiven (Princeton University Press, 1995)].

nice chatting



Chelsea Skerst said...

I must say that you've got good thesis topic ideas for your research as it is timely, interesting, and relevant. MAy you enjoy working on it.

Paul Windsor said...

Alas - this research topic will remain in my dreams (and nightmares) and never get written...

Fred said...

"No discernible difference". These words remind me of one of the most impacting sentences I've read... way back in the 80s by your mate Stott... "No comment could be more hurtful to the Christian than the words, ‘But you are no different from anybody else.’ … The followers of Jesus are to be different..."