Remembering 9-11: Entertaining Truth
Even during times of peace, the unwieldy influence of popular culture never strays far from academic and congregational concerns. Thus, following September 11, it was easy for people like me to worry that the destruction of the towers seemed essentially cinematic to many young people, and to nod our heads ruefully when Die Hard rentals skyrocketed that week. How were we to cope with tragedy if we could not achieve a clear fix on reality?
National crises provide occasions to redefine boundaries. The industry’s first active response was a hysterical flurry of censorship. Radio made immediate cuts to its play list, some obvious (“Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” and “Fire Down Below”), some much more abstract (“Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “What a Wonderful World”). Numerous film projects were pulled from production or temporarily shelved, such as the ballyhooed Schwarzenegger vehicle, Collateral Damage, a story involving hijacking. Industry fears were confirmed when the revision opened, after what seemed like a safe waiting period, to lukewarm public response, a blow no studio can easily endure when staggering under the pressure of a shifting economy.
"Rather than becoming passive, isolated consumers of popular culture, we might engage again as citizens capable of discussion and action in our local communities."
Stand-up comics were warned that no references were to be made to 9-11 other than rallying statements featuring, “We’re number one!” Television, rarely one to take issue with tasteless remarks, made an example of Bill Maher and cancelled his program for directing his tasteless remarks to 9-11. To show its heart was in the right place, one station sponsored a celebrity tribute to the victims of 9-11 without commercial break or emcee patter. Though quite moving, the televised memorial church service for these victims was the most meaningful use of any airtime. Moreover, it reminded us that television can do one thing particularly well – candidly reveal footage of significant events worth our participation – and that it rarely lives up to its potential.
If we want to be entertained in the truest sense, we should probably re-examine the root word for entertainment, which stems from the French entre (inter) and tenir (hold). To entertain is to sustain, to uphold, as when we “entertain” guests for dinner and conversation during which they recoup from a hard week. Mainstream American popular culture remains too preoccupied with sustaining itself to worry about sustaining the public. It is innately less capable of redeeming or enlightening the events of 9-11 than of clouding or beguiling our genuine concerns. In some respects, the popular culture industry stands as both inmate and warden of its own narrow prison yard. It must toe the line of its own creation, having made that line irrevocably “popular” with the American public. Popularity leads to reliably marketable, thus, the only line financial backers will produce.
Perhaps we need to turn to independent films and recordings as well as alternative news sources. As a believing community, one that wishes to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” rather than “conformed to the pattern of this world,” (Romans 12:2), we might do well to disencumber ourselves of our reliance upon media products. Rather than becoming passive, isolated consumers of popular culture, we might engage again as citizens capable of discussion and action in our own local communities.
We have been promised the very “mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16), and can find there not only censure of our culture’s value system, but imaginative options. The Gospel, after all, does not prescribe merely what we will NOT do, but what we WILL do. With the mind of Christ, we are expected to illuminate our local communities (friends, colleagues, churches, neighborhoods, schools, organizations) through public discourse of all kinds, and to uphold (entertain) them through community service projects, as well as in our daily exchanges.
The light God calls us to shine in turn (Matthew 5:16) may seem tiny, but will grow in combination with other tiny lights as American Christians venture outside our SUVs and gated communities to find each other again.”
With the mind of Christ, we must pattern our lives after the noble efforts He inspires and not the self-serving designs of marketing magnates. The Lord tells us that He is “the light of the world” (John 8:12), and the world has no choice but to stagger in blindness without that Light. The light God calls us to shine (Matthew 5:16) in turn may seem tiny, but will grow in combination with other tiny lights as American Christians venture outside our SUVs and gated communities to find each other again. We cannot, particularly in these historic hours, be content to let a blanket of enterprise disguised as entertainment suffocate that little flame.
Posted: September 11, 2002