Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Beauty and Truth

Written by: on November 15, 2012

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

       John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

Jean-François Lyotard in his groundbreaking The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge spoke of the “computerization of society” and how this shift would highlight the connections and relations between “public power and civil institutions.  For Lyotard, knowledge was power and the source of all metanarrative’s power and  legitimization.  Those who control knowledge, or information, and should we say, even education and entertainment, can set the boundaries, define the rules, and in fact control.  Lyotard of course commented on the postmodern break with this understanding of information into the fragmentation and plurality derived from an epistemological war on totality. 

Asa Briggs and Peter Burke in A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet touch on these themes as they develop a history of social media specifically in the 20th century.   The authors explain the development of journalism, radio, and television media and how these mediums have often been controlled and used by governments, movements, and ideologies to inform, educate, and entertain.  These forms of media have most recently converged in a very real sense in the “computerization of society.”  Through the internet, personal computers, fiber optic cables, satellites, smart phones, and a number of other technological advances, webs, and networks, globalization or as Roland Robertson defines it, the compression of the world, has been fully achieved.  One is now always connected, and has at their fingertips unlimited information, education, and entertainment.  People can communicate instantly across the globe, effortlessly and without barriers.  As Bono sang: “with satellite television, you can go anywhere… Miami, New Orleans, London, Belfast and Berlin.”

But, what of Lyotard’s comment about the confluence of knowledge and the postmodern.  On the one hand, media is still being used to control information (knowledge) and put forth competing metadiscourses.  Witness recently Fox News’ insistence that their candidate would win and belligerence towards the available polls, and even mathematical models on election night.  On the other side of the equation, MSNBC isn’t much better.  Both networks turning elements of talk show, polemics, opinion, and showmanship into “news,” all the while advancing their narrative of what American should look like.  Neither network reports the news, everything is commentary, everything is narrative. Then there is the case of RT (Russia Today), an entire international news network modeled after CNN, but funded by the Russian government, with a very pro-Russia, anti-American, anti-Israeli (dare we say anti-Semitic) “slant” on world events.  One can certainly find amongst the complete proliferation and fragmentation of news and entertainment media a perplexing mix of agenda driven communications at all and every level.

What is more, the news and by extension information has become entertainment.  Once again we turn to the most recent news election to find debates, analysis, and finally election night turned into grand spectacle, with journalist teasing out any controversy or apparent scandal. Fox and MSNBC, all the while,  were lobbing bombs at each other, the controversy and contention driving up ratings, and making some very rich.  The line between news and entertainment has become blurry, as even once straight laced Headline News mostly now covers scandals and celebrities.  But, even here the line between reality and entertainment is disintegrating before our very eyes.  Celebrities even have begun to stage their very own paparazzi moments.  One can even pay programmers to invent Twitter followers for you, to give the impression of popularity.  Entertainment for the sake of fame, fortune, and power has become the fashion of the day causing a proliferation of reality television, where half celebrities and unknowns pit against each other to do the most excessive things, all in the hope of fame and wealth.  Bravo, the American TV channel, is exhibit A.  Once a rather highbrow enterprise focusing on art, drama, and independent film, it is now focused entirely on watching middle aged women literally and figuratively rip each other apart for the world to see, in the very popular Real Housewives franchise.  The question however arises, is that what people want to see?  Who is really driving this thirst for ephemeral titillation in the guise of reality.  We are bombarded by hyper reality, the simulacra, that Baudrillard warned us of, whether it is the non-event of a Romney victory, the garishness and imbecility of Jersey Shore, and the 24 hour bombardment of images and sound. Truth and meaning are up for grabs.  Do people want a good and intriguing story with the pretense of reality, or are we not that different that the ancient Romans watching grown men slaughter each other? Do we still want to see the spectacle of real and imagined bloodshed?  Or are we simply carried along as mindless viewers, addicted to the information flow, hoping for one last exciting fix of the “new?”  Is Peter Berger correct when he says that there is a “sacramental” element to our consumption?

But, all is not lost.  The fragmentation that has occurred within the mass convergence of all things into the portable screen has had its benefits.  It has democratized and atomized the world of journalists, musicians, films makers, writers, educators, movement starters, artists, and the like.  Those with true talent and art, who are ignored by the mainstream, can now produce and distribute their art with ease and without barriers.  Movements of art and music can now surface away from the intervention of financially driven gatekeepers.  All is accessible now.  One can find the occasional flower in the mud.  A rock star like Bono can use music, spectacle, and social media to change people’s views on AIDS in Africa and inspire them to act.  The destruction of television drama by reality television and celebrity focus, has pushed the writers and visual story tellers to the margins, where possibly they have been able to make their art with less commercial concern, looking only to find a niche audience of discerning viewers.  Witness the storytelling and care found in The Wire, Breaking Bad, Band of Brothers, to name a view.  What is more, a rather mundane sounding show called Treme, about musicians, cooks, and everyday people trying to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina informs, educates, and entertains, while sharing the narrative that ordinary humans do in fact overcome their troubles in community. Only the fragmentation of the media into thousands of available outlets and channels would allow this.

There are still those  who want to tell the truth, who want to discover beauty,  who hold to an ethic, who make media that honestly informs, educates, and entertains. 

As Christian pastors, leaders, theologians, and parents, what are we to make of this dizzying postmodern media reality?  Too often our initial response was to condemn media, and disengage.  However, I feel that more than ever we have swung to the other extreme, where all is accepted and watched.  Even if we condemn some elements of forms of media, most probably secretly consume the very same.  We have not lived in the tension, instead we swing from acceptance to rejection and back again many, many times.  But, what if we developed a serious Christian theology of the media (Catholic and Reformed theologians have done some better work here on the connections between culture and Christ)?  What if we taught our churches how to think critically of these themes and variations?  What if we taught our churches how to truly engage with and dialog with art?  Can we teach our churches to spot truth and beauty?

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