Reality makes a comeback

Culture | Signs are pointing to a worldview shift toward objective meaning

Issue: "Warner: First things first," Feb. 12, 2000

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is blowing away all competition, taking not just the top spot but the three spots, each time it's on, in the weekly Nielsen ratings, drawing as many as 32.4 million viewers. Not bad for a quiz show that seeks "final answers" in an age that supposedly does not believe in objective truth. The show features real people and real facts. And, in a time of media-created virtual reality, it is not alone in tapping into people's hunger for reality. "Unscripted and unrehearsed, Millionaire and its clones share with sports spectaculars, talk shows and even documentary-style series like Cops the allure of spontaneity, the suggestion that something wonderful, terrible or bizarre might happen at any moment," observes Milwaukee TV critic Joanne Weintraub. Not that Millionaire is beyond reproach. True, it is motivated by greed and a little envy. True, it is dumbed down, giving multiple-choice tests and letting contestants ask for help. But after a century of process-over-content education, most people are not exactly equipped for sophisticated intellectual gymnastics, so give them a break. For most of the 20th century-an era now fading into ancient history-the intellectual elite has taught that the objective universe is meaningless. True, the scientific modernists said, nature goes on with its scientific laws, but the mechanism of evolution is randomness. The existentialists chimed in by insisting that the objective universe, with its impersonal laws, is absurd, that people must create their own meaning. The postmodernists took this a step further, insisting that all knowledge, values, and beliefs are social or individual "constructions," that we can never know what's real. Though many people seem quite content to live in their own little makeshift universe, there are signs that reality might be coming back into vogue. Many people, especially the young, are sick of the phoniness that, according to postmodernists, is all there can be, and are yearning for something-anything-that seems honest and real. Yes, the constructed self-consciously phony sport of professional wrestling rules on cable, but its ratings are small compared to the real sports of, say, the Super Bowl. Fox has been embarrassing even itself with its "reality programming," featuring video clips of actual animal attacks and car wrecks. The noxious talk shows of Jerry Springer and company (though not as unscripted as they seem) appeal to the down-and-dirty side of real life. But even the good shows, fictional though they be-the ER's and Law and Order's, which are also extremely successful in the ratings-aspire to a gritty, formless realism. The new taste for reality is also evident in popular music. Their parents may have played dress-up in their hippy psychedelic fantasies or the glitter and glam of disco, but young people today seem to crave honesty. Music videos now tend to show performers not creating their own realities but pouring their hearts out in emotional honesty, in a grim but real landscape. Even the hip-hop scene has as its slogan, "Keep it real." In the art world, the abstractionism of "modern" art has become passé-so "20th century." Contemporary art has rediscovered figuration, narrative, and imitation; that is, art that "looks like something." Much of it is purposefully ugly or designed to shock, but it is not abstract. The reality that is projected, of course, in all of these new cultural creations tends to be bleak, empty, and depressing. But reality without God is bleak, empty, and depressing. That after a hundred years, people are admitting this, is common ground on which Christians can build. But that means Christians will need to drop phony facades and manipulative programs, and emphasize a faith that is honest and real, grounded in the truth of God's Word and the objective reality of who Christ is and what He accomplished on the cross. The most ambitious "idea movie" of the day is Magnolia, which emphasizes the way existence is tied together in countless "coincidences" that, as its narrator says, "happen all the time." It also faces up to the objective moral code that its characters have spent their lives violating, so that when they face death-either their own or that of someone they love-they are filled with "regret" and an aching need for forgiveness. These characters may not know what the meaning of life is, but they can tell that there is nothing meaningless about it. In the realm of science, scholars such as William Dembski and Michael Behe have been demonstrating how the order in the universe is evidence that it has been intelligently designed. "No!" say the Darwinists. "Everything has to be random!" But the evolutionists are the ones who sound so blind and outdated, so 20th century.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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