Cover Story

Foot in the door

The Oscars herald a new conservative presence-however small-in contemporary American culture

Issue: "Progress in Hollywood," March 23, 2002

They call it a "culture war," but for the last few decades, only one side has been fighting. When it comes to culture and to the culture-making professions that shape the nation's values-art, music, literature, movies, the media-conservatives have been largely AWOL. Conservatives may be good at politics, but they have often been oblivious to culture. In fact, they often confuse politics with culture, thinking that winning elections can change the moral and spiritual tone of the nation. Conservatives see the Reagan years as a political golden age. And yet, despite having such a good president in office and despite the political victories in lowering taxes and restoring pride in America, during his administration in the 1980s, the nation's moral decline accelerated faster than in the 1960s. (In 1969, well after the "sexual revolution," 68 percent of Americans believed premarital sex was morally wrong. In 1987, at the peak of the Reagan era, only 46 percent of Americans rejected premarital sex. And Americans kept sliding down the slippery slope. In 1992, only 33 percent, a mere third, thought premarital sex was wrong.) Politics is important, but conservatives have often been so busy gaining and spending political power that they have left the cultural sphere-from academia to Hollywood-to the liberals. The values of both children and their parents are shaped by the cultural air they breathe. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley said that poets are the true legislators of the world, and the same today could be said of rock stars, TV producers, filmmakers, and journalists, all of whom have more influence on people's lives and people's thoughts than an army of politicians. By and large, they use their power to shape culture in a negative way (see "Blind dating," p. 18, and "Channel slumming," p. 37). We've heard stories of Christian cultural influence only to see it come to naught (see sidebar, "Remains of the day"). But there are signs of a change, faint signs, to be sure, but conservatives and Christians are gradually establishing a presence again in American culture. Movies
Two movie versions of fiction by Christian authors loom over the Academy Awards. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring has been a blockbuster hit, making some $300 million. This more than pays for the production costs of all three parts of the trilogy, making the income from the other two movies, already in the can, to be released over the next two Christmases, pure gravy. Along with this popularity-and profitability, something that speaks loudly in Hollywood-came critical success. Lord of the Rings is up for 13 nominations, including Best Picture, which is more nominations than any other movie this year. The profanity-free, epic high-fantasy, with its battle of good vs. evil-which is waged not just against external enemies but within the hearts even of the heroes-offers something like an imaginative cleansing from the dark, occult fantasies and the cynical action dramas that had been the norm. Lord of the Rings is a fantasy, expressing its meaning through symbolism and imagination, but In the Bedroom-which scored Best Actor nominations in every category except one-expresses biblical truths in a realistic and disturbing way (see "Wages of sin and virtue," Feb. 16). Based on "Killings," a short story by the Catholic writer Andre Dubus, the film deals with the horrible consequences of adultery, revenge, and hate, exploring "the mystery of iniquity" in an honest and wrenching way. The film is a good reminder that Christianity does not always manifest itself in uplifting or moralistic tales-welcome as those might be-but that it sometimes expresses itself more deeply by exploring the reality of sin in the depths of the human heart and our desperate need for redemption. And just as the book of Esther is part of the Bible, even though it does not mention God, works can portray a biblical worldview and model Christian character and virtues without being explicitly religious. After all, God reigns over the secular sphere, too, and His laws are at work even among those who do not know Him. Thus, Christians could hail movies that managed to convey a culturally constructive theme. The Princess Diaries, about an unpopular teenager who discovers she is a princess about to inherit a throne, showed filmmakers that they could attract teenagers with a G-rated movie that is relevant and instructive to their lives. Another surprise hit among teenagers was A Walk to Remember, a romance about a Christian girl who lives by her faith, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks. To see conservative Christianity portrayed in such a positive way on the big screen is something moviegoers are not used to. Though the transformation of the bad boy comes not through Christ but through the "faith" the heroine had in him, the film broke the reigning taboo against presenting Christians in a positive light. And the way teenage girls-constituting, according to one estimate, 84 percent of the audience-flocked to the movie suggests that they found something inspiring in a young woman who insists on chastity, respect for her parents, and spiritual integrity, even when her classmates make fun of her for all of these things. Even art house films, long the domain of existentialist despair-which somehow managed to convey a mood of stylish depression even while the characters were indulging in every kind of hedonistic pleasure-demonstrated a Christian presence. The latest, most cutting-edge movement among avant-garde filmmakers, particularly in Europe, is called "Dogme 95." It asserts particular "dogmas" that films, to be true to the style, must follow: no special effects; no artificial lighting; settings in real locations; a single moving camera; and other rules, which have the goal of achieving utter realism and "authenticity." That is to say, nothing fake or dishonest, in conscious reaction against the slick commercialism that dominates most of the film industry. Most Dogme 95 movies to date have been academic exercises in portraying the dogmas of radical politics. But Italian for Beginners, written and directed by the Danish woman Lone Scherfig, seems to embrace the dogmas of Christianity. The film, in Danish with English subtitles-if you can find it!-centers around a Lutheran pastor and a tiny congregation. As Neil Postman has said, though one might not guess it from its TV-style evangelists, Christianity is a serious and demanding religion. People's personal problems, their inner lives, and the complex struggles of the human heart are worthy subjects for the highest art-but these are what the average pastor deals with every day of the week. Italian for Beginners shows Pastor Andreas dealing with life-and-death issues in the lives of his people, their struggles with sin, guilt, and estrangement from God and each other, ministering to them with faith, hope, and love. Scheduled for release in August or September is a film that will resonate powerfully with Christians. To End All Wars is based on the true story of Ernest Gordon, the former chaplain of Princeton University, who endured three years in a Japanese POW camp during World War II. The film chronicling his harrowing experience features an all-star international cast-including the American actor Kiefer Sutherland-and becomes a profound meditation on some of the deepest issues of the Christian faith: What does it mean to love one's enemies? Even an enemy who tortures you? How is it that Someone could suffer for someone else's sins? Though rated R for the intense, realistic violence that the POWs suffered, this Hollywood product, with its voice-over Scripture readings and its clandestine Bible studies, is explicit about the cost of discipleship in a way that goes far deeper than many Christian ministries, with their health-and-wealth gospels and culture-friendly theologies. And more redemptive movies are on the way. One of the biggest developments in the movie industry is that Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz, the ninth richest man in the world, is getting into movies in a big way. The owner of the L.A. Lakers, the Staples Center where they play, and various soccer and hockey teams, Mr. Anschutz has been buying up movie chains, such as United Artists and various bankrupt megaplexes, until he now controls more movie screens than anyone else. And now, he is getting into production, with the founding of Walden Media. Mr. Anschutz, a Christian and a conservative activist, promises that Walden will never make a movie rated R, and that the production company will be, in the words of his corporate website, "focused on developing and producing feature films and television programming with positive messages targeted at viewers of all ages." The new company's big project? Mr. Anschutz has bought the rights to C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. He is planning to make faithful live-action features out of all seven of the Christian allegorical fantasies, beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Books
The culturally conservative renaissance is also evident in the world of books. Lately, liberals have been howling about how conservatives are dominating the bestseller lists. Referring to books like 9/11 victim Barbara Olson's The Final Day, an exposé of Bill Clinton's last moments in office, Bernard Goldberg's Bias, an exposé of Dan Rather, and Bill O'Reilly's The No Spin Zone, an exposé of left-wing silliness in general, liberal pundits fretted among themselves as to how this could happen. Aren't liberals reading anymore? Are conservatives the only ones buying books? They could add to that number new titles at the top of the charts, like Ken Timmerman's Shakedown, an investigation of Jesse Jackson that is so explosive that CNN is forbidding its newscasters to talk about it. And yet, it is No. 1 on Amazon.com. True, most of these titles have to do with politics. But even on the fiction bestseller lists, the apocalyptic horror saga Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins continues to rule, and bestselling novelists like Tom Clancy and John Grisham are in the conservative camp. It may be true that bestselling titles reflect the taste of the vulgar masses and are not nearly as well-written or as substantive as artsy novels and academic tomes. Still, the books that make the bestseller lists are, by definition, what most Americans are reading, and thus they arguably have more cultural influence than sophisticated books that hardly anyone actually reads. And if conservatives are reading more than liberals, that alone tells us something about who is culturally relevant. Music
In the field of popular music-long the bane of conservative culture warriors-it may be surprising that some of the most popular stars are professing Christians. Probably the world's biggest band today is U2, an enormously popular and critically acclaimed Irish group, whose leader Bono, for all of his left-leaning political posture, is remarkably open about his Christianity. When U2 played at the Super Bowl, what they were singing, as the names of the 9/11 dead were projected on a screen behind them, was a song about heaven, with the refrain "Alleluia." True, most of the viewing public could probably not make out those lyrics, and U2's theology may not be as conservative as one would like, but still, this is a long way from the Rolling Stone's "Sympathy for the Devil." And the biggest American arena-rock group, Creed, actually seems to believe in the Creed confessed by Christians. Though not wanting to present themselves as a "Christian band" in the CCM sense, their lyrics often invoke Jesus, and, even at their most angst-ridden, they project a Christian sort of angst. Even openly, unashamedly Christian bands, such as P.O.D. ("paid on death") and Sixpence None the Richer, are making hit records and garnering play on MTV. Even more culturally conservative is the stunning success of the O, Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which won the Grammy for best album of the year and sold some 4 million copies. The gospel-soaked music, from classic performers such as Ralph Stanley (who won a Grammy for best country vocal for his chilling memento mori, "O, Death") to talented young artists such as Alison Krause and Gillian Welch, is pure Americana, rooted in our national heritage, yet still very much alive. The success of the O, Brother soundtrack has opened the ears of millions of Americans to this kind of music, leading to increased sales for bluegrass, alternative country, and the specific artists who were showcased on this recording. Are cultural conservatives taking back the music industry? Probably not. (See sidebar.) Death Metal continues its nihilism (though Alice Cooper has become a Christian), and gangster rappers still violate every canon of decency (though a new brand of "neo-soul" artists, such as Alicia Keys, is bringing back beautiful melodies and often positive lyrics into black music). Still, in the vast wasteland, there are some oases. Presence and Influence
Is the presence of congenial material in the cultural marketplace due to Christians expressing their faith in secular-seeming vocations? Or are Christians influencing the marketplace with the power of their pocketbooks? Or has the culture as a whole exhausted the possibilities of nihilism and begun casting about for something more? Christians and other cultural conservatives must not get too optimistic. The cultural means of production are still, for the most part, in the hands of those who oppose them. The bright spots are few and perhaps fleeting. The culture still influences Christians more than Christians are influencing the culture. The statistics about the beliefs of Americans and even Christians are still bleak. And yet there are some encouraging signs. Ten years ago, as was said, only 33 percent of Americans believed premarital sex was wrong. According to Barna's latest polling, 42 percent of Americans hold to that belief. That's not good, less than half, but it's better. The downward trend has bottomed out, and morality is on the rise. That's progress.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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