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Biblically Directed Reviewing

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Previous chapters on the journalistic craft have emphasized reporting: Covering a story, to many writers, is at the opposite end of the universe from writing a review, which is seen as an opportunity to express personal opinion. In directed journalism, however, the distance between reporting and reviewing is not great: Both forms emphasize specific detail, not abstract theorizing, and both should present a biblical perspective, not individual bias. Since both demand thorough reporting, the writer on arts and media ideally should spend time not just in the theater or at the computer, but in an office where a persevering Christian producer is waiting to see whether his television show will be renewed.
It’s a mid-November day in Southern California, and Dave Johnson is working in the San Fernando Valley town of Chatsworth. . . . Chatsworth is barely 15 miles from the NBC studios in Burbank, but it seems worlds away from Hollywood. . . . Production on Against the Grain has shut down. The scaled-back crew is mostly waiting: Eight episodes have been shot, six have been televised, and a call from NBC renewing the show or canceling it is long overdue. The phone rings, but it is . . . a fan from Texas, the show’s fictitious location. Don Ohlmeyer, NBC’s president in Burbank, is who Johnson wants to hear on the other end, and he wears the sleep-deprived look of a campaign manager on election eve. He has done his share of watching the polls these past few weeks. . . . He’s gotten support from Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council, and Focus on the Family. To anyone who will listen, he asks for an endorsement and a letter to NBC executives.
Similarly, writing about music should include reporting about its audience and effects; as one World article noted,
"gangsta" rap, the brutally verbal and musically simplistic category into which much of the controversial music falls, seems to be no longer ‘hip’ in the hip-hop, or black community. [Nevertheless], the gradually declining but still formidable sales of hard-edged rap albums and singles suggest a faithful core audience [that] congregates toward the younger end of the 12-to-24-year-old demographics.
Most of the time, reviewers cannot be on the set, of course, but they still should think of their work as a form of directed reporting, rather than either dithering summary or sheer editorializing. Reviews, like news features, should have characterization and description, leads and endings; since readers rely on reviews not only for understanding but for action, writers need to avoid both stylistic and substantive wishy-washiness. Ideally, review pages accompany news developments. World, for example, commissioned a review of a new book by Stephen Breyer as he was parading past the Judiciary Committee on his way to the Supreme Court. The review’s lead pointed out both positives and negatives.
In a slim volume devoted to regulatory law our newly nominated associate justice of the Supreme Court reveals both his admirable grasp of data and his inability to see its basic implications.
The review summarized major parts of Breyer’s analysis.
Breyer points out that the cost of attempts to improve safety and health through regulation reach a point at which safer environments simply become too expensive. Further, when very small risks are in view, backing away from them often means backing unknowingly into greater risks. Much of our federal and state regulatory apparatus is harnessed to a misbegotten attempt to remove all risks whatsoever and has become counterproductive and too expensive. Breyer includes tables showing estimates of the cost of regulations per human life saved. The EPA’s ban on asbestos in 1989, for example, bears an estimated cost of over $110 million per premature death averted.
The review then proceeded to a worldview analysis.

The author fails to see the larger lesson–that civil government has no divine appointment by God to micromanage everything, that God has set up other institutions of governance, and holds none accountable for minuscule risks inherent in the fabric of a fallen world-events that were called "acts of God" before the death of God and the birth of EPA, OSHA, FAA, and their siblings. Breyer’s answer, alas, is yet another layer of regulation. He proposes a kind of super-regulatory agency that would regulate the regulators, insulated from political control, operating on supposedly scientific and logical principles. This elite oligarchy would be professionally [in]bred to its role by years of circulation through the judiciary, universities, bureaus and the like.

The review did not get off track onto trivia, but provided a conclusion that emphasized the threat represented by Breyer’s thinking.
Breyer enthuses that this "small powerful group" would have success which would lead to even more power. Their interests could range as near to home as the transportation of cancer patients to clinics and as far as the deforestation of Madagascar. Breyer . . . forgets that our federal union was structured out of mistrust for concentrations of power in the hands of fallen mankind. It is precisely through the regulatory fourth branch of government that our Constitution has been most handily outflanked. The man seeks efficiency over freedom. Our Constitution may be headed back through the shredder.
Reviews in Christian publications should be theologically distinctive. Secular publications can dissect the technical aspects of a director’s technique, but the special function of Christian publications is to point out to readers the worldviews embedded in various artistic products as well as the skill of the artists. In doing so, reviews should distinguish among different genres. Light action-adventure films such as True Lies that content themselves with providing thrills should be evaluated differently from films such as Forrest Gump that aspire to send religious chills up and down our spines. Readers need to know about serious films such as Tender Mercies that present the truth about original sin and God’s grace, and they also should be referred to films designed for fun. Christian reviewers should not endorse products that preach man’s natural goodness. When you decide to write a review, you should not suddenly neglect reporting and become an essayist; journalistic fundamentalism still applies. For example, finding a lead that will interest skimming readers challenges reviewers as it does feature writers. Anecdotal leads can work well when the plot of whatever you are reviewing is lively.
In October of 1980 an intruder brutally murdered a nursing student in Oak Park, Ill. The police told neighbors to provide anything that might be of help, no matter how silly it seemed. Steven Linscott, a Bible school student, took their advice and it changed his life forever.
You have to be careful, though, to avoid sounding as if you are copying a publicity agent’s release. It is best to pick out a particular scene from a book or movie and describe it: If it seems that you could have written your lead paragraph without having read the book or seen the movie, it is not a good lead. Generally, judgment trumps suspense in review leads. The judgement can emphasize either the particular work or, when the artist under review is well known, a body of work.
Several years ago Johnny Cash began telling interviewers that, after two decades of lackluster recordings, he was ready to make a really good album again. With American Recordings he’s made good on his promise.
The body of the review needs good transitions so that the review builds to a climax. A review, like a feature story, needs to be more than a series of fragments. As in writing a feature story, you need a clear theme before you begin, and you need to think through a structure that carries along the reader. You should avoid three common mistakes. First, do not talk down to the reader: "Much Ado About Nothing is one of William Shakespeare’s comedies, the very title implying frivolity." Second, do not show off the abstruse insider knowledge you may have obtained: "His inclusion of that double-fogged scene was a tribute to the little-known German director. . . ." Third, do not state what the reader already knows; thus making mine eyes glaze over: "The relationship of religion and politics is obviously an important one these days." As you think through what you should be sure to cover in a review, remember that you are the reader’s regent: You should have some idea of readers’ interests so you can function more effectively as their eyes and ears as well as your own. You are also the reader’s teacher. Just as a good senator finds the right mixture of representing constituents’ views and goes beyond them to leadership. To both teach Christians and represent them, you should be anchored in a church community. You should not worship the arts or any artistic products. Your job is not to promote books, movies, or anything else, except God’s truth. All of these complexities show that innocent bystanders who think reviews are easy to write–"You’re just giving your opinion"–have it backward. A good reviewer needs the ability to bring out theological implications and the firmness to avoid going gaga over a movie just because it makes some religious allusions; on closer inspection, Hollywood’s theological profundity tends to be an illusion. In 1994, for example, some critics praised the "purity of vision" in the movie Forrest Gump, but a column in World noted that the vision did not include Christ–and did not need to, according to the film’s coproducer, because "the child-like innocence of Forrest Gump is what we all once had" and need to develop anew. It is not necessary to criticize most movies for showing no awareness of original sin; most are light entertainment, and leave it at that. But since Forrest Gump went from film to sociological phenomenon–$200 million in tickets sold, over one million copies of the book in print, "Gumpisms" widely quoted–Christian critics had an opportunity not only to comment on a movie but to teach discernment. The first step was to place the movie in the context of the current culture war.
Never say that Hollywood does not respond to pressure from Christians protesting promiscuous sex, violence, and obscenity in the movies. This summer’s surprise box-office sensation, Forrest Gump, has none of these: Gump is a saint who honors his mother, consistently loves one girl/woman, and never gets angry. . . . Gump’s virtues are a byproduct of his IQ of 75: simple thinking leads him to the salvation of simple living. The apostle Paul thought about running the race; Gump just runs.
Then, after summarizing the box-office and critical success of the movie, the reviewer presented his nut graf.
Forrest Gump, in short, has become one of those cult films that tells us much about contemporary culture: in Time magazine’s summary, Gump is "all-innocent and all-powerful, the ideal guru for the nervous ’90s: Forrest God." The enthusiasm this story of a sinless person generates among some Christian critics shows how far discernment and expectations have fallen.
Just as reporters research stories, so reviewers when possible should not rush from theater to computer. In this case, the reviewer read the book that undergirded the movie and offered a comparison.
The success of the movie is particularly revealing because it differs so radically from the novel on which it is based, Forrest Gump by Winston Groom. Hollywood always transforms books, and has to, but in the novel (which sold only 10,000 copies when first published in 1986) Gump develops a heavy marijuana habit, neglects his mother (who is forced into the poorhouse and cries herself to sleep every night), and becomes a professional wrestler ("The Dunce"). In the novel he ends up a transient wandering through the south, playing a harmonica and other instruments in city squares while folks throw quarters in a tin cup, and sleeping with a waitress from a striptease joint.
Then came the opportunity to connect the dots:
The book shows a person who sins and needs Christ. It begins with Gump not as a naturally pure child but as one who scorns kids worse off than himself, "retards of all kinds and spasmos." It shows him in adult life not as a rock for flower child Jenny but as a rolling stone: Jenny in the book finally walks out on Gump and marries the assistant sales manager of a roofing company because she wants to settle down with a home and family. (In the movie, Jenny dies of a mysterious disease, apparently AIDS; in the book, she starts going to church.) The movie-makers in essence switched the characters of Gump and Jenny, so that the person of below-normal intelligence desires marriage and other tender mercies that give long-term satisfaction, and the smarter person avoids responsibility. Forrest Gump the movie is Hollywood’s joke on the religious right: Here’s your ideal American, and he’s a simpleton.
A two-paragraph ending, with the first paragraph summarizing the message of the review and the second paragraph generalizing to a challenge concerning discernment, can sometimes work well.
Christians who call Forrest Gump a theological film are right–but the movie is a spiritual counterfeit. The apostle Paul knew the limitations of man’s wisdom, but he did not substitute for it man’s stupidity. He wrote that "Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified . . . for the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength." Forrest Gump the movie tells us that man’s weakness is stronger than man’s wisdom. Discerning Christians, by comparing Paul and Gump, can use the movie as a springboard to evangelism. For Christians who embrace Forrest Gump, however, the title of a J.B. Phillips book rings true: Your God Is Too Small. If we desire movies that display faith in original innocence, our cultural goal will be the humanistic movies of the Production Code era and the television shows of the 1950s. But, since the Bible presents the truth about original sin and God’s grace, should we settle for so little?
What are we willing to settle for? In part, that depends on what we expect, and that in turn relates to the pretensions of authors (or auteurs) and conventional critics. When critics try to turn theological milk into meat, as occurred when Gump went over the hump and became a blockbuster, it is important to point out overreaching. On the other hand, when milk is depicted as poison, it is time to come to the rescue, as in this coverage of the controversy surrounding one television show.
Gentle Barney has become passé among the grade-school set. The Power Rangers are kick-boxing him into extinction. Today the top-rated children’s show is the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the Fox Network’s saga of five teenagers who transform into karate-chopping superheroes. Children’s enthusiasm for the Power Rangers–and for the accompanying merchandise–has turned them into a billion dollar industry.

During the "Freshman orientation" for new Republican legislators, the lawmakers’ children were elated to discover that their babysitters were none other than the Power Rangers. While Newt Gingrich praised them as "multi-ethnic role models," the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council banned the program. After three boys, aged six and five, kicked to death a 5-year-old girl, Norway pulled the show from the air. So did Sweden and Denmark. Parents and teachers around the world are noticing how playground rough-housing now includes karate moves and power kicks.

With background set out, it was time to ask key questions, and then suggest some answers.
Are the Power Rangers good role models, as the Speaker of the House says, or are they a violent threat to children and society? Should Christians let their children watch the Power Rangers? In evaluating children’s television, the issue is not merely whether a program contains acts of violence, but what the violence means. Some studies, which attempt to be scientific by formulating quantifiable data, simply count the number of violent acts in a program. Thus, a clown getting hit in the face with a pie counts the same as a woman getting bludgeoned to death. Under this methodology, a Road Runner cartoon comes out looking worse than a slasher movie. But violence in a slapstick comedy, or in a drama where good is in conflict with evil, has a very different meaning and impact than the violence in a program that glorifies evil by giving viewers the vicarious experience of butchering someone. In the Power Rangers, the forces of good are battling the forces of evil. Wholesome teenagers are joining forces to protect the world from the villains Lord Zedd, Rita Repulsa, and their hordes of monsters. The Power Rangers inhabit a universe of moral clarity, with sharp boundaries between right and wrong and no ambiguity about what is good and what is evil. In our age of moral relativism, Christians should applaud the clear-cut moral universe of the Power Rangers, in which absolutes are real and worth fighting for.

Reviewer Ed Veith, while noting that children who are kicking each other are watching too much TV and need to be taught the difference between fantasy and reality, thus blew away overblown concerns about violence. He then went on to present some real problems with the program.

Although the show distinguishes between good and evil, its treatment seldom goes beyond the symbolic. The bad guys are ugly; the good guys are "cute." While traditional children’s stories used the symbolism of appearance, good and evil were also matters of character. Villains were bad because they did bad things: They stole, bullied, and hurt people. Heroes and heroines were good because they were kind, brave, and just. Though the Power Rangers often give heavy-handed lessons about eating healthy food, going to school, and protecting the environment, they seldom model the deeper inner virtues.
What differentiates a Christian worldview review from the garden variety is the deeper thrust contained in the final three paragraphs.
The major value communicated by the program is group identity. The five teenagers, of various races and genders, constitute an in-group. They go to school together, hang out together at the local juice bar, and then morph into superheroes. Themes of friendship, belonging, and group solidarity are brought out strongly on the show. Though these qualities can be valuable, the effect on children who are obsessed with popularity, peer pressure, and conformity may not be wholly benign. This exaltation of the group over the individual is part of the Eastern influence that is looming ever larger in American popular culture. Japan not only animates most of the Saturday morning cartoons, it is supplying the new breed of children’s heroes, from Ninja Turtles to the "Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad"–complete with zen-masters and allusions to Eastern mysticism. The Western tradition is worth passing down. Traditional American heroes have been rugged individuals, even social outcasts, who often stood up against the group. The Power Rangers are a clique. Christians need to teach their children that in order to stand up against the Lord Zedds of the world they will sometimes have to be Lone Rangers.
That is a good review: turning upside down the usual critique and always probing deeper but with specific detail rather than hysteria. It is not necessary to go looking for theological significance in films: Even thoroughly undistinguished efforts try to ground themselves in something greater by playing off biblical references that resonate even when–and perhaps especially when–viewers have only a dim memory of the stories from whence they come.
Hollywood’s look at the salvation of society takes a quirky turn down the dusty trails of the Old West in The Quick and the Dead. Starring Sharon Stone as Lady Ellen, this melodrama is replete with sexual and religious references, not the least of which deal with salvation. Lady makes her significant entrance to the remote township of Redemption via the way of all men: the unkempt graveyard. She not only scorns death but brings death: Her goal is to even the score with an old enemy, John Herod (Gene Hackman), by means of an annual shootout contest. Herod is the boss of Redemption, the murderer of children, and an extortionist who persecutes the townsfolk to the point of desperation. Many of the most interesting westerns offer a biblical counterpoint to frontier savagery, and here the character of Cort (Russell Crowe), a former member of Herod’s gang turned minister, is supposed to perform that function. But Cort is confused: He tells Lady of his conversion, then confesses that his good works are penance for sins he believes can never be forgiven. Lady agrees. Again, in classic form, Cort has sworn off gunfighting but is forced by bad guys into a series of shootouts. Cort comes out ahead. Instead of rejoicing over his survival, however, Lady is cynical and throws mild insults his way. As a subplot, Lady makes points for feminists by blasting a rapist to smithereens, revealing sensitivity about all this nasty gunslinging, and dressing for (sexual) success. Eventually, Lady and Cort cooperate to overcome Herod, but after Lady delivers the mortal blow she remains as jaded and dead inside as when she arrived. Cort makes Lady no offer of hope. He receives the Marshal’s star from Lady’s hand, but there is no new creature or new creation in this town; no one has changed as a result of Lady’s life or Herod’s death. . . . It’s really no laughing matter that revenge is labeled as redemption. In short, there is no redemption in Redemption.
Along with distinguishing between biblical wisdom and gussied up attempts to make foolishness seem profound, cultural correspondents need to keep in mind their task of both representing readers and teaching them. Reviewer Pam Johnson, as she blasted to smithereens the pretensions of The Quick and the Dead, did not fail to note "explicit, close-up depictions of slimeball gunfighters being shot through various parts of their anatomy."

It is always important to warn readers about violence, sexual suggestiveness, and profanity, but merely totaling up the unseemliness is a task for an accountant, not a writer. While one major reviewer error is not to tell moviegoers about what will repel them, another is to attempt to be holier-than-God by declaring that evidence of man’s depravity, which the Scriptures emphasize so emphatically, is off-limits for Christians today. One World review avoided both debacles by noting that the film Rob Roy was not:

an easy film for Christians today to watch. Audiences should be prepared for the unblinking eye of director Michael Caton-Jones: Crudities and ruthless evils were common in this period, and the film includes explicit scenes of sexual violence and torture. The difference that sets Rob Roy above other films is the point of view . . . within which context man’s depravity is explored. Watching Rob Roy, the audience rightly cringes at cruelty and weeps with the defenseless.
That review in World drew much harsh criticism from readers, and thus raised important questions about the fit of a reviewer’s two goals (representing readers but also teaching them). "The warning for Christians was not strong enough," one writer of a letter to the editor stated. "Many like me will not want to subject minds and spirits to that level of evil." Another letter, after objecting to the description of Rob Roy as "high artistry" despite its inclusion of violence, provided "notice to cancel our subscription and refund us the rest of our money before you use it to support something else that we don’t believe in." World came right back with reviews of three more violent films. Two of them, Johnny Mnemonic and Die Hard with a Vengeance, were easy to characterize as not God-glorifying. But the third film, Braveheart, required Pam Johnson to use the first person in her review so as to warn potential viewers while not giving a philosophical inch.
Some Christians will say that Braveheart’s realistic, graphic scenes of medieval warfare and torture should never have been filmed. I disagree. The context of violence is vital, and no one who sees Braveheart’s historically accurate portrayal of war as hell is likely to join the nearest gang. Still, Christians who disapprove of all violence in film should not see this movie. If they do, they will miss a stirring depiction of William Wallace, 13th-century Scottish freedom fighter.
A later paragraph provided warning about the film’s ending.
One final caveat for potential audiences: History records that Wallace was drawn and quartered, and Braveheart faithfully depicts his death–including his final prayers asking God to help him through it. It is all extremely heroic, but it is not comfortable watching the public torture and execution of a good man.
The goal was not only to represent the readers but also to treat the film fairly while standing up for a biblical point–and an important one it is. One irritated letter writer quoted Paul’s injunction in Philippians 4:8 to meditate about "whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable. . . ." However, Paul writes about explicit evil in the first chapter of Romans and elsewhere: He clearly does not mean us to be unaware of depravity.

Should it be said that inspired biblical authors write about problems but do not describe violence or unlawful sexual practices, passages such as those highlighting Jael’s assassination of Sisera (Judges 4 and 5 describe it in five graphic ways); the gang-rape, murder, and subsequent dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19); and the adultery of God’s people (Ezekiel 23) are vivid. Many other biblical passages make it clear that–to emphasize the point again–the heavens declare the glory of God but the streets display the sinfulness of man. Should it be said that those passages are inappropriate for us, we need to be reminded of God’s promise: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16—17 niv). We cannot do better than the inspired authors of the Bible: They show us that even the grotesque, in Bible-based context, is useful for our education and sanctification. Often we are not equipped for good work until we comprehend the bad and understand from our own experience the need to fight it. You should not praise movies or books that revel in evil and glorify evildoers, but some education concerning man’s depravity increases our understanding of the need for Christ’s sacrifice. Sadly, the tendency of Christian publications in film reviewing, as in other areas, has been to praise movies with smiling faces and warn against those with red blood. Many reviewers roll over for smarmy products officially designated as "uplifting," but uplift apart from Christ is idolatry. What has rightly been decried as the "feminization of the church" often had led reviewers to shy away from action-adventure pictures that, when based in biblical morality, portray the development of character under extreme pressure. That is too bad artistically and theologically: Movies are best when they move, and Christianity is not a nice religion. Just as priests used hyssop to spray the blood of sacrifices on the people in Moses’ time, so Christ had to shed his blood, not just preach, to free us from sin. Christians should not hide from hard realities either in life or on film. The same issues–how much depravity to show, how it should be contextualized, and how an unwillingness to acknowledge the presence of monsters in the world–can be debated in assessments of children’s literature.

At the American Booksellers Association convention last month, the long-term tendency to make children’s stories reflect the evening news continued: There were books on divorce, wife and child abuse, and so on. In many of the books it seems as if no one’s right and no one’s wrong. Things just happen. The father walks out. The kidnapper cometh. The rapist returns. There’s no protection against evil, no reason for it, and not even much rhyme in these sad books for sophisticated kids. In the output of some publishers at the Christian Booksellers Association convention last week, however, the other extreme is evident. One "beginning reader" book about the Exodus has colorful drawings of Egyptians chasing Israelites across the Red Sea. There’s tension in the text also: "‘Hurry up,’ said the people. ‘Hurry up!’" But, when we turn the page, the water has rolled back, with no mention of massive Egyptian drowning. A pop-eyed Pharoah stands on the opposite bank but the Egyptian soldiers have simply disappeared for a time, perhaps soon to reappear. Other books in an early reader series tell the story of hiding the baby Moses, without mentioning the Pharoah’s murderous intentions, and the story of Noah, without mentioning why God sent a flood or what happened to those outside the ark. In a book titled Bing! David bings Goliath on the head with a pebble; the giant is woozy. Since there is no mention of David cutting off Goliath’s head, a child might wonder whether there will be a rematch. These monster stories lack true monsters and do not make clear their demise. The stories show part of God’s love, but they omit his holiness. Some secular psychologists have pointed out the usefulness of semi-gruesome fairy tales: Children know there is danger in the world, and they need to have a feeling of control over it. But Christian understanding, based on real biblical history, goes deeper: There is danger in the world, and sometimes we cannot overcome it in our own power, but Jesus can in his.
The facts of man’s sinfulness are crucial for reporter or reviewer to relate, and films such as Nell that espouse natural human goodness deserve spirited criticism.
Although sprinkles of Scripture, fundamentalist phraseology ("The Lord led you here"), and spiritual buzzwords ("evildoers," "guardian angel") find their way into the dialogue, the filmmakers do not embrace the biblical fact of the Fall. They do not separate depraved nature from God’s original creation, but instead deal with the evident problem by turning to romantic rationalism. By the end of the film, Nell’s "natural" morality has brought about the redemption of people corrupted by civilization and caused them to discover human love and higher truth.
At a child’s level, Disney’s The Jungle Book was offering a parallel antigospel with a twist of feminism, pointing:
its bony finger at terrible men who intrude upon the jungle with their greedy civilization. This picture could have been a student production at PC University: All the men in the picture are attributed a greater or lesser degree of guilt for the woes of this world, but every woman is either an innocent or desirable mate. Apparently the female of the species is pollution-free. While Nell is nuanced and The Jungle Book is melodramatic, they share an unrealistic view of reality . . . Nell and The Jungle Book are based on the premise that a child left to the education of Mother Nature will grow up to be a purely good person.
What a good reviewer does, in short, is to take the same things that other people see and place them under a biblical lens to examine both their brilliant facets and their flaws. In that sense, although both a reviewer and a reporter practice biblically directed journalism, the reporter’s task is generally to cover what most readers have not yet looked at, and the reviewer’s what they have observed but not truly seen.

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