E.T. phone your pastor!

I was amazed when a scholar in film criticism first brought to my attention that the movie E.T. was Steven Spielberg’s attempt to reiterate the gospel message in a fun-for-all flick about a lovable alien who befriends a boy and his family. Sure, there are similarities:

  1. An other-worldly being drops in on us lower-life organisms here on Earth (crashes the party, so to speak).
  2. He makes friends with a chosen few, especially children and those who are good.
  3. People on Earth have their own designs for him.
  4. He helps people while he is here.
  5. He makes contact with his own people while here.
  6. He suffers physically from living on Earth too long and dies an agonizing and emotional death.
  7. He recovers (or comes back to life), coinciding with those who have returned for him.
  8. He makes an amazing and emotional departure.
  9. His closest friends look forward to his return.
  10. He is forever regarded as a great person and positive influence on those he touched.

But besides these ten similarities–and perhaps a few more–why would anyone draw the conclusion that Spielberg had intentionally created his own science-fictional parallel to “the greatest story ever told”?

Photo Credit: Johnson Cameraface via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Johnson Cameraface via Compfight cc

Because he did!

And because it is a great story line! When one begins to analyze modern film motifs, it is soon clear that numerous film genres have made use of the gospel narrative as a plot design for decades. (Tweet This)

Consider some other movies which seem to have capitalized on this technique…

  1. Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973) and Pale Rider (1985)
  2. Superman (especially, 1978, 1980, 1983, 1987)
  3. Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) and Return of the Jedi (1983)
  4. Ghost (1990)
  5. Rambo: First Blood and Rocky III (both in 1982)
  6. The Matrix (1999)
  7. Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Sleeping Beauty (1959)
  8. Turner and Hooch (1989)

In past blogs I referred to the usefulness of schema theory in understanding how audiences create and re-shape their views of reality based, in part, on media messages. Schema theory explains that images and situations portrayed on television and film provide building blocks for how we, the audience, construct–and re-construct–our internal (cognitive) reality. Our reality about people, politics, tangible and intangible things, including our concept of the “the self,” are made up mostly of a curious amalgamation of information bits about the things which we have been experiencing and observing since we arrived on the planet. As we learn more about anything we adjust the schematic references in our minds, or, in some cases, we adjust the incoming information to fit into the existing realities already present there, since the latter requires fewer processing resources (and less work!). This has been demonstrated by Rumelhart (1980) and others who have done extensive research using schema theory.

In short, the construction of the original gospel message (about real events) is a schema which may provide a useful framework for constructing fictional narratives. It may be considered a very successful vehicle for carrying a message from one point to another, such as from script to director to editor to audiences. The cohesiveness of the plot mechanism allows one to creatively attach a variety of discrete–even bizarre–story elements to it and allow the plot vehicle to unify uncommon elements into a common, easily-understood, even fun to tell story line.

What’s the take away for mass comm students?

Photo Credit: 1upLego via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: 1upLego via Compfight cc

My students should understand that every media product they create has the potential (and likelihood) to be interpreted as intentionally referencing both sacred and profane texts. Thus, they should be very careful to write informative news reports, produce engaging commercials, make inspiring music, and create press releases that do not encourage insinuations, double entendres, and potentially embarrassing unintended meanings. And when producing Christian media, they should be especially diligent to faithfully represent God’s Word and truth because people will ultimately judge the producer and the product more severely if they feel s/he has taken unnecessary liberties in storytelling. Finally, conscientious Christians in the TV and film industry likely do not want to accidentally give people the wrong impression about the Bible based on the escapades of a fictional character!

Darrell Roe (Ph.D., UGA, 1998) is an Assoc. Prof. of Mass Communication at ETBU. His specialty is analyzing the content of visual media and its effects on audiences.

HEROIN

…did not kill Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was dead long before that last needle punctured his vein.

Arguably before ANY needle delivered the addictive narcotic to his waiting brain, the long-since abandoned depot waiting for a bullet express train to crash full throttle through its inner cavity, horns blaring and metal shrieking to a deafening roar and then… dead silence. Once again. Like so often before. The depot being haplessly reconstructed, so in due time the scenario could be re-enacted. Once again.

Photo Credit: ZaldyImg via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: ZaldyImg via Compfight cc

Mass media just don’t get it.

(Click here to find out why.)

They never have. Countless celebrities have succumbed to alcohol and drug addictions, and countless more are succumbing as you read this. But the typical media response has been

Tsk, Tsk. What a shame. She (he) is such a “nice person.”

The collective media dullards entice us to make allowances for the artistically-gifted personality, characterizing them as luminaries on a far higher plane than most, who need to occasionally partake of the dark side of life for inspiration or to feed their never-satiated inner muses. So the drinking and the drugs and the uncivilized outbursts are tolerated, even venerated, as potential fodder for their on-stage or on-screen lives, so long as… the celeb de jure is generally perceived as… (yes)

NICE!

Until finally, much too late, the same media–though only for a moment–realize their own role in the artist’s demise. Then they superficially bemoan

Tsk, Tsk. What a shame. She (he) was such a “nice person.”

Schema theory explains that images and situations portrayed on television and film provide building blocks for how we, the audience, construct–and re-construct–our internal (cognitive) reality. Our reality about people, politics, tangible and intangible things, including our concept of the “the self,” are made up mostly of a curious amalgamation of information bits about the things which we have been experiencing and observing since we arrived on the planet. As we learn more about anything we adjust the schematic references in our minds, or, in some cases, we adjust the incoming information to fit into the existing realities already present there, since the latter requires fewer processing resources (and less work!). This has been demonstrated by Rumelhart (1980) and others who have done extensive research using schema theory.

What’s the take away for mass comm students?

I think most of my students don’t believe they can make a difference in the field of mass communication. But I am increasingly driven to help assure them they definitely can and to motivate them to want to try because Christians in media, working through the power of the Almighty, CAN help us all to GET IT.

We have to make sure that the world GETS IT. Those who produce, direct, and appear in media must be willing to bring the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ to light in every performance, in every commentary, in every production, in every TV or movie scene. Christians have the truth about the Savior, and that is the only truth that will really set people free (John 8:31-32). The next generation–our current college students–are the ones who have to be “the light on the hill” that cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14-16).

Being a “nice” person will NOT, in and of itself, bring one happiness in this life. Nor will it secure one eternal life with our Creator after all these perishable things which we see fade away and are gone forever (I Peter 1:17-25). Jesus Christ is forever (Hebrews 13:8). Only a personal relationship with Him gives us both lasting JOY now and LIFE in this dying world. More importantly, He offers us an eternal home in paradise with God the Father on that forever bright, Son-shining, everlasting day of eternal bliss which shall not fade away (Revelation 22).

Without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ we are ALL, sadly, Walking Dead.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows. Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23, NASB)

Dr. Darrell Roe (Ph.D., UGA, 1998) is an Assoc. Prof. of Mass Communication at ETBU. His specialty is analyzing the content of visual media and its effects on audiences.

 

Go for the Gold!

On February 7 the world will once again tune into media coverage of The Games, the Sochi (Russia) Winter Olympics!

Go Team U.S.A.!!

The Games will also provide media critics and analysts, such as myself, the opportunity to point out how interviews with athletes and news features (“packages”) about their lives and struggles are rather superficial and not particularly meaningful. Moreover, from a Christian (and scriptural) perspective the emphasis on individual achievement and personal attainment of goals should leave us hungry for the truth: that everything we are and can be is given to us by God, that everything we are privileged to achieve, to endure, to conquer, and to excel in, is because the Lord is giving us generously of His strength, giving us the ability to do whatever He has created us for in His wisdom. No one can do anything apart from the life, health, courage, stamina, and perseverance with which He blesses us.

But you won’t hear that on TV.

Before I explore this phenomenon from an academic standpoint, let’s remember what the Lord spoke through the prophet Jeremiah:

Thus says the Lord, “Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the Lord. 6“For he will be like a bush in the desert and will not see when prosperity comes, but will live in stony wastes in the wilderness, a land of salt without inhabitant. 7“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and whose trust is the Lord. 8“For he will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit.  (Jeremiah 17: 5-8, NASB)

I did it myself!

Schema theory is one conceptual approach which has proven successful in explaining how images and situations portrayed on television and film provide building blocks for how we, the audience, construct–and re-construct–our internal (cognitive) reality. What we see and hear provide us with the building blocks and structural blueprints for all sorts of cognitive structures (ideologies) through which our minds conceive of reality. Our reality about people, politics, tangible and intangible things, including faith, God, love, humility, as well as our concept of the “the self,” are made up mostly of a curious amalgamation of information bits about the things which we have been experiencing and observing since we arrived on the planet. As we learn more about anything we adjust the schematic references in our minds, or, in some cases, adjust the incoming information to fit into the existing realities already present there, since the latter requires fewer processing resources (and less work!). This has been demonstrated by Rumelhart (1980) and others who have done extensive research using schema theory.

What’s the take away?

If televised coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games bombards us with repetitive messages and idealic representations of the world’s best athletes as self-constructed heroes, many viewers will believe they can, too, in their own lives work hard enough to achieve success (and glory) on their own, with little or no consideration for the higher power of our Lord and Creator who provides everything with that which we need daily (cf. Psalm 145). Scheufele (2006) states that journalists’ schemata both inform and motivate them to report on stories from their own (i.e., preferred) point of view, indicating somewhat the extent to which story elements align with–or do not align with–their pre-existing news schemata. Scheufele calls it “attitude-fitting” (p. 68) or lining (attitudes) up “with the ‘slots’ of journalists’ schema” (p. 68).

Back to the Word

Finally, let us all take heed from the apostle Paul’s words as he winds up his second letter to the young preacher Timothy:

3For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. 5But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

>> And future Olympians (and broadcasters) would do well to remember the source of all our success and the rewards to come, as Paul continues:

6For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.  (II Timothy 4:3-8, NASB)

 
Dr. Darrell Roe (Ph.D., UGA, 1998) is an Assoc. Prof. of Mass Communication at ETBU. His specialty is analyzing the content of visual media and its effects on audiences.