Friday, November 12, 2010

Did American TV Bring Down Communism?

"J.R. Ewing Shot Down Communism in Estonia." This is the arresting headline of a film review by Stephen Holden in this morning's New York Times, of an Estonian documentary entitled Disco and Atomic War.

As this cute five-minute trailer for the film shows, Estonia is about 70 miles south of Finland--close enough to pick up broadcast TV signals of Finnish television. Like many Americans in the early 1980s, Finns in Helsinki were captivated by the TV show Dallas and the exploits of its main character, J.R. Ewing (right). So, too, were the Estonians who could pick up the signal from Finland on their rooftop antennas. 

Estonia was then under Soviet control, and Communist authorities wasted no time in trying to crack down on this infestation of Western propaganda. Obviously, they failed. Images of decadence and material abundance--the giant mansions of rich oil tycoons, their fancy cars, their well-coiffed wives, the warmth of sunny Texas--enticed the Estonians in their bleak Communist world.

I noted in a previous post about basketball in Turkey that we should recognize the power of compelling images to capture the imaginations and desires of viewers. For example, while Dallas never quite captured my imagination, I will confess that Knight Rider, another show of the era, did . . . for a few weeks, anyway.

I worry, as a former TV junkie, that advertising, television, and movies are a powerful force of cultural globalization--at times, more powerful than the church (see chapter 10 of the book). 

But I also think that the challenge for the church is not to make the message of the full gospel (in all of its complexity) more compelling than the attractions of a souped-up, black TransAm (at least to a middle-school boy in the early 1980s). That would be allowing popular culture to dictate the terms of success. It would be a bit like trying to create worship services that compete with rock concerts to grab the attention of bored youth. (Oh, wait, lots of churches are doing that!)

Rather, the challenge is to keep presenting the message with integrity, in the confidence that the Holy Spirit takes our frail efforts to communicate and makes them truly universal. Of course, we should try to speak to the felt needs within all segments of our culture, but let's not worry too much about current fads in entertainment. 

After all, I cringe when I see old Knight Rider videos today. And all of us who ever watched Dallas cringe when someone alludes to the "who shot J.R." season-ending cliffhanger. Pop culture gets stale and cheesy very quickly. 

We should always communicate in ways that capture the imagination and orient it toward the Kingdom, trusting that this Kingdom will endure, while cheesy 1980s TV shows will fade away. 

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