Beyond Church Walls: Holiness in a Media Culture
by Arnold Ytreeide
The six people sitting across from me were so powerful that it was illegal for them to be in the same room. They had to get special permission from the government to meet. And yet, here they were in a Warner Brothers board room, six of the most influential people in television: the network vice presidents in charge of programming. Five men and one woman sat along an oak table framed by a television screen the size of Kentucky on the wall behind them. Nineteen other media professors and I were there for an insider's view of network television, and these executives didn't disappoint us.

They leaned back in their chairs and candidly spoke about their jobs. Federal anti-trust laws usually keep these six apart. It's illegal, they explained, for any of them to call another on the phone, send an E-mail, or meet for lunch. They are the six people who decide what we watch on television, and there can be no collusion between them. Most of the two-hour session was light and informative. They spoke freely of the long hours their jobs require, of the competition between them, and of the decision-making process. These leaders seemed to hide nothing.

But then I asked a question that stopped everyone cold. "How does this job affect your families?"

Silence.

Then one VP tried to sputter an answer, explaining that he has two daughters and spends every evening with them-watching six televisions and taking notes on the competition! After another long silence, the VP from one of the original "Big Three" networks admitted, "This job kills our families. It's a tradeoff we make."

Someone asked a question about network procedures and we were back to the banter. But as the session broke up, I went up to that one honest VP and asked how, having children of his own, he could program some of the "garbage"-a word he'd used earlier-on his network. "It's simple," he answered. "My wife and I don't let our children watch the bad stuff." Holiness is a concept that has been battered and bruised over the centuries.

Ask 10 Christians and you'll get 20 answers to what "holiness" means. But of those 20 answers, probably 19 will at least partially revolve around a list of behaviors-things we're supposed to do, but mostly not do. That's why, historically, our holiness denomination has emphasized shunning certain activities.

For many years, those activities included almost everything involving the arts. As a result, many Nazarenes seem to feel the entertainment media, and the arts in general, are inherently evil. There is a sense that to participate in such media is to at least give a friendly nod to sin, if not an open invitation. Is this a proper view of holiness? Or can Christians-even holiness Christians-interact with the world through its media and still remain pure and set apart?

An extreme view of the media, and especially film, claims that the medium itself is inherently evil. In other words, it's not the story or images portrayed on the film, but the actual piece of film that is unholy. Some early gnostics held a similar view of the world. To them, the stuff the world was made of was inherently evil, an idea that led them far from the concept of a loving God who created both spirit and matter.

Film, canvas, oil paints, ballet slippers-these are only tools, simple objects, which cannot be evil or holy in and of themselves. A slightly broader view might say that the process of filmmaking, or any other art-making, is primarily evil. Or perhaps the theater, gallery, or bookstore that displays or distributes the media is evil.

Yes, artists are often associated with lifestyles we must not condone. If we stretch our judgments to cover all media at all times, we can feel justified in claiming that the arts promote an unholy lifestyle. It's true that many media artists live unholy lives. So do many doctors. And grocers. And pastors. But probably the most common view of those who find the media offensive is that the stories, depictions, and representations are what promote unholy lifestyles.

If we Christians attend those movies, look at that art, or read those books, aren't we, by association, promoting those behaviors and subjecting ourselves to unhealthy influences? That's a tough point to argue. With PG-13 rated films and prime time television shows allowing what used to be confined to R or X rated films, it's difficult to see how anything good can come out of Hollywood.

Unfortunately, unless we poke out our eyes and ears, or hide in caves, we can't avoid objectionable material. What we see on billboards, in newspaper ads, or in the windows while walking through the mall is also material that would have been rated R not so long ago. But I would also argue that the arts portray much good material. Art, at its best, is a reflection of life. It may not be a life you desire, or condone, but it is life.

As we understand how unbelievers view life, their fears, insecurities-even their dysfunction-we begin to understand how to reach them. And more than likely, we live with a few of those fears, insecurities, and dysfunctions ourselves. The arts can be very therapeutic.

So what can a holiness Christian do? The holiest man I've ever met is a Nazarene pastor-turned-professor who taught holiness theology at Northwest Nazarene College. His name was Elwood Sanner and when I met him he was already late for his retirement. He was the kind of man who would give you his coat and carry your burdens, and through these simple acts teach more truth than you'd find in a dozen commentaries.

Sanner was lecturing on this topic of Christians and media one day and made a statement that's seared in my memory: "Some people think they're holy because they don't watch Johnny Carson," he said, his slight frame pacing across the platform. "They say, 'Christians can't watch Johnny Carson because he makes dirty comments.' You know what I say to them?" he asked. "This is what I say!" he bellowed. And this 70-something Nazarene pastor with a boyish shock of hair and piercing eyes thrust himself forward, stuck out his tongue, and blew, making a sound commonly known as a raspberry. "Nonsense!" he barked.

"Jesus told us to be in the world, just not of it. I watch Johnny Carson every night because he's funny. And if he gets dirty, I just turn him off!" The professor then settled behind his podium. "Holiness isn't what you do or don't do," he said softly. "It's who you are." It's who we are.

So who are we? Are we isolationists, so detached from the world that we know nothing and no one beyond the church walls? Are we self-congratulating judges, condemning the world without understanding it? Are we Pharisees, so proud of our piety that we're blind to both true holiness and true humanness? Yes, the entertainment industry often promotes the lies of Satan.

I went to film school in Hollywood. I've spent much time there and I have former students working there now. I've met the plastic personalities, heard the call of the greedy, worked with the truly irreverent. But I can honestly say that they are no more plastic, greedy, or irreverent than some people I worked with at the grocery store when I was sixteen, or in the police department in my 20s and 30s. And if I don't like the stories they create, I can do what Elwood Sanner did and what that network vice president does: I can turn it off. I can turn off the grossly objectionable, while letting myself encounter the truly human.

To paraphrase the John Quincy Adams character in the movie Amistad, if we fail to meet the world on its terms what will we do with those embarrassing documents known as the Gospels? They tell the story of Jesus sitting down with a prostitute. They tell the story of Jesus enjoying a party and turning water into wine. They tell the story of Jesus having dinner at the homes of the worst sinners in Jerusalem. What are we to do with the Gospels? I have a modest suggestion: let's live by them. Like Jesus, let's live a life so devoted to others that we can be immersed in a society of sin without letting it stick to our sandals.

Through the media, let's allow ourselves to understand what it means to be in the world, just as we know what it is to be holy through the love of a selfless God. Let's enjoy God's creation and the creativity He's placed in His children, while remaining set apart.

Arnold Ytreeide is a professor of media at Northwest Nazarene University and the author of several historical fiction books.

Holiness Today
, May/June 2006