Chordae Interviews Me on Religion
Questions for English 102 Interview
Interviewer: Chordae Whiting
Interviewee: David Reed
May 17, 2008
"Being a professor of religion how do you feel entertainment contributes to society and to religion in general?"
It contributes in both good and bad ways. For instance, take the whole LEFT BEHIND series that has turned into a multi-million dollar industry with t-shirts, movies, and all of those books. It makes some people aware of one aspect of what some Christians believe (i.e. some Christians believe they will be taken out of this world before the world ends up in some terrible mess with a lot of people killing one another--typically called the rapture). On the other hand, I often ask people, "Instead of reading all those books--which are poorly written by the way--why don't you learn Greek, pick up the book of Revelation, and get a good commentary or two! Then you might actually learn something." But this is just one aspect of how entertainment contributes in good and bad ways to religion and society. There are other ways...
I think we are now seeing some strange films in the years following 9/11. There are some good films out there, but the general public doesn't always see these "good films" (I'll talk more about them later on). A few months back I watched The Kingdom. Honestly, I couldn't quite figure out whether or not the filmmakers were trying to say, "The war on terror is not as black and white as you might think" or if they were just stereotyping Muslims. When I was in the theater I heard a lot of people cheering for the destruction of Saudis, which seemed rather disturbing to me and part of our violent, American neurosis. Then there are more sappy films like Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. I don't really see why this film was even made. Why do we keep glorifying this event?
I recently talked with a man from China who told me that he couldn't understand why when 3000+ Americans were killed in a terrorist attack America expected the world to mourn for them. However, when over 150,000 people are killed in an earthquake in China, Americans pay very little attention to it. So, I'm not sure that all entertainment is good for society, because I think some entertainment, like The Kingdom and World Trade Center, make us focus far too much on ourselves as Americans. However, there are films that have come out over the past few years that I've absolutely loved!
One film that not enough people saw was Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs. This should've been the most talked about movie of 2007 and 2008, but people dismissed it as "Redford's anti-Americanism" or "Redford's overt liberalism." What actually intrigued me about this film is that for 1 and 1/2 hours it didn’t take a side! And, finally, someone blamed the media for doing a lousy job of reporting about the Iraq War. In fact, the film suggests that the media doesn’t care anymore! The film even argues that the media sold the war just as much as the Bush administration sold the war. No one did the research! Honestly, I think this is the discussion no one wants to have. I mean there are a lot of questions about the war that the media has never had the guts to ask. And, when the media gets around to asking these questions, well, it’s too late! But, Americans should be talking about this. We should hold not only our politicians but also our reporters to higher standards. People should take responsibility, and the entertainment industry should ask these questions when reporters are not willing to ask these types of questions. I say this because Lenin once said, “All film should be political!” He believed that film was a great art form for conveying political themes. When film today conveys “political themes” it may get an Academy Award, but it is usually ignored by the people who need to see it the most.
By the way—and this may be more relevant to you and your friends—it's also a film that every student should see, because of the relationship between the professor and his students in the movie. There's a lot of wisdom in what Redford's character has to say to his students--both in his office and in his classes. One of the things he keeps coming back to is the fact that American students no longer care about the world. "They've given up," he says! This is something all Americans should discuss. (For the record, I also think a lot of professors have given up; so it’s not just the students).
The question is this: "Do we even care anymore?" (see my previous comments about the earthquake in China). And if we don't care, why don't we care? And... how do we fix this problem? What Redford does with Lions for Lambs is ask all of America, “Why have we become NIMBY’S?” You know, that whole, “Not in My Back Yard” syndrome!
You see, back about 20 or 25 years ago the problem was that Americans like you and me suffered with “historical amnesia.” What I mean is we couldn’t remember our own history. For instance, few people take into account that we were the ones who put Saddam Hussein into power. We just choose to forget about it. But, today, something much more disturbing is going on: We just don’t care anymore! Truth is kind of irrelevant, and as long as it’s “not-in-our-backyard” we’re all fine and good. I think entertainment has contributed to this, because entertainment has often become a vehicle for putting us into some meditative state so we can forget about what’s going on in the real world. We all need this from time to time, but we don’t need it 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Lions for Lambs was trying to get us to deal with reality, but a lot of people just don’t want to deal with reality. So, it’s an example of entertainment that I think is very helpful, yet, as I said, most Americans didn't see this film.
There's also some other documentaries that people should see, but as with Lions for Lambs, they don't see them. One example of an excellent piece is entitled The Road to Guantanamo. This is a documentary in which actual survivors of torture at Gitmo are interviewed—some of them British Arabs! We should all want to talk about this film, but few people have seen it. We should also watch Control Room, which is a documentary that presents Al-Jazeera’s side of the Iraq war.
So, entertainment can help, but I often think we as Americans choose the wrong entertainment.
One other thing comes to mind. About a month ago I was at the Bruce Springsteen concert in Cincinnati, Ohio. I love Springsteen, and I've really come to admire his blatant political messages, which few people seem to know are there in all of his songs—including Born in the USA, which is an anti-Vietnam and anti-Reagan song. In fact, when Springsteen plays it in concert he now says, “We’re going to sing this next one as a prayer for peace!” Anyway, when Bruce came out and started singing, he stopped and let George W. Bush have it for the way he has ruined America. A few people cheered, but the majority of people yelled out, "Shut up and play the next damn song!"
So, sometimes I think entertainment is trying to help us, but we don't bother listening to the right entertainment, and when we do listen to the right entertainment, we don't bother believing its message.
Then again, I've honestly got to wonder where the Bob Dylan’s and Pete Seeger’s of the 60s have gone? Where are the protests and the protestors? Where are the songs, the books, and the poetry that all mean something? Honestly... I just don't know...
One final thought, and this has to do with books. We don’t read anymore as a nation. The statistics are pretty abysmal! Yes, movies have become our new literature, which, as I’ve said, can be good and bad, but we need to start reading once again. There are three books everyone should read (by the way, I learned this from one of my heroes, Howard Zinn). They are: (1) Johnny Got His Gun by Trumbo (the ultimate anti-war novel if you ask me) (2) The Autobiography of Malcolm X (in fact, you could just watch the film) (3) A book on Anarchy; any introductory book will do. This would get people thinking, but for the most part, I don’t think we choose to look upon books anymore as entertainment.
"Do you believe our nation was built on religious beliefs or on entertainment factors?"
You need to read a book by Waldman entitled Founding Faith. It's the best book I've ever read on the subject your inquiring about. Yes, our nation was founded on religious beliefs--don't let anyone tell you otherwise! Unfortunately, what's happened in our society is that both the left and the right want to hijack the Founding Fathers and use them for their own purposes. Thus, you've got people like Tim LaHaye and Dr. D. James Kennedy saying, "Our Founding Father's were good, conservative, evangelical Christians just like good, conservative, evangelical Christians today." This couldn't be any further from the truth! On the other hand, you've got a lot of leftist liberals trying to say that the Founding Fathers didn't care one bit about religion. In fact, they were Deists, or so they tell us. I’m not even sure Jefferson was a Deist considering that he believed that God sometimes intervenes in the affairs of humanity.
The trick here is, “What do we mean by ‘religious beliefs’?” I think our country was founded by men—who should’ve listened more to their wives because they knew what was really going on (see the HBO special John Adams)—who thought that religion was good for civil order and government in general—a kind of “opiate for the masses” if you will. The type of religion the Founding Fathers tried to establish, however, was a particular form of Protestantism. America was founded as a Protestant nation that didn’t particularly like Quakers, Catholics, Jews, or the various tribal religions of the Native Americans. To me, this is all very factual, and we must learn to fess up to it! If we want to be accurate today we need to say, “Our nation was founded as a Christian nation, meaning a particular form of Protestant Christianity. Though we think it promotes toleration, it originally only tolerated a type of Congregationalist Christianity over and against hierarchical forms of Christianity like Catholicism and Anglicanism. It also didn’t like pacifist groups like the Quakers because it wanted to fight for its independence from England.” If we said this, we’d be much closer to the truth. Yet I should add one more thing.
Do I today believe in a separation of Church and State? Absolutely, but what the Founding Fathers meant by this and what I and many other people mean by it today are two very different things. Read Waldman and you’ll see what I mean, or just get a good commentary on the Constitution.
To answer the “second” part of your question, I don’t really see what entertainment has to do with the founding of our country, unless one considers war a form of entertainment. Personally, I consider war to be hell, so let’s just leave it at that.
How do you feel about the matter of entertainment and self-esteem?
I think some forms of entertainment destroy self-esteem! What do I mean? Well... I think what Jamie Lee Curtis did awhile back was great! More Hollywood stars should show us what they really look like when they’ve not worked out for awhile, when they reach 45, and when they’ve absolutely no makeup on. Honestly, I wish more men in Hollywood would be as bold as Ms. Curtis. It took a lot of guts for her to pose in People in a bathing suit with no makeup on and to show off her normal, 45 year old love handles. So what she’s doing is helpful, but I think far too many people look to Hollywood to set the norm. And, none of us can be what we see in Hollywood. We just don’t have the time for it. I especially think this is true for women. And, like many things in life, women still have it the hardest. You just can’t compete with Botox and makeup; it’s impossible! Again, this is also part of our country wanting an illusion more than the truth. We need to see these fantastically fit people, which cause us to ignore our own problems. And, don’t get me started on what Hollywood has done to the self-esteem of young girls! I heard my 13 year old cousin the other day ask if her rear end was big. Why is a 13 year old asking this?
Has our society put religion on the back burner?
You're kidding right? I think everything in our society is about religion. Just read Stephen Prothero’s book Religious Literacy. The problem is, we don’t know anything about religion in our society. Even Christians know so very little about their own faith. It’s really quite scary.
Do celebrities and athletes have a certain moral affect on society?
Brad Pitt said it best when a reporter asked him about his opinion on a particular political matter. He said, “I’m an actor; I’m an entertainer! If you want to know about politics go and ask a professor, or someone who actually knows about these things!” As a teacher, I agree, but I think what Pitt and many others fail to grasp is that the majority of people in America are going to pay more attention to Mr. Pitt’s political beliefs than to what some professor has to say about politics, even though that professor might’ve spent years studying political theories.
On the other hand, do celebrities and athletes have a moral affect on society? I don’t know… but I do keep wondering why in the world Congress seems overly concerned about Roger Clemens’s use of steroids, while it fails to ask the appropriate questions about the Iraq war as well as all of the lies that have been told by the Bush administration. I think what Clemens’s did is horrible, and, yes I think he used steroids. But, come on! My tax dollars shouldn’t be going to solve a crisis in Major League Baseball! If only our country held priests, pastors, professors, politicians, and our President to such high standards!
Do you think celebrities and athletes play a positive role in America?
They play the wrong role... but that's our fault and the fault of Congress (see my previous comment). On the other hand, it’s amazing to me the amount of charity work athletes like Tim Wakefield and Curt Schilling do. But, I think we should try and focus on the types of charity that normal, everyday people do. I mean how big of a deal is it when a celebrity gives away $50,000 when they make millions a year? (Should anyone really get $8 million dollars a year to pitch for the Red Sox? And, even more important, should a Christian make that much money? I’m referring to Schilling of course). I’m glad that they give the money away but is the deed really all that spectacular? Maybe if our celebrities worked for $250,000 per movie and gave the rest of their earnings to solving the healthcare crisis in America, then that would truly be something to talk about in terms of the positive role that they play in our society.
Who do you believe is most responsible for our nation’s moral and ethical behavior, especially when it comes to religious ethics?
Well, it should be the churches, the synagogues, the temples, and the mosques, but I don’t think this is how it works. Again, it’s the celebrities, athletes, and politicians that people look to for moral guidance. In some cases I don’t blame them. In my own tradition, Roman Catholicism, it’s become very hard to trust priests considering all of the sex scandals that are out there. And, sometimes, religious traditions are very bigoted like when it comes to gays and lesbians.
Look… to be blunt, we’ve a major moral crisis on our hands in this country. It’s ridiculous when you think about it, because everyone wants to point figures at liberals, feminists, gays and lesbians, when the real moral crisis seems to exist among heterosexuals. What do I mean?
Well… remember the whole Clinton fiasco? I remember reading in the USA Today a couple of years ago that because Clinton suggested that “oral sex” wasn’t sex per se that many teenagers started engaging in oral sex, because, as the man said, “it isn’t sex!” Furthermore, Oprah Winfrey got involved with the whole thing and said, “Yes, oral sex is sex!” I don’t really get it, but apparently if you’re a modern day American you listen to Oprah or to Clinton on sexual morality. Why?
Personally, I think this causes a major problem in our culture. When we listen to popular figures like Clinton and Oprah on ethics and morals we loose site of what the real problems are in America. There are close to 40 million people out there without health insurance; ¼ of all homeless people are Veterans of Foreign Wars; we only spend 1 billion dollars a year on fighting poverty in this country, while we spend that much and more during a week of fighting in Iraq! Something is seriously wrong in our culture. That’s the bottom-line…
Why do you think this? Can you elaborate a bit?
I honestly don’t know the answer to this question. Maybe it’s easier to listen to celebrities and politicians… part of it probably has to do with the reality that we no longer want to think for ourselves. I wish I’d a better answer for you, but I really believe that we just no longer think—nor do we know how to think! We go along with whatever we’re told; we question nothing! And, I don’t think things will improve until people realize, “Enough is enough!” All the great rebellions of the 60s and 70s took place because people said, “Enough is enough!” I don’t think that spirit exists anymore in America. I hope it will return someday… unfortunately, in this day and age it may take Hollywood and Oprah to get it started…
Thank you so much Professor Reed....
Thank you again,