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The Great Satan

TV, Media & Defining “Normal”

Television, specifically, presents itself as a baseline moral standard.

The inference is This Is Normal. On top of Normal, there is a ratings system—TV-G through TV-M, that acts as a guide for the degrees to which their programming varies from Normal. And we accept that. Most of us accept TV and its slide rule of plusses and minuses as a suitable yardstick, and in so doing accept the premise that TV’s baseline—whatever the programmers determine that baseline to be—is Normal. Which is entirely untrue. Normal is entirely subjective. What is Normal for you won’t necessarily be Normal for me. A panel of TV executives, or a panel of judges, or a panel of psychologists or, for that matter, a panel of pastors issuing some decree: This Is Normal, is ludicrous. Normal should be something you decide for yourself. But these are decisions we routinely allow others to make for us because we’ve never been taught to think for ourselves and because we cram every space—every waking moment of the day—with noise. Noise generated by others telling us who we are and what is and is not Normal.

I’m not talking good and evil, good TV versus bad TV. Television programming is about economics. It does not exist to better humanity or to enlighten us. Its baseline is not the common good. Television is a revenue source. It exists to serve money. So, right off, the motives are skewed. Assuming neutrality in media is one of he most childish things we do.

TV also exists in compressed time. The hour-long show is actually now about 41 minutes. So, right off, they are lying to us. On a typical TV show, important meetings last around three minutes. When’s the last time you had an important meeting that only lasted three minutes? Relationships—friendships, romances—exist in compressed time. They develop quickly and fall apart even faster. On TV, the sex act often signals the start of a relationship rather than its culmination. Sex between unmarried persons is routine and Normal, and ethical or moral ambiguities surrounding that behavior are usually depicted as fringe. Characters with complex questions about those choices are usually depicted as prudes or, at the very least, The Other.

On TV, scenes are cut very close: we enter very late in the scene—a meeting or talk already in progress—and exit the scene at the earliest opportunity. This is a distortion of reality because we no longer see how relationships or encounters actually begin or end—it’s all middle. We develop an expectation that complex questions and conflicts can be resolved in three minutes or, certainly, by the end of the show. Look at how impatient the nation is with the president’s handling of the economy. This is an economy it took George W. Bush eight years and two wars to wreck, but President Barack Obama is being flogged, night an day, by people cursing him because he hasn’t fixed it yet. We live in an era of childish impatience and short attention spans. When’s the last time you even heard anything at all about Haiti? More than a year after the earthquake that devastated that nation, millions are still homeless, disease runs rampant, girls are raped literally at will, murder and violence goes unchecked. But we’ve lost patience with Haiti. We gave it its due—41 minutes. This is how TV and media shape our culture: the evolving patterns of media have been adopted by society—the thin relationships with no real depth, the instant solutions to complex problems, and, yes, then impatience. For a few weeks, Haiti was everywhere. Now it’s nowhere. We’re onto the next thing. This Is Normal: to expect quick solutions to complex problems.

Everything is slam-cut, hard cuts between this event and that event, a technique pioneered by music videos and MTV and perfected by film director Michael Bay, whose genius Armageddon was almost universally loathed by critics but stands, nonetheless, as a model of modern storytelling. Armageddon is all empty calories: flashy music video lighting, slam cuts and music queues to tell us how we’re supposed to feel about these characters. Armageddon takes a four-hour film and crams it into two and a half, losing its humanity along the way and substituting character types in place of actual characters. In the ensuing years., this has become the new standard for pop films and TV shows, and our real-life expectations now mirror this approach: all style, no substance, superficial relationships that happen too fast, burn too hot, end too quickly. And media tells us, in film and song, that this is Normal. Norman Whitfield’s brilliant classic, Papa Was A Rolling Stone, played for nearly three minutes before a single word was sung. And he infuriated Temptations lead singer Dennis Edwards by using the lyric, “it was the third of September…”, the first audible words in the music, and the actual date of Edwards’s father’s death. Papa could never get on the radio today. Or,. If it did, it would be whittled down to a “radio cut,” its soul disemboweled to suit today’s camera-shutter attention span. It is all but impossible to get a kid (or, for that matter, anyone under 30) to sit appreciatively through Papa’s eleven languid minutes of lush orchestra and stark, evocative storytelling. Most young people and many old ones, would listen for maybe a few seconds, then start texting.

We just can't let go.

I am increasingly declining dinner invites or hang out invites because, there in the company of grown men and women, these people are texting. I’m sitting there—I mean, I got dressed, I burned up gas driving across town, and I’m sitting right across from them. And they are half-listening at best because they’re sitting there texting, carrying on a separate conversation. By contrast, I don' even bring my cell into the restaurant. This person took time out of her day to come see me, the least I owe her is my complete attention. Additionally, a sober evaluation of our lives would show the extremely remote possibility of an emergency call versus the endless routine interruptions for trivial and nonessential reasons. Yet we cling to these devices like the world would literally end if we didn't have them on us at all times. Parents, sitting in church with their children, still have their cell phones—ridiculous and childish ring tones blaring—during service. This is more evidence of our buy-in to the Great Lie. This texting nonsense is happening increasingly while I’m on the phone, so I’m making a lot fewer phone calls these days. Why? Because, on the phone, my party is only half-listening, asking me to repeat myself, keyboard clacking in the dead spots when I stop talking. And I realize while they are on the phone with me, they are texting, IM-ing, typing. They can’t shut it off. Not for a single minute. And, y’know what? Much as I love these people, much as I look forward to speaking with them, the heck with that. It’s rude, it disrespects me, my friendship and my time. And it is the New Normal. It is the wave of media dominating our lives. Non-stop, day and night. It drives my friends and family absolutely insane that I turn my phones off—wireless and home—and think absolutely nothing of it.

The rare scene of contemplative thought on TV or in music video is universally accompanied by music filling in that space and manipulating us, telling us how we should feel. We do the same thing at church. Most of us don’t even behave as if we are in church until we hear that Hammond organ. I’ve tested this theory many times, arriving at Sunday worship to the cacophony of voices laughing and greeting one another, people standing in the aisles. But if I climb up on the Hammond and start playing soft music, people understand (1) we’re in a church and (2) it’s time to take our places as worship service is about to begin. Most churches can’t grow without appropriate worship music and a talented worship leader. Most black pastors I know (including myself) hate dead spots—places in the service where no one is speaking or no music is playing. We are routinely instructed to keep a musical “pad” going—soft, reverent music—to fill in the gaps while someone is walking to or away from the podium or while some exchange is taking place. This, too, is brainwashing. For church, soft, reverent music defines Normal to the extent that we become so accustomed to it, many of us cannot worship without it. Many has been the time where, having retreated to the buffet joint after service, I’ve heard Church Folk complain that there “wasn’t no Spirit in that place,” by which they meant there was either no music or inadequate music.

I know many people who simply can’t be alone. Can’t be quiet. Must be on the phone, radio going, TV in the background, around people at all times. Every room, every closet in our head—stuffed full of noise. Which not only tells us what to think and how to behave, but it actually prevents us from thinking. These people find a loner like me to be very strange, that being alone and quiet is simply unnatural. It’s not unnatural. It’s choice, one just as valid as those made by folks who drive a thousand miles to eat a turkey dinner with people they will inevitably get into an argument with before sundown.

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Like George Jetson walking his dog on a treadmill, most of us fill our lives with so many ultimately useless and unproductive activities, accompanied by all this noise, that by the time middle age knocks us in the head, we wonder where all the time went. Time is so precious, and most of us waste it by the bucketload. Wasting time—yours or someone else’s—is a sin. We exist for a reason. We have a purpose. Truth is frightening. Truth exposes us. Most of us expend a lot of time, energy and money trying to avoid a confrontation with God, with truth. Truth is frequently revealed in silence, so we fill up our heads with noise.

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