Arts, Media, and Entertainment

Fuzzy Grammar

    According to the Hollywood Reporter, 89 million Americans watched at least part of the two-hour special, "A Tribute to Heroes." The program, which aired on September 21 to raise money for the United Way's relief fund, featured performances by various famous entertainers. The night before, 7 million fewer Americans tuned in to any part of the President's address to Congress about the war on terrorism. Even fewer had tuned into the prayer service at the National Cathedral. It's hard to imagine a clearer illustration of the centrality of popular entertainment in our culture. Increasingly, Americans -- consciously or not -- are taking their cues about the meaning of life, as well as right and wrong, from popular media. The problem is that images cannot replace words when it comes to communicating truth. That's because the goal of visual media is not to convey ideas in a precise manner, the way words do; it's to elicit an emotional response. That's why it's almost impossible to argue with another person's interpretation of what they've seen. The experience is subjective, not objective. This quality of visual media is what columnist Terry Mattingly calls its "fuzzy grammar." You can see that "fuzzy grammar" at work, for example, in the ending of TITANIC. As Rose, the woman who tells the story, lies in bed, the camera takes us back to the Titanic, where the audience sees those who died when the ship sank. There the lovers are reunited. Was it a dream or was it the afterlife? We don't know. This kind of ambiguity isn't only common, it's deliberate. According to film critic Roger Ebert, what's important is that any possible interpretation "provide emotional closure" for the audience. And while that may be a good way to end movies, this subjectivity and appeal to emotion is increasingly being applied to all of life. As popular media has occupied the role formerly played by the church and family, Americans have begun to look at all experiences through that same lens. The result is, as apologist Ravi Zacharias puts it, a generation that "hears with its eyes and thinks with its feelings." The fuzzy grammar of media is what allows people to believe things like "that may be true for you, but not for me." Our image-saturated culture is one in which almost everything is subject to interpretation -- and no interpretation takes precedence over any other. It is a world in which all truth is presumed to be subjective. In Christianity, words are the medium through which truth is communicated. The Gospel of John describes Jesus as "the Word." The Greek word logos, means, among other things, "the ordering principle" -- that is, ultimate truth or reality. And it exists, therefore, independent of our feelings. It is our duty to discern it and argue on its behalf. This is the great challenge posed by our media-centric culture. Apologetics in the age of the image requires Christians to help their neighbors understand the limitations of those images. It requires us to help people recognize that life isn't like the movies and treating it as if it were is a dangerous mistake. They need to be reminded that all the "emotional closure" in the world is no substitute for truth.


Chuck Colson


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