Friday, September 16, 2011

Infinitive Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media

By Eugene Gan,, 148 pages.

"[I]t often seems as if the most surefire way to win an Academy Award is to make a film devoid of hope, devoid of light," Franciscan University of Steubenville professor Gan notes. He offers a remedy based on the consistent, balanced teaching of the magisterium, which since the 1930s has been outlining its vision of the underlying principles and basic functions of the media.

Gan grounds his argument in basic theology. God is good, humanity is fallen, and media can inspire us to do good or evil. Beware, in the age of relativism, because money, political correctness, and high production standards are the greatest virtues of movie, video, or website production. That leaves prudence, charity, hope, faith and the other cardinal virtues out of sight and out of mind. Gan, conversely, uses these virtues as the key to understanding Catholic teaching on media and its uses.

He weaves psychological insights throughout the book, demonstrating the powerful psychology behind the media. Sitcom viewers, for instance, can become quite attached to their favorite character, and when they find out that he is gay, their perception of homosexuality can be jarred. Media works at the sensory level, so induces emotional rather than intellectual responses. People begin to have different feelings about certain issues, such as gay marriage, and then begin to reason differently. The Church, then, appears distant and preachy when it calls homosexuality sinful and disordered. How can the Church be so judgmental about gay guys like the lovable one on TV?

Yet the media's emotive power can also work for the good, as demonstrated with Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Not only movies possess such power: "truth can be woven into a ... song, a video game, even a Facebook page. It can be made part of a story. And the story can do what we can't. It can connect with people on the level of emotion.... It catches people off their guard, shining a light on truths they didn't know existed," Gan notes.

The media, in other words, offers Christians an infinite number of possibilities for presenting their case to the world. The Church encourages us to use such technologies to their full potential. Gan argues convincingly that Catholics, especially parishes, should update their websites and use more interactive media technology. He stays close to practicalities, listing ways that they can do this.

Be interactive. Avoid leading internet users towards long-winded pdf files, and offer lots of video, hyperlinks, and opportunity for comments. Gan notes that most parish websites offer no way for members to sign up for activities online, and few offer blogs. A lack of blogging gives the impression that parishes are cold, indifferent, and unable to connect. The daily lives and insights of parish leaders and priests are not online, plugging in to the lives of others online.

Blogs are fantastic ways to get in touch with people, and Gan offers the example of two Catholics who have talked about their faith and families in their blogs, making them popular and effective online evangelists. Their highs and lows, interspersed with Catholic-centered wisdom, relates with people encountering the same problems.

Readers of Infinite Bandwidth get the strong sense that online evangelism is not the buzzword in Catholic circles that it should be. It has not been incorporated into the New Evangelism in the way that, perhaps, the theology of the body has. No sense of urgency pushes Catholic leaders to give more power and dynamism to their online message. Unfortunately, without these interactive possibilities, parishes are not connecting, whereas websites promoting easy sex, meaningless violence, and narcissistic attitudes are flourishing, reaching out as never before.

Gan's theological and ethical discussions, which form the foundation of his attitude towards media, are effective and to-the-point. When explaining the evils of pornography, he sounds like the university professor he is who has had to explain tirelessly the evils of pornography to questioning, skeptical young adults: "Pornography reduces human beings to the level of animals, controlled by appetites and motivated by little more than a selfish desire for pleasure."

Sexting is the other terrible online evil destroying young people's sense of self as well as their ability to relate with others in a healthy way. Sexting reveals the lack of a fundamental orientation towards the world, oneself, and good and evil. Devoid of this moral faculty, teens fall prey to peer pressure and their own, still-maturing, emotions. Gun concludes, "Only in a world made up solely of other fifteen-year-olds does a teenage girl think it's a good idea to send pornographic pictures of herself to a teenage boy's cell phone." In other words, where the hell are the parents? The teachers? Older brothers or sisters? The Church? Why is even the most fundamental moral guidance not given today? Why aren't teens developing even the most basic notions of right and wrong?

The answer is that they, like all of us, are becoming increasingly disconnected from the world, from reality, even as we twitter and friend and blog away, viewing the world through youtube and skyping free of charge around the world. Gan makes the point repeatedly that these kids are connected digitally and globally like never before, yet disconnected from the reality right in front of their nose like never before. They have Facebook friends from all over but are too easily distracted to read deeply or engage in frank discussions with their parents. They text at the dinner table rather than talk to parents and siblings.

The same reverence for our bodies that is missing in sexting and pornography is also missing in "slasher films" such as Saw and the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, Gan notes. Such movies offer an anti-Christian image of humans, refuting the notion that we are made in God's image and therefore should cultivate "a willingness to give and sacrifice for others, and the ability to control, restrain, and properly direct one's desires." These Catholic ideals are hardly mainstream in our age of nihilism, and the media often reflects the precise opposite.

The Church counters nihilism, a form of hopelessness, by calling for respecting the dignity of the human being. Even Catholic teens and young adults, Gan notes, follow this nihilistic tendency, and have little clue as to how they can stop being passive consumers of media and start to shape it more actively and to consume it more critically. They have never thought that they could take more control over the media.

Harshly, he cites studies showing that today's American teens, because of social media which put the individual at the center of their own digital world, are the most narcissistic individuals in the world. He notes the consequence: "many teens don't recognize the potential of media to do anything other than improve their social standing. They don't see it as a tool to spread the Faith or educate themselves about the Napoleonic Wars. They see it as a tool to talk to their friends, listen to music, and simply be entertained." Superficial, they grasp at nothing deeper than the moment and their place in it, satisfied with a digital universe.

Like most of us, they are unaware of the tremendous possibilities for evangelization on offer from today's media. The Internet is a blessing from God if we use it correctly. Their indifference or ignorance of this is a big loss, since today's youth, the author points out, are at the vanguard of the New (Digital) Evangelization. Unlike middle-aged adults, they have been using computers and the Internet all their lives, and are therefore digital natives. The Internet and social media is their realm.

Only they can fully utilize this technology to reach the un- and under-churched, since they speak the language of today's world better than anyone: "We can't make disciples of all men unless we go where those men are -- unless we speak their language, understand how they think, and know how to respond to their unmet needs," Gan cautions.

The power of Infinite Bandwidth, as reflected in the above words, comes from the author's experience as the instructor of these young people at his university. He struggles to mold into evangelical Catholics students who have been raised more by the digital culture, which is largely inspired by money and the Culture of Death.

Christians have allowed the media to shape ourselves, our young people, and society at large for too long. As a first step, we must assert ourselves by being more thoughtful in how we use technology. Next, we can start to shape those very technologies. Our faith should inform our presence in chat rooms, blogs, and social media. Third, we must judge the attitudes behind media, especially with pornography, from a Christian moral standpoint. "[A]ll media and all media technology," Gan notes, "should respect the dignity of the human person; be truth-filled; inspire people towards the good, the true, and the beautiful; be skillfully developed; and be motivated by and rooted in human experience."

Following this, we would be more faithful to the New Evangelization.

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