22 April 2008

The Line Between Entertainment and Truth

I have finished watching the HBO series, John Adams, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by David McCullough. I am not going to review it here, but I am going to discuss an aspect of the final show. I don't think it will spoil anything but... fair warning.

There is a lot to like about the series. It haven't read McCullough's book yet, but I have recently read Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation, Cokie Roberts. In it, Roberts writes about both Abigail and "Nabby" Adams, providing some primary source material. I read the book as part of a book club and we had a marvelous time discussing the women who were a part of our founding history. Armed with some elementary research, I was thrilled to watch the John Adams series.

One of the things that struck me in the final episode was the evolution and transformation of the friendship between Adams and Thomas Jefferson. As they both neared their ends, there came a time when all of those who had been instrumental in our separation from England were dead save the two of them. They discussed in letters what would be left and how posterity would remember them for what they had done. It was Adams' contention that posterity would not come close to getting it right.

I've been thinking about that for the last two days. What I was watching had spun history by virtue of being entertainment value. No matter how true his research and dependent on primary sources McCullough may have been, assuming that was even a priority for him, he has written this book from his perspective. He can't divorce himself of his opinion. The screenwriter and actors have put their interpretation or spin on the truth as well. Here's the thing that really struck me. Our desire for entertainment may have done more damage to the truth than being centuries removed from the actual event could ever do to the primary written sources.

I don't think that it was the intent of the author, nor of executive producer, Tom Hanks, to over sensationalize the story for pure entertainment value. In fact, I think they tried to treat it justly.
I also believe these movies and books, when done well, are good things. Band of Brothers, another work that Tom Hanks was involved in at HBO, is a brilliant body of work. I think the series, John Adams, is no less brilliant even though Band of Brothers had the great benefit of being able to interview the surviving men about whom the story was written. Their interviews and commentary are incredible and lend veracity to the drama as filmed. I am not anti-historical movies and such. Not at all.

What I am saying is that we are a fickle people. We have come to expect to be entertained over and above being educated. We would rather have our emotions manipulated than to have our minds engaged. And though I think this series does engage the mind in such a way that the heart has to be stirred, we must factor in our penchant for being entertained into in how we view such works.
Reportage and historical fiction are not the same thing. Movies and video aren't the only place we need to define the line between entertainment and truth in art.

It is not impossible for a movie to contain the gospel message, but they [movies] are not substitutions for the gospel being preached. There is a marked difference between The Greatest Story Ever Told and Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar. The same is true between The Passion of the Christ and The Last Temptation of Christ. All of these works' artistic value is subjective. The gospel is not, nor should it ever be considered as such. The desire to lure people into our churches with pleasing aesthetics and entertaining programs is an appeal to same subjective entertainment values that are suspect in a series like John Adams.

We need more men and women of God writing about the things of God in such a way that they care more about a presentation of the gospel than the entertainment and marketability or money making potential of their message. How will posterity remember us?

2 Corinthians 2:17
17 For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God. (NAS)

Hebrews 4:12-13
12 For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

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