Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Lutherans in Diaspora gathering
Thanks to an invitation from the Rev. Dr. Barbara Lundblad, I had the privilege to speak to a gathering which of "Lutherans in Diaspora," ELCA seminary students (and several faculty) who attend these non-ELCA seminaries - Harvard, Princeton, Union and Yale. There were about 40 folks in attendance at Union Seminary on Saturday, February 13, 2010.
In her introduction, Dr. Lundblad noted my volunteer work as chair of the Wilbur Awards which are presented annually by the Religion Communicators Council (www.religioncommunciators.org) to recognize "excellence int he presentation of religious issues, themes and values." That is significant to note here only because I reference these awards in my presentation.
Here is the text of what I planned to say that morning:
For a moment, I want to take you back with me to the fall of 1997, some 12 ½ years ago.
The fall of 1997 may be remembered in US television history as the year when television prime time commercial network programming “found” religion. Following the continued success of “Touched By An Angel” on CBS, the six commercial broadcast television networks tried “pastor shows” in a big way with “Seventh Heaven” on the WB Network, “Soul Man” on ABC, “Good News” on UPN and “Nothing Sacred” on ABC.
This was a strange and, sometimes, wonderful television season! “Soul Man” featured Dan Ackroyd as a motorcycle driving Episcopal priest, “Good News” focused on a black gospel congregation and its pastor, and “Seventh Heaven” highlighted a pastor’s large family in a community congregation. All three of these were overtly Christian and two were renewed for another season. “Seventh Heaven” went on to many years of broadcast on the WB and then CW networks. For a time it was the most-watched show on the WB network.
“Nothing Sacred” attracted the most media attention, partly because it had attracted early and vocal opposition from the Catholic League, a small, very conservative Roman Catholic advocacy group, and partly because it dealt so well, in my opinion, with many controversial topics. Lutherans had a vested interest in “Nothing Sacred” because its exteriors were taped outside of Angelica Lutheran Church in Los Angeles and the $3,000 the congregation received each time the program taped there made an important difference for the budget of this struggling Latino congregation.
Although “Nothing Sacred” was quickly canceled and never attracted huge audiences, especially when it was scheduled opposite “Friends” on Thursday evening, it won several awards including a Peabody Award, the Humanitas Prize and a Wilbur Award. I thought their Wilbur Award winning Halloween episode, “Spirit and Substance,” which included the “St. Patrick’s breastplate” prayer prayed in its entirety, was amazing television and a very public witness for Jesus Christ for millions of viewers.
And, the 1990’s were also good times for religion in pop and public media in other areas:
+ The late Peter Jennings, then the most popular evening news anchor, hired Peggy Wehmeyer as a full time religion reporter for ABC television’s “World News Tonight.”
+ The Dallas Morning News set a new standard for newspaper religion reporting with a large staff and a weekly eight page religion section plus regular news and features in the rest of the paper.
+ Fueled by the expansion in newspaper religion reporting, the Religion Newswriters’ Association membership topped 500.
+ In addition to the network television programs I already mentioned, The West Wing, one of my all-time favorite television programs, won awards for its sensitive portrayal of Christian and Jewish themes and included a US President who attended church regularly and even talked with his wife about the sermon afterwards.
+ Singer Joan Osbourne’s 1995 song, What If God Was One of Us, reached the Billboard top ten for pop music. (Osbourne’s song later became the theme song for the short-lived, and often outstanding, television drama, Joan of Arcadia, in 2003).
+ Issues of magazine newsweeklies Newsweek, Time and US News with cover feature stories on faith and religion regularly sold out on newsstands.
+ Films with faith-related themes like Dead Man Walking and The Apostle drew well at the box office and made money for film studios. DreamWorks film studios first production was an animated film about Moses, The Prince of Egypt, a film one of its founders, Steven Spielberg, called the “greatest story ever told.”
There’s more, but you get the idea. The 1990’s were, in my opinion, the best of times for religion and pop or public media, perhaps since the 1950’s.
Well, now it is 2010, 12 ½ years later and what do we see?
+ I see nothing on commercial television that is even close not just to the overtly religion-themed programming of the 1990’s but not even close to programs like The West Wing which occasionally did religion-themed programs. For example, the television drama category for the Wilbur Awards, which I chair and in the past has included winners like The West Wing, ER, the X Files, Third Watch, Without a Trace, has had no entries for the past two years!
+ The newspaper industry is in free-fall and religion reporting has been hit hard. Just within the last month, religion reporters for the Boston Globe and Chicago Sun Times lost their jobs or were reassigned. Not long ago the Dallas Morning News gave up their religion section and laid off all but one of their staff. Folks at the Religion News Service tell me that, while their website continues to have record-setting traffic, even large newspapers no longer appear willing to pay a minimal monthly fee for their news feed. I remember reading that several of the major award winners for the annual Religion Newswriters’ Association last year had all lost their positions since their award-winning work was written. And that organization has seen its membership shrink.
+ Peter Jennings is now in heaven, but before he died, he laid off Peggy Wehmeyer who was not replaced. No major television network has a religion reporter.
+ The music industry is also in free-fall and so-called Christian music is no exception.
+ US news magazines are also in subscription free-fall. I hear continued rumors about the soon demise of both US News and Newsweek.
Now, those of you who know me know that I am a half-full, not a half-empty kind of person. There is still some good news in the field of faith and media and pop culture:
+ The film, The Blind Side, with a visible Christian theme, was the sleeper hit of 2009 and continues to attract record audiences in 2010.
+ Tyler Perry’s faith and family focused films, plays, books and television programs draw large, mostly African American, audiences and readers.
+ William P. Young’s novel, The Shack, continues to be a pop-culture phenomenon with millions of copies sold.
+ Saving Grace, Holly Hunter’s TNT cable network drama in which she plays a police detective with a priest brother and guardian angel, has been a moderate hit for TNT and will have its final run of new programs this summer.
+ PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly continues its many year run.
+ This year’s Wilbur Awards have a record number of faith-themed entries from television network news.
+ Faith themed websites and virtual materials of all kinds abound.
And that leads us to this morning’s discussion on social media and the virtual world. Let’s look at a piece call “The Social Media Revolution” from YouTube - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIFYPQjYhv8 .
By this time, since we had started a bit late, we had just a short time for questions and answers and small group discussion. I was able to share a fine piece, "New Tips for Social Media Use," prepared by the ELCA's Len Mason - see http://blogs.elca.org/webdev/post/new-tips-for-social-media-use-02022010/.
I had planned to make some additional comments which follow. I was able to add most of these in response to questions and discussion:
As I told the folks who planned today’s program, I do not claim to be an expert in social media. I am very active on Facebook and, as of yesterday, had 777 friends. I have recently begun putting material on my blog and then promoting it via Facebook. I have less activity on Twitter – maybe because 140 characters seem quite limiting!
And I know from my recent pastorate in Lansdale that younger people are using Facebook and other social networking sites and texting via their mobile telephones as primary communication tools. I am sure many of you saw the recent news that the average teenager in the US now spends 7 ½ hours using or watching electronic media EVERY DAY. Take away school and sleeping and it is safe to say that many, if not most, North American teens are watching television, texting, or on their computer or mobile telephone for nearly all of their other waking hours each day.
And, this has all changed and is changing very rapidly. In my last pastorate we had teen age leaders who were no longer using e-mail – you had to text them or “Facebook” them to communicate electronically with them! Our new youth director has begun using Facebook as a primary tool for sharing information and dialogue with Trinity’s young people. A check of Facebook or Twitter will find thousands of faith-related “pages” and sites.
Even the Pope has weighed in on social networking, suggesting this past month that all priests have blogs! The February issue of The Lutheran magazine has “Social media & faith: Jump in” as it cover story and includes Bishop Hanson’s column in which he concludes, talking about social and other new media – “We need not fear or become enslaved to them. Used faithfully, these innovations can build and strengthen communities of faith as God’s ambassadors sing the song of God’s new creation.”
Thus, if I have any advice to share with you as current and coming pastors and leaders in the church it is to pay attention to what is happening around you in pop culture and media. It always helps, I believe, to know at least a little about the most popular television and films and even to get for yourself basic knowledge of the professional sports teams popular in your community. And, especially in these and coming days, it will help your ministry greatly if you can find ways that the virtual world, and right now that would be social media, can assist you in your life and ministry.