Detoxing from Hollywood

October 4th, 2009

Once upon a time, there were no movie theaters, no television sets, and no video cassette recorders to watch films at home. Once upon this time, people got their stories by listening or reading. And once upon this same time, these “story people” thought about what they heard or read, letting their imaginations—not screens—carry them through exciting adventures, difficult choices, and thrilling discoveries.

Ancient history? Hardly. Sometimes I can’t believe it was barely a lifetime ago when Hollywood’s first credits rolled. Ever since, it’s given the world story after story on the big and small screens. Much more than a city in SoCal, Hollywood has become a well-packaged machine, capturing center stage of American life in the twenty-first century.

And why not? Watching movies and television makes our lives seem easier, more exciting, less boring. Put a talking, moving picture in front of our faces—young and old alike—and it takes nothing short of a natural disaster to win our attention away. Yes, this motion-picture syndrome has hit us hard, making us fast addicts who cannot easily kick the habit.

You see, I know about this Hollywood addiction from personal experience.

My husband and I like to think of ourselves as avid culture watchers, art junkies, story lovers. We find it really easy to rent a video or slam down $9 for the latest flick (that’s what we pay in New York City), or switch on the evening news to get an update on world events.

Trouble is, we’re hooked.

Here’s what I mean: One weekend in May was so full of big-screen stories that we sort of lost ourselves. Friday night we rented the 1960s classic,Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Saturday night we went on a date and saw the latest romantic comedy. And Sunday night we joined neighbors in a weekly ritual of dinner and “dessert”—dessert being our favorite television series, “The Practice.” By Monday morning, I realized I’d spent most of the weekend so caught up in these other stories that I forgot to reflect on my own.

By the end of the following week, I’d managed to catch a few nights of the evening news, a television movie, and a documentary I had checked out from the library—all in addition to a full work week and meetings with friends. But I was pushed over the edge when my husband and I went to see Gladiator at New York’s historic Zigfield theater on Friday afternoon.

Maybe it was the violence, the constant flow of blood, or the big-screen attempt to make a hero out of a murderer. Maybe it was the stale popcorn. But my husband and I left Zigfield’s that afternoon with a new sense of disgust; not disgust at the art of filmmaking or screenwriting or acting. No, we deeply appreciate the efforts of artists who bring us quality stories in modern shows.

We were finally disgusted with…ourselves. We’d let the hypnotizing effect of Hollywood suck us into its grip, waving its sleepy watch in front of our eyes and giving us permission over and over again to avoid our own lives. Rarely has Hollywood encouraged us to critique or analyze or participate. It’s only required us to spectate.

The more we thought about it, the more we realized that going to the movies these days often means leaving your brain at home, justifying the experience as a chance to veg out from a hard week of work and demands.

I believe we’ve become a think-less people, a passive, indifferent lot with few original opinions or supported arguments. (Even the word amusement reveals this: Muse means “thought” or “mindful,” but the a negates it, making its definition literally “not with thought, mindless.”)

A Hollywood Fast
So my husband and I tried an experiment. We decided to give Hollywood a rest from our lives and fast for six months from any moving picture. No television, no movies, no videos, no DVDs.

What have we done to fill the “void”?

For starters, we’ve been reading more. We’re even reading to each other on a regular basis! C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and The Great Divorce, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. And we’ve invited friends and family to be a part of our “story time” with E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web or Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. We’ve also gone on more walks in our neighborhood, written more letters (remember those?), explored more territories on our bicycles, and tackled projects we’ve avoided for months. (I finally laid new contact paper on the kitchen shelves.)

Still, I have to confess this has not been easy. I mean, I love a good flick as much as the next human. After all, I grew up in the era just after television was born. Besides, four months into our fast, I’m noticing just how much Hollywood—not my personal experiences—has created my frames of reference. Remember that character on “Saturday Night Live” or that “Star Trek” episode when Captain…?!

And the more my memories are associated primarily with Hollywood fiction, the more fragmented—even delusional—I’ve become. What’s more, because of the reduced stimuli around me, there’s a lot more silence…and I don’t exactly like what I’m finding in the silence. It’s meant more time for me to confront my sin and the delusions of my heart. Like dross rising from the pot, the impurities of my Hollywood-cluttered soul are foamy and full.

Rest assured, however, I am not calling on Christians to boycott the productions of Hollywood. I don’t think we’re called to withdraw from the culture but rather to engage it, to flavor it with visions of light and dialogues of grace.

I am suggesting, however, that we should take a break once in a while to renew our minds and our imaginations. Maybe we need to look for more creative, Kingdom-oriented ways of spending our weekends. Maybe we need firm boundaries and standards for what stories we pour into our brains, more reflection on how we spend our money and time, and more discussions about the images we do see.

It’s for Youth Groups, Too!
Particularly for those of us who work with young people, we’d do well to remind them of the not-so-long ago history of our world when movies and TV shows didn’t exist at all, when stories were told around tables and fires, in paintings, on stages, or in songs.

Most young people I encounter these days couldn’t give you an ounce of reason why they like a movie—they just do. Forget about analytical skills or intelligent responses.

Not that they don’t want to offer reasons. When I teach college freshmen how to write an essay, I also teach them how to think critically. I require them to review a movie and lead them through the specific aspects of critique, what they need to pay attention to. Soon, they find discussing themes and analyzing characters just as engaging as the film itself. When that happens, they move from passive spectators to active participants. They learn to live better.

So I’m waiting for the day when some visionary soul in Washington, D.C., proposes legislation that requires movie and broadcasting companies to distribute educational tools to accompany the release of films or new TV shows. Or what if some forward-thinking Christian organization developed movie discussion guides and passed them out like they do evangelistic tracts?

And what if youth workers offered fun alternatives for young people who habitually head to the malls and movies on the weekends—something like “Story Night” where kids got lost in the imaginative worlds that come when stories are read aloud? (I know this last idea would take a lot of convincing, but hey, in my perfect world, teenagers would rather read a story than watch one. Now, that would leave Hollywood scrambling!)

Certainly our capacity for story is great—we’re wired that way. The Bible and history both confirm how stories have been the heartbeat of every culture on every continent in every era. God, the great Storyteller, made us in his image and dared to enter our stories in the person of Jesus. In fact, he entered the world at a time when technology, screens, and microphones weren’t even a thought, let alone a reality. He came and told stories and parables to crowds and friends. And people listened. They still do. Why? Because stories connect us to that which is human and godly at the same time.

Today’s stories, though, come to us from Hollywood in full color and stereo, requiring little more of us than passive observation. We must put these big screen tales in their place and not allow them to keep us from reflection or from becoming active participants in this gift of life.

I’m hoping our Hollywood fast helps me see movies and TV shows as simple tools for the journey, not excuses to avoid it. But I can see why the multibillion dollar amusement industry is racking in the bucks: Diversion is highly profitable.

And an incredibly slippery slope for followers of Christ.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.