Movies, TV, video games, music, and other media claim our children’s attention about 3 1/2 times the hours that they spend in classes. Yet sadly, patterns of media use in the households of believers differ little on the average from those in a typical American home. Such statistics motivate Dr. Ted Baehr in the introductory chapters of What Can We Watch Tonight? to probe into just how our families and their members might better honor Christ in their use of the visual media.
Believing that “whoever controls the media, controls the culture,” Dr. Baehr’s concerns extend beyond simply providing Christian reviews of popular movies (in this case, movies of note from the nineties). The reviews provided represent only one of several prongs in the strategy of his Good News Communications/Christian Film and Television Commission. The organization aims both to promote better Christian viewing practices and to encourage those managing the public media to clean up its moral appeal and produce comparatively more Christian-friendly offerings.
1. The Introductory Chapters: Media, Morality, and Mental Hygiene
Having taught in and done research in an Ivy League university, Dr. Baehr is well-qualified to present in his opening chapters many findings of studies on the impact of media on society and individuals. Two primary outcomes of this research follow (spelled out in terms of two implications and an idea for a summary application):
Implication #1: The varied types of cognitive abilities that children develop typically blossom in a certain sequence, according to a predictable schedule. It turns out that certain stages of mental development find growing children still unable to appreciate some kinds of (here, audio-visual) stimuli and information or to put it all into proper perspective. For example, if a child at one level of cognitive development views threats or violence of certain kinds, or presented in certain ways, the child may well develop more aggressive attitudes or emotions about related concerns that arise in everyday life. The changes will be incremental and external behavior may not be altered immediately. But whatever poor input was vicariously experienced or perceived in the show either will lead the child to imitate or will make him/her feel it is less offensive (more tolerable) than it used to seem. One of these two possible reactions is to be expected. This can be true even when the director of the show has portrayed the negative behavior in a bad light. But on the other hand, what this child is unable to process correctly in one developmental stage, he/she will find easy to grasp in context after progressing into the next stage.
These findings are now the general consensus, rather than one possible “take” on the evidence. Academicians who know the “media and society” research no longer fear that things may work in these ways: they consider it proven that these are realities. That is, they are the vulnerability factors to which parents and educators must accomodate for the sake of the children. So Baehr spends much space in chapters one through three providing precise details about the kinds of shows children in certain age brackets should not view. He also presents statistics about how (and why) weakly monitored media consumption can sabotage a child’s mental progress (and peace of mind).
As a single father with co-custody of two sons, I want to use What Can We Watch first for its reviews of movies about which I know something already. Once I have read that detailed information I am prepared to revise my “to view” (with the kids) list. (I began my list based on the Boatwright’s faith-based annotated pamphlet cited at the end of this article.) But also, since at times I want “us guys” to go watch a new release at the theater, I would be wise to subscribe to the monthly “Movieguide” put out by Baehr’s organization. After all, the reviews found in What Can We Watch began life as entries in the “Movieguide,” at the time those movies were first played in theaters. (Churches interested in promoting improved home viewing practices could do worse than subscribe to such a serial.)
I find myself concerned, as are most parents, about my kids experiencing unguided exposure to foul language, inappropriate or excessive violence, and immoral behavior. But as much as I wish to prevent that (something difficult to do when the boy is at school or sometimes when at a friend’s house), I feel in some ways even more worried that certain cultural messages will get drummed quietly into my children: worldly attitudes and patterns of thinking about life and its issues that can take root and eventually choke out some of the influence of Christ and his ways. Why would I want the values, hopes, and dreams of impressionable young people – let alone their practical morality – to be encouraged in directions that undermine their life with God?
Implication #2: To introduce such concerns leads naturally to the the second of two key implications of the discussion in the opening chapters. This is simply that children can receive – and certainly will require – guidance and coaching in order to become media-wise. Otherwise many of them will find themselves passive consumers daily shaped by the subtle influence of cultural moguls – tossed around by every new trend advertisers and producers push. If it is important that people learn to be discerning about what they READ, then our media-inundated age requires that people must understand and evaluate what they WATCH as well. Our children must be become increasingly able to discern just how a show, with its often difficult-to-pinpoint emotional appeal (or, “hooks!”), tries to register with them sympathetically at a visceral level. They also should learn to detect just what outcomes are intended by a given film or program. As we read, particularly in chapter three, about how to train children in these skills, it quickly becomes clear that the primary people who can do this in a manner appropriate to each child (that is, intentionally, systematically, and according to noble standards) are the parents themselves. If we do not do this task in our homes – although hopefully with support from the church – the consequences, we can expect, will return to haunt us..
According to Baehr, the educational process involves questions for both comprehension and discernment that cry out for answers. The answers are accessed in the programs and movies themselves. Of course, not all questions that would apply to a given movie are simple or concrete enough for younger children to analyze; so we would expect the number of questions that realistically they could answer to be somewhat limited. So Baehr breaks down for us which questions can and cannot be handled well by children in each age bracket. And regularly he provides practical examples of the steps and approaches recommended for awareness training.
Summary Application: To implement these ideas for training (forming sort of an action plan), we could set two step-wise goals for each child’s “media-wise” growth. (a) From ages 9-14 (maybe through only the 13th year with girls?), to protect my child from viewing unacceptable media WHILE gradually educating him/her about how various media influence us (generally) and how to identify the more obvious content conveyed in a show. Much of this training would take the form of parents viewing shows with the child while here and there inserting explanations and posing an (open-ended) analytical question or two to encourage discussion. “Family rules” governing the use of media at different levels of maturity can be set up (for the whole period prior to age 18); but we must also apply those standards flexibly in relation to the individual child’s attained level of “media savvy” (thus keeping privilege aligned with proven responsibility). (b) From ages (14 or) 15 to about 17, to involve my child in making the selections of appropriate media for our family times, and to discuss personal listening/interacting/viewing practices regularly with the child and create further opportunities to help him/her hone skills of acquiring understanding and discernment.
Even if the introductory chapters were all that this book contained, it still would be a wonderful resource. For the how-to’s needed to get ready to equip your child for proper stewardship in his/her life of the public media, these few chapters are the place to do your one-stop shopping. I hope that Baehr will produce a second volume with the same introductory information, but covering movies turned out since 2002.
2. Ratings, Reviews, and Their Uses
Before he turns to the reviews in the main body of the book, Baehr explains why it is to be expected that the MPAA rating system is an unreliable guide to movies appropriate for a given age group. He points out that rating assignments are decided upon by opinion leaders who are not overly concerned about promoting that which is good or true, but who clearly are attuned to what will attract viewers (certain ratings assigned rather than others helps accomplish this), to remaining politically correct (and quite permissive morally) and (frequently) to steering clear of wholesome portrayals of Christians or Christianity. Such liberalized tendencies provide us little cause to trust that when assigned a PG or PG-13 rating a movie only will expose viewers of the corresponding age bracket to what is appropriate.
What Can We Watch provides hundreds of one- to two-page movie reviews, largely sampling representatively from the most touted of films that appeared in the 1990’s. The reviews can be quite lively, and most often are concise. To a given movie Baehr assigns a rating for viewability that incorporates moral and spiritual considerations, as applied to the audience the movie has in view. That rating is immediately preceded by a traditional rating assessing the movie’s entertainment value/production qualities.
But even more important than providing a moral or spiritual rating is offering readers precise, detailed information that evaluates and describes the moral and “world-viewish” aspects of a show and its compatability with Christian concepts. How else can we know that while a program, let’s say, has a great reputation for moral acceptability, in addition it integrates what it has to say around New Age concepts (viz., one of the world views that is out there)? Thus our author provides comments – in keeping with reasonable standards and Christian morality and principles – that spotlight elements of offensiveness and constructiveness in the presentation. Message, tone, and viewpoint all are considered. An outstanding feature provided is the concluding section of each review. There, every questionable or potentially offensive element in the show is itemized, even down to noting where context seems to justify including a questionable or offensive element (without which the story might derail).
With all this information finally in hand, we are well-prepared to answer our foremost question: “Since I live to please and know Christ in everything, will I find watching this to be worth my time, or helpful (or harmless, at least) to my child?”
What Can We Watch Tonight?: A Family Guide to Movies. Ted Baehr wih Tom Snyder. First edition, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003. (571 pp. plus indices). Reviews movies from 1990 through mid-2002. Currently is $4.99 plus postage/handling from Christian Book Distributors!
Two related faith-based items currently only second-hand:
The Family Guide to Movies on Video. Henry Herx and Tony Zaza, eds. (NY: Crossroad,1988). Catholic-based; very helpful. Covers all movies then in video form or broadcast on networks/cable; many family-oriented films released anytime up until 1966; and virtually all films to US theaters 1966-1987. Each title has a concise paragraph with it about basic plot/theme and audience directed at and suitability for such. Included are documentaries and foreign movies of note. Provides symbol/rating of moral suitability (to target audience), plus any original enrichment/entertainment rating.
The Movie Reporter. Phil Boatwright (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour and Co., 1993). No additional volumes forthcoming. Protestant/Evangelical-based. Author is an actor and film historian. Pocket-width pamphlet reviews movies popular around the time of publication, typically with a few lines about story line and appropriateness. For many titles author suggests alternative movies along the same subject or thematic lines that contain very little or no offensive material. Favorite and high quality titles are offered in certain genre categories, such as Westerns, religious, childrens, seasonal. Numerous incidental comments of interest punctuate the guide.