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Mindless Entertainment at the Movies

Over the first weekend in May, The Avengers grossed more than $200 million at the box office — a record. I was responsible for some of the take because my daughter wanted to see it, and I wanted to spend time with my daughter, so I went with her.

For over two hours I stared at the screen and saw, well, nothing. I left the theater not knowing what to make of what I had just watched. There was nothing particularly offensive about the film. Nor were there any ideas that I needed to discuss with my daughter afterward.

In fact, there were no ideas at all — the phrase that comes to mind is “mindless spectacle.” I am not saying that it wasn’t entertaining. It was, in a “popcorn movie” sort of way.

But just while there are times when munching on popcorn is okay, no one puts popcorn at the base of their food pyramid. Likewise, while the occasional “popcorn movie” is okay as an occasional diversion, a steady diet of nothing but mindless entertainment is not good for us.

Yet, when it comes to popular culture, “mindless” is increasingly the least-worst option. This summer, The Avengers will be followed by movies based on the 1970s camp classic Dark Shadows and the film adaption of the board game Battleship.

If you are wondering how you can turn Battleship into a movie, you are not alone. Then there’s yet another take on Spiderman and Men in Black III. Then there’s what passes for “comedy” at the Cineplex.

It isn’t only the movies: While there are exceptions, the same thing can be said of almost all popular culture.

You might be thinking, “There’s nothing new here, after all, television was called ‘a vast wasteland’ 50 years ago!” But the two things are very different: First, the stuff is everywhere today. When FCC chair Newton Minow called out the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961, there were three networks. Larger cities like New York had, at most, another handful of independent stations.

But today, there are hundreds of cable networks and countless internet outlets. What’s more, you can watch them at any time on your laptop, iPad and smart phone. For most Americans, especially those living in cities and their suburbs, “ubiquitous” describes the presence of popular culture in their lives.

The other difference is that contemporary popular culture is largely self-referential. Any cultural reference in a television show or movie is most likely to another bit of contemporary popular culture.

Fifty years ago, the title character in The Music Man sang, “I hope, I pray for Hester to win one more ‘A.’” It was a reference to Hester Prynne, the protagonist of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and the audience was expected to get that reference. Today, a movie making a similar literary reference would be related to art houses or PBS.

So, what should conscientious Christians make of this? That’s what I would like to discuss over the next few days. As I said, the issue goes beyond objectionable content: We need to ask ourselves about things like pleasure, play and what media does to us.

In a world where the average American kid watched the equivalent of nearly 11 hours of media every day, these are questions we need to consider. With or without popcorn.

By the way, be sure to check out Chuck Colson’s list of recommended movies at Chuck was big on movies that inspired him and caused him to think — and could spur a good conversation afterwards. Again, check it out at

Publication date: May 21, 2012

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