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Did Christians win or lose the television wars?

Andy Rau

Ross Douthat has written an intriguing essay at First Things about the death and resurrection of religion and ethics on television. He argues that Christian culture-watchers lost the battle against indecency that they waged in the 80s and 90s (a battle characterized mostly by unproductive boycotts of predictable television sleaze), but that from the ashes of that defeat, television is paradoxically experiencing a moral and religious revival. The failure to keep offensive material off the air, he suggests, has led to

...the unrestrained and unrestrainable popular culture of today, where every concept, no matter how lowbrow or how vile, can find a platform and an audience. [...]

The counterculture has largely won, and our society is in many ways the worse for it. But there are opportunities in defeat as well as victory, and places where new life can spring up amid the ruins. The old gatekeepers were at best superficially conservative and favorably disposed to religion only because they believed in being inoffensive about every segment of the mass market on which their films and shows depended. Now the incentives to be uncontroversial are far weaker. Which means that, along with all the dreck and smut and mediocrity, there’s more room for idiosyncrasy, controversy, and political incorrectness as well. These can be the raw materials of blasphemy, but they can also be the stuff of popular art that drills deep into issues—theology and human destiny, sin and redemption, heaven and hell—that the old mass media treated with kid gloves.

He goes on to depict Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and The Sopranos as shows that grapple with moral and religious ideas much more meaningfully than they could've gotten away with back in the days of incessant boycotts and tediously envelope-pushing TV.

What do you think? Did Christian culture-watchers "lose" the decency battle but find a curious sort of victory in the new, everything-is-allowed, level playing field of ideas? Flipping through the channels today, I think he's got a point: never has there been more garbage out there for the viewing, but at the same time never have there been so many high-quality shows addressing (with varying degrees of seriousness) moral and religious questions.

What about you? Would you prefer an open entertainment world where Christianity was free to compete with other ideas, but at the cost of allowing some truly sleazy stuff out on the airwaves as well? Or would you prefer a more sanitized--but possibly shallower--entertainment world in which your values were not attacked or insulted?

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Entertainment