27 August 2011

Uplifting vs. Clean

I stumbled upon this article on the Deseret News this morning. It reminded me of this article that was recommended to me by a friend a few months ago, which also reminded me of some discussions I've had with parents and students in the past about media/literature which meant I had to write about it.

Both of the above linked articles mention a very similar principle: lack of questionable content is not necessarily the best indication that a work is worth your time, though it is often marketed that way. Just because a film/book/song is void of bad language or illicit sexual relationships or otherwise immoral behavior does not mean that it will teach you anything valuable about life or be anything but Wonder Bread style entertainment: not bad for you, but not exactly nutritious either. (The example used in the second article is "The Waltons". Think 50s style entertainment where conflicts are easily overcome and challenges are silly or not really challenges.) There is media that is (what I would consider, at least) perfectly clean and more like whole grain bread, but it seems to be in the minority.

On the other hand, media that does contain bad language/immoral behavior isn't necessarily evil or bad for you, though lots of it is. It doesn't take long to look through the programs on TV, browse through Netflix, visit a bookstore or listen to the radio before you realize that much of what is presented now is complete, wasted garbage. Immoral people being praised or excused in their immorality, destructive lifestyles being laughed over, fantasy escapist worlds that distract from reality - it's all there. But there are many examples of books/movies/shows, etc. that contain uncomfortable material that are still highly moral and contain valuable lessons. But they are also in the minority.

So what's a consumer of media to do? Many (at least in this area of the world, it seems) try to hide from media altogether. As though escaping it is the answer to the problem and if you avoid it well enough it will, eventually, go away. This is a little ridiculous in my opinion. Media isn't going to go anywhere, and not learning how to use it for good is irresponsible.

On the flip side, I have a number of friends who - out of rebellion for those who are afraid of media, I think - will watch and read anything they wish just to prove a point. I don't think that's quite the solution either.

Douglas Callister's speech "Your Refined Heavenly Home" argues that if we are to be refined, then we need to be aware of creations that have stood the test of time and been long respected by educated, refined individuals. Orson Scott Card's article (see above) claims that everyone approaches a work differently and that some will find spiritual upliftment while others will find the opposite - all from the same work.

Does this mean that one person is more righteous than the other one? Can a book/movie etc. be in and of itself either evil or good and if a person interprets that incorrectly the fault is in them? Particularly if one person would consider something evil and another finds spiritual enlightenment from it - has the one receiving the good had the wool pulled over their eyes, or can the spirit actually teach one person through ratifying the media and another through the condemnation of it?

What do you think?


Nanakat said...

I believe that every time a book is read, even by the same person rereading it, a different story is experienced. Reading a book is a collaboration between the writer and the reader, and no one person has a monopoly on how the book is to be interpreted. The writer doesn't, because the writer isn't entirely aware of all the things that went into that book unconsciously. The reader brings other unconscious things to the reading experience, especially expectations, and the book may or may not fulfill any of them.

A writer can't control how the work is read or perceived or experienced, except as the writer chooses how to convey the story.

I posted a comment on that article in the Deseret News in which I talked about how the writer failed to convey her own perception of the main character because she chose to write the story in first person POV. Because of that decision by the writer, many, many people have come away with a totally different image of that main character that has colored the way the whole book is perceived. And I think, in that particular case, it was too bad, for both readers and the writer.

But how, for the most part, is any reader to know, if the writer doesn't convey it?

And how is the reader to know if something is worth even trying to read? I have a "whole nother" comment on reading and continuing to read things.

Maybe reviews can help. There certainly is enough out there to choose from, and more, and seeing what others say about the books may help. But also saying something once you've read a book can help others as well. It's a two-way street.

You may not get out of a book what I get, but if I tell you what I got, and why, it may help you figure out whether you might get the same things, or something entirely different.

And on that note, may I recommend the Association for Mormon Letters Review Archive, which certainly doesn't include all books (and we could use reviews of those we haven't included), but it's one place to look for reviews of books that may be worth reading.

Nanakat said...

One of the biggest problems for me as a reader, at least, is finding the works that really can be uplifting, even if they might not be considered by some to be "clean."

I'm not academically trained in literature, and many of the books that are acclaimed as "worthwhile literary works," just DON'T WORK for me. I don't "get" them, probably because I haven't been taught how to.

And yet, I run a couple of online writing workshops for Orson Scott Card, mainly because I have taught writing (though genre as opposed to "literary") and worked with writers for years and years. So I do know about what goes into a story and how writers struggle with conveying their stories to their readers.

And I do read as much as I can of other kinds of stories than the ones I'm most familiar with. I have just come to the decision that there really are too many books out there and too little time in which to experience them.

I used to pride myself on finishing every book I ever started. I don't do that any more. If I can't find a Very Good Reason to keep reading, even if I've only started, I won't.

Having worked with writers for as long as I have, I find myself very much aware of the "writing" and because of that, unless the story is so great I forget about the "writing," I may put the thing down and never get around to picking it up again.

In fact, the best thing I can say about most books I even finish is that they were easy to get back to. Books I "just couldn't put down" are extremely rare any more.

Of course, being put-down-able isn't necessarily a bad thing for a book, especially some of the ones that are uplifting. I have put books down because I needed to think for a while about what they said.

I think it comes back to talking about the books we read, sharing what made us glad (or, as the case may be, sorry) we picked them up. Of course, just because a book was uplifting for me, may not mean it would be for you. But at least, if I tell you about it and why it was uplifting (as the daughter did in the Deseret News article), you may be able to see some of that if you decide to read it, too.

And if our opinions differ, at the very least, we can recognize that, but at best, we may learn something from each other, too.

Nanakat said...

Consider that the Lord is able to turn things that are evil into that which is for our good, through the Atonement.

While I don't recommend looking for good first in the not-so-good (especially with so much that might-be-better available to explore first), I think that we can. when we have to, find good where we might not expect it.

We believe in seeking after the virtuous, lovely, that which is of good report, and praiseworthy, and I also think we can find those things in unexpected places.

We had a recently returned missionary report on his mission today, and he told of a talk Elder Bednar gave at the MTC in which he said people often asked him how to tell if something was from the Holy Ghost or from their own minds. His answer was that we shouldn't worry about it, that we should be as good as we can and keep going.

And President Hinckley told us that as long as we were headed in the right direction, that is all that can be asked of us in this imperfect life.

So maybe that's enough: seek after things that are uplifting, be good, and keep going in the right direction. And look for the Spirit to help find something uplifting in what may seem difficult and challenging.

Nanakat said...

Sorry for so many comments. Sometimes I get carried away with different aspects of a question.

Cathryn said...

I think it's pretty simple, honestly:

"For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.

"But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one" (http://lds.org/scriptures/bofm/moro/7.16#16).

Parents have the stewardship to make those judgment calls for their children who are too young to follow the spirit.

Not to be overly simplistic, but to me, anything beyond that is just splitting hairs. If I can read Les Miserables and feel like it's making me a better person, then it's of God for me. If its content makes someone else feel terrible, then for them it's of the devil.

Kami said...

I'm not a writer and I'm not very eloquent, but I'll start a thought and maybe some day you'd like to run with it ...

Your post got me thinking about Doctrine and Covenants 88:118, "seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom".

Time is a limiting factor in our lives - would we be happier spending our time simply watching or reading things that "aren't bad" or reading things that actually do something to educate or change and inspire us? I love having something to talk about after watching a movie or reading a book. I love grabbing Mark's arm and interrupting his thoughts (oops) to give him a REALLY AWESOME quote from a book and tell him about all the things it's made me reflect upon.

I have a list a million miles long of books to read and shows to watch and I'd never be able to watch them all in my lifetime. I have to choose what I'll do with my time, because if I don't prioritize I'll end up wasting it.

I do the same thing with my 2-year-old ... what entertainment gives the biggest bang for her buck? (It tends to be Disney movies. She has a great grasp of the plots and tells me stories. Picture the YouTube video of the little girl telling Star Wars.)