The ridiculous title of this post actually just describes what it’s about.
On summer vacation this year I read C.S. Lewis’ book Perelandra, which is a kind of fantasy/sci-fi mashup that is actually set in a version the real universe. (In other words, in the world of this book, Jesus really did come to earth and die for humanity, and there is one true God (the Father), but there’s also life on other planets with other things going on.) If that sounds weird, it kind of is, but it also offers (in typical Lewis fashion) a lot to get you thinking about the spiritual nature of our universe (even if there’s not really intelligent life on mars). It’s under 200 pages and (even though I don’t agree with all of Lewis’ theological conclusions) I totally recommend it. Loved it.
Today I wanted to share this passage, in which a Satan-figure (“the Un-man”) is tempting the Eve-figure (“the Lady”) on the planet Venus (you read that right–that’s the premise of the whole book). Ransom, the book’s main character, is overhearing the one-sided discussion, which is part of the longer, extended temptation. When I read it, it struck me as an absolutely brilliant description of the way our modern media machine works, including everything from movies to TV to novels to You Tube. Lewis describes the temptation this way:
It appeared to be telling, with extreme beauty and pathos, a number of stories, and at first Ransom could not perceive any connecting link between them. They were all about women, but women who had apparently lived at different circumstances. From the Lady’s replies it appeared that the stories contained much that she did not understand; but oddly enough the Un-man did not mind. If the questions aroused by any one story proved at all difficult to answer, the speaker simply dropped that story and instantly began another. The heroines of the stories seemed all to have suffered a great deal–they had been oppressed by fathers, cast off by husbands, deserted by lovers. Their children had risen up against them and society had driven them out. But the stories all ended, in a sense, happily: sometimes with honors and praises to heroine still living, more often with tardy acknowledgment and unavailing tears after her death.
As the endless speech proceeded, the Lady’s questions grew always fewer; some meaning for the words Death and Sorrow–though what kind of meaning Ransom could not even guess–was apparently being created in her mind by mere repetition.
At last it dawned upon him what all these stories were about. Each one of these women had stood forth alone and braved a terrible risk for her child, her lover, or her people. Each had been misunderstood, reviled, and persecuted; but each also magnificently vindicated by the event.
The precise details were often not very easy to follow. Ransom had more than a suspicion that many of these noble pioneers has been what in ordinary terrestrial speech we call witches or perverts. But that was all in the background. What emerged from the stories was [more of] an image than an idea–the picture of the tall, slender form, unbowed though the world’s weight rested upon its shoulders, stepping forth fearless and friendless into the dark to do for others what those others forbade it to do yet needed to have done.
And all the time, as a sort of background to these goddess shapes, the speaker was building up a picture of the other sex [males, that is]. No word was directly spoken on the subject: but one felt them there as a huge, dim multitude of creatures pitifully childish and complacently arrogant; timid, meticulous, unoriginating; sluggish and ox-like, rooted to the earth almost in their indolence, prepared to try nothing, to risk nothing, to make no exertion, and capable of being raised into full life only by the unthanked and rebellious virtue of their females. It was very well done.
Now, this was published in 1944, when only the infant form of what we call media was rearing it’s head, so I can’t be sure it’s what he had in mind. But the parallels with the way our society uses media seem unmistakable:
- A barrage of random stories, with no apparent connection between them. Quantity, rather than quality, is what creates their power.
- Story itself as the form of communication. Narratives that convey power without having to answer for the ideas they assume and transmit.
- When the stories stir up real questions, what is offered is not an explanation, but another story, probably unrelated to the first. In other words, the temptation is specifically designed to prevent actual contemplation of the story itself.
- The main narrative: A misunderstood heroine, who people think is evil or different, but really is just brave. She’s the only one who really gets it. By “stepping out” and risking condemnation by others, she does what really needs to be done, and eventually everyone sees she’s right. If this isn’t the main story of a large part of our modern stories, I don’t know what is.
- Personal expression and self-actualization as the main goal of each story. This is related to the previous point, and clearly represents the dominant narrative of our day, especially in media directed at younger people and children.
- The construction of an image even more than an idea. This is the explicit goal of our marketing machine which is an integral part of the media. Think of something like Nike–do they represent an idea, or more an image. What idea would they represent? Just do it? Work out? If we ask, “why should I work out?” does Nike have an answer? Maybe, but isn’t more about the image Nike has built–the attractive, strong, built person, striving forward in cool looking workout clothes, slightly sweaty and on their way to winning?
You might see more in the paragraph above, but I find these points helpful in bringing the nature of modern media communication into focus.
Because to the extent that Lewis’ writing really does represent the tactics of the biblical Satan, and to the extent it matches what our media actually does, it seems justified to suspect that these forms of communication are shaped by, and doing the work of, the enemy of the gospel. If this is true, it gives us further incentive to keep a watch on ourselves that our minds aren’t shaped this temptation-based system of communication. It shows us that we need to make sure our minds are not becoming incapable of putting together details, examining arguments, and testing ideas. Much media communication seems designed to make us increasingly limited in these areas.
Instead, we need to see that understanding, trusting, and communicating the gospel requires minds shaped by the word (especially the written word) of God–minds which will look (in some ways) the opposite of those shaped by modern media.