All of us use filters when we view reality. It is human nature and a way of coping with the difficulties of life. We interpret what our senses tell us, sometimes twisting reality to conform to our beliefs and presuppositions.
This morning, violence in Israel was in the news again, so I will use that situation as an example of this type of filtering.
I’ve spent time with Palestinian Christians and of course, plenty of time with American evangelicals. Palestinian Christians have a view of Israel (like most Palestinians) as an evil, unjust entity, and hard-liner prime ministers, such as Benjamin Netanyahu, the devil. On the other hand, I’ve heard American Evangelicals refer to the Palestinians as pure evil, terrorists, and people like the late Yasser Arafat, the anti-Christ. So, when violence is in the news, such as this week, the Palestinians hear or know about the first violence, where Israeli police went into the Jenin refugee camp looking for a fugitive, and in that operation, they killed 10 Palestinian civilians and wounded 20 more. Of course they heard about the Palestinian retaliations, the gunman who killed seven Israelis in Jerusalem and the 13- year-old who shot someone yesterday, but they see them as heroes, fighting back against the evil and violent oppression.
On the other hand, the American Evangelicals (who obviously don’t live in Israel and have more freedom to filter what news they pay attention to) don’t hear about the Israeli police activity, and if they do, they assume it was justified. But they do hear about Palestinian violence, confirming their view that Palestinians are evil and violent people. Or, as one evangelical friend told me, “The Palestinians have violence built into their DNA.”
The big question I want to raise is when does filtering go too far? When is it unhealthy? I want to apply this question today to media, books and movies. The impetus for this thought is the fact that my new book, The Stones of Yemen, will be released on Jan, 31st. I am a realist when I write. I create characters from my experience in reality, and then I let those characters behave as they do in real life. Therefore, my book contains profanities, drinking, smoking, and sex. Some of my religious friends might be surprised–or regrettably–offended by that. However, if I take real people (non religious people, or at least people who are not evangelicals) and put them in intense situations, they will use profanities. They will drink alcohol (I hope), and will have sex outside of marriage, and will make incredible mistakes. If I tried to write these characters in any other way, while satisfying my religious readers, I would be lying about reality. It is part of my personal quest for truth (that which is consistent with reality) and honestly.
I’ve shared this story before, so I will try to be brief this time. The first time I approached a major publisher about a book I had written was in the early 1990s. I had written a children’s book and I approached a Christian publishing house. Before they would even look at the manuscript, they sent me a long list of their “standards” and told me to make sure my story met those standards before they would look at it.
Those standards were not in the craft of writing, but in the area of appearance of morals. I use the word, “appearance” because it presented a standard that could not be lived in reality. But besides the obvious, such as having no “profanities,” it went further, as not even using profanity substitutes such as “darn,” “shoot,” or “dag nabbit,” which, for some, is a substitution for “God Damnit.” Beyond language, the “Christian” characters in a book had to have a perfect demeanor, kind, sweet, helpful and etc. If that character exhibited any bad attitude, for example, complaining about something, they would have to have a moment of repentance, where they acknowledge that their attitude was bad and they had remorse about it. But worse than that, if there were “bad guys” who were any non-Christian, they also could not use negative language or profanities, and they had to fail in all their endeavors. For example, a “bad guy” could not be successful in business, to prove that “bad guys” always finish last. No one in the book could smoke or use alcohol, not even the “bad guys.” In the end, it was recommended that all bad guys would have a moment of repentance and become Christians, then have success.
I am not a fan of Hallmark movies, but I respect those who are. My wife could watch them all day long. I can’t stand them for more than five minutes. As a writer, I find the screenplay writing for the movies atrocious. It is the same formula over and over and created people who look perfect, like Barbie and Ken, and where the underdog man or woman, always wins the man or woman in the end. There are no surprises. On the other hand, TV series, like Breaking Bad, had profoundly good writing. I had a movie club that met in our house and I favored foreign films ( example the Turkish film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) because they were more realistic than their American counterparts, and the writing was usually much better ( carried by incredible dialog, not special effects and big name stars).
There is a new movie production and streaming service called “Pure Flixs.” I assume they cater to American evangelicals as that is the only group I know of that uses the term “pure” to describe the behavior they aspire to. I can hear the arguments in favor of only watching such movies, because I spent 30 years in that subculture. “Why should I allow filth into my house or allow my children to be exposed to it?”
I will not prolong this discussion with a tangent but to ask, what is filth? Most of what we called “filth” when I was an evangelical, had nothing to do with the Bible (such as profanities, see my article about profanities here) but it was about the social construct we ascribed to that defined what a good person was supposed to look like and we all wanted to be seen as a good person.
In support of my wife and others who indulge in very unrealistic movies and books such as The Hallmark Channel, there is nothing wrong with escapism, as long as you know it is escapism. I like international adventurers or thrillers, such as Jason Bourne, Mission Impossible series, Indiana Jones series, James Bond, or Jack Reacher. But those books and movies are also inconsistent with reality (most of those protagonists would be dead or in an assisted living facility for the physical abuse they receive). But I do know it is fiction and unrealistic and I think Denise has the same perspective when she watches her movies.
The danger is thinking and living in a pretend world, and surrounding yourself with “pure culture.” I’ve known many families from our evangelical days, those who lived within this paradigm of purity, following James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” views of family life that sounded good on paper, but never lived in reality, whose children–as adults–have fallen off the cliff of substance abuse, depression, divorce, and others. I don’t want to make the mistake of making a cause and effect relationship between those two, but to raise the question, when you raise a family that pretends purity, when such a life is a myth, how will they cope when they meet reality head on?
When I was a student health medical provider for a university, crisis pregnancies were a daily occurrence. I was surprised how many of those were (usually girls) who were from evangelical homes. They had to pretend they weren’t having sex since they were fourteen, so therefore they took no pregnancy prevention precautions. Then they become pregnant, which would totally destroy their “pure family,” if they found out, yet, it was deeply engraved in their souls that abortion was murder. It was a terrible situation for anyone to be in. Most of the time they chose an abortion (we weren’t abortion providers) and lived with the guilt of committing murder (in their perspective) as a lessor evil than breaking their family’s ideals of family purity.
I digress, but one of the most unforgettable cases was an eighteen-year-old girl, new to campus, during fraternity “Rush Week.” She went to a party at a fraternity house that week. She was drugged, then gang-raped by at least four boys, and came into my clinic–rightly so–to be checked for sexually transmitted diseases. This was the first sexual encounter of her life. I was enraged and I told her, “We must go to the police. I will go with you. They cannot get away with this!” She refused police involvement for two reasons. One, she feared that if she went public, it would follow her throughout college career tainting her reputation in a negative way. Secondly, if her parents found out, they would be devastated and angry at her as they had imagined a perfect, pure family in a perfect world.
But I asked her, “When you went to the party, was it your objective to be drugged without you knowing it, and in this–almost coma–state being raped by who knows how many boys? When you were a young girl, was this how you envisioned your first intimate encounter with a boy?”
“Of course not!” She exclaimed. “I went there hoping to meet a nice boy.”
“Then you did nothing wrong! Your world is still as pure as it ever was and your parents have no reason to be disappointed in you!”
“But they will be, and I know it,” she said.
I am grateful, but for the grace of God, I left that “pure aspiration” before my kids were grown, and we began to engage reality in a healthier way. Otherwise, I don’t think they would be the relatively well-adjusted kids as they seem to be.
P.S. I got my cancer labs back this morning. This will make it the eighth month that I’ve had no trace of cancer in my blood work. For that I am deeply grateful.