I don’t recall if it was four or eight years ago now, but it was during a presidential primary that I turned off Jon Stewart and The Daily Show and never turned it back on again. I was done with it all, and admittedly it was over a kind of strange thing. Stewart had derisively mocked and dismissed the opinion of Rick Santorum, when Santorum said he didn’t believe every American needed to go to college. To Stewart this amounted to some sort of fascist repression of the masses clamoring for acceptance to higher education. There was no attempt made to understand Santorum’s position or to allow him to explain. I happen to hold the same position, primarily, because I have met very intelligent people who would not flourish in the structure and manner that most colleges and universities use. It was as if Stewart wanted to see the worst in Santorum and would rather unleash his trademark fury than understand why Santorum believed what he did/does. That was when I realized that there was no longer a public conversation in political and social dialogue. So I turned the television off.
For many years after that night I reflected on my political and social opinions. To my surprise I found that though I read The New York Times almost daily, The Economist and The Atlantic with fair regularity, and on occasion The New Yorker I found my opinions drifting to what I considered to be a moderate position. As I reflected on my slow conversion out of political liberalism I wondered what had changed and why I began to think differently. I came up with two answers: (1) I had grown in knowledge and understanding of my Christian faith and what it implied for the way I lived and thought, (2) I had turned off the humorous presentation of liberal socio-political positions and engaged the actual arguments made in journalistic sources. But why would that produce such a change? I put this reflection on hold for many years until it came up again in a startlingly different setting.
During my time as an undergraduate at Biola University many of my friends and I were wrestling through issues of ministry philosophy and theology. For myself, much of my theology and thinking about the church had been developed in reflection upon two popular pastors on opposite coasts named Mark—Mark Dever and Mark Driscoll. Then one day, as things would have it, The Gospel Coalition posted a short video of the two Marks (joined by one James) discussing their drastically different views of church ministry and in particular video-feed preaching and multi-site ministry. You may feel free to disagree with me, but I was struck by something in the video. It appeared to me that Dever made a cohesive case for his position and proposed a question to Driscoll, which Driscoll responded to not with a joke before making an (forgive the criticism) idealistic assertion about his plan and philosophy. This made light of the disagreement and dismissed Dever’s position. That is when it hit me, the medium of comedy had enabled Jon Stewart to smuggle his views into my thoughts even though, upon reflection, I would dismiss such positions and their arguments as fallacious. How could this happen? This was something I again reflected on for quite a while.
A partial answer came when I took a philosophy class titled “Faith, Film, and Philosophy”. The professor argued that when we prepare to watch a debate we make a mental calculation that we are going to hear arguments and we begin to muster defenses against such attacks. When we sit down to watch a film, however, we are expecting to be entertained and we often allow worldview messages to be smuggled into our thinking without assessment. In a sense, for my literary friends, entertainment is the Scarlet Pimpernel of argument. Comedy especially is a particularly effective Trojan horse.
I was further helped in my understanding by James K.A. Smith of Calvin College. In Desiring the Kingdom, Smith discusses the pedagogical effects of cultural involvement. We often think of education as information transfer taking place in the classroom, but Smith argues, what if education is not information transfer but affection formation? What if education is about the heart as a whole not the mind as a part? This is a critical question and Smith’s answer opens up an important implication. We are not necessarily engaging arguments, but visions of the Kingdom. It is not about whose worldview is more cohesive more intellectually sound but about whose description of the good life is more attractive. Smith writes,
Our ultimate love moves and motivates us because we are lured by this picture of human flourishing. That than being pushed by beliefs we are pulled by a telos that we desire. It’s not so much that we’re intellectually convinced and then muster the willpower to pursue what we ought; rather, at a precognitive level, we are attracted to a vision of the good life that has been painted for us in stories and myths, images and icons. It is not primarily our minds that are captivated but rather our imaginations that are captured , and when our imagination is hooked, we’re hooked (and sometimes our imaginations can be hooked by very different visions than what we’re deeding into our minds). (54)
Notice how Smith talks about imagination and precognition. Smith’s argument is that our worldview may be brought to the forefront of our minds, as it is in much of Christian higher education, but underneath our worldview, our imagination has constructed a vision of the good life that may conflict with it. Education should address our worldview explicitly, but that is only touching upon one facet of the Bible’s understanding of the heart. Education, therefore should also account for our imagination and anything that evokes our passions and affections.
Here is what I see as the cash value of all of this. With the growing popularity of Late Night comedy and the nearly universally secular leaning of Hollywood, there is a distinct danger that many are subverted away from a coherent faith and into a watery liberalism or full-blown secularism by seemingly more attractive views of the good life. That is the bad news. Here is the good news, the Christian faith can combat this drift fairly easily by providing a more attractive view of the good life and drawing out the ugly spot of the images of the good life we are tempted to. I say that this can be easily done because I believe that an investigation of Christianity reveals a coherent and consistently beautiful, good, and true image in which our imaginations can find much to feast on.
Thanks for reading,