We're Taking Communion at the Mall

Terry Mattingly writes the syndicated "On Religion" column for the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C. that appears in about 350 newspapers nationwide, and is associate professor of media & religion at Palm Beach Atlantic College. He also is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

He has worked as a reporter and religion columnist at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and the Charlotte Observer and the Charlotte News. In 1991, Mattingly began teaching at Denver Seminary and, later, was a founding member of the Association for Communications and Theological Education.

In addition to his classroom duties, Mattingly lectures at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., the Torreys Honors Program at Biola University, Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and in other settings across the nation. Mattingly serves as co-director of the CCCU's Summer Institute of Journalism, a four-week undergraduate program in late May and early June at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

HOMILETICS: ABC News recently released Peggy Wehmeyer citing budget constraints. Is it money or the lack of money that is the major reason for there being so few religious journalists around these days?

MATTINGLY: There are no religious journalists in the news full time. Peter Jennings says that it is difficult to get the modern newsroom to accept that religion is a massive part of modern daily life. Jennings tells a funny story that when you have a hurricane, or a plane crash, or a tornado — the reporter with microphone in hand goes running up to the survivor who's standing there drenched, sweaty and bruised, and then says, "How did you get through this?" There's a pause, and the survivor says, "Well, I did this, and this and this, but most of all, it was God who saved me and got me through this." And Jennings says, "And then there's this huge pause, and the reporter says, 'No, what really got you through it?'" And Jennings argues that that pause between the answer of a typical American believer and the disbelieving reporter's "What really got you through it?" — he says that pause is why there's no one on the air doing religion.

HOMILETICS: So we have a journalistic ethos that doesn't understand religion trying to report on religious events and moral values?

MATTINGLY: Yes. We have a tremendous two-sided blind spot. We have a blind spot between the two halves of the first amendment, both of which basically hate each other's guts: the church and the press. The press does not respect the role that the church plays in ordinary, day-to-day life, that is, how normal Americans spend their time, spend their money and make their decisions. At the same time, the church does not understand or respect, the role that news and entertainment media play in the daily lives of modern Americans. It's a double-sided blind spot, and it keeps the church from being able to talk about the daily lives of people, and it prevents the news and entertainment media from being about to write a lot of material that really grips the daily lives of ordinary people. This is the essence of what I call the separation of church and life.

HOMILETICS: Talk more about what you mean by "separation of church and life."

MATTINGLY: I mean it in terms of statistics. If you analyzed the ordinary life of American people, that is, how they spend the time, their money and how they make their decisions, you could not miss the role of entertainment and news media. Right? Yet, no seminaries in America require people in their core classes to study the impact of the mass media on American life that I know of, and I've hunted. Certainly no evangelical seminaries and frankly, I wouldn't expect liberal seminaries to do it, because a) they tend to be even more elitist, and b) they have an even less missionary imperative. So I see it impossible to do apologetics in the late 20th and early 21st century without realizing that the mass media is the only common mirror you have in this society. It's a cracked mirror; it's warped, but it's the only mirror we have.

HOMILETICS: Why should we look in this mirror at all?

MATTINGLY: Well, if you want to address the daily lives of American people, you're not going to ignore the media. But we do. Look, here's another image I use: If you're going to train a missionary to go to another culture, what are the essential skills they have to have? At the very least they have to speak the language. At the very least they have to know the family and social structures of the place to which they're going, at the very least they have to understand the economy, at the very least they have to understand the taboos, the myths, the archetypes that explain that culture to itself. Okay. Now, how in the heck would anybody try to do Christian education, counseling and preaching in this culture in terms of language, family life structures, humor, taboos, myth — not to mention economics — without focusing on the power of entertainment and mass media?

HOMILETICS: Is this a critique of contemporary preaching? Do you think that as preachers we have failed to learn the language?

MATTINGLY: In a very strange way, we're doing a sort of reverse colonialism. We are a lot like the missionaries who went into foreign countries and asked them all to put on three-piece suits, to learn a new language, and to do throw out all their music and hymns, etc. I am talking more about apologetics, mission work, evangelism and education, than I am about worship issues. But at the very least, any preacher who wants to say a word to people who live in the United States, had better understand how religious, moral and culture issues are handled by our secular media.

HOMILETICS: You refer to the culture by saying that the culture sends us signals. What is a signal and what are some examples of a signal?

MATTINGLY: A signal is a single piece of mass media that addresses a subject of interest to the church. A signal is when a secular media form invades turf the church cannot surrender. This could be on marriage and family, sexuality, materialism, war and peace, the meaning of life itself. We went through this incredible spell in the 80s where the Baby Boomers in Hollywood started hearing their clocks tick, and I interviewed a lot of people out there, and they also said that the AIDS crisis brought up issues of mortality in Hollywood, so we had this wave of movies about life after death. Remember that? It's kind of what I call the Hollywood Heaven period from about '89 to '93, Ghost being the most commercially successful. That's a signal. I mean, how in the world would a pastor ignore Columbine?

When I was teaching at Denver Seminary, after the Los Angeles riots, I had half my students call white pastors and half black pastors to see who had preached on the past Sunday about the riots. Not one white pastor had preached on the riots, whereas all the black pastors did. One preaching tradition said it was okay to link the Bible, to address what was happening in the culture to the Bible, the other didn't. One had a missionary approach to preaching, an apologetic approach to preaching — the black church. The white church was: "And now we continue on with what we were doing last week."

HOMILETICS: What are some recent signals we're seeing?

MATTINGLY: Oprah putting her hands in the air with candles on an altar praying to the universe. How about that one? But let's take a positive signal. Sometimes we have a tendency to focus on the negative. The entire status of religion in the U2 tour this last fall — the Elevation Tour. And the amazing stuff that was going on with Bono's kind of renewed faith on stage with him praying from the Psalms. And him talking openly about religious faith and Third World debt relief and the weird sight of Jesse Helms and Bono embracing each other with tears in their eyes talking about how much they need people in the Third World. Duh! That's fascinating.

Stem cells. How could you avoid the religious context of the stem cell situation? In film, the rising new wave of pop-Buddhism, or Hollywood Hinduism, best exemplified by The Matrix, Hidden Dragon, Crouching Tiger. We're watching an amazing rise of a kind of commercialized/ Americanized Buddhism, a Buddhism stripped of all social context.

HOMILETICS: Our kids are living in this culture where they're being bombarded with what you call visual sermons. You tell this fascinating tennis shoe story of the Jewish Orthodox family.

MATTINGLY: Oh yeah, the tennis shoes. That is how I developed my concept of how you take a signal into the pulpit. It was Sukkoth, the Old Testament Feast of Tabernacles. I'm over in west Denver in the old Orthodox neighborhoods and I'm sitting in the home of this Orthodox rabbi, and they have their tabernacle, their booth, built in the back, and he's explaining all the ins-and-outs of this intricate counter-cultural event to me. Into the room walk the rabbi's two sons, who — needless to say - do not look like the teens you meet at the food court at the mall. The ornate yarmulkes, to the pin curls over their cheeks to the twine, to the prayer boxes hanging on their belts. As I continue to scan down, I see their feet and they're wearing Nike's Air Jordans unlaced. In my brain, the first thing that entered my brain was, "You can run, but you can't hide. One way or another, the culture's going to get you." The second thing that entered my mind was a story from the Detroit News that was breaking in the early 90s, which was the trend that teens in urban neighborhoods were being killed for their tennis shoes, that the value of human life in some impoverished urban settings had fallen below the cost of a set of certain types of tennis shoes. And then, on the heels of that, came that wonderful moment in The Chronicles of Narnia in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," where the animals, giants and people have been turned into stone. And Aslan breathes on the foot of a giant who has been turned into stone. And they say, "Is it dangerous?" And Aslan says, "No it's okay. If the feet are right, the rest will follow."

There's this whole rich biblical tradition of the spiritual meaning of feet. You can run, but you can't hide. If the culture has your feet, the rest will follow. Later, when I was unpacking that sequence that happened in my brain, was the idea of how you walk a signal into the pulpit. You have to try to analyze the secular person who sent the signal. What were they trying to say? What is the big subject, the Big Button subject? They trying to punch a Big Button: love, hate, lust, anger, war, fear, parenting, etc. Most of our popular culture tries to get a Big Subject. What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to forgive somebody? Wouldn't it be great if you could be born again? Billy Graham does movies about that, but so did The Matrix. I call this the Secular Subject. You won't find the Matrix in the concordance of your Bible, but you will find rebirth, life after death. So since the church is an army marching through time made out of the same kinds of human beings, we shouldn't be surprised that the church throughout history has had to deal with the same subject because a person standing in Antioch looking up into the sky is remarkably like a person standing and looking into the sky in West Palm Beach. A lot of the same Big Subjects apply.

So you have is the Signal, the Secular Subject, what I call the Sacred Subject, and then you have to find a way to respond. And what I argue what the church has to do in its preaching is to be willing to quote the Secular Subject, admit that it has impact and importance. Go into the pulpit and quote the popular culture.

HOMILETICS: There are other approaches to the culture.

MATTINGLY: You can run through the various Neibuhrian options in Christ and Culture. You can debate the culture. There's an awfully lot of popular culture that is not worthy of debating. But sometimes when something hits the cover of Time, and the people in your church are talking about it, it's okay to go ahead and talk about it in the pulpit.

HOMILETICS: This is an apologetic emphasis.

MATTINGLY: This is the translation, exegesis of the culture. It's what the church has to do or it's not speaking the language of its people.

HOMILETICS: But not everyone agrees with you.

MATTINGLY: Of course. Separatism is alive and well. But you know what? I haven't spotted a whole lot of separatism even in hard-shelled fundamentalism anymore. If you don't see the impact of media and popular culture on how people spend their time, how they spend their money and how they make their decisions, you have a promising future in ministry to the Amish.

Except this isn't funny. Even the Amish are now printing brochures to help parents recognize signs of heroin addiction. There are Amish heavy metal bands playing weekend parties in Pennsylvania. There was something perverse about the Amish country having to have a Y2K committee. What a wonderful moment! They were worried about what would happen to sales of quilts if MasterCard went down!

HOMILETICS: Or, you try to duplicate the culture.

MATTINGLY: The photocopy technique. The "Christian" adjective thing. Christian aerobics, Christian cappuccino, Christian counseling. And I do not oppose some of that, but when that is your primarily approach to culture, it's not healthy. That takes us out of the church and more into the creation of culture, which is one of the reasons I spend my life now teaching young Christians to go into screenwriting, journalism — the actual forms of culture that matter to the vast overwhelming majority. I don't we should settle for preaching to the choir.

HOMILETICS: Or, we could simply bless the culture.

MATTINGLY: The right wing tends to do that more on economic and military issues; the left tends to do it on issues of sexuality and morality. We baptize the culture. Obviously I am indebted to Neibuhr but he deals with "high" culture, whereas I am trying to drag those constructs kicking and screaming to the pop culture. There's a sixth option by the way for which there's just no biblical justification at all, and that's to pretend that none of this matters. I would argue that that's what most churches functionally do. That's the option I call separation of church and life.

HOMILETICS: I love the story you told about the Japanese tennis players.

MATTINGLY: You're going to ask me to pronounce those names!


MATTINGLY: [Laughs] I could look them up. Yeah, I use that story in an article on journalism. It's an image Bob Reiner, one of my mentors, uses for Christian journalism. These two Japanese pro tennis players got tired of being beat up playing Wimbleton and the U.S. Open and the like. So they went back to Japan and founded what became the Japanese Tennis Tour and they loved being big fish in a little pond, but they never became the tennis players they were capable of becoming. That's his image for what most Christians do when they settle for writing for Christian in Christian magazines, for Christian television, for Christian music, books that are only sold in Christian bookstores. That's the preaching-to-the-choir syndrome.

HOMILETICS: Is there a religious bias in journalism? Do journalists think that people of deep religious faith are of their rocker?

MATTINGLY: Last year a writer in the New York Times Sunday Magazine hauled off and said that it is a given assumption that for most of us living in the world we live in (meaning the New York Times) that people who believe in absolutes are crazy. And I think that is a wonderful working assumption for the press. My problem is in getting any liberal to agree that any bias is real, and my other problem is to get conservatives to admit that there are biases that have infinitely more influence than mere prejudice, that the simple biases of not having enough space to print all the news you want, or not enough cash to hire the reporters you want — the bias of space, time and resources I call it. And then there's the bias of knowledge: they simply do not understand. A bias of world view. It's hard to cover a story if you don't care if it exists.

Ultimately you get down to the fact that on some issues, there are actual statistical biases that affect coverage. The closer you get to the bedroom, the more evidence there is of statistical bias in newsrooms. What I mean by that is on the issue of sexuality — primarily abortion and the moral status of sex outside of marriage whether its premarital sex, homosexuality, whatever the shape of the sexual debate — the polls indicate that on abortion, for example, 92-95% of all journalists in America are pro-choice, and if you don't think that affects coverage, I got some land in Louisiana that might interest you. On issues of homosexuality, the stats are almost the same.

That great Catholic theologian, Maureen Dowd — at the height of Zippergate or Fornigate, or whatever — at the time when she was attacking Clinton's attackers, there was one column where she said, "The Republicans are trying to repeal Woodstock." It all comes down to whether you're for or against Woodstock, i.e. are you for or against the sexual revolution. You know what? I think she's absolutely right. If you look at the moral issues that rivet our culture whenever elections come up, it comes down to whether anyone in this culture has a right to say that sex outside of marriage is sin. I didn't say a crime. A sin. Is it even possible to say that in American popular culture, and yet that's a position that goes all the back to the early church, a moral given in a New Testament universe.

HOMILETICS: If you had a room full of pastors and could say only one thing to them, what would you say?

MATTINGLY: I'd tell them that Mick Jagger is about to turn 60. Thinking that all of this has to do with the youth culture is howling stupidity —

HOMILETICS: —All of what?

MATTINGLY: Even discussing the relevance of popular culture in the church whether it is popular music, film, or television. Baby Boomers were raised on television. We haven't even comprehended that. Lyle Shaller, the United Methodist Church growth expert (that sounds vaguely oxymoronic) told me once in an interview in Denver. He said, "If you think the Baby Boomers were media-driven, wait until you see their children." Then he said, and I can almost quote it verbatim: "Everything they know about everything they either learned from the media or what they think they know, they see it in a frame created by what they learned from the media." They even hear their parents' voices speaking to them from a frame of reference from television and film about what parents are, what teenagers are, what a man, what a woman is. The content of their minds and souls is either mass media or what has been framed by media.

HOMILETICS: But parents have encouraged this immersion in media.

MATTINGLY: Yes. Marie Linn, in her classic book, Plug and Drug, defines television as a drug admnistered by parents to their children to make them docile because it seems easier than creating rules and lifestyle codes in the home and than to raise the kids themselves.

HOMILETICS: And then Junior grows up and watches football.

MATTINGLY: And Mom sits in the kitchen watching Regis and whoever's sitting in Kathy Lee's seat.

HOMILETICS: Much has been said about the movement from an oral culture to a print culture to an electronic culture. But isn't the electronic culture really a new version of the oral culture?

MATTINGLY: Not an oral culture. We live now in a visual culture. There's the famous quote from founder of MTV: "We're not here to give them messages; we're here to give them a kick in the gut." We live now in a culture that dominated by visuals that provoke experience, feeling and emotion.

HOMILETICS: But is it that much different from the stained glass windows of the medieval cathedrals?

MATTINGLY: No. I disagree. About half the ads on television today make no sense whatsoever in a linear fashion in terms of having anything remotely to do with the product. They're getting across an attitude, a mood. They're asking, "Do you want to be the kind of person who uses this product?" One ad theorist has said that "they presume the product has a soul." If you think as a sacramental Christian, people are taking communion at the mall. They are consuming the product, the soul of the product, to become the essence of the product. It's a liturgical experience. They're taking communion at the mall! They are what they eat, which is the essence of the ancient church's definition of communion.

So the visual culture primarily speaks to experience and emotion, and by the way, I am not saying that visual media is bad. To use the Reformed tradition's language, "God is the God of all creation, but glorious and fallen." I believe that. I am not opposed to television or film. But if you have a culture in which those are the only forms of media that people used for the critical moments, the dominant, statistical moments of their lives, what does that culture look like? I would argue it's a culture that makes most of its decisions based on feelings, emotions, and experience.

HOMILETICS: And isn't that the culture in which we're living?

MATTINGLY: That's the culture we live in. And this finally gets us to your question about absolutes. There are no absolutes in a culture based on feelings and experience. The phrase I use in my class, "The Church in the Age of Entertainment," at the end of my opening lecture, I say to students: "I'm going to say something that you will not understand now, but at the end of the class you will. You live in a culture that is technologically hostile to the very concept of doctrine." In a culture dominated by visual technology there is no place for absolute truth.

HOMILETICS: So how do we fight that battle?

MATTINGLY: Part of the answer is to recognize that it wouldn't be better if we lived in a totally print culture. My church, the Orthodox church, has a high concept of the visual. Icons are taken rather seriously. The visual is a sacrament! When an Orthodox iconographer creates an icon, we do not say that he or she paints it, we say they write it, because an icon reveals truth in visual form. The emotions and the feelings and the experiences that take place when you face the icon, they are real and holy and they are of God, but you "write" the icon because that visual image is still subservient to Scripture and to the teaching tradition of the Church. The Word is still master of the image.

We live in a culture where the icons have become unleashed from the words. Icons rule.

HOMILETICS: Can that change?

MATTINGLY: I have no clue. Some people think that the Web is by its very nature a word and image environment. I think it is at this point in its history; I have no idea what happens when fiber optics and satellites gets everyone up to full motion video. I think anyone who does think they know what's going to happen is lying.

HOMILETICS: How do we retain value and integrity of doctrinal creeds and statements. Is there any value and place for creeds anymore?

MATTINGLY: Well, they don't call us Orthodox for nothing!

HOMILETICS: Well, duh.

MATTINGLY: Living without them screws up your life and makes you unhappy. The human race doesn't reinvent the wheel every day. We have to argue for the relevance of transcendent truth and creed. It's the essence of biblical faith.

HOMILETICS: But that also places a Christian in a tension, because on the one hand, you're living with an affirmation of an absolute belief, but on the other hand, you are also positioned in a culture that denies the existence of such absolutes.

MATTINGLY: Exactly. The average person doesn't want to live with absolutes. He or she just really wants to pick and choose. Even an ardent Yankee liberal, if I can be so howlingly stereotypical—

HOMILETICS: —As opposed to an ardent Yankee conservative?

MATTINGLY: Right, who have their conventions in a phone booth. Okay, let's be safer. Your typical northeast-establishment liberal. They wanted absolute truth in South Africa. They wanted the transcendent laws of justice then. They just don't want absolutes that govern their wallets, schedules, or sex lives. Which brings me back to Maureen Dowd. The essence of our culture today is "Who's for or against Woodstock." Which, by the way, all over America there are people who claim to be cultural conservatives, who are allowing their children to be raised at the mall with everyone else. And the church is doing nothing to help them. Their church's silence is allowing those young people to be raised within the materialistic, sexist, morally-libertine framework of America's commercially popular culture. I don't see great laughs about the Baptists taking Disney on. I haven't found any Baptists that even took that seriously. Parenthesis: I think it's awfully funny that a decade or so it was okay for the left to boycott Disney because of their cultural imperialism in the Third World, blanketing the world with this shoddy, commercial American culture, but when the Southern Baptists get mad at Disney that's not okay. The Southern Baptist's critique of Disney is amazingly similar to the left wing's criticism of Disney, only on different issues.

HOMILETICS: What is your take on Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson?

MATTINGLY: First of all, they didn't say the church or Christians should retreat from the public square. They said ministers should get out of the public square. They said, "Don't use structures created by God to do politics." Politics, they said, should be done by Christians who are called to do politics. And they held up as worthy the calling of Christians who work in politics.

Their critique is remarkably similar to Stephen Carter's. Carter makes the point that what is happening to the religious right as it marries the GOP is remarkably similar to the moral neutering of the civil rights movement when it married the Democratic party. What was more important than the Dobson-Thomas book was the Paul Weyhrich letter of two years ago, in which he said that we've lost the culture wars. He said that even Bush's compassionate conservatism is built primarily on a culture of emotion and feeling and wanting people to do the right thing for what he would argue is the wrong reasons. We live in Oprah America. The dominate dialogue of our culture is feeling, emotion, and experience.

HOMILETICS: I taught a class once in which the name Gloria Steinem came up. No one, including the women, knew whom I was talking about. When I asked them what feminist voices they were listening to, they didn't reference Wolf, Faludi, or Mackinnon. They said, "Oprah."

MATTINGLY: You know what? I think Orpah is a feminist and she's an amazingly doctrinaire feminist on issues of gender feminism and certainly on issues of the sexual revolution. What's so funny is that you've got millions and millions of women who think of themselves as conservatives, but also think of Oprah as their buddy. She's consistently liberal, especially on moral and cultural issues. She's managed to communicate warmly to the average American woman without conveying how truly radical some of her views are. She's the essence of the victim culture: the woman as victim. That's not what feminism was supposed to be. But I think most people would agree that that's a piece of what modern feminism has become: You're a victim. Get mad, get angry, get even.

HOMILETICS: Do you really think it would be wise for a pastor to get in the pulpit and start attacking Oprah or Martha Stewart?

MATTINGLY: I would certainly quote Oprah. Even more important, note what Oprah won't say about her private life. Ultimately, I really do think that how people live, matters. This whole idea — which is very Jewish — that it doesn't matter what the picture is, what the words are, it matters what your flesh is. Orthodox Jews want to know when you took a bath, what you had to eat, how far you walked today. The ultimate standard for traditional Judaism is human life. The God of the Old Testament didn't even want vowels. The ultimate standard for the God of the Bible is human flesh and real life. This life is not an illusion. Which then, of course, gets us as Christians to the incarnation.

HOMILETICS: How can pastors become more culturally conversant?

MATTINGLY: First, every pastor should have some sort of mechanism to get feedback from their congregation before they preach. If they ask media question, the people will give them media answers that will help. If the pastor asks if anyone can think of good films and TV that links to the text, you better believe people will start talking. Again, the point is not to let the media to set the agenda for the church. I believe the opposite of that. The purpose is to respond when the media invade the territory of the church. So pastors should take notebooks to movies.

Pastors should notice when a film attracts the attention of the New York Times, or the Washington Post, or the Los Angeles Times. Some pastors have Web buddies, a small group of like-minded preachers, to cast a wider net, so that if one of them sees a film, or someone spots a trend in D.C. they send it to their Web buddies.

Pastors should pretend they're missionaries, and act like a missionary going into foreign territory seeking to learn how people spend their time, money, and make their decisions. If they do that, they will find ways to interact with the popular culture.

HOMILETICS: Isn't that how you define discipleship?

MATTINGLY: How you spend your time, how you spend your money, how you make your decisions. There's more to discipleship than this, but there's never less. No one can talk about being a disciple of Jesus Christ without answering those questions.

HOMILETICS: What's the most exciting thing happening in the church today?

MATTINGLY: I'm excited about people wanting to look at the life of the ancient church for examples of how to pray, how to fast, how to live, how to be a parent, how to die. As an Orthodox, I'm excited that a lot of people are asking about the ancient church, because Orthodoxy has a horse in that race. If they dig into those subjects, they're going to end up talking to us. And I say that as someone who was raised Southern Baptist.

I'm excited that people want to preach well. Again, if the theory is that you have to know the people you're preaching to, how can you do that without knowing something about the role mass media plays in our culture? I'm excited that more people want to preach well, because I don't think you can learn to preach well without wanting to.

One of my cause celebs is that I think we should be doing a national campaign for Christian homes to only contain one TV. Notice I didn't say no TV. One TV. So families could establish something common about how that medium is used.

HOMILETICS: When they worship at the holy or holies.

MATTINGLY: When they worship at the holy altar of TV. If they are going to live in a pretend world established by television, wouldn't it be nice if they at least lived in the same one? Instead of Mom over here with one TV, sis with one TV, and big brother with one TV, and Dad in the den with ESPN set up on a drip tube? Then we wonder why these people can't talk to each other. They're being socialized by different universes.


Terry Mattingly


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