Orthodox America


Pastoral Commentary - America at the Crossroads   


By Priest Alexey Young

Business, the major political parties, education, the press, religious groups need to accept right now how incredibly poorly they're doing....This is no time to be defensive-the facts are there. We are at a juncture when we either come together or we really fall apart. (From The Day America Told the Truth)

The average priest has little time or energy to pay much attention to secular writers and their studies and books but, frankly, this may be a mistake. Even the ubiquitous pollsters reflect a growing sense of malaise, a realization that something is not "quite right"-that important things have changed and are changing, and not for the better. Why should this matter to us? After all, we have the True Faith-Orthodoxy-with its rich, full, and beautiful expressions (iconography, liturgics, etc.), all given by the Holy Spirit. That should be enough. And indeed it is. This is not a criticism of the sufficiency of Orthodoxy to meet all spiritual (and a great many other) needs. But when our parishioners leave the church building, where do they go? Not on pilgrimage to monasteries and shrines, but back to their mostly middle class households, jobs and schools, where many of their ideas and behaviors are supplied by our society rather than by the Church. In particular, their lives are shaped by television.

This means that many of our faithful have to a significant extent adopted, even if unconsciously, the values of the pervasive and mostly pagan society in which we live. This is where recent secular studies can help us identify the critical moral needs of our faithful. One need go no further than two recent polls and surveys, now in book form: The Day America Told the Truth, and Watching America,* produced by reputable researchers in the areas of sociology and behavioral science. While polls have a poor record for accuracy, they are useful in indicating general trends, and it is on this basis that we cite below figures from these studies.

When James Patterson and Peter Kim, the authors of The Day American Told the Truth, asked people if they had any confidence in organized religion, only 22% responded that they did (as opposed to 49% in only 1974!). This seems to correlate with the fact that only 27% of the American population now goes to church on any kind of a regular basis, 46 % see religion as unimportant, and only a mere 10%-including church-goers-accept ALL ten of the Commandments. Six out of ten Christians and Jews who were surveyed said that religion "had NO influence on [their] moral development". Perhaps most startling is that, in the 1990's, as many as 5% of Americans have already participated in some form of witchcraft or satanism!

In the area of ethics and morality, 91% of us blithely admit that we lie frequently. The authors conclude that "lying has become an integral part of the American culture, a trait of the American character. We lie and don't even think about it. We lie for no reason." We lie to everyone-parents, children, clergy, friends, spouses... We lie, cheat and steal-mostly in small ways-on the job, and think nothing of it because "everyone does it" or "they don't pay me enough, anyway."

Among adults, only 29% of men and women are virgins at the time of marriage, and one in five of our children loses his or her virginity before the age of thirteen! Ninety-two percent of sexually active people report that they have had a lifetime average of seventeen sexual partners. It seems that the "philosophy" of the late Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World and promoter of the drug LSD) has triumphed; he proclaimed a generation ago that chastity is "the most unnatural of the sexual perversions."

To all of this must be added alarming statistics about violence: Patterson and Kim discovered that "every seventh person you pass on the street in America is carrying a weapon either on their person or in their car." After comparing this with other countries they find that America is the "most violent country in the world":

The spirit of Edward Hyde, the evil half of Dr. Jekyll, seems to live in almost half of us. That's how many people across the nation confessed that violent desires obsessively force their way into their minds. It's not all fantasy. One in four Americans say that they've acted on their violent impulses. An equal number think that they'll do so at some time in the future.

Nearly 30 million of us report a serious drinking problem, and many more than that "have personally suffered from someone else's drinking." We won't even mention other addictions...

Given all of this, it can't come as a surprise that 70% "now say that America has no more heroes. Why are there no heroes today? There are no heroes because we have ceased to believe in anything strongly enough to be impressed....Our current political, religious and business leaders have failed us miserably and completely." The authors observe -and this is the strongest of all proofs that ours is a post-Christian age:

We [Americans] have established ourselves as the authority on morality....Clearly , the God of the 1990s in America is a distant and pale reflection of the God of our forefathers....Americans [now] seem to use God to refer to a general principle of good in life....For most Americans, God is not to be feared or, for that matter, loved.

Let us not be too quick to excuse ourselves-we Orthodox-from this pathetic profile. Every priest knows what he hears in confession-and he knows that it is in general more grave and morally ambivalent than it was even twenty years ago. In addition, we all know Orthodox Christians who pick and choose what they want to believe and obey from Scripture, Holy Tradition, the Church. Sadly, sometimes even bishops and clergy lead the way in "picking and choosing"!

How did we get into this frightful moral and ethical thicket? Even given the usual perversity of fallen human nature, how could we have come to such a pass, unequalled since the "days of Noah"? There are precise answers to this question, but the ultimate cause is of less importance than is the actual vehicle for contemporary popular culture-the mass media, of which television is an omnipresent and potent tool.

II.

The answers to life's problems aren't at the bottom of a bottle. They're on TV!

(Homer Simpson, "The Simpsons," quoted in Watching America)

Watching America is a carefully researched guide to the "meanings and messages of prime time" TV. It is also the first scientific study of this subject. As such, it is a godsend for any parish priest wanting to understand exactly what is shaping and forming the minds and souls of most of his spiritual children. Authors S. Robert Lichter and Linda S. Lichter direct the Center for Media and Public Affairs, and Stanley Rothman directs the Center for the Study of Social and Political Change.

In addition to closely surveying and analyzing such issues as politics and government, sex, business, abortion, homosexuality, the family, etc., as they've been presented on television for the last forty plus years, the authors have also made a ground-breaking and objective study of "Hollywood's most influential television writers, producers, and executives...the cream of television's creative community." What they learned is important for the Orthodox priest, and extremely disturbing, although perhaps not surprising.

First, they found that these creators and purveyors of popular culture "have adopted secular outlooks, and are politically very liberal." Although 93% came from a religious background-nearly 60% were raised in the Jewish faith-only 55% now belong to any religious tradition whatever. "Seventy-five percent describe themselves as left of center politically." This, of course, explains why only 8% think that women should remain at home and raise their families before having outside careers, and why a whopping 97% are pro-abortion. "Four out of five do not regard homosexual relations as wrong....[and] 51% do not regard adultery as wrong." These, then are the producers and creators of our mass culture, the "geniuses" behind much of what we see on TV.

The reader will not be surprised to find that this book reveals the same behavioral and moral profile in TV programs that we saw in The Day American Told the Truth. It is, in fact, crushing proof of the obvious.

Although media people persistently claim that their private views do not influence the programs they write, produce, and act in, these researchers debunk that myth. They also came to the conclusion that, "during the past four decades, television has transcended its role as mere entertainment to become a potent force in everyday life." What exactly does this "potent force" portray? The authors quote from Ben Stein's book, The View from Sunset Boulevard:

The world of television is peopled by killers wearing three-piece suits, heroin-pushers operating behind a facade of civic responsibility, murderers of go-go dancers sitting behind massive mahogany desks in the corridors of power.

In Television and Families, Mr. Stein also observed that "the mores you see now (in the insider scandals on Wall Street) are the mores on 'Dallas' and 'Dynasty.' It's not just coincidence."

Nor is it an exaggeration, as the reader of Watching America will find for himself, in lurid and nauseating detail. And this is what the average American is now watching for a minimum of four hours a day! One need hardly ask if he's also praying or reading Scripture-or doing anything edifying-for that same amount of time, or even spending that much time in church in a whole week.

The authors of this study do not have a religious or philosophical ax to grind. They are scientists, collecting and evaluating information, nothing more. They began their book with an acknowledgment that mass media plays a powerful role in social change. Three hundred pages later they came to this thoughtful conclusion:

The uneasiness many people feel about television stems from the sense that the medium is changing our lives in ways we cannot measure and may not even notice. In the brief span of little more than a single generation, television has become the great American dream machine, the source of an alternate reality whose profound impact is widely assumed but little understood.

III

The saints and Fathers of the Church did not foresee the specific inventions of television-this entertaining Big Brother of perversity-or the equally dangerous vehicle that movies have become. But they did foresee and describe the peccant and corrupt values and morals of the Last Times; they knew that the Evil One had many tricks still up his sleeve whereby even the elect might be misled. Seeing all this, they were afraid for us and, a thousand years and more ago, they warned us in unmistakable language. Surely they now pray ardently for us from their place in Heaven. But we who are still here below have grave responsibilities. We must not hide our heads in the sand, lest even one soul entrusted to our care be lost. To our own prayers must be joined action. Each pastor will undoubtedly have his own ideas and inspirations concerning what he must do in his own parish, with his own people, in the small realm where he has some influence. Some will feel that television ought to be completely banned from Orthodox homes-an understandable but probably not very realistic goal in most cases. Others will strongly suggest to their flocks that TV be at least vigorously limited and censored by the parents-a very good discipline, in fact.

But first, we clergy need to examine our own consciences. Are WE or our families watching too much television, or inappropriate programs? "Physician, heal thyself..."

And then we need to ask ourselves: when was the last time we gave a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments, the Seven Deadly Sins, the virtues and the extremely important subject of holiness? When was the last time we taught about adultery, lying, and stealing? What about pornography, homosexuality, and abortion? When best to do this? In sermons, of course-may they be frequent and long, please God (after all, we're competing with a minimum of twenty-five hours of TV watching a week!)-but also in adult education classes, short articles in church bulletins, etc., etc.-in fact, every opportunity we can find or create. We must lay the ax to the tree!

We Orthodox Christians of the last times cannot hope to conquer this depraved and pampered world-although there was a time when radiant faith and purity did so, in the fourth century. No, in all humility we must confess that our faith is too weak, too impoverished. We can and must, how-ever, wage a fierce and conscious battle against the "spirit of this world"-first, within ourselves, and then within our parishes. This, after all, is the "secret" of True Christianity.

If we do not wage this battle-and in some cases it may already be dangerously late-then we run a great risk: the risk of becoming little more than "Eastern Rite Episcopalians," white-washed sepulchres with wonderful rites, hymns, architecture, and sacred art, but without souls, without love for God, without righteousness and morality. We will then be essentially no different from anyone else. We must, with God's help, strive to bring forth this fruit! If we priests don't try to do it, who will? What are we waiting for...?

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