Peggy Noonan is not a religion-beat writer. But she is one of the rare national-level commentators who truly get the fact that religious faith is at the heart of many of America's most important trends and debates and, thus, news stories. Her current WSJ column about Janet Jackson, the NFL and the decline of Western Civilization is a perfect example of how this reality affects her work.
This is not just a story about a publicity stunt by a now-aging pop diva, a stunt that (as the wags have noted) proved that plastic surgery has been kind to at least one member of the Jackson family. This hyper-news media storm really should be focusing on the content of the whole SuperBowl halftime show, a bizarre picture of American culture jammed into a frame created by the best advertising that money can buy.
Noonan notes, for example, the KausFiles observation about how this nasty little glimpse into the American soul will play around the world, including in traditional and/or radical Islamic homes.
What does faith have to do with this? Noonan's choice of a "frog in the kettle" echoes the views of many other cultural conservatives, including the omnipresent evangelical researcher George Barna.
The whole Janet and Justin scene
. . . might be a frog-in-the-water moment. You remember: You put a frog in a nice cool pot of water, and he's happy and swims around. But if you put a flame underneath the pot and slowly raise it, chances are he'll boil to death. On the other hand, if you dump a frog in a boiling pot of water, he'll jump right out and be saved.
Our culture has been on a boil for years. Then it cooled a bit. The other night at the Super Bowl they put the flame higher and the water began to boil. The frog -- that would be us -- is still alive. And may, in his shock, jump out of the water.
But the question is: How? How to turn it around. I wonder if all the sane adult liberals and conservatives couldn't make progress here. But how. Readers?
If Noonan wants reactions from readers, here is mine.
It has always bugged me that cultural conservatives tend to condemn specific moments in popular culture without asking any serious questions about the actual role that the media of popular culture play in their lives. They yell about the flash of Janet Jackson. They fail to notice the changes in the sports spectacular that surround the whole show (and many of those that came before it). That was the topic of a column I wrote this fall on Britney, the NFL and the rockets' red glare at the Capitol.
They yell about a bad episode of "Will and Grace," while ignoring that their own MTV teens grew up watching "The Real World" and "Undressed" on cable TV in the solitude of their bedrooms. The whole family might gather to watch "Friends" and "Married, with Children," except for Dad in another room watching the NFL and the Coors ads with those conservative blonde twins.
So here is my idea. I am not in favor of separatism from the media. Obviously.
I am, however, in favor of people making choices and being aware that they are making choices.
What we need, what many journalists need as they cover these cultural stories, is some more solid information.
So I propose that, say, Focus on the Family, Toward Tradition, The Heritage Foundation and the media committee of the US Catholic Bishops Conference hook up to sponsor a major national study -- hire Barna or George Gallup -- on the role that mass media usage plays in American life. And, in that study, they break out the data for (a) active Christians and (b) all people who call themselves conservatives.
Do the conservatives live media lives that are radically different than anyone else?
Just asking. It would be new info on which to chew. I think we need to know more about ourselves. It would be the "examine the beams on our own eyes" study.
Just a thought.