Drowning in Schlock
I’ve wondered at times whether anyone ever looks at the sermon title in the morning bulletin, and my guess is that most people don’t. After all, you’re here already and it’s going to happen, good title or bad title, so there may not be much point in bothering, and besides that you’ve learned that I may get to the very end of a sermon, anyway, before it’s clear just how the title does fit. But it will be different this morning. I’ve called these comments Drowning in Schlock , and I can explain quickly why I chose to use the two key words in that title. Schlock is Yiddish slang for cheap and trashy stuff, and we are certainly drowning in it!
Not that we haven’t always had plenty of trash around, but it now gets spread around more widely than at any time in human history. We have more news sources than ever before — books, magazines, television, e-mail, internet, mail-outs from hundreds of special interest groups — all of them banking on our appetite for schlock even while we claim to be disgusted by it. So it’s hard to imagine anything more out of sync with the mood of the times than this piece of advice from the Apostle Paul? “If you value the approval of God, fix your minds on whatever is true and honorable, whatever is pure and lovely, whatever is excellent and admirable — fill your thoughts with these things.”
That is such a marvelous line from Scripture that I want to fix it as deeply as I can. “If you value the approval of God” — and I would say, even if you don’t, even if all you care about is your own mental health — “fix your minds on whatever is true and honorable, whatever is pure and lovely, whatever is excellent and admirable — fill your thoughts with these things.” I want you to hear the two strong verbs: fix your minds, fill your thoughts — this is not something you sit by passively and wait to have happen. You have to work at it, and never more than during the floodtides of wretched rubbish being dumped on us in recent times. It takes active resolve and strong will to keep from drowning in schlock.
John MacDonald, the prolific author of the popular Travis McGee novels, was accused once of not believing in television. He said: “I believe in it. One percent of it is very, very good. And one percent of all writing, painting, sculpture, dance, acting, comedy, circus, basketweaving, etc., is also good. And 99 percent of everything is and always has been schlock.” Those of you who were grownups back in the ‘60s and ‘70s may remember Marshall McLuhan, whose catch-phrase “the medium is the message” made him famous. McLuhan had this to say about television and children in a letter written soon after he became a grandfather: “Try not to have Emily exposed to hours and hours of TV. It is a vile drug which permeates the nervous system, especially the young.”
Both of these men exaggerate to make their point, but they have a point. They are not worried about Sesame Street and the small children whose parents care enough to monitor what they see. They have in mind older children who park in front of whatever is flickering on the screen while Mom and Dad are busy doing something else. James Wall, who writes a weekly column in the Christian Century commented a few days ago that television is full of schlock, and schlock is not harmless.
“Politicians,” he says, “who distort an opponent’s words are guilty of spreading political schlock. We often hear charges like ’My opponent voted against children,’ or ‘my opponent is a baby-killer.’” These slanted and inflammatory words, Wall reminds us, do nothing but cloud clear thinking and inhibit civil discourse. As a movie critic, he is appalled to find how many parents bring small children to R-rated movies filled with excessive drug use, brutal violence, and the whole repertoire of coarse racist and sexual slang words.
Since he is writing about schlock in general, Wall doesn’t restrict himself to the media. He quotes from a book on architecture entitled Places of the Soul which points out that buildings also have the potential to heal or to do us harm. “In good health,” the author says, “I have taken my son to hospital clinics and felt only half alive after sitting for hours in rectangular grid-patterned, vinyl-smelling, fluorescently-lit, over-heated corridors. The brutal vandalism of buildings unfeelingly imposed upon the landscape can have the same effect. Architecture can be life-suppressing or even crushing, not only to our finer sensitivites but to our feelings of freedom.”
And that paragraph jogged mymemory. Many of you were not with us yet when we set out to plan this building, but I remember what a struggle it was to create the beauty which I hear praised everywhere I go in this city. Two female nurses and two male physician’s assistants who attended me during a recent knee surgery had been at weddings in this room and told me of their delight in its simple beauty, and still another nurse came by to say, “I drive by on 96 every evening just after dark on my way home, and the sight of that lighted church is so beautiful and inspiring that I’m a better person when I greet my family.” But as you might have been able to guess, none of this chaste elegance came easy.
Our architect first insisted that a large circular or octagonal building would be cheaper to build and would give us more space for the money, and he was right — and since he did not really wish to build a New England Colonial church he pointed out how non-utilitarian the tower and steeple would be in front. And if practicality were to be our first priority, he was right again. And besides that, four sets of cove fluorescents would give us plenty of light, so brass chandeliers and wall sconces were not cost effective. Good old standard red brick, we were reminded, would be cheaper than white, and I was personally assured one day that it was not feasible to curve the ceiling. It was, of course; it just took a little more time and expense to do it.
When the columns arrived for the front, made of metal instead of wood and too slender to look right, I saw them first since I practically lived on site during those months and I had to explain that the fluted pillars were totally out of harmony with the building and that our people would know that just by seeing them lying on the ground. What happened next was that they were quickly installed early the next day before the nosy minister could cause trouble again and so we had to live with them for a while until one of our members took them off our hands for use elsewhere, and we could order from the Pacific Northwest the columns that were right for a Colonial church.
We were encouraged from the start, by the way, to be practical and use the wide lawn between us and the street as a parking lot, which would have been very convenient — and as ugly as homemade sin! So those who were determined to create a beautiful house for worship said, “No.” And our building committee continued to be patient when I pointed out that all those New England Colonial churches were built on high ground and could we at least elevate our building by four feet? Even that much made a difference. Our first steeple turned out to be hopelessly out of proportion, so when we had to replace it we paid a few thousand dollars more and got one that fit. It’s not the most practical thing we could have done, but it’s the crowning touch if you hope to create a touch of New England in the heart of Kansas. The point is that architectural schlock is always cheaper and easier than beauty, but the ultimate payoff makes beauty worth having. We have many devoted members of this church who were drawn to it first not by its music or its theology and its programs, but simply because it was so lovely they wanted to come and see what happens here.
The abiding question about houses of worship is whether they should be made and kept beautiful as an act of worship toward God, or is it better to build them as practical and utilitarian structures available for all kinds of use and traffic? This is not an easy choice or there would not be good people on both sides of the question. I do know from Hebrew scripture how the ancestors of Jesus felt about the creation of beauty as an act of adoration and worship. The prophet Isaiah calls the temple a “holy and beautiful house” (Ch. 64), and presents a God who is pleased with those who “beautify the place of my sanctuary”(Ch. 60). I also remember that when a woman used very expensive ointment one day to bathe Christ’s feet and the disciples said it was a wasteful thing to do with so many poor people about, Jesus let them know in no uncertain terms that the creation of something beautiful can be as important in life as a moment of charity. Our spirits also need nourishment.
I began these remarks by talking about media trash and then digressed for a few minutes for a word on architectural schlock, but Iwant to go back to the media. I watched a little more television than usual last week while I did boring therapy exercises and wondered if others were as weary as I was of hearing reporters say, “Yes, we have been guilty of overkill, lately, in covering the Washington sex scandal stories” — and then go right on with more rumors and allegations in language so explicit that parents were getting to explain certain words they had thought they might be able to wait on for a while. You have surely heard already more than you want about goings-on in Washington, and I have no wish to add anything to prurient rubbish piled so high most of us have no means of knowing what is true and what is false. Too much still remains unsettled about this low point in our recent political life, although I confess to deep feelings of dread about it. When I first heard David Gergen’s summation of the whole shabby business: that we have had “either the worst act of Presidential self-destruction in history, or …. the greatest smear against a President in history,” I agreed with an either-or case. Now I’m thinking we may have had both at the same time, and I feel a great sadness because there will be no winners this time. All of us will lose something very important — and I don’t mean naivete, because we’ve known all along that the men and women who govern from Washington are not perfect.
What is really different these days is a prosecutorial fever, fanned by partisan politics, which has gone haywire in the 90’s. Public life has come to be dominated by special prosecutors, fiercely competititve investigative reporters, and a whole netherworld of seamy lawsuits, shady tipsters eager for a buck, and ideological cranks of every imaginable color. I read that we have spent nearly 12 millions dollars of public money to prosecute a Secretary of Agriculture, who has already resigned with his career ruined, for receiving $35,000 worth of gifts from companies he was regulating, and with no proof that there were tradeoffs. We have spent 4 million dollars of public money to investigate a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who has already resigned with his career ruined, for understating payments he made to a former mistress. We have spent 25 to 30 millions dollars investigating a failed, and decidedly inconsequential Arkansas real-estate deal in the distant past — an investigation that has now expanded, at the whim of its prosecutor, to include the amatory life of the President.
Rumors of malfeasance or frailties of the flesh in office are not what is new. What is new is the incredible fervor with which every charge is followed up, for years and years, often with no result except an increase in cynicism and apathy in those of us who have to live on such a diet. I remember distinctly an authoritative article listing over a hundred different appointees in the Reagan years who were indicted on a wide variety of allegations, but without the frenzied and sustained finger-pointing that has become popular now with both our major political parties as they go after one another with no holds barred. What is even more frightening than new discoveries of human frailty is that the witch-hunting mentality now loose in Washginton may so limit the appetite for public life that only the most egotistical and power hungry among us will seek office — and that will be a tragedy for all of us.
This contest in Washington between Mr. Clinton, and the press and the prosecutors, over what is appropriate public business and what is not, has become a downward spiral in which each side has consistently managed to provoke the worst in the other. So what do we do? We can’t control the media, we can’t stop leaks and lies and lip-smacking smut. There is only one thing we can do, and it is my single reason for speaking this morning. We have only two lines of defense against drowning in schlock. One is knowing the difference between what is pure trash and what is legitimate public business, and the other is acting on that knowledge.
So I don’t know anything more valuable to say to you than to repeat for the third time this piece of marvelous advice: ““If you value the approval of God, fix your minds on whatever is true and honorable, whatever is pure and lovely, whatever is excellent and admirable — fill your thoughts with these things.” This much, at least, lies within our power.
In the kgdm of our minds, grac. God, help us create a climate of beauty and hope
when the world around us needs healing in the spir. of Christ our Lord. Amen.