From Blind Consumption to Informed Engagement

04 set

Steve Rabey

Catwoman was one of the most highly anticipated movies of 2004. Tens of millions of dollars were spent hiring Halle Berry, designing her sexy costumes and the film’s elaborate sets, and promoting the film to entertainment-hungry moviegoers like you and me.

But when the film finally came out in July, reviewers like Roger Ebert tore it to shreds. “Hairball!” proclaimed Ebert, the Chicago critic whose influential reviews are published in hundreds of American newspapers.

“The filmmakers have given great thought to photographing Berry, who looks fabulous, and little thought to providing her with a strong character, story, supporting characters or action sequences,” he wrote.

Influence of Pop Culture

Pop culture is the atmosphere most of us live in. We are awash in films, TV shows, recordings, DVDs, Web sites, video games, rock concerts, books, and magazines.

For many of the kids we work with, pop culture has more influence than virtually any other aspect of life. In addition, moviemakers and other culture producers aim many of their products at kids, who have the leisure time and disposable income to consume their wares.

For decades, some believers have advocated that Christians need to shun pop culture, turning deaf ears and blind eyes to its seductive, corrosive messages. But even many of those who support such an approach consider it impossible in our media-saturated age.

A better approach is transforming blind consumption into informed engagement. And one of the best ways to do that is to become a culture critic.

Cultural Critique

You don’t have to be a Roger Ebert to critique movies, TV shows, and CDs. Everyone can do it, and if you learn to do so, you’ll find yourself evolving into a more discriminating consumer who spends more time planning and enjoying your entertainment consumption and less time swallowing big, gooey hairballs like Catwoman.

Even more: if you can teach your kids to be culture critics, you’ll be giving them tools that will serve them throughout their lives. One great way to do this is by asking your kids to write critical reviews of some of the pop culture products they consume.

By the way, being a critic doesn’t mean you condemn everything you see or hear. The best critics praise the good and blast the bad, and they make clear declarations about the criteria they use when doing so, like Ebert did in his comments about characters, story, and action.

The main thing that separates culture critics from blind consumers is that they take an informed and thoughtful approach to the entertainment they consume. In fact, critics think about what they see and hear, before, during, and after they consume it:

  • Before, they read reviews and form opinions about artists’ bodies of work.
  • During, they seek to be engaged with the work, enjoying it at the same time that they evaluate and assess it.
  • Afterwards, they compare their reactions with those of others, asking questions like, “Was Catwoman a film or just a fashion show?”

The only thing blind consumers can tell you about a film is whether or not they liked it or found it entertaining. Critics have personal preferences, too, but they try to incorporate their brains and their core values into their consumption, asking whether or not a particular scene is believable, whether or not it’s moving, or whether or not it “works.”

Faith-Based Criteria

For some Christians, evaluating a pop culture commodity is as simple as applying a simplistic set of behavior-based criteria. If a character swears, smokes, drinks, or has sex, the film is bad. But the late Francis Schaeffer, one of the 20th century’s most influential culture critics, argued that even a morally “bad” film could be “good” art.

In Schaeffer’s profound little booklet, Art & the Bible (1973, IVP), the founder of L’Abri Fellowship laid out four standards for judging a work. They were technical excellence; content; validity (Is the director trying to make a work of art or merely a quick buck?); and something he calls “integration of content and vehicle” (Does it deal with its content in an appropriate way, or does it cheat both the viewer and its ideals?).

Schaeffer believed great art could contain bad morals and theology. He was also troubled by “Christian” films that wrap theological truths in bad art. Such films may be saying all the right things, but ultimately they fail to grab viewers’ imaginations or touch their hearts.

Other Christian thinkers have developed other criteria for evaluating a work of art. Regardless of which criteria you use, here are the three things every critical review should do.


Tell me what the film is, who is in it and behind it, what projects they’ve been involved in before, and what it’s about (without giving away the ending or the punch line). How long is it? What genre is it: Thriller? Comedy? Historical epic? Is it in color or black and white? Is it rated G or R, and for what reasons?

Some of this information may seem simplistic, but unless you convince other people that you know the basic facts about a film, they’ll never trust your evaluation of its artistic merits.


Don’t tell me if you like it or don’t like it. I don’t care about that. I want you to tell me what works and what doesn’t. I want to know whether or not it’s well done. And ultimately, I want to know whether or not I’ll like it, and whether or not it’s worth the $7.50 or more it’ll cost me to see it.

I also want to know how the work compares to other films in its genre or other projects by the same creative team. Is it darker? Funnier? More or less powerful? In the case of sequels, tell me whether Matrix IX: Son of Neo is as interesting as the first Matrix movie or whether it’s a pale shadow of the original.

Get out of your own head and try to explain who’ll like it and who won’t. Life is short, and there are so many movies to see. Tell me whether The Incredibles is worth the effort or whether I should stay home and watch Citizen Kane again.

And don’t forget what Schaeffer says: you need to evaluate the work on both technical and spiritual grounds. Don’t let moral concerns be your only frame of reference.


Movies are supposed to be entertaining, and so are reviews. It’s no fun to read a boring review about an exciting movie. Make your review enjoyable to read. And make sure you include quotes from the film. (Yes, that means you’ll actually have to take notes while watching it; this gets easier over time.)

With a little practice, you’ll learn to be a more critical and more engaged consumer of pop culture. Before long, you’ll begin teaching your kids how to be more critical in their consumption. And when you do that, you’ll be bringing sight to the blind.

Steve Rabey is a Colorado writer and culture critic. His most recent book is Milestones: 50 Events that Shaped American Evangelicals in the 20th Century (Broadman & Holman).


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Publicado por em 04/09/2009 em POIMENIA


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