It is fashionable to denounce the sex and violence that saturates American entertainment. Politicians thunder against entertainment companies. Religious leaders telegraph their dedication to family values by passionately comparing Hollywood to Sodom and Gomorra. Meanwhile hundreds of actors earn their livings simulating the act that begins life and that which ends it.
Americans sit in darkened rooms, enthralled by the gasps and groans, cries and screams and by the accompanying images on the screen. Our free market system is designed to efficiently provide that which people desire and for which they are willing to pay a price. Instead of condemning the supply perhaps we should examine why people demand this commodity.
Entertainment is obsessed with sex and death but while sex is easy to depict and always titillating, waiting around for people to age and die is neither easy to depict nor titillating. An even bigger problem is entertainment's preference for depicting younger people having sex, while dying is generally done by the aged. This makes it hard to hold a plot together. The solution is violence because it offers death on demand. Death could now be produced on schedule. It made for more cohesive plots because now the same people who had sex in one scene could die in the next. This was altogether a big improvement.
Entertainment is not unique in its obsession with death. Elsewhere too, death exerts a morbid allure. Think of drivers slowing down as they pass an accident, craning their necks in the hope of seeing a corpse or at least a little blood.
Even little children sensing a death in the family, innocently but persistently question in order to probe what they sense to be a giant mystery. Everyone is curious about whether there is life after death.
Neither is entertainment unique in its obsession with sex. No aspect of the internet receives more attention than its concupiscent corners of cybersex. Children seem almost intuitively aware that asking questions about sex is nothing at all like asking what ever happened to Aunt Agatha's grand piano. Malcolm Muggeridge famously wrote that sex is the only mysticism that materialism offers. I think he was half right. The other great mystery of materialism is death.
Simply identifying sex and death as the essence of mystery, is stating the obvious. After all, imagine the underwhelming indifference with which audiences would greet a whodunit that contained no whiff of either sex or death. Why do people find sex and death both fascinating and mysterious.
The answer to that question is best revealed by a short quiz:
Why are so many great sales professionals willing to work for commission only?
Why do most children prefer a playmate over the most lavish toy chest or the most expensive computer program?
Why does providing all the needs of indigent humans' not produce their contentment as we find in other species whose needs are being met?
Why do capitalism, a marketplace and currency exist?
Why do humans, unlike any other species, voluntarily seek oblivion through alcohol?
Here are my answers:
A great sales professional understands all human nature including his own. He loves working for commission because that way his earning has no limits and this satisfies his soul's yearning for the infinite.
A child prefers a person to any computer game because his soul yearns for the infinite. No matter how complex, a computer program is finally knowable and ultimately limited. This does not apply to humans.
Animals cared for in a zoo only require food, shelter and medical attention. Treating welfare recipients in the same way makes them feel caged and often discontent because their souls also yearn for the infinite.
All humans want more than they have. A marketplace exists because resources are finite while a human soul yearns for the infinite. A marketplace, while imperfect, is the most moral way to allocate limited resources to people who always wish for more.
Carl Jung wrote that the old Latin name for alcohol, spiritus, reflected its ability to provide an illusion of spirituality. Alcohol appears to reduce the pain of physical reality. People who feel shackled by physical reality often turn to alcohol because their souls yearn for the infinite.
That leaves us with the question of how best to cater to our yearning for the infinite? Those rejecting religious faith are rejecting the best avenue for grasping a spiritual reality. They are therefore making a choice to remain imprisoned by materialism. They have chosen not to relate to anything they cannot see, touch, eat or wear. Their life is, well, limited.
Thus, their only glimpse into transcendence are the transforming moments in and out of physical life. Conception is the magical moment that brings matter into existence and death is the moment that bids it farewell. I believe that we are captivated by sex and violence because our souls yearn for contact with the infinite.
Hollywood manufactures sex and violence, legitimately in my opinion, because that is what the market wants. People want it for the same reason that folks outside Seattle use instant coffee. It is what you do when you cannot obtain the real thing. The real thing is regular contact with the infinite through the wonderful world of religious faith.
Radio talk show host, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, is president of Toward Tradition--the American Alliance of Jews and Christians--a Seattle-based, bridge-building organization providing a voice for all Americans who defend the Judeo-Christian values vital for our nation's survival.
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