Archives For Television

Bill Cosby & Me

September 22, 2014 — 7 Comments

cosby[Do not read this post without also reading “Bill Cosby Redux,” which was written two months later.]

One of the finest compliments my wife ever paid me was saying, “You remind me of Bill Cosby.”

She tells me that’s one of the reasons she married me thirty-eight years ago. And she also says it’s still true today.

I owe a lot to Bill Cosby. He has modeled (for several generations now), how humor highlights the most precious aspects of our human lives. He also showed us how a real man works hard to accomplish his goals, and keeps the promises he makes.

And now, approaching the winter of his life, Cosby continues to inspire.

My wife and I have always wanted to see him perform. This summer that dream came true.

He offered the audience two full hours of good natured (healthy) laughter with an ample dose of self-introspection as well.

Cosby began his performance (at one of our Washington State fairgrounds) by commenting on our lovely weather. He noted that every other time he had spoken outdoors that it had poured. He suggested that there was something demented about Washingtonians wanting to watch entertainers on stage being drenched while they are handling microphone and other electrical devices.

I refer to Cosby’s presentation as a “performance,” but it was far more than that. It is no exaggeration to say that it was like being invited to an intimate family gathering. One where everyone has gathered around—and the audience was filled with people of all ages—to hear their witty patriarch weave delightful stories about their shared past and mysteries of life.

Bill Cosby embodies the truth spoken by C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters: “Humour is . . . the all-consoling and . . . the all-excusing, grace of life.” Cosby is, in a sense, an ambassador of humor. Or, even, a physician of humor, whose words carry the power to heal.

In mere minutes he made us all, albeit temporarily, his family. (Another reason for me to be proud my wife likens me to this gifted story-teller.)

I’ve always liked Cosby. I was introduced to him on a vinyl album my family had. We probably owned several, over the years, but this one was his debut album, recorded live in 1963.

As a young Christian, I was particularly captivated by his three sketches about Noah. (If you’ve never heard the routine, check out my note at the bottom of this column.) Only today, in the fall season of my own life, does it dawn on me just how profound an effect his comedy had on me.

I believe that was the first time I became aware that matters of faith could be funny. Not diminished by ridicule, but uplifted by laughter. It was okay to enjoy discussing serious matters, by highlighting some of their humorous aspects.

In a world where so many of faith’s spokespersons were dour and humorless, seeds of mirth were planted in my life. Thank you, Bill.

Those seeds have born fruit. They have never undermined my recognition of the authority and trustworthiness of the Scriptures. But, at the same time, they have opened my eyes to the warmth and wonder of the Creator who spoke the cosmos into existence.

Cosby engaged us with an exploration of humanity’s creation, and moved on into a delightful conversation about the differences between men and women. He spoke about his beloved Camille and his children in ways the entire audience connected to. His deep affection for his family resonates even as he uses them as a comedic foil (actually, the majority of his humor is self-deprecating).

Here’s a simple truth. A winsome witness to the faith, who can laugh with one of America’s finest humorists about their beliefs, will win far more “converts” than someone who does not know the joy that comes from being God’s child.

For those unfamiliar with Bill Cosby, allow me to offer a note about only a few of his many accomplishments.

He served for four years as a hospital corpsman in the United States Navy.

He attended Temple University on a track scholarship, where he also played fullback on the football team.

He has an earned doctorate (not the “honorary” type that adorns many public figures). Doctor Cosby earned his Doctor of Education degree in 1976 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

On the amazing espionage series, I Spy, Cosby became the first African-American to co-star in a dramatic series. (I remember being riveted to the show, identifying more with Cosby’s thoughtful portrayal than with the shallower, flashier persona of Robert Culp.) Apparently, many recognized Cosby’s acting prowess—he won three consecutive Emmy Awards during the show’s run.

Cosby’s acting prowess was proven repeatedly through television accomplishments, most notably The Cosby Show, which overwhelmed its competition.

He is a gifted musician and has recorded a dozen music albums.

He is also a skilled writer, and has written a dozen books.

He is a genuine family man, whose devotion to his wife, children and grandchildren is unquestioned. He also has gracefully born the pain of losing his only son quite tragically.

He has courageously confronted some of the serious issues facing the poor in the world’s most prosperous nation. He has put his talents and treasures where his words are, seeking to reinforce the value of education in communities where far too many condemn themselves to poverty by dropping out of school.

Bill Cosby is an amazing man. He is a person to be respected, and heeded.

I can think of no better compliment from the woman I love than hearing that I remind her of him.

_____

In the picture above, Cosby is wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to him in 2002.

If you’ve never heard Cosby’s account of God’s conversation with Noah, your life is incomplete. Fortunately, you can remedy that sad situation by viewing a brief version of it here.

If you’re interested in a brief survey of Cosby’s impact, this clip provides an excellent introduction.

Exhibitionist Civilization

February 21, 2014 — 8 Comments

realitytvWe live in an exhibitionist era. It’s evident everywhere, but reaches a revolting crescendo in some of the extreme “reality tv” that’s become a standard feature of what passes for “entertainment” in a decadent society.

Not all reality programming is inherently vulgar. Some is potentially beneficial. For example:

Cops

Provides reinforcement for staying on the straight and narrow.

Deadliest Catch

Teaches us that whatever we’re doing, there are some jobs we could have that are even worse.

American Idol

I don’t watch it, but my impression is it basically revolves around decent entertainment and at least one prima donna judge.

The Apprentice

Teaches us the worst boss we ever had may not have been quite as bad as we recall.

So You Think You Can Dance

I don’t watch this either, but understand it’s pretty innocuous, aside from occasional humiliation.

Survivorman

Learn how to survive in the wilderness, from a guy with a fantastic surname: Les Stroud.

Among the many programs I would never watch, even if you paid me: Jersey Shore, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

A show I’m curious about—but not interested enough to waste any time investigating—is Pastors of LA. Apparently, one of the featured ministers, who committed adultery and fathered a child while still married, proclaimed: “I have not preached on any platform in any church for one year! I’ve paid my penalty for my sin!” Not quite sure where he found that equation in the scriptures, but perhaps pastors of Los Angeles megachurches determine their own penances.

I can’t understand the allure of exhibitionism. Stripping down to one’s most embarrassing and offensive qualities, and parading those before an anonymous audience, is nowhere on my bucket list.

Even stranger to me than the willingness of a minority to invite public mockery and derision is the desire of relatively significant audiences to view some of these misbegotten concepts.

C.S. Lewis helps me understand the problem. In an article entitled “After Priggery—What?” he says:

We have lost the invaluable faculty of being shocked—a faculty which has hitherto almost distinguished the Man or Woman from the beast or the child.

Lewis begins the essay by condemning “priggery,” the judging of what is bad that infers the “prig” is morally superior. He also raises the question of whether or not our failure to condemn publically demeaning or destructive behaviors results in more damage to society than does the act of making moral judgments.

The illustration he uses is that of a “wicked journalist, a man who disseminates for money falsehoods calculated to produce envy, hatred, suspicion and confusion.” (There seems no shortage of such people in our world.)

Lewis says that our toleration of these malevolent influences is a terrible mistake. The following passage criticizes the fact that we actually enable such conduct by supporting it.

If we must find out what bad men are Writing, and must therefore buy their papers, and therefore enable their papers to exist, who does not see that this supposed necessity of observing the evil is just what maintains the evil? It may in general be dangerous to ignore an evil; but not if the evil is one that perishes by being ignored.*

I find Lewis’ argument applicable to the existence of all sorts of reprehensible material, beginning perhaps, with pornography. To a lesser degree, one might even consider it to apply to exhibitionist entertainment. After all, it is not profitable to viewers and it is rarely (if ever) beneficial to the participants themselves.

And thus, culture declines. Dribble by dribble. I just heard on a newscast today, literally while I was writing this post, that a major cable channel is offering a new reality program entitled “Naked Dating.” Guess what it is about. Precisely what it says. I’m sure that the voyeurs are eagerly awaiting its debut.

In a more enlightened age, society would have ostracized those who flaunted their promiscuous, antisocial, humiliating or debauched lifestyles. Today the people who receive public disapproval seem to be those who question those very behaviors.

As for me, I’m renewing my commitment to the principle suggested by C.S. Lewis. I will do my best to consistently avoid supporting the things contributing to the erosion of modesty, respect, goodness and virtue. I suspect that means I won’t be spending an undue amount of time watching these “reality” programs that too often reflect the seamier aspects of human nature.

____

* If you would like to read the entire essay, it is available here.

Writing Life Scripts

September 13, 2013 — 9 Comments

ben hurI was shaped by the heroic religious films of the 1950s and 60s. The powerful messages of epic movies like Ben Hur, Quo Vadis and The Robe planted within my young Christian heart an awareness of nobility and radical self-sacrifice.

About twenty years ago, I spent a year doing graduate work in education. One of my Educational Psychology classes was taught by a professor who was a devotee of Transactional Analysis. I don’t recall too much about TA, aside from one of its principles that resonated with me.

It’s a concept called Life Scripts. Without going into great detail, it is an often subconscious notion of how we “think” our lives will or should play out. It’s adjusted throughout our lives, but the basic theme is established when we are quite young.*

A recent article says “script is broadly understood as a series of decisions, formed as coping strategies in childhood, which continue to shape the life course outside of awareness.”**

It was only as an adult that I realized just how significant an impression these virtuous stories made on me. I recalled the countless times I lay in bed at night rehearsing the story of The Robe. I was the unbelieving Roman soldier, converted by the gentle witness of the wrongfully persecuted Christians.*** Ultimately, I took my stand with them, defending them and voluntarily laying down my life for Christ.

That same plot line still echoes through my mind and soul.

I consider myself blessed to have been exposed to such positive influences while my self identity was being shaped. And I pray for children today whose parents allow them to be exposed (at terribly vulnerable ages!) to violent, fearful and morally ambiguous influences.

Those precious minds and hearts are scarred by the vulgarity and immorality that are endemic in modern cinema, television and music. May God have mercy on them.

C.S. Lewis lived during the era when the virtuous dramas such as those named above were at the peak of their influence.

In a diary entry from the mid-1920s, he mentions Quo Vadis in passing. He is describing his weekend schedule.

Saturday 22 April: Got up about 6.30 and did the same jobs as yesterday. Was settled to work by 9.5 o’clock and put in an excellent morning . . . Sheila Gonner—jolly child—came to tea. Dorothy is to come back tomorrow: so we shall no longer be servantless. At her request I lent her my crib to Tacitus’ History for her sister Rose— I wonder what makes her imagine that she would like it? Possibly early Christian novels of the Quo Vadis type. Worked again after tea, and from supper till ten o’clock, finishing Herodotus. The last few pages of the IXth Book I now read for the first time, having got tired of it on my first reading . . .

I find this diary passage intriguing, in the way that Lewis posits a reader’s potential interest in classical literature as arising from their exposure to ancient Rome via contemporary novels. That’s precisely where my own lifelong fascination with the Roman empire was born.

If you’ve never seen these three movies, I commend them to you. I would also encourage you to consider reading one or all of the novels. They are available for free download in various digital formats.

Quo Vadis

Ben Hur

The Robe

_____

* I’m a pastor and historian, not a psychologist, so I don’t pretend to understand all of the implications. Because of that, I don’t endorse TA as a fully valid theory. What’s more, in our fallen world it’s obvious that many early “life scripts” can be based on wounds inflicted on neglected or abused children. In such cases, particularly where the scripts are destructive, we are not “destined” to live out a tragedy. By the grace of God, even the saddest of stories can be redeemed and “rewritten” into tales of hope and wonder.

** From “Script or Scripture?” by Jo Stuthridge in Life Scripts edited by Richard Erskine (Karnac Books, 2010).

*** It didn’t hurt that the main Christian disciple in the film was the lovely and chaste Diana, played by the British actress Jean Simmons. But that’s another story, and it’s important to note that these life scripts are pre-pubescent creations, so they are motivated by much deeper impulses than hormones. As the previously footnoted quotation referred to them, they are fundamentally “coping strategies” for survival in the calm (or frequently turbulent) world in which children find themselves.

BonnevilleAs an American, I find there is something distinctive about British programs. When my family lived in the United Kingdom we enjoyed access to all the offerings of the BBC and the commercial network or two that existed twenty-two years ago.

Returning to the States, we had to become content with viewing the occasional British import, mostly through the auspices of PBS. Since I watch far less television than I used to, I haven’t seen one of the current offerings that’s become quite popular.

Downton Abbey is essentially a soap opera which examines the lives of a noble family, and the myriad servants who attend to their needs. Contrasting their culturally different lifestyles is doubtless quite intriguing.

The reason I’m mentioning a program I’ve never seen, is because I read an interview with one of its co-stars, Hugh Bonneville. His response to the question “Did you make a New Year’s resolution?” was wonderful.

I’ve had the same resolutions for about 20 years, which is to read The Complete Works of Charles Dickens, and I’m only on about book number three. I’m a terrible reader, which is a great shame because literature is the lifeblood of everything, really, in terms of inspiration and nourishment of the soul.

C.S. Lewis often speaks about the value of reading the “classics.” One benefit he describes in “The Reading of Old Books,” is that they provide us with a grounded perspective in a rapidly shifting world. “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Lewis apparently enjoyed Dickens. Below are a couple of passages where he refers to him in very good company. In his essay “Sir Walter Scott,” he writes:

. . . there are two things of which I feel certain. One is, that if we do overvalue art, then art itself will be the greatest sufferer; when second things are put first, they are corrupted. The other is that, even if we of all generations have first valued art aright, yet there will certainly be loss as well as gain. We shall lose the fine careless, prodigal artists. For, if not all art, yet some art, flows best from men who treat their work as a kind of play. I at any rate cannot conceive how the exuberance, the elbow-room, the heart-easing quality of Dickens, or Chaucer, or Cervantes, could co-exist with that self-probing literary conscience we find in [Walter Horatio] Pater or Henry James.

And, again, in  Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature he praises Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Princess, saying:

From the time of its publication down to about 1914 it was everyone’s poem—the book in which many and many a boy first discovered that he liked poetry; a book which spoke at once, like Homer or Shakespeare or Dickens, to every reader’s imagination.

Ironically, Lewis’ own writings have become classics, to which many of us return over and over. And, even though a month has passed since the traditional day for making New Year resolutions, I can’t think of a better one than planning to read the “complete works” of C.S. Lewis himself.