Faith, Media & Culture

Here are today’s dispatches from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

1. The Catholics Next Door are on the move! After having conquered the worlds of new media, including podcasts and satellite radio, Greg and Jennifer Willits (their SiriusXM talk show airs live weekdays  @ 1:00 PM ET and is repeated @ 1:00 AM ET on The Catholic Channel/129) are taking old-style media by storm with ’a new book. Like their radio show, it’s called The Catholics Next Door and is available now from Amazon, Barnes and Noble as well as other outlets. Within its pages they share their personal journey of faith and discuss the challenges of raising kids (they have five of them) in a media-centric age in which the media’s values are often at odds with their own.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with the Willits. As someone who works in the media, and writes here about the crossroads of faith and media, I was particularly interested in their thoughts on what constitutes healthy and unhealthy entertainment. Here’s some of what they had to say:

Greg Willits: We love television. We love watching movies (but) we’ve found, for us, we really have strive to moderate…For example, the Academy Awards would be coming around. We felt this weird obligation to watch all these movies — no matter what they were. There is a sense of, like, if you don’t watch them you have no culture…And there was this crazy mentality till we started to realize, you know, that I do have not only the ability to control what I watch but I have an obligation to discern what I watch. Just because the world tells me something is beautiful and good doesn’t mean it actually is.  And coming to that realization really has helped us as parents be more discerning because, as a child, there was not a lot that was off limits when it came to standard network television.

You know, growing up in the seventies and eighties we didn’t have cable. I don’t think I had cable until I was in college. We had network television…and had this attitude that most things were okay — that, if it was on network, it was cleaned up. The FCC was looking out for you.

Still, you go back and look at some of these older shows. The example that we use in the book is Happy Days.  I’ve (probably) seen every episode of Happy Days ever produced…Several years back they did a retrospective, an anniversary special where they brought the cast back together and looked at old scenes. They showed this scene of Fonzie teaching Richie and Ralph Malph and Potsie how to unhook a woman’s bra. They attached a bra to an internal radial heater and Fonzie would just go over and snap his fingers and open the bra. I remember thinking that I learned that it was important to adequately know how to remove a woman’s bra. I learned that when I was like seven or eight years old because of Happy Days…How many of those types of learning experiences did I experience over the years?…It made me realize that, as a parent and as a person, an individual, I need to be very aware of the content that I’m allowing into the house, the…content I’m allowing into my children’s heads as well as my own. I started to realize we just need to be more discerning.

Even now, we’ll start watching a show and we’ll enjoy it and then we’ll start realizing they’re sneaking things in here that aren’t appropriate. There’s more shows than not that we end up having to give up. We start to see an agenda in the kind of content that they’re trying to push into people’s families.

JWK: I see where you’re coming from. But at least Happy Days did present characters that were essentially kind. The major problem I have with television these days is the lack of kindness shown even by the main characters. There’s an underlying meanness that runs through many shows that wasn’t present back then.

Greg Willits: Oh, yeah.  You’re right but the point is it’s the little things…Happy Days had a lot of positive aspects. It was a funny show and it did have kindness — they were kind to each other. The fact that I saw that scene and remembered it, it was like that was just a little chink in my armor at an early age. It just made me realize the need to just be discerning across the board — not to be an absolute prude but to be discerning, to be aware, rather than just accepting whatever comes our way.

JWK: Are there any recent movies or TV shows that you find to reflect the values that you want your children to be exposed to.

Greg Willits:  One show that’s on TV right now that we love and that we sometimes let our kids watch — not always but sometimes — is The Middle with Patricia Heaton. We love The Middle. We think that that is one of the best sitcoms (and) most realistic sitcoms. Very similar to our book, it shows a family trying to do the best they can but often times making mistakes and stumbling along the way and realizing the need to improve.. The Middle is something we definitely enjoy.

And, of course, we’ve enjoyed shows like Lost and such. Right now we’re kind of searching for a good Lost replacement.

JWK: I have to agree with you there. Lost was a great show which dealt with faith in a positive way, I think.

Greg Willits: Yeah, and, even though that had problematic elements to it also, becoming discerning, we’re able to look at it from a perspective of “Would we allow our children to watch that?” No. But “Are there things there that we could talk to our children about?” Yeah. That is one way that we would look at a show like Lost.

JWK:  So tell me about your work with new media.

Jennifer Willits: It’s such a…far reaching platform (that) allows us to better evangelize. Never before have we lived in a time where (you) could speak to the ends of the Earth from the comfort of your living room.  All you need is a computer with an internet connection. That’s a lot of power that one person has, technically. And, with that, comes great responsibility.

So, it’s very important for both Greg and myself to be involved in the new media format and old media. It’s never this or that…We need to take advantage of all forms of media to help spread the Good News through any way we can.  Right now, Greg and I feel very blessed that the form of new media participation for us is through the radio ministry — but also includes print, it includes maintaining web sites, also releasing podcasts. Now while the Rosary Army podcast isn’t an active podcast — meaning new episodes are no longer being produced for that particular production — we now have Catholics Next Door podcast so that pieces of our show can be freely made available to a larger audience. It’s just important to stay on top of that technology and that the Catholic Church can continue to have a voice online. There are millions of people who spend an enormous amount of time online.  So the Church needs to be there and strongly represented.  Greg and I are just doing our small little part to participate in that mission.

For more on the Willits, you can catch them here appearing on Catholic TV’s This is the Day.

2. October Baby remains healthy at the box office. The Samuel Goldwyn Films  and Provident Films release posted another strong showing during its second-week box office, claiming the No. 2 spot for films in fewer than 500 theaters (it played in 387) and the No. 7 per screen average spot.  While controversial with the the national media because it deals with the subject of what happens when a child survives an attempted abortion, filmmakers Jon and Andy Erwin say the movie is really about forgiveness and healing.

“People don’t leave the theater arguing their views on abortion,” says Andy,  “but, it does open conversations that are spilling into the lobbies and parking lots of theaters, and we’re hearing that those conversations are meaningful to people.”

In its opening weekend last week, the movie claimed the No. 8 spot at the box office (No. 1 in limited release) with competition that included the highly-hyped blockbuster The Hunger Games.

With box office success, Goldwyn and Provident plan to hold theater count steady until Easter then expand April 13, possibly to 150 additional theaters.

October Baby stars John Schneider (Smallville, Dukes of Hazzard), Jasmine Guy (A Different World), and newcomers Rachel Hendrix and Jason Burkey and tells the story of 19-year-old Hannah, who discovers she’s adopted and the survivor of an attempted abortion. With friends from college, she hits the road to find answers and locate her birth mother. Ultimately, she finds the power of forgiveness.

“As Christians, October Baby reflects our values,” Jon says, “but it isn’t a political statement; it’s a life-affirming statement. It’s starting conversations all over the map about the subject, and we’re glad for that.”

In support of its life-affirming theme, the producers are assigning 10 percent of the film’s profits to the Every Life Is Beautiful Fund. The money will be distributed to organizations helping women face crisis pregnancies, to life-affirming adoption agencies and agencies caring for orphans.

3. Everything Sacred.  That, in my humble opinion, would have been a better title this short-lived 1997 ABC series co-created by Jesuit priest Bill Cain and producer Bill Manson. Instead, apparently in somebody’s misguided attempt to seem “edgy,” they called it Nothing Sacred, a title that turned off the very people who would be attracted to a show that treated faith and religion with intelligence and respect.

Anyway, this being Easter, I thought it a good time to share this particular clip from the show.

I’ll be off until Tuesday. Have a happy and blessed Easter everyone.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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