The Objectifying of (Miss) America

So, there’s much hype as always about the new Miss America being crowned at what CNN labels a “jazzed-up pageant.” Another beautiful young woman will now have the opportunity to travel and speak about her platform, in exchange for objectifying herself in front of a nationwide television audience.

Was that critical? Oops.

Perhaps part of my issue that I can’t stand fake things, and there’s something about beauty pageants that screams fake to me (could it be the plastic smiles or the tragically uneducated answers? Perhaps…). Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for the winners in the sense that they have a chance to advocate some (typically) worthwhile causes and that they win scholarship money and all, but I think my real issue is with the objectification.

I love beauty. I appreciate looking at beautiful women. I’m heartbroken, however, at how the path to success and fortune for beautiful women in America’s entertainment industry is marked by putting their bodies on display for whomever may want to lust after them along the way, and forever and ever at that, as pictures never come off the Internet once they’re on. I’ve talked about my opinion of the entertainment industry here before; about how there shouldn’t be an industry, and how it has succeeded in destroying many a young celebrity along the way, most notably, of late, being Britney Spears. There’s a line where any good thing becomes gratuitous. The long-term effects of women (or men) placing their bodies on display in order to move up the ladder of success is damaging beneath its flashy veneer, and the concept is, at its core, a very voyeuristic and twisted idea. It moves us all, both those who look and those are looked upon, into a realm of captivity of sorts. Ironic in my mind that it is considered a freedom.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not some hyper-conservative religious fundamentalist who thinks that women must cover themselves from head to toe. I’m just recognizing that something changes when we take a beautiful woman wearing a bikini on the beach or an evening gown at dinner, and place her under the stage lights for everyone to gaze upon. Outside of the context of story, I can’t help but think that this moves into the realm of the gratuitous, just like when artistic nudity is replaced with pornography.

Why is that we cannot hold pageants based upon intellect, and public speaking ability, and social activism along with beauty? Why can we not have more discussion and less modeling? Might that not do something to advance us culturally, instead of leaving us in the realm of vacuous prime time entertainment?

The problem is, I think, that our standards are low enough that we legitimately desire that vacuous entertainment. And that’s indicative of a much, much deeper issue.

The Death of Storytelling, Part 2

Some further reflection on this idea came up during conversations tonight, primarily the connection between the passing away of the art of (personal) storytelling, and the difficulty of our age with having faith.

Go back with me for a moment to the ancients, who lived like 900 years according to Biblical accounts. I imagine it would be much easier to have faith in something like the creation narrative when you had someone talking to you who had been there a few hundred years before. You can argue logic, science, and theory all day, but you really cannot argue with someone’s personal experience.

Karen told me today about a family we know, the father in whom had difficulty relaying to his children stories from his past. It was a huge event for them when he finally did so, and, in fact, they felt deprived of something until he began. Our faith was initially passed on orally, and the spoken word held so much power in nearly every culture for centuries. Now that we have attempted to replace that with something meant to augment it or walk alongside it (i.e.: the visual), we have become much more prone to fall into the realm of strict objectivity. This is a deadly cause of harmful forms of doubt as we are faced with shorter and shorter life spans. I find it difficult to even imagine Vietnam. When I no longer have my father’s stories to paint a picture of it in my mind, that ability to accurately imagine it will grow even more dim. I could easily see how history can be forgotten with this effect. Already we have those who claim that the Holocaust never occurred.

If we lose our passion for telling the story, then we lose the primary evidence we have for believing that history happened: personal experiences. Even generations removed, the accurate re-telling of someone’s personal experiences, even if they are long since passed away, hold enormous power. Similarly, the records of Christ’s life hold power to us today. God did not inspire writers for no reason.

Further, we have to turn from the the fact that we have forsaken instilling a love for fantasy and magic and miracles in our children for the instilling a love for objective science. No wonder it is difficult for us to believe in miracles when we haven’t grown up being told that the fantastic and unexplainable can, in fact, happen. Thus, we make the fatal leap in logic that a miracle cannot occur because we’ve never seen one (“a virgin can’t have a baby…when have you ever seen that happen?”).

To illustrate truth, Jesus used fiction. He told parables to paint what He needed to say about life. How is it that we have grown so obsessed with analyzing that life that we’ve forgotten the way He modeled perpetuating it? If we don’t re-discover this passion, I tremble for our future. I truly, truly do.

The Death of Storytelling

During the time I’ve worked with adolescents, I’ve discovered a frightening dis-interest in reading or communicating experiences. I remember a high school student saying about Scriptures to me at one point that, “If it were a movie, I’d watch it.” Don’t get me wrong, I love film, but we can never permit it to replace literature.

Something else I’ve noticed as a disturbing trend is how adolescents have a horrible distaste for writing, or re-telling what has happened to them. Instead of using the ability to post photos or video of an event to assist others in experiencing their story, the desire to tell the story has been completely replaced by posting photos or video. The next generation has lost its desire to tell stories.

Now, I’m generalizing a great deal. I’m worked with and know many of that age who don’t fall into the problem of which I’m writing here. I’m speaking as a rule, though. Listen to the average middle school (or jr. high, depending on your locale) student when asked to write a story from their lives. Talk about a deer-in-headlights look.

What would the world look like if we lost the art of story telling? I don’t mean documentary recording, I mean story telling. Even the Scriptures were first primarily transmitted orally. I fear it is something that may die in our culture if we don’t do something to resuscitate it, and quickly.

I was grilling out with some family this weekend. While standing on my uncle’s deck, we became engaged in conversation with my uncle’s neighbor, who was also grilling out on his deck (don’t you just love suburbia?). This guy was a missionary, and had a million stories to tell. He said that his wife was a writer (just as I was about to offer my ghostwriting services) and planned to record his memoirs some day. I hope they do.

Or my grandfather on my wife’s side, who has tremendous war stories to tell, and who we may not have much longer. To have a life pass is not that tragic with the certainty that we will see that person again. But to lose the stories…our culture will suffer for that.

There is a private library where we live that has many letters and diaries and journals from those long since gone. Karen loves to go there and explore…she even did a paper on it in grad school. At first I thought it wasn’t really my thing, but how amazing to have those stories preserved.

Every life forever alters history, and irrevocably touches those around it. To honor that life by preserving its story must be the highest respect we can pay. If we lose our cultural aptitude for telling the story, we will have lost our link to our past, and, to overuse a cliche, be doomed to repeat it. We would also lose the fascination for telling fictional stories, one of humanity’s greatest creative endeavors. We would have lost so much, and it would be so difficult to regain.

What do we do to prevent this from happening? Well, the education system doesn’t seem to be working, so who knows. Perhaps spending time with people instead of working two jobs, or placing our elderly in nursing homes instead of listening to them. Whatever it is, we must do it quickly, or be forced to treat the literary casualties of a generation.

Flying on Instruments

There’s a ton of science fiction out there that loves to play with our perceptions of reality…like the ending sequence of Men In Black with the world being on a marble that a giant alien is playing with, or later looking out of the locker door at a giant bus station. Its interesting to give ourselves some mental gymnastics with the concept, but at the end of the day, most of us who consider ourselves reasonable will laugh it off.

In the last week, I’ve been led to do some spiritual gymnastics with the concept, though. Our world and environments are so observable, so testable. We’re obsessed with what we can measure and analyze in our industrialized culture…which leads to the Tillichian explanation that our cultural angst results in the fact that we cannot reconcile our more abstract spiritual life with our touchable physical environment.

But what if, as Lewis claims, the spiritual environment is actually much more real?

We tend to not be able to see past our stuff because we’ve deified science, which is so horribly limited, and so we can’t see past what we can touch, taste, and test. We’ve even attempted to reduce the spiritual abstract to a science with this sketchy little endeavor called theology. Similarly, we’ve reduced the complexity of the human intelligence and soul to the science of psychology. Both sciences are useful to a point, but somewhere we’ve made them their own point…sort of like doing art for art’s sake. When that happens, we’ve missed the point. We can’t simply analyze people or God, we must enter relationships with them if we are to know them. We can’t hold them at arms’ length and claim any accurate knowledge or experience. We do well to claim that in the midst of them.

I’ve become strikingly convinced in the last week that what we see as tangible is only a frame of reference, a perception. What we physically interact with is only a result of the vastly larger spiritual realm we’ve convinced ourselves into thinking is much smaller than it is, or even secondary. Or, in the cases of some, even non-existent. Ask anyone who has encountered a ghost, or an angel. They’ll happily tell you the spiritual realm exists. Its just that our analytical, scientific little minds can’t perceive it.

Tillich would say that this is where the artist is superior, because they are almost always separated from mathematical formulae. I don’t think it is a case of superiority, or that the awareness of the spiritual falls to the artist alone. I think a bit of open-mindedness and introspection would lead most of us there. And, once we arrived, I imagine our lives would be irrevocably altered.

Perhaps, though, this is why many never make the leap.