I spent my sophomore year of high school as a fundamentalist Christian. My teenage years were fraught with the typical awkwardness and I-don’t-fit-in-ness just like everyone else, but it all went away when I fell in with a group of Baptists. These new Baptist friends made me feel like I belonged, like I had a purpose, like Jesus loved me in spite of my bad skin and frizzy hair.
My Baptist leanings alarmed my parents. They were (are) Christians, and I’d grown up going to church, but our church was pretty casual compared to the Baptist way of doing things. At our church nobody cared if you listened to rock music or if you went trick-or-treating on Halloween. Nobody told you to keep your Bible visible on top of your other books at school so that your fellow students could identify you as a living symbol of Christ’s love.
I started going to the Baptist church on Sundays instead of the one my parents attended. I remember informing them of my decision to attend another church, and of my newfound belief that Halloween Is Evil. I expected them to congratulate me, to tell me that I was right, that Halloween was indeed Evil, but instead they just stared at me. “Oh,” my mother said. “Okay.”
I can imagine the conversation they must have had later. “She may be a Baptist, but at least we know she’s not doing drugs.” I wasn’t cool enough to do drugs in high school, Baptist or not, but I don’t think they knew that.
My new Baptist friends didn’t listen to secular music or read secular books or do anything secular at all. When we watched movies, we watched them for Jesus. When we hung out at someone’s house, we were hanging out for Jesus. When we went to the mall, we didn’t just go to the mall. We went to the mall for Jesus. I bought Petra CDs and Guardian CDs and went to a DC Talk autograph signing. And I started reading Christian novels.
At the time, Christian novels were all about demons and the Rapture, or at least those were the ones I read. I could never find any Christian novels that weren’t about demons and the Rapture. But that was okay, because demons and the Rapture were thrilling! In the books I read, plucky protagonists dealt with large-scale demonic possessions and epic Second-Comings with their beliefs and virginities intact. These books were like airport gift shop paperbacks with a Christian theme.
I can remember the names of most of the Christian musicians I listened to, and I still know the lyrics to some of the songs, but the only Christian author’s name I can think of now is Frank Peretti. I read three of Frank Peretti’s books, but I remember just one scene, from his third novel, Prophet. The main character, rebelling against something or other, goes to a secular rock concert. He looks around at the people enjoying the concert, and he looks at the performers on the stage, and he thinks to himself, “Where are we going? Where are you taking us?”
The implication of that scene (and if I recall correctly, this was the theme of the book itself) was that you should evaluate the things you’re a fan of and the things you spend your time on based on what these things are trying to get you to do. If the message being conveyed by these things isn’t leading you to Christ, then you shouldn’t be doing them. I took it to heart at the time, and evaluated nearly everything I did with a “Where are we going? Where are you taking us?” test.
If my sophomore year was the Year of the Baptist, then my junior year was the Year of the Heavy Hand With an Eyeliner Pencil. That was the year I realized that the Baptist kids had a hierarchy of popularity just like the secular kids did. That was the year I figured out that being a Baptist wasn’t the answer for me. And that was the year I discovered Led Zeppelin. I stopped going to the Baptist church and resumed my proper place at the church I’d once attended with my parents, a proper place which involved being the president of the youth group and director of the youth-group dinner theatre. That was more about leadership and theatre than it was about Jesus, but that was fine with me, because I could listen to “Houses of the Holy” on the way to rehearsals.
I’d forgotten all about Frank Peretti and Prophet until a few days ago. I was reading a blog post about Kathy Reichs, the woman who inspired the TV show Bones, one of the many shows I watch. The writer of the post compared the characters on the show to the characters in one of Kathy Reichs’ books, and found the book to be lacking. “Of course she didn’t like the book,” I thought. “Those crappy airport murder mysteries are never any good.”
As soon as I had that thought, I stopped eating my lunch (I was at my desk at work) and looked away from my computer. Why do I watch a show based on as a book I’d never read in a million years?
I’m pretty picky about my books. I don’t read crime novels or cheesy romances or books from the poorly-named chick-lit genre. I don’t read anything put out by the Tom Clancy Industrial Complex. Outside of the free pass I gave myself on the Harry Potter series, I like my fiction to come with believable character development, an insightful point to make, or at the very least an inventive way to tell a story. Essentially, it’s “Where are we going? Where are you taking us?” applied to the relative worth of books. I don’t want to read a book if its author has nothing to say to me.
So why aren’t I so discerning with television? Why don’t I apply my guidelines for books to what I watch on TV? It’s a different medium*, but the storytelling mechanisms are, or can be, similar.
I’m going to start evaluating what I watch on TV the same way I evaluate my books, the same way I looked at everything during my sophomore year of high school. “Where are we going? Where are you taking us?” Why do I like this show? What is it trying to say to me?
I think this will be good for my television-watching habits:
I watch Psych because I feel smart when I get the eighties references. Nope! Gone.
I watch How I Met Your Mother because I like Neil Patrick Harris and his character is funny. Not good enough. Gone.
I watch House because Hugh Laurie’s American accent is just that impressive. Sorry. Gone.
I’m only going to watch Heroes until they try to sell me another Nissan, and then it’s gone. But God help me, I’m still on the fence about Bones. It’s really just CSI for people who liked Buffy and The X-Files, and on its best days it’s only as good as the mediocre episodes of the latter two. But I think the show has good characters, and the dialogue is well-written. Come to think of it, I might be on the fence about House, too.
Okay, it’s clear that this new system isn’t going to be exact. But for someone like me, whose self-loathing muscles are never so flexed as when she’s spending her sixth straight hour watching a show she isn’t even sure she likes, at least it’s a start.
*I think that at this point, television exists almost exclusively to support advertising. That doesn’t mean that good work can’t be done on TV, or that good stories can’t be told. They’re just not told that often.