Storytellers Shape Spiritual Values


This article originally appeared in Issue# 57

The question, "Who tells the stories?" is one of special significance to those working in the church or synagogue in today's media age. Who imagines the world for us and what are the procedures by which they do so? What story do they tell? George Gerbner pinpoints the importance of the question when he notes; "Children used to grow up in a home where parents told most of the stories. Today television tells most of the stories to most of the people most of the time."

When parents cease being the primary story-tellers, offering their children their own versions of the world, a significant shift has taken place, especially when the power of describing the world has passed into the hands of those who do not know the child personally and may have at heart interests other than the enrichment of that child's inner life. Who has the child's ear? Who has the child's eye?

In my own view, the importance of who is telling the stories cannot be overstated; it can only be understated, or worse, overlooked. Stories are told with certain interests in mind. The agenda of the new nonparental, electronic storytellers and of their new stories are obvious to anyone who watches television at the times children are expected to be watching. The basic interests are commercial, that is, toward selling. To name and judge these interests is not to condemn them but rather to recognize the right to take "an interest" in such commercial goals and to be able to evaluate them.

Particular persons with particular interests are imaging the world for us, and these persons are faceless, unnamed and even ignored. Whose imagination of reality am I being exposed to? Is it an imagination that I can accept? In whose interests is an acceptance of this world? Can I accept this kind of behavior for myself? In others? These are the questions that demand our attention and our critique.

What Stories?

The bulk of electronically communicated signification is imaginative, entertainment oriented and plot-centered. In dealing with such material, realizing that the world is being imagined for us in an important step toward applying critical thinking to these communications.

In a world with the possibility of producing and communicating electronically at low cost vivid imaginations of what human existence is all about, it may be helpful to make a distinction between two types of culture: the culture of people and the culture produced for the consumption of people. The culture of the people is the network of messages and images and their music, dance, and ritual that express the life of a particular people.

In contrast, the process by which the world is imagined for us deserves careful study. We are confronted with the imagined self everywhere. It meets us at every turn. Unfortunately, it is not our own image of our own selves coming from our center but rather a concocted imagined self, pasted together by others and then presented to us for our consumption. They are all commercial images, because all are put together not out of a quest for truth but out of a quest for consumption, and profit, as if to say, "Here, participate in my image of your life, what life is, what it could be." What we are offered is akin to a frozen dinner, easy and filling but of questionable nourishment. The less we are aware of what is being offered us-a way of imaging ourselves-the greater the tendency to embrace it and make it our own.

Todd Gitlin, media analyst, offers this interpretation of the world presented by television: "Television's world is relentlessly up-beat, clean and materialistic. With few exceptions, prime time gives us people immersed in personal ambition. If not utterly consumed by ambition and the fear of ending up as losers, these characters take both the ambition and the fear for granted. If not surrounded by middle-class arrays of consumer goods, they themselves are glamorous incarnations of desire. The happiness they long for is private, not public; they make few demands on society as a whole, and even when troubled, they seem content with the existing institutional order. Personal ambition and consumerism are the driving forces in their lives. The sumptuous and brightly lit setting of most series amount to advertisements for a consumer-centered version of the good life."

In today's image culture, the crisis of the human spirit is the crisis of knowing what things to pay attention to. In the United States alone, there are thousands of well-paid persons whose constant preoccupation is to orchestrate the attention of the populace. In clever and subtle ways, these voices can be heard whispering, "Pay attention to this;" "No! Look over here."

Reclaiming the Stories

In the face of such pressure for attention, religious persons are especially challenged, because religion itself is a way of paying attention to matters not fully perceptible; which is to say the religious attention is a specially heightened, focused attention. The ultimate attention, from a religious standpoint, is to the presence of God. Religions people recognize, perhaps instinctively, that what we pay attention to and how we pay attention is what shapes our hearts.

I would like to propose a way of thinking and acting in our media world that may help us reclaim the power of the story, the power that gives meaning to our lives. I call it "cultural agency." In contrast to "cultural passivity," it connotes the continuing possibility of making judgements and then decisions about what we will or will not listen to or see. Cultural agency is about a level of awareness and intention, a matter of knowing or working to know which aspects of the meaning system one will accept and which ones one will resist.

Cultural agency happens when a person decides to exercise judgment and control over the kinds of cultural materials s/he will accept and reject. Thus some people decide they will not purchase or look at pornography or will not allow TV vulgarity into their homes. Many parents exercise cultural agency when they try to offer children a humanizing imagination of the world, consciously selecting toys that stimulate creative activity or games that provide noncompetitive participation.

As cultural agents, parents consciously shape the tastes of children, a task involving years of painstaking attention. At the opposite pole of such agency is the unspoken policy of "leaving it to McDonald's" to shape children's tastes.

There is sure to be pressure from other families whose tastes have been shaped by McDonald's. This is a particularly sticky problem. The only way of countering those pressures is to insist on the cultural specificity of a family's own ways-to have your own ways-to have your own ways. "This is how we do it here." "We have these values and these commitments."

It would help if we could identify other parents and families with values and judgments similar to our own. This is where the church and temple are essential and why religious institutions must address issues of media and culture in their educational and counseling programs, community life, even worship. The family is a necessary cultural agent but an insufficient one. It must be complemented by a chorus of others who help us realize we are not nuts.


  1. Not all cultural values today are counter to religious values. What aspects of our culture support or enhance religious vision and values?
  2. How often do we think about the values that underlie the media selections we make? How do we encourage "cultural agency" in ourselves? Our children? Our friends?
  3. In our religious community (of whatever faith), how do we address issues of culture in relation to our faith values? Do we only condemn what we don't like? Do we provide an opportunity for dialogue and guidance that helps adults and youth sort out what is appropriate for them and what is not?
Author Bio: 

Michael Warren, Ph.D., is a professor of theology and religious education at St. John's University in New York, the father of two children and author of Communication and Cultural Analysis: A Religious View, to be published in September 1992 by Bergin and Garvey.