The Residue of Culture-
The Residue of Culture: An Ellulian Dialogic Analysis
of Religious Imagery in a Network Television Drama
Rick Clifton Moore
Department of Communication
Boise State University
1910 University Drive
Boise, ID 83725
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This essay uses the work of Postman and Ellul to examine the
conflict between religious ideology and the ideology of technological societies
A technopoly (Postman's term) must shun religious world views. Yet cultural
elements that are deeply imbedded in a society cannot be easily discarded.
Religious and technological world views, then, should sometimes clash. Through
an analysis of an episode of Picket Fences, I attempt to understand how that
clash is presented in the media.
In Technopoly, cultural critic Neil Postman argues that the
technological state has developed to a point where it will allow no competitors.
A technopolic world view is one in which technical efficiency and progress are
the consummate values. Whereas in the 19th century (a period Postman calls
"technocracy") many world views were able to coexist, in 20th century all
thought worlds that compete with technopoly disappear. Among these alternative
thought worlds is religion, which Postman argues is made invisible and therefore
irrelevant in technopoly.
In this paper, I analyze the possibility of both the invisibility
and the irrelevance of religion within a technopolistic world, specifically
looking at one instance of such invisibility and irrelevance, the depiction of
religion in a prime-time television drama. Using the work of Neil Postman and
Jacques Ellul I investigate the conflict between a technopolistic world view and
a theological world view in an episode of the program Picket Fences.
Mass Media in Jacques Ellul's Technological Society
Postman's basic orientation toward the technological world is
greatly influenced by the work of French social theorist Jacques Ellul. Ellul is
the author of over forty books on sociology and theology, most of them focusing
on his overarching theory of technique. For Ellul, the transition from the
traditional world to the modern world is not conditioned on the amount or type
of machines we use, but a fundamental way of looking at our place in the world.
Whereas in previous milieus human beings used tools and machines to accomplish
specific tasks within specific historical and cultural settings, today's world
is one in which humans are so enamored with technology that the machine becomes
the model for society. As Cliff Christians and Michael Real describe it, "we are
beguiled enough by machine productivity to reconstruct almost unconsciously all
our social institutions on this model" (Christians and Real, 1979, p. 84).
Technique, then, is the elevation of means over ends, the worship of mechanistic
Ellul, coming from a staunchly Judeo-Christian world view, argues
that such worship is all-encompassing. One cannot worship technique and God.
Accordingly, for the technological society to move forward, all
citizens must be consistently reminded of their allegiance to it. This is why
such a large part of Ellul's oeuvre relates to the mass media. The media are
essential components in the world of technique. As the technological world
becomes somewhat cold and heartless it is necessary for its citizens to be
reminded of their allegiance to it. As Ellul states it, "In the midst of
increasing mechanization and technological organization, propaganda is simply
the means used to prevent these things from being felt as too oppressive and to
persuade man to submit with good grace"(Ellul, 1965, p. xviii). Such submission
must be all inclusive. Ellul argues that "technique has taken over the whole of
civilization"(Ellul, 1964, p. 128). Technique has crossed over all geographic
boundaries and spreads thoroughly through the institutions of the nations that
those boundaries represent. Soon, all social institutions of a modern society
are oriented toward technique.
Recognizing both the Judeo-Christian orientation of Ellul and the
Judeo-Christian elements of some facets of American society, however, the reader
might question the outcome of clashes between the "religious" element of the
technological world (the worship of efficiency and the technological state) and
the "religious" elements imbedded in American culture (the theological component
of western civilization as a whole and American culture and civics
particularly). There would seem to be a clash between the religion of the new
world and the religion of the old world.
Postman addresses this issue by suggesting that the religion of the
new world is fundamentally different from the religion of the old. By suggesting
that Technopoly has made religion invisible he is not suggesting that it does
not exist, rather, that it does not exist in its original form. Technopoly is
successful in "redefining what we mean by religion"(Postman, 1992, p. 48).
Postman's shortcoming, however, is in suggesting that such a
redefinition is a one time event which occurs in the technocratic world (which,
as mentioned earlier is a how Postman defines the world of the 19th century). He
maintains that in that era the traditional world clashed with the modern world
and something had to give. The machinery of the modern world was already in
place, but the minds of the people were not prepared for the massive assault of
such machinery. The people were not ready because their minds had been formed in
a traditional world, a world he calls "tool-using." Postman (1992, p. 46) claims
these people bore the "troublesome residue of a tool-using period." His
assertion is that such residue had to be removed, and it was. When we move to
technopoly, an authoritarian form of technocracy, alternatives are eliminated.
Yet we must note that a culture cannot simply ignore a religion
that has been a dominant cultural element for 2000 years, and total redefinition
does not seem possible. To move to a specific example within the mass media,
Postman would be correct in assessing that television programming in the 1990s
usually shows little or no connection to established Christian religious belief.
Yet there are times in the year when such connections are difficult to avoid. In
December, to choose the most obvious manifestation, numerous television shows
work a Christmas theme into their normal format. While Postman would argue that
"Christmas" in these programs means something completely different from
"Christmas" as a religious holiday (or holy day), this manifestation still
stands as evidence that technopoly has natural barriers in its path to cultural
The point is that "residue" still remains, even in a technopolistic
world. Such residue must be dealt with. Ellul suggests this much in his most
media-oriented work Propaganda. The reader must be aware that Ellul visualizes
propaganda not as a specific, biased, communication phenomenon, but as an
integral system of modern communication. As Real explains it, "Ellul redefines
it (propaganda) as a universal condition which pervades all individual lives in
industrially advanced societies"(Real, 1981, p. 110). Basically, technique
becomes the determining factor in the flow of information. In this environment,
preexisting ideologies cannot be ignored altogether. Ellul claims that there
will be times in the technological society when certain ideologies command
belief among the masses and might be an obstacle to the goals of the
technological state (Ellul, 1962, p. 197). Such ideologies might even provide
the citizen with "criteria for judgment," a phenomenon that would likely defeat
efficiency. As Ellul sees it,
In this case the propagandist must be careful not to run head-on
into a prevailing ideology; all he can do is integrate it into his system, use
some parts of it, deflect it, and so on. Secondly, he must ask himself whether
the ideology, such as it is, can be used for his propaganda; whether it has
psychologically predisposed an individual to submit to propaganda's impulsions.
For Ellul, then, cultural residues are not eliminated in the
technological society, but must be dealt with within the broader realm of
propaganda. The mass media must occasionally adopt these residues and adapt them
to their purposes.
Ellul is one of many modern scholars who have shown interest in the
way the media deal with conflicting ideologies. Dialogism is a popular method of
media analysis that examines that issue. Originally borrowed from the work of
Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1981), dialogic analysis attempts to
understand how "meaning is constructed socially through the interaction of a
variety of languages that emanate from a given text" (Parry-Giles & Traudt,
1989, p. 147). Bakhtin's vision of the novel insisted on an "interplay of
dialogues" within a given social system (Hoy, 1992, p. 765). He used the term
heteroglossia to refer to the multi-vocal characteristic of the medium.
Horace Newcomb (1984) was instrumental in introducing dialogism to
mass media scholars. Working with Bakhtin's original ideas, Newcomb claimed that
television critics can study the utterances of characters within a program.
Clearly, in any such product, there will be a variety of speakers. Just as a
novel, it is considered dialogic because it is "shot through with many
coinciding voices" (Shevtsova, 1992, p. 753). Each of these voices represents
something. For example, in the world of television drama "each character
responds to the central ideologies from a different perspective" (Newcomb, 1984,
p. 41). In doing so, the characters create what Newcomb calls "character zones."
These character zones overlap and conflict, revealing much about the program as
a whole. As Parry-Giles and Traudt (1991, p. 147) point out, one goal of
dialogic analysis is to "discover how the utterance mixes and is changed by its
conflict with other utterances." Newcomb proposed that by examining these
character zones and their interaction within the television program one could
understand the hegemonic intention of the script. That is, one could determine
the ideological orientation of the text as a whole.
Such a task is important from an Ellulian perspective. After all,
our perception of characters in many ways has an impact on our perception of
ourselves and our own world view. Ellul relates this closely to the role of
From then on, the individual in the clutches of such sociological
propaganda believes that those who live this way are on the side of the angels,
and those who don't are bad; those who have this conception of society are
right, and those who have another conception are in error. (Ellul, 1962, p.
Which characters are confirmed and which are not thus becomes an
important element in textual analysis. Beyond examining specific statements in a
text, we must look at the conflict and resolution involving those statements.
Ellul claims this is especially true of television as a medium, because of its
tendency toward process rather than product. Viewers enter into the dialogue in
such a way that "the possibility of reacting and criticizing is accordingly
reduced" (Ellul, 1981, p. 360). Most television viewers, then, are unaware of
these ideological dimensions of the text. The critics job is to help them become
Picket Fences is a dramatic series produced by David E. Kelley
Productions for CBS. It began its run in 1992 and is still on the air. The drama
has earned a loyal audience and a good deal of critical praise, including a
number of Emmy awards. Moreover, it is arguable that the cultural residue of
religion is more noticeable in Picket Fences than in most other network dramas.
Several critics have noted the show's tendency to contain religious themes.
Producer Kelley once stated "If we're different from other shows, it isn't that
we've accented religion, but we have not pretended that it's not there"
(Broadway, 1994). Such a comment calls to mind Postman's point that in
technopoly, many television shows do pretend religion is not there.
The episode of Picket Fences examined here begins with scenes of a
Christmas caroling event in the town of Rome, Wisconsin, the normal setting for
the weekly drama. As carolers sing "Away in a Manger," the image cuts to a tight
close-up of a spherical, white object moving through the December sky. As a
whooshing sound effect changes to a thud, we see what turns out to be a snowball
as it hits the head of a statue of Christ. Immediately, the local priest, Father
Barrett, confronts the perpetrator, commenting that he saw the act. In a
semi-serious tone, the priest tells Matthew Brock that the young lad might end
up in a place "where there are no snowballs." The boy's mother, Jill Brock,
happens to be a respected doctor in the small community, and asks Matthew, her
oldest son, if he will behave and listen to the carols.
As the caroling scene continues, the director begins crosscutting
to another location. Jimmy Brock, husband of Jill and the town sheriff, is busy
pulling a car from an icy body of water. The crosscutting continues until the
carolers finish their song and Jimmy Brock and his crew fail in their attempt to
revive a young woman they have pulled out of the car. Jill Brock listens to the
final words the carolers utter, manifesting a rather confused expression of
contentment and concern. The scene fades to black and the title sequence rolls.
Presumed to be dead, the young woman is examined by the local
coroner. As he holds a scalpel over her chest, he is surprised by a swift
movement of her hand which prevents his intended investigation. She is swiftly
taken to the hospital. The revival of Dana Marshall (to a comatose state) causes
a stir in the small town, but that is just the start of the stirring. In
speaking with the coroner, Jill Brock adds a new twist to the plot. Her
examination has determined that Dana is four months pregnant. The coroner
objects. He did a thorough examination in what was supposed to be an autopsy and
found the young woman to be a virgin.
At this point a brief subplot is introduced. Snowball hurler
Matthew Brock is in the process of telling his younger brother Zachary that
there is no Santa Claus. He explains all the gory details. Parents sneak
presents into the house, pilfer letters to Mr. Claus, and run other forms of
interference. Christmas for Zack is not going to be what it used to be.
But it is Christmas nonetheless, and the people of the town are
very quick to make a connection between Dana Marshall and the virgin birth of
Jesus. Even the town clergy enter the discussion, though they are aware of two
negative possibilities. One is that there is a legitimate connection to the
original virgin birth, which might cause quite a commotion. The other
possibility is that this is a hoax. Not wanting to appear foolish, the clergy
try to keep things quiet until they can decide a course of action.
Joining the clergy in their agnosticism is Jill Brock. She explains
to Jimmy that her textbooks cannot possibly explain what she has seen. Maybe, it
is a miracle. She's willing to consider that. On her flanks are two people with
stronger opinions. The coroner, Carter Pike, is immediately suspicious and
begins searching for purely scientific explanations (his first is that Dana, who
is known to be a devout Catholic, is suffering religious delusions of being the
virgin Mary and impregnated herself with a long, thin, straw). Dana's
gynecologist, Dr. Haber, objects. He is a religious man and takes offense at
Pike's claim that religious people are prone to schizophrenia. He later reveals
his strong belief in the possibility of a miraculous cause.
Jill faces pressures from both directions. As a doctor she wants to
adhere to the scientific view. As a member of a society with deep religious
traditions, she does not want to discount the possibility of a miracle. Her
discomfort is increased when the next major plot twist occurs. Dana Marshall
starts experiencing medical complications as a result of the baby. Jill explains
to Dana's father that there is little chance his daughter will survive if the
pregnancy continues. And, there is no chance the baby will survive if Dana does
not. The father recommends that Jill terminate the pregnancy. Since Dana cannot
make a decision on her own, however, Jill must ask the local judge to decide the
matter. Flamboyant local attorney Douglas Wambaugh takes the case to the judge.
At this point the clergy step forward to request an injunction against the
abortion. Still claiming agnosticism in regards to the deity of the unborn
baby, they feel they must prevent its demise and they ask smooth-talking
attorney Franklin Dell to plead their case. The judge agrees to a hearing on the
Meanwhile, Zack continues to wrestle with the existence of Santa
Claus. He goes to a local department store and purposefully visits the phony
Saint Nick twice in a successful attempt to verify the fraud. Later, his parents
try to reinstate their child's belief in the holiday persona. But, in doing so,
they recognize that he is just as confused about the existence of God as he is
the existence of Santa Claus. Older brother Matthew (who knows there is no
Santa) manifests a greater interest in the former, asking his older sister about
the biblical account of the virgin birth. Jill, who is eavesdropping on their
conversation, is flabbergasted by Kimberly's inability to explain the event to
her younger brother.
She has little time to worry about this, however, as the pressing
matter of the virgin mother progresses. When the hearing begins, Dr. Haber is
brought to the stand and claims there is no medical explanation. On
cross-examination, he claims that the fact that Dana was a virgin means the
pregnancy must be supernatural. A quick edit to Jill Brock under examination by
Wambaugh shows the difference between her and Dr. Haber. She does not see it as
supernatural. But, the assertive Franklin Dell confronts her on this issue,
asking her if she believes Mary experienced a virgin birth. Jill lowers her eyes
and answers yes.
Wambaugh confronts Doctors Brock and Haber outside the courtroom,
claiming both neglected their medical duties to their patient Dana Matthews.
Brock briefly claims that she merely told the truth. Haber, however, responds
very defensively, claiming he is tired of having his religion trod upon. He then
turns to Brock and denounces her, claiming that she was ashamed of her faith.
Here is where the major conflict of the show comes through. In Dana
Marshall's hospital room, Jill Brock discusses the confrontation with her
husband. "Do we really believe in God?", she asks. He briefly reassures her with
an "Of course!" answer. But this doesn't satisfy Jill. She recognizes that they
"dance around religion." They never confront it. Jimmy explains that he is sure
of the presence of his belief, but not its nature. Given his uncertainty about
some biblical tales, he finds it easiest to keep his distance from God, knowing
he is out there, but "not getting in the same room with him." Jill, stares at
Dana, a patient for whom she can do nothing, and seems to wonder whether it
might not be better to have God in the same room with her. She presumes that
without a miracle it will be necessary to either abort the baby or watch mother
and child slowly die.
The judge seems in the same predicament as Jill is. After a brief
scene in which he visits a church to pray, he is seen in his courtroom listening
to closing arguments. It is time for him to decide. Just as the judge is about
to read his decision, however, deputies burst into the courtroom telling him his
judgment is moot. Dana Marshall has come out of her coma and can now speak for
herself. People hasten to the hospital. One of the first to arrive is Dr. Haber
who insists that he should care for the woman. As he approaches her, though, he
is quickly arrested. DNA tests have shown that he is the father of the child
(having artificially inseminated her with a syringe). The story that Dana had
come out of her coma was a ploy. Authorities used it in hopes that Haber would
move in such a way that would prove his guilt. Sure enough, a quick search
reveals a hypodermic presumed to contain nitroglycerin (which would induce
cardiac arrest in his patient and prevent her from informing). Jill asks Haber
why he would do such a thing. He claims that his actions allowed people all over
the world to regain hope. Even Jill, he claims, received that hope.
Having his key reason for a court case evaporate, the judge gives
Dana's father the go ahead to terminate the pregnancy. A discussion with Jill
Brock reveals that Mr. Marshall has never been certain about the rightness of
such a move. Jill explains that it is unlikely Dana will ever regain
consciousness and tries to convince him to let the pneumonia run its course. As
they speak, Dana suddenly cries out, coming out of her coma. Her father exults
in the occurrence, and Jill immediately calls in the technicians and their
equipment. When she has a moment to stop and think, she speaks to Jimmy,
explaining that such sudden changes are rare, but they do happen. She does not
use the word miracle.
As the show concludes, the Brock family huddles together near the
fireplace of their small-town American home. They all listen attentively as
Jimmy reads a passage about the existence of Santa Claus. He warmly announces
"Thank God, he lives. He lives forever. A thousand years from now, nay, ten
times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of
childhood." When the reading is completed, Zachary states "I like that ending."
Jimmy and Jill respond in agreement.
The Dialogic Nature of "Cross Examination"
The opening shots of this episode forewarn the viewer about the
acerbic nature of the dialogue within. Certainly a snowball striking an icon of
Christ is dramatic enough to make the viewer realize this is no mild mannered
Christmas special. More than this though, the opening sequence as a whole shows
dialogue. One world is the old world of town squares with manger scenes and
citizens gathered in a tradition. The other world is a high technology world
with sounds of sirens, wenches, medical equipment and the screaming voices of
people experiencing the pains of anomie. In one venue, carolers and their
audience use candles to light their way through a centripetal community event.
In the other, scuba divers and EMTs use electronic search lights in
investigating a centrifugal event. The two scenes focus on two different sets of
technology, and Postman argues that different technologies produce different
The focus of this show is the collision of those thought worlds.
Jill Brock is in the path of the collision. She has struggled with spiritual
issues in other episodes. In this one the struggle is a major plot element.
Being placed between people who seem much more certain of their orientation
toward religion, Brock is perplexed. She is presented with utterances from
several key characters which lead her to question her own world view. This
element is a crucial part of dialogue of the show. Through the juxtaposition of
Zachary's questions about Santa Claus and Jill's questions about her faith in
God, we get a sense of her discomfort. She tells herself that she has always
believed in God, but increasingly lives in a world that operates as if he does
not exist. Or, perhaps it is a world that talks like he does but behaves as if
he does not. Zachary is the same way with Saint Nick. The juxtapositions
mentioned above are far from subtle.
A more subtle juxtaposition in the episode is the one between key
characters who represent varying points on a religious-technopolistic spectrum.
These other characters represent dialectical alternatives more than Zachary
does. The young boy is in many ways a reflection of Jill, not an alternative.
The strongest alternatives in this episode are Dr. Haber and Carter Pike. These
two stand as alternative world views Jill could consider.
In Newcomb's terminology, they offer us clear character zones.
Haber, offers one extreme. He is confident of his faith and seems
willing to let it have an impact on his everyday life. His utterance suggests
that God should play a major role in human affairs. This is demonstrated clearly
in the closing arguments in the courtroom. Franklin Dell, the lawyer for the
church states it succinctly.
What has happened in this country that has made us so ashamed of
believing in God? Politicians are schooled never to bring it up. Try saying a
prayer in school and its "Quick, call the ACLU!. Oh no, it's all right to be
religious. But for God's sake, keep it to yourself. Whatever you do, don't tell
anybody. You'll be labeled a zealot, a ranting demagogue, an idiot. I'll tell
you, judge, this country is in moral decay. Maybe it's time we stopped
punishing people for bringing their religious and moral concerns into our
This basically reiterates the point Haber makes outside the
courtroom when confronted by Wambaugh. In that utterance, Haber sounds as if he
is pronouncing a creed. Basically, he disregards the advice of those Attorney
Dell speaks of when he says "Whatever you do, don't tell anybody." Haber tells
Wambaugh very succinctly what he believes. Jill watches him as he does.
We watch him also, wondering about the viability of this world view
alternative. And, at this point in the show Haber is presented as a reasonable
alternative. Peter Michael Goetz, who plays the role, is well groomed and
portrays the character as amiable and conversant. He is presented as a physician
and thus a scientists who claims he sometimes has difficulty understanding the
world when trying to do so from both scientific and religious perspectives. It
is also clear that when the scientific perspective does not answer a question,
he quickly turns to religion for the answer. Jill seems to have some affinity
for him and even admits that he was correct when he pointed out that she was
ashamed of her faith.
Yet Haber's world view is eventually discounted by the script. The
point this episode tries to make is that he really is a zealot, a ranting
demagogue, an idiot. In fact, the director of the show foreshadows the dismissal
of the character in the courtroom scene. As Franklin Dell gave his speech on the
need for religious conviction, the director occasionally cut to members of the
audience. When Dell spoke of zealots, demagogues, and idiots, the camera cut to
The discounting of Haber's world view is not without cost. This
character claimed to have hope, and he was trying to spread that hope. That is
how he defends his actions as he is hauled off to jail. His view of God is one
in which God intervenes in human affairs (and, apparently humans must sometimes
take part in that intervention). The clergy in the episode are mandated to take
this view and seem aware of that mandate. Yet they are fearful and distance
themselves from the whole affair as much as possible.
When Haber is whisked away, his utterance goes with him. The
audience is no longer led to perceive his ideology as a reasonable one. The next
scene is in the judge's chambers, where Carter Pike takes over the dialogue. His
utterance is dominant. He doubted the miraculous all along and proclaims he was
proven correct in his belief that everything was to be explained by modern
science and technology. When speaking of Haber and his crime, Pike states "This
is the exact bipolar disorder I've been describing. I thought it was her; It
turns out is was him." For Pike, the world is to be organized by science and
rationality. His aversion to theological world views is revealed outside the
courtroom, just as Haber's was. When Wambaugh and Sheriff Brock have nearly
given up on finding a scientific explanation for the events, Pike does not. He
states. "If that judge finds this could be divine, we look like fools. We can't
give up." Any explanation beyond the natural, is unacceptable within this
Pike's utterance, then, is a stark contrast to Haber's. It rules
out the possibility of the miraculous altogether. Though the technological
society finds this cold rationality appealing, it is not without its problems.
In this case, Jill and her specialists sit next to Dana Marshall's bed, knowing
everything they can possibly know about her illness and still feeling helpless.
Once Pike determines that the pregnancy is not miraculous, he is content. Yet
Jill is not. For her, the pain of watching an innocent young girl and her unborn
child suffer is valid reason to question the detached logic of a mechanistic
world. At one point in the script she seems to realize that there are times when
the only thing she can do is pray. Yet such prayer would deny the utterance of
Carter Pike, a technological utterance devoid of spirituality.
Such denial comes in the next scene. Dana's father has consistently
been portrayed as a devoutly religious man. Yet near the end of the script he
has been swayed by the technological utterance. He looks at his daughter hooked
up to the latest medical equipment and seems to have been convinced by the
evidence Carter Pike presented. This puts him in contrast with Haber, who was
the man of hope. This contrast is starkly demonstrated when in the first line of
his final scene Mr. Marshall asks "There's no real hope, is there?" Jill,
confirms the position with a simple "no." Haber's utterance (most recently
presented in the scene preceding this one) held hope but was dismissed. Pike's
general orientation is presented as logical, but is presented as hopeless and
therefore not desirable. Nobody wants to live in a world without hope. And if
the world is simply a mechanistic system in which humans are mere flotsam, where
is the hope?
But Jill and Mr. Marshall are not left to reside in this world.
When the miraculous recovery occurs with two minutes left in the story, they are
given one more opportunity for hope. Though they have discounted the possibility
of seeing God as personal and close, they do not want him too far away. If he
chooses to work a miracle or two, all the better. Jill, in the end, seems to
embrace her husband's brand of religion. In fact, as Dana is wheeled out of her
room, Jill speaks to Jimmy (and herself) about what she just saw. Her comment is
"It's rare, but it has happened."
That this leaves the Brock family in a certain ideological state is
demonstrated in the scene that immediately follows, the family sharing in the
reading of a story about Santa. Just as Zachary has been convinced that a
certain form of belief in Santa is a good thing, Jill has been convinced that a
certain form of belief in God is a good thing. What "Cross Examination" seems to
be communicating in the end is a need for a world of Jimmy Brock spirituality.
David Kelley cannot envision living in a cosmos where there is no God. Neither
can he envision living in a cosmos where God gets too close to him. The best
option in his mind is a world where God exists but has little impact on how we
live our lives.
There are other ways in which this image is implanted in the
script. In the extremely important final arguments in the courtroom case, for
example, the two judges are made to play the two different world views. Douglas
Wambaugh tells Judge Bone that it is time to discount the theological element.
In his own words "She doesn't need a God right now. She needs a judge." Franklin
Dell rebuts, and ends his plea by asking the judge to "let God be God." The
point of the show is that if we take the second route we lose control over the
definition and nature of God. In such cases, letting God be God might be painful
because God might chose to be a judge. In such a case, we get a God and a judge.
This message is not only demonstrated in the script, but also with
the title of the episode. Cross examination in this episode has less to do with
the courtroom maneuverings than it does the theological elements of the show.
After all, the title is not "Cross-examination" (which would be almost
meaningless since most of the show's episodes contain a courtroom scene). The
title is "Cross Examination." For Jimmy Brock, Christian belief in general poses
no problems. He states that much when speaking to Jill. Yet specific elements of
belief are stumbling blocks for him. The biggest stumbling block might not be
the birth of Christ, but the cross of Christ. A person can easily bear with a
story of a virgin birth 2000 years ago. It is very easy to conceptualize the
story in such a way that it has no direct impact on our lives. The crucifixion,
however, calls into question deeper theological issues of human sin and the need
for propitiation. For someone like Jimmy Brock, the cross is an offense.
In this light, the first and the last scenes in the episode make
perfect bookends and help us make sense of the hegemony of intention. The Brock
children's actions in the very first scene are part of the battle between mother
and father. Matthew's errant snowball didn't collide with the icon of the baby
Jesus in a manger. It collided with the icon of the adult Jesus on the cross. A
close look at the brief shot shows a bearded Jesus with his thorn-crowned head
sagging. The presence of such an image might be unacceptable for a person (such
as Jimmy) who wants to keep God at a distance. Though Jill was present at the
religious event with the children--hoping to enjoy the moment--Jimmy was absent.
In the children, the wishes of both parents are manifest. They are present, but
they are fighting certain elements of it.
By the end of the episode we discover that this show is about
striking a balance. This balance is between a religious faith that invites God
to interact with us on a daily basis, and an atheism that says there is no God.
The show seems to suggest that something in the middle of these two extremes is
comfortable. In the first scene, there are too many images that allow God to get
close. For example, the words of the Christmas carol "Away in a Manger" refer
not only to the birth of Christ, but the lordship of Christ. Moreover, as noted
earlier, the statue of the crucified Jesus brings Christian soteriology into the
dialogue in a way that the baby Jesus might not. The less offensive the symbol,
the closer it is to the middle position to which this episode points.
This is manifest in the final scene, a scene God and Christmas have
been sterilized. As the Brocks gather around the family fire, there are no
strongly religious visual images in the room. Rather than carolers singing "Away
in a Manger," a canned, instrumental version of "Silent Night" plays. Basically,
the words have (or in Christian theology, the Word has) been removed from the
message. This is not an uncommon occurrence in the media of the technological
world. Ellul suggests that a contradictory cultural element must be dealt with.
One option is to "obliterate it or disguise it". Another is to "interpret it in
such a way that we can fit it without harm into an understanding that has an
answer for everything"(Ellul, 1989, p. 33). Both of those tactics seem present
here. The Brocks are presented as being very comfortable with this view of God
and religion. Their "yeah" responses to Zack's affirmation to the message on the
eternal nature of Santa Claus is really an "amen," the acceptance of the creed
of their religion.
In Postman and Ellul's views of the technological world, this is
what one might expect. Granted, the former seems to misjudge the persistent
lingering of the residue of earlier cultures his analysis. Religion is still a
factor to be dealt with. But Postman does seem correct in suggesting that
religion is assaulted by technopoly. He would probably agree with Franklin Dell
who claims "This country not only trivializes religion today. It scorns it."
Postman's more accurate judgment is on the meaning of cultural elements and how
they can shift. In this instance one can clearly see that the religion the
Brocks cling to at the end of the program is very different from the religion
which is discussed through much of the episode. Given our dialogic analysis, the
implication is that the audience should sympathize with such a shift.
Such sympathy is part of the weltanshauung of the technological
world. Ellul suggests that audience affinity for certain characters is a
predictable element of the entire communicative phenomenon. Much of his work
deals with conformity in the modern world.
To act in conformity with collective beliefs provides security and
a guarantee that one acts properly. Propaganda reveals this consonance to the
individual, renders the collective belief perceptible, conscious, and personal
for him. It gives him a good conscience by making him aware of the collectivity
of beliefs. (Ellul, 1965, p. 200)
This "good conscience" is not proper in some metaphysical sense,
only in a cultural sense. What Ellul is suggesting is that this is one more
example of our tendency to fall into place in the technological world. He would
argue that in a technological world where efficiency and standardization are the
driving forces, a religious view such as the Brocks' does not pose problems.
Other views might. When he steps out of his role as a litigator and openly
questions the implications of the court case in which he is involved, Franklin
Dell recognizes that not all forms of religion are equally beneficent. He
reminds the pastor and the priest that if the baby is the son of God, the
current political and social systems might not fare well. In his own words,
"We'd have to deny him. Otherwise the world order would crumble." Though readers
might not necessarily agree with all of Ellul's theological arguments, they must
admit (as Dell does in his moment of honest reflection) that some forms of
religious belief are more problematic for the modern technopolistic state than
others. If they are problematic, one would expect the media to question, if not
denigrate them. Such is what appears to happen here. Though this is only one
reading of one episode of one show, the analysis suggests that mass media
depiction of religion is a worthy area for further investigation.
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