Good media discernment is about guarding our eyes and hearts before we watch or listen. And it's also about grappling with the entertainment we do see or hear. That's why the Plugged In Blog is devoted to guarding, discussing and grappling.
You know, I love a good quote. The best of those can offer you a taste of humor along with a little wise elbow to your brain. My mother's favorite—"Don't touch that, it could be infected!"—had the wisdom part down, but was never very funny when she yelled it out in public. Another of my favorites has always been the great Will Rogers' suggestion that, "Even if you are on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." I've always taken that one to heart.
Where am I leading with this? Well, it's to tell you about my past week. I'm not just a reviewer and opiner of movies, games and other media what-have-yous. That's my great pleasure and passion, but like my fellow writers I've also had the good fortune to dive into other creative pursuits. And one of my favorites in that department is a little something called Adventures in Odyssey.
I spent the last week in Los Angeles directing a handful of Adventures in Odyssey episodes, working with a cavalcade of incredibly talented, eminently quotable voice-over actors who make this 30-minute radio show the gem of smile-inducing entertainment that it is. We had Jess Harnell (whose voice you've heard in this year's Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University), Andre Stojka (Owl from lots of Winnie the Pooh projects) and Katie Leigh (Rowlf from The Muppet Babies) in this week's session, among others that you might recognize if you've ever perused the closing credits on your favorite animated pic. This bunch is so talented that they could read a phonebook and still inspire a chortle or a tear. (Some of my scripts have actually read much like a phonebook before these guys got their hands on them. But don't spread that around.)
Just in case you've never heard of Adventures in Odyssey, let me give you a little info. It's a kids' show that's being broadcast by about 2,100 radio stations around the world―from the U.S. to New Zealand and Britain to Zimbabwe. In fact, young King Oyo of Uganda (yes, he's the actual king) has claimed that AIO is his favorite form of entertainment! And that makes sense since he was raised on the stuff―stories packed with rollicking kid adventures, faith-focused insights and a little chuckle-worthy wisdom as well. Why, we try to make sure that every episode has a few quotes that you can smile about, think about and maybe even pack way in your noggin for future reference.
Am I gushing? OK, sorry. It's just that I come back from a short time away working with these guys and I get that way. And that's why my Plugged In cohorts told me to write something down this time and stop leaning over the cubical wall to bother them.
On that topic, though, let me close with this: We here at Plugged In talk all the time about how influential media and entertainment is in our lives―not just for ill, but for good. And I've gotta say, Adventures in Odyssey is proof of the good part. I'm proud to be a part of that segment of Focus on the Family's outreach and encourage you, young and old, to give it a listen.
Alright, I'm starting to sound like an advertisement now, so I'll shut up and leave you with one more of my favorite quotes from Will Rogers: "Live in a way that you wouldn't be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip."
See? A word of wisdom and a ba-dump-chunk, too.
I've never been famous. And by the sound of the things coming from the folks who have been, I should never want to be.
Justin Bieber's going crazy these days, so famous he pretty much can't see straight. Most of the girls on that same bullet train are either off the rails or cruising down them so fast they soon will be, from Miley Cyrus to Sky Ferreira.
As CNN contributor, former attorney and political comedian Dean Obeidallah observed:
Miley Cyrus is an addict. The 'drug' she can't get enough of is potentially one of the most dangerous ones out there: Fame. I bet that Miley won't even be upset with me saying this about her. Why? Because her name is in the headline of this article.
Indie singer/songwriter Sky Ferreira said, after she released an album with a picture of herself topless on the cover:
I'm not saying I'm exploiting myself, but if that's the way people look at it, I'd rather do it myself than someone else exploit me. Because either way, what I do, I'm going to get exploited. That's what the job is, not having privacy.
And Chloe Lattanzi, daughter of singer and actress Olivia-Newton John, lamented:
Fame totally messes you up. I don't blame my mother for my problems, but I would never want to be famous or raise a child of my own around the cult of celebrity. It ruins lives.
So forget about living forever or folks remembering your name, it's, apparently, more like some of those other lyrics in Irene Cara's so-famous song from '80s, "Baby, I'll be tough/Too much is not enough/I'll grab your heart 'til it breaks/ … People will see me and cry/Fame."
You've heard of Black Friday and Cyber Monday of course—both signs and symptoms of our very modern consumerist Christmas. But yesterday was a day celebrating a different aspect of Christmas. And what Giving Tuesday lacks in a snappy name, it perhaps makes up for in heart. Google connected interested surfers to worthy charities on Google+, and Amazon—which surely made enough on Monday to buy either a third-world country or maybe a fleet of delivery drones—was "giving" $20 to its customers' favorite charities (as long as they bought a Kindle Fire HDX, that is).
It's hard to estimate how much was given on Giving Tuesday yesterday, with so many organizations and cities taking part. Last year—the first year of the effort—about $10 million in donations were logged by partnering charities. That represents about a 53% increase over giving during the same time frame in 2011.
But the fact that it exists at all illustrates one of the paradoxes of our Internet Age. The marvelous technology that, according to critics, has made us so much more narcissistic than we used to be, is also facilitating a new wave of charity and altruism. And it can go well beyond just giving a Facebook "like" to a worthwhile cause.
It's breathtaking, really, when you think about the ways we can give away our money. I've donated to causes via text message and Paypal accounts. My own church tithes are subtracted from my bank account through automatic withdrawal, not a passed collection plate. Pop-up ads on nonprofit websites like ours remind you more and more often as the tax year winds down that you could digitally donate. Would any of this have been possible 15 years ago? I doubt it. Yet these days, it's positively old school. There are now entire Internet platforms designed to facilitate giving. Read what Kharunya Paramaguru has to say in Time's "Altruism in the Digital Age":
Dana Klisanin, a U.S.-based psychologist, suggests that the Internet is indeed giving rise to new avenues for altruism. She refers to this as "digital altruism"—simply meaning altruism that's mediated by digital technology—and suggests that it is an understudied area because so much media attention is focused on negative behaviors online, like cyber-bullying or cyber-crime. Klisanin has suggested three categories for various degrees of online altruism. This includes "every day digital altruism" where individuals click to donate to a charity, to creative digital altruism where users design websites or platforms to help others, to co-creative projects where groups or corporations come together to produce something for the "greater good"—like the UN working with online humanitarian volunteers to help with relief efforts following typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
The story quotes Kwame Ferreria, who worked on a social network called Impossible, which provides a forum for users to both wish for something (anything from a better website to world peace) and those who try to grant those wishes.
"Most social networks have done a wonderful job of connecting people, but they consume each other," he says. "You go through experiences and you 'like' things, but what about a shift, where it's not about consuming but it's actually about giving?"
And giving seems to be going up. In 2012, Americans gave more than $316.3 billion to charity. In 2011, that figure was around $298 billion. And while last year's number is still less than the all-time benchmark of $344.5 billion doled out by Americans in 2007, one must remember that that was the year before the Great Recession hit. And even though the economy's technically recovered since then, many families are still struggling.
None of this, of course, mitigates the more narcissistic impulses the Internet culture stirs up. We fret over how we look in our online interactions. We post our vacation pictures, tweet about our dinners and opine endlessly in our blogs. And, hey, I'm a part of this world: I do all this stuff, too. Indeed, we all think about ourselves an awful lot these days. There's a reason why Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year was selfie.
And yet, there's a lot of selfless behavior out there if we look. We may talk about ourselves more, but maybe we also listen to others a little more. We like. We follow. We form friendships. And we give away some of our money.
What if you could order something online and have it delivered not in two days, not the next day, but within 30 minutes … by air.
Sound like science fiction? It's not, according to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
In a segment on CBS' 60 Minutes on Sunday night, Bezos previewed the online retailer's next rapid-delivery gambit: using unmanned, eight-rotor drones (dubbed octocopters) to deliver packages right to customers' doorsteps. Bezos said that the company's goal when the program, dubbed Prime Air, is launched in "some number of years" is to deliver these ersatz aerial parcels within half an hour. The drones would have a range of 10 miles from Amazon's regional distribution centers located in many metropolitan areas around the U.S.
Surprisingly, the biggest obstacle to such futuristic deliveries is no longer technological, but bureaucratic: getting permission to launch all those unmanned drones (which navigate via preprogramed GPS coordinates for each order) into the country's metropolitan airspaces.
"We'll be ready to enter commercial operations as soon as the necessary regulations are in place," Amazon said of the new program. "Safety will be our top priority, and our vehicles will be built with multiple redundancies and designed to commercial aviation standards." The company also envisioned a time in the near future when these drones—which seem like a fantastical idea today—will be quite commonplace: "One day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today."
I have a number of conflicted reactions to this story. On the purely whiz-bang level, I have to admit this is one of the more amazing tech stories I've seen recently. The prospect of little helicopters ferrying stuff around is just really, really cool. I can imagine ordering something and going out to wait on the porch … just to watch my own little personal drone zoom into my front yard.
On the other hand, there's a part of me that also feels like the prospect of little helicopters ferrying stuff around is, well, a tad creepy—like something you would see in a Terminator sequel flashback right before the scene where the machines take over everything.
But leaving aside for a moment the technological question of whether this is a good idea or not, I think Amazon's announcement speaks most loudly to our increasingly impatient, consumeristic culture. It's not enough to get a good deal. It's not enough to get a good deal and fast delivery. No, we want the best deal on the best product, and we want it right now—even faster, perhaps, than we could get it by driving to a store—so much so that there's a company seriously pondering (nay, developing) miniature unmanned helicopters to meet that demand.
Every once in a while, pundits will complain there aren't enough strong women in the movies. The box office (these critics say) is dominated by an old boys' club of manly superheroes and hairy hobbits, with nary a Wonder Woman or female elf in sight.
Call this weekend, then, the exception to the rule. On this post-Thanksgiving frame, the double-X chromosome reigned supreme.
Take a gander, for instance, at Katniss Everdeen's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which fought off all challengers for a second straight week. Sure, Catching Fire lost more than 50% of its audience, but it still collected a mammoth $74.5 million over the traditional three-day weekend—a bullseye no matter how you look at the target. If you throw in the extra two days for the Thanksgiving holiday, Catching Fire's take rises to an estimated $110.1 million—the biggest five-day Thanksgiving weekend ever (breaking the old mark set by Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone 12 years ago). After just two weekends, Katniss and company have earned nearly $300 million domestically, trailing only Iron Man 3 ($409 million) and Despicable Me 2 ($367 million) for the year.
But unlike last weekend, Catching Fire had some competition this time out. Disney's Frozen—which featured two (count 'em, two) princess protagonists—brought some icy thunder to this fight, earning a cool $66.7 million en route to its second-place finish. That, according to Box Office Mojo, is the second biggest second-place showing ever. Technically, this was Frozen's second week in theaters (it screened at one solitary venue last week). And given the movie's strong reviews, it looks like Frozen may have as much staying power as a magically durable snowman.
Thor: The Dark World is really the first testosterone-centric film on the box office docket. The red-caped superhero smashed to another $11.1 million payday, hammering down a third-place finish. The Best Man Holiday, with $8.5 million, finished fourth.
If we discount Frozen's kinda-sorta debut, it proved to be a rough weekend for new entrants. Homefront made the biggest impact among these newcomers, earning about $7 million—but that might not even be enough to cover James Franco's next avant garde art project. Still, it finished fifth, three spots higher than eighth-place Black Nativity, which earned just $3.9 million.
Final figures update: 1. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, $74.2 million; 2. Frozen, $67.4 million; 3. Thor: The Dark World, $11.1 million; 4. The Best Man Holiday, $8.2 million; 5. Homefront, $6.9 million.
I was in my early teens when Julie Andrews became inexplicably linked with cranberry sauce for me. My family—mom, dad, sister and I—were paying a Turkey Day visit to my grandparents in Sun City, Ariz. They'd moved out there not too long before, and I was still young enough that seeing them was a special treat: They were really fun for old people—full of long stories and laughter and games. They had a weakness for movies, too—particularly my grandmother. And one of her favorites was The Sound of Music.
I did not share her preferences. Remember, I was 13 or 14 at the time, so watching Maria spin around on a mountainside wasn't high on my must-watch list (particularly since I'd already seen the thing). No matter: When Grandma heard that The Sound of Music was going to be on TV Thanksgiving night (in those days before ubiquitous DVDs and DVRs), we all knew what we'd be doing after cramming down the last string bean casserole and picking at our pumpkin pie.
One catch: Their TV room was made for two people, maybe three at the most—not six. And when we dragged in chairs for everybody, it was pretty clear that some viewers were going to be seeing more of someone's elbows or knees than the Von Trapp family's glowing faces. One unlucky soul would have to watch the movie reflected in Grandma's glasses.
After some deliberation, a Solomon-esque solution was arrived upon: At every commercial break, we'd switch seats—rotating onto the chair, sofa or makeshift bench to our left.
In practice, this is what it was like:
Television: … I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don't feeeeeeel soooooo baaaaaaad …
Grandma: "SWITCH!" (shuffle, shuffle, giggle)
Television: Maria, these walls were not built to shut out your problems. You have to face them. You have to live the life you were born to live.
Grandma: "SWITCH!" (giggle, shuffle, shuffle)
And so on. Like a well-oiled (if somewhat noisy) clock, we all rotated around the room—sitting on a nice, comfy easy chair for one blessed 11-minute, 48-second segment before being relegated to pillows on the floor the next.
To this day, every time I hear the "Do Ray Me" song or "Climb Every Mountain," I can hear Grandma bellow, "SWITCH!" The Sound of Music is now inexorably linked to that evening, spent shuffling around my grandparents' 19-inch television set. And since I've lately been peppered with reminders about NBC's upcoming live version starring Carrie Underwood (it airs next week), I've been thinking about my grandparents a lot.
Of all the holidays on the calendar, none are more firmly fixed to the idea of family than Thanksgiving is. They're not always the most comfortable holidays: Not everyone, after all, has the most comfortable of families. But we all understand instinctively that the moments spent together are special. We look around the table and thank God for the people sitting there. We prepare the food with family beforehand, wash up together afterward.
And around that near-sacred meal, we find other things to occupy our time. We might take walks or play games or simply talk. But lots of us turn to entertainment—a football game or favorite movie or new video game—to find common ground, to inspire discussion, to laugh over and share. As the tryptophan courses through our arteries and we count the minutes to pie, we find family—even if we find it while we're all watching the same television screen.
Entertainment is a lot of things, and not all of them good. But at its best, it can be a catalyst for togetherness.
My grandma's gone now. She died a few years ago from Alzheimer's. She didn't know most of us by the time she died. Indeed, the person who had been my grandma was gone long before.
But her love for The Sound of Music stayed with her to the end. When my mom would go to visit her, that's what she always wanted to do: watch Julie Andrews spin and sing. And I wonder if, somewhere down deep, she still remembered that Thanksgiving evening, and maybe still hear herself shout between songs.
What happens when Christian teens watch R-rated movies? That's a question that Phil Davignon, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Baylor University, sought to answer in a new analysis recently published in the Review of Religious Research.
Davignon evaluated data collected from more than 2,000 adolescents throughout the last decade for the National Study of Youth and Religion. Of those 13-17-year-olds surveyed who characterized their faith as "extremely important," just 13.2% said that they avoided R-rated movies altogether. Meanwhile, nearly 21% of those who described their spiritual convictions as "extremely important" said that most of the movies they watched carried that restrictive MPAA rating.
The ubiquity of R-rated movie-viewing among teens who, theoretically, are restricted from watching them prompted Davignon to note, "Watching R-rated movies is prevalent among religious and non-religious young people. Nearly everyone watches them."
As for the influence of those films on young people's faith, Davignon discovered that watching R-rated fare correlated with decreased church attendance and a diminished sense of faith's importance among Christian teens. On the other hand, watching R-rated movies didn't seem to influence the substance of their faith. In other words, watching these films didn't correlate with increased spiritual doubts or the embrace of a "pick and choose" mindset when it comes to Christianity's tenets.
That said, however, Davignon's summary of his findings should give pause to anyone who suggests that watching R-rated fare doesn't influence young viewers:
Adolescents and young adults base their movie choices on their personal preferences, but R-rated movies seem to influence them beyond their initial attitudes towards religion. Viewing R-rated movies was damaging to religious faith even after accounting for the importance of religion in one's family, peer influence and parental monitoring of media, among other factors.
Davignon's observations dovetail, I think, with something I heard a pastor say years ago. He said, "Worldliness is anything that makes sin look normal." He wasn't talking about R-rated movies, per se. But I think his statement applies particularly well here. In the context of this study, it seems reasonable to assume that repeated exposure to R-rated levels of violence, sexuality, profanity and drug/alcohol use might have a numbing influence. Instead of being shocked, such ongoing exposure quietly communicates that these sorts of things are just the way things are. No big deal.
But it can be a big deal, Davignon's research counters. Because—and I'm connecting the correlative dots here—when we get too used to consuming media (like R-rated movies) where sin is depicted as "normal," it's not hard to see how it might dulls our appetite for the things of God. And I suspect that correlation could be as true for adults as it is for impressionable adolescents.
I think the Apostle Paul may have had something like that in mind when he wrote the Ephesian church, "Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is" (Eph. 5:15-17). In other words, as Christians we're called to pay careful attention to what's happening around us as we walk through the world, lest we be pulled toward the world's ways of thinking and living without even realizing it.
It's tempting, whether we're an adolescent or an adult, to believe that we can uncritically consume entertainment media that may be counter to our convictions without having it affect the outworking of our faith. Davignon's research suggests that's just not the case—not matter how much we might want to believe otherwise.
A word to the wise: Never, ever, ever bet against Katniss Everdeen in anything. Not in the Hunger Games, not in an archery competition, not even in a friendly game of Clue. And certainly never question her dominance at the box office. Are you listening, President Snow?
The arrow-slinging diva and her Hunger Games: Catching Fire cohorts didn't just win the weekend: They killed it, stringing up an estimated $161.1 million. According to Box Office Mojo, no movie released in November has ever earned more (the previous record holder was The Twilight Saga: New Moon, with $142.9 million). And according to these early estimates, it's on pace to be the biggest 2-D release ever—ahead of 2012's The Dark Knight Rises ($160.9 million). We'll have to wait for the actual numbers to come in later today to find out for sure: Check back in, as studios tend to overestimate a bit.
But in the grand scope of things, what's $250,000? Whether Katniss and company beat Batman or not, there's no question that this girl is indeed on fire.
Katniss was so dominant that not even a hammer-wielding superhero had a chance. Two-time champ Thor: The Dark World earned $14.1 million, less than a tenth of what Catching Fire did. And Thor's cumulative take of $167.8 million—making it the 11th biggest movie of the year thus far—is less than $7 million ahead of what Catching Fire made over four days. Expect Katniss to pass our man from Asgard by the time you finish reading this sentence.
The Best Man Holiday continued to impress, cashing in for another $12.5 million. It further spoiled the week's other mainstream debut, Delivery Man. Not that the Vince Vaughn comedy needed much help in its bomb of a bow. It earned just $8.2 million, relegating this surprisingly sweet laugher to the box office broom closet. Free Birds gobbled up another $5.3 million to hang tenaciously inside the Top Five. Even though the animated lark was regarded as a turkey when it was first released, the Thanksgiving-themed flick has managed to string together a respectable $48.6 million. And with the actual Turkey Day just around the corner, there's a chance it could stuff a few more bucks in its gizzard, grab another sizeable piece of the box office pie and mash closer to its estimated $55 million budget.
Final figures update: 1. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, $158.1 million; 2. Thor: The Dark World, $14.2 million; 3. The Best Man Holiday, $12.5 million; 4. Delivery Man, $7.9 million; 5. Free Birds, $5.4 million.
Perhaps we should call today's prime-time television "the witching hours."
Perhaps you haven't seen the witches. Perhaps your television diet consists (like mine does) of old Dick Van Dyke Show reruns and Downton Abbey on Blu Ray. But they are everywhere, it would seem, brewing potions on broadcast television, cackling on cable.
Yes, witches are having a moment on television—so much so that some have taken to calling the 2013-14 television season the season of the witch.
In just the shows that Plugged In has reviewed this season, we've seen them in Fox's Sleepy Hollow (populated by a coven of "good" witches), CW's The Originals (where witches battle werewolves), NBC's Grimm (in the guise of fearsome Hexenbiests) and HBO's True Blood (because really, why not?). The entire season of FX's freakshow American Horror Story is predicated on a group of witches (the season is appropriately titled "Coven"). Lifetime's airing a show called Witches of East End that we've not reviewed yet. And we're not even counting the more Disney-fied witches of Once Upon a Time and its spinoff, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. It's enough to make some want to put away the Cheetos as a television snack and rip open a bag of newt eyes.
Oh, and CBS is plotting to reboot the old WB series Charmed. Good thing witches have brooms, because it seems they're sweeping up.
Writes Megan Basham of World magazine:
Given the rising demand for occult-themed shows, it's hard to blame CBS—the home of hits like NCIS, Person of Interest, and Bluebloods—if they're suddenly scrambling to find their own entry into the field. It may reveal nothing more about the Tiffany network than a desire to compete. The question is, what does it reveal about American TV viewers?
It's a good question: What does it say about them? About us?
First, I think we should say that watching The Originals does not necessarily make one join a coven. Problematic as this trend may be, I do not believe that the television industry has any stronger ties with Wicca than it does with Christianity. I don't want to turn this column into a—well, witch hunt.
But there are, obviously, some interesting things brewing.
One, some of these stories may use witches as metaphors for power or empowerment. These shows, remember, are often written by people who don't know or care about a biblical understanding of witchcraft. When they see a witch, some don't see a follower of Satan or someone engaging in activities forbidden by the Bible. They see a social or political rebel, often repressed but always ready to stick it to The Man. Sometimes these stories can take on a sheen of female empowerment. At other times, these shows might speak to a more adolescent desire to push back against the status quo. They can be a reflection of our very uncertain times, when so much seems out of control: Through these magic-wielding characters, viewers can vicariously take control, using the only forces seemingly capable of taming the chaos all around them.
Sometimes, all of these themes can swirl together. American Horror Story, with its bevy of female teenage witches, may be such a tale—a purposefully gratuitous metaphor of girls grappling with the inherent mystery of womanhood while trying to rein in the strange and dangerous forces both inside and outside them. Or, perhaps, it's really just an excuse to talk about sex, incest, bestiality and have Kathy Bates slather blood on her face. With American Horror Story, it's hard to tell.
But the big thing at play, I think, is a hunger for the transcendent—in itself a great and unavoidable inclination in all of us, but turned in a darker direction.
Everyone, I believe, has been created with a desire to know God. He created us, and we long to see and understand (as much as we're capable of) our Creator. This desire to somehow bridge the gulf between us and God is built, I think, into our very DNA. We are all seekers. We cannot be anything but. And many of us (most of you reading, most likely) have touched the transcendent as God intended for us to do: Through His Son, Jesus.
But we live in a pluralistic society. Christianity, in some circles, has been discredited and cast aside—dropped because of its supposed sins or simply because it's perceived as irrelevant.
And yet, that desire to know God is still there. Most understand deep in their soul that there's something other—holy and incredible—out there. So how do people reach for God if they don't believe there's a Christian God to reach?
One avenue that people try to touch the supernatural is through witchcraft—be it real or the superficial pap we see on television. Whether its small-screen manifestation is laughable (see Sleepy Hollow) or horrifically salacious (American Horror Story) or something else, the magic we see hints, through its lies, at a greater truth: There's something more than us out there. The material world is not all there is. We are creatures of clay and spirit. And these stories, as twisted as they can be, at least acknowledge the spirit.
But alas, the lies we're given almost completely bury that truth, making supernatural television perhaps the most dispiriting genre on television.
A small percentage of viewers may feel that there is truth in those lies. Most probably don't believe that the magic they see on TV could possibly be real … but they might tinker around and explore a bit, and wind up walking down some very dark paths.
Others will never look beyond the lies. Part of their brains will revel in this magical schlock while another will dismiss it entirely. Because this manifestation of the supernatural is fiction, it must all be fiction. And that path is, of course, no more hopeful than the first.
Yes, there are a lot of witches on television. But these shows are far from magical.
I wouldn't redo my junior high years again for all the money in the world. It was a hard, emotionally bruising season, one that inflicted some deep wounds upon my tender adolescent psyche. I wasn't one of the popular kids. Nor was I particularly unpopular. Just somewhere in limbo between those two extremes, occasionally receiving the barbed jabs of the cool kids and probably administering a few of my own to those lower on the social totem pole.
My primary refuge during those years—and many that followed, actually—was music. The world of music offered solace to my bruised self-esteem, an outlet for all those pent up emotions. And as it turned out, my music of choice was, more often than not, hard rock and metal. Def Leppard. The Scorpions. Judas Priest. Mötley Crüe. Whitesnake. Quiet Riot.
Ah, yes, Quiet Riot.
My first concert, at the tender age of 14, was Quiet Riot at the Iowa State Fair. I can only imagine that something about the wholesome nature of the fair in general was what convinced my parents it was OK for my best friend, Joe, and I to go. And so there we were, banging our heads with all the other metalheads.
One of Quiet Riot's biggest hits back in the day was "Metal Health," on which (now deceased) lead singer Kevin DuBrow shrieks, "Bang your heads! Metal health will drive you mad!" And, as it turns out nearly 30 years later, a group of scientists have actually discovered that perhaps the late Mr. DuBrow was closer to the truth than he might have realized.
Researchers in Great Britain recently sought to come up with a psychological portrait for those who are drawn to heavy metal. University of Westminster psychologist Viren Swami focused on heavier stuff than the bands I grew up with, namely contemporary metalcore and thrash. Music, they reported, that tends to be characterized by "heavy guitar riffs, double-bass drumming, breakdowns (slow, intense passages that are conducive to moshing), and overall loudness," not to mention vocals full of "shouting, shrieking and growling."
On the positive side of their assessment, Swami and his team found that metal aficionados exhibit an "openness to experience." He also noted that those who exhibit such openness are often "drawn to forms of music that are intense, engaging and challenging, of which heavy metal is but one example."
Perhaps less flattering, however, was Swami's assertion that metal fans "were also more likely to have lower self-esteem." The scientists theorize that metal "allows for a purge of negative feelings" and cathartically "helps boost self-worth." Other correlations between appreciation for metal and listeners' attitudes included a higher-than-average need for uniqueness and a lower-than-average affinity for religiosity. About the latter, Swami said, "It is possible that this association is driven by underlying attitudes toward authority, which may include religious authorities."
Summarizing his team's findings, Swami said, "Heavy metal fans may have [psychological] profiles that distinguish them from fans of other musical genres. … [But] rather than stereotyping fans as deviant, antisocial or violent, it may be more fruitful to understand the psychological needs that contemporary heavy metal fills for some individuals."
Though Swami's research doesn't paint a particularly flattering picture of metalheads, I can't say it's terribly surprising. And I'd also say that I've used metal to try to purge stuff in my own heart in exactly the way he's described.
That said, I would also suggest that popular music in general—and not just loud, aggressive metal—has a hugely emotional and at times cathartic component to it. Music, perhaps more so than any other entertainment medium, invites a kind of bond and identification with both its lyrics and the artists who write them. Some of the most searingly critical letters we get here at Plugged In come when we're critical of someone's favorite band or song.
To be critical of music (or a musician) someone loves dearly is almost perceived as a criticism of them, personally. That kind of deep identification is something we just don't see as frequently or intensely when it comes to our critiques of movies, television or even video games, generally speaking.
So … lest metalheads feel that this study is picking on their peculiarities and insecurities, I think all of us who identify deeply with a particular band or song, artist or genre would do well to consider how we, too, are interacting emotionally with the music that connects with us most deeply. I certainly would have done well to think twice about the kinds of songs I was filling my head and heart with back in the '80s. Because our musical interests and preferences—and the intensity with which we connect with certain music—may say more about us than we realize.
Bob Dylan, the 72-year-old music icon, hasn't ever been especially fond of the new wave of technology and its impact on the kids of today. In a 2009 Rolling Stone interview he made that eminently clear. "It's peculiar and unnerving in a way to see so many young people walking around with cell phones and iPods in their ears and so wrapped up in media and video games," Dylan said. "It's a shame to see them so tuned out to real life. The cost of liberty is high, and young people should understand that before they start spending their life with all those gadgets."
In spite of that techy reluctance, however, Dylan recently set the Internet all abuzz—or at least, a new interactive version of his music did. The digital agency Interlude took Dylan's classic "Like a Rolling Stone" (a song that Rolling Stone magazine happened to call the "greatest song of all time") and turned it into an amazing new interactive, channel-surfing music video.
What's so amazing, you ask? Well, if you click right here, you can find out for yourself. Just listen, switch from channel to channel yourself and see.
"I'm using the medium of television to look back right at us," the music video's director Vania Heymann told Mashable. "You're flipping yourself to death with switching channels [in real life]."
See, everybody has a point to make about our media consumption. But, hey, I'm thinking even old Bob will give the kids a break on this one.
I'm afraid I've become nearly totally blind to advertising.
And that may be a bad thing.
It's not bad in the sense that it so rarely influences me to buy anything anymore. I'm sure I've saved a lot of money. But when you become blind to something, you no longer see how others are looking at it.
Advertising is everywhere now. It's on the floor at the supermarket. It's on the bus that takes your kids to school. It's in elevators and public restrooms. And just because some of us are feeling immune to its siren song doesn't mean everyone is.
Especially tweens and teens.
But because so many of us so utterly tune it out, the kinds of things that are getting advertised (and how they're being presented) is changing around us without us really noticing. Or protesting.
Here's a recent example reported by adage.com: For a decade, the alcohol industry has had a set of self-imposed advertising restrictions that, theoretically, keep its advertisements away from most underage readers and viewers. But according to a new study by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the industry is running afoul of its own guidelines. In 2003, beer and liquor companies said they'd only run ads on programming that attracts predominantly adults. Under the current guidelines, that means that if a show's audience exceeds 28.4% of under-21 viewers, you won't see any alcohol ads there. And yet the study identified alcohol ads on shows such as Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Tosh.0 and Deadliest Warrior—all of which, according to Nielsen's ratings, have an underage viewership that eclipses 28.4%.
So-called e-cigarettes are getting lots of page and screen time, too, right now. And then there's this report we passed along in yesterday's Culture Clips:
A new ad encouraging young people to sign up for the Affordable Care Act is getting attention for promoting not only birth control, but casual sex as well. The Colorado-specific ads, created by the advocacy groups Colorado Consumer Health Initiative and Progress Now, feature an attractive man and woman named, the ad says, Susie and Nate. She's holding birth control pills and giving a thumbs-up sign. The "Got Insurance?" ad (a play on the famous "Got Milk?" campaign) is titled "Let's Get Physical." Beneath that, ad copy says, "OMG, he's hot! Let's hope he's as easy to get as this birth control. My health insurance covers the pill, which means all I have to worry about is getting him between the covers.* I got insurance. Now you can too. Thanks Obamacare!" Beneath the ad in smaller print is the asterisked warning, "*The pill does not protect you from STDs, condoms and common sense do that."
Looks like it might be time to open my eyes a little wider.
An ensemble comedy had an impressive opening at North American theaters this weekend. But when all the receipts had been counted and estimated, Thor still proved to be the best man.
Thor: The Dark World, earned an estimated $38.5 million to claim its second straight box office crown, trumping the upstart The Best Man Holiday, which walked down the aisle with $30.6 million. And while Thor lost about 55% of its audience, the Marvel demigod has still earned nearly $147 million domestically in two weekends of work—not counting the Asgardian ransom he's banked overseas.
But this weekend may mark the end of Thor's mighty box office prowess. This weekend, he faces a mighty foe indeed: Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
While The Best Man Holiday couldn't muster enough thunder to overturn Thor, the suits at Universal still had to be thrilled with the movie's performance. Technically a sequel to 1999's The Best Man, Holiday earned three times what its predecessor did and enjoyed one of the biggest debuts ever for a film with a predominantly African-American cast.
Another comedy, the over-50-themed Last Vegas, had a senior moment of sorts—forgetting that, typically, movies fall the longer they're out. Last Vegas actually rose a spot in the box office standings, to third, cashing in another $8.9 million. It changed places with the animated turkey flick Free Birds, which clumsily flapped to fourth with $8.3 million. Jacka‑‑ Presents: Bad Grandpa rounded out the Top Five with another $7.7-million payday.
Final figures update: 1. Thor: The Dark World, $36.6 million; 2. The Best Man Holiday, $30.1 million; 3. Last Vegas, $8.4 million; 4. Free Birds, $8.1 million; 5. Jacka-- Presents: Bad Grandpa, $7.4 million.
I'm going to admit it right up front. This blog I'm about to write is going to be a hard one for me. Just a bit too personal and I'm afraid it'll make me come across as a bit weird (and maybe I am). I'm struggling just two sentences in with whether or not to hit the delete button and start again with a an approach that keeps me out of it. But here goes.
For years as a Christian (I met the Lord at age 15), I thought seeing a counselor was a sign of weakness. I wasn't anti-counseling, because as a youth pastor in my early twenties, I did quite a bit of it. But that involved ministry, helping others. I was more than okay with that. But personally, it was me and Jesus. We could get through anything together. I believed that those that sought after a counseling session (even from me) were lacking something spiritually. If they were really strong in the Lord, I thought, they'd hear His voice and wouldn't need my advice—or anyone else's, for that matter.
I know it sounds crazy, but that's what I believed. And I'm none too proud to be airing my dirty laundry here. But I have to think there are folks like me reading this who would be wise to reconsider their anti-personal-counseling stance. I don't remember when I came around, but I did years ago, now having done a complete 180. I've now seen a counselor several times. No major issues. I just came to the realization that sometimes (perhaps still more often than I care to admit), I can't see the forest for the trees and I need someone else's perspective to know which way is best. Some situations necessitate advice from someone who can look at the bigger picture and offer unbiased advice based on their life experience. At some point in my life the truth of Proverbs 15:22 sunk in: Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.
I don't know if the Apostle Paul ever sought counseling, but one incident described in the Bible makes me wonder if there wasn't at least one time he should have.
The situation was this: Paul and Barnabas were great friends. They traveled together. They shared the gospel as a team. Then one day, they had a real falling out. After a bit of a ministry breather, Paul approached Barnabas about heading out on another mission trip. Barnabas was 100% in favor. So far so good. But then Barnabas mentioned he wanted to bring John Mark along. This didn't set well with Paul, who was adamant that that was not going to happen. Why? Because John Mark had not completed the last mission trip. Paul considered John Mark a quitter and didn't want to get burned again. Acts 15:39 says, "They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company."
I wonder if Paul and Barnabas shouldn't have sought out a counselor on this issue, someone who could have listened to both sides and been a tie-breaker. "Yeah, I agree with Paul," the counselor might have decreed. "Don't take John Mark. Let him mature a bit and perhaps you could take him on your next trip." Or the counselor might have said, "It seems to me that John Mark is very sorry about how he handled himself on your last mission trip. He's a new person. Take him with you."
For me, that's one of the best aspects of talking to a counselor, getting a fair-minded, impartial perspective. That's how I've used it. But seeing a counselor has so many more advantages than just this. Working through relational problems. Working through addictions and sin issues. Working through trauma. Working through parental rejection/abuse. Just to mention a few.
I bring this up because one of the lesser known aspects of Focus on the Family, yet one of the most powerful ones, is that we offer a free consultation to anyone and everyone who'll ask at absolutely no charge (after that initial consultation, a referral can be made if necessary). Here's one of many testimonials from someone who couldn't see the forest for the trees:
How can I ever thank you enough? In a moment of desperation, and feeling I had nowhere else to turn, I called your Counseling Department. Anxiously I had watched my teenage daughter growing more and more frail, and I suspected she had an eating disorder. I consulted with two local therapists, but neither provided any decisive direction. That's when I called Focus on the Family. The counselor I spoke with asked insightful questions in addition to inquiring about my daughter's height and weight, and then gently but very firmly told me to get my daughter to the hospital immediately. I had no idea how serious the situation had become—that phone conversation was the "kick in the pants" I so urgently needed. … She is still in recovery, but is thriving socially, and our close-knit family is extremely hopeful about all the future holds in store. In fact, my daughter recently expressed the desire to become a trained therapist herself. Thank you, Focus, for being there to help us when our family needed you most. That phone call saved my daughter's life!
Perhaps, right now you're needing to talk to someone about an issue in your life, someone who can lend a listening ear. Or perhaps you know someone who needs this service. If so, you (or they) may want to call one of our counselors at 1-800-A-Family (232-6459) between the hours of 6 a.m. and 8 p.m., Mountain Time. Our hope is that you thrive. And sometimes that happens best when we get an advisory "kick in the pants."
I figured I'd be writing about Miley Cyrus today. It's been days since we've written anything about this in-the-moment shock diva, and we certainly don't want to fall behind the rest of the worldwide media, documenting every twerk and toke taken by the onetime teen queen.
But as I was researching, I found an interesting tidbit: As much as it might seem to the contrary, current hot-topic badgirl Miley Cyrus is not the most talked-about person on the Internet. Nor has she been.
That's right, according to the latest survey from Global Language Monitor―an organization that somehow adds up all the discussions of people, places and things on blogs, social networks and news media sites, and then boils the results down to some easy-to-use handy, dandy lists―the most popular person on the Internet in 2013 is Pope Francis. And he largely became so popular by doing what a man of the cloth might be expected to do: He ministered to the needs of others.
Who did the popular pontiff beat out on the online stage? Well, the infamous NSA data leaker, Edward Snowden was second on the list, followed by a pretty princess (Kate Middleton), a Texas Senator (Ted Cruz) and a New Jersey Governor (Chris Christie).
Oh, and just in case you were wondering, the GLM gang also points out the most popular words in use on the Internet. Number one, happened not to be a word at all, but rather the number "404," the universally recognized numerical code for a website failure. It was followed closely by the word "fail."
So I guess if I want to follow through on my Miley blog aspirations, I'd do so by reporting that the folks at GLM have given the wrecking ball gal a pretty clear picture of what she needs to be up to in 2014 if she wants all the top-shelf attention she craves. She can put away the foam finger and start touching people in positive ways … or start a national healthcare website.
If it feels like gun violence in PG-13 movies has gotten more frequent lately, well, that's because it has.
Between 1985 and 2012, scenes featuring gun-related imagery more than tripled, according to a new study headed by Daniel Romer at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. They found that back in 1985, PG-13 movies featured on average less than one scene of gun violence per hour. By 2012, that figure had jumped to nearly three such scenes hourly.
In an interview with Reuters, Romer expressed some concerns related to the increase in onscreen violence seen by many teens, noting that a PG-13 rating doesn't tell parents very much about a film's content. "The problem for parents is they can no longer rely on the PG-13 rating to tell them there isn't a lot of violence in those films," he said.
Romer is also concerned about the influence such depictions of violence may have on impressionable or unstable adolescents: "It doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out there are going to be disturbed kids who are going to see this kind of content," he said, adding that past studies indicate a link between witnessing gun violence onscreen and having more aggressive thoughts.
Dartmouth University professor James Sargent, much of whose academic work has focused on how media influences young people, says that the new study should be a catalyst for the Motion Picture Association of America to reconsider how it rates films. "[They] need to go back to the drawing board and fix their rating system so those movies are rated R for violence," he told Reuters.
"We have a problem in this country," he said. "People are shooting each other at high rates. We should be trying to address anything we can to decrease the rates of gun violence in the United States."
I think Sargent and Romer are on the right track here with regard to soberly assessing and weighing the possible influence of such onscreen violence upon those who witness it—especially when it comes to young viewers—as well as suggesting that perhaps the MPAA needs to rate violent imagery more strictly. With virtually every mass shooting, it seems there are invariably connections to violent media, be it movies or video games or music.
And while no one can indisputably prove that violent media causes those tragic rampages, the fact that it's nearly always in the mix should give us pause before blithely dismissing the possibility that the violence we're increasingly seeing in movies—even PG-13 movies—may be playing a supporting role in making our society a more dangerous place.
No one was much interested in watching a movie about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange: After only four weeks in theaters, The Fifth Estate has topped out well below $4 million, generating about as much buzz as a triple-A battery in the Arctic. But the controversy that swirls around Assange and the Americans who've dished their government's deep dark secrets to him has prompted a massive discussion about the ethics of leaking sensitive information.
And in the process, some believe the subject has also raised the public's level of awareness about our personal Internet privacy.
Says C.J. Radford, vice president of the data security firm Vormetric:
The ongoing persistence of the [Edward] Snowden [WikiLeaks] story with its continuing revelations appears to be reaching people's consciousness. At the same time, I don't believe that most U.S. consumers have connected the dots. … The large amount of private information about them exists because it was collected for other purposes, such as advertising, billing, service delivery, etc. … But they are learning, and the level of awareness is rising.
For now, maybe.
Matt Straz of MediaPost posits that the next generation, a group born after 9/11 that he calls Homelanders, won't even notice. They've "been monitored since birth, thanks to crib cams and other devices," he writes. "Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have helped make this generation the most documented in history. As they grow up, Homelanders will not chafe against surveillance because it's all they've ever known."
So here are my own private thoughts, the things I'm grappling with: Does the idea that everyone knows everything about you work as a safeguard, a hedge in your life that helps you make better decisions? More moral decisions? Or does the overexposure actually wear down our resolve to live rightly before men, degrading our commitment to letting "your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father"? (Matthew 5:16) After all, it's hard to keep up appearances when you're appearing every second of every day.
Don't argue with the man with the hammer. Particularly when the hammer flies.
Thor: The Dark World pounded its way to an estimated $86.1 million, with Thor chortling heartily at the puny human movies attempting to block his way from the top of the box office. It wasn't much of a contest, really. The next closest competitor was Jacka‑‑ Presents: Bad Grandpa, with $11.3 million—almost an eighth of what the big Asgardian made. Thor was so dominant, tales of his weekend cinematic route will surely be sung throughout the nine realms. And yet, there were those who wondered why the movie didn't make more.
After watching Thor fly to big bucks oversees last week (outside North America, The Dark World has already made $240.9 million), some wondered whether the big guy might crest $100 million in its opening weekend stateside and enter the rarified superhero air shared by the likes of Batman, Superman and Iron Man. It fell a bit short of that mark, but you won't hear anyone at Disney or Marvel crying too much.
As mentioned, Bad Grandpa finished second (according to initial estimates), topping a logjam in the middle of the Top Five where three movies were separated by a mere $200,000. Free Birds, a Thanksgiving-themed lark of a flick, stuffed its gizzard with another $11.2 million for third place, while Last Vegas banked $11.1 million for fourth. All three holdovers showed surprisingly durable staying power: Free Birds, for instance, lost just 29% of its audience week-over-week, suggesting this collection of leftovers still has some wings.
Alas, the same could not be said of Ender's Game, which lost nearly two-thirds of its audience to make $10.3 million—dropping from first to fifth. For Ender's Game, this could be the end of the road.
Final figures update: 1. Thor: The Dark World, $85.7 million; 2. Jacka-- Presents: Bad Grandpa, $11.3 million; 3. Free Birds, $11.2 million; 4. Last Vegas, $11 million; 5. Ender's Game, $10.3 million.
Recently, I was catching up with a friend I hadn't seen in a while when he dropped this bombshell on me: "My son moved in with a guy and is living a homosexual lifestyle."
I was floored. A few years back, this young man—I'll call him James‑‑came to hear me speak on media discernment. It meant a lot to me that James would make the effort (I'm sure there were many things he could have done with his evening). Now, James is living a lifestyle counter to God's design, and his faith is almost gone.
There was more to this puzzling development. The father went on to say that he thinks the seeds were sewn just before James hit puberty and, sadly, was exposed to gay porn online while doing research for a school project. Maybe something happened in James' developing brain that day. My heart is still heavy thinking about it. I so want James to thrive, to live God's abundant life, to make a huge difference for Kingdom purposes. But at least for now, all that has flown out the window as James wrestles with his own sexuality.
Similarly a while back, another friend shared that his daughter's divorce after a mere year of marriage was rooted in infidelity. What's more, this friend's daughter—I'll call her Erin—contracted a sexually transmitted disease from her husband.
Here was a situation in which two Christians made a public commitment to God, and entered a promising marital relationship. Within a year, chock up another victory for the Enemy. And Erin, no fault of her own, became yet another victim in more ways than one. Unlike James' backstory, I don't know if Erin's ex had an early sexual history. But it's hard to imagine there's not more to the story.
The idiom "you can't unscramble scrambled eggs" comes to mind here. And while true, I can't help but think that both of these situations (and plenty more I could mention) would be a lot less scrambled if only James and Erin's husband had valued the Lord's path over their own hormones. Or if they could go back in time somehow and make different choices. Where would their lives be today? Or more applicable yet, what can Christ-followers do to walk in genuine purity? If I'm a parent, what can I do to increase the likelihood of my child[ren] experiencing God's wonderful design for sexuality?
Next Wednesday and Thursday (Nov. 13 and 14), Focus on the Family's Daily Radio broadcast tackles the thorny subject, "Uncovering the Dangers of Hooking Up." Jim Daly and John Fuller are joined by two members of the Physicians Resource Council, Dr. Freda Bush and Dr. Joe McIlhaney, to discuss their book Hooked, unpacking new brain science which shows the impact of various hormones on the brain.
"That pre-frontal cortex is not fully mature to make [good, rational] judgments until the mid-twenties," explains Dr. Bush during this two-day Focus radio program. "So as a teenager, you are asking them to make some decisions about what they are doing now without considering what the future consequences may be."
In addition, this broadcast emphasizes the "hookup" culture rampant on college campuses, and why young ladies are just as likely to be as sexually active as the guys. Don't think, though, that this is going to be two days of soaking in bad news. There's a lot of hope here, too!
Obviously, "The Dangers of Hooking Up" is no lightweight broadcast topic. But it is a very relevant one, especially in our sex-saturated culture—a culture that scoffs at the idea of purity or the very concept that sex is God's idea, His gift.
There are plenty of reasons to live a pure and chaste life, and wait until marriage to express one's intimate love exclusively to a spouse. Most importantly, it's the way God designed marital intimacy to work—providing ultimate pleasure, satisfaction and fulfillment. Our part is just to align with His ways and commandments. Going against His plan would be, to me, like deciding my little Hyundai would work best if I stuck the garden hose down the gas spout and turned on the outdoor faucet. No matter how much I believed—and even practiced what I believed—my little Korean sedan's starter just wouldn't turn over. If I was finger pointing, I sure couldn't blame the Hyundai company.
Next week's two-part radio program lays out our Designer's plan for sexuality and how believers can walk more victoriously in this area. I'd suggest tuning in. By the way, if you're not inclined to listen to it via your radio, you can always listen online on the days it airs or purchase a CD version here.
Tonight, audiences will see the story of Jesus Christ as told by Britney Spears.
SPEARS: The Gospel According to Britney is a one-night-only production by 23-year-old Patrick Brute. It'll use such Spears' tunes as "Stronger," "One More Time" and "Crazy" to musically narrate Jesus' life, death and resurrection. And, according to Brute, the production is no joke. Writes Time's Melissa Locker:
While some Christians may find the concept eyebrow raising, on his website, Blute assures potential attendees that the show is not sacrilegious and instead is the perfect outing for churchgoers who also love Britney. "It appeals to those from a religious background because it tells an essential story using fragments of pop culture in a non-offensive way," the 23-year old Columbia University graduate explained.
Interesting? Yes. Weird? Absolutely. Sacreligious? Well, maybe.
Christians have always felt, I think, a deep conflict regarding arts and entertainment. We understand its power—its ability to move people—and we're both wary and intrigued. We know it can be a conduit to convey the stories and truths that move us all. But we're aware it can be a corrupting agent, too—able to lead us into areas it'd be best to stay away from. Is The Exorcist a sermon that's impossible to sleep through (as its author intended)? Or a dark and awful look at things best not seen? Should Christian bands tour with secular ones in the hopes of opening up dialogue? Or steer clear of them for fear of being comprimised?
And now, another question: Is it a good thing for the story of Jesus Christ—a man unstained by sin—to be told through the music of an artist whose appeal is largely predicated on seduction?
Many Christians, I think, would automatically say no.
But it's an intriguing concept: I've always liked looking for God in unexpected places, and I believe His glory can shine through anywhere if He so wills. He has a history of using unlikely people to further His own story. Might God be able to use Britney's music for His own glorious purpose? Is it possible that the nature of sin be expressed through "Ooops, I Did It Again," or something spiritually important conveyed through "Till The World Ends?"
What if you could connect to the Internet … just by thinking about it? Sound like science fiction? Perhaps. But a new wave of technology is currently in development that one day—one day relatively soon—could implant a device into your brain to offer direct neural access to the World Wide Web.
In his article "A Chip In The Head: Brain Implants Will Be Connecting People To The Internet By The Year 2020" published at endoftheamericandream.com, author Michael Snyder writes at length about the state of science today when it comes to brain implants and their current and potential capabilities.
Today, more than 100,000 people already have brain implants to treat various medical conditions. And the United States government is funding a $70 million project that involves embedding next-generation implants in the brains of those with epilepsy or Parkinson's disease. These devices will function like a "brain pacemaker," helping to regulate these diseases' symptoms (such as seizures, for instance). Neurologists are also working on similar implants for those suffering from depression. The devices could provide something like an emotional "brain reboot" via implanted electrodes.
But some of those working and dreaming about this technology are already thinking far beyond medical applications—especially some of those at the heart of the information revolution.
Google CEO Larry Page envisions a device that's plugged straight into your brain offering Internet access. "When you think about something and don't really know much about it, you will automatically get information. Eventually you'll have an implant, where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the answer," he said in Steven Levy's book, In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives.
Meanwhile, a Computerworld article noted that Intel believes Internet-connected brain implants will be on the market in just six years or so. Computerworld's Sharon Gaudin writes:
By the year 2020, you won't need a keyboard and mouse to control your computer, say Intel researchers. Instead, users will open documents and surf the web using nothing more than their brain waves.Scientists at Intel's research lab in Pittsburgh are working to find ways to read and harness human brain waves so they can be used to operate computers, television sets and cell phones. The brain waves would be harnessed with Intel-developed sensors implanted in people's brains.The scientists say the plan is not a scene from a sci-fi movie, Big Brother won't be planting chips in your brain against your will. Researchers expect that consumers will want the freedom they will gain by using the implant.
Maybe people will be lining up for these implants, much like they do every time Apple releases a new phone.
Snyder concludes his "A Chip in the Head" article by asking some very pertinent questions about this scientific frontier: "So are you ready for this brave new world? Will you ever let them put a chip in your head?" Certainly, some people would hesitate before biologically and technologically fusing their minds to the Internet, but Snyder believes many won't bat an eye at the prospect of being quite literally plugged into the web 24/7: "These technologies are being developed right now, and they will be enthusiastically adopted by a large segment of the general public," he predicts. "At some point in the future, having a brain implant may be as common as it is to use a smart phone today."
I'm not a big video game fan. I'm perfectly content to leave any stray affection for the beastly things in the capable hands and heart of our resident gaming expert and reviewer, Bob Hoose.
So I guess that makes me the perfect guy to share a couple of good-news stories about games.
We hear a lot about how games damage us, especially in the way our minds control our impulses and emotions. But there are always two sides to every news story. And according to a new study by scientists in Berlin (as reported by sciencedaily.com), video games can actually help increase brain capacity for spatial orientation, memory formation and strategic planning, in addition to helping gamers improve their motor skills. The study, conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, asked volunteers to play Super Mario 64 for half an hour each day. Researchers performed MRIs on players and a control group that didn't play video games, and they found that some regions of the brain expanded among gamers.
Says study leader Simone Kühn:
While previous studies have shown differences in brain structure of video gamers, the present study can demonstrate the direct causal link between video gaming and a volumetric brain increase. This proves that specific brain regions can be trained by means of video games.
And second, according to Time, some scholars are taking issue with a recent statement made by the American Psychological Association that linked real-life violence with virtual gaming. "Research shows there is not consistent evidence to support this statement," says Christopher Ferguson, a researcher at Stetson University. "In my recent research we found that for some teens with a preexisting mental health issue, playing violent video games seemed to be associated with less bullying."
The emphasis on less is mine, because it is indeed a startling way to think about things in the gaming world. And the APA says it's now reviewing the policy statement.
If you're not an avid game lover, like me, are you mentally reviewing your own feelings about games right now? Or are you inclined to just ignore the folks pushing the APA to reconsider? And if the organization does reconsider, is there still enough negativity associated with video games that you're inclined to continue avoiding them?
Newfangled videogaming warfare led by a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears whippersnappers? It was all too much for a certain bad grandpa. Last week's mustachioed champion opted to take a nap as Ender's Game topped Jacka‑‑ Presents: Bad Grandpa for the weekend's box office crown.
Ender's Game gunned down the rest of the field in short order. But just as in the movie, victory came with a somewhat ambiguous coda. Sure, Ender's Game won, but the $28 million the flick earned didn't exactly have studio execs dancing a victory jig—not with a $110 million budget to cover. And while multiplexes have been awash in movie versions of popular young adult novels as of late, it's rare that one, well, catches fire. February's Beautiful Creatures finished its run with just $19.5 million domestically. March's The Host banked $26.6 million. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters collected a tidy $67.5 million, but its budget was $90 million, so there's that. Ender's Game started better than either Beautiful Creatures or The Host, but its trajectory suggests a disappointing finish.
Bad Grandpa slid to second with $20.5 million, spoiling the debut of a couple of newcomers. Last Vegas, the star-studded geriatric trip to Nevada's Sin City, collected $16.5 million—not enough to keep Social Security solvent, but enough to buy brunch for the entire community of Sun City, Ariz. And despite a dearth of family fare available, the animated movie Free Birds proved to be something of a turkey: It gobbled up just $16.2 million and crashed ungracefully to earth.
But while Free Birds couldn't shake the box office's gravitational pull, Gravity itself is still maintaining a strong orbit. It earned another $13.1 million this week, bringing its 2013 total to $219.2 million. It's already the eighth biggest hit of the year, and No. 7 (Star Trek Into Darkness, with $228.8 million) is in its sights.
Of course, the weekend box office could be scrambled further in the coming weeks. Thor: The Dark World has already earned $109.4 million overseas, and it strides into theaters this Friday, swinging its mighty hammer. And for Ender's Game, that could mean game over.
Final figures update: 1. Ender's Game, $27 million; 2. Jacka-- Presents: Bad Grandpa, $20 million; 3. Last Vegas, $16.3 million; 4. Free Birds, $15.8 million; 5. Gravity, $12.8 million.
Today, the first of November, launches a host of national-something-months. Did you know that November is Sweet Potato Awareness Month? Neither did I. It's also called No Shave November (I have no idea if this is a mixed gender thing or not).
Most importantly, it's also National Adoption Month. With this month in mind, one of our faithful readers, clinical social worker Addison Cooper, compiled a list of films with adoption themes and emailed them to me. (He also has a website that deals with adoption and entertainment.) Of course, we've reviewed every single one of these, but it's always interesting to see films grouped like this thematically. For Addison, one of best aspects of Tinseltown making films with pro-adoption messages is that adoptive families often need to communicate to each other some of their unique struggles and challenges. I thought it'd be worth mentioning some of these films in recognition of National Adoption Month. And, of course, you can check out our reviews to determine if they're appropriate viewing for your family:
Despicable Me 2: Gru is a single father who has adopted three girls. One of the girls is sad when a school project requires her to talk about her mother, since she feels like she doesn't have one. This scene can open conversations for kids who miss their birthmother or for kids who are struggling with being in a single-parent family. Also, Gru has improved considerably since the first Despicable Me movie; families could talk about "what makes a good dad," or point out that even parents need to behave.
Man of Steel: Kal-El's parents make a difficult decision to send him to a far-away place in order to ensure his safety. There, Kal-El is renamed (Clark Kent), and grapples with questions of identity. People in his new community struggle to accept his differences. Families could talk about why a parent might choose to relinquish their child for adoption, the difficulty fitting in to a new community, and affirming a child's uniqueness as a positive. Also, Clark eventually chooses to accept his new, human identity. Adoptees often don't have a choice about which family they belong to, but, like Clark, they eventually do have the choice of whether to accept their family.
The Smurfs 2: Smurfette, who was created by the evil wizard Gargamel but was taken in by Papa Smurf, wonders if she can truly belong to her new family. She fears that her belonging is only superficial. Her adoptive family goes to great lengths to keep her and, in doing so, they convince her that she truly belongs.
Turbo: When Theo and his brother leave their initial community, Theo is taken in by Tito (and becomes Turbo). The way Turbo joined Tito's family seems very random, and many kids might relate.
Pacific Rim: A commander named Stacker took in an orphaned girl years ago. Now that she is grown, he struggles with her desire for independence because he still wants to protect her. This sci-fi flick might have special meaning for adoptive parents anticipating the impending adulthood of their kids. How do you respond when the need to protect is replaced by a need to let go?
All these movies remind me of a great program we have at Focus on the Family called Wait No More. The program helps raise awareness of the plight of legal orphans in the U.S., pointing out for instance, that 100,000 children are in the U.S. foster care system awaiting adoption and that there are 300,000 churches in the United States. You don't need to be a math whiz to figure that if one family from each church took in an orphan, there would be no more kids waiting in the foster care system. We all know it doesn't work that way, but Wait No More has still helped nudge more than 2,600 families so far to initiate adoption from foster care. (Check out this video of one family's journey to adopt.) If you've been thinking about adopting a child in foster care, I'd like you to consider attending a Wait No More conference, or simply click here for information on adoption in your state.
Whether or not you're considering adoption, I'd like to remind you that all Christians are essentially adopted. At one time, all of us were outside of God's family. We were not considered His children. But for those of us who believe in Jesus Christ, we have "received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry "Abba, Father." …Now if we are [His] children, then we are heirs…(Romans 8:15, 17). Paul adds in his letter to the church at Ephesus: "Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household…" (Eph. 2:19) I like the fact that I'm a member, an adopted member, of God's household. Yes, adoption is a God thing!
You might see a ghost or two tonight.
It's true. A handful of shorter spirits seem to wander the streets every Oct. 31, trying to scare up a Butterfinger or two. Some of these spooks go for more of a simple, classic look—a sheet draped over the body just so. Others want to make a greater fashion statement, accessorizing their gear with gore and blood and perhaps a meat cleaver.
However they're dressed, these candy-carrying phantoms are difficult to ignore. And if you try, they'll just keep pressing on your doorbell button.
But that just makes sense, I suppose. Death itself is pretty unavoidable—even when we try. And we try really hard.
Oh, looking at the culture, we seem to wallow in death. On television, it's a rare drama that doesn't feature a dead body every week. Some of 'em even get up and walk around—even though they're typically looking for more than Butterfingers. AMC's The Walking Dead is cable's most popular show, for example. And Fox's new Sleepy Hollow features a fearsome headless antagonist. (How he can fire off those machine guns with any accuracy is, really, beyond comprehension.)
But for all the death and dying we see in prime time, not much of it touches us. Writes Time's James Poniewozik:
Life is cheap on TV, or rather death is—it's plentiful, showy, devoid of realism or consequence. But ordinary death is a blank spot in our pop memory, one we've filled with monsters and explosions. After a steady diet of Hollywood deaths, real ones—the labored breathing, the body becoming a slack husk—seem uncanny, alien.
We're exposed to death all the time, it seems. Sometimes it would seem we bathe in it, particularly this time of year. And yet we avoid it too. We run away from it. It's rare for us to deal with death in any real way these days—to look it square in the eyes. It is a paradox of the human soul, I suppose: Just as some turn to porn to escape intimacy, we party amid tombstones because we fear the grave.
As Christians, of course, we have nothing to fear. Death, we're told, has lost its sting. In fact, it's a release—a door opening to Home.
But let's not kid ourselves: As much as we know this to be true, we still feel the loss that death brings. When a loved one passes, we feel the hole their passing leaves in our heart. When we think about our own demise, we can't help but think about the people we'll leave behind. After all, we grow attached to this life (even in all its imperfections). And whatever heaven holds, we don't want to be forgotten here on earth. We concentrate on our legacies, make out our wills, write down our memoires. And sometimes we spend fortunes even on our gravesites, hoping that they'll give us a measure of earthbound immortality.
When I visited Westminster Abbey in London some years back, I was amazed at the number of tombs found therein. For centuries, Britain's rich and powerful commemorated themselves with the most extravagant tombs—self-professed Christians who, even as their souls sped toward paradise, wanted to remind people of their physical place on earth. Some of those buried in Westminster left behind more than a tombstone, of course: The kings and queens there, Elizabeth I and Henry V and so many others, left a complex record of their days and achievements. But for many others, all that most of us see of these people are their tombs.
One of the most powerful—the resting place of Lady Elizabeth Nightingale—features a swooning Lady Elizabeth being protected by her husband, as death climbs out of a tomb and prepares to stab her with a sword. It's as if her husband is trying to protect her from death even after the fact.
These were important people who went to great lengths to preserve their legacies. And yet their stories are already largely gone.
We fear death because, in some ways, we fear the perfect anonymity that comes to most of us. We fear being forgotten. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Which makes the 21st century, and all the technological glories we have now, so intriguing, even when it comes to the subject of death. After all, these earthly vessels we inhabit are finite—fixed with an expiration date. But the Internet, not so much. As we often remind you here, the pictures we post and the Twitter missives we send live forever.
In an article for dailydot.com, Zan McQuade discusses the strange, online immortality that people find now. A friend of hers died in an automobile accident, and her still-existent Facebook page became a memorial to her memory. McQuade talks about how there are a growing number of services that allow you to posthumously manage your online footprint: Want your LinkedIn page to vanish after your passing? It can be done. Want your Twitter feed to tweet for eternity? That can be done too. She and her husband even talked about what they wanted to do with their digital outreaches should they pass on—as if they were discussing organ donations or their respective wills. She writes:
I'm starting to wonder … if it's even possible for there to be nothing left of us when we die. For example, I'm still Facebook friends with multiple ghosts. Once in a while, underneath the caption "People You Might Know," Facebook will rotate in a picture of a woman from my town who passed away a few years ago. She is no longer with us, but her smiling profile picture is still there, cycling in and out amongst images of my living friends. Yes, I do know her. But she's no longer around to accept my friend request.
Perhaps some may find all this a little morbid. But for me, these digital reminders are comforting. We have more than gravemarkers to remember our loved ones by now, more even than memory. We have their own words etched on the Internet ether, their pictures smiling back at us from our computer screens. We can be reminded of them more often—and reminded that, hopefully, they're still charming the socks off folks in heaven.
But then again, there's something perhaps a little eerie about these online reminders too. They are, in a way ghosts: The people have moved on, but their digital selves are stuck—a reminder of who they were, not who they are. As set in stone as any tomb.
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