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Dancing in the Dark

PREFACE

 
 

In the fall of 1988, we took up residence together at the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Considering the normal demands of full-time teaching, the situation at the Calvin Center was close to idyllic: we worked in a suite of offices overlooking pine trees on a beautiful campus, we were assisted by superb secretaries, we were provided with excellent computer facilities, we had access to a marvelous library and an excellent library staff and (most incredibly) each of us had to teach only one course each semester. Such are surely the things of academic heaven.

For eleven months we struggled excitedly but often frustratingly with the topic "Youth, Popular Culture, and the Electronic Media." Our mandate as a team was to write a book that would make sense out of what was happening in North American society and culture. If it were not for our Calvinist bent, which provided ample intellectual space for God's grace amid human depravity, we probably would have given up the project. For one thing, it was not easy to separate the topic from the reality of our own lives. Most of us could easily recall how it felt to be a high school or college student (five of the six of us were under forty years of age). For another thing, each of us was dealing with the reality of either raising our own children or working closely with college students, advising them on personal as well as academic matters. Finally, we tried in various ways to immerse ourselves in the youth culture, attending youth-oriented events (including ear-splitting hard rock concerts) and even conducting in-depth interviews with students from private and public high schools in the area. The interviews were not meant to be scientifically precise studies of a random sample of North American Youth. Rather, under the direction of John Worst, they provided specific data for the Center team's sometimes obtuse discussions of adolescent development and cultural theory.

From the beginning, our goal was first to understand and then to evaluate. We had no axes to grind or agendas to advance. If such axes or agendas emerged during our many discussions, we quickly found that they were readily and incisively challenged. The final manuscript was truly a collective product, one that survived many group meetings and revisions.

We wish to admit up front that the book probably suffers from two biases, one basically good and the other basically bad. The good bias, from our perspective, is the Reformed Christian commitment of all the authors. Although we have written this book for a general audience, we are hardly representative of the religious pluralism of North America: all of us embrace that portion of the historic Protestant faith represented in the Reformed tradition. For us this means, among other things, that the world belongs to God, that God created humankind, that human-kind's purpose in life is to magnify the Creator, and that Christians should not only save souls but also transform society and culture for the good of all people. The Reformed tradition especially demonstrates a passionate interest in caring for the whole of creation and culture as an expressive arena for the loving, redemptive action of God. Today that arena includes popular culture, especially the popular entertainment distributed through the mass media.

Practically speaking, we tried to write a book that was informed by this common faith but that also would be of interest to anyone concerned about the fate of contemporary America. We hope that theists and skeptics alike will listen to the voices speaking on the following pages. In the rhetorical style of Robert Bellah & Company's Habits of the Heart, this book seeks to engage the North American public in conver-sation on crucial cultural questions that affect residents of North Amer-ica and, increasingly, the world. Youth everywhere increasingly share the same cultural boat, buoyed by the electronic media and steered more and more by large corporations run by adults. For us, this situation necessitates dialogue not just among Christians but across the social landscape. Therefore, we invite all travelers to consider the implications of our arguments for their own journeys.

The bad bias grows out of the fact that we are a homogeneous group of white, middle-aged, North American males. Although several of us come from working-class families, we all share the sensibilities, values, and tastes that accompany a rather homogeneous background. In order to eliminate some of the blind spots resulting from our homo-geneity, we sought advice and criticism from outside of the team. Three students-two white females and one black male-participated in our research and contributed to the formulation of our ideas. We thank Keri Bruggink, Joy DeVries, and David Whettstone for their willingness to enter the den of academic pretention with fresh ideas and humble convictions. At times we felt that they should be writing the book for us.

We also solicited the advice of many people who we thought could contribute significantly to our project. Among them were Jack Balswick of Fuller Seminary, Tony Cox, John Dodge of Calvin, Martin Medhurst of Texas A&M, Margaret Koch of Bethel College, and Tom Willett of Word/Epic Records. We benefited considerably from academic and professional meetings where we presented tentative findings and audiences responded insightfully if not always supportively. At Fuller Seminary we met one day with scholars from the Los Angeles area, and on another day with youth workers and clergy. We offer our deepest gratitude to Richard Mouw, Fuller's provost, and Steve Murray, a youth minister from the area, for organizing those successful meetings. At the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, we met with a lively group of Canadian scholars. Brian Walsh and Bob VanderVennen deserve our deep appreciation for making the meeting possible and for creating a cordial environment for discussion and fellowship.

The most difficult facet of our research lay in locating pro-fessionals within the entertainment industry who would talk candidly about their work and their perceptions of the role played by the media in the lives of young people. Thanks again to Richard Mouw at Fuller, we were able to meet in Los Angeles with numerous producers, writers, directors, and the like. We also toured Hollywood, sat in on program tapings, and met privately with interested professionals. This trip was made possible in part by a grant provided by Mr. C. Davis Weyerhaeuser, a man who has repeatedly demonstrated heartfelt concern for American youth.

We received substantial on-campus support, both from Dean Rodger Rice, who personally oversaw the Calvin Center during our research year, and from the Calvin Center Board, chaired by Dr. Susan Gallagher of the English Department. The board gave us a great deal of freedom to pursue our ideas and showed its enthusiastic support on many occasions.

In our ongoing work at the Center, we were blessed by two gifted individuals who were far more than secretaries. Kate Miller and Donna Romanowski not only did most of the word processing for the manuscript. They also did much of the bibliographic work compiled the index, helped organize meetings, and generally kept the Center running while the team walked around with its heads in academic fog. To them we offer our deep gratitude for a job done carefully and joyfully.

A project such as this invariably squeezes more work out of some individuals than others. Quentin Schultze ably and gracefully coordinated and directed the labors of the team. In addition, he undertook extensive liaison work both on campus and off. His service was invaluable. During the post-residency period, someone had to revise and edit the manuscript. That burden fell upon Roy Anker, who did much to clean up abundant obfuscation and awkward or poorly organized writing. Mary Hietbrink of Eerdmans shored up the team with her able copyediting, while Eerdmans' editor in chief, Jon Pott, encouraged the team from the beginning. We're grateful for Eerdmans' willingness not only to publish the manuscript but also to give it special care and attention.

The Calvin Center is a special place of academic hope and grace, even when it deals with a sometimes depressing or unwieldy topic. So we thank the Creator for fashioning the Center amid a fallen (academic) world. And we pray that this book will help restore the Creator's world.

Roy Anker
James Bratt
William Romanowski
Quentin Schultze
John Worst
Lambert Zuidervaart
Summer 1990

 

 

 

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