First published 29 November 2012. Update below.
By now you’ve probably heard or read about the comments by Angus T. Jones. If not, you can see them here. Through a couple of videos Jones tells the story of how he got into television as a very young boy (4 1/2 years) and landed a leading role on the TV sitcom, Two and a Half Men. He played Jake Harper, the son of the character played by Jon Cryer and the nephew of the character played by Charlie Sheen. He has recently converted to Seventh-Day Adventism, sometimes described as a sect and sometimes described as a cult (as by Anthony Hoekema). Here are the the SDA distinctives (e.g., “the great controversy,” the doctrine of the investigative judgment, dietary restrictions, Saturday Sabbath).
The point here, is not the SDA but to think a bit about what our entertainment culture does to young people like Jones, what it does to us consumers, and how we should respond. He began on the show as a 9-year old. It was a sitcom with very “adult” (i.e., risqué, naughty, themes and double entendres). This was bound to have a quite negative effect on him. It asked a boy to handle, understand, and entertain grown ups using “adult” situations. It had to be confusing. The history of young people who’ve grown up on TV isn’t promising. It’s not surprising that Angus has had a bit of a crisis.
These videos are a reminder that the characters we see on TV are just that. Angus was just a cute, talented kid who got a break in the entertainment business. He landed a big “gig” on what became a very successful show, in which grown ups have invested a lot of time and money and from which he and others have been paid a great deal of money. The ordinary little boy Angus has been processed by the entertainment machine into a commodity. Now, at 19, he’s trying to re-establish his own identity, away from the show and away from the view of the life and sex that the show mediates to millions every week.
We probably need to work harder than we do to distinguish between reality and mediated reality. The images that come to us via TV have become more present and real because the mediation has changed. As a child we had a 19 inch Zenith black and white TV set. That medium created some distance between the characters on TV and daily reality. Today, we watch flat screen, high-def monitors, that are sometimes in 3-D. When I was a boy I could see the difference between reality (which was in mult-dimensional and in color) and TV, which wasn’t. Now that line is blurry. The same images move from TV, to computer, to phone, to tablet. They don’t stay home any more. They go with us in the car and even as we walk. We spend a good bit of “real life” consuming mediated reality.
I do enjoy TV but I also think about what the older Dutch Reformed folk used to say about “worldliness” and whether they had a point. I’m not advocating we go back to the practice of hiding the TV when the minister and elders come for house visitation but wonder whether perhaps had a point. Are we more or less Christ-like after more than 50 years of TV? If it’s true that it’s not what goes in but what comes out that defiles, does it have any effect on our sanctity? Surely, however, that can’t be a license to do whatever we will. Scripture does warn about “eyes full of adultery” (2Pet 2:14) and “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1John 2:16). When I have watched Two and a Half Men Ephesians 5:4 has come to mind.
The situation is even more complicated with film. Before we mock the older attitude toward popular entertainment we should remember that, in its early days, cinema was virtually unregulated and many early films were graphic pornography. To be sure, by today’s standards early television was quite tame. When we think about the “Elmo” scandal and the messages that are being sent into our homes and hearts, however, we might long for Captain Kangaroo, Get Smart, and Gilligan’s Island.
This episode (no pun intended) raises another question: was there a better way for Angus to handle this? I understand the criticisms that many are making that if he wanted to criticize the show harshly, as he has, then he shouldn’t continue to work there. It will be difficult for his co-workers, who doubtless work very hard to put the show on the air, to compete, and to be successful to understand why a co-worker would denigrate their work so. Most of the folk who work on the show on-screen and off-screen probably have no way to interpret his comments, especially those in part 2 of the video. It is bound to sound self-righteous.
Might it have been wiser and more effect for Angus to leave the show quietly for personal reasons and then, if he wants to help young people (and others), to speak out? If Angus wants to take a bolder, more “prophetic” stance toward the entertainment industry (including his own show) then he should have ended his business relationship with them first. As is, it seems to some as if he’s taking a check with one hand and slapping the hand that feeds with the other. However sincere and well intentioned he may be, his criticism (and even his subsequent apology) will be taken as hypocrisy.
Perhaps he is going through his own version of what Mike Horton calls the “cage phase.” I’ve certainly been a “jerk” (though we shouldn’t blame the Reformed faith for it). If Jones needs to be careful not be position himself as holier than thou I need to be careful to remember that I’ve done the same sort of thing. We should pray for Angus, that he would continue to mature and perhaps even to find an expression of the faith that is more closely related to the Reformation. We should also remember his co-workers, that they might not assume that Christianity requires a self-righteous posture, that they would see that fame isn’t salvation, that it fades, that there is truth to be known, grace to be found in Christ, and after that a glory that Hollywood can’t produce.