One major problem people have with the church is the way we get things so out of perspective at times.
It is not all our fault. Much of the time, the media create stories to entertain the public. A Bishop can preach ninety-nine sermons on understanding Christian doctrine and promoting Christian virtues, and one sermon on something that has a political dimension, and guess which one gets reported? And then he gets asked, "Why is the church always talking about politics?"!
It is much easier to get publicity if you are against something. Start a campaign against nudity on TV or swearing in soap operas, and you will be reported. Try to work to improve standards of broadcasting, or to educate school children so that they don't need to swear, and nobody will touch you: it is simply not news. You are not cranky enough. So the odd Christians get reported (and mocked, but at least it is publicity) and the ones doing a useful job are ignored.
So the church is, for the most part, a public relations disaster. We can't do much about the way news items are selected and reported, apart from praying. But we can do something about the issues we concentrate on, and how we choose to present our values and priorities.
When Christians talk about falling standards in society, the main theme is very simple and repeated continually: there is too much sex and violence around these days; there is too much sex and violence in films, on TV, in books and plays; and we ought to return to the standard of earlier and more moral generations.
I don't want to talk here about the role of censorship, and whether previous generations were more moral than we are (I don't think they were...) - the most important point is the way we constantly demonstrate a perverted set of values when we talk about these things.
In the way we talk about 'sex and violence' we put together two things that are very different. I don't believe there is any Biblical justification for equating these two activities. However you look at it, they are not equivalent. I will come back to this in a moment.
It gets worse when you look at the things we actually complain about. We blithely accept horrible levels of violence in fiction, and we only complain when the depiction is realistic and honest enough to make us react. We can see hundreds of people 'shot' and fall down 'dead' without a murmur. But show someone who seems to be slowly bleeding to death in agony, and we write and complain. It seems to me we have things the wrong way round. Surely it is more immoral to pretend that killing people is neat and pain free than to show with some accuracy the consequences of shooting a lump of metal into human flesh?
People sometimes try to use my children to change my mind on this subject. Surely, they suggest, I don't want them to be shown gruesome scenes of death and mutilation? That is right: I don't. But then, I don't want them to see people being 'killed' cleanly and easily - and I certainly don't want them to see this being done by the 'good guy'! If my children are going to see death represented on TV and film, I want them to see what knives and guns and bombs really do to the humans and animals that get in the way.
We are just as confused when it comes to sex. We will watch soap operas and follow adulterous affairs as a major part of the story line, and never question it. But show any nudity or sexually explicit behaviour, and we will write and phone to express our disgust.
How on earth does this tie up with Christian morality? In the Bible, both sex and nudity are fine, but adultery is not. Adultery is such an important issue, it features in God's 'top ten' - remember those? - as well as many other passages. But sex is fine as long as it is within marriage. Paul actually tells some married couples in Corinth to have sex more often - how often do we get this advice in our sermons? And nudity in the Bible is just not a moral issue at all.
Somehow, we find it acceptable for our children to see constant depictions of violence on the TV, but nothing that is sexually explicit. Perhaps I am odd, but I don't want any of my children to grow up and start blasting people to pieces with machine guns and hand grenades. On the other hand, I do want them to get married and have a happy sex life. Somehow, it just does not tie up.
I used the word 'perverted' a while back. I mean it. We find references to sex distasteful, but we worship a God Whose first first command to Adam and Eve was to have sex. "Be fruitful and multiply." We enjoy programmes where violence is used to achieve a 'good' outcome, but we follow a Master Who told us to love our enemies, Who refused to fight, and would not let His followers fight for Him. Wherever we get our morality from, it certainly does not seem to be Jesus.
Perhaps we should be writing to the programme makers and ask for more reality. I am not suggesting that there should be no depiction of adultery in fiction. After all, it happens enough in real life - the programmes should reflect it to an extent. But if they want to use it in the plot, they should show the way that peoples' lives are wrecked by it and the impact it has on the children involved.
I am not sure why the depiction of sex on television and at the cinema is regarded as a moral issue. It certainly won't corrupt any children watching - the general response when they do see anything 'inappropriate' is along the lines of "Yuck!... that's boring, can we switch over?" What would be right or wrong is the use of sex: I would consider a programme that shows people having casual sex with anyone they meet to be deeply immoral - unless the consequences of such behaviour are also shown. Pretending that casual sex doesn't screw up peoples' lives, now that is deeply immoral.
Similarly, I don't want to forbid any violence in fiction. But it would be interesting to try an experiment, and maybe for a week we could have a rule that people can only show violence if they also show in adequate detail the consequences of that violence.
I wonder, if we did that, how people would feel about the violence we regard as 'normal' when it started again - the 'bang bang, you're dead,' clean and pain-free violence that only involves a minor character laying down and being written out of the script. I wonder if it would seem as morally acceptable after all?
People sometimes worry that if television starts to show more graphic images, we will be just moving further down that proverbial 'slippery slope'. Things will keep on going downhill.
Firstly, I'm not sure why a more honest portrayal of human behaviour is 'going downhill'. The Victorians regarded the sight of an ankle as shockingly immoral. If they were right, then society's morals have gone a long way downhill since then - but that is a big "If"! Our morals have only slipped if something immoral is being allowed. To establish that, you need some form of moral argument, and "people were never allowed to do / see/ hear / read that in the past" is not a moral argument.
Secondly, the 'slope' does not exist when considering moral issues at this level. The only moral slope is when people start to compromise their principles, and find that the compromise gets easier and the principles harder to hold onto the more they continue. But in terms of what is shown on TV, there is no moral slope: the question is only whether it is good to show this particular event or behaviour.
People think there is a slope because programme makers are not very concerned about morality, but they are very concerned about impact. Seeing someone punched in the face used to be considered graphic violence - now you have to blow up an entire city for the same level of audience reaction. The more violence you show, the less impact it has. But that is one reason why I am arguing that the consequences of violence should also be shown, so it is not used as a cheap way of achieving audience impact. And any level of violence, whatever its impact, can be either moral of immoral.
Consequently, I believe we need to establish a proper moral framework for judging art, public performance and broadcast material. Offhand, the old principle about banning material that 'tends to deprave' sounds like a reasonable start. I would be happy to argue that any programme that shows violence as an acceptable way of resolving conflict must tend to deprave the audience. Does anyone want to argue otherwise?
Perhaps if we Christians started to talk about these things in ways that suggested we believe in a Christian morality, we might carry a bit more moral weight. It's a thought.
Many years ago, somewhere between university and marriage, I lived with some other people in a house called 'Seaview.' At one point, we decided to rent a television. It was not a great success: over the year we had it, I watched a total of one and a half films, and the others didn't watch much more. But early on, someone made a very profound comment: "There is nothing on TV apart from sex and violence." (I think it may have been Steve Davis who said this - can anyone confirm or correct this? Not the snooker player, in case you wonder!)
From that point on, whenever the television was on, whoever was watching would call out "Sex!" or "Violence!" whenever either was spotted. Sadly, it turned out that the summary was pretty close to the truth.