Making Goodness Fashionable, Or Not

If Hannah More and William Wilberforce were still alive, they’d be huge Duck Dynasty fans. But they may be mixed on Man of Steel.

Dedicated to “making goodness fashionable,” the dynamic duo from the original 19th century Clapham Group recognized the power of celebrity to influence culture at large. Duck Dynasty-now the second most popular show on cable TV-fits that description perfectly, as others have observed (read truth matters blog here). In a Wall Street Journal article about the show, David McKillop, executive vice president for programming at A&E, commented “In the TV landscape, we’ve always thought that bad behavior makes good television, but sometimes good behavior makes good television.”

William Wilberforce and Hannah More, two of the most famous members of The Clapham Group, worked together to end the slave trade but also shared a commitment to “make goodness fashionable.”

I saw a recent issue of Readers’ Digest  that listed the most trusted 100 Americans (read RD article here), and not surprisingly few were from the political or religious sectors.  A vast majority were from the media, and most from sports and entertainment.

To “make goodness fashionable,” More and Wilberforce recognized the influence of the elites as moral “models” and recruited them in the effort.  More maintained, “Reformation must begin with the Great, or it will never be effectual.  Their example is the foundation whence the vulgar draw their habits, actions, and characters.  To expect to reform the poor while the opulent are corrupt is to throw odors into the stream while the springs are poisoned.”  And so we ask, who are our “greats” and elites that model and shape the morals of “the masses?”

Wilberforce and More had their Lords and Ladies; we have our athletes and actors, our Dallas and Duck Dynasties.

When I had lunch with Fred Rogers awhile ago in the Senate dining room, he resonated with this language, and said this is what his engagement in media was all about.   How do we make academic achievement fashionable?  Generate peer pressure for generosity and self-sacrifice?  Encourage civility?  Make fatherhood fashionable?

Celebrity and story are critical “teaching tools” in our culture today.  More and Wilberforce also recognized that with this power to shape the culture for good also comes the ability to shape it for worse.  As Wilberforce noted “We have now an hypocrisy of an opposite sort, and I believe many affect to be worse in principle than they really are, out of deference to the licentious moral of the fashionable world”-- a comment that remains strikingly relevant today.

Bill Cosby was in town last week, and the echoes of his comments to the NAACP in 2004 still reverberate.   Some cultural artists and artifacts actually discourage “the good.”  (listen to Cosby speech here)

This is why I was so torn by the most recent Superman interpretation. On one hand, I was thankful that Zack Snyder approached the film without cynicism wanting to be true to the myth; not wanting to recreate Superman in his own image, but give him a human element that is often lost with the Christ-like character that Superman is perceived to be.  (On the other hand, Snyder is very comfortable playing this up the Christ comparison) (read CNN article here)

The actor who portrays Superman, Henry Cavill, said “perfection without effort is, in itself, not perfection, it’s just gifted. Just being right because you exist isn’t interesting. Doing the right thing, through hard work and the right decisions, is a better character.” (read NY Times article here)

Snyder worked to intentionalize this, without undermining the moral nature of Superman. “We assume that Clark is not a virgin — I do,” he said. " You don’t see that, but that’s the assumption.”

For this, I liked Man of Steel.  A lot.

But my tension lies with one aspect of the film’s portrayal of Superman that does undermine his nature; his willingness to risk innocent life and ultimately kill an enemy in a way that feels unnecessary.  I’ve heard many people complain about the length of the fight scene at the end of the film, but what nagged me about it was it's pointlessness.   Take your fight into the alley.  Find a mountain somewhere and have it out.  Pursue justice but show mercy.  This is the American way.  This is Superman’s way. (read Comics Alliance review here)

What would the Duck Dynasty have done?