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I've waited a decade to use that catchy title. When I was in graduate school, my then boyfriend--now husband--would joke that it would be a great title for one of my papers. As a mass communications student, I studied media and the ways they shape our perception of reality.
Our understanding of reality is more or less equivalent to the set of experiences that we have had. We "experience" what others tell us in order to understand that which we have not taken part in directly. So, we supplement our own experiences and come to understand the world in large part from stories that we get from our family and friends and from books, magazines, television, and movies.
It is difficult to remember that news and history, like fiction, are constructed messages. They are all stories. We judge the believability of these stories by comparing them to our own experiences. This means that we are likely to appreciate those stories that affirm what we already believe just as we are likely to discount those stories that challenge what we believe.
My experiences growing up seem fairly sheltered when I look back on things. Growing up in Rhode Island, the majority of my friends were white and Catholic just like me. I felt more worldy than my friends because I'd lived in California for a year of my life and had driven with my family across the entire United States twice to get there and back. It also didn't hurt that my parents were from New York City. My real life experiences seemed broader than those of many of my friends, who included all three of the Jewish and all four of the African American students who were in my high school class of 200.
It is from this position in life that I watched shows like "Hogan's Heroes." I easily accepted the premise of the show, that these particular American and Allied soldiers were only prisoners of war as a ruse to mastermind important operations behind enemy lines. I never gave a second thought to the sympathetic portrayals of an incompetent German soldier who continually sputtered, "I see nothing!" The show was a comedy. It wasn't meant to convey a picture of reality. And yet I had a friend whose father would not let him watch the show. My friend's father had been a prisoner in Germany in the war. Simplistic comedy or not, to my friend's father these images were distasteful, distorted, and dangerous.
It is also from this position in life that I attended Mass and took in the stained glass and statues of the Catholic Church. I listened to the stories of the Bible each week. I easily accepted the premise of the Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark, and the Tower of Babel, as well as the stories of Jesus' miracles. These were stories that--at some point--I understood to be allegory. The stories of the Bible helped me make sense of the world around me. I can imagine that for some people, these stories and the iconology of the Catholic Church might be distasteful, distorted, and dangerous.
Recently my husband Barry and I read The DaVinci Code, which has some vivid and challenging theories about the Catholic Church and religion in general. I was struck by a passage in the book where the hero, a symbologist explains:
Every faith in the world is based on fabrication. That is the definition of faith--acceptance of that which we imagine to be true, that which we cannot prove. Every religion describes God through metaphor, allegory, and exaggeration, from the early Egyptians through modern Sunday school. Metaphors are a way to help our minds process the unprocessible. The problems arise when we begin to believe literally in our own metaphors. (p. 341-342)
Do truth and reality actually exist? Is the world just a relativistic mass of different perspectives that all represent partisan agendas and polemic points of view? Phew, hand me the remote control to my TiVo and my Oprah magazine because this is when I want to check out and stop thinking so hard.
But I can't. As a mother of two young girls I am now faced with which stories to tell them. Since we're an interfaith family, Barry and I not only have to judge whether the television cartoon Sponge Bob SquarePants is acceptable, we also need to agree on which religious stories are told and how they are shared. What is faith to me is fiction to Barry.
We could boycott all stories and ignore the issue altogether. But my husband majored in English Literature, so that probably won't work. We feel that the girls will make wiser choices now and in the future if they are exposed to a range of perspectives as well as to numerous images of different types of people. As we select picture books at the library, we make sure these books represent a range of cultures and ideas. When the girls go to religious school they enter a library that is completely comprised of Jewish literature and picture books.
My daughter Claire's bedside table has a stack of books that she has selected to read. In the pile are All of a Kind Family, Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary of Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl, and a story about a Jewish girl fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition. My daughter is quite taken with historical fiction, particularly what life would have been like for someone like her--someone Jewish. The last book about the Inquisition should be the source of much discussion since it will reflect on both of the religions in the household.
We also are trying to teach our girls to recognize and question messages that contradict their own budding ethical and moral principles. We are trying to teach them to ask questions such as: Who created this message and why? Why do I like or dislike it? What points of view are represented? Could someone else interpret the story differently? This is a particularly tough task when you consider our girls are only seven and four. But we want them to learn to think about asking these questions no matter who is being portrayed: Jewish, Catholic, white, black, male or female. Surprisingly, it is the media itself that is helping us. A terrific show called "Liberty's Kids" has taught my girls that history is written with a perspective and that different people might have very different ways of describing the same event.
"Hogan's Heroes" might not be high culture, or even good television, but it did give me one of my first opportunities to think about how people create and receive different messages from events. I want my daughters to learn how to think critically about the messages they see, read, and hear. That's the only way to be prepared for life in a world that is full of different perspectives.