It was late spring in London, and just as the weather outside started warming up, things inside started heating up, too. I was a BYU sophomore, in England for the term as part of the Theatre Study Abroad program that Gene England and Tim Slover ran for many years. For two months we studied and sightsaw and slacked by day, and by night we soaked in Shakespeare and Shaw and Pinter at the theatre; later at night we wrote papers, played cards, and discussed who in the group was hot. (My future husband was among the participants, and I cast my vote for himâ€”although we didnâ€™t start dating for years after that spring.)
Among the plays we studied and attended that spring was Tony Kushnerâ€™s two-part Angels in America. The play seemed well-suited to our curriculum, as the definitive production of a highly-lauded American play dealing with Mormons. Of course, it also included profanity, male nudity, gay themes, (stylized) depictions of sexual acts, and, most offensive to some, a brief depiction of an LDS character in (what were clearly not authentic) temple garments. Gene and Tim knew that the playâ€™s content would shock the tender sensibility, and they made it clear that no student was required to attend the play. Suddenly we were faced with what felt like a moral choice: to see the play, or to abstain. My friend Brian and I discussed what we should do, and though we saw eye-to-eye on many issues, we disagreed on this one: Brian decided not to see the play, I decided to see it.
During one of our several discussions of the matter, Gene read to us from Matthew 15, where the scribes and Pharisees charge the disciples of eating bread with unwashed hands. Christ replies, â€œNot that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.â€? The consumption of images, Gene implied, is different from the consumption of food: itâ€™s not what goes in that makes one impure, itâ€™s what comes out. Christ is making a larger point in this episode, of course, accusing the Pharisees in stinging language of reducing spiritual commandments to meaningless technicalities and quoting Isaiah, â€œThis people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.â€? But he returns to the issue of consumption at the end of the passage, explaining to Peter, â€œDo not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.â€?
In thinking about media consumption, the alimentary metaphor works, I think, but the passage in Matthew 15 suggests that we need to replace the customary language of contamination with a language of metabolism: we should be focused not primarily on the purity or contamination of the images and ideas we encounter, but on the way we metabolize those images and ideas into thought, language and behavior. Iâ€™m not suggesting that thereâ€™s no connection between what we consume and what we produce (nor, I believe, did Christ); indeed, a crucial tenet of the social constructionist analysis in which I am trained (and with which I nevertheless have certain quarrels) is that ideology overdetermines subjectivity. The steady diet of sex, violence and materialism on which our culture feed is yielding up its substance in our society, and a change in cultural eating habits may be just what the doctor ordered. But Christ teaches us that what really matters, morally, is not what goes in, but what comes out.
So what about Brian and me? Who made the right choice? I really donâ€™t know; in the intervening years good things have come from both of us, I think. But it is a delicious irony that, all these years later, Iâ€™m ensconced in what may be perceived as the most chaste of all academic pursuits, Renaissance literature, while Brian is in what may be perceived as the most salacious, reality television. Tony Kushner couldnâ€™t have plotted it any better.