Getting the story right

Posted Dec 30, 2011 | New Media Project


By Jason Byassee

It is often said of digital media that it is a Gnostic form of knowledge that glosses over the particular for the universal. I’ve made versions of that claim myself. But I’m not sure it’s true. I wonder instead whether we can attend to the particular details of a place well or badly in whatever creative venue we express ourselves?

Christianity Today has recently launched an endeavor to pay particular attention to six cities. Their print magazine and website will profile New York, Detroit, Richmond, Phoenix, Portland, and Palo Alto over the next two years, and then online readers will be encouraged to submit portraits of ministry in their own city (7th City, Yours). A friend pointed me to a website called Project Peace in the Oakland area that links Christians with missional opportunities in their city. Here a consistent pastoral problem—Who’s doing what in our town? How do we get involved without recreating the wheel? How do we tell our people where to serve?—is addressed digitally in a more elegant way than paper media or word of mouth ever did. Another friend showed me a church social networking site called Be The Light that allows folks in a large church to connect with one another for missional purposes—again, perhaps better than they would have in person.

By contrast, sometimes older media gets it wrong. While I was living in Durham, local media fluttered as movie stars like Colin Firth and Orlando Bloom came to town to film “Main Street,” a movie based on a Horton Foote screenplay. The film tried to ask the weighty moral question of what a decaying town will do to save its life. Will it even accept a hazardous waste facility? And it tried to do so with sensitivity to the local culture. The film was shot entirely in Durham, and it gets the architecture right. The buildings are pure Durham, from shotgun shacks to antebellum mansions to warehouses. The elegant Ellen Burstyn’s character recalls her father “Julian Carr,” and indeed there was an imminent personage by that name in Durham’s memory. The old man is even shown periodically in an oil painting in Ms. Carr’s home. These local details seemed promising. At least, that is, until they didn’t.

You start wondering immediately about all the English actors. Firth and Bloom do their best, but as a viewer I spent the whole time wondering why King George and Legolas were trying to sound like rednecks. Then the local history fell apart—Julian Carr fought in the Civil War, yet the film is set in present day recession America. Ellen Burstyn’s character would have to be well over 100, perhaps closer to 150 years old, for the math to work. More troublingly, Durham is portrayed as though Duke University, three other major local universities, and Research Triangle Park, do not exist. It’s simply a decaying post-industrial post-tobacco town with no future unless it agrees to warehouse the waste. In point of fact, Durham’s old tobacco warehouses are now chic malls, restaurants, lofts, and offices. The Triangle has stayed relatively recession proof by balancing high tech, education, and health care entrepreneurship. Downtown Durham was once a dead end but now it’s the hippest place in the Triangle to live in, and that’s saying a lot. Foote’s screenplay, written some decades prior, would have been more accurate about downtown Durham circa 1975.

The movie has met with disastrous reviews for none of these reasons, but rather because it lacks characters worth caring about, pacing, and a heart. My point for now is simply that film is a medium well over 100 years old. And in its portrayal of Durham, it completely misrepresents the local details. There are towns in North Carolina like the one portrayed in the story, but Durham is not one of them. Here, an abstract concern—the telling of a morality play—trumps the particular, granular, accurate, and local. Sometimes old media forms get it wrong.

Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.

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  1. 1 Wendy Lampard 31 Jan
    I'm beginning to understand your point of view and appreciate how you critic the matter. Bookmarking this for further updates. Thanks for sharing your opinion!
  2. 2 Thomas Healey 31 Jan
    When I was an undergraduate I took a course in print media that required each of us to pick one major story and follow it in five different media sources. The results were shocking, at best, as we compared the same fact or statistic and found each of five gave it differently. Getting it wrong has always been part of media and will always be, including social media. The more important question is why it is wrong. Is it wrong because of the push to publish (or broadcast or post) or is it wrong for political, social or malicious reasons. As one earlier quest blogger pointed out: for us, as Christ followers, the overriding concern is expressing the love of God within what we do. Getting is wrong will always be there. Expressing love takes intentionality.
    Tom Healey



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