At midnight on December 31, 1999 the church will begin to celebrate the third millennium of Christ's Incarnation, the third millennium that will dawn on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
It is entirely possible, however, that most of the world will be watching the ball drop in Times Square.
We are living in the midst of a secular society, one that might well be more interested in a hotel room overlooking 42nd Street than one with a view of St. Peter's.
This is the world to which Pope John Paul II sent Tertio Millennio Adveniente, an Apostolic Letter that could be seen as a master public relations plan for celebrating the birth of Christ. One might wonder how well the plan can be executed, given the world's competing systems of information distribution and control. Will the Incarnation be the focus of the turn of the century? Will December 31, 1999 signal a holy year, the Jubilee Year 2000? Or will the world's eyes be turned by the various communication media to the issues and icons of four years hence: the replacements to Michael Jackson, Brad Hunter, Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson?
The answer lies within predictions about the ways in which the world media will develop and be controlled in the next few years, about whether print or broadcast or computer will dominate information systems.
For the most part, print media-brooks, magazines, newspapers--are products of their societies. They reflect the individual and collective points of view within language groups. In some cases, their views are significantly common to humanity, and so they are translated, initially to cognate language groups and perhaps eventually to cultures farther and father away. In most countries, there is still a broad range of opinions and outlooks available through print media, but print media are slow to respond and expensive to access. Insofar as print is being transmuted into electronic systems, it will survive and possibly surpass broadcast media as purveyor of concepts. This is a sign of hope, because free access to publishing and its products has traditionally been seen as the means to both develop and maintain a free society.
Broadcast media are not so well received by those who value intellectual and, consequently, religious freedom. The leavening of print is replaced by the leveling of television in world discussion forums. Today, American cables are tightly wrapped around all broadcast media. World broadcast media outlets are if not American controlled, at least controlled by what society politely calls "secular" values, values confusingly if closely identified with the alleged American dream. This is not the 19th century American dream of westward expansion, of freedom, and of dignity. Those gifts of this democracy are now seen as rights. No, it is the aging 20th century dream of consumerism and escapism, not entirely reality-based, a dream often seen as therapy for a reality that increasingly echoes the media fantasies which fill the circuits and the airwaves.
Media-borne political, economic and social fantasies do not mean that broadcast media are wholly antagonistic toward religious belief. To be fair, many media professionals are often confused as to what precisely constitutes religion. It can be argued that the secular society's broadcast media can be a positive vehicle for religion if a mutual understanding can develop. For as much as media needs to learn about religion, so religion needs to learn about media. Each might find the other useful. If religion serves to teach us how to deal with God, with self, and with community, then it might well use broadcast media to help in its task; likewise, broadcast media might well become fascinated with religion. We know, of course, this is not presently the case, except where televangelists fill both real and electronic arenas, and where scandal coverage contributes a few Nielsen rating points to the local news.
Still, the initial question of religion, "Who is God?"--which leads ultimately to the definition of self and of the responsibilities of self toward community--is both intriguing and, arguably, newsworthy. After all, competing gods are examined with detailed regularity every evening on the news: sports, weather, finance, fashion, food and politics.
Unfortunately, the media as a body of professionals seem to have developed a peculiarly secular (if not apocalyptic) spirituality of their own. The biggest stories are those that touch on an end time: fires, natural disasters, famine, and massacres. The biggest heroes seem to be those who get the most space and air time, independent of the reasons why. The biggest challenge is independent live coverage of warfare.
If we separate the media of communication into two branches, one that provides information and one that provides entertainment, and recognize that these branches as they extend and subdivide become entangled, one within the other, then the possibility for confusion-and abuse--is evident. Beyond, we can recognize that the entertainment branch of media is often in complete contradiction to the information branch of media. For example, insofar as the information branch might present the papal message, and the wish of the whole church, to recognize the 2000th anniversary of the coming of Christ to the world, the entertainment branch might continue to present opposing values. Information would be cancelled out by entertainment because the message of reality would collide with the message of fantasy. This is inevitable because the message is presently inseparable from the medium. The unifying message of American entertainment is self: self satisfaction, self fulfillment, self enjoyment, self involvement; the clarifying message of Christ is the mystery of the Cross as involvement with the Other: God and God's people in and through the resurrection.
A question the jubilee planner might ask with exasperation is: why can't there be any "good news" about the millennium in world media? Again, recalling that world media markets are dominated by American standards and American-trained journalists, by way of answer it might be well to consider the ways in which the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States has been tortured to the point where it has all but abandoned its once close association with religious belief. First Amendment rights were initially fairly simple and straight-forward. What the First Amendment states is: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press . . ." Somehow this concept has mutated into a muddy equal time requirement so that, realistically speaking, every time a religious spokesperson presents the position of a religious denomination on a matter in the news (usually a moral matter--abortion, euthanasia, war, for example) there is an automatic journalistic reach for an opposing viewpoint, as if the religious denomination's statement is not news, i.e., not a representation of fact (the fact of what the denomination teaches) but rather an evocation of some sort of prosleytization, which must be neutralized by another view.
So, with the coming of the millennium, the immediate problem for those who wish it to be a religious celebration, a true Jubilee Year 2000, is that every mention of religion, of Christ, might internally argue for a mention of an opposing viewpoint. If so, then the reverse should also be true: for every mention of an "opposing viewpoint," Christ, or at least some God-centered religious view, should be mentioned. But this will not happen.
A problem in this regard is that the media are not always sure of what religion is not, and so some mentions of "religion" are discussions of what in reality are anti-religious groups, groups that often use the name of God to ensnare individuals in unfree systems that are eventually self-centered in both promise and result. In this century, over 2,500 new religious groupings and cults have appeared in the United States alone, each forecasting happiness and purpose for members. Their appeals to the soul challenge generous individuals who wish to change the world and to remake it into a happier and healthier place. These cults and new religions range from those that are specifically Christian, to those that are God-centered, to those that are creation-centered, to those that are Satanistic.
The coming of the millennium promises a growth environment for all of these, particularly those for whom the apocalypse is a reality and who live what has come to be called a negative spirituality. A doomsday premise born of boredom and fear might ride upward on whatever currents the promise of the Holy Year stirs up within the media. Combined with the ordinary stresses of the secular society, this does not bode well for those who look toward a Jubilee Year with faith, with hope and with love.
But despair is not an option for a media professional with a computer. Electronic evangelization is truly no substitute for the real thing, but where the secular society self-evangelizes and self-ratifies electronically, religion has its own right to an "opposing viewpoint." Hence the traditional media outlets--print (magazines, books, newspapers, pamphlets) and broadcast (radio and television, and recordings) are supplemented and may well be supplanted by computer generated, designed and transmitted "media" that create and store far more information and entertainment than heretofore imagined could be available on-demand to individuals. What has come to be called the Internet--a loose association of super computers connected over highspeed telephone lines--is within the economic reach of much of the secular society that is the self-designated battleground for religion and religious belief.
A way for the church to respond to the media challenges of the millennium might be to investigate the ways in which its message might be stored and made available, freely, to anyone for the asking. There is no Vatican Homepage, no Vatican computer ready to transmit a papal document or even a gospel text. As of this writing, the closest thing to an official Vatican Internet location is Vatican Radio's Germanbased URL or Internet address, where everything that is available is available only in German. While the Vatican and IBM are collaborating on a spectacular project that may eventually make up to 150,000 Vatican Library manuscripts available to scholars and others using a billable service concept, and multiple university Internet sites provide Catholic documents, these developments are research-oriented.
The celebration of the millennium is a great idea. It has solid ecclesial roots, and, not incidentally, it matches well with the best of public relations theory. The concept, however, may fall of its own weight unless the planners counter the ordinary resistance of a media they cannot control with the 21st century's equivalent of the pulpit, an electronic location that will pass information from the Chair of Peter to all the people of God, those who believe and those who do not believe, as they require and request it.
RELATED ARTICLE: TALK 2000 FORUM ESTABLISHED ON THE INTERNET
The greatly anticipated millennial year 2000 has arrived, at least in cyberspace. This according to USC assistant professor, Stephen O'Leary, sponsor of the new "Talk 2000 Forum" on the Internet. Started in May 1995, O'Leary's electronic forum explores the folklore, festivities and the future of the millennial year 2000.
Designed as a free on-line electronic conference, the Talk 2000 Forum will allow practically anyone, anywhere in the world, to participate in this global town meeting. Participants can announce events, exchange ideas, ask questions and carry on discussions about the 1999 to 2001 millennial celebrations.
Mr. Jay Gary, author of the book The Star of 2000, will serve as the conference moderator. UPI radio recently called him the "recognized expert on year 2000 preparations." Gary has been talking about the year 2000 for more than 10 years with all kinds of pepople: futurists, historians, trivia buffs, community organizers, adult educators, festival planners, people from the arts, corporate leaders and church leaders--anyone who would like to meaningfully commemorate the advent of the third millennium.
O'Leary, a communications professor, plans to archive the Talk 2000 Forum for scholars of the 21st century who wish to study how "millennial rhetoric" affected society during the bimillennial era.
As an electronic mailing list, the Talk 2000 Forum comes to participants each day in a digest format to their E-mail address whether they are on the Internet or not.
PHYLLIS ZAGANO is a specialist on religion and media. She is an associate professor of communication at the Boston University College of Communication and director of its Institute for Democratic Communication. Her books include Religion & Public Affairs (The Rockford Institute. 1987). Woman to Woman: An Anthology of Women's Spiritualities (Liturgical Press. 1993) and On Prayer (Paulist Press, 1994).…