Our society is getting progressively muddier. What used to be seen as filth is now mainstream in books, movies, and music. Our cultural understanding of right and wrong is blurred and obscured. A few years ago, my husband and I were experiencing the effects of the modern moral messiness on our 11-year-old son. He was snarky, sassy, self-focused, and easily angered, and his attitude was clouded with lots of automatic negative thinking. Perhaps you have experienced this in your child or grandchildren?
As an experienced mother and educator, I sought a proactive solution. This young guy was also bright, funny, thoughtful, and kind. The challenge? How to keep bad interior habits from consuming him. How to keep the mud on the outside, and not on the inside. The following is the backstory of Virtue Works Media: a case study of the power of virtue to protect and strengthen a young soul.
A Motherly Motivation
I don’t know which drove my passion for this task more: my personal consecration to Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary (yes, I’m a total “church lady”), or my background as an educator, professional children’s author, and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd catechist. I just knew that whatever I did, it needed to help other children also, not just our son. The hypothesis motivating the project was: “Can the power of imagination, the experience of positive storytelling (in books, movies, TV shows, music, and more), inform and motivate virtuous behavior?” Pop culture seemed glutted with titles for youth that were either spiritually empty or morally toxic.
My son was approaching the age for an onslaught of material saturated with increasing amounts of sex, violence, lying, and selfishness. Publishing companies and media giants have worked hard to condition Americans that such content is “age appropriate” for teens … through millions of dollars of very slick advertising. I needed a unique collection of titles that modeled virtuous behavior in ways an 11-year-old would want to emulate. I sensed the urgency of approaching adolescence. I knew my time was short.
Preparing a Plan
As an author, I had an inside connection to a community of authors, artists and film-makers who were creating quality content that was virtue-rich. I gathered a collection of book and video recommendations for all ages. My hope was to communicate to my son that mom’s project was not just targeted at him alone. I insisted that the stories affirm faith and virtue without being sappy or boring. I invited my entire parish to choose virtuous titles to enjoy over a summer. I enlisted my son as a test reader/watcher for a new virtue development program. I called it the Virtue Literacy Project. I created a rating system of 30 specific “everyday virtues” that could be applied to any kind of media. My son’s task was to read and watch … and try to identify the virtues in the content he consumed.
The Virtue-Immersion Summer
Over the course of that summer he experienced a steady diet of virtue-rich reading and media. There were still some “junk food” titles in the mix, but his free time was filled with the likes of Daniel Boone, Andy Griffith, Redwall, Will Wilder, and even some easy-reading Chime Travelers. We now call this the virtue-immersion summer, and our family experienced three important results.
1. Transformed Behavior
Patience, self-moderation, respectfulness, and cooperation were energized in his personality. We had continued our normal spiritual practices of faith (things like church on Sunday, mealtime prayers, talking about God, and so on). These had always been in the mix. However, it was clear he had become spiritually strong by the renewing of his mind. His imagination no longer languished as a selfish, and morally empty, playground. It had become a spiritual “dojo” in which he was enabled to visualize goodness and motivated to exercise it. The virtue “instruction” was effortless and natural. He was simply enjoying fun-to-read books and fun-to-watch videos that happened to be virtuous. He had become virtue literate. He had learned the language, the lexicon, of virtue. He had learned to recognize it in practice … and he was motivated to imitate what he had experienced.
The second incredible result was that he had developed discernment. By simply giving him a way to look for the good content in what he read and watched, his awareness of noxiousness was sharpened. At times, he would start reading a popular title, then close it, saying, “That’s not so good.” If a movie or TV commercial with suggestive sexual images appeared, he would get up and leave the room. He would even assess his own misbehavior at times and say, “Mom, I think I need to read a virtue book.” It was amazing for me, as a mom, to witness.
An important key to his success was that the experience was not oppressively restrictive. If he wanted to watch a spiritually vacuous title here and there, we allowed some pop culture fare in the mix. The vast majority was morally rich, but he did not feel suffocated or imprisoned in the process. Our entire attitude was positive and upbeat. We were discovering great hidden gems together.
3. Receptivity to Faith
The final, critical result was an increased receptivity to the gift of faith. By consuming content with characters who valued family and lived with faith and trust in God as their lifestyle, he could imagine a faith-focused life as normal. Through the power of storytelling, Christian faith (and in our case, Catholic faith) was gently proposed to him, not imposed upon him. His heart remained soft and open toward God. When a vast number of young teens now experience spiritual atrophy in the transition time between middle school and high school, (even in private and parochial religious schools) here was a guy who was spiritually alive on the inside. Religion wasn’t just knowledge of God that he had learned. In the midst of a too-often filthy and fallen culture, through the experience of virtue modeled in what he read and watched, faith and virtue had been normalized in his world-view. God was inside both his head … and his heart.
From Past to Present
Our son, now a teen, is a great guy. He has lots of very normal ups and downs. He is not a saint. He still is a test reader and viewer for me, and is now part of a blogging team with several friends called the “Beyond the Trend Teens Recommend” (BTTR) who research and write about Catholic creatives who are making the world a BeTTeR place through writing, film and music. Check out the BTTR blog.
Since that summer, God has kept me busy. The virtue-immersion summer has become a ministry organization called Virtue Works Media. Our Virtue Literacy Project is now a non-profit effort working to replicate the results of our family that summer, and the results of our more recent virtue initiatives, in countless more lives … year in and year out. Our challenge was and continues to be how to build a methodology that could reproduce the positive results we experienced on a large scale?
As I researched an organizational plan, it became clear we didn’t need another education curriculum. There are many fabulous virtue curricula available. We didn’t need a list of titles to ban or boycott. There are many warning-based blogs and news organizations. So what DID families need?
We need an online tool for families to easily find morally solid book, video, and music titles identified by the virtues in them. Grownups needed to be able to match titles to their own age and interests, or to those of their children or grandchildren, in a search of 2 to 3 clicks.
All the information that we need about the (surprisingly) large array of great titles is available. But the the reviews and recommendations are largely buried in blogs and lost in book-based lists. With the miracle of modern technology, all that information can be aggregated and accessible in a way that is simple, enjoyable and powerfully transformative in thousands of families’ lives.
So, where is the Virtue Literacy Project now? In 2018, we achieved official non-profit 501c3 status from the IRS. I have continued to be a virtue-advocate and pilot test initiatives to offer information and motivation to help families discover the power of virtue-rich reading and media. Here are two examples:
VIRTUE FIRED UP! We gave middle-schoolers a fun way to learn to recognize virtue in what they read in the first-ever virtue-focused summer reading ”Club Teams.” The kids had a great time, discovered great virtuous books, and learned discernment. Surprisingly, both bookworms and reluctant readers found the competition equally enjoyable.
TOTALLY FEMININE GENIUS “DIY” BOOK CLUBS: We invited moms and grandmas to team up with daughters and grand-daughters to enjoy fun-to-read, virtue-rich novels together and discuss the virtues they noticed in the story. These conversations are low-key mentoring opportunities that build relationship.
Stuck in the Mud
The challenge before us is daunting. We CAN clean up the interior attitudes and values of youth culture through positive reading and viewing habits, but it requires US to be intentional in choosing better fare along side of them. Our example speaks volumes. When we habitually try to avoid the media mudbath, our children will often find strength to do the same.
Do we need some motivation? Here’s one example related to sexual virtue and vice. Do an online search of ministries world-wide that work to free victims of sex-trafficking. There are dozens and dozens of organizations. Why has sex slavery and abuse exploded in recent years? Normalized access to, and increased mainstream acceptance of, sexually explicit material, both narrative and visual has contributed in a huge way. Do we want our sons to grow up to be sexual users or abusers? Do we want our daughters to settle for being treated as objects or “eye candy”? Of course not. Let’s give young people opportunities to experience stories and images in which they can imagine respectful, life-sustaining love … based in self-mastery. This way, their imaginations can fuel their own spiritual strength and purity of heart, and help them raise the bar for their peers. Whether mud is thrown at them, or even if they fall in to the mud, their hearts will be protected with stories that show them how to be clean, and/or to get clean, from the inside out.
Cleaning Up Culture Together
We are still working on fundraising for the online search engine. It will be known as “The V List.” We are going to turn the entire notion of “A-List” actors, films, authors and entertainment upside-down. Literally. Culture is experienced in community. I want the culture that defines my son’s, and all our children’s, generation to be one where virtue becomes the standard for both art and life, and moral behavior becomes the new normal. God began this large and powerful task with a “regular” mom who did not have mountains of money or any powerful connections. He knows the end game, so we just work on being faithful in the process, and allow providence to guide us. Let me know if you want to be part of our team to help out in any way.
Copyright 2019 Cathy Gilmore