the sages of sin MTV puts stylish spin on classic vice

August 11, 1993|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

Could these be the same seven deadly sins that were codified by Christian monks in the sixth century? That formed the basis of morality plays during the Middle Ages? That were the very serious subject of seven very serious essays in a just-concluded New York Times Book Review series?

Yes, although you might not immediately recognize them on "Seven Deadly Sins: An MTV News Special Report," which airs tonight at 10.

That footage of Evan Dando, current hunk of the alternative music scene, bare-chested and sprawled on a rumpled bed? That's lust. The smirking Kirstie Alley referring to what Freud said women coveted about men's anatomy? That's envy.

MTV gives a decidedly modern spin to the ages-old subject of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth. It's the most unlikely of networks to take on such a subject, but MTV somehow pulls it all together with its trademark flash--- editing style, comments from controversial stars like Ice-T and Sean Young and jangly mix of music, video footage and eye-popping graphics.

"The religious right has had the market for so long on discussing sin," says Lauren Lazin, producer of the one-hour show. "But there really is no one way to think about these things."

While some consider MTV itself "a bastion of sin," Ms. Lazin says, its young audience actually is quite serious about working through various moral issues in daily life. Up-to-the-moment issues like AIDS, drugs and the environment all pose dilemma's for today's youth, she says.

"In doing interviews for various shows," says Ms. Lazin, MTV's director of news and specials, "I found young people today were really concerned about moral and ethical questions, what's right and wrong."

Robert H. Hartman, chairman of the philosophy department at Western Maryland College, a private liberal arts school in Westminster, agrees.

" On college campuses the interest in ethics is just enormous," says Dr. Hartman, who finds courses on various environmental, medical and business ethics fill up quickly these days.

"Issues like AIDS and the environment are coming home, and kids are saying, we better start thinking about these things in the long term."

The MTV show features interviews with both "regular" people and celebrities like Queen Latifah, Ozzy Osbourne and Aerosmith members Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, who discuss how they've reformed from their hard-livin' ways. And, of course, Mr. Dando of the alternative group, Lemonheads.

"We started with the concepts of the sins. We wanted to talk to someone struggling with the concept of lust, for example, which he is," Ms. Lazin says. "And he's certainly a lust object himself."

Other sins get equally updated treatments. For gluttony: A recovering bulimic discusses her eating disorder, complete with suggestive shots of her hand ripping through bags of food and closing the door of her bathroom.

For envy: A professional baseball player, demoted to the minor leagues, discusses how he feels vis-a-vis his father's more successful career in the game.

But not all the seven deadly sins, however, translate so easily into modern times: Interviewers get blank looks when they try to talk about pride as a deadly sin with Queen Latifah and other members of the self-esteem generation.

And on the subject of anger, the range of responses swings wildly from Ice-T discussing his controversial "Cop Killer" to a woman saying, like, anger is when you can't get your VCR to work. Bummer!

The show gets a lot of mileage out of old black-and-white footage in which adults warn youths of the dangers of alcohol and fast living, not to mention some fairly racy artwork by Bruegel and Bosch of more than 400 years ago.

The point is that sin remains a relevant concept throughout the ages, although MTV takes a decidedly less judgmental, this-is-right, that-is-wrong approach than earlier observers.

"What's interesting about the seven deadly sins is that they're not about bad actions - murder, for example, isn't one of the seven deadly sins," says Ms. Lazin. "They're about universal human compulsions . . . that if left unchecked can lead to bad actions.

What makes them resonant is how relevant they are today. Like gluttony - that resonates with all the addictions."

J.B. Schneewind(cq), professor of ethics and moral theory at Johns Hopkins University, says the current media interest - or at least MTV's and the New York Times' interest - in the seven deadly sins follows in the wake of people trying to determine what is right and wrong at a time when religious doctrine holds less sway than it used to.

"Religion was an extremely serious matter on a daily basis in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. People really prayed, and they acted - with some exceptions, of course - more or less in accordance with what their religion taught," Dr. Schneewind says.

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