Review of an Egregious Book About Television. First Published in Denver Journal
"When everything is moving at once, nothing appears to be moving, as on board ship. When everyone is moving toward depravity, no one seems to be moving, but if someone stops he shows up the others who are rushing on, by acting as a fixed point"—Blaise Pascal, Pensées.
This little book, despite its good intentions, exemplifies nearly perfectly the central problem with much evangelical engagement with popular culture. The authors assume that electronic media—in this case television—is culturally neutral. That is, there is nothing about the nature or form of the medium itself that should give us pause, or cause us to critique its very nature or form. (Not surprisingly, the book has no references to the insightful media analysis of Neil Postman or Jacques Ellul.) On top of this is the ever-present evangelical cliché that we cannot “reach unbelievers” unless we are conversant with the popular culture in which they are immersed. Further, “There are things in our culture that we just can’t seem to get away from no matter what we do. TV is one of those…” (p. 46). When these three assumptions are combined, the conclusion becomes that we must watch television in a way that honors God and is holy: “…that is what it means to be holy—to be set apart in our hearts for God, and to let nothing take the place of that bond which we have with him. And that is what we will then want to apply to our TV watching. Whilst there is nothing intrinsically wrong with watching TV, or studying TV, or being involved in TV production, or even in developing a reputation for one’s knowledge and involvement in TV, we will want to ensure that we do nothing that damages our covenant relationship with God” (p. 37). Therefore, the book is peppered with illustrations from popular programs and seeks desperately to draw significant ideas from them.
While many evangelicals rightly object to television on the basis of its content (gratuitous sex, violence, materialism, and blasphemy), the more profound question is what the form of this medium does to one’s soul and to our culture. Anyone who still believes in the authority of the Ten Commandments, and who is not comatose must admit that there is much with which to object on television: homosexuality depicted as normal (or even morally superior to heterosexuality), Christianity as incorrigibly stupid and intolerant, the occult as exciting and fulfilling, and so forth. In fact, David Myers has documented the fact that extensive viewing of such behaviors increase the likelihood (amazingly enough) that viewers will engage in these behaviors. (See David Myers, “The Supply Side of Television and Film,” in Don Eberly, editor, Building a Healthy Culture [Eerdmans, 2001], 424-449.)
But Pollard and Couch are not too concerned about moral content. Consider their statement about sexual depictions on television: “…some programmes which contain swearing, nudity or sex scenes can actually build people’s relationship with God because of the message at a far deeper level (although we should still be very wary of the effect such images can have upon us…)” (51). Despite the qualification, this statement is questionable at two levels. First, it is unlikely that programs containing such crassness will be edifying at “a deeper level.” Second, when one watches television, one cannot really “decide” whether to watch crudeness and lewdness; it is everywhere (including especially commercials) at some level. Remember Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” a few years ago. If one is at all attempting to heed Jesus’ warning about lust (Matthew 5:27-30), the pandemic of immodesty on television should render that medium as nothing less than a moral mine field.
It is commendable that the authors encourage their readers to discern the worldview of whatever program they are watching and to compare it to biblical Christianity. They repeatedly quote and refer to Romans 12:1-2 in this regard: we should not be worldly, but transformed in our thinking (see also 1 John 2:15-17). However, the book never interprets the sensibilities that constitute television. These are the very elements that make it problematic and thus not neutral, inevitable, or necessary for Christians to consume, however hard they may work at it (see p. 88). I have addressed these features of television in the appendix of my book Truth Decay: “Television: Agent of Truth Decay.” In brief, rapidly moving images can never match reading or unmediated face-to-face communication concerning depth of analysis and the discernment of truth and error. These four features dominate the medium of television:
The moving image trumps or humiliates the written and spoken word (see Exodus 20:1-4; John 1:1). Images are limited in their power to communicate truth, although they may be very persuasive. On television, the image always “humiliates the word,” as Jacques Ellul put it. The inimitable curmudgeon Malcolm Muggerridge, who was well acquainted with television from the inside out, declared in his later life that “The camera always lies.”
On television, discontinuity or fragmentation replaces linear development of ideas (see Luke 1:1-4). This is what Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death called “a peek-a-boo world,” in which ideas are not explored carefully but rather are thrown almost haphazardly at the viewer. A two-minute news story on famine in Africa is followed by a panty hose advertisement, which is followed by a teaser for a “reality TV” program. This mentality tends to lead to intellectual impatience and recklessness.
Television trades in hypervelocities—jump cuts, scene changes, special effects (see Psalm 46:10). This is the video equivalent of caffeine. Television images move faster than we can assess them rationally, despite what the authors claim about “working hard” at watching television. These high speeds are out of sync with our God-given natures. When we become habituated to this sensibility, it leads to decreased attention spans. This is one reason why many preachers will never preach longer than the length of a half-hour television program and will litter their sermons with “commercials” (light-hearted “breaks” from anything too serious).
An entertainment orientation rules all of television. Amusement dominates all other values (see 2 Tim. 3:4). Everything on television is crafted to stimulate and please us in some way. Nothing is too difficult; after all, we may switch channels if we do not like what we see. This entertainment mentality is epidemic in our culture. Everything becomes a show, a presentation geared to amuse. As French philosopher and social critic Jean Baudrillard wrote in his book America, “In America, the laugh track is always running.” Yet amusement is not appropriate for many aspects of life, such as serious study and the occasions that demand lament, not laughter, such as funerals, illness, and the sinful shattering of close relationships. There is nothing funny about hell—or about the antidote to hell: repentance.
Yet Pollard and Couch never even begin to address such structural features of contemporary television, as is painfully obvious when they write that there is nothing wrong with “developing a reputation for one’s knowledge and involvement in TV” (p. 37). But given both the content and form of television, one should question this seriously. Such activity is, at best, a waste of time. One could be reading, exercising, praying, or conversing with another human being about things that matter most. At worst, being an expert in television means that one is becoming worldly in myriad ways. Moreover, it is not necessary to partake of television culture to “reach” unbelievers. The primary way to communicate Christ to unbelievers is to love them, pray for them, converse with them, and to present the truth to them in love. Unbelievers are often interested in Christians who are different, those who march to the beat of a different—and untelevised—drummer. It is, then, ironic that the authors so frequently invoke a classic text on avoiding worldliness (Romans 12:1-2) when the very thing they advocate (television watching) typically leads to worldliness.
But television is neither irresistible nor inescapable. Each year in the spring, an organization called TV Turn-Off Week (http://www.tvturnoff.org) challenges people to unplug from the tube for one week. So, instead of reading Get More Like Jesus by Watching TV or (worse yet) watching television, I urge my readers to go TV-free for one week (or more) and discover what might be in store for you.
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy