Television, the Internet, and Christians
Rev. Steve Schlissel - August 20, 2002
Lest I forget, get Neil Postman’s books, Amusing Ourselves to Death, and Technopoly.
Technologies serve worldviews, inescapably so. Christians as a group have been far too naïve in approaching issues of technology, generally welcoming them as neutral. Our failure to ask the meta-questions about TV has resulted in tragic consequences for the church. If we fail to ask the right questions about computers and the Internet,1 woe be unto us.
Postman has noted, What we need to consider about the computer has nothing to do with its efficiency as a teaching tool. We need to know in what ways it is altering our conception of learning, and how, in conjunction with television, it undermines the old idea of school. We need to know if television changes our conception of reality… A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience will miss the significant question: In what sense do new media alter what is meant by religion, by church, even by God?
There are reasons that Charismaniacal and maudlin versions of Christianity are the brands which play best on television. TV demands them. Christianity cannot simply employ modern technologies without first coming to understand in exactly what ways the technologies might be resonant or discordant with the Christian message. Reformed Christianity isn’t a good fit on commercial or mass-market TV in the same way that ads for Bethany Christian Services aren’t found on packets of birth control pills: the message and the medium are not made for each other.
TV is not an instructional medium so much as it is an entertainment medium. No matter how much education might be packed into any given show, to keep people coming back, this essentially boring medium must be made “inviting,” must titillate and seduce, must provide ever-wilder images, sounds, thrills and chills to keep an audience. The February 22, 2000, New York Times featured a story on a show called “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire,” another in the trend of shows which seek to blur entirely the differences between reality and TV. (The radio announced this morning that a couple married on that show are seeking an annulment. What a surprise.) Other shows in the offing? Networks “have plans to put people on a remote island swarming with cameras, to lock people together into a house filled with cameras, and even, in the case of one syndicated show, to marry off strangers to each other every week.” And the wild success of the film, The Blair Witch Project, suggests that there might someday be a weekly “snuff” show. And so-called “news” shows have already come close.
Consider the impact television has had on politics. A person who doesn’t “play well,” that is, who doesn’t “image well,” on TV, does not have a chance of being elected to national office, regardless of his ideas or ideals. In fact, ideas are an impediment in a TV culture. What’s required are slogans, not thought.
Therefore, treating TV like an entertainment medium is a must for Christians, and this must be followed by a discipline which parsimoniously parcels out such entertainment time.
TV is a technology that competes with Christ for the final word in interpreting reality. In the single generation of its existence, TV has become the unifying center of American experience. At least one TV set is a fixture in over ninety-eight percent of American households. TV is the most consuming leisure activity in history. Forty to eighty million people sit in front of the tube night after night, finding their reality and interpretation from an Antichrist box. Each week children aged two to five watch over twenty-seven hours of TV. That’s about four hours a day. Households of one or two people have the tube on for thirty-seven hours a week. And households of five or more have it going for sixty-one hours each week—nearly nine hours per day of this intruding into a home.
These numbers, quite apart from consideration of content, tell a damning story in themselves. More than a definer of culture, TV is our culture, advancing the values which serve it and seeking to eliminate the values which oppose it. Television has become the focal point and mediator of family experience. Do you want to investigate the accelerated breakdown of the family? If you leave out TV, you’re leaving out a major contributor. Instead of enjoying time with each other, we bring in a mediator, the new family altar, our twentieth-century version of the household idol. As the medium of our age, television zealously seeks to consolidate and expand its power, just as Christ does His. TV is a competitor with Jesus Christ.
God, Christ, the church, the family and the community fare so badly at the hands of television’s technocrats because all of these compete with TV as mediators and definers of experience, definers of reality, self, and life. Television will tolerate no competition. That’s why the church is ridiculed. That’s why family is regularly mocked. That’s why fidelity to a husband or to a wife is portrayed as ludicrous—to help break down the family, so there is no competition, no higher loyalty than to that which amuses us.
The influence of television is downplayed by nearly everyone except advertisers. How silly the argument that what you see on television doesn’t affect your behavior! Then why, pray tell, do people spend two million dollars a minute to put a 30-second message on it, if it will not affect your behavior? Why was cigarette advertising banned from television, when some people in Washington decided that tobacco was no longer good for their vassals, if what you see does not influence your behavior? Advertisers know very well that TV is able to mold opinion and behavior.
Television is at war with godly manhood. Television removes men from their God-appointed stations, virtually neutering them, rendering them passive nincompoops who sit in front of a box to receive information that they’re told to receive, meanwhile doing nothing with their lives. As long as Christians—men especially, but women as well—are locked to the TV set, we cannot take possession of the inheritance that is ours in Christ. The problem is hard to overstate. Television has become a ubiquitous narcotic that enervates an unsuspecting church.
Television is a monument to the desolating loneliness of humanism, which seeks by noise and clowning to drown out isolation, and isolation is the essence of loneliness. That is what humanism creates—devastating loneliness. Today people have TV as their only companion, even those who live in families. Television is the reward of covenant-breaking; commercial television is a curse.
Inherent in the medium is a preoccupation with style over content. Subtleties don’t play well. The full range of emotions cannot be projected on television. What grips is the simple and the superficial, so it is unavoidable and inevitable that sex, violence and buffoonery, along with police drama, have come to dominate the tube—and that these same elements also dominate what we know as news programs. The news especially exemplifies style over content, the superficial over the profound, the blunt for the refined.
And when, all of a sudden, did the mushrooming phenomenon of kids called “hyperactive” appear on the scene? “Oh, I’m sorry, pastor. My boy can’t sit through church. He’s hyperactive.” Ask any of these kids how many hours they watch TV. Shut off the TV and watch the hyperactivity disappear. Studies are available that demonstrate that too much TV watching, far from relaxing a child, drives him nuts.
The same caveats apply to the Internet. If we do not recognize that the medium favors certain kinds of information and certain kinds of thinking and certain kinds of worldviews, the church’s woes will accelerate. All who have been involved in Internet discussion groups have witnessed verbal altercations which surely would not have occurred in person. The medium determines, to a large extent, the content and character of the communication which takes place on it.
Television can have a place in our lives, and so may the Internet. But if we approach either as inherently neutral, we will pay a very hefty price. Television has replaced Christianity culturally. The Internet could finish the job, humanly speaking, if we approach it unaware.
1 See also Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds-for Better and Worse, by Jane Healy, PhD.