From the January/February, 1998 issue of Touchstone

Trash the TV? by Terry Mattingly + S. M. Hutchens

Trash the TV?

An Internet Discussion Between Terry Mattingly & S. M. Hutchens

Syndicated columnist Terry Mattingly posted the following column online, which we have excerpted.

Four years ago, ABC’s “NYPD Blue” started yet another fire fight between Hollywood and the cultural right. In addition to its violence and profanity, the gritty drama made headlines with a daring move in network TV—glimpses of nudity. This sent many conservatives to the barricades. Their protests led 57 stations, mostly in Bible Belt and Midwestern markets, to nix “NYPD Blue.” While conservatives celebrated their moral victory, some of these stations filled this prime-time gap with a sexy syndicated series—“Baywatch.” This drew few, if any, protests. Apparently, Pamela Lee’s front side was less offensive than Dennis Franz’s backside.

This is the kind of dilemma that haunts religious groups that wade into the media whirlpool. Tell folks to boycott one brand of slimy entertainment and the odds are good they’ll channel surf on over and watch something just as bad or worse.

“The message we have to deliver is that there’s some good stuff out there and lots of bad stuff and, if people are going to live as mature Christians, they’re going to have to learn to tell the difference. The church should help them do that,” said Calvin College’s William Romanowski, author of Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life.

Right now, the Southern Baptists, Focus on the Family, the Catholic League, the Assemblies of God and a host of other groups are taking on the Walt Disney Co. The problem, once again, is that it’s easier to tell people in the pews to zap Mickey Mouse than it is to ask tough questions about all those other entertainment decisions that shape their lives. So what should religious groups do?

• Comedian Jay Leno is right. The electronic devices in many homes flash one message—“12:00, 12:00, 12:00.” It would be a prophetic ministry for congregations simply to teach people how to program their VCRs. Technology already offers many ways to make choices, for good or ill. The goal is for believers to control the media camped under their own roofs instead of letting those devices control them. If conservatives want to shake things up, they would start a national campaign to convince parents to own only one television and to help them set and enforce limits on entertainment.

• Content issues do matter. But it’s hard to urge people to support the good and shun the bad without agreeing on some standards. Ministers should promote and use books, magazines, newsletters and Internet resources that critique the media. At the very least, congregations should hold one major media literacy event a year.

• This assumes that clergy pay close attention to how people spend their time and money. Yet this is precisely what missionaries do. They begin by studying a culture’s language, symbols, myths, family structures and the institutions to which people turn to for guidance. If pastors did this, they will run smack into the TV and the mall. Seminaries should require at least one core course focusing on the role that mass media play in American culture. . . .

S. M. Hutchens:

Good column. I wonder why so few Christians don’t just get rid of their televisions. The only reason I can figure is that they are devoted to them and cannot bring themselves to do it.

Terry Mattingly:

I see no reason to go this far, asking Christians to get rid of their TVs. I believe that step could be harmful, both to individual Christians and especially to those called into ministry.

To individual Christians? Well, yes, if part of their calling is to be missionaries and evangelists in a post-Christian culture defined largely by television. Also I believe that one of the crucial skills we have to teach our children is how to avoid the bad while enjoying the small sectors of the mass culture that are good. For ministers, I have no idea how they could minister to and reach people in this culture without some critical study of television.

When I was teaching at a seminary, my students used to say this: We’re confused. Are you trying to get us to watch more TV or less TV? My answer was always the same: I want you to watch much less TV, but I want you to be awake while you’re watching it. I want to you to understand the impact that some shows on television are having on the people you are trying to reach. Think of this as a debate and you’re doing research. Or try to think like a missionary.

But aside from that, there is a theological point I want to make. All of creation is both glorious and fallen. All of creation—even television—contains both the glorious image of its Creator and the warped reality of the fall. I see no reason to declare that television is any worse than, let’s say, preaching.

Here is the main problem. Most Americans do not watch programs on TV. They watch TV. Most Americans do not watch programs on TV that they have made decisions to watch, based on their values or even their interests. Most Americans watch TV to kill time, to make life go away in small, stupid chunks. The latter is a sin.

S. M. Hutchens:

Terry, I have no objections to most of what you have said, at least in theory, and certainly can’t back up my intuitions on this subject with any hard data. But faced with television, I feel something like King Lemuel’s mother warning him against strong drink: she never says that it is an evil in itself, but she does say that it is “not for kings.”

I think the same of television: it is contraindicated for those who wish to maintain strong, independent minds because it tends to make the mind weak and dependent, submerging the critical, dialectical processes that are necessary to thinking in its driving inexorability. It tends to get one out of the habit of thinking, especially thinking against the stream, by making it too hard.

When one watches television, one cannot interact meaningfully; it is rather more like entering a stream and being carried along to wherever its originators wish to deposit you. McLuhan was right about the identity of the medium and the message here, but messages should be something we think about and respond to. Print media do not have the same power. Or rather one should say that the power of that medium has almost entirely to do with the message, and very little to do with the medium itself. If a man is ruined by reading a bad book, his own will and personal freedom are far more actively involved in his downfall than would be the case than for those who are seduced by the power of the electronic imaging media. In the first case we have a man who of his own will joins a gang of cutthroats, in the second, a sheep led to the slaughter.

My argument is a practical one: Television is not bad in itself, but very few people are able to use it in a manner that does not harm them in subtle but significant ways. Intellectuals and spiritually acute people, in my experience, tend to be more sensitive to its effect on their minds than others, and have been, again, in my experience, the only people who have done away with television. They don’t do it for directly “religious” reasons—that is, because television is evil—but because it wastes their time, suppresses their critical faculties, and has the disturbing tendency to flatten out, well, let us call them the natural peaks and valleys of the mind—the mental geography we must climb and cultivate to stay in touch with reality.

I don’t, by the way, lack information by not watching television, but get plenty from radio, magazines, and newspapers. It is hard enough to sort through all this without losing one’s sense of perspective. The more I try, the more Muggeridgian I become. I don’t miss television at all, nor do I feel I need it to keep informed or to discipline myself to choose between good and evil. There were numerous opportunities to do this before TV came to complicate our lives by giving us even more.

Terry Mattingly:

Again, note that it is the social role that parents allow the television to play in their homes that is so destructive. As I say in lectures here, it would be destructive to let children watch 20, 40, 60 hours of Billy Graham or the pope or whatever. It would still be preventing so many crucial parts of life.

There are, statistically, almost no people in America who have given up TV —totally—and do not even own one. Even in her “Plug In Drug” studies, Marie Winn found herself returning to a model of people who own one TV and use it only to watch programs that they really want to watch for specific reasons (maybe because they are simply really good or really fun). Perhaps they allow themselves one or two taped documentaries or one or two movies a week.

One key seems to be setting a time limit. Another key is that people should strive to make choices to watch specific shows. You are not watching TV at a certain time just to fill a gap in your life.

If you make a decision to watch one hour of TV a day—on tape—you will find yourself being driven to make choices and to watch only good stuff. There are some excellent shows out there. There are old movie channels. There are history and documentary channels. There are science channels. My kids have already reached the point where they make some great choices. As parents, of course, we do have veto power. But we are finding that they have great taste.

Our children never watch television alone. Period. We make a strong effort to read the books before we watch the movies. We are teaching our children that the books contain more of the story. If the movie does a good, or in a rare case, a better job of some element of the story then fine, we discuss that.

One respondent to my column said that we need to have “talented, aggressive young people (who don’t need to earn a living for a long while) come out to Hollywood, work their way up, and start expressing themselves in what they write and produce. ‘Seinfeld’ is not non-leftist because somebody yelled at them. Same for ‘The Simpsons.’ Different kinds of people started writing the shows. We need different kinds of people in Hollywood. We are already getting some. We need even more. The conflict is this: do we really want Christians to get involved in television if we think that television itself, by the medium’s very nature, undermines religious and family life?”

But what is the theological reason for saying that the medium of television is somehow more fallen, less worthy of the redeeming work of believers, than any other form of communication? Neil Postman makes the case that television (and visual media in general) is simply too easy. It’s extralogical. It’s non-linear. It’s dumb.

But is that true of the visual medium itself? Or, are we criticizing the role that the visual media (including movies) play in a society that has lost the balance between word and image, between Scripture and icon? Visual media are very effective at conveying story, emotion, feeling and opinion. I would be the first to admit that this needs to be balanced by the kind of thinking that is promoted by words and print. But can we really say that God cannot work through a medium that emphasizes story, feeling, emotion?

Also, what is the missionary reason for saying that the Church should ignore its need to critically analyze, answer, and sometimes attack the contents of visual media as they rain down in the heads of people camped on their couches? Yes, the Church right now tends to be totally silent on this kind of issue. We are leaving our people defenseless.

By the way, it’s also hard to draw lines between different forms of visual media. A correspondent wrote me, “I don’t feel the same way about film, because people don’t have movie projectors running in their houses from sunup to sundown.” Sure they do. They’re called VCRs. My students are just as addicted to movies via VCR as they are to broadcast television. Now, are we going to draw a theological line between a movie on a screen and a movie on a TV screen? One is worthy of Christian input and redemption and the other isn’t?

S. M. Hutchens:

Television is indeed, as Terry has indicated, a teller of stories, a giver of sermons, and I think the cumulative effect of television’s stories and sermons is very great, particularly in normalizing in the minds of television’s viewers, over time, the world and thoughts that television portrays with its powerful visual imagery. I believe the classical psychological literature will back common sense on my assertion that the abnormal or subnormal are normalized by exposure over time.

My own convictions on this come mostly from watching conservative friends become religious liberals. This is something that at one point in their lives they think will not happen to them, but then they decide to stay with liberals, listen to their preaching and participate in the life of the liberal church, typically in order to “bring it light.” Along with this goes the unspoken understanding that they will not say or do things that risk making them hateful to people of liberal conviction. Not immediately, but over the course of years, they become liberals themselves, and identifiably so, for their beliefs change. They have become molded to the life of the establishment with which they have chosen to involve themselves and be at peace.

I don’t think Mr. Clinton could have been elected President for a second term, given what became clearly and generally known about his character during the first, unless the United States had undergone a severe moral “dumbing down” during the last generation, in which television, which regularly portrays people with his standards of behavior as not only normal but also decent—remember Murphy Brown?—has played a major role. (You see, I have never seen Murphy Brown, but didn’t need to have a television to hear all about her.)

I believe television has the same effect. If one “stays with it,” it normalizes the world of television, especially in the minds of children, whose cognitive worlds are still unformed. Television becomes their tutor, and gives them a “mind.” I think its mere power to do this should be considered first and apart from the question of whether that mind is bad or good. There are only a few societies that traditionally have had the natural power bestow a “mind”—the family first, then the Church, then other institutions (such as the school or the guild) whose formative and informative powers are subordinate to the greater ones of the home and its religion. Television, I believe, has the power to form a cognitive world (especially in the growing number of children whose lives are unhappy and who seek escape), to be a pedagogue to the child, and a master to the grown-up child.

Not that it must inevitably do this, for television, like liquor and tobacco, can be controlled by taste or discipline. I believe, from my observations of church people, especially my age and younger, that television is a narcotic from which many would suffer withdrawal pains if it were removed, and that their minds have been formed to an extent that would disturb them deeply if they were aware of its effects.

After the nature of this power has come to be understood, then one can move on to the question of whether the mind television propagates is desirable or not. I can hardly argue that if one keeps a television to watch Mother Angelica or Charles Stanley, nature shows, travelogues, or other beneficial or at least innocuous fare, that one has surrendered his mind to the malign forces of demon television, or even that if one uses the TV for occasional “mere entertainment” that this is necessarily bad. What I do believe, however, is that many Christians do not use television this way, that their use of television is much the same as everybody else’s, and that the virus it carries has infected their systems pretty thoroughly.

I would also argue that, given our proclivities to allow this to be so, it is an intelligent and reasonable thing to dispose of television, and that for those who are tempted by it, it is not only intelligible and reasonable but also good and necessary, just as it is good and necessary for those who are given to drink not to drink at all. And I would repeat what I said before about television’s subtle effects on the life of the mind and spirit—that those who would be acute will tend to avoid television. It is “not for kings.”

Terry Mattingly:

In the film, The Sweet Hereafter, a character says, “In my lifetime something terrible happened that took our children away from us. I don’t know if it was the Vietnam War, or the sexual colonization of kids by industry, or drugs, or TV, or divorce, or whatever the hell it was; I don’t know which are causes and which are effect; but the children are gone, that I know.”

One of the most striking things about the Promise Keepers movement is this: I never thought I would hear conservative Christians stand in a pulpit and tell men that God wants them to stop worshipping their jobs. Any list of “what happened?” factors must begin with—at the level of almost all of our culture—what my brother-in-law who is a pastor calls the era of “parenting by paycheck.”

The other factor that cannot be denied is the social role that TV plays in the home and in the process of socializing children. To paraphrase Joshua Meyrowitz, we are allowing our children to be raised by fictional characters that, if they were to arrive in the flesh on our doorstep, we would call 911.

It’s bad enough if people have one out-of-control TV. Today, the typical home has three or four, with people retreating into their own separate imaginary worlds. Splintered myths. Splintered vocabularies. Splintered moral systems. Splintered self-images.

Once again: Most Americans do not choose to watch programs on the medium of television. They watch TV. The former involves moral choices. The latter is killing time. And, as Ken Myers asks, “Who dies when time is killed?”

And where is the Church in all this? Nowhere to be found. If the Church will not speak to these issues—like missionaries in a foreign land—then who will? •

Terry Mattingly teaches at Milligan College in Tennessee. He writes a weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service. The column excerpt on p. 12 is reprinted with permission.

S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.

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