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
“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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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? •