The Christian and the TV
In the 1930’s David Saronoff the president of RCA had the entrepreneurial foresight to invest money in a wild and crazy project called television. Over the next several years, RCA invested 50 million dollars into this endeavor under the watchful eye of Russian-born scientist Vladimir Kosma.
In 1939 RCA shocked the world by televising the opening of the New York World’s Fair. Later that year RCA bought the license to patent the television and began selling television sets to the very wealthy. Before 1947 the number of US homes with television sets could be measured in the thousands. By the late 1990s, 98 percent of US homes had at least one television set (Gordman 2). No invention has had as much effect on contemporary culture as television. In Canada the average hours per week of TV viewing is staggering.
Given the permanency of TV in society at large, what then should the Christian’s reaction be to television? Is it inherently evil? Is watching TV, even the news, a sin? How much time should a Christian spend watching TV? These are some of the questions that should arise in the mind of any godly and conscientious Christian. To help clarify these issues, it is my intention to give biblical grounds for unplugging the “unblinking eye” and saying no to the cultural pressure to bow to its cultural demands. Taking dominion, which is a biblical principle, does not mean that we need to “Christianize” all of the world’s forms of culture! Some things are better rejected no matter how popular they might be.
In John Bunyan’s Holy War, it was understood by the devil and his minions that the town of Mansoul (which symbolizes the heart of man) was the most vulnerable to attack through the entrances called Eye-Gate, and Ear-Gate – the sense organs of eye and ear (Bunyan, 10). Man today is not different than in Bunyan’s day. We are also most vulnerable through the senses of sight and sound. To underscore this, one does not need to look any farther than the local shopping mall, where everything is of a certain visual quality beckoning us to come and buy.
This presents the Christian with an interesting dilemma as he looks on, and lives in, the current culture. Jacques Ellul rightly points out that “television acts less by the creation of clear notions and precise opinions and more by enveloping us in a haze” (Ellul 336). David F. Wells says regarding the dangers of television that “Television opens the entire world to us, bequeathing to us a virtual omniscience” (Wells, 230). We are beckoned to have a sort of colonization of experience where the sins and virtues of others are incorporated into our own experience. Thus by our eye and ear, we are enticed to partake in the sin of others (Ephesians 5:6) with a once removed sense of reality. What we would not do ourselves we readily watch with our eyes and hear with our ears.
A W Tozer once said regarding the Christian and the world’s culture, For centuries the Church stood solidly against every form of worldly entertainment, recognizing it for what it was – a device for wasting time, a refuge from the disturbing voice of conscience, a scheme to divert attention from moral accountability. For this she got herself abused roundly by the sons of this world. But of late she has become tired of the abuse and has given over the struggle. She appears to have decided that if she cannot conquer the great god ‘Entertainment’ she may as well join forces with him and make what use she can of his powers (Tozer 84). We sin then, vicariously through those things we watch. Because man is sinful by nature, we naturally want to see how close to sin we can get without actually taking part in it. Dr. Joel Beeke put it this way, ‘By nature our question is, “How far can I go and still not sin?” instead of, “How far can I flee from sin and avoid the very appearance of evil?”’ At the very heart and center of our modern entertainment spirit stands TELEVISION. This is an obvious fact. Television sets are in the homes of 97% of Americans today and 91% of all television time is dedicated solely to the purpose of entertainment (Beeke).
While the world beckons us to “come close”, the Scriptures tell us to “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (2 Thessalonians 5:22). It is true that the technology of the television is of things indifferent, but the overarching usage is another story. Joel Beeke gives some stunning statistics in his essay Is TV Really so Bad? After displaying how the TV in general encouraged the viewer to watch people break each of the 10 commandments he says, One study reached the conclusion that by the time a child is fourteen at least 18,000 violent assaults and murders take place before his eyes. Another study confirmed that the average child between five and thirteen years of age soaks in 1,300 murders each year, so that violence, assaults, and murders no longer speak the message of sin or its consequences. Murders, hatred, violent actions and words assume the role of normal behavior. The average child’s program contains thirty-eight acts of violence per hour (adult program: twenty) (Beeke). He goes on to say, In American homes 35% of mealtimes are spent in front of the TV set. Nightly thousands of parents realize the programs that will come on are demoralizing and harmful for their children but yet are so hungry themselves to drink in the sin which they contain that they often let their children watch it too, having no power to control it (Beeke).
A Good Use of TV?
Many have objected to the content of television programmes (too much violence, sex, etc.) but television as a medium is largely ignored as an innocuous invention. But was Marshall McLuhan right when he coined the slogan “the medium is the message” (McLuhan 7-21)? The ease with which men, women, and children sit in front of the TV goes a long way to show us how lazy the human heart is. TV “leisure” time very quickly eats up “family worship” time, “godly reading” time, “playing with your children” time, and “personal quiet” time. “But I can control my TV and my time”, you might say. Dr. Beeke rejoinders, “People who say they can control TV are usually speaking idealistically, not realistically” (Beeke).
So what is it about the medium of TV that shapes the message? Television stresses moving image over against written and spoken language. This image-defendant medium does not let the imagination of the individual paint the picture on the canvas of the mind but rather paints the images for you. We are being told, in a very subtle, tantalizing way, what to think. Creativity, independence of thinking, and ingenuity are all discarded to create a central database of experience. The only visionaries in a TV show are the producers and directors who decide for the audience what they will and will not process. Lateral thinking is never used because about the time you wish to analyze what you are looking at in a rational way, the TV program has already moved on to its next sequence of visual events.
Kenneth Myers says regarding this, “A culture that is rooted more in images than in words will find it increasingly difficult to sustain any broad commitment to any truth, since truth is an abstraction requiring language” (Myers 164).
Is Christ against Culture?
So then, is our Lord and Saviour against technology and culture? Absolutely not. But when the medium by which culture comes, makes us culpable in other men’s sins, steals valuable time away from other important things, and disables our God-given ability to reason and discern between right and wrong, perhaps we should take a step back and examine the actual value of the medium of TV itself. Paul’s words might come into play here, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not” (1 Corinthians 10:23).
Perhaps the antithesis between the world and the Church is simply too great at this point. Even if the TV industry were “Christianized” and men and women watched programs where God was glorified, would not the medium of TV all by itself still compel the believer to excess? It is the conviction of this author that even if the content were to change, the human heart would still find reason to abuse the medium. Twenty-two hours per week of the finest programming would suddenly become the norm, thus causing man to fall back into the same ditch he just dug himself out of. Amusement always seems to triumph over duty in the heart of man, and so, we give over to the lesser of two goods, falling short of true obedience to God.
When God gave us His special revelation, He did not give it to us as a symphony, or in a painting, or a sculpture. He gave it to us in letters: letters which form words, words which form sentences and sentences which give thought and paint pictures on the mind and heart.
Now it is not this author’s contention that all forms of culture should be written (surely art, music, literature etc, can be godly), but that we should understand God’s way of revelation to man and feed the mind in ways that would enhance our walk of faith. “According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). Certainly this should be the starting point of every aspect of culture?
Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones comments on this verse and adds, The problem which is posed for us by this particular text is the whole problem of the relationship between Christianity and culture. Now I am sure that many, if not most, Christian people are interested in that question, because it is of real significance and importance … In view of all this, I would suggest to you that what Paul was saying to the Philippians was this: Your whole thinking and all your actions must be controlled by the gospel … Every thought must be brought into subjection to him. Let our whole life be a tribute and a testimony to our Redeemer’s praise. Lloyd-Jones 181-189
This should be our motivation in every area of culture. The Lord is telling us that we are the gatekeepers of our own minds. If we absolutely must watch TV (which would speak deeply to the subject of idolatry), we should observe nothing that would displease our Lord. If we use the criteria set above in Philippians 4 as our example in what we place before our eyes and ears, I am sure that 99.9% of all televisions would power down in our country. And, if we were truly concerned about the things of the Lord, I am sure we would find better ways of passing the time than watching TV. But the flesh is weak. “Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen” (1 John 5:21).