This article discusses the family and the use of television. Television as a medium is also discusses, as well as the worth of books.

Source: Clarion, 2000. 7 pages.

The Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures Living the Word in the Age of Television

The family home – traditionally people consider it a haven, a place of escape and refuge. Is that still true today? Over the past two centuries, North America (in particular) has been transformed from a place of farms and villages, connected by dirt roads, to a super-city where almost every home is connected to the ever-growing network of worldwide communication. The home, whether on a remote farm or in a bustling city, is no longer an isolated haven, but has become the centre of the media world.

Technological Missionaries🔗

Quentin Schulze, author of Winning your Kids back from the Media, describes the all-pervasiveness of the media and technology as he experienced it on a family camping trip. To his astonishment, he discovered that the bluish glow of the television sets was almost as prevalent in the campsite as in suburbia. An evening stroll through the camp revealed that fellow-campers were well supplied with portable CD and tape players as well as radios. Cell phones rang insistently. The video rental shop at the park entrance was doing a brisk business. Media consumption has become such an integral part of North American culture that many families find it impossible to take even a brief respite from it.

Defining the Family🔗

This voracious appetite for media has an impact on the family. In fact, it has even affected how many would define the word “family.” Some British sociologists have traced the definitions over the decades. In the 1940s, the family was described as a kinship network based on blood relationships. In the Fifties, the definition was functional: “The family is the unit of society that passes on values and helps to cement all the other units of society together.”

In the Seventies, one sociologist quipped, “A family is a collection of individuals around a television set.” The “box” for many became the centre of family life.

The saddest definition in Britain came in 1992: “A family is an arrangement of bedrooms around a refrigerator and a microwave.” Even the corporate nature of watching television together had disappeared. Adolescents come home, raid the fridge, zap their food in the microwave, and disappear to their own bedroom to do their own thing. And their own thing is usually playing computer games, watching television, listening to their own music, phoning their friends, or surfing the Internet. Family members come and go in and out, and the sense of community, of doing things together has virtually disappeared. That is Britain. We recognize similar trends in our North American culture, possibly also in our own Christian families. Perhaps some of us would prefer to think that we’ve managed to escape the influence of the media in our families somewhat, but I would suggest that we haven’t.

An Informal Survey🔗

I teach at Credo Christian High in Langley, British Columbia – a school of about 350 students, almost exclusively from Canadian Reformed families. In preparation for this presentation I did some informal polling of the almost 100 students (Grades 9, 10 and 12) that I teach. Ninety-eight per cent of them have a TV at home. More than 50% have two TVs. More than 50% subscribe to cable. Their favorite TV show is Friends. Forty-two percent of them watch it regularly. Ninety-seven percent of the families rent videos. Parents – one or both – are present for less than half the time that these students watch a movie or television.

I asked them if they go to the movie theatres. Before they would answer that question, they wanted to know if they had to say whether their parents allowed them to or not, but I said, “No, I just want to know whether or not you go to the movies.” So they told me; 90% of them go. Here the break down according to grade shows that the older they are, the more likely they are to go to the theatre (Grade 9: 71%, Grade 10: 88%, Grade 12: 97%). The teens are seldom accompanied by their parents, but usually go to the movies with their friends.

I didn’t even ask them any of the following: How many CDs do you own? Do your parents have any input into your choices? Do you own a Walkman or Discman? Does your home have Nintendo or a computer? Are you hooked up to the Internet? I restricted myself to TV and movies, since those seem to be the most common way that teens spend their leisure, entertainment time. Our teens seem, and perhaps we parents, too, seem to be in step with our times.

But when and how did our world (the Western world) move from a print-based culture to a visual, television-based culture? How does this shift impact the way we communicate with each other, especially we Christians who claim to be people of The Book? How might our Christian families learn to be discerning in their use of the media, especially television?

An Historical Overview🔗

For anyone who is interested in finding out how television has become the dominant media in today’s culture, Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, is a must-read. He begins by suggesting that Aldous Huxley’s prophetic Brave New World is finding fulfillment today. Huxley wrote that people would adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. George Orwell’s sombre 1984 predicted that books would be banned. Huxley says there will be no reason to ban any book because no one will want to read. There will be such an information overload that people will be reduced to passiveness and self-centeredness. The truth will not be concealed, but will drown in a sea of irrelevance. What we love – entertainment and distraction – will ruin us. Huxley’s prophetic vision seems alarmingly accurate, describing what we see around us today.

We have moved from a print-based to a television-based culture. Image counts more than substance and content. Less than a hundred years ago, this was not the case. In the Western World, communication and public discourse was done via print. Even in politics, what you said and wrote was more important than how you looked.

This is not the case today. The United States is currently gearing up for a Presidential election. Various handsome, suave candidates are vying for the chance to run for office. It is unlikely that someone like United States President William Taft, a three hundred pound, multi-chinned man would successfully run today. A man’s size and shape are not relevant to the shape of his ideas if these are being transmitted in print or via radio waves. They do become relevant on television. Viewers would pay little heed to his words. Taft’s obesity, his wobbling chins and jiggling jowls, would undermine the content of his speech, no matter how pertinent. Television gives conversation in images not in words. Consequently, a savvy image manager is of more value to today’s politician than the most competent speechwriter. In today’s culture, the content of politics, religion, education and anything else that comprises public business must be recast in terms that are most suitable to television.

Print Literacy🔗

We know what it takes to be print-literate. In a print-based culture, intelligence involves the ability to do the following. You sit immobile for extended periods. You ignore the shape of the letters on the page, but see through them, directly to the meanings of the words they form. You perceive the tone of the author (Is she joking or making a serious argument?). If he is making an argument, you must have the ability to delay your verdict until the whole argument has been stated. You keep questions in your mind which may or may not be answered later. You bring to bear on the text any prior knowledge or experience you may have with the issue being argued.

What you likely will not be required to do is to call forth concrete images. Print intelligence implies that you can live quite comfortably without pictures in the domain of abstract concepts and generalizations. These abilities constitute a primary definition of intelligence in a culture where ideas of truth are organized around the printed word. I would suggest that people of my generation and older are overall fairly print-literate. I don’t believe that we can presume that of our children. This should give us pause when we think of what this means with regard to them learning Scripture.

The Transition from Print to Television🔗

The printed word, and oratory based on that word, dominated North America culture until the latter half of the 19th Century. It allowed all the advances in science and philosophy of the Enlightenment and the Modern Age to become an integral part of the modern man’s mindset and worldview. The shift in the Western World from a print-typographic culture to an image-television culture did not happen overnight. It involved a couple of intervening, overlapping steps: the telegraph and the photograph. The telegraph made information into a commodity, a “thing” that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning. The strength of the telegraph was its capacity to move information, not collect, explain or analyze it. It changed the concept of news, making everything everyone’s business. Many people began to know a little bit about a lot of things.

This fragmentation of information and knowledge was intensified by the invention of the photograph. The photograph tends to dismember reality. It wrenches moments out of their contexts, and it places side by side events and things that may have no logical or historical connection with each other. This new focus on the image undermined traditional definitions of information, news and even people’s idea of reality. The telegraph and photograph laid the groundwork for television.

Interestingly, just as the telegraph and photography rose in popularity, the crossword puzzle and radio quiz shows came into being. (Later of course came the ever-popular television games shows, like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.) No information was too trivial to be considered useless. What else can one do with all those unconnected facts but turn them into entertainment? The telegraph and photograph prepared the way for television to turn our society toward a ceaseless chasing after entertainment.

Television’s Dual Capacity🔗

Stanley Grenz (A Primer on Postmodernism) suggests that television has a dual capacity which endows it with unique power. It has the ability to offer live broadcasting of the “facts” as well as to propagate the products of a filmmaker’s creativity. This dual ability of juxtaposing “truth” (what the public sees as an actual event) with “fiction” (what the public views as never having really happened) blurs the lines between truth and fiction.

It is typical of commercial television broadcasting to present the viewer with an ongoing variety of incompatible images.

A typical evening newscast, for example, will bombard the viewer with a series of unrelated images in quick succession – a war in a remote country, a murder closer to home, a sound bite from a political speech, the latest on a sex scandal, a new scientific discovery, highlights from a sporting event. This collage is interspersed with advertisements for better batteries, better soap, better cereal, and better vacations. By giving all these varied images – news stories and commercials alike – roughly equal treatment, the broadcast leaves the impression that they are all of roughly equal importance.Grenz, 34

The nightly news broadcast is followed by prime time shows that draw in the audience by focusing on and glamorizing sex, scandal, crass humour, violence and action, with frequent interruptions to sell the latest shave cream, beer and underarm deodorant. Since these programs are invested with a similar weight as the evening news, the demarcation between reality and fiction blurs. Everything is trivialized.

Television has become the defining metaphor of our culture. In order to maintain some validity and status, and to retain their share of the market, one cultural institution after another is learning to speak its terms. Television is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business and entertainment. This suggests that boycotting television will not free us or our families from its effects. The television as metaphor for communication has permeated into all other areas of public discourse. Many popular magazines and newspapers are beginning to focus on page layout and eye appeal rather than on written content.

Now film and television have been joined by a new and increasingly popular mode of delivering information, the personal computer. With its easy access to the Internet, it has added a whole new dimension to entertainment and information gathering, but that’s a topic for another day.

How to Read Television🔗

It is not unusual for Christian parents to feel inadequate to raise their children, no matter what era they live in. It seems to be an exceptionally difficult task in this postmodern, television age. Parents find many TV shows and movies nonsensical. Scenes flip from one to the next with little rhyme or reason. Dialogue is difficult to follow. There is no discernible storyline. If we grasp that, it’s one step towards understanding the postmodern television culture. As Bob Pitman said while he was Chairman of MTV (Music Television channel), “What we’ve introduced with MTV is a non-narrative form... We rely on mood and emotion. We make you feel a certain way as opposed to you walking away with any particular knowledge.” Much of today’s television does not worry about telling a coherent story. Selling an image based on mood, emotions, feelings – this is the youth culture as we enter the 21st Century.

This should also make clear that there is a significant difference between the print culture that many of us feel more comfortable with, and the television culture our teens seem to have absorbed. So, what is the difference between reading a book or magazine and watching television? When we read, at any time we can stop and think, “Hey, I don’t think I agree with this line of argument.” Or you can pick up another book or article on the same topic, compare, contrast, and come to a conclusion.

Television does not work that way. We absorb the images without much resistance. Most of us have brains that have a knack for retaining the visual better than the verbal. We don’t question or raise any arguments against what we see. It’s very difficult to argue verbally with a visual image. Of course, we can just click the remote to something that pleases us more or at least offends us less, but often we tend to be dismissive of television and its message. That’s exactly what makes it so effective and so dangerous.

Worldview Questions🔗

Some people solve the problem by getting rid of their TV, and that’s certainly not the worst option. But, since almost all of us do have a television in our homes, how do we cultivate the ability to stand back enough to gain an intellectual distance between ourselves and what we see? How can we, from a critical perspective informed by our faith, look at what the media are doing and saying? We need to achieve and maintain this distance, or we will easily accept the television world as our world. We need to clarify our own value system, our Christian worldview, in order to compare it to what the media, to what television, offers.

What are the basic, foundational worldview questions? Although there are more, we’ll consider four of them. Where are we? Who are we? What’s wrong? What’s the solution? First we’ll answer them from a Christian perspective, and then we’ll see how the popular television show, Friends, answers them.

  • Where are we? We live in a historical world created, ordered and sustained by God.

  • Who are we? We are creatures made in God’s image, given a mandate to develop and care for his creation under his reign.

  • What’s wrong? Human sin and rebellion which have affected our relationship with God, with each other, and all parts of creation.

  • What’s the solution? God’s restoration of the creation to its original goodness in Christ Jesus and by the Holy Spirit.

How does a television show like Friends answer these questions? (You’ll remember that according to my informal survey, 42% of my students said this was a show they really like and watch regularly.) The setting is New York City. Six twenty-something young people – three beautiful girls, three handsome guys – gather at each other’s apartments and hang out at a local coffee house. They’re all good Friends. Couples seem interchangeable with little talk of marriage. One episode I began to watch involved a gay wedding. There is a lot of crude banter and joking. Smoking is out, but drinking is in.

So let’s ask the four questions again.

  • Where are we? Friends characters says that we live in a world that is ours to use and exploit for our own benefit.

  • Who are we? The Friends believe people are basically good. We are autonomous people who have the right to happiness. Our needs must be met and our feelings catered to.

  • What’s wrong? Friends are unhappy because they haven’t really found the right relationship yet.

  • What’s the solution? Keep trying and make sure you’re having fun while you’re doing it.

It’s helpful to take these four basic worldview questions and apply them to what we watch. In this way, we develop the ability to stand back and to gain an intellectual distance between ourselves and what we see. Then we can compare the values portrayed in the program to our own Christian values. Try using this grid to analyze commercials. Again, you’ll discover an overriding message. Happiness is the chief end of life, and happiness consists of obtaining material goods. Try answering the four worldview questions while you’re watching a hockey game, or a news cast, or The Simpsons, or The Nature of Things with David Suzuki, or the next time your family rents a video. You’ll become more analytical about what you watch, and no doubt more discerning too. So worldview questions provide one set of tools to work with.

Signs and Symbols🔗

Another helpful way we can read television is in terms of signs and symbols (Mythmakers: Gospel, Culture and the Media, William Fore). We can look at what we see, not from the point of view of who the characters are, or even what they do, but what they mean. Let’s look at the show M.A.S.H., the eleven-year TV hit of the seventies – still in reruns today – from the perspective of signs and symbols. What did the characters mean? Hawkeye, the cynical but loving doctor in perpetual search of both nurses and his own home-brew alcohol, symbolized the frustration and immorality of war. M.A.S.H. was about the Korean War but appeared during the Vietnam War and helped raise public sentiment in the United States against this war. B.J., the other lead doctor, married and compassionate, represented the way all of us would like to be perceived: witty, kind understanding. These two together represent authority; they were in charge of their little corner of the world. Radar, true to his name, meant that brains and technology are potent problem solvers. Margaret, the head nurse, was often made into a clown, yet was truly competent and necessary. This meant that women are short-changed in society. Father Mulcahy, the priest, meant that religion is normally peripheral to life, sometimes good for comic relief, but when the chips are down, helpful in facing the mysteries of life and death. Now whether you agree or disagree with this interpretation of the meaning of the central characters of M.A.S.H., the point is to realize that television can be read in terms of signs and symbols. Television is teaching us something. We need to be aware of what the lessons are, and be ready to compare them to our Christian values.

Camera Shots and Editing🔗

We can read TV’s visuals as well (Mythmakers). Here are a few camera shots and editing techniques and what they mean:





Medium shot       

Personal relationship          

Long shot   

Context, setting

Angle down 

Power, authority

Angle up

Weakness, smallness

Zoom in

Observation, focus

Fade in


Fade out


Now this may sound very unfamiliar to most of us, yet they’re very basic to the televisual media. In our schools, our students do learn how to recognize good writing and learn how to write stories and poems. Perhaps the time has come for us to encourage the teaching of televisual literacy in our schools and churches as well.

Above all, we should realize that commercial television is exactly that, commercial. The reason television shows are on the air is because of the commercials. This is particularly evident in children’s programming, where the characters of a show may well be the characters in the commercials as well.

Some Practical Approaches🔗

In some homes, the biggest problem may be the number of hours children watch TV. Here Quentin Schulze, in Winning Your Kids Back from the Media, proposes a simple formula: a three to one ratio. For every four hours of discretionary leisure time, three parts should be spent in relational, low-tech activities, and one part media. This means that parents plan family times and parent-child activities. You could still plan the occasional family movie evening, but then make time to discuss it together afterward. You and your children will learn to discern. True, family togetherness will take time, but it will be time well spent. Remember that love is a four-letter word. It’s spelled T-I-M-E.

Michael Medved, in Hollywood vs. America, suggests becoming involved with any number of watchdog organizations, such as the Christian Film and Television Commission or Focus on the Family. Plugged In and World Magazine provide analysis and reviews of television shows and movies. Read them and the reviews in the daily papers. Be informed. He also urges Christians not to underestimate the impact of a boycott campaign. Have the phone numbers of your local TV stations handy. If you see something that’s objectionable, phone and complain. If you see something you like, phone and tell them you want more of that type of programming.

People of the Book🔗

Most of all, Christian families should yearn and strive to become and remain “people of The Book.” Although there is much talk about spirituality nowadays, this interest in spirituality is not accompanied by an increase of interest in Scripture. People today have their own trinity that guides their lives – the unholy trinity of their own wants, needs and feelings. We need to take in the Holy Scriptures in a way similar to the way we eat food. Just as the cereal and fruit we eat for breakfast becomes part of our muscles and sinews so that we can do our work for the day, so Holy Scripture should become such an integral part of us that it informs everything we do. We should not come to Scripture with the thought, “What do I get out of this?” but rather with the thought, “What in this portion of Scripture can I be obedient to?” That is a yearning we need to model, and to instill in our children.

After all, how did God’s people come to learn of Him? From the outset, everything they learned about God was in the context of a relationship of his love for them. First He spoke to them; later the words were written down, and we still have the Bible today; but then the Word became Incarnate. Jesus Christ became the Word in the flesh. He made God visible and touchable. This gives us a helpful pattern to follow in relating to our children in today’s visual, television-based culture. We also must live in a relationship of love with our children, and they must taste this love everyday. We need to speak with our children with joy, humour, gentleness, good judgment and wisdom; we need to read and absorb the written Word together; but most important of all, we need to represent Christ and his self-sacrificing love to them. This is what it means to live the Word in a television culture. Truly living the Word will be worth a thousand pictures to our children.

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