How Should Christians Watch TV?
By Ravi Zacharias
"In the beginning was video." So would run the truimphalist aphorism of the modem-day captive, voluntarily enchained in front of his plastic box. I think it would be fair to say that if one were to bring a completely uncivilized individual into the living quarters of our so-called civilized societies, he would remain as spellbound as the inhabitants of that room—only for a different reason: the one entranced by the offerings of the box, the other silenced by the blatant bunkum that holds its owner captive. I firmly believe that when the last pages of modern history are written, our epitaph will be that we entertained ourselves into boredom and moral paralysis. Strong words indeed, but let me attempt to sustain them.
When Jesus was tested in the wilderness, Satan made three valiant attempts. The first temptation came to the mind, the intellect: "Turn these stones into bread." What an appeal! The world was hungry; Jesus had the power. Why not wrest it to advantage? But Jesus rebuked Satan with the contention that man's primary predicament was not physical but spiritual. The fundamental answer lay in God's Word, not in man's pragmatism.
Satan came with a second approach. He asked Jesus to jump off a mountain, thereby forcing the hand of God to prove his promise of supernatural intervention. In this, Satan appealed to Jesus' will. In effect he was saying, "You tell God how and when he must respond." Jesus responded with the reminder that God makes those determinations and we could not dictate to God when and how.
Satan had clearly failed in his appeal to the mind and will. He had just one arena left—the imagination. So he placed before Jesus all the splendor of the world and offered it to him, if Jesus would worship him.
Here, I think, is the pulse of temptation. If anyone can conquer my imagination, he has conquered me. God has made us in his image, and we are meant to be reflectors of that image. Instead, we have allowed our imaginations to be assaulted by a multiplicity of stimuli today, resulting in a triumph over the imagination. Appeals to the will and to reason are too direct, and meet with the autonomous pride and sensibility of each life. Appeals to the imagination can bypass the will and reason, and hold captive the conscience. This is why music and television are such powerful forces; they have that potential of circumventing the guardians of the soul.
It is ironic that Malcolm Muggeridge, himself at one time so powerfully involved in the media, became its greatest critic. In his book, Christ and the Media, he suggested that if there were a fourth temptation, it would have been offered by Lucifer Enterprises. The offer to Jesus would have been to give him prime time to "show his stuff" to the largest audience ever.
I believe Muggeridge sensed the power of television more graphically than any other of his contemporaries. He grappled with the very medium that most critics were not dealing with sufficiently. Let me highlight at least two of the issues he raises.
First is the instrumentality of the eye. William Blake once penned the lines:
This life's dim windows of the soul
Distorts the heavens from pole to pole
And goads you to believe a lie,
When you see with, not through, the eye.
Has there ever been a more perfect instrument for seeing "with" rather than "through" the eye than the camera? What a multitude of lies it has engendered. Wars are lost through its emotional control on people. Terrorists can hold the world hostage by capturing our attention and then pummeling us with their ideological extremism. Our courts are turned into stage productions. Heinous crimes are trivialized by being parlayed as mass entertainment. Children, who do not even know what legitimate human sexuality is all about, are exposed to rapacious acts, thus forcing a barrage of questions in little minds. Actors and actresses carouse and consume passions on one another, bastardizing the word "love." Advertising, with its sheer nonsense, convinces us that happiness is the next car or refrigerator. The way to build a happy marriage is to use the most recent discovery in shampoos, and so on. Materialism and hedonism have found a great inroad when life is seen with the eye and not through the eye.
That aside, Muggerdge pointed out one other facet that convinces me of television's built-in weakness. He quoted Simone Weil:
Nothing is so beautiful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy as the good; no desert is so dreary, monotonous, and boring as evil. But with fantasy it's the other way around. Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied, intriguing, attractive, and full of charm.
Muggeridge added this commentary:
These words were written a decade or so before television had been developed to attract its huge audiences all over the world, becoming the greatest fabricator and conveyor of fantasy that has ever existed. Its offerings, as it seems to me, bear out the point Simone Weil makes to a quite remarkable degree. For in them, it is almost invariably eros rather than agape that provides all the excitement; celebrity and success rather than a broken and contrite heart that are held up as being preeminently desirable; Jesus Christ in lights on Broadway rather than Jesus Christ on the cross who gets a folk hero's billing. Good and evil, after all, provide the basic theme of the drama of our mortal existence, and in this sense may be compared with the positive and negative points which generate an electric current; transpose the points, and the current fails, the lights go out, darkness falls and all is confusion. So it is with us. The transposition of good and evil in the world of fantasy created by the media leaves us with no sense of any moral order in the universe, and without this, no order whatsoever, social, political, economic or any other, is ultimately attainable (Christ and the Media, p.46).
The loss of reason when seeing with and not through the eye—coupled with our immense capacity for evil imagination in contrast with the good—makes television, as a medium, far too powerful for fallen man to handle. These two reasons alone ought to provide great warning signals. But modern man, who has sold out to the profit-making motive, has become nearly bankrupt in his moral foundation. He builds an empire with gold dust and neon lights when the foundation is cracking. When not at peace with God, he is not at peace with himself, and is therefore at enmity with man-hence the violence and sensuality.
If the philosophical basis is not sufficient to make a case, look at the existential side-effects. First, television makes a people emotionally insensitive. There is a desensitization process that inevitably sets in. The viewer will need more and more as he or she gets stimulated less and less. Is this not the reason for the irrational doses of violence in our shows? From the Orient to the Occident, the movie posters specialize in the bizarre. Chain-saw massacres, brutal slayings, orgies of bloodshed and sadism that transform our living rooms into the Roman coliseums. In the midst of a rape scene, the only escape is the commercial (or is it?), which gives us a break to go and get a quick drink and a sandwich so we can watch the after-effects, not the least of which is our own desensitization. Sociologists, moral philosophers, and educators are bankrupt for answers against such a force. The old frog episode holds true: If you were to plunge it into boiling water, it would jump out. Put it, however, into cool water and steadily bring it to a boil, and the result is lethal. It remains unaware that it is being boiled to death. Such is the inevitable result of a life dominated by such visual entertainment.
Second, television controls enormous themes in simplistic ways, making the viewer morally uncritical. Marshall McLuhan was the great guru of mass communication in the 1960s. His Understanding the Media and The Medium is the Message (as well as the Massage) became household titles. When he was hired as a consultant by the officialdom working to elect Richard Nixon, he wrote to them the following: "Policies and issues are useless for election purposes. The shaping of a candidate's integral image has taken the place of discussing conflicting points of view."
William Gavin, one of Nixon's chief aides, suggested that he "break away from linear logic: present a barrage of impressions." He went on to argue that getting the voters "to like the guy" is two-thirds of the battle. How does one secure an intelligent human being at the helm if such are the criteria? Television has changed the essence of electability. This alone ought to convince us that it is an image medium, not a truth medium. Coherence with and a correspondence to reality are secondary to performance.
Third, television produces a debilitating effect in concentration spans. How is it possible for a child raised on fast-moving scenes and cartoon characters to find his teacher exciting? The pace of image and frame changes necessitates a backbone made of plastic napkin rings. How else can one move so fast? The images that bombard the mind do so at such a pace that propositional communication is made virtually impossible for many children and youth today, and verbal communicators are resultingly handcuffed.
Fourth, television sets up heroes and models for the young who become almost cultic in their zeal. This generation desperately needs heroes, and the ones we are given on our entertainment charts are leading a whole generation to believe that pleasure and fame are life's great virtues.
Last, from this writer's perspective, television produces a sociological phenomenon where authority is completely dislocated. A person becomes authoritative because he or she is well-known. Thus, a film actress who has no moral beliefs whatsoever becomes a powerful voice defending abortion. She may no more recognize a book on ethics than Mother Teresa would stand a chance of winning "Name That Tune"—yet the actress speaks with "authority" because she is well-known. Such is the psychological, moral, and academic confusion of our culture. In bringing this about, television has been one of the most powerful instruments in homogenizing our tastes, fastening upon our sensitivities and legitimizing everything except morality.
Before summing up, let me state that others have talked of the moral disorder, the physical laziness, the isolation of the individual, the fragmentation within the family and so on, as side-effects. The whole concept of sitting in a dark room staring at an illuminated box and hushing every comment around ought to make for a serious psychological inquiry.
I am not suggesting that we carry our television to the nearest rubbish heap—although I am sure that for many it may be the best thing that could happen. The fact is that television is here to stay and, like the human body, it has capacity for both good and ill. Disciplined individuals or families with deep moral convictions can harness it to their advantage. However, if it stays, there ought to be some definite rules set in the house. May I suggest a few:
1. No television during meal times. It is a time for the family, for interaction and building meaningful relationships.
2. Shows that glorify violence and feature the sensuous and profane cannot have a place in the Christian's tolerance. To be entertained by the scornful and the sacrilegious is not the way of the righteous person.
3. Time is a gift from God; it ought not be squandered in hours of viewing, cutting you off from people and issues of greater importance.
4. Children should be monitored and questioned on the programs they watch—preferably immediately following the viewing, when it is fresh in their minds.
5. For children particularly, try not to condemn—rather substitute, whether it be with good programs or other activities. Let us keep reminding ourselves that for the committed Christian, the choice is not always just between good and bad. Sometimes it is between the better and the best.
6. Reading is an activity with far greater benefits both in knowledge and imagination, besides producing better disciplines. In written matter, the reader remains sovereign over the imagination. In visual, there is an enforced sovereignty.
7. Take an active part in writing letters to the editor, advertisers, etc.; and voice your concern.
8. There is no more powerful antidote in dealing with evil than filling your mind and imagination with the Word of God. A disciplined devotional life will keep you sensitive to God's heart.
In conclusion, I am reminded of the story of a Middle-Easterner who visited America. After a few days, someone asked him what he thought of Western television programming. He said that he was quite impressed, because at the end they made sure that the bad guys always got caught and punished, and the good guys always won. Then he paused and said, "Now they just have to work on the news."
The illusionary world of most television programming runs from reality, distorts and makes enticing a way of life that is a lie. Let us instead, with all our minds seek God's truth, and do all to the glory of God. Quite candidly, could you imagine Jesus sitting in front of this instrument and feeding his mind on it? Paul says to the Philippians: "Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things" (Philippians 2:15, KJV). And "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:8).
Ravi Zacharias is a distinguished Christian scholar, apologist, and the author of A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism and, most recently, Can Man Live Without God? (Word). He is the president of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.