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Progeny of Programmers: Evangelical Religion and the Television Age

by James A. Taylor

Mr. Taylor is managing editor of the United Church Observer, published in Toronto. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 20, 1977, p.379. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Some of my best friends are evangelicals. In many ways, I admire them. Their kind of religion offers a much-needed shot-in-the-arm to my own liberal and often lukewarm faith. At the same time, they disturb me. My evangelical friends and I don’t see things the same way. We read the same Scriptures, we worship the same God -- and yet the message that comes through is different.

Frankly, I don’t know how to cope with these evangelicals. Nor, it seems, does my church, the United Church of Canada -- nor for that matter any of the other mainline churches. These new evangelicals can’t simply be lumped together with the old fundamentalists. For a while we tried ignoring them as an aberration that would somehow go away if we pretended it wasn’t there. Now, with the election of an evangelical president in the U.S., with the Gallup polls on religious experience, and with the obvious growth of evangelical churches, particularly those attracting large numbers of youth, we have no choice anymore. The evangelicals are here.

Our churches today find themselves in a situation similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Protestant Reformation. A new expression of religion has come on the scene, and we don’t know what to make of it. Five hundred years ago, Rome attacked the Reformation with the Inquisition. Or it attempted to ignore it, with excommunication. But the Reformation wouldn’t go away, and neither will the new evangelicalism -- because the technologies that spawned each of these movements won’t go away.

The Reformation could not have happened without the invention of printing, which put the Scriptures into the hands of the laity. Before Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg, Gutenberg’s Bibles had been in print for half a century. By 1500, at least 60 German towns had printing presses: readers had access to at least 14 editions of the Scriptures. Put another way, the Reformation was the child of printing.

In much the same way, evangelicalism today is a child of television. Please don’t misunderstand -- I don’t mean religious television, the extravagant spectaculars of Rex Humbard and Oral Roberts. I mean ordinary, everyday television: the situation comedies, the cartoons, the cops-and-robbers shows. As I watch these programs with my family, I find in them patterns of behavior strikingly similar to what I see among my evangelical friends. From a chronological perspective, I suspect television of being the cause, and evangelicalism the effect.

The Caring Circle

An appealing aspect of evangelical churches is the warmth and closeness of community found within them. Evangelicals seem genuinely to care about each other. But their caring has boundaries. Those outside the charmed circle of the born-again matter only as candidates for conversion, or as rivals. Otherwise, outsiders barely exist.

The liberal churches I was brought up in may offer cooler, more distant personal relationships. But their theology taught me that all people matter, whether or not they are now Christians, or ever might be. Scripture and doctrine both said that God doesn’t play favorites, and neither should I.

Why the difference? Cop shows on TV offer a clue. Within their own circle, the stars of “Starsky and Hutch,” “Switch” and “Charlie’s Angels” genuinely care about each other. Despite their machismo, Starsky and Hutch have shed tears over their own misfortunes and those of their friends. Even the most stone-faced automaton will risk his life to save a fellow detective. But outside their own circle, the caring stops. For opponents, they have only implacable hostility. It doesn’t matter much to Cannon that death might be an overly severe penalty for blackmail or burglary. His concern is for his friend and client.

For everyone else -- indifference. On “Most Wanted” a contract killer snuffs a cop doing his duty. The cop may have children, mortgages and ambitions, but so what? No one blinked, let alone cried for him. Kojak, in fact, roundly berated one of his men who felt remorse after shooting an innocent girl -- remorse was affecting his efficiency within the circle.

Mainline churches wonder how evangelicals can proclaim love but produce hate: warm fellowship versus ranting and fulmination. The answer comes from television. Love has its limits. The caring circle affirms itself as it attacks others.

Changing Sides

Evangelicals value a conversion experience. God reveals himself, blindingly, overwhelmingly. Christ takes over a person’s life. By contrast, the liberal churches almost ignore the experience of conversion. They prefer a gradual redirection of life, more like a seeking pilgrimage. Through an individual’s commitment, prayer and study, God will progressively reveal himself. But there will always be something more for the Christian to aim for. I find this liberal approach in novels, short stories and good movies. I don’t find it in television programs.

All of my creative writing instructors told me that the basis for any story is character development. A character faces a crisis. In coping with it, he grows -- wiser, sadder, more perceptive, richer, poorer, more bitter -- but he changes somehow. But not on TV. Donny Osmond is permanently inane; Sonny Bono, peevish; Tennille, indefatigably gee-whiz. Neither Rhoda nor Mary Hartman seems to have matured at all as a result of her marital problems. And a retarded monkey would learn more from experience than Frank Burns does on “M*A*S*H.”

The only program I can think of in which anyone consistently learns anything is “The Waltons.” The Walton family makes a fetish of learning, with a homily at the end of each hour. Despite that, there’s little evidence of real character development. In one episode, John Walton may be moved to join his wife and family in church; next week, he’s as stubbornly agnostic as ever.

On television, any change that takes place is not growth but conversion. The character simply changes sides. A reluctant drug-pusher, a high-principled safecracker or an entrapped prostitute will join the good guys. Of course, each was basically a good guy before. All he or she needed was the right kind of persuasion. Little wonder that, among evangelicals, people can say that they found in Christ what they couldn’t find in drugs. Same people, same aims -- but now on a different side.

Evangelicals have a strong faith. Sometimes I envy them that. Perhaps liberal churches have made too much of the Calvinist work ethic, of salvation through works rather than salvation by grace alone. Perhaps. But they have stressed that prayer and praise should stimulate human action, not merely divine action. From that perspective, evangelicals seem too willing to leave it all to God.

They’re following the television example, it seems to me, and not that of the New Testament. Everyone knows that things will work Out all right in the end. The “Bionic Woman” may get bonked on her blonde head; Baretta may get bounced around. But the trauma is temporary; they’ll always win. The assassin, a crack shot with telescopic sights on his rifle, will always miss his first shot, somehow. That missing clue will always turn up, somehow. The message is that problems are not solved by human effort. The great program producer in the sky will make it come out the way it should.

Society’s Sins

Closely linked is the evangelical emphasis on individual conversion. The Billy Graham organization has been criticized in the past for not putting enough stress on collective social action. Graham and his people reply that when individuals turn away from sin, society will too.

But mainline denominations have been trying to teach their members about something different -- corporate sin. Everyone knows about individual sin: lying, killing, adultery. But corporate sin is harder to comprehend -- the concept that a whole society can sin, and that no individual within that society can exempt himself or herself from the sin.

Recently I ran across a revealing paragraph in a book called Towards the Christian Revolution, written in the 1930s. In it, R. Edis Fairbairn replied to the, argument that social evils should not be considered sins, because they were not deliberately chosen:

Who among us could affirm that we became sinners by deliberately choosing evil in full view of acknowledged moral standards? In obvious fact, we all became conscious that we were sinners after the event. In the individual, conviction of sin is the discovery that he has sinned. . . . Repentance becomes the recognition of the fact that a state of mind and a way of life, the wrongness of which we were once unaware . . . is now known to us to be sinful.

With a more realistic conception of the genesis of sin in the individual, we find a striking parallel between it and the sin in society. We did not create it; we find it; and we find ourselves involved in it.

From years of watching television, I can recall only one TV series which dealt with corporate sin. “Roots” showed us a whole society trapped by an evil which its people could not yet recognize. In “Roots” even the most humane and well-intentioned white Americans continued to do wrong even when they were trying to do right. Salvation could come not for individuals within that society, but only for society as a whole, when the sin of slavery was abolished.

Most other television series deal entirely with individual sin and salvation. The local godfather whom Baretta ferrets out is seen as the cause of society’s ills rather than as a symptom of them. In the gospel according to television, when the pushers are locked up, the addicts will be cured. Eliminate the sinning individual, and the world will be all right -- that’s the evangelical formula.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough. That’s why the mainline churches also work at the salvation of a whole society. They challenge transnational corporations investing in apartheid, or oppose proliferating nuclear reactors, or develop education programs to combat international monetary disorders or world hunger or the arms race. They know that merely producing born-again Christians doesn’t end any of these societal evils, because there already are such Christians within the offending systems and organizations.

Printed Page and Picture Tube

Ultimately, however, the difference between the new evangelicalism and the older liberal churches goes beyond differences in content, to differences in perception rooted in their parent technologies. The reformed churches were launched by words, printed on paper. And words, even in speech, are abstract, nonrepresentative and symbolic. The words we hear as sounds don’t resemble the objects we see. When those sounds are transferred to blobs and dots on paper, the words become even further removed from reality. They are utterly divorced from size and shape, from color and taste, from feeling and experience.

Good writers try to put the feeling and experience back into printed words, by referring to acrid smoke and yellow daffodils, sunbeams gleaming on raven hair, and pungent cinnamon. But no matter how concretely a writer writes, his or her words have already transcended time and space. They can be read now or later. They can be read rapidly or slowly. The story can leap forward or backward. It can range through the mind as well as the world.

Not so television. It cannot show a thought, for example, or toy with an idea or reflect upon it. Television can only show a person thinking. Despite fast-cutting and slow-motion techniques, television can only show people taking part in an event at normal human pace, each event in a single time, a single place. And just as in life, if you miss something, it’s gone.

Television is a captive of time and space; words are not. Words are reflective; television is experiential. And that difference tends to separate their offspring too. The liberal churches depend on words. They offer carefully reasoned theologies. They publish magazines. They write letters. When the liberal churches dip into the experiential world of television, their programs often manage to be, at the same time, secularly acclaimed critical triumphs and spiritual disasters. And their Sunday school programs -- researched, tested, theologically valid -- are boring their youth.

Those youth -- more comfortable with television than with reading in many cases -- often find themselves more at home in the new evangelical churches. There they don’t have to struggle with content, with logic, with coherence. It’s their experience that counts. San Diego’s nondenominational Calvary Chapel churns out ignorance and hysteria, or so it sounds to liberal ears. But about 1,500 young people jam the former theater each Wednesday evening to be part of that experience. I know one woman who is firmly convinced that Jesus stands beside her, talks with her, pushes her supermarket shopping cart -- even takes over driving her car on occasion. Her theology may be a hodgepodge and her driving a hazard, but she has had an experience, so she’s accepted by other evangelicals.

A New Reformation

Occasionally, my associates in liberal churches comment hopefully that the new evangelicals will mature in time and become “more like us.” Growth, of course, is a liberal concept; as I’ve pointed out, most evangelicals see no need to progress in any such direction. These same liberal associates argue, quite rightly, that they have good relations with the leaders of many evangelical churches, and that magazines such as Christianity Today have recently evolved away from a narrow religious viewpoint.

But in fact, these leaders and editors are book educated and word-oriented. Their rank-and-file are not. I too have worked in harmony with editors of evangelical publications. We think alike, because we both deal with words. But I have next to nothing in common with the general membership of their denominations. Nor will I have. Until reading replaces watching, and reflecting replaces experiencing, I don’t expect today’s new evangelicals to become “more like us.”

After printing, the reformed churches grew, regardless of the actions of the Roman Catholic Church. Many who would otherwise have belonged to the Catholic Church became part of the new movement. Today, we’re in a new Reformation, I see nothing that the liberal churches can do to stop it or change it. We might as well face the fact that more and more people who would otherwise have belonged to our churches are going to be born again out of television’s experiential womb.


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