The Church and the Coming Electronic Revolution: An interview with
by Parker Rossman
Mr. Rossman has written on “Computers in the Church,” “Videotape and the Church” and, in The Christian Century, “The Church and the Forthcoming Electronic Revolution” (December 14, 1977). This article appeared in the Christian Century December 14, 1977, p. 1167. 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.
Television’s revolutionary impact on culture is scarcely understood yet, and in any case it is only the precursor of the greater electronic-media revolution to come. One phase of that revolution with dramatic implications for Christian faith and institutions is perhaps months away: commercial production of the laser video-disc.
To assess some of the potential impact I interviewed Burton Everist, video media specialist. A Lutheran pastor who also serves as director of the Visual Education Service at Yale Divinity School, where he has taught courses on media and ministry, Everist has served as editor of Please Copy, has written a soon-to-he published book on Creative Uses of Media by the Church, and has created a four volume review publication, Educaid. as well as videotape productions such as “Philippian Profiles” (a flashback news show), “Yesterday,” and a consultation documentary for the Lutheran Council in the USA. He has also conducted workshops on the media and continuing education conferences on theology and imagination. He presently serves as a consultant for churches in regard to the effects of the media upon the shape and theology of the church.
Rossman: The impact of TV on the church is yet to be fully assessed. I am told that an exciting lay renewal movement in the church of Cyprus nearly collapsed with the arrival on that island of television. What is going to be the impact of the video-disc, which can be rented or purchased like a phonograph record to be played on any TV set?
Everist: Did it take a century for the impact of the printing press on the church to be assessed? Film companies are being lined up to give permission for their blockbusters to be put on discs which can be purchased for as little as $25 -- and the pornographic industry is waiting in the wings. What the long-play record did for sound, the video-disc will do for sound and sight. Discs will store encyclopedic information for instant retrieval; as competing types of discs are standardized, industry, schools and churches will begin to use them extensively.
In addition, cable TV -- though developing more slowly than anticipated -- will increase home use of television, especially when the new glass cables replace copper cable, for they will carry more information in less space, will cost less to produce and maintain, and will bring down cable access cost.
Soon millions of families will have video recorders with which they can record while they are away from home TV programs for later viewing, or can record one program while watching another. The immediate effect may be to intensify the stay-at-home habit which hit the Cyprus population. To meet this possibility, one Christian film production company has produced pilot films that include a discussion leader (one of the actors) for home teaching. Such an approach seems paternalistic and a poor use of the medium. If a discussion leader is needed, it would be better to use a member of the family. But this experiment is only the beginning of extensive efforts to use video-discs.
Rossman: So you would encourage churches to begin planning for video-disc programming?
Everist: Yes, as a resource, but never as a substitute for human interaction. Print has already gone too far in dehumanizing the church. We must take care to avoid efforts to use TV in place of people-to-people relationships. For example, a Lutheran clergyman in Denmark proposed celebrating communion over the radio, the people placing bread and wine beside their radios to be blessed over the air by the media celebrant.
As I see it, both the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Fourth Gospel (not to mention I Corinthians) provide evidence of the early church’s insistence on human communion, even in the face of persecution and death. Print tended to separate the Bible from the human community -- the church. Children who cannot yet read are taught to sing: “Jesus loves me! this I know, For the Bible tells me so.” Actually it was God’s people, perhaps a parent or teacher, who not only told them so but showed them so. If cable TV and the rich variety of fare available through video-discs cause people to stay home more, and sit more in front of their TV screens, the church will find it necessary to do more than review and interpret media experience. The church must also make new efforts to focus its energies upon personal human contact and group work.
Rossman: You have suggested that Richard Niebuhr is as helpful as Marshall McLuhan in understanding the church’s relationship to the media.
Everist: As one observes the approaches to the media taken by various Christian groups, Niebuhr’s five types of relationship between church and society in Christ and Culture seem to describe the various alternatives. Billy Graham represents a “Christ over culture” position. Extreme fundamentalists who forbid members to watch TV, who sometimes even burn TV sets, illustrate a Christ against culture view. Everett Parker and the United Church of Christ have demonstrated a highly creative “Christ as the transformer of culture” position, acting as “watchdogs” to protect minority rights and to seek justice in the use of media. Perhaps such efforts as Jesus Christ Superstar represent the “Christ of culture” tradition. My own basic position is “Christ and culture in paradox.” I see the various media, Including TV, as gifts of God, with their present content as mixed blessings and -- well, cursings.
Of course, the church does not need to create all of its own programming for cable or disc. Christians can use the wealth of excellent specials and documentaries, the mixed hag of situation comedies and even evening news as discussion materials with parishioners.
Rossman: How can you use scheduled programming when you do not know what the content of a show will be?
Everist: All people now live in that media world, so we must help church people reflect about each TV experience, as we help them interpret other life events, both good and bad. Unless we help church people see what the media do to them, unless we help them form discriminating tastes (as we hope that they do in choosing books to read), their actions will more and more be molded by the media rather than by their Christian values. An ecumenical group, Media Action Research Center (MARC), has set up programs in Television Awareness Training (TAT) to help people become more alert to the effects of that medium. Research shows, for example, that people become more tolerant of violence as a result of so much violence in TV programming.
As I see it, the visual environment, the background and the action -- more than the verbal line -- impress and mold people’s thought and action. For instance, in the TV version of Roots I can never forget the scene of Kunta’s “massa” studiously reading the Bible -- with a magnifying glass! -- while refusing pleas to halt Kunta’s whipping. Later there was a sequence of black-white dialogue which sought to soften the reaction of blacks to American racism. It failed because it was “preachy!’ in contrast to the vivid message of the drama.
The quality of a program carries a message itself, and that is why the churches should proceed with thorough preparation in their use of video-discs and cable TV, as with filmmaking. In a shoddy production the medium gets in the way of the message. On the other hand, a high-quality production such as the “New Media Bible,” which is filming the Scriptures chapter by chapter -- with accompanying filmstrips, magazines and discussion guides -- illustrates an excellence which the video-disc can bring into homes with great impact.
Rossman: An electronic curriculum?
Everist: Yes, not to replace human interaction, but as a powerful tool to support pastors, teachers and Bible students. People today, and especially youth, are increasingly visually oriented because of the dominance of TV. Excellent films therefore have an impact that can compel people to question, to discuss and to read -- for books will not be replaced. TV shows and films are stimulating people to buy books and to read them. At the same time video can return the emphasis of theology to story, although we really have no idea yet how this universal electronic-image medium is going to shape theology and culture. A young, growing organization, the Association for Media Educators in Religion, has been established to study this influence on the one hand and to encourage appropriate use of the media on the other.
Rossman: Hasn’t TV tended to stifle creativity and imagination?
Everist: It has made us too passive, with our imagining done for us by camera, writers and actors. Once the video-media are freed from the monopolistic and exclusive control of sponsors and commercializers -- as could be done by cable and video-disc -- there can be a rapid change, with new types of programming that directly involve the child or adult in a creative process. Instead of polluting the environment, TV can then enrich it. Theologically. I believe that human beings, especially Christians who have the vision to do so, are called to be creative and to enable creativity.
Nicholas Berdyaev suggested that Jesus called his followers not merely to be good but to be creative, that love is the content of creativity and that love can transform evil into good. This transformation requires boldness to use the media to face such problems as war, poverty and crime, rather than to escape into the unreality of “Happy Days.” Christ’s resurrection victory over death can enable Christians to employ the media to get people out of their comfortable armchairs and into the human realities of life.
Rossman: What can you suggest to local congregations?
Everist: A congregation in Mason City, Iowa, planning for its own religious radio station, decided upon a less passive format than the usual schedule of gospel music and preaching. After consultation with the Media Services of the American Lutheran Church, it was decided that the church would offer service agencies in the community a platform for addressing local needs. I am recommending the same approach to a congregation In Rantoul, Illinois, which has been preparing for cablecasting from its church building. Another local congregation is presently acting as catalyst for a community services workshop to assist churches and public-service groups in planning how to use electronic media, especially the “public access” channel of the newly formed cable system in the area.
The church can present models to show what can be done, as the church pioneered in creating schools, hospitals and tile vision of cradle-to-grave learning. When printing was invented, many in the church were fearful and suspicious, and it took time and experimentation to discover how books could be used in Christ’s service.
We approach the coming electronic revolution with faith. We must seek to use these new media for the good of all, to extend faith, hope and love throughout the world. At a time when the church seems powerless, we are facing new possibilities for influence as yet unconceived and undeveloped. Of course the commercial producers of entertainment will profit -- as they have with films, books, records and TV. But church people need no longer be help-less pawns of television. The TV monopoly is broken with the arrival of many-channel cable TV and the video-disc. People who have felt powerless will have another chance to involve themselves in influencing and directing change.