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Religious Television: The American Experience by Peter Horsfield


Dr. Peter Horsfield is an ordained minister in the Uniting Church in Australia. He is currently employed on the Electronic Culture Research Project, a special initiative of the Uniting Church's Commission in Victoria to explore the impact of electronic media on global cultures and the implications of this cultural change on religious institutions and on the social experience and expression of religious faith. For ten years previously he was the Dean of the Uniting Church's Theological Hall and Lecturer in Practical Theology in the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. He has published extensively in the areas of mass communication and society and media, religion and culture. Among his publications are two books: Religious Television: The American Experience (Longmans 1984) and Taming the Television: A Parents' Guide to Children and Television (Albatross 1986). This book was published in 1984 by Longman, New York. The text was prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.


Chapter 4: Religious Programs and Television Culture


Because it was the weekend of July 4th, the theme of the service being broadcast from the Crystal Cathedral in California was "The American Flag." Robert Schuller opened the service and the program from this church made of glass with his typical staccato affirmation, "This is the day which the Lord has made. . ." Inside the church, among the dancing fountains and potted plants, was an array of American flags of varying sizes. Standing at the front of the church was a military band in full uniform performing before the congregation of thousands who applauded but never sang.

The service itself was a packed and professional presentation of musical items, readings, and prayers around the theme of the day. In capturing the spectacle, the television cameras moved in soft fades between shots of the performers, the visual grandeur of the church, the preacher, and the faces of the attentive but passive congregation.

Schuller's sermon was entitled "I am the American Flag," a nationalistic address in which he adopted the persona of the flag. With exaggerated gestures and abrupt facial expressions that he has developed over the years, and with appropriate strains of strings and brass in the background, Schuller painted word-pictures of America's achievements over the years and her magnanimity toward other nations and their peoples. Briefly he acknowledged but justified America's failings and international mistakes, and then, with a gently rising crescendo of strings in the background he reaffirmed the greatness of the American way of life and the unqualified possibilities of the future.

Following his address, as the military band played, a parade of flags borne by uniformed groups moved along the aisles and a huge American flag was raised from its folded position to stretch completely from the floor to the ceiling of that high sanctuary. It was indeed a visual masterpiece, one which brought obvious "oohs'"of surprise and applause from the congregation. The symbol of American nationalism, the flag, when raised to the ceiling also covered the altar -- the symbol of God's presence in the church -- from the view of the congregation and the television audience, presenting a kind of symbolism that was probably not fully intended.

While the service was produced specifically to celebrate a particular occasion in American cultural life, it was consistent with many other services and programs presented on American religious television. All of the major paid-time religious programs have a central charismatic figure or host such as Robert Schuller, Oral Roberts, Rex Humbard, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and so on. Many stage their programs in picturesque or grand locations or contexts such as gardens, large auditoriums, or building complexes, and they present visual displays staged with precision. In all of the programs, the audience remains passive, merely fulfilling a cameo role as representatives of the viewing audience. All the major programs present happy sounds and images of success, with faith acting as the key to this success. They all reflect a harmonious blending of the Christian faith with various aspects of traditional American life and culture.

These characteristics reappear in each program, although the broadcasters have come from a diversity of backgrounds, personal experience, educational advancement, theological stance, and ecclesiastical affiliation. Television has succeeded in narrowing this representative diversity, even among the strongly independent and idiosyncratic evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, to a common television product with very few variations. What is it in television that has effectively moulded the diversity of the Christian faith into such uniformity?

Religion and Culture

Before considering the question of uniformity, it is important to clarify the relationship of religious faith to culture. There is a tendency to criticize religious faith whenever it reflects aspects of the culture in which it is expressed, as if for religious faith to be genuine it must also be culturally aseptic. There are few theologians or serious religious thinkers who would support such a view.

People cannot escape the influence of their culture on how they understand, appropriate, interpret, and express religious faith. Religious faith will always reflect specific cultural attributes. Within religious philosophy, this fact is not regretted, but rather is recognized and affirmed as one of the ways in which the persistent truth of a religious insight or revelation is apprehended and expressed in relation to changing circumstances. John Macquarrie in his

Principles of Christian Theology therefore identifies culture as one of the formative factors in theological understanding, along with experience, revelation, scripture, tradition, and reason. (1) Similarly, Paul Tillich suggests that theological thought continually moves in a dialectical tension between two poles: "the eternal truth of its foundation and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received."(2)

The question to be considered in the analysis of any religious phenomenon or expression, therefore, is not whether it reflects any cultural attributes or not, but whether in addressing itself relevantly to the immediate cultural situation it has also effectively retained the essence of its historical and revelatory insights. The history of Christian thought has been a process of continual evaluation of new expressions of traditional faith to determine whether these new expressions adequately preserve the essential aspects of the faith, or whether they have sacrificed essential elements under the pressure and demands of the immediate cultural environment.

Christian theologians have begun to develop an interest in the content of Christian television programs for reasons of evaluation. Broadcasters are among the first, and the most visible Christian communicators to interact actively with the emerging electronic environment. The concern expressed is that current religious programs, in accomodating themselves to the demands of commercial television, have lost the essence of the Christian message and have simply become indistinguishable facsimiles of other commercial television programs.

This concern is directed at the extent to which the content of religious programs on television reflects the dominant values and social functions of commercial television. While this in itself is not a negative attribute, it becomes negative when these values and functions contradict traditional and essential aspects of the Christian religion.

The Influence of Television's Economic Demands

Because television is a capital-intensive industry, economic realities play a major part in determining its policies and content. This same reality applies also to religious television. J. H. Ellens, in a major study of denominational broadcasting, found that there were three major determinants that influenced the particular format adopted by denominational executives for a particular religious program: economics, technology, and theology. Ellens found that the determinants influenced the programs in that order of importance. When adequate money was available, denominational executives programmed in accordance with the theological objectives of the program. Most frequently, however, the format used was the cheapest one, regardless of the theological intention of the program. (3)

Economics play a dominant part in religious television so that religious programs are more easily and accurately identified not by their particular theological background or even ecclesiastical affiliation, but by the dominant mode through which they are financed. The method of financing the program has the capacity to remove otherwise normally distinguishable differences.

Religious television programs therefore can be divided into two main groups: sustaining-time programs, where the network or local station meets all or part of the costs of producing and broadcasting the program; and paid-time programs, where the broadcaster himself meets all the costs of producing and broadcasting the program, mainly by raising money from viewers. While it is possible for a denomination to meet all costs of producing and broadcasting a program, such types of program are rare. Only one program known to the author is produced in this way: the Seventh Day Adventist program "It Is Written," which is produced by the central communication agency of the church from denominational funds, with local churches of the denomination paying for its broadcast in their local area. This program is an exception, however. Most religious programs that purchase their air-time are supported by funds solicited from their viewing audiences.

The particular way in which a religious program is financed exerts a specific pressure on the nature of that program. When finance is provided by a network or local station, either in the form of direct subsidy, use of facilities, or provision of free air-time, the network or station exerts some pressures on the nature of the program. These pressures are not usually in the form of direct suggestions on content or method, but rather in the form of parameters within which the program must be shaped.

These conditions arise out of the networks' and stations' own industrial needs. As has been noted, networks and stations are careful to avoid pro- gram material that could cause them legal problems or sufficiently adverse public reaction, which would negatively affect their image. The CBS network, for example, took total control of its religious programming in 1933 because of the problems caused by the radio programs of Father Charles Coughlin. To this day, the CBS network has only used its own religious programs. Networks are under constant pressure from their affiliate stations to provide programming which is uncontroversial for each affiliate's local viewing area and which will not involve the affiliate station in debates that could involve the provision of expensive answering time under the FCC equal-access requirement. WABC-TV in New York, for example, vetoed several religious programs during the 1960s because they considered them to be more political than religious in content and were afraid that equal time would have to be given for opponents of those views. (4)

The pressure on sustaining-time programs, therefore, is the pressure to be innocuous, or free from objectionable material. In spite of these parameters, it should be noted that many of the sustaining-time programs were of high quality and dealt with substantial issues at a deeper level of analysis than was possible in programs forced to maintain ratings. Many of the sustaining-time programs have won numerous secular awards, including several Emmys, television's most prestigious award.

Theologian Martin Marty has noted, however, that to impose certain restrictions on the broadcast of religious faith is to remove the essence of that faith. The essence of the Christian faith is not general truths that can be contained within respectable parameters, but its particularity: it speaks of the revelation of God in a particular person at a particular time with a particular answer to questions of human meaning and existence. This essential particularity must inevitably bring it into conflict with any demands requiring adherence and presentation of the "broad religious truths" preferred by the networks and stations. Marty questions the extent to which any Christian communicator can accept the demands placed on his message by television stations and still retain the integrity of that message.(5)

It was partly as a result of having to circumvent the restrictions of network and station control that many evangelical and fundamentalist broadcasters developed economic independence from the networks and stations, cultivating their own independent audience support. In this way, they claim, they are able to develop better programs and free themselves from the demands and interference of the television industry.

Freedom from the economic realities of the television industry is not so simple. Even where a local station does not provide direct economic assistance to a program, it still has its own capital investment to protect. The station would be financially responsible for providing equal-access time should a program be sufficiently partisan or controversial that free time for response is demanded by an opposing group. As previously mentioned, this situation happened with station WFAA in Dallas, which was asked for equal time under the FCC Fairness Doctrine when religious broadcaster James Robison attacked homosexuals on one of his programs. In this case the broadcaster had an identifiable cause by which to rally support, but in most cases if a station experiences problems with a program it is easy to replace it with another prepared not to cause trouble. There are plenty of such programs waiting in the wings to purchase that same air-time. Station manager Robert Finnimore of WOR-TV in New York reportedly turns down five evangelistic programs for each one he accepts, so paid-time programs are not as independent as they may think. 6 When station WSOC in Charlotte, North Carolina, experienced trouble with evangelist Charles Sustare, it decided to drop his and all paid-time programs from its schedule. Evangelical broadcasters therefore must still take into account the economic interests of the local television management and produce a program that also reinforces good public relations with the station management.

Paid-time broadcasters are also limited in the air-time made available to them by the local station. Many stations are hesitant to make prime-time available for religious broadcasts because of the "audience flow" program- ming principle. Because most religious programs are lower-rating programs, to place them in prime-time could have a detrimental effect on the audiences for programs before or after the religious program

It has been noted that paid-time programs have not achieved economic independence from the industry, as they have claimed, but have simply transferred their economic dependence from one source to another: from the television industry to the television audience. Becoming dependent on one's audience for support ties one into adopting a consumer or marketing approach to one's message. Broadcasters have become very skillful in selecting those aspects of a particular religious message that find favor with their hearers and avoiding those aspects that may be integral to the same message but unfavorable to the audience. Economic dependence on the audience also effects a shaping of the message away from long-term consideration of issues and needs toward a message addressed to the immediately perceived desires of the audience. Most broadcasters now conduct regular market research to detect which aspects of the Christian message will evoke greater response from their audiences, even to the point of evaluating the acceptability of a particular host's prayers.

Most of the current paid-time broadcasters see no contradiction between such methods and the traditional Christian faith. Jim Bakker, host of the "PTL Club" openly adopts marketing analogies: "We have a better product than soap or automobiles. We have eternal life!"(7) Others disagree. Television researcher George Gerbner suggests that the commoditization of the Christian faith in response to the economic demands of television removes the distinctiveness of the Christian faith and absorbs it as an indistinguishable part of the broader message of television, "the established religion of the industrial order."(8)

The inescapable influence of the television milieu is one of the most persistent problems facing religious broadcasters and is one that needs some clear and systematic articulation if religious broadcasting is to proceed on a clear foundation.

The Influence of Television's Social Functions

In their comprehensive survey of research into television and its effects, George Comstock and his associates note that television within American society principally serves two social functions: that of entertainment and of killing vacant time. Of these the dominant function is entertainment. Television's central role as an entertainer holds for both the more and the less educated, and probably for other segments of the population as well, despite variations in attitudes towards television, amount of viewing, and other factors among segments.

In relation to the killing of vacant time, Comstock notes, "Viewers typically do not decide to watch a specific program; they make two decisions. The first is whether to view, and the second is what to view; of these, the first is by far the most important." (9)

These dominant social functions now served by television have been of continuing concern to the Public Broadcasting System, which derives much of its raison d'etre from the broadcast of more demanding cultural or educational programming. In one of their studies of audience viewing patterns in relation to their television programming they found that Many people justify their many hours of television watching as needed because of the effort they expend during their working day. . . . Public television in its adult programming is thought of as demanding and hard work by a good number of viewers and therefore unable to fit in with their need to relax. (10)

The dominant functions of television, combined with the pressure on stations to maximize their audience, has shaped television programming in America in several characteristic ways: it has led away from in-depth, demanding analyses to an oversimplification of issues and their solutions; it has fed the desire for instant gratification of needs rather than disciplined resolution; and it has tended toward the sensationalization of events and experiences. Each of these results has had a marked shaping effect on religious programs as well, particularly those programs that have placed themselves in a situation where their continued existence depends on their successfully competing within this system.

Oversimplification

Because of the emphasis on providing entertainment, most of the television programming avoids in-depth, demanding analyses of issues, events, and human relationships and depends heavily on the adoption of stereotyped characters, plots, and relationships. Former advertising executive Jerry Mander suggests that this process is also a function of the medium.

Most information which would be useful to thorough human understanding of the complexity of existence cannot penetrate the medium at all. The effect is to confine the information field within the very narrow, hard-edged, and objective form which the medium can convey. (11)

The Cultural Indicators Research Program at Annenberg School of Communications suggests that not only does television oversimplify, but also that it oversimplifies in systematic ways. The result is that the central messages across television's various types of programming are remarkably homogenous and repetitive, and in many cases antithetical to what exists in real life. (12)

This is the structured environment into which religious broadcasters must project their message. The result is a strong pressure on these broadcasters to avoid presentations or topics which require concentration, reflective thought, or ambiguity. The shaping of their message in response to this pressure is apparent in most programming, as articulated by Robert Schuller:

Explaining that he sees the purpose of the television sermon as only the first step in leading a person to Christ, the "Hour of Power" speaker purposely emphasizes the benefits the listener can receive. . , . "I've learned that the first step has to be simple and easy. Once they understand that Christians really care about them, they're willing to listen to the deeper, harder parts of the message."(13)

What is not explained is how members of the audience are to understand that there are further steps to be taken when the only presentation of religious faith shown them stresses that the path to Christ is simple and unambiguous. While Schuller may incorporate other opportunities to delve more deeply into the content and implications of the Christian faith through his local church program at Garden Grove, television viewers receive none of this information either through the television program or the direct-mail follow-up. What remains unspoken in all of this is also that the "really caring" of which Schuller speaks is actually a staged, edited program with the preacher developed according to the demands of good television. Should the viewer be inclined to reach out to this person who "really cares," the response will be not a person but a computer with "the range of human woes, struggles and hopes" quantified and mechanized, mockingly tossing out piped answers along with offers of jewelry and appeals for financial support.

It is perhaps no surprise that the theological tradition that has come to succeed in this medium is the fundamentalist-evangelical tradition. This tradition has always tended to be singular-minded in their interpretation of theology, ethics, and socio-personal problems, a stance which has constantly drawn reaction and criticism from more liberal and academic members of the Christian community. The paid-time broadcasters have pushed the simplification of the Christian message tosuch an extent, however, that in recent years they have also begun to be criticized by leaders of their own traditions. Evangelical Phill Butler, for example, has criticized a large percentage of paid-time programs as "not much more than a glossy pabulum -- spiritualized entertainment with little of the tough stuff of discipleship in it."(14) Similarly Carl Henry, the leading, distinguished evangelical theologian, sees the current upsurge in the religious use of mass media as "a des- tructive trend which neglects a systematic presentation of Christian truth."(15)

Instant Gratification

Eric Barnouw, in his analysis of television's history, suggests that the shaping of television

programming into the present form with its easy and immediate answers to easily defined problems was largely due to the demands of the television advertisers. In the 1950s, conflicts emerged between the writers and producers of television drama and the sponsors of the dramas. While the dramatists were producing programs which dealt with complex issues and conflicts, many of which did not end in easy resolution, advertisers were pressing for pleasant programs toprovide a good lead-in for their commercials. The conflict was eventually resolved in favor of the advertisers. Barnouw comments,

In the commercials there was always a solution as clear-cut as the snap of a finger. . . . Chayefsky and other anthology writers took these same problems and made them complicated. . . It made the commercial seem fradulent.(16)

Former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson has noted this characteristic of television also.

I have become more and more aware of the extent to which television not only distributes programs and sells products, but also preaches a general philosophy of life . . . that there are instant solutions to life's most pressing personal problems. You don't need to think about your own emotional maturity and development of individuality, your discipline, training and education, your willingness to cooperate and compromise and work with other people; you don't need to think about developing deep and meaningful human relationships and trying to keep them in order. (17)

That the church should be concerned about such a phenomenon has rarely been questioned. What has been questioned and debated is the appropriate manner in which the Christian faith, which stresses such things as self-discipline, sacrifice, and service is to be communicated by a medium which stresses instant personal gratification.

The paid-time religious programmers have rightly sensed that this characteristic exists in television and they have rightly sought to address the Christian faith relevantly to this characteristic. The problem is, though, that by making themselves financially dependent on the very people to whom they are speaking they have removed much of their freedom to challenge this tendency.

Such a tendency has always existed within the church, but in the challenge for individuals to develop self-discipline, to exercise personal sacrifice, and to perform social or community service, the church has always offered a supportive, affirmative group within which these characteristics can be sought without total loss of personal worth or personal disintegration. The television broadcasters do not have this same supportive capability. On the contrary, because of the capital intensiveness of their enterprise, the pressure is on them to avoid any program elements or demands that would antagonize their audience. Lacking the durability of personal relationships with their viewing audience, they must avoid any demands on their audience which would give them cause to change channels to another program or another religious broadcaster.

Paid-time programs therefore stress heavily the benefits one is able to gain from religious faith. This emphasis is usually achieved through interviews of people who have achieved benefits similar to those offered the audience. Little mention is made of corresponding failures, endurance, and hard work, which may also be part of the same experience. In fact, for the broadcasters, it would appear that such efforts as personal sacrifice, service, self-discipline, hard work, setbacks, failures, and endurance are without theological significance. God's presence is to be known only through benefit and gain, toward which the viewer is continually prompted.

Paid-time religious programs are perhaps the finest example of sophisticated, market-researched consumer faith. Rightly perceiving the nature of the television environment and having to succeed financially within it, the broadcasters have allowed their programs to be almost totally shaped by it. By making themselves financially dependent on this environment and its inhabitants, they have removed their capacity to challenge it.

Sensationalism

With the strongly competitive nature of American television and the combined functions it serves as both entertainer and killer of vacant time, there is a strong emphasis on the production of material that will catch and hold the viewer's attention.

Paid-time religious broadcasters face the same pressures because they have chosen to compete with other television programming. Sustaining-time programs, on the other hand, do not face the same pressures. Ben Armstrong sees competitiveness as one of the strengths of the American broadcasting system and considers such competition a good thing for religious programs because it stimulates them to improve their performance.

Competitiveness among religious programs has many ramifications. It means that religious programs must constantly be changing or looking for something novel in order to attract and maintain the viewers' attention. These pressures on religious broadcasters find expression in their tendency to exaggerate reality either by selection, avoidance, or creation of certain incidents over others and the tendency to compromise with the illusion and sensation which television as a whole promotes through its programming. The pressure is to emphasize the miraculous over the

mundane, the larger- than-life experiences over those that are meaningful but pedestrian, and suggestions of God's favor through outstanding events rather than assurance of his continuing presence through the day-to-day. The effect of this pressure is suggested by theologian Martin Marty:

Each evangelist is only as good as his or her last act. Each must be more sensational than the other. The success stories must outdo the others. . . . People "down on the charts," down in the ratings, down in the standings, don't make it. (18)

As a consequence of this pressure, there has developed a regular cadre of religious program guests who move in a circuit from one program to another -- Pat Boone, Dale Evans and Roy Rogers, Chuck Colson, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. All of them fulfill admirably the desired qualities of being well-known celebrities who also have experienced something sensational that can be paraded. But the effect of their presence is basically contradictory to the Christian message, which stresses the importance of the anonymous, the outcast, and the value of those who have not been able to make it in social terms. The innate contradiction of this message of paid-time television is highlighted by writer Virginia Stem Owens: "It is with what the camera cannot hope to catch, with what it in fact drives away, that the gospel is concerned." (19)

The Influence of Television's Mythic Structures

Far from being merely a neutral communication medium, television in America has become an integrated symbolic world filling the socially functional role demanded of it both by its viewers and its advertisers. Such integrated mythic structures provide the continuity and stability among the different types of programs, a continuity and stability needed by television's advertisers, used by its creative writers and producers, and sought by its users in their search for relaxation and entertainment.

This situation was first suggested in 1948 by Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Mertoh in their classic article, "Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action." In the article, the authors contended that since the mass media are supported by great business concerns which are tied to the present social and economic system, the media contribute to the maintenance of that system. This social maintenance can be seen not just in the advertisements in the mass media

but also in story elements and images which in some way express confirmation or approval of the present structures of society. Such confirmation is provided not just by what is said but "more significantly from what is not said."(20)

Most recently, an empirical approach to the study of these myths has been developing in the Cultural Indicators Research Program. The researchers are demonstrating that television promotes consistent values, attitudes, and beliefs which serve the functional needs of those who control and use the medium: "Commercial television, unlike other media, presents an organically composed total world of interrelated stories (both drama and news) produced to the same set of market specifications."(21)

 

These interrelated myths, created by the selective inclusion or exclusion of particular persons, groups, or power relationships within television's perspective have the capacity to replace the real-life equivalents in people's perception. Television even has the capacity to create pseudo-events which can displace real life in immediacy and importance. Take, for example, the international interest created recently by the question, "Who shot J. R.?" the mean character from the program "Dallas."

The majority of the research at Annenberg School of Communications has been directed toward the portrayal of violence, role stereotypes, and power relationships on television. William Fore, the Assistant Secretary for Communication in the National Council of Churches of Christ, suggests that there are several other dominant myths in television programming that are of direct relevance for religious broadcasters. These myths are:

-The fittest survive

-Happiness consists of limitless material acquisition

-Consumption is inherently good

-Property, wealth, and power are more important than people

-Progress is an inherent good

Fore asserts that "the whole weight of Christian history, thought and teaching stands diametrically opposed to the media world and its values."(22)

When a religious message is broadcast within the television milieu, the broadcaster faces an unavoidable dilemma. He must determine the extent to which the message is to be accommodated to those myths so that it will be perceived as "real" and relevant by the audience for whom the television myths are potent and determinative. If the broadcaster accommodates his message to these myths, he must also decide what the distinctiveness of his message is in relation to them. If he chooses to challenge the myths on the basis of his message, he must decide the extent to which such a challenge is feasible while still preserving the perceived reality of his message by the audience.

Those on opposite sides of the dilemma have inevitably criticized the others. Hence Ben Armstrong, representing the paid-time broadcasters, has criticized the network and mainline denominational religious programs as being too slow and sterile for television. These programs, he suggests are irrelevant to the mass audience of television because they fail to understand and adapt to the true nature of television as it functions in American society. (23) Bill Fore, on the other hand, has criticized the paid-time programmers on the grounds that their programs and message are indistinguishable from other commercial programs. According to Fore, they have been minimally shaped by the central truths of the Christian message and maximally shaped by the media myths expected by the television audience. (24)

Even a casual observation of the paid-time programs reveals their correspondence to the television myths described above. There is a strong emphasis on success and material gain. The programs interpret religious faith primarily as a device for promoting material success. As noted, Oral Roberts advocates the concept of "Seed Faith"; Pat Robertson promotes the "Kingdom Principles"; both state that if you give to God you will receive money in return. Rex Humbard, Jim Bakker, and Jerry Falwell all reflect what has been called a "health and wealth" theology, one which promotes the idea that God blesses those who are faithful to Him by giving them good health and material success. Jerry Falwell reflected this thought when questioned about his wealthy lifestyle. His reply was that "material wealth is God's way of blessing people who put him first."(25)

There is also a strong promotion of celebrities on paid-time religious programs, particularly those celebrities who have acquired fame within the secular world, with the underlying assumption that greater power exists with those granted status by the mass media. "B. J. Thomas endorses Jesus as Bruce Jenner endorses cereal," Virginia Stem Owens observes. (26)

The elements just mentioned have always been present in sections of evangelical and fundamentalist thought. There has always been a tradition which has emphasized the dramatic in religious practice, which has affirmed that God rewards those who acknowledge him, and which has promoted celebrities in an effort to impress. This was a characteristic of the early evangelists who first attracted the attention of newspapers in the last century. What remains significant in relation to religious television, though, is the way in which these strands of religious thought have come to dominate the content of religion on television. There is now little representation on television of other strands of religious thought; the more mystical, practical, apologetic, liturgical, or social-issues approaches to religious faith. Television has succeeded in narrowing the expression of religious thought to that which is most supportive of its own limited view and economic goals.

Thus television has exerted a strong censoring effect on the presentation of religious faith, not by an active censorship of views but by a selection and preference. The covert nature of this influence makes it of greater danger to the future development of religious faith in America. Because the selective nature of television is often overlooked, the diversity of American religious culture is in danger of being narrowed to that particular strand of religious faith which is now being promoted by television largely because of its acceptance and coherence with television's own social and economic goals.

There is a danger, therefore, that television and the television industry have a disproportionate influence in setting the agenda for the churches in their understanding of their mission, the presentation of their message, and the basis of their interaction with each other. For example, in the presence of the advantage held by the paid-time religious programmers, several denominations which had previously cooperated with others in the common production of religious programs have now decided to compete on their own through the purchase of their own television stations, the production of their own programs, and the cultivation of their own audiences. Television

has had sufficient power and attraction, it would appear, to move many churches away from an interactive basis of cooperation to one of competition with each other. A further problem is that, in moving to a more competitive stance with the paid-time programs, these denominations are adopting the same techniques and myths already present in the paid-time programs. While one can never escape the influence of one's culture on one's understanding and communication of religious

faith, the power currently exerted by the structures, functions, and characteristics of television on religious faith is so powerful that its subtleties have scarcely begun to be considered. This influence is felt in relation to all types of religious programming, both sustaining-time programming and paid-time programming. It is still present even when a religious group chooses to buy its own television station.

Rarely in its long history has the Christian church been so closely tied to and dependent on an external organization over which it has so little control as it does when communicating through the medium of television. It may be that the power of television will come to be seen as of greater importance than the individual influence of any particular religious program or even religious programs as a whole.

 

Notes

1. John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, London: SCM, 1966, pp. -17.

2. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3 vols., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951-63, p. 1:3.

3. J. H. Ellens, "Program Format in Religious Television: A History and Analysis of Program Format in Nationally Distributed Denominational Religious Tele- vision Broadcasting in the United States of America," Ph.D. dissertation, Wayne State University, 1970, pp. 284-85.

4. Kahle, "Religion and Network Television," p. 111:4.

5. Martin Marty, The Improper Opinion: Mass Media and the Christian Faith, Philadelphia: The

Westminster Press, 1961, p. 66.

6. Quoted in Louis Gorfain, "Pray TV," New York, October 6, 1980, p. 49.

7. Quoted in Armstrong, Electric Church, p. 108.

8. George Gerbner, with Kathleen Connoly, "Television as New Religion," New Catholic World, May/April 1978, p. 56.

9. George Comstock et al., Television and Human Behavior, New York: Columbia University Press, 1978, p. 172.

10. Communication Research, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, A Qualitative Study: The Effect of Television on People's Lives, Washington: Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 1978, pp. 22-25.

11. Jerry Mander, "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television," The Co- Evolution Quarterly, Winter 1977/78, p. 40.

12. See for example, George Gerbner et al., "Cultural Indicators: Violence Profile No. 9," Journal of Communication, Summer 1978, pp. 176-207.

13. In Armstrong, Electric Church, p. 113.

14. Phill Butler, "The Christian Use of Radio and Television," Interlit, December 1977, pp. 2-15. 15. Carl F. H. Henry, "Evangelicals: Out of the Closet but Going Nowhere?" Christianity Today, January 1980, pp. 16-22.

16. Eric Barnouw, Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television, New York: Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 163-64.

17. Nicholas Johnson, "The Careening of America," The Humanist, July/August 1972, p. II.

18. Martin Marty, "The Invisible Religion," Presbyterian Survey, May 1979, p. 13. 19. Virginia Stem Owens, The Total Image, or Selling Jesus in the Modern Age, Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1980, p. 4.

20. Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton, "Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action," in Process and Effects of Mass Communications, rev. ed., edited by Wilbur Schramm and Donald F. Roberts, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971, pp. 554-78. 21. George Gerbner et al., "The Demonstration of Power: Violence Profile No. 10," Journal of Communication, Summer 1979, p. 180.

22. William F. Fore, "Mass Media's Mythic World: At Odds with Christian Values,"

Christian Century, January 19, 1977, pp. 34-35.

23. Armstrong, Electric Church, p. 134.

24. William F. Fore, "There is No Such Thing as a TV Pastor," TV Guide, July 19,1980, p. 18.

25. Kenneth L. Woodward, "A $1 Million Habit," Newsweek, September 15, 1980, p. 35.

26. Owens, Total Image, p. 34.

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