Television and Religion: The Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture by William F. Fore
William F. Fore received a B.D. from Yale Divinity School and Ph.D. from Columbia University. A minister in the United Methodist Church , he was Director of Visual Education for the United Methodist Board of Missions, then Executive Director of the Communication Commission of the National Council of Churches in New York City. From 1989 to 1995 he was Visiting Lecturer in Communication and Cultural Studies at Yale Divinity School.. His publications include Image and Impact (Friendship Press 1970), Television and Religion: the Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture (Augsburg 1987, currently reprinted by SBS Press, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511), and Mythmakers: Gospel Culture and the Media (Friendship Press 1990).Published in 1987 by Augsburg Publishing House. Used by permission of the author and copyright holder.
Chapter Two: The Technological Era and Its Threat to Religion
This world of ours is a new world, in which the unity of knowledge, the nature
The Technological Era
While it is true to say that television is challenging the central role of the church today, this not nearly the whole truth. The religions of the world are experiencing not merely competition from new and appealing media but also fundamental challenge from a new worldview. For the society is facing not only a new age of information, but also a new technological era which brings with it a challenge to all of the historical religions, and which can lead either to humankind`s next integrative steps toward new religious insights and meaning, or to a collapse of religious development and the emergence of a period of anarchy and despair.
It is not enough to call what society is experiencing today "rapid social change" or even "revolution," since these connote only social or political upheaval. The change is more basic. It modifies everything we have known before.
The Dutch theologian Arend van Leewen suggests that there have been only two basic eras in all of history. The first was the ontocratic era in which we have lived until now. From the first written histories and for 5,000 years thereafter, human society always comprehended life as a totality, where belief in a God or gods outside human experience held together the contradictory and confusing elements of the human community. But relatively suddenly, within the last 300 years or so, we have moved away from this unifying concept into a multiform system of relationships, with no specific cornerstone, no single integrating element which gives all other things their reason for being. We have moved into the technological era, and this is the great new fact of our time.1.
The technological era is functional and pragmatic, characterized by utilitarianism and relativism. It is supported by three philosophical views. The first is rationality, the idea that meaningful lives must be amenable to reason. The second is autonomy, which holds that people can find in themselves and their world the norms and goals for their own existence. The third is humanism, which asserts that this space-time world is the proper home for humankind, and rejects metaphysical claims ("they will be rewarded in heaven bye and bye") and demands that religion deal with the here-and-now.
Taken together, these three views describe secularization, which is not necessarily inconsistent with the Christian faith. Harvey Cox has pointed out that secularization is, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer`s words, "man`s coming of age," a freeing from the bondage of all closed metaphysical systems.2. Unfortunately, this new found freedom thus far has resulted in people being treated as means rather than as ends.
The technological era has created a world of means, which replaces people as the center of meaning. Jacques Ellul calls this force we have created The Technique, by which he means a style of conduct that pervades our life and governs all of our personal and social activities -- a kind of morality. The Technique is essentially a method of problem solving. It asks: How can we best solve this problem now? rather than: What is the ultimate objective and how can we reach it? The means is identified with the end, and whatever gets something "done" is good.3.
Already the communication manifestations of The Technique resemble Aldous Huxley`s Brave New World brought to life. The Technique`s communication does not use fear or threats, nor does it concentrate on undermining its opponent. Rather it woos people, taking their own genuine needs (to be safe, to be liked, to be comfortable), and then using these needs to create other needs which make people not only willing but quite eager to agree to what is being said, to buy what is being sold (the deodorant, the beer, the antacid). A glaring example of the problem this creates is the present state of television news on the TV networks; most people prefer its simplistic presentation over a more complex and demanding one, and, by pandering to this preference, TV encourages the least, rather than the most, from individual viewers.
This new technological worldview and its communication manifestations are achieving a remarkable unity of acceptance everywhere - not only among the capitalist West and the communist nations, but also among the less technically developed nations. It has been given a tremendous boost by the development of the multinational corporations which treat the whole world as a stage in their competition for economic profits. By enabling new flows of money, information and power on a world scale, the multinationals have succeeded in insulating themselves from both political and social constraints on their economic power, and thus have become an embodiment of the supreme value of economic efficiency over human values. It is only recently, as workers in the America`s Rustbelt, milltowns, and silicone valleys have begun to see their jobs being shifted to workers in Southeast Asia, that the denumanizing policies of the multinationals have come close enough to home to attract popular attention. But the problem is much more serious than the loss of American jobs, because in the new technological worldview, not just Americans but everyone is expendable.
The Technological Worldview`s Challenge to Religion
The new technological worldview poses three specific threats to religion. First, it is diverting a major portion of the world`s interests, motivations, satisfactions and energies away from a religious center -- any religious center. In Europe this is symbolized by the churches` having become empty shells, visited only as objects of architectual interest, and in the United States by the growing chasm between what churchgoers profess and how they act. Elsewhere in the world, religion functions primarily in its superstition modes (as in much of central Africa), or is used as a device for social or political control (as in Iran, India, and the Middle East).
Second, the technological worldview is robbing genuine religious vocabularies of their power. The symbols, rites, images, and references of religion no longer move people. Today most people in the First World relate to -- that is, understand, recognize, and think about -- the images of "Dallas" and "Dynasty" far more than they relate to the images of Abraham, Moses, and Paul. Biblical images, and indeed most historical religious images, no longer have the power to move, to motivate, to illuminate, to instruct. Rather, they have become relics -- quaint oddities not to be taken seriously but only to be treated gingerly as part of a bygone culture.
Third, the new technological environment encourages the growth of religious concern which has little or no interest in organized religion. Creative and dynamic religious forces are finding their expression not in the context of the organized church, but in film, literature, and the arts, and also in some aspects of science and industry, where people are seeking ways to give institutional expression to their basic religious concerns while at the same time rejecting alliances with institutional religion. Alcoholics Anonymous, drug rehabilitation centers, coalitions for social and political reforms, therapy clusters, the adult education movement -- these and other activities provide opportunities for people to "get involved," without the benefit of clergy.
While it is encouraging to see religious concerns permeate the secular culture, at the same time social reform without a vital connection to religious conviction tends to end in disillusionment and cynicism. On one hand, organized religion needs to find expression in practical social services and should encourage the development of these parachurch activities. On the other hand, such activities require the perspective of Biblical faith which seeks the Kingdom of God on earth without falling into the illusion that we are going to bring this Kingdom into being by our own actions or that we can expect to participate in it within our own time. Without a connection with the religious community and the theological corrective it brings, parachurch activities tend to become either self serving and cynical, or else short cited and naive in their expectations of bringing about permanent social reform in our time.
The New Media Environment
Each of these three threats to religion is manifested clearly and powerfully in the mass media. Television makes the secular alternatives to traditional religious values seem tremendously appealing. And television has replaced the traditional religious vocabulary with a new "religious" vocabulary comprised of a curious mix of economics, science, high technology, and fantasy. Examples of this new vocabulary are found in films such as George Lucas`s "Star Wars", where Luke (sic) Skywalker and his pals fly high-tech versions of jet airplanes against Darth Vader, a literal prince of Darkness; in Stanley Kubric`s "2001," where the computer HAL exemplifies the marriage of high-tech with human qualities, including the will-to-power; and Stephen Spielberg`s "Close Encounters of The Third Kind" and "E.T.," where good guy extraterrestrials appear in majestic supertechnological millennialisms.
At the same time, persons and situations in the real world who possess genuine religious motivation and action become secularized by the way they are presented on TV. Television first glamorizes them by giving them celebrity status, and then robs them of their religious rootage by making them indistinguishable from secular media events and personalities. Even a Martin Luther King Jr., a Mother Teresa or a major benefit concert for the hungry in Africa have not been strong enough religious images to completely escape television`s powerful and crushing ability to commercialize and secularize every person and event that comes under its scrutiny.
Although we have lived within this new media environment for only a few decades, we already are able to discern some of its characteristics:
- An increasing dependence on mediated communication as distinct from face-to-face communication; more time spent with electronics, less spent with people.
- An increasing number of communication delivery systems, together with a greater diversification of programming, so that individuals can pick and choose only those messages which reinforce already held attitudes and beliefs. This results in cultural fragmentation, whereby people literally cannot hear or see others.
- A shift from treating communication as a service function essential to the welfare of the whole society (like water and roads) to treating it as a commodity to be purchased and sold. As media structures are increasingly controlled by the laws of economics, they become larger and more monopolistic, and at the same time less and less related to any system of morality.
- A trivialization of all news, information, and entertainment for the vast majority of people, with emphasis given to information rather than meaning, surface events rather than depth and reflection. At the same time, sophisticated communication facilities are available to a small elite for their personal growth, education, and enrichment, through computer programs, data bases, specialized videocassettes, and a wide assortment of information services. This encourages the growth of a new two- class society -- the information-rich and the information-poor.
As the technological era permeates cultures worldwide, the mass media are increasingly employed as a tool of the production-consumption cycle rather than as a resource for the education, information, and entertainment required for the well-being of all people, an element essential to the development of citizens in any democracy. First in the United States, but now more and more in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere, television is being used essentially for one purpose only: to deliver an audience to an advertiser (or to a government).
Listeners and viewers increasingly are being treated as commodities rather than as persons. As this trend becomes more pronounced, the information which is necessary for citizens to make the kind of informed decisions which could reverse this trend is itself becoming increasingly scarce, so that eventually the mass media will be able to provide only circuses for the masses who embrace it gladly, and no longer can tell what they are missing.
It is important to stress that this situation is not the result of some nefarious scheme hatched by a handful of persons bent upon destroying the social fabric. Rather, the process is simply the inevitable working out of The Technique worldview, which is means-oriented toward solving problems rather than teleologically-oriented toward goals and values. Nor is the process characterized by a kind of iron-fisted media domination or a carefully scripted propaganda campaign along the lines of Hitler`s Triumph of the Will at Nuremberg. Rather, the media merely provide a soothing and comfortable environment which makes very few demands and is thus gladly embraced by the average listener-viewer.
Neil Postman describes the difference between media as police-state and media as trivializer in terms of the very different predictions about future media control proposed by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, respectively. Orwell`s 1984 envisioned a future in which Big Brother would use the mass media to turn society into a vast prison, where television would both spy on each citizen`s every move and also supply an unending barrage of false propaganda to brainwash the hapless public.
This is not what has happened. Instead, the present situation was much more accurately predicted by Huxley in Brave New World, which suggested that "in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours."4.
There could scarcely be a better description of our present situation than Huxley`s Brave New World. We are dominated not by force but by trivialization, not by propaganda but by infantile gratification, not by lies but by by what Kierkegaard called "twaddle." Trivialization is inevitable in the world of the technological era, with its emphasis upon utilitarian means rather than truthful ends. Says Postman: "There is no Newspeak here. Lies have not been defined as truth nor truth as lies. All that has happened is that the public has adjusted to incoherence and has been amused into indifference."5.
Paul Tillich had a term for that which stands at the very opposite of Christian grace and love. He called it the demonic. The term is used here in a special way. It does not mean the embodiment of everything evil in the world, or the objectification of the ungodly. Rather, the demonic is located in society wherever there is found a unique combination of genuine creative power together with a perversion of religious values. The demonic affirms that which is less than God and pretends it is God: money, power, prestige. It operates in the individual`s willful yielding to the temptation to give rein to the libido of sensuality, of power, and of knowledge, and it operates even more powerfully in human institutions that in individuals.
The power and perversion of commercial television in the United States today can be said to be demonic in this special sense. Scarcely any better description could be given to television`s unique cultural role than that provided by Tillich in l948, long before television arrived on the scene.6. For during the past 30 years commercial television has become a powerful embodiment of form-creating and value-destroying energy in our lives.
The Church`s Inadequate Response
Religious leadership has been painfully aware of both the fundamental shift to the technological era and of the new information techniques which communicate its worldview, but their responses have been largely inadequate. They recognize that there has occurred a major shift in values and assumptions, and they have responded in ways that reflect the historical responses which religion has always given to the challenges of opposing worldviews.
After all, this situation is nothing new to religion, and certainly not to the Christian church. Christians always have found themselves at odds with the dominant values and assumptions in secular society. Today the problem may be different in degree, if van Leewen is correct. But Christians have always had to face the problem of how to respond to the cultural situation which is always more or less antithetical to their faith.
H. Richard Niebuhr suggested that there are five typical relationships of the Christian to culture, as seen both in history and in the contemporary situation:7.
l. Christ against culture is the approach that requires Christians to abandon wholly the customs and institutions of the "heathen" society and to withdraw, either physically or by rejecting society`s norms. Puritans of every age have taken this course, following the injunction: "Do not love the world or the things in the world," (1 John 2:l5). This pattern is seen in monastic orders and various sects.
2. Christ of culture suggests that there is fundamental agreement between the values of church and society. Jesus is the great hero/teacher who, in concert with democratic principles, works to create a peaceful, cooperative society. This is seen in cultural-Protestantism, and wherever the church reflects the values of culture.
3. Christ above culture: Christianity brings the culture up to a higher level of fulfillment; culture leads people to Christ, but Christ then enters into the situation from above with gifts which human aspiration cannot attain and "draws up" the society to higher levels of social attainment.
4. Christ and culture in paradox: this approach recognizes the necessity and authority of both Christ and culture, but also recognizes their opposition. Thus life is lived in faith precariously, sinfully, in tension between the demands of Christ and culture, in the hope of justification which lies beyond history. From Christ we receive the knowledge and freedom to do what culture teaches or requires us to do. Martin Luther is an example.
5. Christ the transformer of culture: human nature is fallen or per-verted, and this perversion is transmitted by the culture; therefore Christ stands in judgment of all human institutions. But Christ also converts persons within their culture, through their faith and by turning away from sin and pride. Augustine, Calvin, Wesley are examples.
Today the responses of various religious groups to the challenge of The Technique`s communication have differed in ways that can be illuminated by Niebuhr`s model. For example, many biblical fundamentalists tend to reject the appeals of the mass media, and to a certain degree to reject the media themselves. They sense the anti-Christian value system it carries and counsel believers to return to religious fundamentals which often include proscriptions against dancing, movies, plays, and rock concerts, and attempts at censorship of media, especially films, TV, and books. At the same time they encourage participation in church social events as a substitute for secular cultural offerings. In some instances watching TV is prohibited, and in others the faithful are encouraged to watch only "Christian" networks and programs. Their "Christ against culture" position recognizes the seriousness of The Technique`s appeal and its ability to lure people, especially young people, away from fundamentalism`s Puritan values.
The problem with the "Christ against culture" position is two-fold: first, strong reaction tends to increase the attractiveness of that which is banished; and second, the rejection of many cultural experiences tends to leave persons psychologically involuted, intellectually isolated, and spiritually subject to the pride and authoritarianism generated by any dogmatic and closed system.
Other so-called fundamentalists have taken just the opposite course, that of "Christ of culture." Having no doubt among themselves about the answers to every religious question, they are led to the conclusion that the most important communication task is to reach others with these answers and to convince them of their validity. They see the success of The Technique in converting people to its value system, and so they adopt these techniques -- especially television, radio, and books -- to convert people to their own religious views. The "Christ of culture" response characterizes most of the electronic church preachers, who, in the guise of rejecting the values of secular culture, actually embrace them.
The "Christ of culture" view of many fundamentalists explains why this segment of Christianity has been so quick to grasp every new communication technique as it came along -- first radio, then shortwave, motion pictures, television, and, more recently, cable, satellite TV, and videocassettes. Theirs is the "pipeline" theory of communication: when the Christian message is reduced to a set of unvarying verbal formulas, the only question is how to build a bigger and better "pipe" through which to deliver the unvarying message to the recipient.
But while the programs of the "Christ of culture" advocates are rich in the vocabulary of 19th century Christian evangelism, the images -- and hence the real messages -- resonate with The Technique, the gambits of modern television advertising. But using the techniques of commercial television and radio to achieve the end of Christian communication is self-defeating. The people who tune in the electronic evangelists are the already converted and convinced, and the programs they tune to are simply the techniques of the secular world used to reinforce views already held by those who are comfortable with an otherworldly, prescientific, anthropomorphic God superimposed on the underlying values of the technological era.
There is yet another "Christ of culture" response evident in religious mass media. These are the programs which appeal to many members of the mainline churches, people who go to church almost every Sunday, yet give little evidence of being uneasy about their deep involvement in secular culture and values. Robert Bellah has shown that most Americans today express a vague religious belief in God, but are utterly incapable of relating their faith to any kind of morally coherent life. "Feeling good" for them has replaced "being good," and relationships are based not so much on a religious conviction about the essential worth of every individual as they are based on contractual arrangements in which each person is considered of value to the extent that he or she is of value to me. The question, "Is this right or wrong?" is replaced by, "Is it going to work for me, now?"8. What Bellah describes is one more manifestation of the value system of the technological era. By succumbing to this view while continuing to hold on to the trappings of mainline Christianity, many people in the mainline churches have adopted a "Christ of culture" response.
Both secular media and most religious media encourage all of these forms of cultural religion. In fact, its expressions, which are oblivious to the usual fundamentalist/liberal divisions, are perhaps the most pervasive of all religious responses. To be sure, these nominal Christians may find excesses in the media which are too gross even for thoroughly acculturated Christians to ignore -- too much sex and violence in films, too many commercials on television, too much acid rain, too many armaments -- but these are seen as problems which can be adjusted, reduced, and reworked, rather than as expressions of a fundamental clash with the center of their faith. For these "Christ of culture" Christians, the underlying values of commercial television are in fact their values.
An Alternative Response
There is a third response of Christians to the challenge of The Technique, a response which rejects both the "Christ against culture" and the "Christ of culture" views. It is hesitant, problematic, and ambiguous, but it tries to relate the requirements of historical Christian faith to the current cultural and media reality. It takes seriously the demonic power within the media but refuses to abandon them altogether. This alternative response is found primarily in various mainline denominational and interdenominational groups in the United States, and in some of the established churches in Western Europe.
These church groups relate to the media at two levels. First, they produce programs in the media which, in the midst of the secular worldview and its power, try to illumine the human condition, to ask meaningful religious questions, to rediscover religious truths, and to make a beginning toward creating a new religious vocabulary which can have meaning and power for the multitudes. Such a response can have very little success in "worldly" terms, that is, in relation to audience size, income for stations and networks, or the development of national celebrities and media events which can be merchandized -- criteria which normally signify success in the commercial media environment.
Second, these groups work within the media industries themselves, and with the political institutions in the society, to bring about conditions which will allow the media to achieve their considerable potential for good. The objective here is to humanize the structures which govern the media, both by encouraging persons within the industry to "do well by doing good," and by insisting that the social and economic powers of the industry must be counterbalanced by governmental power which politically expresses the concern of citizens for the general public welfare. As in the case with program production, this media-reform approach is not likely to achieve significant success in "worldly" terms, since the power of The Technique and its media manifestations are so powerful, but from a religious standpoint the objective is nevertheless essential.
This dual approach tends to fit somewhat into both the categories of "Christ and culture in paradox" and "Christ transforming culture." It recognizes the ambiguities and paradoxical nature of the church at work within a system full of powers which potentially corrupt everything they touch, including the church. At the same time it acts in the belief that testifying to the good news is a requirement which cannot be avoided, and that potentially faith and action based on this liberating gospel does indeed transform structures built upon human sin and pride.
This alternative approach rejects the utilitarian relativism characteristic of our ethos, and reasserts the radical monotheism of Christian history. It requires looking through and beyond the tempting simplicity of the technological era as communicated by television and the rest of the mass media. When confronted with a worldview so powerful, so seductive, and so effective in its ability to obscure and trivialize, what is required is a calculated and informed process of unmasking its messages. This unmasking, or demythologizing, of our television "text" requires of us the will to resist what is television`s most powerful ally -- our own inertia and tendency to let the images simply flow over and through us. It requires of the individual the discipline to deal with TV`s images critically. It requires of the church that it supply the critical tools and context for the unmasking, which means that the images of television must become part of the sermonic and teaching elements of the church environment.
A major element in this unmasking of television`s pretensions is the development of a sound theological basis for criticism. It is to this theology of communication that we turn next.
1. Arend van Leewen, Christianity in a World History (Edinburgh: Edinburgy Press, 1964).
2. Harvey Cox, The Secular City (New York: Macmillan, l965).
3. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Knopf, 1967).
4. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Viking, l984), p. 155.
5. Ibid., p. 110.
6. cf. Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, l948).
7. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper, l951).
8. Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press, l985).