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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 Four: Television's Mythic World

What people learn best is not what their teachers think they teach,
or what their preachers think they preach, but what their
cultures in fact cultivate.
George Gerbner, 1972

The fact is incontrovertible: people today live "by the media"
whereas once they lived "by the book."
William Kuhns, The Electronic Gospel




Does Gilligan`s Island Exist?

Sherwood Schwartz writes and produces a number of popular television series, including "Gilligan`s Island," a comedy originated in the l960s in which a zany group of castaways manage to survive not only shipwreck, but each other. Schwartz tells of having received, in l964, after the first six or seven episodes of "Gilligan`s Island" had been on the air, a visit from Commander Doyle of the United States Coast Guard. Commander Doyle presented Schwartz with a batch of telegrams, some addressed to Hickham Field in Honolulu, some to Vandenberg Air Force Base, some to other military bases.

While the wording of the telegrams varied, in substance they all said the same thing: "For several weeks now, we have seen American citizens stranded on some Pacific island. We spend millions in foreign aid. Why not send one U.S. destroyer to rescue those poor people before they starve to death." The telegrams were not jokes. They came from concerned citizens.

Schwartz commented on this "most extreme case of suspension of belief I ever heard of." "Who," he asked, "did these viewers think was filming the Castaways on that island? There was even a laugh track on the show. Who was laughing at the survivors of the wreck of the S.S. Minnow? It boggled my mind." 1.

There were not thousands of letters and telegrams. There were fewer than two dozen. But if some adults, even a few, believed "Gilligan`s Island" was real, imagine the effect other television programs have, programs which place much greater emphasis upon reality.

The purpose of this chapter is to examine the role in our lives of television`s mythic world -- the world of "Gilligan`s Island" and hundreds of other "places" and "people" who exist, to some degree at least, in the minds of America`s viewers. This television world is important because, in some ways, it has become almost as tangible as the real world itself. In fact, it has become the rules behind the rules.


Worldview: The Rules Behind the Rules

What every society must have if it is to survive is commonality -- common interests, language, tradition, institutions, values, ends. Above all, there must be a set of common assumptions -- assumptions about who we are, who has the power, what we can and cannot be, what we can and cannot do.

It is the nature of these underlying assumptions to be hidden, to be embedded so deeply in the culture that they are not easily visible. For example, when we teach children "good grammar," we really are teaching them about the way we we think the world is: who is important, how to solve problems, certain aspects of sexism, racism,and classism. For example, when we say "mankind must . . . " when we mean "everyone must . . . ," we are making a social statement about the relative roles of men and women. And while Americans have only one word for "snow," the Eskimos have more than a dozen -- because snow is far more important to them. In Chinese the character for "trouble" is two women in the same house, which says something about the Chinese view of human relations.

These hidden assumptions come to light only when we begin to ask such questions as: What are those things that we never have to ask about? What are those things that are not only true but are simply there? What are those things given to us in "the way things are"?

There are ways to uncover the hidden worldview. For example, studying advanced geometry is important because it makes students consider worlds quite different from the world they assume to be "true" -- worlds where parallel lines meet, where the shortest distance between two points is a curved line. Science fiction, Mad magazine and the study of foreign languages all provide perspective on our social world in the same way -- by questioning the given, our assumed reality.

But society naturally resists this probing, this questioning of what is. Society needs stability, and stability depends on commonality, uniformity, conformity. Thus every society propagandizes and censors. Jacques Ellul has devoted an entire book to describing propaganda as an all-pervasive aspect of communication in every society. He rightly understands propaganda not as a plan created by people in power to legitimate lies, but as something that grows out of the need of the whole society and serves to sustain that society. Propaganda uses all the media of communication, but it is most effective when it reaches an individual "alone in the mass," when the individual is cut off from group participation, for example, while watching TV. Propaganda is most effective when it is able to separate a person from outside points of reference, such as a transcendent religious reference, in order to encourage a tunnel vision which unquestioningly accepts this society`s worldview as "the way it is."2.

In addition to propaganda, society also employs censorship against those communications which threaten commonplace values and assumptions. By censorship in this context I do not mean censorship in the technical sense of prior restraint on speech and enforced by governmental sanctions. I mean the sometimes equally effective restraints on speech achieved by the complex web of cultural forces. This broader form of censorship may be legal, as with laws against obscenity. It may be political, as with the press blackout during the American invasion of Grenada. It is most likely to be economic, as in the case of TV`s exclusion of unusual or extreme points of view because they tend to reduce profits.

Given these definitions, propaganda and censorship are not something imposed on the people by evil manipulators. They are ingrained in the normal structures of society, an ongoing and necessary process in every society that gives the people in it something they want and need very badly: stability, cohesion, and common purpose.

Society creates this commonality primarily through the media of communication. Every activity -- games, work, play, sex, study, eating, resting, every medium -- verbal, nonverbal, signs, symbols, architecture, paintings, books, memos, letters, maps, and so on, and every institution -- family, school, business, church -- are mediators of the culture. But only in the past 75 have we developed the mass media of communication -- the telephone, the large-volume newspaper, the wireless telegraph, radio and television. All of these are primarily social, rather than technical inventions, because they have changed the speed, the extent, and the nature of the process whereby a society maintains commonality, and thus they have changed the nature of society itself.

The mass media select and distort what they mediate, for two reasons. First, they do so because it is their nature, since they cannot possibly mediate everything that happens, from all points of view. This is so, second, because society needs the media to help create the common world of which all can be a part. This involves selection and distortion which, because it often is made unconsciously, automatically, without intention on the part of the selectors, and also because usually many individuals are involved in the selection process (writer, cameraman, director, editor, producer, distributors, sponsor, audience), it often is impossible to detect, much less to analyze or to understand.

Here we return to Ellul`s concept of The Technique. The Technique is not a particular propagandist with a point of view. It is a method of solving problems, and thus is completely amoral. It asks only how best to get this done, how to solve this particular problem at this time. It does not ask what is true, or what is just or what is right. As applied to television, the only question which The Technique allows the creative people in the media industry to ask is how to reach the most people most of the time most efficiently.

Thus television becomes extremely attractive, because it must be in order to have maximum "effectiveness." The Technique does not use fear or threats, nor is it interested in devising some kind of insidious propaganda as it was understood in the l930s. Rather, it creates in people`s minds needs and fears and hopes for which it can provide the answers. This way it makes people eager to buy. And in today`s economy, such a powerful Technique, or propaganda, is essential. Without it, the economy simply would stop operating.

To be sure, television is a window on the world. But a window, by its very nature, selects out only a small piece of reality. And although its glass may be relatively transparent, a window shuts out heat and cold, the noise and smells of the real world outside, and like the tinted glass in today`s buses and airports, it may totally change the color of everything "out there". Actually, TV acts more as a filter than as a window -- a filter selecting images, extracting unpleasant (and pleasant) elements, coloring others, and making a whole world seem real to us when it is in fact nothing more than thousands of bright phosphors dancing on a piece of glass.

The acculturation into our complex society is something we have to learn. The process is long and in fact never ends. Psychologist Rudolf Arnheim says that a child who enters school today faces "a 12 to 20 year apprenticeship in alienation."3. As soon as a child learns to name something, he or she begins to separate the self from it. And before long the child learns to handle words and concepts, but at the risk of becoming estranged from the object talked about. The child is finally taught to manipulate a world of words and numbers, but does not learn as effectively how to experience the real world. Arnheim might well have gone on to say that exposure to television for hours every day simply adds to the separation of youngsters from the world of reality. Or, even more critically, this long television exposure creates for them a new reality.

Television also provides an optional reality for adults. Abraham Moles, director of the Social Psychology Institute at Strasbourg, points out that while TV has been a cultural life buoy for farmers, lonely people, and the culturally and the socially impoverished in France, it has at the same time been a pressure toward the banal and the constricting for those already experiencing a communication-rich life. But in both cases, as the individual is exposed to more and more TV, he or she becomes a bit less able to differentiate between the fictional universe and the real world.4.

Television has become a major source of authority as to what is "real." Studs Terkel tells about the time he attended a baseball game at Wrigley Field when he saw Ron Santo strike out. A full 30 seconds after it happened, the fan next to Terkel, with his set in his hand, turned to him and said: "Santo struck out." Terkel asked him how he had found out so fast. "Lou Boudreau just announced it," came the reply. Terkel`s companion had come to trust the magic box more than his own eyes.

And television literally tells us who we are, and what we are. Richard Speck, the man who in l966 murdered eight student nurses in Chicago, recalled later that while still at large in Chicago, more than a week after committing the crime, he looked up at a TV set in a neighborhood tavern and saw there the face of O. W. Wilson, the Superintendent of Police. "We`re looking for a man named Richard Speck," Wilson announced. It was at that moment, Speck reported, that he knew he had committed the murders. Since he had been publicly informed by the medium that he had done something, Speck knew it had to be so.

In providing this common experience of "reality," television uses the tools of myth, symbol, image, and fantasy. Myth, of course, is not used here to refer to stories of long ago or to stories we know are not true. Just the opposite. Myths are those stories that tell us who we are, what we have done, and what we can (and cannot) do. They deal with power (who has it, who doesn`t), with value (what is of value and what is not), and with morality (what is right and permissible, what is forbidden). Michael Real defines mythic activity as "the collective reenactment of symbolic archetypes that express the shared emotions and ideals of a given culture."5. He notes that Ernst Cassirer placed myth among the basic symbol systems through which humans express and control their environment.

The myths of our society constitute a kind of religious framework, providing us with a belief and value system and expressing the things we uncritically assume as given in our lives. The myths express, not the rules written down in our laws and in our Bibles, but the real rules, the unwritten rules -- the rules behind the rules. In a sense, they express what is really real, what is ultimate reality -- and that is another term for religion.

Myths are expressed in symbols and images that reach us less at the surface, cognitive level, than at the level of our inner fantasy world. Stanley Kubrick, creator of such memorable films as "Dr. Stangelove," " 2001: A Space Odyssey," and "Barry Lyndon," understands how this happens: "I think an audience watching a film or a play is in a state very similar to dreaming, and that the dramatic experience becomes a kind of controlled dream. . . . But the important point here is that the film communicates on a subconscious level, and the audience responds to the basic shape of the story on a subconscious level, as it responds to a dream."6. The image-symbol-fantasy level of communication is far more powerful than the cognitive level because we find it more difficult to bring these elements up to a level of consciousness where we can analyze them and talk about them in a verbal, linear, controlled, and thus nonthreatening way.

Images come to us from mother, from the churches, from the schools, and from Washington -- to name a few authority sources. But mass media today provide the overwhelming input. Leo Bogart, for many years a top advertising executive, says in his book Strategy in Advertising:.

Every day 4.2 billion advertising messages pour forth from 1,754 daily newspapers, millions of others from 8,151 weeklies, and 1.4 billion more each day from 4,147 magazines and periodicals. There are 3,895 AM and 1,136 FM radio stations broadcasting an average of 730,000 commercials a day. And 770 television stations broadcast 100,000 commercials a day. Every day millions of people are confronted with 2,500,000 outdoor billboards, with 2,500,000 car cards and posters in buses, subways and commuter trains and with 51,300,000 direct mail pieces.7.

Perhaps Mr. Bogart, a staunch champion of advertising, would be disappointed to learn that the ads on television, though a highly visible and controversial aspect of the mass media of communication, are only a small part of TV`s total impact. For when we are watching television, all of it is massaging us, to use Marshall McLuhan`s phrase, all the time. News, sports events, dramas, situation comedies, musicals, soap operas, documentaries, full-length feature films, even the weather report -- all are providing part of the mass media`s mythic world. They are all describing the roles and powers (and looks, dress, language, gestures, values, and assumptions) which all of us tend to "put on," to try out, and, in many cases, to adopt, in real life.


The Religious Functions of Television

Several media observers have suggested that television today actually is performing many of the functions heretofore relegated to religion. Michael Real points out that much of popular culture, including television, presents morality plays to the public. Morality plays, based on scriptural themes and dramatized for the illiterate masses of the Middle Ages the struggle of good with evil, embodied in the various characters virtues such as innocence, beauty, kindness, and patriotism in their triumph over vices such as sloth, ugliness, gluttony, lying, and cheating. With the triumph of goodness over evil came "happiness" as defined by the play. Present day TV morality plays do the same thing, defining virtues, vices, and "happiness" for today`s audiences.8.

Gregor Goethals has analyzed some of the specific religious roles television performs for our society: ritual and ceremony, such as the Kennedy and Humphrey funerals; icons which help us articulate and shape beliefs through visual forms, such as the glorification of the machine and technology in the TV commercials about speeding automobiles and washing machines turning out whiter-than-white loads of laundry; iconoclasm which attacks the status quo in the name of morality, through programs such as Edward R. Murrow`s "See It Now" and today`s "Sixty Minutes"; and finally, sacrament substitutes helping provide people with a sense of social experience, which are found in commercials that promise miracles and, above all, happiness (redemption from overweight, ring-around-the-collar, bad breath, or simple human loneliness).9.

In America we are developing a new kind of liturgical year to mark the passing of the seasons, which includes the Rose Bowl Parade, Super Sunday baseball, the U.S. Open in tennis, and that key religious festival, the Super Bowl. Joseph Price suggests that the Super Bowl now signals a convergence of sports, politics, and myth -- the basic elements of celebration united in many earlier cultures. In America it is accomplished through television. The invocation is a series of political rituals: the singing of the national anthem and the unfurling of a 50-yard American flag, followed by an impressive Air Force tactical squadron fly-over. The pregame program show features members from each team portrayed as superheros, demigods who not only have the skill to excel in the sport, but also to succeed in business. The coin is tossed by a member of the Football Hall of Fame (which itself is part of the new ersatz-religious world and amounts to latter-day canonization), while at the end of the game the Most Valuable Player signifies the possibility of continuing canonization in the future.

According to Price, the two dominant myths of the Super Bowl festival relate to our understanding of what our nation is and has been. One myth is based on the ritual action of the game itself. "The football team invades foreign land, traverses it completely, and completes the conquest by settling in the end zone. The goal is to carry the ritual object, the football, into the most hallowed area belonging to the opponent, his innermost sanctuary. There, and only there, can the ritual object touch earth without incuring some sort of penalty."

The second myth has to do with the violent nature of the game itself. "To a certain extent, football is a contemporary enactment of the American frontier spirit." But the half-time show deals with innocence -- young, scrubbed faced girls and boys exuding cleanliness and purity. This continues the mythology that "even in our nation`s history of subjugation, a sense of manifest destiny was often associated with extending our boundaries . . . [so] the people did not think they bore final responsibility for the displacement of natives or infringement on their hunting place. In other words, the assignment to God of the responsibility for territorial expansion was an attempt to maintain the illusion of blamelessness among those who forcibly took alien lands."10.


The Media Worldview

What specifically are the mass media telling us about who we are, what we can do and be, and what is of value? We are looking for the symbolic meanings and the underlying myths that are far more important than the surface story line, message, or "content". While these latter are important, we must probe more deeply for environment, functions, and context, and, most important of all, for human relation that define social roles and tell us who has power, who is aggressor, and who is victim. We must read the TV "text" for its basic cultural meaning.

Consider who populates this television world, keeping in mind that for most Americans, this TV world becomes their world at least three hours a day, every day, throughout most of their lives. George Gerbner`s research at the Annenberg School of Communication in Philadelphia tells us that in the TV world two-thirds to three-fourths of the important characters are male, American, middle class, unmarried, and in the prime of life -- and they are the people who run the world. Although about half of TV-land characters are married, among TV teachers, only 18 % of the women and 20 % of the men are married.11. Furthermore, the women "find themselves, and a man" by leaving teaching. Failure in love and life is a requisite for success in teaching, and the problems of TV teachers are solved by leaving their profession -- not by towns raising taxes, building schools, or giving higher salaries. On the other hand, TV journalists are strong and honest. And TV scientists are deceitful, cruel, and dangerous; their research leads to murder in fully half the situations.

Violence on TV, unlike real life violence, rarely occurs between people who know each other well, and most of it does not result from rage, hate, despair, or panic, but from the businesslike pursuit of personal gain, power, or duty. Fully one-third of TV`s violent people, according to Gerbner, could be considered "professionals" in the business of violence.

Marriage seems to shrink men and to make them unfit for the free- wheeling, powerful, and violent life style of "real" men. On the other hand, women appear to gain power through marriage, though they lose some of their capacity for violence.

White, young Americans are more than twice as likely as all others to commit lethal violence and then live to reach a happy ending. In the symbolic shorthand of TV, the free and strong kill in a cause that was good to begin with.

Thus there is an interesting trade-off in the TV world. The price of being good (such as a teacher) is powerlessness. The price of having power (such as a scientist) is to be evil. But if one happens to be a powerful, white American, then the end justifies all kinds of means, and one is rewarded with the TV images of happiness.

In a complex society such as ours, it would be impossible to detail all of the images and symbols that go into creating its commonality. However, there are a few central myths and values from which most of the images and symbols spring.


1. The fittest survive. According to sociologist Marie Augusta Neal, the major myth of our Western culture is the social Darwinian theory initiated by Herbert Spencer -- the concept that between ethnic groups there exist genetic differences large enough to justify programming for unequal natural capacities for responsible decision-making, specifically in the interests of the group one represents. Social Darwinism dominates our policy-making regarding education, jobs, geographical residential allotments, provisions for recreation, health services, and the uses of human beings to carry on wars.

It is no accident that in Gerbner`s TV-violence profile, lower class and nonwhite characters are especially prone to victimization, are more violent than their middle class counterparts, and pay a high price for engaging in violence (jail, death).12. As our myth suggests, the fittest survive, and the fittest in our media worldview are not lower class, nonwhite Americans.


2. Power and decision-making start at the center and move out. In the media world, the political word comes from Washington, the financial word comes from New York, and the entertainment word comes from Hollywood. While watching television, one gets the sense of personally existing at the edge of a giant network where someone at the center pushes the right button and instantaneously millions of us "out there" see what has been decided we will see.

Of course, there are alternatives to the worldview that power should move from the center to the edges. Our own Declaration of Independence proposes just the opposite -- that government derives its power from the consent of the governed, in other words, that the flow of power should be from the periphery to the center. But the opposite model is much more supportive of the needs of the industrial revolution, the rise of a major nation-state and the demands of the new technological era. Center-out clearly is essential to the maintenance of both our centralized governmental bureaucracy and our capitalist economy.

In our society, people at the center make decisions about what the others need and what they get. Mass production means standardization: whether people want it or not, the items on the shelves of our supermarkets become more and more the same, while mass advertising convinces us that we are getting more and more diversity. Ten different boxes of - detergent. Twenty versions of - wheat cereal. Five varieties of - asprin.

The idea that people in the power center should plan for others extends into corporate offices, national church bureaucracies, and social welfare agencies. The result is that corporate business leaders wonder why they are so low in the credibility polls, church leaders wonder why they are losing their jobs and why their budgets are shrinking, and social workers wonder why the poor don`t appreciate the plans that have been worked out for them.


3. Happiness consists of limitless material acquisition. This myth has several corollaries.

One is that consumption is inherently good -- a concept driven home effectively by the advertising industry. Another is that property, wealth, and power are more important than people. We need only consider the vast following for Ronald Reagan`s proposition that the Panama Canal is ours because we bought and paid for it to see how far this myth has made its way into our consciousness. We did, after all, pay for the Canal Zone. The fact that our control of the canal today results in depriving the people of Panama of their human rights is regrettable, but a deal is a deal. Or recall the riots during the late l960s. It was when looters started to take things from the stores that the police started to kill. Both human life and property may be sacred, but, in our media worldview, property rights are just a little more sacred.


4. Progress is an inherent good. At one level this myth is symbolized by the words "new and improved" attached every few years to every old product. But the myth goes much deeper. Lewis Mumford believes that the "premise underlying this whole age, its capitalist as well as its socialist development, has been `the doctrine of Progress.`" Progress, he writes, "was [like] a tractor that laid its own roadbed and left no permanent imprint of its own track, nor did it move toward an imaginable and humanly desirable destination." Rather, "the going is the goal" -- not because there is any inherent beauty of usefulness in going, but because to stop going, to stop wasting, to stop consuming more and more, to say at any given moment that "enough is enough" would spell immediate doom.13. This myth is essential to the support of The Technique`s value that "what works is good" and that what is important is the successful solving of problems, not the question of goals.


5. There exists a free-flow of information. Of course the whole import of this analysis is that instead of a genuine free-flow of information, there is consistent, pervasive, and effective propaganda and censorship, as we have defined them. Such a view is resisted most of all by the men and women who spend their careers reporting the news. But they are the very ones least able to judge the matter, for they were selected and trained by the system so that they could be depended upon to operate within its assumptions and myths. When was the last time you saw a long-haired, radical hippy anchoring the evening TV news? Although the example may seem bizarre, the point is not: radical, or even nonestablishment, points of view have almost no opportunity to find expression in mass television.

This is not to condemn newsmen and newswomen any more than others of us who function uncritically within the system year in and year out. When Walter Cronkite used to say, "And that`s the way it is," he was summing up the way we feel about the information our society wants and needs to hear every day.

What are the values that the mass media communicate to us on behalf of our culture? Power heads the list: power over others; power over nature. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, in today`s media world it is not so much that power corrupts as that the aura of power, its glamorous trappings, attracts.14. Close to power are the values of wealth and property, the idea that everything can be purchased and that consumption is an intrinsic good. The values of narcissism, of immediate gratification of wants, and of creature comforts follow close behind.

Thus the mass media worldview tells us that we are basically good, that happiness is the chief end of life, and that happiness consists in obtaining material goods. The media transform the value of sexuality into sex appeal, the value of self-respect into pride, the value of will-to-live into will-to- power. They exacerbate acquisitiveness into greed; they deal with insecurity by generating more insecurity, and anxiety by generating more anxiety. They change the value of recreation into competition and the value of rest into escape. And perhaps worst of all, the media constrict our experience and substitute media world for real world so that we become less and less able to make the fine value judgments that living in such a complex world requires.

Within society, the media are the obedient servants of the economic system. The high technology required for our current mass communication system, with its centralized control, its high profits, its capital-intensive nature, and its ability to reach every individual in the society immediately and economically, makes it perfectly suited for a massive production- consumption system that is equally centralized, profitable, and capital- intensive. In fact, our current production-consumption system in the United States simply could not exist without a communication system that trains people to be knowledgeable, efficient, and hard-working producers and consumers. The fact that the capitalist system tends to turn everything into a commodity is admirably suited to the propaganda system of the mass media which turns each member of the audience into a consumer.

In terms of the political system, the media, again reflecting the values held by society generally, give us politics by image, with politicians and their campaigns treated as products to be sold rather than as ideas to be understood. The whole media approach to the war in Vietnam was guided by the necessity of a superpower to create for itself an image that would convince the world -- and itself -- that it was number one, the mightiest power on earth (our most important value). The invasion of Grenada and the bombing of Libya were handled the same way to support the same value.

The media handling of Watergate is revealing in this regard. The public and the media were shocked not so much by what the president and his men did as by the fact that they got caught, publicly, in a way that could not be imaged away. And after Watergate we saw the immediate return to the old value system. Those indicted and convicted were overwhelmed with lucrative offers from publishers and television to tell their stories, thus once again driving home the point that our society demands "positive" images, including even more lies and fabrications, in order to mitigate the horror of the coverup, to rehabilitate the criminals in the American TV viewer`s eyes, and, above all, to help restore through imagery the public`s confidence in the political system.


The Christian Worldview

Christianity has its own worldview, its own vision of who people are and are not, of what they can and cannot do, and what is of value and what is not. The task of the Christian has always been to evaluate and understand the historical order in terms of the eternal order, to learn how to live within the present world and yet not be of it, to discern both the signs of the times and the signs of God`s kingdom. But to do this today requires understanding and evaluating the current media, and television in particular, from a Christian perspective. It requires theological analysis.

I am not overstating the case to say that theological analysis of media is one of the most important tasks of American Christians today. Individuals need to cultivate the ability to stand back and create aesthetic and intellectual "distance" between themselves and what they see on TV, and then, from a critical perspective informed by their own faith, look at what TV is doing and saying.

Unless we achieve and maintain this "distance," we easily become victims of our own ignorance and complacency. The world of television easily becomes our world. On the other hand, if people develop a stance of critical reflection, they can both clarify their own value system and search back to find the roots of their faith. This moving back and forth between faith and practice, between spirit and reality, between kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world, is precisely the calling of all who today consider themselves religious.

Theological analysis of this sort is not really so difficult. It is rooted in the Bible, in the history of the church, and in personal reflection. And it certainly is too important to be left to the professional theologians! What it requires is a reasonable amount of biblical literacy and a determination to be completely honest.

The place to begin is with the great themes of the Bible:


The creation story. The Old Testament begins with an affirmation of the goodness of God`s creation. Genesis affirms the value of human guidance and transformation of nature in harmony with the whole of creation, and it rejects our culture`s frequent affirmation of consumption and waste. Genesis also affirms the fundamental value of each human life, our essential equality as human beings, and our interrelatedness with nature, rather than television`s view that young, white, unmarried males are somehow given a position of power considerably "above" females, older people, and minorities.


The fall. The recognition that evil comes into the world through the self-centeredness of individuals is a strong corrective to television`s frequent appeals to narcissism, to self-glorification and instant gratification.


The covenant story. Reconciliation takes place after the fall, after alienation and pride and selfishness have separated humanity from God`s will. God blessing Abraham and his tribe affirms that God will be with all humanity if they worship the true God and not other less-than-God gods. This means that the worship of anything that is less than God -- possessions, power, beauty, success -- is a sin. Yet these are the very things glorified (worshipped?) in the world of television.


The kingdom of God. Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is within us, not something "out there." It is present in the spirit, waiting for women and men to testify to its presence and power in their lives. It also is present in hope for the future, in the expression of that to which we should strive in the face of seemingly impossible odds in the real world. Much of television, on the other hand, proposes a world without spirit, without hope - a world in which literally everything, and everyone, can be bought.


The servant and Savior. Jesus is both servant and Savior, who through his death and resurrection becomes the Lord of history, providing both reconciliation and hope to all in the future. This is a key image which guides both the Christian`s personal life and the church`s life. The television image is that consumption is the guide to both personal and corporate life.

A number of specific values emerge from this biblical view. Through Amos God calls for justice and righteousness (Amos 5:21-24). Through Micah he requires kindness and humility (Mic. 6:8). And through Isaiah he demands that we correct oppression (Isaiah 42-43).

Instead of television`s affirmation of wealth and possessions, Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell all that he has and to follow his way. He makes it clear that wealth has the same chance of entering the kingdom of God as a rope has of threading a needle (Luke 18:18-23).

As for television`s assumption that money can buy anything, Jesus tells the story of the wealthy man who decided to build a bigger barn, but then suddenly died, so Jesus asks, "What does a man gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self?" (Mark 8:36; The New English Bible, Oxford University Press, 1961).

In contrast to television`s affirmation of the ultimate value of creature comforts and self-gratification, Jesus affirms that if anyone wants to be a follower he must leave self-centeredness behind and follow him, which involves taking up the cross (Matt. 16:24).

In contrast to television`s worldview that we are basically good, that happiness is the chief end of life and that happiness consists of obtaining material goods, the Christian worldview holds that human beings are susceptible to the sin of pride and will-to-power, that the chief end of life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, and that happiness consists in creating the kingdom of God within one`s self and among one`s neighbors.


Communication as Incarnation

In addition to these biblical themes and values, the whole thrust of Christian theology is that God`s communication is incarnation. God is not an idea, an ideal, somebody "out there." We do not live in two worlds -- a "good" world and a "bad" world. God is with us. Whoever understands this understands the Almighty. Among other things, it means that we must learn to love the world we find ourselves in, and this includes television. But it also means that we live in hope that God will make right what is wrong in the world, and this also includes television. Incarnational theology has important implications for what television tries to teach us.

God`s revelation through real people and events signifies that genuine meaning must be related to the life histories of actual individuals. If actual individuals must be involved, then communication must be two-way, dialogic, because the only way to understand and to know other people is to listen more than to speak. Also, if life histories are involved, then communication must be a continuous process, rather than a single event. It must be open to input from both listener and speaker, and it must of necessity be full of the ambiguity and uncertainty that characterizes the human condition.

This kind of communication -- two-way, ambiguous, in-process -- stands in marked contrast to the "hypodermic needle" model that characterizes the communication of TV and most other mass media. To repeat what we have said earlier, commercial television simply is not designed to maximize communication. It is designed to maximize sales. It is structured to meet the needs of the sponsors, not the needs of the audience. Therefore, communication is one-way, and individuals in the audience are treated as things to be "influenced" in ways that have nothing to do with their needs or their life histories.

Clearly we find ourselves living in a society which through its most powerful medium communicates a set of values, assumptions, and worldview which are completely at odds with the religious values, assumptions and worldview professed by more than 70% of its citizens. The next question we must ask is how religion itself, and the Christian church in particular, has responded to this challenge? One of the most powerful and controversial responses of the last two decades has been that of the electronic church, and it is to this response that we now turn.



1. Sherwood Schwartz, "Send Help Before It`s Too Late" Parent`s Choice, Winter l984, p. 2.

2. cf. Jacques Ellul, Propaganda (New York: Knopf, l965).

3. James Petersen, "Eyes Have They, but They See Not:, A Conversation with Rudolf Arnheim," Psychology Today, June 1972, p. 55.

4. Abraham Moles, "A Skylight Open to the Neighbourhood," Intermedia, (International Broadcast Institute), February l976, p.6.

5. Michael R. Real, Mass-Mediated Culture (New York: Prentice- Hall, l977), p.6.

6. Stanley Kubrick, Cultural Information Service, January l975, p.12.

7. Cited from Advertising Age, 21 November l973, p. 7.

8. Real, Mass-Mediated Culture, p. 48.

9. Gregor T. Goethals, The TV Ritual: Worship at the Video Altar (Boston: Beacon l981).

10. Joseph L. Price, "The Super Bowl as Religious Festival," Christian Century, 22 February l984, pp. 190-191.

11. George Gerbner, address at International Communication Association, 21 April l972.

12. Joyce Sprafkin, "Stereotypes on Television", monograph from Media Action Resource Center, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10115, 1975.

13. George Gerbner and Larry P. Gross, Violence Profile No. 5 University of Pennsylvania, June l973.

14. Hannah Arendt, "Home to Roost: A Bicentennial Address," New York Review, 26 June l975, p. 3.



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