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 Seven: Strategies for Mainline Churches
To communicate the Gospel means putting it before the people
In Chapter 2 we saw how religious groups with differing theologies respond in different ways to the challenge of television. In Chapters 5 and 6 we considered the electronic church preachers who have adopted a "Christ of culture" response which uses the techniques of the world of the technological era, a world of means that values technique ("whatever works is good") over human values.
There is within the Christian tradition a response which rejects the accommodation of religion to the worldview of the media, but also refuses to reject the media altogether. It is a response which calls for a multiple relationship to the media, sometimes dealing with it as partner, occasionally as the enemy, often as antagonist, certainly always as one to be befriended wherever possible. This alternative can be discerned in both the Niebuhrian models of "Christ transforming culture" and "Christ and culture in paradox." It is a response of creative transformation.
Creative Transformation of the Mass Media
Creative transformation rejects both the "Christ against culture" and the "Christ of culture" stances, because the first entails renouncing all meaningful relationships with the world and the second uncritically embraces the world. The essence of the Christian ethic is to be in the world but not of it -- to recognize the vitality and goodness in the world while at the same time maintaining sufficient critical distance to seek its transformation or, in theological terms, its redemption from sin. Such a position deals both with the ultimate worth of individuals and the reality of sin in individuals and their institutions and political and economic structures. It understands that the kingdom of God is not something (or someplace) which we can expect to "bring in" at a particular time or place, but rather something both within our midst (Luke 17:22), and at the same time to be sought (Matt.6:33), to be seen (Mk. 9:1), to be entered into (Mk. 10:23).
This orientation means that a distinctly religious contribution to programming in television is one in which people are helped to grow toward a deeper and more mature understanding of themselves, their society, and their world. It rejects the message of the electronic church, because it proclaims that the old Shibboleths, the old authorities, and the old system in which people waited for the church to tell them what to do, are no longer valid and are indeed dangerous in our society. It implies helping men and women, in Bonhoeffer`s phrase, to come of age. At the same time, it means proclaiming that God commits to the poor, the downtrodden, the unfree, and that service in today`s world requires whatever is necessary to help humanize those who are denied a full human life.
Creative transformation approaches television at two levels. One level is programming, where the objective is to develop programs on TV which, within the very midst of TV`s expressions of secular worldview and power, nevertheless attempt to illuminate the human condition, to ask meaningful religious questions, to rediscover religious truths, and to find new religious vocabulary which can have meaning and power for multitudes of men and women today. The story-telling in our culture no longer takes place in the home but on television. Formal education with its logic and its categories is losing its audience to vivid stories told by the moving image. Fortunately, religious education has a long and rich tradition of story-telling, and a religious values and worldview can readily be communicated through the elements of song and dance, of biography and history, of narrative and drama.
Such productions may have very little success in "worldly" terms, that is, in relation to audience size, income for stations and networks, or the creation of national celebrities and media events which can be merchandized. The financial constraints of television as presently structured simply reject programming which is too costly, complicated, or disturbing.
Thus such programming must be thought of as a kind of subversive activity, seeking out points of vulnerability within the mass media`s powerful and virtually monolithic structure, and insinuating itself in ways that are sufficiently in line with the media`s own expectations that it will not be readily rejected. This subversive activity employs a kind of media jujitsu which turns the media`s own massive weight and ponderous structure to the advantage of small, poor, but creative and liberating programming.
For example, it is encouraging to recognize that there are literally hundreds of people within the mass-media industries who are frustrated with the limitations imposed upon them. Men and women in the secular media often are more sensitive to the needs and the issues of the world than are church leaders. Within limits, they can write and direct and produce programs which reflect their own consciences rather than the demands of the system. They are potential colleagues in our attempts at media jujitsu. And even where common ground cannot be found, our theology calls us to deal with the secular media as the place to which Christ sent his disciples. To date the churches have not been very successful at working in this area. Except for a brief period during the 1960`s when the United Methodist Church had an office in Hollywood, no denomination has maintained a ministry specifically for the media community. Christian evangelism must become considerably more sophisticated and creative in working with and encouraging the workers in the secular media, if it wishes significantly to effect their products.
A few examples of the moral jujitsu or subversive approach may help clarify what can be -- and is being -- done. For years the Paulist Fathers in Los Angeles have given the lucrative Humanitas Award -- a $25,000 prize for the best long-form scripts, $15,000 for one-hour scripts, $10,000 for half-hour scripts, $10,000 for those in the children`s category. Such substantial amounts encourage television writers, in effect, to spend more time than they could normally afford, in order to write a quality script. The simple fact is that it takes more time and effort to write a scene which deals sensitively with human beings than it does to write a scene describing a car chase. The Humanitas Award and others such as the National Council of Churches` annual Film Awards, the Christopher awards to productions "affirming the highest value of the human spirit," and the Southern Baptist Abe Lincoln Awards, encourage producers, directors, and writers to devote time to their craft which the media industry itself, because of its profit considerations, simply does not reward.
Another point of vulnerability in the system is the industry`s own defensiveness and sense of guilt which sometimes is expressed in management`s desire to produce a few quality programs even at the expense of achieving maximum profits, in order to project a "quality" or public-service image to the populace. Many stations, groups or networks regularly purchase expensive full-page ads in Broadcasting magazine, the industry`s Bible, in order to trumpet the most trivial award. Broadcasters even create their own spots to tell the public how public-minded they are. In an industry making such large profits by using a public resource, the industry`s attempts to prove how public-spirited they are provide excellent leverage for moral jujitsu on the part of public-interest groups, including the churches.
Another example is the programs which all three commercial networks have provided to the major faith groups since the beginning of television, based on their historical commitment to providing an opportunity for religious expression in the society. Unfortunately, these programs have never had the real funding and promotion they deserved, again because of the commercial base of the networks. Nevertheless, they have garnered considerable audiences. During the 12 year period from l970 to l981, the NBC-TV series of religious specials had an average Nielsen rating of 2.31 or an average audience of slightly more than 3 million persons for each program. This is an impressive audience, considering the fact that the programs were never shown at prime time but only on Sunday afternoons, were preempted or abruptly moved when sports programs took precedence, were rarely advertised, and were shown on only about one-half of the NBC stations. While the networks want to be seen and known to have religious programs on the air, their economic demands can not allow such programs to become competitive to their profit-making shows.
The faith-group programs, representing Protestant, Catholics, and Jews, have consistently provided documentaries, dramas, and discussions which dealt with issues almost never touched by commercial broadcasting: the economic factors behind nuclear armaments; the issues behind draft evasion (during the Vietnam War); the real causes of worldwide starvation; and the problems of people who are ignored almost completely by the media, such as the aging who cannot live on their pensions, unwed mothers, farm workers who have no homes, undocumented aliens whom we wish to employ but not pay, and refugees we are sending back to certain death in their own countries. Such programs as these have brought to the American people ethical questions about American support of repressive regimes in the Philippines, South Korea, Chile, and South Africa, long before they became "news" to the commercial media.
These programs have been produced by the networks for a variety of reasons. The FCC has occasionally raised an eyebrow in the direction of network public-service accountability, although beginning in 1980 support from that direction almost ceased. The press sometimes raises questions about the broadcasters` program quality and public-service, and from time to time has praised a particular network program. The leadership of the churches has maintained a modest presence, and the network executives have preferred to avoid a confrontation with such a large institution in society. Also, within the networks themselves, dedicated staff in the religion departments have fought valiantly for the survival and the quality of their programs.
Another example of creative subversion occurs where local church groups are able to get a religious perspective on the news originating from their local stations. Unfortunately, what most stations understand as "religious news" is limited to what is being discussed about institutional religion in the national news at the moment -- abortion, politicized ministers, and so on -- rather than a discussion of all the news from various religious perspectives. Nevertheless, a number of local councils of churches and other broad-based religious groups have managed to get a significant airing of news from a religious perspective on their local stations. For example, a TV station in San Antonio asked a local Episcopal clergy to provide, each Saturday on the evening news, a religious perspective on some event during the preceding week. The objective of this approach is not to present the religious view on a particular subject, but to generate public discussion and debate about significant issues of the day from many different religious perspectives and viewpoints.
The second level of relationship to television occurs where religious groups work toward reform of the media, dealing with the political and social institutions as well, to bring about conditions which allow the media to achieve their highest potential. The objective here is to humanize the structures which govern the mass 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 media must be counterbalanced by other kinds of power which express the concerns of citizens for the general welfare.
Meeting this objective requires generating countervailing power, which usually takes one of two forms: political and economic. The political approach was used in the struggles of public-interest groups, with church organizations in the lead, to achieve media reform during the l960s and 1970s. In many cases these struggles were successful. Laws or regulations were established which set the rules by which the entire media industry had to abide.
For example, as the result of law suits instituted by public-interest groups, the courts held that whenever broadcasters present a particular point of view on a matter of public importance, they also must provide opportunities for opposing viewpoints to be presented. This "Fairness Doctrine" has become the foundation of free speech on radio and television, and it has prevented many of the more blatant attempts by some broadcasters to use the public airwaves as nothing more than a sounding board for their own special views and interests. Political action requires considerable expertise on the part of church groups. It also requires money and time. But in the complex society in which we live, such intervention often is the only way for citizens to make their moral and ethical concerns matter.
The economic approach is even more complex and difficult, but it is also even more fundamental. As long as economic gain is the sole consideration among broadcasters, we cannot expect to have television which approaches communication in terms of meeting the needs of the citizens for information and expression. Changes in the present system are possible, although they are exceedingly difficult because of the political power wielded by the broadcasting industry itself. For example, one of the central economic factors encouraging the excessive power of broadcasters is the tax structure which allow businesses to write off advertising as a business expenditure. This single provision in effect subsidizes the media industries by hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Also, while the broadcast industry is provided with a government-protected monopoly over the use of a particular frequency, it is taxed as if it were an ordinary business, subject to all of the risks other businesses face through genuine competition. If citizen action could reform the tax laws so that broadcasters would be required to pay a reasonable and modest fee for their licenses, the livense revenues could provide a well-funded public broadcasting system, and citizens would begin to benefit from the special advantages they have accorded the broadcasters.
Another kind of economic intervention can come through direct citizen action. Since the advertising base is the foundation on which television is based, citizen action directed toward the advertiser tends to have considerable leverage.
For example, stockholder action is a strategy in which owners of stock in a company which advertises on TV seek to get the company to adopt a policy not to place advertising on violent programs. Or the action could be directed at instructing company officers to support public broadcasting or a particular kind of children`s program. Such action is consistent with the free enterprise system from which the broadcasters derive their profits. If corporations profit from what people decide to buy, and if they adjust their production and advertising policies according to buyers` preferences and the interests of stockholders, then they also are amenable to what the public refuses to buy or what their stockholders establish as policy, and should be expected to adjust their production and advertising plans to take into account buyer and stockholder preferences.
This dual approach to the mass media -- production and reform, cooperation and citizen action -- exemplifies the concept of creative transformation. It recognizes the ambiguities and paradoxical nature of the church`s role within a system that is 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 principles of freedom and justice is a mandate that cannot be avoided, and that -- potentially -- action based on these liberating principles can indeed transform structures built upon human selfishness.
Using Television as Preparation for the Gospel
H. Richard Niebuhr described the nature of the church and the world in words which have remarkable relevance to the current situation facing religion in its uneasy and ambivalent relationship to the world of television:
The Church lives and defines itself in action vis-a-vis the world. World, however, is not object of Church as God is. World, rather, is companion of the Church, a community something like itself with which it lives before God. . . .
The world is the community of those before God who feel rejected by God and reject him; again, it is the community of those who do not know God and seem not to be known by him; or, it is the community of those who, knowing God, do not worship him. In all cases it is the community to which the Church addresses itself with the gospel, to which it gives an account of what it has seen and heard in divine revelation, which it invites the world to come and see and hear.
The world is the community to which Christ comes and to which he sends his disciples. On the other hand, the world is the community of those who are occupied with temporal things. When, in its sense of rejection, it is preoccupied with these temporal matters it is the world of idolatry and becomes foe of the Church. When it is occupied with them as gifts of God -- whether or not the consciousness of grace becomes explicit -- it is the partner of the Church, doing what the Church, concerned with the nontemporal, cannot do; knowing what Church as such cannot know.1.
One implication of this complex and dynamic relationship is that the message of the gospel cannot today be a direct proclamation of religious truths as they are given in the Bible and in Christian tradition. The thoughtful person today has profound doubts precisely about the authority of the Bible, the Christian tradition, and the church itself. For these reasons, if we were asked whether TV can be "used for mission" today, the answer would be "no." But at another level, if we were asked whether TV can be expected to confront people with serious religious questions, the answer would be "yes." TV -- commercial, not "religious" TV -- can confront a President with Watergate, confront Congress with Nicaragua, confront the nation with South Africa. TV can sensitize, enlarge our vision, make us aware, ask the moral questions -- and doing this is a form of mission.
But because of television`s inherent characteristics as a mass medium -- one-way, resistant to feedback, incapable of dialog -- and its acquired social characteristic as society`s sales agent -- simplistic, gratifying, trivial -- it is best suited to the role of preparation for the gospel, or pre-evangelism. This means we cannot expect it to be the gospel, but we can expect it to help prepare people to ask the right questions, to understand more fully who they are, and to accept the Christian worldview.
Preparation for the gospel involves three steps. First it requires us to find and describe what Tillich called the "boundary situations," that is, those points where modern men and women reach the limits of their human existence, where they sense they are alienated from society and other people, or feel a lack of personal meaning, or fear being useless and having no worth.2. These symptoms are described by psychologists as the root of the disorientation many people face today in their lives, although people manage to cover over and obscure them as a part of their elaborate defense mechanisms. The first task of authentic Christian communication is to help people face the reality of these self-doubts and to enable them to ask serious questions about the meaning of their existence.
Paulo Friere`s applied this concept to basic education. His approach seeks first of all to get people to accept the fact that something is wrong. Friere was successful in reaching the peasants of Latin America because he insisted that, first of all, they explore what is wrong in their lives and why they tolerate it. When people are able to examine those "boundaries" which they had always accepted without question, they are then both motivated and equipped to move on to anlysis and action.3.
The second step is then possible -- to affirm those men and women who have been able to take these "boundary-situations" seriously, facing them and dealing with them creatively and with faith. It is only when people are able to face the fact that they have no permanent, guaranteed security that the claim of the gospel can be made -- and our communication must state this unequivocally. As Tillich says, "Protestantism must proclaim the judgment that brings assurance by depriving us of all security; the judgment that declares us whole in the disintegration and cleavage of soul and community; the judgment that affirms our having truth in the very absence of truth; the judgment that reveals the meaning of our life in the situation in which all the meaning of life has disappeared."4.
On television, affirmation can come through the news (Selma, Manila, South Africa), through biography (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, C.S. Lewis,), through drama ("A Man For All Seasons," "Who`s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?" "The Burning Bed"), or through documentaries (Dr. Kubler-Ross on children facing death, the sanctuary movement, anti-nuclear protests, Archbishop Tutu). The purpose of all of these religious messages is to make the spiritual assertion that our lives are devoid of security, truth, and meaning unless and until we become a part of God -- in other words, until we become part of that which is really real.
Third, Christian communication must finally witness to the power of the Christian faith in Jesus Christ. This means witnessing that the Christian faith is effective both in the lives of individuals and in the life of the total community. Christian communication needs to find its rootage, its raw stuff, from within the experiences of daily life, and then attempt to show in what way this ordinary, day-by-day existence has ultimate meaning. Again, Tillich suggests the way:
It is not so important to produce new liturgies as it is to penetrate into the depths of what happens day by day, in labor and industry, in marriage and friendship, in social regions and recreation, in meditation and tranquility, in the unconscious and the conscious life. To elevate all this into the light of the eternal is the great task of (church communication), and not to reshape a tradition traditionally.5.
On television this is best done by telling stories -- stories which reveal what the gospel means for Christians (rather than for "everyone"). These stories should be "models of hope," that is, examples of real people and their real responses in faith to the challenges to meaning and worth in their lives. They become particularly revelatory when they tell the story of someone and what the gospel means to that person.
To repeat, this communication, as creative and as relevant as we hope it may be, cannot actually give people the gospel. It can only prepare people to receive the gospel. It can prepare people by exposing them to the ultimate questions about what is "really real", and by giving them insights which will help them live in their daily lives in such a way that those lives will have meaning, truth, and security.
But if television can only help people ask the right questions, where do people go to find the right answers? Once again we return to the place where people come face-to-face with other people who have the same questions, who have been working on the answers, who have discovered answers only to lose them and who need to rediscover them once again. We return to the church.
It is within the environment of the church that people can discover and rediscover the answers, where they can assist others to do so, where they can together celebrate the fact that these answers make sense to them. The function of the the mass media is to become a sign, as it were, an arrow pointing in the direction of the church. This signing is important, because often people do not know that they have lost their way, or, if they know, they do not know where to find the way again. The Christian message in the mass media is that "We are all lost, and here is where you can find the way."
When we work at this creative programming in the media, we must do it in ways that are particular rather than universal, specific rather than general, real rather than ideal, and personal-in-the-mass rather than mass-appealing. It is important to remember that there literally is no such thing as a mass audience; there are only ways of looking at individuals in the mass. When mass communication is employed in the sense we are talking about here, there is no mass; there are only massive numbers of individuals. And it is to these individuals -- as individuals, or perhaps small groups of two or three - that we speak.
Therefore, our communication must tell what the gospel means for Christians rather than what it means for all men and women, everywhere, for all time. We must tell what we -- or, really, what I -- think it means for me, and can mean for you. It pursues its inquiry by recalling the story of the Christian life and by analyzing what Christians see from their point of view of history and of faith. Russ Reid, a Christian deeply involved in media, puts it this way:
You see, when I say "Christ is the answer" I really don`t have to own that. I can say it, but it doesn`t say anything about what Christ has done for me. And it doesn`t really tell you how He`s the answer, because if you are intelligent at all, you`ll say, Well, what is the question? The only way you can communicate what Jesus Christ can do in a man`s life is by saying "once I was blind, now I see." Now, there is something that happened to me, and others can identify with that.6.
To repeat, commercial television by its very nature and structure tends to reject most -- though not all -- of this kind of programming, which means that the church`s involvement in the mass media is necessarily limited both by the natural strictures of the medium itself and by the artificially imposed rejection of the message which is inherent in its a profit-motivated structure. Rather than debase the essential gospel message to the point of caricature, the option for the church is to continue to be the church so that its message will remain clear and distinctive, and to use the mass media where it can (including the subversive and jujitsu approaches). But Christians ought not feel that they have to "be on television" simply because television is a powerful communication environment, any more than Christians felt they had to be cheering in the stands of the Circus Maximus during Caesar`s day simply because it was where the rich and powerful were in the first century.
There is one additional production strategy for mainline churches -- to employ the newer "narrowcast" media for religious education and the encouragement of the faithful already in the church.
The local church has far greater opportunity to use the new communication media to reach relatively small, segmented, and specialized audiences than it has to use truly mass media which have such inherent bias against its message. The narrowcast media include cable TV, videocassettes, videodiscs, local point-to-point broadcasting, low-power TV stations, subcarrier frequencies of FM radio and TV, and direct mail. These media are relatively efficient and effective, and while they are limited in their scope, they permit the churches to use them in ways which are in keeping with religious values rather than simply meeting the utilitarian demands of the new technology.
A significant opportunity awaits those churches which develop a cooperative plan to provide educational materials on these narrowcast media. For example, a master teacher can help every fourth grade volunteer church-school teacher in the entire community, each week, as they prepare their teaching lesson. And, via satellite, this same service could be made available nationwide for almost the same cost as in a single community. However, this kind of media usage requires both local and national churches to cooperate in their religious education programs to a degree they have not yet been willing to do. For churches to use media nationwide on a truly cost-effective basis, they must become "denomination-blind" to an extent not yet manifest. One value of the mass media in the society is that they may force churches to recognize that they have much more in common than they think. Cooperation in the use of media can be a valuable start in engendering true ecumenism.
The potential for using narrowcast media for education in the churches is large, and to date almost completely unexplored. Courses for ministers and lay leaders in Bible study, church history, Christian doctrine, ethics, and other subjects, are simply awaiting the creativity of the right seminary or school of religion to develop them. Until now only the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board has pioneered in providing their church schools with materials via a leased satellite which feeds local cable systems throughout the country, and, in some cases, is picked up directly by local churches.
Cable is an excellent way to provide very low cost, simple production coverage of worship services for the elderly, the shut-ins, the hospital patients, and people who are "shopping" for a church. Hundreds of churches have found they can purchase a line to their local cable head-end and, with almost no equipment other than a single camera, feed the morning worship service over their local cable channel. Often this can be done without charge. If the local cable company is not cooperative, a consortium of churches should seek to get the city to require at least some "public access," and this should be done at the time of the cable company`s franchise renewal. Unfortunately, the FCC`s deregulation of cable has made it increasingly difficult for community groups to secure access to their local channels.
The objective of local cable programming should be to provide a service to those not otherwise able to attend church. The objective ought not to be "broadcasting" the church to the community. Once a church becomes engaged in competition with commercial channels for audience it immediately becomes caught up in high costs, slick production, and the need to please an audience "out there." While there is a place for high quality worship services broadcast on true mass media, such programs require a great amount of careful planning and considerable cost, and are tailored to meeting the need for a kind of national worship experience in which those not in church can participate. Such programs as "The National Radio Pulpit" and "The Protestant Hour" on radio, and Robert Schuller`s "Hour of Power" on television are purposely designed to reach a national audience with a worship experience. A local church is in competition with these national programs and the whole panoply of secular programming when it attempts to "broadcast" to a "mass" audience. Unless the church is prepared to engage in a costly, massive, and time consuming activity, it should limit its TV ministry to reaching church members not able to attend the worship service, and cable is a cost effective way to do this.
Several alternative media can achieve the same objective, but at additional cost. Videocassettes can be made of the worship service and taken to individuals in their homes, hospitals, nursing facilities, and so on. The program can be placed on a low-power television station, if one is available in their viewing area, or point-to-point broadcast services can be purchased for feeding to hospitals and other institutions. Some local public broadcasting stations have a low-cost "broadcast" to points which have special antennas, and they might make this available as a public-service. Also, a simple audiotape recorder can be used to tape the service, with church visitors taking the "service" with them to shut-ins. Finally, some FM stations make available their subcarrier to public groups, for broadcast tapes of the worship service or other program especially designed for the shut-in.
Direct mail is a medium which the mainline churches have ignored at their peril. The slick and cynical "personalized" mail of the electronic church has tended to discourage others from using the technique. However, direct mail, using computer technology, has great potential for allowing local churches to reach parishioners who have special interests in missions, or religious education, or evangelism, or a Bible-study course. Computers are assisting many churches in handling their mailing lists and in compiling lists of small interest groups which can be given resources from a national base.
Computers, while not a narrowcast medium, strictly speaking, nevertheless must be considered by local churches for use as a helpful tool in allowing special interests groups to aggregate around topics of interest, for news and information, and for financial accounting and transfer. Already there are numerous experimental computer networks within various denominations, including Presbynet, UMCOMM Teletalk, the UCChristNet, the Lutheran RELIGION-ONLINE, and the United Church of Canada`s UCHUG (United CHurch`s User`s Group).
The purpose of narrowcasting is to create and to maintain community within cities and towns but also within the local churches themselves. The rebuilding of community is essential in a time of media-induced isolation and fragmentation, and in this effort the churches will of necessity find common cause with other community agencies.
For example, local point-to-point communication is beginning to develop as a communication tool for maintaining local community. At least one public broadcasting station, WITF-TV in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, maintains a community-development process which helps people throughout the area to discuss issues of common interest, and, in effect, to re-create community. This station has put together a consortium of businesses, schools and colleges, churches, hospitals, and community agencies, which already is helping reeducate people when they are displaced by "technology," finding them find new jobs, training leaders in the areas of community services, and facilitating the discussion of common community projects. The objective is to humanize the community. The churches have a similar objective, and they should be leading the way in the innovation of such community development programs which can involve both the mass media and the narrowcast media.
Fred Friendly, originator and producer of Edward R. Murrow`s See It Now and a former president of CBS News, once said: "We live today in a world today where its what you don`t know that can kill you."7.
More people depend on television than any other medium for their news and information about what is going on in the world. And television has become our prime story-teller, the creator of the images and narratives which, taken altogether, provide us with a worldview which seriously competes with the real world of direct experience. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly critical what we decide to pay attention to.
One of the new facts of our time is the enormous information overload. Thousands of persons devote their entire professional lives simply to getting our attention, inventing shorter TV spots, more urgent-looking direct mail, songs with built-in commercials, movies with built-in songs, and TV graphics that move, turn, and dance. And for every new trick devised to get us to look, we develop new internal mechanisms to switch off the overload in order to protect our sanity. But in learning to tune out the intrusive and the blatant, we tend at the same time to ignore some of the still small voices, those hints and nuances of news and relationships and information that can tell us what really is going on. Thus our defenses threaten to make us insensitive. Learning what to pay attention to has become essential not only to survival but also to human growth and nurture.
For these reasons, media education is now an essential tool. It now must become central to the curriculum in our kindergartens, schools and colleges, if we hope to live in a society where the average citizens can cope with the barrage of images which daily comes into their lives, and where what they do know will help them survive.
In the churches, a major role of the Christian educator (and that includes the minister and lay teacher), is to help people understand what the media are really saying and doing to them - and how they can avoid being taken in by its worldview. The churches must plan systematically to expose every parishoner to the biases and distorted values systems of our culture in the light of the prophetic visions of the Old Testament and the harsh demands of the New.
Some successful first steps already are in place. The Television Awareness Training program, pioneered by the Media Action Research Center in New York City, and funded by a coalition of Protestant denominations, has certified hundreds of trainers across the nation over the past decade. An interdenominational curriculum series, called "Growing With Television," also is available from the half-dozen Protestant publishing houses which helped print it. This thirteen-week unit has separate curriculum for early and late primaries, junior and senior highs, and adults.
However, church leaders, both nationally and locally, still tend to view television as if it were merely an entertaining diversion which sometimes keeps people away from their churches, rather than as an alternative religion which is wooing people into a whole new way of thinking about, and living in, our world. Real media education will not become effective in the churches until it has penetrated the thinking of every theologian, pastor and parishoner -- and this calls for a change in orientation in every theological school.
Media education does not stop at the teaching of visual grammar and an analysis of imagery, although these are fundamental. Media education also needs to help people ask key questions about the way television functions as an institution in society. How do the media change the ways we think, make decisions, vote, spend money, treat others? How can we reform the media so that they will meet the genuine human needs of the society? The answer to these questions can be understood more clearly if we investigate three of the most significant ethical issues involving television: violence; censorship and regulation; and the international implications of American media policies. It is to these issues that we now turn.
1. Niebuhr, H. Richard, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry (New York: Harper, l956), p. 26.
2. Tillich, Paul. The Protestant Era (Chicago: University of Chicago, l948).
3. Paulo Freire, The Politics of Education: Culture, Power, and Liberation (South Hadley, MA:: Bergin and Gervey, l985).
4. Tillich, The Protestant Era, p. 204.
5. Ibid., p. 219.
6. Reed, Russ. "The Church and the Media: A Strategy for Outreach," in Church Growth: America, March-April, l978.
7. Fred Friendly, in a speech delivered to the International Radio and Television Society, New York, NY, 1967.