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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 Twelve: Signs of Hope

Christians are not those who are being saved out of the world but those who know that the world is being saved.
H. Richard Niebuhr

We have come a long way in understanding television during the last 30 years. In 1960, Joseph T. Klapper, then the acknowledged leader in television research, solemnly declared "it has been pretty well demonstrated that the mass media do not serve as the primary determinant or even as a very important determinant of any of the basic attitudes or the basic behavior patterns of either children or adults.1.

But now we know that the advertisers were right when they bet that television does have a powerful influence on the attitudes and behavior, and that TV`s cumulative effect as the cultivator of society is yet to be completely assessed.

We know that while consumers are strongly attracted to "free TV," they also spend an enormous sum supporting it, through the purchase of their TV sets, the cost of electricity, and the add-on costs to every item they purchase which is advertised, not to mention the lost revenue in tax-deductible billions spent by advertisers.

We know that television entertains us, a companion ever ready with the escape and fantasy we sometimes need, but also that it cultivates a mean world full of violence, that its values and stories demean and dehumanize us, and that its religious impact is the very antithesis of the Christian faith in which most people in our society profess to believe.

We know that television informs us, a genuine window on the world, but also that its commercial demand for profit severely limits the amount of diversity of opinion that is aired, that it tends to trivialize issues and to represent the views of the rich, so that through TV the average citizen simply cannot get the information needed to make intelligent decisions about living in our democracy.

We know that television moves our goods and is the backbone of our mass production and marketing system, but also that the system works at the expense of truth and justice both in America and around the world, that it is being used to expand and maintain cultural and economic domination over much of the Third World, and that it is enormously wasteful of both natural and human resources.

And during this same period, we have come to recognize that the traditional forms of church communication are playing a very minor and peripheral role in the total communication mix of the society, and that even within the churches communication is badly flawed. The Sunday sermon is a one-way form of communication which confronts a highly self-selective audience with a style no longer in use anywhere else in the culture. The church school depends on nonprofessional volunteers, is presumptuous in its schedule and miniscule in its effect, while at the same time prodigiously wasteful of expensive classroom space which often lies unused 99% of the time. And the actions of national church bodies belie seriousness, pretending action while only issuing pronouncements which are systematically ignored by the churches, the press, and society.

What Can We Do?

The solution that is put forward by some religious leaders is that the church should become much more actively involved in the media of our time. They cite the change in communication technology during the 15th century, when the invention of printing vastly increased the distribution of the Scriptures, and acted as a catylist for major reformation in the church. Now, they say, we have had another media revolution -- television has taken over as the primary communication locus in society -- and once again the church must come aboard and reinterpret the tradition of the Christian religion, this time in television, the medium of the age.

The printing press indeed changed the culture`s perception of how to deal with religious experience. Religion became much more amenable to linear analysis, to objectification as something on a printed page, to doctrines and heresies and bureaucratization. And it is true that the communications revolution we are passing through is fully as radical as that of the 15th century.

But television is likely to do for religious experience today something quite different from what the invention of printing did for it five hundred years ago. There is an intrinsic connection between the medium and the message, between the "how" and the "what" of religious communication. The cultural effect of inexpensive duplication of words on a page is wholly different from the cultural effect of inexpensive transmission of the moving image by electricity.

William Kuhns has put today`s problem very clearly: "The entertainment milieu has transformed the ways in which we believe and are capable of believing. An absolute kind of belief, as well as a belief in absolutes, becomes increasingly difficult as the entertainment milieu trains people to believe tentatively and with elasticity.2. Kuhns understands that "the very concept of faith -- to believe in that which you cannot see and cannot understand -- comes with difficulty to a generation which has depended, as perhaps no generation before, on its senses."3. Avery Dulles presses this point further by asking whether, if faith depends on hearing, as it did for those of the first-century church, faith is still possible for those whose psyche has been predominantly formed by the image industries.4.

Also, in this book I have held that television is not simply a technology but an entire system involving an economic philosophy, a political structure, and strong cultural interconnections. There is no way we can separate the media`s technological possibilities from its economic-political-cultural realities. I have shown how this system called television is remarkably fashioned to resist change by effectively distributing responsibility so that, in the end, no one is in charge, no one is responsible, there is no central point from which changes can be made. At the same time, I have maintained that everyone shares some of the responsibility for what we make of television -- since it exists through our support and it resonates our values -- and that therefore effective change will require a modification of the entire cultural system of which we are a part.

For these reasons, television cannot be considered simply a "resource" which Christians, in an exercise of good stewardship, can use to "advance the kingdom". Television is an amalgam of technology, power, and values which is far too resistant to being "used" by any ideology other than the ideology which formed it and which it is designed to maintain: the technological era. The system we call television is the utilitarian value system of "what works is good" -- a system that values the ends of effectiveness and efficiency at the expense of human ends.

To engage with such a powerful system in ways other than what I have called creative transformation strategies and through media reform, is doomed to be capitulation, not communication. In fact, the attempt to use television uncritically is a prime example of what Frederick Ferre has called our "technolatry," the belief that "every apparent evil brought on by technique is to be countered by yet greater faith in technique."

Television already has succeeded in transforming most cultural institutions and activities to meet its own needs and to fit its own imagery. Sports, education, entertainment, politics -- all have become subservient to the demands of television, rather than the other way around. If religion attempts uncritically to "use" television and thus partake of its vast power, it too will become co-opted and transformed to meet the needs and imagery of television.

The electronic church is the obvious example of where this co-optation already has taken place. Unfortunately, a number of mainline denominations persist in trying to mimic these electronic evangelists, in their objectives if not their precise techniques. They continue to experiment with high-budget TV specials, with the purchase of television stations or satellite transponders, with the development of cable networks -- all aimed at reaching mass audiences with "the gospel message." But they expect too much from the mass media and not enough from the church. Communication leaders in the mainline churches would be much more faithful to the demands of the gospel if they were to accept the limitations of the mass media, and then help other church leaders devise a total communication strategy for the churches in which mass media took its rightful place alongside worship services, group processes, retreats, occasions for fellowship, service, education and mission -- in other words, as a part of the whole life and witness of the church.

Understanding communication -- its process, its power, and in particular its manifestations in the mass media -- demands changes in the church. It requires it to consider wholly new types of ministries, new languages and images, rethinking the place of the pulpit, inventing new forms of worship, the redefinition of jobs and the reassignment of personnel. To treat communication in the church as if it were public relations is both faulty theology and inept administration.

Seminaries, especially, need to devote much more attention to the task of working out what it means to proclaim the skandalon of the gospel to a generation which has no background knowledge of the gospel, how to create community in a society where the old forms of community have become fragmented and dysfunctional, and how to communicate within a culture where the mass media have devalued genuine communication in the name of communication.

The church has depended for too long on ineffective modes of communication. In its accommodation to the print medium it has become dependent upon logical, analytical, deductive, and abstract modes of thinking. It has tended to confuse words with action, verbal solutions with real solutions, and sermons preached with sermons heard. If Christianity is essentially a faith to be shared, and if the Christian churches takes seriously the possibilties of using what we know about the process of communication, then its task is to establish environments which allow people to communicate with each other, with their own leaders, and with the world. These environments do not exclude the mass media, but neither do they depend upon them. The essence of these environment is that they be interpersonal, interactive, and involving. In the words of Avery Dulles, "the most effective way for the Church to teach, in our day, is more by being and doing than by defining and commanding."5.

But television is neither interpersonal, interactive, nor involving. Therefore, what I am proposing is not that society do away with television, but rather that people be enabled to take it or leave it. People must be able to understand the power of television sufficiently so they can use it when they desire escape, relaxation, information, entertainment -- which are perfectly legitimate human needs -- but not be used by it.

This is the chief value of developing a critical attitude toward television viewing: in the process of viewing, discussing, evaluating, and just plain leaving it alone, we become something which television itself does not encourage. We become active participants rather than passive receivers. We begin to raise questions about the "given" world of television. Through a change in our attitude toward television, we can turn a closed, one-way system into a two-way process through group discussion and action, and through response to stations and producers. And if we apply our worldview, or, for Christians, our theological and biblical criteria, in a reasonably rigorous way, we can free ourselves from the tyranny of the television tube.

What Kind of Society Do We Want?

As we consider how to deal with the world of television, a basic question becomes, What kind of society do we really want? Robert Bellah has argued that this question remains largely unanswered in America today, because for two centuries we have kept in tension two contrasting views of society. One view is that we are a republic, a nation characterized by public participation in the exercise of power, political equality of its citizens, a wide distribution of property with few very rich or very poor, customs of public-spirited involvement, and a willingness of citizens to sacrifice their own interests for the common good.

The other view is that we are a liberal constitutional regime in which the good society results from the action of citizens following their own self-interests, organized through the proper mechanisms that balance these conflicting interests, with the state operating only as caretaker, a referee maintaining public order and allowing the economic market-mechanisms and the free market in ideas to produce wealth and happiness.

The first view emphasizes the public, communal life; the second the private, individualistic life. Both views are embedded in our national history -- the republican view more in the Declaration of Independence, where Jefferson in its opening lines refers to "the laws of nature and of nature`s God" that stand above and judge the laws of men; and the liberal view more in the Constitution, where there is no reference to God at all, and the emphasis is upon the balancing of powers.6.

Since liberalism is dominant in the Constitution, where did the nation get its sense of value and purpose? It got it from religion, first during the Great Awakening of the l740s, when religious revivalism inspired the sense of national community which made possible the formation of a new nation, and later in what Bellah calls "public theology," with its theme that Americans are the "chosen people." This public theology, contained in most speeches of the founders, had no legal status, but without it the national community could not have survived. Said John Adams during his first year as vice-president: "Our constitution was made only for a moral and a religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."7. Madison stated in l785: "Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe. . .." And George Washington affirmed in his farewell address: "Of all the suppositions and habits which lead to political prosperity Religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and cherish them."8.

In the l830s Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the schools for republican virtue in America were not the schools and universities, but the churches. More than the laws or the physical circumstances of the country, said Tocqueville, it was the mores that contributed to the success of the American democracy, and the mores were rooted in religion. Tocqueville saw that naked self-interest was certain to destroy the republic, and that religion could be the great restraining element to turn self-interest into public-spirited sacrifice for the general welfare.9. During the last two decades Bellah has analyzed the current national values and mores and finds them moving away from the republican ideal of the public welfare and toward the liberal ideal of individual self-interest. As a sociologist, he sees "the balance of American religious life slipping away from those denominations that have a historic concern for the common good toward religious groups so privatistic and self-centered that they begin to approach the consumer cafeteria model . . ." 10. He asks whether it is possible for America to survive as a republic, or whether the republican ideal has been eroded beyond repair. And, if this latter is the case, then he believes that one or another kind of authoritarian regime is likely to replace the traditions both of republicanism and of liberal constitutionalism.

Bellah`s analysis of our national foundations is important, because just as it was the function of religion in the early days of the republic to provide the moral vision which gave the nation its cohesion and impetus, so now that role is increasingly being assumed by television. The difference is ominous. One is rooted in the lives of individuals in the context of a worshiping community, the other in an economic system interested only in profits, with a technology interested only in results. The one is committed to community and the ideal of self-sacrifice for the greater good of the commonweal, the other is committed to utilitarianism and to the development of technology for the purpose of instantly gratifying the needs of the individual.

In the biblical tradition, the key word for understanding individual motivation is "conscience." In the utilitarian tradition the key word is "self-interest." It is both significant and distressing that the most visible attempt to harmonize these two conflicting traditions today is the electronic church, which corrupts the biblical tradition by offering a bible-based rhetoric that obscures its real message of utilitarian individualism. This private pietism, emphasizing individual rewards and at the expense of social responsibility, extends from Norman Vincent Peal in the mid-twentieth century, to Reverend Ike, Jim Bakker and Robert Schuller today. It is acutely painful to biblical religion today, because many people, seeking a way to express their conscience in society, are led to reject any "religious" expression of it, because they identify these corruptions of the biblical tradition with all religious expression.

We cannot have it both ways. Until now our country has managed to hold both liberal constitutionalism and the republican ideal in an uneasy balance, in part because the contribution of religion has been so strong. But today organized religion is losing its cultural influence to the multiple threats posed by the technological era and especially to its embodiment in commercial television. With television commanding more of people`s time than any activity other than work and sleep, and with its instantly accessible, enormously appealing alternate worldview, biblical religion and its worldview is losing the battle for the soul of the nation.

What is required is much more serious attention to the role of television, and at the same time a revitalization of the role of religion in American life. The only way we are going to deal effectively with television is by refusing to accept it as a given, and to place it into proper perspective. But unless we have a way of standing outside the world of television, the TV world will become so entrenched as to render us powerless to do anything about it. Such a standing outside requires a religious perspective.

Several commentators on American religion have pointed out that American Protestantism is divided into two camps. In the l960s Martin Marty called it the "two-party system" of conflicting ideologies:

One party, which may be called "Private" Protestantism, seized that name "evangelical" which had characterized all Protestants early in the nineteenth century. It accentuated individual salvation out of the world, personal moral life congruent with the ideals of the saved, and fulfillment or its absence in the rewards or punishments in another world in a life to come. The second informal group, which can be called "Public" Protestantism, was public insofar as it was more exposed to the social order and the social destinies of men.11.

A decade later, a study of Episcopal churches by Wade Clark Roof showed that church people tend to be divided into two groups: the "locals" who prefer to live in small communities, get their satisfaction from relating closely to families and to friends, and belong to local groups; and the "cosmopolitans" who prefer living in large cities, get their satisfaction from dealing with ideas and international issues, and belong to large state or nationwide organizations. At about the same time, research on the United Presbyterian Church revealed that there were two general theological orientations within that denomination. "One is otherworldly, dualistic in its view of humanity, strong in literal Scriptural authority, quite pessimistic about society, and mostly concerned about person-to-God relationships. The other is this worldly, unitary in its view of humanity, less committed to broad Scriptural authority, relatively optimistic about society, and mostly concerned about ethical behavior. . . . The two-party split is behind much of the discord over church priorities."12.

These studies reveal a division that is not new. It has characterized religious groups in all of history. The differences within the churches is something that they as institutions have learned to live with -- a duality that provides a balance and corrective to the excesses of either group. But the problem with the world of television is that it attacks both of these groups in the churches. It erodes the cosmopolitan group by refusing to deal honestly with the issues of the world, by filtering out much of the reality and trivializing the rest. And it also erodes the locals, those who find satisfaction in face-to-face relationships, by seducing them away from those personal relationships and substituting for them an ever-growing fantasy life and attachment to a lifeless cathode tube.

The problem is that television resonates an individualism which rejects both community roots and the world of ideas. One result of television`s influence is that, within the religious community itself, the balance of authority is moving away from those denominations which emphasize the common welfare, toward religious groups that are distinctly privatistic and oriented toward utilitarian individualism.

The Vision

In previous chapters I have suggested what concerned citizens can do to deal with television without censorship: create local television councils and community action to get stations to accept their responsibility for the public welfare; introduce media education courses in the schools and churches to create media literacy; organize community groups to develop programs relating to community issues on the "narrowcast" media of cable-TV, videocassettes, low-power TV, public-broadcasting facilities, and commercial side-band channels; employ stockholder action and other economic measures.

But people will not be willing to engage in these activities until they begin to understand what television is doing to them. Ignazio Silone observed that during the l930s the peasants in southern Italy accepted their lot, from hunger to facism, as if it were a fact or nature or the will of God. Many Americans today evidence the same kind of fatalism -- that deterioration of their quality of life is somehow inevitable, a given part of existence, and that the only solution is to get as much security as possible before it is too late. They have tolerated with very little complaint a costly war in Vietnam, corruption at the highest levels of government, deterioration of their phone service, transportation, and food quality, and a debt which can only crush their children`s hopes for the future.

Our national passivity can end only as people catch the vision of what our nation should be. Unfortunately, the vision itself is made difficult because the world of television limits the horizons of people by substituting its own pernicious vision of who we are and what we can, and cannot, become.

This is where community becomes so important: community can help supply the "outside" reference point which can help extract persons from the addiction of quiet withdrawal into the world of TV. It can supply the support mechanisms to help relate people once again to the real world. Becoming involved in community is the best antidote to the dehumanizing experience of TV-induced withdrawal.

So long as we accept the definition of the good for society in material and utilitarian terms proposed by the world of television, we are caught in what Hazel Henderson calls "the entropy trap"; that is, those material things which we value become every more costly, and our expectations ever higher, to the point where no one can any longer can afford to have what they want. But if we reject the materialist, utilitarian vision and instead define our goals in terms of human values, then we are freed from the entropy trap and can create alternative futures to improve our quality of life.

I have proposed an ethical perspective that goes beyond current legal requirements and national policies. In doing so, I have suggested that without a truly open marketplace of ideas, without a mass media environment in which all sides of issues are freely and openly discussed, we cannot have a workable democracy. Nor can we have what we in America call freedom -- political or religious. For this reason, we have examined the issues of censorship, regulation, and the First Amendment protections from a perspective which asks what is right, just, and equitable, not simply what is currently legal or stablished public policy.

A note of caution here. If Christians and others with religious concern expect to contribute to this redefinition of goals and values, then they will have to go beyond expressing those goals and values in terms of the traditional forms of provincial and protected truths. When the church enters the world, its messages must increasingly be tested against the general criteria. It no longer can engage in "church" talk. What it is able to provide in the way of meaning in general human terms will be intelligible; the rest will not.

A friend of mine in Germany, a broadcaster of religious programs, once commented rather plaintively: "Is it asking too much when one asks the parson just for once, just once, to talk as a normal man to normal men, brief and to the point, without mincing matters, in a natural tone of voice, almost as in a friendly conversation?" This is the task of the whole church: to address the world in a natural tone of voice, almost as in a friendly conversation.

Communicating clearly and simply is especially important as the church attempts to converse with the men and women at work in the broadcasting industry. These people are no more a part of the problem than we ourselves. They, and we, are caught up in the system of television, of television-as-process. We must all come to this medium with a real love for it, while at the same time recognizing the distortions that come from its mythology. Our task is to create those structural changes which will allow television, and that means the people working in it, to reflect ourselves and our goals, rather than The Technique and its goal.

There is no reason why laws and regulation cannot assist in humanizing the system of television. We create traffic signals, speed limits, food regulations, health inspections, and other restraints on our freedom in order to maintain values of health and safety. Laws and regulations can also help maintain our value of an open marketplace of ideas -- an opportunity to know what is going in our community, nation, and world, to have access to our elected representatives, to enjoy a wide a diversity of entertainment -- all without endangering the value of free expression unfettered by government censorship.

History does not move simply because some new forms of technology arrive on the scene. History moves in response to human vision and activity. For us, it must start with the vision of a peaceful world, where gradually the production and distribution of armaments gives way to the production and distribution of goods and services that benefit the human race instead of threatening to destroy it, a vision of the rule of law rather than of economic domination, a vision of democracy where people are able to have a real say in what their own future will be, a vision of smallness and community involvement, a vision of cultural pluralism and a diversity of ideas, a vision of leisure spent meeting human needs.

If these ideals fail to materialize and find expression in our television and other mass communication, then Bellah`s scenario of the rise of any one of a number of authoritarian systems becomes a serious alternative. At the present time, we are seeing a number of authoritarian expressions born of the frustrations people feel about the unjust and incomprehensible world in which we live. If these expression continue to grow, and find resonance in mass media, the result could be a return to a world of even greater racial and religious bigotry, hatred, and political conflict.

Every culture has its own myths, and the content of those myths can encourage an open, mature, and peaceful coexistence, or a closed, self-centered existence of bias and conflict. The modern political myths which we see nightly on TV are just as powerful as the myths of any century. Supremacy of the "Master Race" in Germany, the "white man`s burden" in Africa and Asia, the "manifest destiny" of settlers over the Indians in America, the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union -- these and other myths are powerfully motivate and support various public policies and actions today.

The myths in American television do not create an environment conducive to growth, maturity, and freedom. This is why American television must be reconstructed, and the leadership in that reconstruction must come in part from the religious institutions of the nation. The Christian faith has an important contribution to make toward that reconstruction. Its views are not the views of the nation, but its "public religion" has been a major force in motivating and giving cohesion to the American experience for more than 200 hundred years. As Martin Marty has said, the Christian faith does not belong in all its essentials to the consensus. The concensus represents the "proper" opinion whereas the Christian faith in its departure from the consensus, represents an "improper" opinion.14.

The Christian strategy must be not only to express its "improper" opinion in the mass media, but also to make these media "mass." This means that the one-way, top-down, authoritarian qualities of the media must be refashioned in ways to make them two-way, people-to-people, and democratic. I have suggested some of the ways this can be done: increasing the number of TV networks to six or even 12; diversifying the sources of production; increasing support of public broadcasting and community-supported stations; the use of telephone call-ins; follow-up programs with discussions; community-media projects; more use of cable, videocassettes and other less "mass" forms of the technology.

Churches must help other groups in society which are pressing for these new kinds of "small media." Fortunately, the church will find considerable common cause with many community organizations. For example, there is a real connection between media reform and the ecology movement today. Both are concerned with environmental deterioration, with the attitude that scorns future consequences of today`s selfishness, with the failings of the technocratic world and instrumental values, with the disaster that follows treating everything as a commodity and people as things. Both hold a sacramental view that emphasizes the need to take care of all people, and that, with Whitehead, "God is not before all creation, but with all creation."15.

It is one of the more hopeful signs that there are many groups and organizations today that share the church`s concern about the technological era and its consequences. One of the church`s main objectives must be to join in coalitions with such groups wherever they have common cause.

There is also hope, and considerable evidence, that we may have underestimated the continuing influence of those traditional institutions which have managed to survive without the benefit of the mass media for many years and which continue to transfer cultural values -- the family, home, community, school, church, fraternal organizations, and others. These institutions have resisted attack before, and in recent years, some of them seem to be reasserting their role as conveyors of the stories which bridge the generation gap and tell us again who we are and what we might become.

The Christian faith does not promise success or even improvement, but it urges the faithful onward in hope. And, while we have no real reason to believe that the world of television can be completely turned around, at the same time those committed to the task of trying to do so continue to hold up in their communities of faith the ideals of open and free communication and a civility in our culture which we do not yet possess.

If religion cannot move with power and authority to bring about the changes necessary, it can at least whisper subversion and at the same time hold the vision high for those able to see it.



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