TV Faith: Rituals of Secular Life

by Gregor Goethals

Dr. Goethals is director of graduate studies and professor of art history at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 23, 1986, p. 414. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


From soap operas to news to sports, commercial telecasting performs a fundamentally sacramental function: it mediates and legitimates a belief in the American way of life.

Our media-dominated culture bombards us with a multitude of diverse images. The Super Bowl, the message of the 700 Club, the funeral of a national leader -- all these phenomena come to us in the form of television images. In these instances, the images are more than pictures; they are ways of mediating to us a faith or a set of values. In this sense, many of the images we encounter every day can be regarded as religious images, even as examples of religious art.

The term "religious art" is a slippery one. Most people assume that it is content -- for example, biblical content -- that distinguishes religious art from other types of art. But this criterion, while useful, ignores the many other ways in which images can witness to faith in a pluralistic, technological and secular society. I believe we need to consider some different ways of thinking about religious art.

To clarify this point, we must distinguish between a broad and a narrow concept of the term "religion." H. Richard Niebuhr reminds us that faith can mean human confidence in a center and conserver of value" and that it can also mean loyalty to a cause. To Niebuhr, faith seems to "manifest itself almost as directly in politics, science, and other cultural activities as it does in religion" (Radical Monotheism and Western Culture [Harper & Row], p. 16) Religion in this sense means an overarching, integrative principle of order. This kind of religion is less concerned with "What must I do to be saved?" than with "What is real to me and others?" and "What do we value?" Answering these questions helps us to identify ourselves and our world. Sociologists of religion like Max Weber and Émile Durkheim have observed that being religious in this broad sense refers not to a matter of personal choice but to a fundamental human drive to make sense out of reality.

This essentially metaphysical order of the world which humans look for is perceived and understood largely through concrete, accessible public symbols. The manifold forms through which society’s most essential values are communicated are not, therefore, of secondary importance. They are necessary for expressing, legitimating and maintaining the metaphysical -- and the social -- order.

If we define religion narrowly to mean participation in a particular faith community or adherence to particular doctrines, the analysis of religious art will be restricted to the visual images produced by particular religious communities. The sociological view of religion, on the other hand, enables us to analyze the broad spectrum of faith in so-called secular society. From that perspective, we may even discover that we are daily inundated with religious images.

The mediation of religion through apparently secular images is related to particular historical developments in Western culture. Events in church history, plus the impact of secularism and modern technology, have dramatically determined the location of religious art.

The most revolutionary alteration in religious art came with the sweeping changes in sacrament and liturgy brought about by the 16th-century Reformers, especially Calvin and Zwingli. These two, much more than Luther, narrowed the forms of religious communication almost entirely to the Word as expressed through Scripture and sermon. (Luther, for his part, remarked that in his devotions he was "aided by the sight of the crucifix, the sound of the anthems, and the partaking of the body of Christ upon the altar." Thus he maintained a sacramental view of the unity and mystery of the relationship between flesh and spirit, between the visible and invisible.) The visual arts, which had for centuries witnessed to Christian faith in a liturgical context, were now systematically excluded from the worship setting.

As a result of the diminution of the role of the arts in the churches, the sacramental impulse -- the need to encounter invisible faith through visible forms -- embarked on a new, vital life outside of institutional Christianity. Artists themselves took up the search for sacramental forms -- images that could testify to spiritual experience. Nineteenth-century painters such as Washington Allston and Thomas Cole found little or no demand from churches for religious art. Nevertheless, they continued to conceive of the artist’s role in religious terms. Under the influence of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and New England transcendentalist James Marsh, Allston regarded the artist as a kind of seer for the community. Some painters gave a religious interpretation to the secular world and its images. Asher B. Durand, writing in The Crayon, described landscape as the "representation of the work of God in visible creation." For painters like Durand, religious symbolism in landscape painting did not depend upon the use of biblical narratives. Late in the 19th century, George Inness, who was immersed in the theology of Swedenborg, spoke of the artist’s need to contemplate the invisible in the visible. In Europe one finds similar religious interpretations of ordinary reality -- for instance, in the work of Vincent Van Gogh (whose letters powerfully reveal the religious basis of his art)

In the atmosphere of 19th-century Protestant piety, it was still possible for both artists and the public to find religious meanings in the images of everyday life -- in landscape or still life. But what has happened in the 20th century, when the religious imagination -- in its individual and corporate dimensions -- has become fragmented under the assault of modern materialism? How do we interpret and manipulate images of the ordinary world? Is it possible that the imagistic revolution of the information age is also a sacramental revolution in which the visual forms we identify as "secular" are themselves embodiments of faiths and values that compel our deepest loyalties? Perhaps sacramental images are no longer confined to religious institutions or to particular subjects.

I would suggest that in our day the power of images to objectify invisible values and meanings has been appropriated by secular institutions. To the degree that traditional religious groups in American culture have emphasized the word and de-emphasized images, they have deprived themselves of an effective force for transmitting their own symbols. It may be that our sacramental needs and capacities have, ironically, been best understood and most creatively used by secular institutions.

From soap operas to news to sports, commercial telecasting performs a fundamentally sacramental function: it mediates and legitimates a belief in the American way of life. It assists in an important way in shaping our loyalty to the American socio-political-economic system. Witnessing to sentiments and aspirations that transcend denominational beliefs, television provides a common vision. Even though the medium often caricatures and distorts the variousness of America’s diverse communities, the nation has become dependent upon it for articulating public symbols.

If we look closely at different kinds of programs, we may discern certain residual elements of traditional religious communication and psychology. The dynamics and formal structures of some programs parallel some Catholic and Protestant forms of communication. For example, parallels to the Catholic sacramental model, in which a sacred event is re-enacted within carefully measured boundaries of time and space, can be found in the formal dynamics of sports events and civil ceremonies, such as the Super Bowl or the presidential inauguration.

When through an unusual coincidence President Reagan’s second inauguration was telecast on the same day as the 1985 Super Bowl, the entire day seemed liturgically orchestrated, as viewers moved from one sacred event to another. Through their TV sets millions of viewers shared in a solemn event in the political life of the nation. Later that day viewers once again entered the White House to participate in another great occasion. This time, through the miracle of technology, two sacred spaces -- the White House and the Super Bowl stadium -- were united as President Reagan tossed a coin to begin the Super Bowl. The newly inaugurated commander in chief thus ceremoniously opened the event that symbolizes to many the value of competition and the importance of being "No. 1." Standing before a large landscape painting of the American West, the Gipper seemed to personify the heroic image of a winner. Later, the Super Bowl half-time show reinforced our patriotic sentiments, as marching bands and drill teams formed a large American flag on the football field. And the screen offered yet one more sacred exchange when the president called to congratulate the victorious coach.

American television has also united the nation in rituals of sorrow. Beginning with the funeral of John F. Kennedy, television has enabled the country to participate in the mourning of national heroes. Although not physically united, millions of people are bound together by television in a shared experience of grief. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded, the entire nation was again brought before its television sets to mourn. President Reagan communicated through radio and television words of comfort to the nation. In concluding his statement, the president combined words from the first and last lines of a moving poem, "High Flight," written by a poet-pilot, John Gillespie Magee, Jr. "We will never forget them," the president said, "nor the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye, ‘and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."’ The president performed the religious function of articulating to us and for us the meaning of the astronauts deaths.

The memorial service, telecast live from the Houston Space Center, brought into focus the grief of a nation. Americans saw as well as heard the president express his sorrow to the astronauts families, friends and colleagues. Meanwhile, other groups gathered around the country to mourn particular astronauts. In a temple at Akron, Ohio, a congregation held services for Judith Resnik. In North Carolina there was a service for Ronald McNair. Portions of these services were also telecast in the course of the coverage from Houston. Thus, all mourning seemed to exist within the overarching public ceremony telecast by the major networks.

Some Protestant forms of communication may be so integrated into secular American culture that we fail to see their religious roots. The Protestant evangelical model, which tends to stress charismatic leadership, may be useful in understanding the widespread perception of certain public figures as "trustworthy." Viewers watching a presidential news conference may be dimly conscious of the image of a Protestant minister standing behind a central pulpit, framed by two flags, delivering a sermon to inspire faith and conviction. The intention of the presidential conference is, of course, to inform the press and public. But ritualistically speaking, it is much more: it is an opportunity for the public to confirm its trust in the president and loyalty to the nation. The event is an occasion to see the president perform much like a persuasive, charismatic preacher. He confronts his adversaries, calls us to look at the "facts," returns us to time-honored values, articulates the differences between good and evil and then makes the right choice.

The nightly news programs also offer viewers authoritative individuals who, night after night, sort out the facts and help us understand our world. Many people realize, of course, that they are viewing highly selective and symbolically charged accounts of events. But sophisticated and unsophisticated viewers alike may ultimately fall back on their sense of trust in the reporters. It is interesting that in a recent poll examining the perception of news, believability was one of the questions raised, and anchorpeople and newspersons scored higher in this category than did the president (The People and the Press [Times-Mirror, 1986], p. 10)

More comparisons might be drawn between secular communications and religious prototypes. Commercials, MTV (whose music and fast-paced visual rhythms almost hypnotically envelop us) , soap operas and situation comedies give us detailed, visual narratives of the ups and downs of the American Dream. They are our moral tales of success, failure, sin and salvation. However superficial or inane, they present public, rather than private, symbols. Their creators, consciously or unconsciously, are providing the rituals and icons that shape and legitimate our common beliefs.

Thus far I have not addressed the religious dimension of what is commonly called "high art." For many modern artists, the making of art objects indeed involves a search for self-transcendence. But in a secular society in which churches have not shown an interest in the visual arts, artists have tended to create their own private religious symbolism. The solitary search for symbols experienced by 19th-century artists in Protestant cultures has today become a standard part of our culture.

Sometimes the museum-going public may glimpse the private religious meanings of particular works. Barnett Newman, for example, frequently titled his works with religiously suggestive captions, such as "Onement One" or "The Way." These titles and the artist’s interest in the literature of Jewish mysticism led critics to speak about the religious significance of his works. Yet, as Harold Rosenberg observed, it is not really certain what Newman’s "rectangles and zips" mean. In an important commentary on Newman’s work, Rosenberg concluded that painting was for Newman a way of "practicing" the sublime, not of "conveying" it ("Meaning and Abstract Art," the New Yorker [January 1, 19721, p. 46)

Rosenberg’s comment, written over a decade ago, continues to illuminate some of the religious dimensions of contemporary art. Images and objects can symbolize a personal search for meaning, and in the sanctuaries of museums people may almost genuflect before such art works. These embodiments of personal faith are often accorded the reverence once given to holy objects.

But when we leave the quiet, sacred spaces of the museum, we return to the world of crowded subways and rush-hour traffic, where we confront, in despair or occasional disgust. the human condition. The spiritual fervor of artists like Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Klee or Rothko then seems as far away from us as the holy pictures of Orthodox churches.

Upon returning home, we may join our fellow Americans in front of the television set. Forgetting the idiosyncratic, unspeakably diverse crowds of strangers, we become drawn through television to the familiar faces, myths and visions of the American Way of Life, thereby putting ourselves in touch with a shared vision of the human order -- a vision that engages our loyalties and makes sense of our world.