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What We Say about Television

June 7, 2008

I’ve been away from my keyboard for a bit (and not minding it at all), and will be away for about another week. We spent half a month in Indiana and the country in between, visiting family and friends and covered bridges and State Parks. Along the way, we saw the new Lewis and Clarke Museum near Nebraska City, the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, and paid through the nose for petro. We arrived home on Tuesday night, unpacked for half a day on Wednesday, and then I got down to business preparing for our Summer Camp, which begins on Monday. When I finish camp, I’m looking forward to a little bit of a slower pace… and (I hope) some extra time to re-acquaint myself with my fellow JackHammers, and with my keyboard.

I had one more post I wanted to do on television, before we move on to the next item on the agenda. About a month ago, I wrapped up a series of lessons on television by asking our people to consider their relationship to what has affectionately been dubbed the “boob tube.” I proposed a series of questions for our people to ask themselves regarding the television, and in this post, I want to propose that same set of questions. Feel free to answer them in the comments section, if you like. But first, let me introduce the questions.

Paul makes a statement that I believe is relevant to the issue of television, as it is to many other cultural issues. He said,

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; And having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled.

2 Corinthians 10:3-6

We want to bring into captivity every thought about television to the obedience of Christ. Really, that has been the point of this series all along. Would we like you to turn your television off? Sure. Would we like you to get rid of it altogether? Why not. But we have not turned this series into an extended rant on “television, smell-a-vision, hell-a-vision.” We have not urged holiness through smashing televisions. We have not attempted to make a case for turning your television into a target. Rather, we have urged you to think rightly about it, to see it as it is, and to act towards it as a Bible-believer. In other words, we have urged you to bring into captivity every thought about television to the obedience of Christ.

In the last chapter of Neil Postman’s outstanding book on television, Postman made a profound observation… technology is ideology (1). In other words, it is a manner of thinking, a way of thinking. The dictionary defines “ideology” as a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture (2). It gives a second definition: the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture (3). And Postman says that technology is this.

Technology (techne (art or skill), and logos (reason)) is more than a mere device. Technology is a systematic treatment of an art. The dictionary defines it as a capability given by the practical application of knowledge (4). And Postman says that this capability brings with it a way of thinking. Technology then is a systematic treatment of an art, and it is a systematic body of concepts about (among other things) life and culture. The capabilities brought to us by new technologies affect the way we think about life, about culture. Consider Postman’s statement:

(TV) is an ideology nonetheless, for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and ideas, about which there has been no consensus, no discussion and no opposition. Only compliance. Public consciousness has not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology. This, in spite of the fact that before our very eyes technology has altered every aspect of life in America during the past eighty years. (5)

Of course, we could here discuss i-pods, cell phones, blackberries, or (as Postman does in his book) something as simple as the clock, or the telegraph, or the photograph. The point is that when a technology alters our way of life, when it in fact imposes a way of life on us, then that technology is also an ideology.

We can say all we want about knobs and buttons and neutrality. The truth is, however, that a technology has yet to be invented that is neutral. Certainly, the Gnostics would have us believe that matter itself is good or evil (which is false). The material that makes up the technology certainly is neutral in a moral sense. But every technology has a bias, a certain way that it is to be used. And that bias is not neutral. If technology is ideology, then certainly television is ideology.

Postman continues:

To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple. (6)

Since television is ideology, since it imposes a way of life on us, since it alters “every aspect of life,” it is important that we carefully consider how it has affected our lives. And no, I do not agree that the decision to not have a television means that you need not be concerned with this issue. In fact, I would argue that the decision to have no television, or no functioning television is a life-altering and life-changing decision, and therefore must be given equally careful consideration.

Consider this: if a family decides to get rid of the television, only to bring it back later, how will this decision impact the family? If a family decides to get rid of the television in order to impress their pastor, or in order to be able to boast of having no television, how will this decision impact the family? If a family makes a reactionary decision to get rid of the TV, perhaps because of a sermon they heard, or because of some vile thing they saw on their TV, what impact will this decision have on the family? And if a family has no TV, and therefore feels no need to teach the children a Biblical approach to television, how will this impact the family?

Whenever any technology arises on the scene, we must understand that our reaction to that technology, or our rejection of that technology, still has an influence within the family. Our children are still confronted with that technology. We do not render them safe by burying our collective heads in the sand. What about Grandma’s house? What about motels? Restaurants? Wal-Mart? Our children will see television, and my experience tells me that they will be glued when they do. So, whether we have a television or not, we still must think through a Scriptural approach to it.

As you consider the following list of questions then, I would urge you to be cautious that you not answer these questions in the lusts of your flesh or eyes, or in the pride of life. Rather, I ask you to strive with all your might to answer these questions in the fear of God, bringing every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. In other words, I don’t want you simply to answer these questions off the top of your head or “from your heart.” I want you to answer them from your knees, seeking the mind of God as you do.

My Questions —

  1. What effect has my television (or non-functioning television) had on my family?
  2. What influence does television have on my family?
  3. Why do I have a television? (or) Why do I not have a television?
  4. Why do I watch television? (or) Why do I not watch television? (or) Do I really never watch television? And if I do ever watch it, why do I watch it?
  5. How much does television influence my family? (including in the realm of time, of priorities, and of attitudes and affections)
  6. How do we watch television? (Not just “by turning it on and sitting down.” I mean, do you turn your mind off or on, do you think about what you are watching, about what you are doing, or do you watch TV as “amusement” in its truest form.)
  7. What effect should television have on my family?
  8. How should television influence my family?
  9. Why should I have a television?
  10. Why should I watch television?
  11. How much should television influence my family?
  12. How should we watch television?
  13. Should I own a television?

Having seen the questions, I would urge you to avoid giving the easy answers that really amount to a dismissal of the question. For instance, to question #5 “How much does television influence my family?” the easy answer would be “none.” But of course, that would also be the wrong answer. Think about it some more.

Finally, I leave you with this thought from Postman:

We would all be better off if television got worse, not better. (7)

What do you think he means by that? Why do you think he says it? Do you agree? Why? Why not? If we disagree, aren’t we saying that television is a cultural icon, that “as it goes, so goes the culture”? Aren’t we saying that we need television to be “good,” in fact, we need it to get “better?” Aren’t we saying that we rely on television? And in addition, aren’t we saying that we have surrendered our own cultural mandate as Christians to this technology? What would be the benefit to us if television got “better?”

Postman (again) said:

The problem, in any case, does not reside in what people watch. The problem is in that we watch. The solution must be found in how we watch. (8)

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Footnotes:

(1) Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.  p. 157.

(2) Merriam-Webster, I. 1996, c1993. Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. Includes index. (10th ed.). Merriam-Webster: Springfield, Mass., U.S.A.

(3) Merriam-Webster, I. 1996, c1993. Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. Includes index. (10th ed.). Merriam-Webster: Springfield, Mass., U.S.A.

(4) Merriam-Webster, I. 1996, c1993. Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. Includes index. (10th ed.). Merriam-Webster: Springfield, Mass., U.S.A.

(5) Postman, p. 157.

(6) Postman, p. 157.

(7) Postman, p. 159.

(8) Postman, p. 160.

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