Television in the Christian Home

Introduction

Hypnosis is defines as "a trance-like condition that can be artificially induced, characterized by an altered consciousness, diminished will power, and an increased responsiveness to suggestion." It sounds like a psychoanalyst swinging a watch or other shining object and asking a patient to concentrate, doesn't it? But isn't this also an alarmingly accurate description of what television does to so many of us? Watch your children the next time they're watching television.

According to the Boston Globe, the average American child watches 25 to 30 hours of television weekly. By the age of eighteen, a child has viewed some 15,000 hours of television! This compares to 11,000 hours spent in the classroom. The only thing a child does more than watch television is sleep. But numbers don't tell the entire story.

Immediate Effects

Social. It's no exaggeration to say that television is an established member of the American household. It is seen and heard almost everywhere, making its way into our lives almost unchecked. Recently there has been concern about certain aspects of television's effects - the superficiality of commercials, the manipulation of children for the sale of toys and cereals, and especially the stark portrayal of violence. The main problem, however, is the overwhelming captivation of people's minds by the "tube". It is not so much what we watch, but the fact that we watch. The average American watches television three or four hours daily. What does all this watching replace?

The most important activity replaced by television is the interaction of family and friends. Television can slowly control our lives and cast out the natural family experiences of daily conversation and personal sharing. As a diversion, it deprives parents and children of meaningful relationships. It offers an easy way out of family conflict by eliminating opportunities for family members to get to know each other better. Friends and relatives visit less often, or if they do, there may be little communication as everyone sits and watches. The television set indeed hypnotizes and silences everybody in a room when it is on.

Once this kind of thing is allowed to happen, the character of a home can actually change. When communication falters, a social vacuum is created; the home is only a place of residence. In it, each person is still alone, isolated, centered on self. The spirit of sharing, of mutual activity and love and help - all the things a family should be - get lost or weakened.

Psychological. Children especially are vulnerable to the effects of television. They develop through their interaction with the people and environment around them. The research psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner has said that "the… primary danger of the television screen lies not so much in the behavior it produces - although there is danger there - as in the behavior it prevents: the talks, the games, the family festivities and arguments through which much of a child's learning takes place and through which his character is formed. Turning on the television set can turn off the process that transforms children into people."

We may assume that when we watch a program about sports, for example, we are in some sense participating in that activity ourselves. But that is an illusion. We have not run, climbed or perspired. We have not moved anywhere. We have stayed in our chair. We may have learned some things "about" mountain climbing, hiking, or camping, but the main thing we did was watch television. The television viewer is essentially passive.

For adults, this passivity may be helpful in small doses, but for children heavy television watching is a step backward. When a child is watching TV, he does not need to explore, learn, be corrected, or experience anything unpleasant. He can curl up with his favorite blanket or stuffed animal (or a beer when he gets older) and return to the comfort and security and undemanding passivity of infancy.

In contrast to the child who is watching television, the one who is having a story read to him (or is reading himself) is fairly active. He can ask questions and interrupt with comments. His mind is stimulated to relate the story to his own experience. The television watcher can turn off his mind and become mentally, as well as physically, passive. His imagination does not need to work.

Education. From the ages of three to five, the average preschooler put in more hours before the television set than he or she will spend in a college classroom. For many older children, habitual television watching continues as an exercise in passivity at a time when they should be actively mastering skills and learning about the world. As a result heavy television undermines one of the goals of Christian education, which is to raise children into wholesome, alert adults who can actively serve God's Kingdom on earth.

Research indicates that programs which seem to be educationally sound, such as Sesame Street, may in fact teach such things as letter recognition, but his doesn't necessarily mean growth in broader educational skills. A child's listening vocabulary may be enlarged, but more active learning advances may not be made.

Of great interest is the discovery that groups of children who are temporarily deprived of television become less withdrawn, earn better grades, display more imagination, and improve concentration - all of which are associated with greater learning. Since 1962, national average SAT scores (indicators of verbal and numerical readiness for college work) have steadily dropped, a decline that authorities claim is not related to changes in the tests. Many claim that it partly results from students' over-dependence on television. It would seem that young people of every age are adversely affected by too much TV.

Long-Range Effects

Moral. Television may be an effective tranquilizer for noisy or arguing children, but the temporary "peace" it brings can have long-range side effects as children begin to accept what TV presents as right and real.

Research confirms the common-sense assumption that we tend to imitate what we frequently see. This applies to violence as well as generosity. If watching violence leads to violence, and watching generosity leads to generosity, then what are the results of watching the numerous un-Christian ways of thinking and acting that television presents? Is there a connection between television's portrayal of daily relationships, family life, and youth and the noticeable changes in society regarding the decline of honor, the breakdown of family ties, the glorification of youth?

Television, as well as the other mass media, subtly but surely molds our attitudes and world views. Behind television characters' actions and attitudes there are underlying assumptions about life. Television communicates a loosely coherent world view which makes certain ways of thinking and certain aspects of reality prominent and others absolute.

Some are ignored while others are made relative. This is done without Christian perspective. The media world of fact and fiction considers right and wrong in humanistic terms, never in terms of God's Kingdom and His love for the world. It defines freedom in material and political terms, rather that as the liberty from the domination of sin and evil. It insists on knowing only the natural world while ignoring the supernatural or spiritual.

Spiritual. In the long run, television's success in developing un-Christian world views may be more crucial than its immediate impact on behavior and attitude. Our basic perspectives on life may not cause us to do anything, but they will determine what kinds of things we will or will not do.

This conflict between world views becomes clearest when television looks directly at Christianity. In their interviews with Christian leaders, networks consistently emphasize the importance of questions about divorce, artificial contraception, priestly celibacy, and ordination of women. These are certainly important issues, but television coverage implies that they are the only crucial questions facing Christianity today. They are not. Other issues, such as the role of the Bible in the Church, spiritual renewal and evangelism, the sacramental life, and the persecution of the Church are also very important, but are generally ignored by the media, probably because they deal with things spiritual and supernatural.

[Since this article was originally written, the situation has gone from bad to worse: Christians as a group, regardless of denomination, are portrayed as pedophiles (Roman Catholic priests who have abused their acolytes), thieves and schiesters (Jim Baker), narrow-minded bigots (neo-Nazi hate groups, KKK), or right-wing political extremists (Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell). When the media labels man, woman or child "Christian", it is not usually meant as a compliment; the term is not even applied objectively.

Christian groups which are spotlighted by the media for their involvement in the community are seldom acknowledged as "Christian". I heard a YMCA event debriefed on our local news referred to as sponsored by the "Young Men's Community Association". When did you last hear about the good works of the Christian Children's Fund, United Catholic Charities, or International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) in the mass media? Both of these latter organizations work side-by-side with the International Red Cross, and if you look closely at the nightly news clips, you will see the Christian crosses on the trucks and around the necks of the relief workers in Bosnia.

Further, network television is spending a great deal of time on the spiritual and supernatural these days, catering to a "spiritually seeking" audience. The context is entirely un-Christian, though, and most viewers are unaware of the genuinely evil picture the media is presenting, numbing them into apathy, then imitation: Tales from the Crypt, Encounters, even my favorite, X-Files, explore the ugly, perverted side of the supernatural realm in explicit detail. The power of Go(o)d, and the grace and beauty associated with the Spirit are never mentioned. - NTK]

Networks look at Christianity in terms of tradition versus progress. The Christian needs to evaluate contemporary Christianity not with respect to its progress according to human standards, but with respect to its faithfulness to God-given truth and the Christian tradition. We cannot ask when Christianity will "catch up" to the twentieth century, but rather we, people living in the twentieth century, will begin to deal with all issues in a way pleasing to God.

If television journalism's approach to religious news is inaccurate, television's entertainment portrayal of Christians and Christianity is downright libelous. Most Christians portrayed on television fall into one of three types:
the gentle, slightly muddled, and highly ineffectual preacher (Father Mulcahey on M*A*S*H was once stunned when one of his prayers actually worked and a sick patient recovered.);
the fast-talking, Bible-thumping, and probably money-grubbing Elmer Gantry-type evangelist;
the spaced-out cult member.

The first is nice but scarcely challenging. The second is ridiculous. The third is vicious.

The world of television is a world in which Christians are either dim-witted, dishonest, or dangerous. For someone taking cues from television, as many do, a Christian would not be someone to emulate. There are in real life, undoubtedly, those who profess to be Christian and fall into one of the above categories, but our good example should make it not only difficult for these portrayals to continue, but easy for a fourth type to be presented - that of a real Christian, showing a strong but humble witness.

Given the effect on behavior, attitude, and perspective that television has, let us look at the quality or clarity this effect brings with it. Gerbner and Gross, from the University of Pennsylvania, have discovered that heavy television viewers have opinions about the world that differ from factual reality. They see the world as having more professionals, athletes, entertainers, and detectives than it really has. They think society is more affluent than it really is. They see the world as more dangerous than it is, and as a result, are more fearful than light viewers or non-viewers. If this pattern is true, what will be their thinking about how [the] real God cares for people, how wrong sin is, how important genuine life with Christ is, and how to deal with difficulties, triumphs, and failures?

The Issue

The issue doesn't seem to be whether or not television can be well-used. It can be. Rather, the issue is one of its control. Even if the political action against advertisers, networks, and government to free television from its portrayal of violence and sex succeeds, what would result? People would still be spending three to four hours daily watching television instead of doing other things. They would still be seeing mostly un-Christian views of reality. How will the slight and vague control we exercise over television today stand up to the television of the future, as it becomes ever more present and ever more subtle?

Christian leaders need to pay more attention to this issue because it has such a profound effect on children, family, and society in general. They need to make it a pastoral priority to encourage discussion on local levels and in the home. Christians need to replace television viewing with Christian duties [and activities such as :serving as a soup kitchen, visiting shut-ins, attending church youth group meetings, enjoying the Creation…]. If and when we do watch, we need guidance in putting reasonable limits on time.

Practical Tips

Proper use of the television set, like proper use of any modern convenience, depends on the entire range of values and personal circumstances of the viewers themselves. It cannot be simply dictated by someone outside the family. In the Christian home, family members can help each other to recognize that turning to God, their commitment to Christ, prayer, spiritual growth, and genuine involvement in their local church enable them to face and solve this or any other issue. Just as with bedtime hours, table manners, and household chores, guidelines must be set up and parents must set a good example.

Here are some suggestions:

Find healthy alternatives to television. Read from the Bible or other good books. Tell stories. Develop handicrafts. Play educational games. Insist on quality homework. Do projects together as a family. Use the public library not only for books, but for magazines, records, and programs for the children.

If you do watch, insist on good shows from producers and sponsors, and let your Congressman know about the good shows. They do listen to feedback.

If possible, have only one television in the house. Do not keep it in a prominent place (certainly not more prominent than the Bible or an icon). [An Orthodox monk from a monastery in the Midwest encourages families to place an icon of Christ above the television. - PMO] When not being used, cover the set or put it away if it's portable. Put a sign by the switch that reads: "Caution - television may be harmful to your health." [When I was in college, Iconographer Nick Papas kept his family's small television set in the hall closet. The family voted on one show to watch each week as a group, and the TV was set up with great ceremony. FYI, the show was almost always Star Trek: The Next Generation. Nick and his family fed me on weekends quite often, and invited me to watch with them. - NTK]

Carefully select programs that will be interesting and informative to the whole family. Do this ahead of time to eliminate random, spontaneous selection. Don't rely on the set as a diversion too often, as it will become habitual. Don't let younger children turn on the television without permission. [The Ryzners, an evangelical family I knew as I was growing up, had two simple rules: anyone under thirteen could not watch TV without an adult; anyone over thirteen could watch pre-approved shows only, according to a set number of hours per week. If you wanted "extra" TV for a special show, you had to attend youth group or do some type of volunteer work to earn the privilege. My best friend and I worked very hard to earn the right to watch Shogun. - NTK]

After watching a program, discuss what was seen with the family. Encourage Christian discernment by asking whether or not the show would have been pleasing to God. Show your children that they have a right and a duty to evaluate, not just passively accept, what TV offers them. Their standards are those of Jesus Christ and His Church, an this as in every other aspect of their lives.

Reprinted from the OCA's The Resource Handbook, 1982, No. 2.

© 1996 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
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