Why TV Matters
Bashing TV is a common hobby among the elite despisers of American popular culture. The charges are endless: It rots your brain, it degrades the moral fabric of society, it causes violence, aggression, flabby wastes, epileptic seizures, and unnatural cravings for fruit roll ups and the McRib sandwich.
Who hasn’t heard people brag about giving up TV for a year or six months or, in the case of some friends of mine, two hours? We have convinced ourselves as a society, and especially those in the Christian camp, that television is a cancer eating away at our most treasured values.
Now granted, any medium whose history boasts “My Mother the Car” and “Temptation Island” has a lot of explaining to do. But let’s face it, if it weren’t for TV how would people know which beer frogs prefer or the favored car insurance of geckos? So maybe there is a case to be made for television. In fact, I would like to begin the case for the defense by offering a few humble thoughts on the role of television in society.
Anthropologists, psychologistis, and other such -ists will state that one of the primary ways that a society shapes its values, creates identity, and forms cohesion is through the stories it tells. Stories provide definition for what we struggle to put words to. They create a kind of map for the world and teach us how to navigate it. This was a function of the stories of Greek mythology, It may also be a reason why God chose to communicate to us so frequently through stories.
Now the primary generator of stories in our culture today is television. Television has become the new literature of our culture. Television critic, David Bianculli, has even coined the term “teleliteracy”, suggesting that to be literate in our culture today means to be literate in the language of television. Is he right or wrong in that? I don’t know, but I think he is right in directing us to the fact that visual stories have become a far more dominant means of communication in our culture than the written stories of literature. The advent of TV on DVD means also that televised stories no longer disappear at the end of their run but are now accessible in libraries and stores for generations to come.
As with any form of communication (and certainly literature is included here), there exists great potential for creating both stories that inspire and stories that debase. As a means of communication, television is morally neutral. The valuation derives from its use.
And with increasing regularity these days, artists are using television as a means for initiating moral and religious discourse. A couple of years ago, I published a book titled “Televised Morality: The Case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in which I suggested that the description of heaven in an episode titled “After Life” was more theologically profound than most sermons I’ve heard on the topic. Likewise, the final episode of the first season of Joan of Arcadia offered a meditation on the meaning of lament (the episode was appropriately titled “Silence” as in the silence of God) that has continued to stay with me two years later. When was the last time you could say that about a sermon? The show Lost currently offers viewers a weekly lesson in the nature of redemption, while others like Battlestar Galactica present the search for meaning neatly wrapped in an apocalyptic package.
This phenomenon raises several questions which I’m sure will pop up repeatedly in my posts here. I do not wish to get into those now, but only to leave you with two for further reflection. How can the church most effectively engage this conversation? And what does it mean for the church when some of the most influential and powerful discussions on issues of religion and morality are being generated not by the church, but by Hollywood?