Saturday, March 18, 2006

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?


At 6:36 PM, Blogger Ron Cox said...

I think this is better. I am still thinking about the title. What's the name of the place where that Demon character in Angel used to sing before he became part of the group? (Did it have a name? I am not well versed on my earlier Angel.)

Shel and I watched a couple of season 3 Buffys last week. I so much like Dopplegangland, and - as you know - for all the wrong reasons.

At 6:37 PM, Blogger Ron Cox said...

I mean used to listen to people sing.

At 3:21 AM, Blogger Jared Cramer said...

i'm working through season 7 of buffy again. i've come to the conclusion that it is not one of my favorite seasons.

nice post, good argument. thanks.

At 2:20 PM, Blogger Greg said...

I am getting ready to work through season 7 again soon. It has some great moments as I recall, but probably doesn't hit the heights that season 3, or even 4, does.

At 3:43 PM, Anonymous Naomi said...

I concur, Season 7 is not my favorite, despite my infatuation with Spike. Neither is Season 6, despite my appreciation for the musical episode. Season 4 is probably my favorite.

At 4:07 PM, Blogger PatrickMead said...

Never saw Buffy, but love TV. That riles some of my fellows, but I bear up well under the disapproving stares. One question, though: Have you ever ead "Killology" by Lt. Col. Grossman, an expert in teaching soldiers to kill? He has a website, too ( He connects the encroachment of TV into a society with increased violence; specifically homicides. Make a great case for it, though I'm not totally convinced. Yet.

At 5:03 PM, Blogger Greg said...

I have not read that book but I am familiar with Grossman and his work. In my Youth and Media class, I used Grossman and others to present the case against violence in the media and then use a book by Gerard Jones titled "Killing Monsters: Why Children NEED Fantasy, Superhero and Make-Believe Violence" to present the other side. If you are not completely convinced by Grossman, as I am not either, then you should read "Killing Monsters" for a different take. He suggests that fantasy violence is an essential component of childhood development. It's a controversial and intriguing read.

At 5:03 PM, Blogger Greg said...

I was not aware of this Spike fascination. I must hear more.

At 6:07 PM, Blogger Josh.Graves said...

One assumption that drives me crazy..."If it's Christian than it must be interesting, good, etc."

There's are blatantly Christian movies/films that are poorly written, directed and cast.

Just because something is "backed" by Christians doesn't mean it is good or worth my time and money.

On the other hand...just because something isn't overtly Christian doesn't mean it isn't good, true, honorable--revealing a great deal about human nature.

If Jesus' kingdom language teaches us anything it is that God works in all kinds of ways in all kinds of settings.

Greg...I'm glad you're blogging. You'll balance out so much of the blogs that aren't worth reading :) (including my own)!

At 10:01 AM, Blogger Eric said...

Thanks for inviting us to jump into your brain on the blog. Once the Lenten season is over and I can watch TV again, we will have to chat about what I should be watching!
Grace and peace

At 1:03 PM, Blogger Bruce said...

Glad you are into "24" (ya think ya know I guy). I've been watching season 3 over the weekend. Janet watches with me but she is normally on pins and needles (just like Jack Bauer :-). 24 is my only show that I watch now. You know my concerns about TV. They are not so much content driven as they are medium driven. There is some awesome content out there of course. I do wonder about all this ADHD out there now and wonder how much of it would fall away if we all tossed out our TV's and had more agrarian lifestyles. Of course that's unrealistic we say, but hey so is Jesus. Jesus calls us to crazy new realities all the time. I do have some concerns about ADHD and attention spans, and if TV promotes less retention. (Not proven yet obviously) If you could prove TV retarded attention that's when the issue would intersect with faith in my mind. Finding God is a matter of being still and reflective. If you cannot focus on long periods of time and if TV had something to do with it, I think we would have to re-consider the value of the medium. There are a lot of "what-ifs" in my scenario but I bet we will know the answers to several of them by the next decade.

At 1:57 PM, Blogger Greg said...

The ADHD thing is interesting. I came across a newspaper article several weeks ago that said a promising new therapy for ADHD patients was video games. They said that children who had difficulty focusing or concentrating for long periods of time, didn't have that problem when playing video games. They were able to stay focused and engaged on the game, so some people are looking into any potential that medium might have for this problem.

At 2:56 PM, Blogger Sam H. Pace said...

I tend to agree with you, generally speaking. I read your book "Televised Morality" a year or so ago. Good book. However, at some level, would you agree that the good exposure from TV significantly pales in comparison to the bad exposure? In other words, most of the TV programing seems to favor the "hot buttons" like sex, language, and violence. I am raising two children and although I do not restrict them from watching TV I most certaintly monitor their viewing very carefully. Frankly, it is difficult to find material for my children to watch that I don't have to monitor.

One more thing . . .

This afternoon I spent a couple of hours teaching my son about working. He is eight years old and out of school this week for Spring Break. After the first 30 minutes in the yard working I asked him to tell me how long he thought we had been working. He said, "Probably 2-1/2 hours or so."

I want him to grow up to be a diligent worker. I hope that I have modeled that for him. I'm trying to teach him by involving him in work regularly. That is something I cannot do through TV.

It seems to me that TV for many households in our country has been a poor compensator for the responsibility of parents to train their children.

Okay, enough thinking about this for now. Peace.

At 3:13 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Good comment! The issue comes down to choice as with most things. Any person, and especially parent, needs to be selective in what they and their family watch just as you need to be selective in what you read. Just as you can read things that are beneficial, you can watch TV shows that are beneficial in a variety of ways. Certainly it is not to be a replacement for other things in life, like parenting, but can be a valuable addition to life when used with judgment.

At 5:15 PM, Blogger Sara G Barton said...

When are you going to write moe about Lost? What's all the Buffy Blog-blah-blah. Lost is where it's at now.

Also, have you seen Good Night and Good Luck, and if so, what was Edward Murrow saying about the dangers of TV in his speech in the opening and closing scenes?

At 8:45 AM, Blogger Suzie said...

I just found your blog and love that you are discussing TV. Growing up my mom and I watched TV together, talked about the shows, commented on the lifestyles of the characters. It became a teaching tool for me. Now, I think I watched too much, but in moderation it can actually become a relationship building tool. I also think Christians should realize that our true power lies in our patronage. Rather than loudly boycotting things that we don't like, let's just use our consumer power wisely by supporting those show, movies with redemptive power and positive messages. Looking forward to more discussion!

At 9:10 AM, Blogger Greg said...

You are fixated on Lost because it is the only show you watch. We must broaden your horizons. A little Buffy will do you good.

Thanks for the insightful comments.I'm glad you're joining the discussion.

At 11:13 PM, Blogger hermit greg said...

A little Buffy will do you good, Sara, but a lot of Buffy will do you more.

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