In the 1930’s David Saronoff the president of RCA had the entrepreneurial foresight to invest money in a wild and crazy project called television. To direct this effort, RCA hired a Russian-born scientist named Vladimir Kosma Zworykin and invested $50 million dollars so that in 1939, RCA could televise the opening of the New York World’s Fair. Later that year RCA bought the license to patent the television and began selling television sets to the very wealthy. Before 1947 the number of U.S. homes with TV’s could be measured in the thousands. By the late 20th Century, 98 percent of US homes had at least one television set (Gordman 2).
Television is here to stay. What then should the Christian’s reaction to television be? Is it inherently evil? Is watching TV, even the news, a sin? How much time should a Christian spend watching TV? These are some of the questions that should arise in the mind of any godly and conscientious Christian. It is not my contention that TV is completely wrong, much like radio and the Internet. Yet it seems to me that being in the world but not of the world has lost its distinction in many Christian homes today, by relaxing the antithesis with the world.
1 John 2:15 “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”
In Bunyan’s allegorical book Holy War, we are taught that the town of Mansoul (which symbolizes the heart of man) was most vulnerable by the entrances of Eye-Gate, and Ear-Gate (senses of sight and sound) (Bunyan, 10). Mansoul was eventually penetrated by the devil and his minions through these two gates. So it is for us. To underscore this, one does not need to look any farther than the billion dollar industries of Hollywood and MTV, where everything is of a certain visual quality beckoning us to come and buy. But what are they selling? Is it morality, chastity, and the fruits of the Spirit? Or is it the wares of this world?
This then presents the Christian with an interesting dilemma as he lives in the current culture. How much TV is too much? I do not think there is a holy number or a clear cut answer that will not infringe upon the liberty of the Christian. Yet, Jacques Ellul rightly points out that “television acts less by the creation of clear notions and precise opinions and more by enveloping us in a haze” (Ellul 336). David F. Wells says regarding the dangers of television that “Television opens the entire world to us, bequeathing to us a virtual omniscience”(Wells, 230). Through the medium of television, we are encouraged to have a kind of colonization of experience where the sins and virtues of others are incorporated into our own. By our eyes and ears, we are enticed to partake in the sin of others with a once removed sense of reality. What we would never do ourselves, we readily watch with our eyes and hear with our ears.
A .W Tozer once said regarding the Christian and the world’s culture,
For centuries the Church stood solidly against every form of worldly entertainment, recognizing it for what it was—a device for wasting time, a refuge from the disturbing voice of conscience, a scheme to divert attention from moral accountability.
For this she got herself abused roundly by the sons of this world. But of late she has become tired of the abuse and has given over the struggle. She appears to have decided that if she cannot conquer the great god Entertainment she may as well join forces with him and make what use she can of his powers (Tozer 84).
It is quite possible then that we have become accustomed to sinning vicariously through those things we see and hear. Because man is corrupt by nature, we naturally want to see how close to we can get to sin without actually talking part in it ourselves. Dr. Joel Beeke put it this way,
By nature our question is, “How far can I go and still not sin?” instead of, “How far can I flee from sin and avoid the very appearance of evil?” At the very heart and center of our modern entertainment spirit stands TELEVISION. This is an obvious fact. Television sets are in the homes of 97% of Americans today and 91% of all television time is dedicated solely to the purpose of entertainment (Beeke).
While the world beckons the Christian to join in, the Scriptures tell us to “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (2 Thessalonians 5:22). Joel Beeke gives some stunning statistics in his essay “Is TV Really so Bad?” by displaying how the TV in general encouraged the viewer to watch people break each of the 10 commandments.
One study reached the conclusion that by the time a child is fourteen at least 18,000 violent assaults and murders take place before his eyes. Another study confirmed that the average child between five and thirteen years of age soaks in 1,300 murders each year, so that violence, assaults, and murders no longer speak the mes
sage of sin or its consequences. Murders, hatred, violent actions and words assume the role of normal behavior. The average child’s program contains thirty-eight acts of violence per hour (adult program: twenty) (Beeke).
He goes on to say,
In American homes 35% of mealtimes are spent in front of the TV set. Nightly thousands of parents realize the programs that will come on are demoralizing and harmful for their children but yet are so hungry themselves to drink in the sin which they contain that they often let their children watch it too, having no power to control it (Beeke).
In this way then TV is an evil, and must be avoided.
A Good Use of TV
Many have objected to the content of television programs (too much violence, sex, etc.) but what about the technology itself? It was Marshall McLuhan who said in reference to TV “the medium is the message”(McLuhan 7-21). Is this not partly true? Television stresses moving image over against written and spoken language (the most tangible result of our post-modern era). As an image-based medium, TV does not let the imagination of the individual paint any picture on the canvas of the mind but rather paints it for you (Myers 117). In reality, we are being told, in a very tantalizing and subversive way what to think on any number of moral issues. Further, creativity, independence of thinking, and ingenuity are all discarded to create a central database of experience (did you watch TV last night? Wasn’t that a great show!?). The only visionaries in a TV show are the producers and directors who decide for the audience what they will and will not process. Don’t think for a moment that they are not sending a message by what they produce.
Further, lateral thinking is rarely used by the viewer because about the time one wishes to analyze what is being displayed in a logical/rational way, the program has already moved on to its next sequences of visual events. Kenneth Myers says regarding this: “A culture that is rooted more in images than in words will find it increasingly difficult to sustain any broad commitment to any truth, since truth is an abstraction requiring language” (Myers 164).
This panders to the ease at which men, women, and children sit in front of the TV as an escape from reality. TV leisure time very quickly eats up family worship time, godly reading time, playing with your children time, and personal quiet time. Someone might say, “But I can control my TV and my time”. Dr. Beeke rejoinders, “People who say they can control TV are usually speaking idealistically, not realistically” (Beeke).
Is Christ against Culture?
So then, is our Lord and Saviour against technology and culture? Absolutely not! Read Dr. Leland Ryken’s Worldly Saints and see how even the Puritans were proponents of redeeming culture. But when the medium by which culture comes makes us culpable in other men’s sins, when it steals valuable time away from other important things, and challenges the Biblical standards of right and wrong, perhaps we should take a step back and examine the actual value of the medium itself. Paul’s words might come into play here, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not” (1 Corinthians 10:23).
Richard Sibbes says it like this,
Whatsoever outward good things we have we should use them in a reverent manner, knowing that the liberty we have to enjoy them is purchased with the blood of Christ. As David when he thirsted for the waters of Bethlehem would not drink, because it was the blood of the three worthies, so though we have a free use of the created things, yet we must be careful to use them with moderation and reverence and all to the glory of God.
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).
Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones comments on this verse and says,
The problem which is posed for us by this particular text is the whole problem of the relationship between Christianity and culture. Now I am sure that many, if not most, Christians people are interested in that question, because it is of real significance and importance… In view of all this, I would suggest to you that what Paul was saying to the Philippians was this: Your whole thin
king and all your actions must be controlled by the gospel…Every thought must be brought into subjection to him. Let our whole life be a tribute and a testimony to our Redeemer’s praise (Lloyd- Jones 181-189).
This should be our motivation in ever area of culture. The Lord is telling us that we are the gatekeepers of our own souls. Are there then any advantages in watching TV? Perhaps there are. Information programs, documentaries, and some (albeit few) entertainment programs can be of benefit and used for the advancement of the kingdom (much like the Internet). But time is short. Are we as Reformed Christians obeying the Lord and redeeming the times (Eph 5;16)?
Samuel Rutherford’s words are good to conclude with when he says,
When the race is ended, and the play is either won or lost, and ye are in the utmost circle and border of time, and shall put your foot within the march of eternity, all the good things of your short nightdream shall seem to you like ashes of a blaze of thorns or straw (I.D.E. Thomas.132)
Eph 5:16 “Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”
Authorized Version of the Holy Scriptures.
Beeke, Joel. Fair Dinkum, Free Australian Magazine, issue 52. File retrieved on Friday June 12, 2003 from http://www.thedinkum.com/issues/index.htm.
Bunyan, John. The Holy War. Choteau: Old Paths Gospel Press. 1999.
Jacques Ellul, The Technological Bluff. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Grodman, Tom. Television: Glorious Past, Uncertain Future. Analytical Paper Series, 1996. PDF file retrieved on Friday June 12, 2003 from http://www.statcan.ca/cgi-bin/downpub/listpub.cgi?catno=63F0002XIB1995006.
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge: MIT Press, reprint 1994.
Myers, Kenneth. All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes. Christians and Popular Culture. Westchester: Crossway, 1989.
Thomas, I.D.E. A Puritan Golden Treasury. Banner of Truth, 1989.
Tozer, A.W. The Root of the Righteous. Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1955.
Sibbes, Richard. Works of Richard Sibbes. Banner of Truth, 1990.
Wells, David F. The Present Evangelical Crisis. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1998.