The Destructive Influence of Television

Giving Ground to the Enemies of Christ



“This entry of ‘thoughts’ from any quarter comes from the deeper cause of a passivity of the mind which, as we have pointed out in Chapter 4, is the main object of the adversary to produce, ere he can succeed in his effort to obtain control of the believer's will. The Lord's words in Matthew 13: 23, that the good ground hearer is ‘he that heareth the word and understandeth it,’ show that the mind is the vehicle through which the truth of God reaches men to win their affections, and bring back the will into intelligent and loyal co-operation with God. In like manner the mind is the hindrance to Satan's carrying out his schemes to win back control of the believer. For the success of his plans, the enemy knows that the mind must be lulled into inaction and disuse by some means or other, either by stratagem or attack. The arch-deceiver is well aware that any ‘teaching’ of deceiving spirits accompanied by supernatural signs, may be received by the believer if his mind is lulled into passivity so that he does not question, or intelligently reason, what the teachings are, or what they involve in their ultimate issue.” [Jesse Penn-Lewis, The War on the Saints, Chapter 7]

Marshall McLuhan, media guru of the sixties and renowned for his slogan “the medium is the message”, in his book Understanding Media, classifies media as either hot or cold, (McLuhan, 1964. Pp.36-45). Hot media is rich in sensory information . If the information dominates one sensory channel (visual, auditory…) the receiving person must become more passive in order to receive and store the information. Cold media provides less sensory information, which allows the receiver, or should we say forces the receiver to become more actively engaged. A book is cold in this sense. There is no taste, smell, auditory stimulation, or meaningful touch, and even if the book includes pictures or illustrations, the visual information is cryptic at best. Therefore the reader's imagination is immediately engaged to fill in the missing sense data, using the words on the page as a guide. On the other hand, film or television is hot, very hot. With big and bold audio and video the viewer is left little to imagine and no time to contemplate the alternatives. The viewer becomes a passive witness. This is the case whether viewing a sit-com or a public policy debate.

To understand how this works, think of a movie that you have seen based on book that you read before seeing the movie. There is the inevitable dissatisfaction when a book is made into a movie, because the reader's vision of the material is inevitably going to conflict with the filmmaker's. Literate people are quick to become restless and bored with television. Those who are actively engaged in important issues are frustrated by talking heads. The question of a one-sided interaction isn't the issue. A book is no less one-sided. The question is one of active or passive engagement. A hungry infant is happy to be spoon fed, but an adult is not.

The Bible is one of the more extreme cases of a book difficult to translate to the screen. The reason is simple. So much is left unsaid, or is implied, or said in ambiguous, poetic or allegorical dialog which defy easy translation to television or film. Many stories are told in little more than a thumb-nail sketch. This makes the Bible a new treasury every time you pick it up. New gold appears even after one-hundred readings. Film adaptations must lock down the look and feel, emotional undercurrents, and fill in large gaps to the narrative. Even the filmmakers can be dissatisfied with the result. My pet peeve is actors playing Jesus who appear to be ethereal stary-eyed effeminate men who have never seen the sun and would collapse of heat prostration if they ever had to plane down a board with hand tools. That is because I have done a lot of carpentry and can't help but see our Lord's incarnation as very earthy and very engaged. The Bible is very real to me. I study it intently and pray about its meaning. If you force-feed me your version I'm likely to get queasy.

Working backwards from a hot medium such as film or television to a cold medium like a book presents a different problem. If the viewer is not ready or willing to engage the expanded need for user input (thought, vision, imagination) because they have become comfortably numb they will be easily distracted, become bored and abandon the effort of reading. Writers are forced to combat this tendency by breaking their writings up into subtitled blocks, shorter paragraphs and getting to the point faster. This effect on writing style is very evident when reading works written before the advent of film and television where paragraphs stretch on for half a page or more, the chapters are not broken up, and there are few graphics if any. I have noticed that modern reprints of older materials often add subtitles to ease the readers through. Modern readers simply give up too easily.

Simply put, we have become a world ruled by sound bites and media events. A statement or slogan, as “visualize world peace”, is not examined, it is either picked up or left. A media event is something reported in the media which gains importance through repetition and superficial examination. The event is significant because it captures interest. The US presidential election held in limbo because of the thin margin and irregularities in Florida's electoral process became a large media event. Irregularities in other states did not rise to the same level of public interest even though the underlying problem differs little from that of the State of Florida's. The most significant media event for Americans in this decade is ‘9-11’. Simply saying ‘9-11’ stirs up many images or emotions, but may not engender a great deal of genuine reflection. One media event or sound bite may radically transform another. So the bumper sticker “visualize whirled peas” breaks the effect of the first. Think competing bumper fish. For the most part, analysis is superficial at best.

The frightening aspect of this passivity of thought is how easily a poorly thought out idea can capture the imagination of popular culture, politics or religion. Differences are never hammered out. In this atmosphere, extremists have captured control of political parties leaving very little middle ground for compromise. This is occurring in the United States Congress, in the Middle East, in India, in Russia, everywhere. One of the most significant causes of this passivity is the destructive influence of television and other hot medium.



“over against the convenience of instantaneous communication is the fact that the great economical abstractions of writing, reading, and drawing, the media of reflective thought and deliberate action, will be weakened.” [Lewis Mumford, Techniques and Civilization, page 240]

Let's face it, television is dedicated to short attention spans and cut-through-the-blahs pizzazz. It is a jack-me-up jump start medium. Sesame Street gives me the jitters with its bright, flashy vignettes of a minute or less. A game like European football is an excellent sport to watch in a stadium, (ignoring the problem of lawless fans), but it does not fit well in the impatient environment of the television, hence, American football, choppy but aggressive, rules US television. The impatient barrage of “up to the minute” headlines or “in depth” fifteen to twenty minute reports are endemic to television, and have seriously transformed radio and, to a lesser degree, newspapers.

I remember entering the theater to see the film adaptation of Frank Hebert's novel Dune. I was met in the lobby by the manager asking if I had read the book. His concern was not that I wouldn't like the adaptation, but that I would not understand it unless I had read the book. The film tried to cover too much of the novel and with that it still finished half way through the first book. This ties into the former problem. A film has a very difficult time compressing information. Godard's film Breathless (1960) stunned audiences because of its extreme use of the “jump-cut” where a piece of time is removed from the action. A character seen entering an elevator, is suddenly seen exiting the elevator and the viewer understands that time has jumped forward in the narrative. This technique, common today, was rarely used prior to the sixties. According to some reports, when the movie was first released there were viewers of Breathless who fled the theater with extreme nausea from the disorientation caused by the frenetic jumping in time. Now our children are being fed Sesame Street so that all too quickly they are bored by Mr. Rogers.

News, where narrative techniques would be out of place, suffers its own form of restlessness. The nightly news suffers from the problem of the speed and ease of information transference. A recent report on top executives stated that many executives feel so much pressure to stay on top of information that they are being drowned in e-mail newsletters and flash faxes. They can't digest all of the information they get. This same pressure to know appears in the nightly news. The result is large quantities of information in short punchy reports. Accuracy, analysis and context all suffer. As a result, a report of thirty minutes or more seems deep and thorough, especially if at least one opposing view is aired.

The end of it all is an emotional mixer: new predators on the loose, new health concerns, new reports of fraud or injustice, and the festival downtown. Newspapers are no strangers to emotionalism, but television news is so much more provocative. Nightly news clips are “punched up” with cut-always to the news chopper, on-the-scene footage, or mini-interviews. Notice that even the language of television is jittery. Meanwhile, the viewer is held in a relatively passive state. This is true of movies, music, video games. McLuhan's definition of hot media would in fact cover the performing arts as well, especially now that distractions can be controlled by modern lighting and acoustically designed halls. But by far the force of the culture shift begins when the television enters the home.



Recently, NPR aired a report on driver's safety films. The motor safety official interviewed said they had to change their approach to drivers awareness films. The blood and gore typical of such films when I was a youth was having no effect on a generation steeped in television and the movies. They did not see these scenes as being particularly real. When we hear of another horrific event such as the “events” of Columbine High School or serial murders, one wonders if the constant bombardment of fictional murder is not breaking down barriers to this sort of murder. My deeper concern is that computers as they allow deeper levels of virtual reality will increasingly blur the line between the real and the unreal.

Disassociation begins with fantasy. While I would be loath to condemn fantasy outright, I believe that it should be listed with other strong addictions. In the case of pornography it is usually recognized as an addiction. But fantasy in the form of Sci-fi, fantasy genre, romance in novels, movies, television and role playing games can all become addictive. Moreover, since many, if not most, forms of fantasy involve imagining oneself, or the fantasy hero or heroine, engagement in activities, which would be wrong in the real world, fantasy can lead to an erosion of standards for conduct. For this reason, Jesus clearly identifies fantasy with sin: “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:28; also Matthew 15:19 and Mark 7:21).

Moving into the “Information Age” we are already prone to disassociation through immersion in abstractions. I believe this is particularly true of those who spend large amounts of time on the computer. Hacker Adrian Lamo describes his activities: “I try to do it in ways that I'd generally be okay with if they were applied to me—I do what I'm geared to do, for lack of a better way of describing it” (from an interview by Christopher Null in ‘New Architect’, December 2002). I don't believe that anyone is likely to see anything shockingly new in his moral outlook. This moral framework, which relativizes all things to oneself, is a direct extension of “growing up absurd”, i.e. without God.

The corrosive effect of disassociation on morality is that television is able to gradually increase the level of degradation. Like the proverbial frog in hot water, the viewer enjoys the warmth. Immersed in the fantasy, there is no consideration of the wider considerations of moral degradation. Increasingly there is little or nothing forbidden on television, including network television. It doesn't take a saint to be appalled by the current trends in television. All it takes is one child that you care about. Stepping back and taking a good hard look at contemporary American culture, lawless is on the increase, not for reasons of social injustice, but drunken riots celebrating football games or protesting campus drinking policies. It is as if our young had entered into a hypnotic trance of destructiveness.

Television capitalizes on “reality” like no other medium. The ability to press in close to a mother's angst or a perpetrator's stone-face stitches together the unreal with the real in a Gordian knot. “Reality Television” pushes this wrapping together of real and unreal to its limit. Real people, (it would be a hard stretch to call some of them normal), are placed in situation ranging from intense to surreal. The result that the viewer sees is a twisting together of the real and the unreal. It is passionate and provoking, but it can be turned off. It is both somewhere else and right there at the same time. The viewer, like a disembodied soul, hovers just this side of the glass.

The confines of the glass box, which gives the appearance of reality, allows a enormous control to the show producer. As long as the appearance of impartiality is maintained, the producer of a documentary or news program can horribly distort the message. Television makes it difficult to work out differences with someone you disagree with. You can turn them off, or yell at the television, but you cannot discuss the issue. On the other hand there is a natural tendency to gravitate to and be drawn in by someone who sounds reasonable to you. The dissenting voices are likely to be chosen for the theatrical effect, i.e. the more polarized the better. Couple that with the brevity of the discussions and the likelihood of seeing consensus emerge from the television is somewhere between dim and nil. Ethnic solidarity, or religious and cultural affiliations pull people together into separate viewing bodies, where their disparate viewpoints are reinforced. For me, this was most dramatically demonstrated when I watched the reading of the O.J. verdict in a restaurant containing large numbers of black and white diners. The reactions where diametrically opposed across the racial divide. I can only attribute that to the nature of the television itself. Although, we sat in the same bar-b-que house, our opinions were frozen by what we saw in the television over the course of several months. What we saw in each other had faded away.


A Downward Rush

Finally, without strong leadership, we are descending into anarchy. Television encourages disparate views. It also airs and thereby lends respectability to extremist views. But mostly, television strokes the beast. The beasts buy the products. And so the beasts have the voice. By that, I am referring to the tendency to appeal to the flesh. This can be seen in the appeal to the sense of the freedom to drive out from under any cloud in car commercials, the suggestion of seductiveness in commercials ranging from beer to automobiles, or the warm family environment of a new home. The content of the programming itself has very few bright spots. The unfortunate truth is that sin sells. Those governing the broadcast and cable networks are concerned about one thing, the number of eyeballs fixed to their screen when the commercial runs. The commercial sponsors are concerned about whether or not those viewers are going to be sold by their particular message. Morality enters in only when a negative reaction derails their purpose. Leadership which goes against those primary goals is an expensive proposition. It will only come about with strong political and social leverage in the opposite direction.

A close examination of much of Christian programming is fleshy at its core as well. Much of it contains a health, wealth and prosperity message. Other Christian programming leans heavily toward a fear factor or emotional pleas. Occasionally this is because of a theological or spiritual deficit of the presenter, but largely this is a limitation of the medium. The spiritual atmosphere created by a group of worshipers is difficult to transmit through the television.

For every hour spent in front of the television, several more are confined to a dullness caused by the fog of passivity. Constructive, inventiveness is sapped by television. Activity decreases dramatically, hence an increasingly obese population. Social engagement is curtailed or becomes a reenactment of characters portrayed on the television. Healthy social interaction is more and more difficult to maintain. The only thing that penetrates this fog is aggressive, loud and shocking.

The mind-numbing passivity created by television works strongly against the energetic interactiveness required for a spiritual life. The spiritual life dies away. Prayer in particular, and even among non-Christians I don't think you will find many commentators who would suggest that an active spiritual life can be maintained long without prayer, is a difficult discipline to engage with a passive mind. Sitting before the one who speaks in a still small voice, who communicates in fleeting visions, who brushes us with an impression easy to miss, absolutely requires an attentive and watchful attitude. Prayer is about engagement with the Bridegroom and His Father.

Although, content is not the primary issue I see with television and other video mediums, content is important. Clearly the trend for content is horrible to say it mildly. Let me excerpt a part of the description for a book titled Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill : A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video Game Violence:

“Authors Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano offer incontrovertible evidence, much of it based on recent major scientific studies and empirical research, that movies, TV, and video games are not just conditioning children to be violent--and unaware of the consequences of that violence--but are teaching the very mechanics of killing. Their book is a much-needed call to action for every parent, teacher, and citizen to help our children and stop the wave of killing and violence gripping America's youth. And, most important, it is a blueprint for us all on how that can be achieved.

“In Paducah, Kentucky, Michael Carneal, a fourteen-year-old boy who stole a gun from a neighbor's house, brought it to school and fired eight shots at a student prayer group as they were breaking up. Prior to this event, he had never shot a real gun before. Of the eight shots he fired, he had eight hits on eight different kids. Five were head shots, the other three upper torso. The result was three dead, one paralyzed for life. The FBI says that the average, experienced, qualified law enforcement officer, in the average shootout, at an average range of seven yards, hits with less than one bullet in five. How does a child acquire such killing ability? What would lead him to go out and commit such a horrific act?”


New Studies Links Childhood Television Viewing With ADD

This headline grabbed my attention. Someone told me about this study. I found this headline, “New Study Links Childhood Television Viewing With ADD” on Given what I had written previously above, I was breaking my arm patting myself on the back. Here it is: “according to the latest study released by the Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, children under two should not be allowed to watch any television because it may significantly increase their chances of suffering attention problems later in life.”

Apparently television viewing for such young children seriously changes the way the brain works. “And it gets worse,” author Carolina Taylor explains, “if your children are even over the age of two, the study of 1,345 children, and the scientists that conducted it, urged that television viewing be restricted to a maximum of two hours a day. There go the Barney, TeleTubbies, Sesame Street, and Dragon Tail marathons that go on in my house. According to this study, every hour of shows my children watch, increases their chances of having ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) by 10 percent. That’s astounding! In 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics informed parents that children under two should not be permitted to watch television because of concerns that it interfered with early brain growth, but this study suggests, that the problem is much farther reaching than that, and has a much more sustaining effect on children through the later years as well. Dr Dimitri Christakis who led the study says, ‘There are lots of reasons for children not to watch television. Other studies have shown it to be associated with obesity and aggressiveness as well.’ ”

Because of the rapid development of the brain during early childhood, the abnormal visual and mental stimuli which I outlined above causes the architecture of the brain to radically readjust. See if this reminds you of someone you know: “The children who had been exposed to more hours of television through the years, were much more prone to having problems with concentration, became easily confused and distracted, and had impulsive and erratic behavior. These same children also had problems with sleeplessness, and restlessness. The children that were allowed to watch three or more hours of television a day were 30 percent more likely to have attention difficulties than those children that had not been allowed to watch television.”

For those about to protest, the study did carefully filter out mitigating home life factors such as the parent's mental health and marriage status. I can now truly say that I am thankful that there was no television in my family's house until I was nearly out of high school. The television has never been a significant element in my life. I will say that when I am alone in a hotel room a desire to turn on the television seems to hang in the air.

According to an October 2012 article on the Houston Chronicle website, the American Academy of Pediatrics has completed an new study which shows that “background television”, (leaving the television on when no one is watching) is also significant risk to childhood development. “ ‘Background television exposure has been linked to lower sustained attention during playtime, lower-quality parent-child interactions and reduced performance on cognitive tasks,’ the study states.… The AAP encourages parents to turn off the television when no one is watching and to schedule specific times of day, such as mealtimes and bedtime, when the TV must be turned off.”

Wm W Wells: August 12, 2001

Copyright © 2001 Wm W Wells. May be copied freely without alteration.