Immersion in the fantasy world of television blocks our thinking about things from a biblical or eternal perspective.

Usually it’s the specifics of television that bother us. We are disturbed by the off-color jokes in the comedy or the crescendo of pre-Christmas toy commercials.

But some researchers, who have no particular religious orientation to their thinking, would point us in a different direction. George Gerbner and his associates at the University of Pennsylvania contend that the effects of any particular aspect of television ought not to be our greatest concern. Rather, Gerbner suggests, we should notice how television shapes our way of looking at the world. Television, he argues, is like Christianity: it fashions our whole way of thinking.

That is thought provoking. It makes us ask which is shaping our thinking more—Christianity or secular television? Has television become an obstacle to our forming a Christian mind?

Research evidence compiled by professional observers such as Gerbner over the last 30 years confirms that television indeed has an impact on our view of the world. It shapes people’s thinking about what sex is like, how affluent the people around them are, how dangerous the world is, what political questions are important, and so on. It is only reasonable to conclude that our huge investment in the medium—50,000 to 75,000 hours or more in an average American’s lifetime—is also having an impact on our thinking about more fundamental aspects of reality.

Television’s power to cultivate an entire view of reality is a challenge that most Christians have not reckoned with. The danger is that while holding the correct set of beliefs about God and his Word we may be allowing something quite different to shape our minds.

When we spend time with television, we are casually and rather passively exposing our minds to a world that, simply, ignores God. The realities of the Christian revelations, which in the scriptural view tower over the landscape like gigantic monuments, are all but invisible to television’s near-sighted eye.

In the television world, for instance, it is of no importance whether God made all things or not. Documentaries probe political and economic issues without posing such questions as, What are God’s purposes in this area of life, and, How can men and women best serve them? In television entertainment’s world of police stations and fancy apartments, no one speaks of creation or, apparently, thinks of it. Just as the television world is peopled by higher proportions of law enforcement workers, professionals, and affluent folks than the real world, it is also inhabited by a race of people who for the most part do not care whether they are living in a purposive creation or a cosmic accident.

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Creative man, not creator God, fills the screen. When was the last time a late-night talk show featured a guest whose prominence lay in his uncompromising obedience to God? Guests are not chosen for their exemplary submission to God’s will or their keen understanding of his intentions for some department of life. They are chosen for their creativity, their own original achievements, their striking expressions of individuality.

Daily Christian life flows from an awareness of being a creature, made with a purpose, cared for by God. This consciousness ought to suffuse the Christian’s outlook as blood courses through his veins. But for many of us, this awareness is submerged in the stream of images from television, which, while rising occasionally to heights of technical artistry in showing this beautiful world of movement and color, nowhere relates its fragmented images to the Artist who lies behind them.

In contrast to the men and women of the Scriptures, many Christians today sense only weakly the way God intervenes in the world and in each individual life. Most Christians find it difficult to develop a daily awareness of God as sovereign Lord who holds the initiative in his dealings with us. This difficulty is worsened as we immerse ourselves in the television view of the world, where there is absent an awareness of God’s ability to work his will in every circumstance of life. On television, God never does anything.

Not only God, but evil also recedes from view in the television world. In a story, a boy feigns blindness to escape a brutal father and win adoption in a better home—a powerful case for lying, made at an emotional level that resists rational refutation. In another story, a married soldier far from home enters an adulterous liaison with a woman of great sensitivity—again, a powerful emotional case for wrongdoing. Such programming makes it harder rather than easier to see what is right about righteousness and wrong about wrongdoing.

This moral confusion weakens the conviction that any behavior can be seriously and profoundly wrong. The Christian has more than a moral code. He or she recognizes the gravity of wrongdoing—its ungratefulness, its wickedness, its eternal folly. The Christian ought to be angered at serious sin. But as one writer, Stephen Clark, has noted, Christians are too often angry about that which offends them and complacent about that which offends God. We get angrier at being cut off on the expressway than by abuse directed at God’s law. This shows a failure to develop a mature Christian mentality that sees serious wrongdoing as the personal affront to God which, in fact, it is.

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No doubt our minds have been affected by spending so many hours on the moral tableland of the television world, where sin is flattened into insignificance, rather than in the scriptural world, where the collision of righteousness and evil has carved a landscape of soaring peaks and dizzying chasms.

In many cases, our thinking also lacks a grasp of the dynamics of good and evil. We know that sin is the world’s root problem, that human society apart from God is locked in a system of evil that Scripture calls “the world,” and that society has fallen under the power of “the prince of this world.” But to a large extent we have not integrated this knowledge in our minds. Our thinking has not been refashioned so that we are able to see our families, careers, and workplaces in those terms.

While television is not the only cause of our difficulty, it is certainly a factor, and a greater one the more time we spend with it. As television sees it, the world has its problems, but they are not beyond the ability of well-intentioned, highly trained individuals to deal with.

If television cannot cope with sin, neither can it face up to redemption. It tells us that life can be improved but not transformed. One of television’s underlying messages is “the world is the world is the world.” This is all there is, and this is all there is going to be. On the one hand, it’s not so bad, television says: situation comedies show us that deep down, everyone is just folks; documentaries show us good, competent people hard at work to bring progress. But don’t hope for anything radically better: the soaps display people’s endless, tedious unfaithfulnesses; the news reveals society’s central institutions, especially the government, as incapable of controlling the course of events.

The television view of the world is similar to some schools of psychology. These theories view man without taking into account either original sin or re-creation in Christ. They examine what can go wrong in the psyche of fallen man; and they propose what can be done short of starting all over. Similarly, television presents human society without illuminating either its bondage to evil or redemption in Christ. Psychological journals do not offer case studies of how men and women have died in Christ and been raised to new life with God. Television does not dramatize their stories.

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The television world’s view of reality is at odds with Christianity in many ways. But to say the television world is “secular” is to touch at once on all the ways that the medium implicitly repudiates the realities of revelation—God as purposeful creator and intervener, the nature of mankind’s predicament, and re-creation in Christ. All these realities presuppose an order of existence above the natural world, an age beyond this “saeculum.”

A secular current flows powerfully through all the major institutions of our society—government, school, business, the mass media. Against this current, Christians do not easily maintain a biblical world view. In American society today it is not easy to speak publicly, or even think, about events in light of eternity.

Once again, the problem for many of us is that our beliefs have not changed our thinking. We believe in eternity, but we tend not to see our lives and society from an eternal perspective. “How will this matter look in the very long run, at the judgment?” “How then will I wish I had acted now?” “How does Christian hope change the way I must view this suffering?” Our minds too rarely run down such channels.

By its nature, secular television blocks the development of this mentality. Television presents images of this world in a way that says, This is all there is. The mind remains trapped in the ideals, desires, and anxieties of this life.

These are what Malcolm Muggeridge calls “diversions” from the path of faith in God. Muggeridge puts it forcefully:

“I think that diversions are more difficult to deal with than ever before because the fantasies of life have been given such extraordinary outward and visible shape, even to the point where you can see them on the TV screen for three or four hours a day, these fantasies of power, of leisure, of carnality. Western men and women live in that world of images almost as long as any other, and it is a fearful thing. That is why you find among the young this extraordinary despair, because they feel there is no escape for them—no escape into reality.”

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The Great Commandment is that we should love God with all our mind and heart and strength. To love God with our minds means to have our minds formed by his Word, to have our thinking conformed to his way of seeing things. It is precisely with this that television interferes. To spend many hours with television is to fail to love God. At some point between our turning on the television for a little entertainment after dinner and our turning it off at the end of the evening, we enter a receptive communion with the images and messages of a secular culture. We begin with relaxing, and end with loving the world.

The early Christians were sensitive to the imaginative power of pagan poetry, drama, and popular entertainments, and they dealt with them cautiously if at all. Augustine described his interior life as “a limitless forest, full of unexpected dangers”; he was conscious of the complexities of the mind and the unpredictable ways that images and memories can tempt us and lead us astray. Unfortunately, many of us today have lost this sense of how vulnerable our minds can be to the influences of the world.

Basically we are not on the defensive against the world—although defense is necessary—because we have been caught up in God’s transforming work. He is making our minds and hearts new.

What he requires is our cooperation. We are to seek the things that are above, where Christ is. This involves allowing God to make his truth present to our minds in many practical ways through what we read, what we watch, what we listen to. Then he transforms our minds, and we come to view life from the perspective of being in Christ. We come to know God’s will. We come to know the height and breadth of his love.

We jeopardize this process of transformation by heavy involvement with television. Let us instead take control of this interference and cooperate with God giving us a new mind and heart.

Kevin Perrotta is managing editor of Pastoral Renewal, a journal for pastoral leaders published in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His article is adapted from a forthcoming book, Taming the TV Habit, soon to be published by Servant Books.

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