The Leaven in a Little Bit

Many Christians oppose a blanket rule against TV because they feel that some TV programs are good, or at least harmless. Why prohibit the good along with the bad? Would it not be better to judge each program on its own merits? To justify TV watching, they might even appeal to the principle enunciated by Jesus, "Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days?" (Mark 3:4). Thus, "Is it lawful to watch a good program on TV?"

The answer to this question is, yes. But we must attach two provisos.

1. Although it may be lawful to watch a good program, it may not be wise. The good program may lure the viewer into regular use of TV.

Some years ago public TV dramatized C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. Why would the devil's medium carry this and other fare that, from a Christian point of view, seems innocuous or even constructive? In the Scriptures, the devil is described as a predator looking for unwary prey, as a hunter setting a trap. What does a hunter use to lure the hunted? Bait, of course. Bait is something that, in the view of the hunted, is totally good and wholesome. If you are a fish, you cannot imagine any finer food than a worm. No mouse has ever found anything objectionable in cheese. So is it surprising that the programs used by the devil to entrap those Christians who are still holdouts to TV are indisputably worthwhile? What better bait could he devise than The Chronicles of Narnia?

One problem in Christianity today is that most believers have only a dim awareness of their enemy. They do not comprehend that they are locked in a daily struggle against "principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places" (Eph. 6:12). Consequently, they are not inclined to suspect that anything as pleasant and as entertaining and as full of godly sentiment as The Chronicles of Narnia could be the instrument of a sinister purpose.

2. A good program on TV is exceedingly rare. One of the best candidates for our approval is Sesame Street. Small children no doubt benefit somewhat from its effort to acquaint them with numbers and letters. But consider what else the program offers. The story lines and humor are built mainly on the rude behavior of various monsters, portrayed as very lovable despite their faults. These monsters teach their preschool admirers a smart mouth, a lack of humility, and an unwillingness to show politeness and deference. Perhaps as parents have evaluated the program, they have overlooked the modeling of objectionable behavior because, in our culture, such behavior has become normal. Few people still show good manners. The ugly speech of the monsters is just the way everybody talks.

Another evil in the program is its promotion of democratic values, so called. It wants people of diverse races and cultures to live together in constant dialogue, so that they might learn to understand and appreciate each other. Now, it is certainly desirable that different ethnic groups should live together without mutual suspicion and hatred. But it is not desirable that they should find harmony through a grand synthesis of their separate cultures, for any group that abandons the distinctives of its own cultural heritage may lose much that is worth preserving.

The most pernicious aim of democratic values (an aim evident not in this program, but in many others) is to erase true Christianity. It is alleged that anyone who claims to own the one true religion is undemocratic, that he cannot be a good citizen of modern society until he renounces such dogmatism and treats other religions more respectfully, as equally valid paths to ultimate truth.

Further evil in Sesame Street is its frenetic pace. When viewed in tandem with a few other programs of the same type, it reduces a young viewer to cranky exhaustion, while denying him the benefits of healthful exercise. At the same time, it teaches him to enjoy short, simplified messages in the context of potent audiovisual stimuli more than the longer, more complicated, and more abstract messages available in reading.

I have chosen to comment on Sesame Street because it is one of the least objectionable programs on TV. The other fare served up to children is much worse. As for the viewing diet available to adults, it is nothing but poison for the mind. Who could watch any half hour at random and not see the imprint of the present world ruler? Vulgarity, blasphemy, obscenity, immodesty, cynicism, and brutality intrude with ever increasing boldness. Even when a program manages to be relatively clean, it is still guided by beliefs in conflict with a Christian world view. Instead of exalting Christ, the program will exalt selfish happiness by recommending the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, fame, or worldly success. Worse, it will proceed as if God may be safely forgotten. Indeed, it will leave the deep impression that life without God can be both beautiful and happy.

What child, especially, will not feel drawn to such a life as he watches its vivid representations dance on the video screen? Full of excitement, crowded with fun, the ungodly world seen through the window of TV is irresistibly enticing. A Christian child who falls under the charm of that world begins to seek it not in fantasy alone, but also in reality. He begins to move toward the goal of gaining credentials as a full-fledged worldling. The more he admires the entertaining life of the ungodly, the more he disdains the dull life of devout parents, the strenuous life of Christian workers, and the suffering life of Christian martyrs.

To hasten a child's identification with the world, TV uses both sticks and carrots. One carrot is the promise of a good time. Notice the unremitting, almost compulsive, comedy in programs for children. One stick is peer pressure. Notice that the carrier of values in such programs is seldom a single hero, but usually a group of children representing a cross-section of genders, ages, and races. This strategy maximizes peer pressure by giving every viewing child someone to identify with.

The world pictured on TV is rotten in its core decision to ignore God, and from this central enormity radiates an all-pervasive corruption. Its godless heroes, though wonderfully attractive, are openly contemptuous of old-fashioned virtues. They are loud, selfish, and arrogant rather than quiet, kind, and humble. Their example affects the character of every adoring viewer, especially if he is a child, for a child is still very moldable. As he watches the personalities deified on TV, he readily copies everything about them: their attitude, their language, their dress, their sexual habits, their ambition to gain the world, and their blindness to eternity.

Yet a defender of TV might point to the value in its informational programs. For example, does it not offer some worthwhile programs on science? Pardon me if I am skeptical, but in how many Christian homes is the TV turned on only to watch science programs? Now, be honest. Besides, such programs are not really worthwhile when examined closely. All have a pronounced slant toward pseudoscience at variance with the Bible. When they deal with man, they propound a false psychology which assumes that man is an animal, lacking an immaterial soul, or a false anthropology which pretends to find virtue in the sinful practices of a primitive culture. When they deal with nature, they propagandize in favor of evolution, or they teach that the present system of ecological balances, involving death and suffering, is absolutely good, whereas the Bible teaches that it is an unnatural system infected by sin. When they deal with society, they tend to take a Marxist or leftist view of human needs.

Perhaps an occasional science program, relatively free of false theorizing, makes acceptable viewing. Yet how many Christian parents are capable of recognizing all the antibiblical implications in material presented as factual science? How many of them are sharp enough to greet each error with disbelief? How many of them can speak with enough logic and authority to blunt the effect of an error upon children? Would it not be better if science programs were avoided?

What about sports programs? The first objection must be that they absorb much time that would be better devoted to the family, to rest, or to constructive activity. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in a game of baseball or basketball, of course. But sports on TV mirror the moral corruption in society at large. The players themselves have lost almost all commitment to good sportsmanship. They brawl and whine and act shamefully when competing. When not competing, their lives consist of crass self-seeking and money-grubbing. Many of today's most visible athletes are monsters of immoral conduct. The adulation now being heaped upon athletes who have contracted AIDS through debauchery is revolting. What will be the character of a generation growing up with such heroes?

The athletic contests carried on TV have become unfit to watch. On the floor or field we see bad attitudes. Along the sidelines we see underdressed, dancing cheerleaders. After each few minutes of game time, we see a long stretch of commercials for oversized cars, beer, and female undergarments.

What about TV news? A Christian undoubtedly needs to know what is going on in the world. But is TV the best source of information? The presentation of the news in certain magazines and on the BBC, which can be heard over short-wave radio, is more thorough and objective.

I submit that almost nothing on TV is purely good. Indeed, almost everything is preponderantly bad. Why, then, should we watch TV? An exceptionally discerning parent may be able to limit TV to a trickle of worthwhile programs. But unless his judgment is infallible, the programs he allows will inevitably include some that are harmful to his children. Most parents, however, are neither willing nor able to bring TV under necessary governance, because they themselves are not free of fascination with the tube. For all parents, at all stages of Christian experience, complete rejection of TV is far safer than occasional use and far easier than adequate day-by-day regulation.

A Pastor's Obligation

A pastor may be reluctant to launch an attack against a practice so popular and prevalent as TV-watching. If he confronts his people with a bold denunciation of TV, they will probably stiffen their necks in resistance and reject everything he says. Perhaps they will reject him as well. So, the pastor may decide that it is better to preach on the general principle of separation from the world. To ease his conscience, he may tell himself that the task of showing his people the specific applications of this principle belongs to the Holy Spirit. If his people can discover the harm in TV largely on their own, in the absence of forthright preaching from the pulpit, the church will avoid much unpleasantness.

Yet his people most in need of protection from the influence of TV are the young in age and the young in faith. Experience proves that these are the least inclined to make specific applications of general principles. It will never occur to them that the principle of separation, for example, frowns upon their habit of TV-watching. Perhaps, as the pastor urges them not to love the world, moments from the most degenerate shows in their list of favorites may come to mind and cause a twinge of guilt. But probably all discomfort will pass away as soon as they leave church, and the old pattern of TV-watching will continue. If a pastor wishes to eliminate a prevailing sin among his people, he must name the sin. He must point an accusing finger at it. Spiritual results come through preaching that goes straight to the target, not through general preaching flung at random. The sinner is a great dodger. The truth will not hit him between the eyes unless its meaning is made precise and inescapable.

A pastor may not be convinced. He would like to avoid a blanket condemnation of TV. He would rather emphasize its most flagrant evils as proof that his people should use discernment in their selection of programs. Once their discernment gets working, perhaps they will see that a TV is not worth having. But, again, the ones most threatened by TV are the ones most lacking in discernment, and discernment is the fruit of good instruction. The pastor must educate his people in the differences between the mind of TV and the mind of God. With forthrightness and fearlessness he must grab hold of the wickedness on TV and pull it from hiding into full view. Inevitably, he will lead his flock to the conclusion that all worldly television is wrong. Blanket condemnation will proceed naturally from shining the light of God's truth upon the darkness of man's folly.

But blanket condemnation does not require the roar of a lion. Some pastors seem to think that their preaching is less than spiritual if they do not heap wrath and damnation upon everyone who might be of a different opinion. A wise pastor, however, will understand that ranting and raving are not the effective cure for TV-watching. He will treat his people like adults, like Christian brothers, esteeming them better than himself. He will say: "What you do is between you and God, but as for me and my house, we have decided that we are better off without TV. Let me tell you why." As Scripture says, he will lead primarily by his example (1 Pet. 5:3). It will be soon enough to rebuke his flock should they begin acting like children.