by James Montgomery Boice
It’s not just that there’s a lack of a Christian way of thinking — a “Christian mind” — but there is hardly a mind at all.
Some years ago I read an article in Newsweek about a husband and wife team of scientists who studied ducks. In order to observe their habits, they built a blind by a pond, then settled in to watch. During their investigations, they observed among the ducks incidences of what they called gang rape. While it was not written in so many words, the bottom line of the article was this: If gang rape takes place among the ducks, we shouldn’t be surprised that it takes place among human beings, too. And, sad to say, Newsweek is not the only source of this “man is no better than an animal” philosophy. An article in another publication featured a prominent photograph of an adult baboon holding an infant baboon it had killed. The conclusion was that if animals can kill their young, so can we. With media output like this, is it any wonder our society permits abortion and the murder of a million-and-a-half babies in this country every year?
You see, if we do not have a perspective on life that is higher than what we can touch, taste, and see, we cannot appreciate that life is not an accident of evolution, but a gift of God and so ought to be preserved. Instead, when the only direction we can look is down, we conclude that we have evolved a bit up from the animals. And because we define ourselves by the creation, we cut ourselves off from God-the source of every good and perfect gift. Is it any wonder, therefore, that we find ourselves and our society justifying sinful, wicked behavior by appealing to the animals? If we do not retain the knowledge of God in our minds, but rather suppress it, we experience what Paul so clearly documents in the first chapter of Romans: the revealing of the wrath of God. The result is we act like the animals, and in the end we do what even the animals will not.
I am convinced the great problem in America today is that people are not thinking. It’s a cultural phenomenon that has spilled over into the church. It is not just that there is a lack of a Christian way of thinking-a “Christian Mind”-but there is hardly a mind at all. In our day and age people, Christian and non-Christian alike, just do not think. We act and we react, but we do not consider and contemplate. There are many ways to explain this phenomenon: secularism, relativism, materialism, or just the fast pace of our lives. But we cannot overestimate the fact that our society has become so obsessed with entertainment that it has never learned to think. And this is because we have embraced a television culture rather than the print-based culture of our ancestors.
Do not get me wrong; I am not crusading against television. I would just as soon watch a movie on television as go to the theater. It is cheaper and I can do it in the comfort of my own home. There is nothing wrong with that. But we must stop believing that television is making us think. Television does not make us think; it entertains. And I am not alone in this opinion. Let me illustrate it by appealing to a couple of men who, as far as I know, are not Christians, but who understand the television medium.
The “Vannatization” of America
In 1988 Ted Koppel, host of ABC’s Nightline program, gave a speech at Duke University. He chose as his subject matter the Ten Commandments. He began by pointing out that they were not the Ten Suggestions but rather the Ten Commandments. He then proceeded by going through each commandment and showing its relevance to the great moral issues of our day. He related “Thou shalt not bear false witness” to the insider trading scandals on Wall Street. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” was tied to the scandals associated with TV evangelists. And so on. But what impressed me most about his address was something he said at the very beginning, in the very first line of his speech. He said, “America has been Vannatized.”
Now he knew nobody in that audience knew what he meant-he’d just coined the term-so he explained it. It’s “Vannatized” as in “Vanna White,” the very attractive and immensely popular woman on television’s “Wheel of Fortune.” She is, without a doubt, the major factor in the success of that program. She’s imitated all over the world: there’s a Vanna counterpart on German, French, and even Australian TV. Ted spent quite a bit of time talking about how popular Vanna White is. Then he said, “It’s interesting, isn’t it, that on that show you never hear Vanna say a word?” “How can that be?” he asked. “How could it be that someone about whom we know absolutely nothing is so popular?” “That,” Koppel said, “is the very nature of television.”
The reason she is so popular is not because she is telling us who she is, but because she is an image on the screen and we project onto the screen our feelings about her. That is the way television operates. That is the kind of medium it is. So if you are unhappy in your marriage and you say, “Boy, I wish I had a good looking mistress like that,” she fulfills that role. Or if you are a young girl just beginning to go through puberty and a little bit uneasy about yourself and about what you are going to be, she could be your big sister-you’re going to grow up to be like her! Vanna is anything you want her to be. Koppel said, “That’s our world.”
You see, we think of ourselves as being the best informed generation in history because of television. Television is everywhere-I read somewhere that there are more television sets in America than there are indoor toilets. Furthermore, they are on all the time: The average household watches television six hours a day. And because of that we think we know more than any generation in history. But as a matter of fact we do not. Instead, what television is doing, if I may put it bluntly, is entertaining us to death.
Laughing Our Heads Off
Neil Postman is a professor of education and special education communication techniques at Columbia University in New York City. A number of years ago he wrote a book titled Amusing Ourselves to Death. It was all about television, about the changes that have come over the western world and especially American society as a result of television. The book is divided into two parts. The first analyzes the changes television has brought about; the second the effects of television’s commitment to be entertaining.
In the first section of his book, Postman contrasts our age, which he calls the entertainment age, with the prior age, which he calls the age of typography. In other words, he maintains that our age has brought about a fundamental paradigm shift. Our age is concerned with entertainment; the former with communication-and that via a verbal medium. When he talks about the former age as being an age of typography, he is talking about words.
What Postman is saying is this: Words work in a certain way. For example, if you are trying to communicate in an article, you put down what you want to say. Sometimes you indicate your point by the heading, then you develop it with arguments to explain why it is true and with answers to objections. You then form conclusions and make applications.
When you come across an article written like that, you read it carefully and with a certain amount of detachment. People admire something that makes sense and is well written, but you do not usually break into applause after reading carefully crafted prose. You see, there is a certain distance there, a distance inherent in the written medium. If you do not understand something you read, if it uses a vocabulary you don’t understand, the distance allows you to look up the words. If the concepts are new and you need a little bit of time to assimilate them, the distance permits you to do that and continue on. The distance endemic to written communication permits the consideration and contemplation essential to thinking.
People who grew up in an age of typography could think in rational categories. Even their verbal discourse reflected that approach to knowledge. Postman details at length what he considers probably the greatest and best informed period in American history, the time shortly before the American Civil War. In the debates that took place between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, common people would gather in an open area while the debaters stood on a platform and spoke. Lincoln and Douglas would debate campaign issues for six or seven hours and people would stand and listen, following the discussion and grasping the issues. Furthermore, the debates were written up in newspapers and spread across the country. Those who read the newspaper reports were able to participate in the debates, too. Postman says we have lost all that today because what we have is not a typographical age, an age where people know how to think because they have been trained to think in words. Rather, we have an age where people are not trained to think-indeed are kept from thinking-because they are being entertained continuously. That is what television does; it is an entertainment medium.
Now, this does not mean that you cannot have educational items on television, of course, and Postman admits that. But even with educational programs you do not get what you think you get. After all, in order to educate by means of television, you must have pictures, and the necessity of pictures itself predetermines the subject matter you can present. You cannot effectively teach philosophy on television, for example. It is abstract reasoning. You can, however, educate children about deep sea fishing because you can show nice pictures of being out at sea and catching fish, and you can talk about the ocean. But basically you still have entertainment.
In the second section of his book, Postman has a chapter detailing television’s effects on religion, and he concludes that when you put religion on television, religion becomes entertainment. It will only survive on television in an entertainment format. And, by and large, the programs that do well are those that are designed to entertain. Either they are a vaudeville show, with the prerequisite song and dance numbers done in Christian guise, or they are talk shows along the lines of Merv Griffin; people sitting around and telling stories. But notice: They are not talking about theology. They are not teaching the Bible. They are telling stories: “Look what God did for me!” and “Listen to the miracle that happened in my life last week!” Or they are pitching a product: “What miracle do you want, brother? While you pray, we’ll do a miracle.” That plays well on television because that’s entertaining.
Now, when Billy Graham is on television, that is an exception. Billy Graham is an exception to everything. If people tune in to watch Billy Graham, it is not because it’s good television, but because they want to hear what Billy Graham has to say. There are other exceptions, too. But, by and large, the programs that do well are those in an entertainment format. Listen to what Postman says, “CBS knows that Walter Cronkite plays better than the Milky Way and Jimmy Swaggart comes across better than God.” Ever wonder why Swaggart was so popular on TV? It’s because, Postman says, “God exists only in the mind, while Swaggart is there to be worshipped and adored.” He concludes, “I’m not a theologian, I may not know the right word for this, but I think the word for it is blasphemy.”
Perhaps you are saying to yourself, “What difference does it make? If entertainment is the way television operates, why not have religious entertainment? Wouldn’t it be better to have that than what the networks offer?” And I am inclined to agree with you here, except for two points. First, if what people expect from religion is what they see on television, then there is going to be (and as a pastor I assure you there already is) enormous pressure on churches to conform to the entertainment motif. Out goes expository preaching, because people cannot concentrate very long. Forget theology: People are not interested in theology, and they can’t follow an argument anyway. Let there be funny stories, and let them be short. As for the worship service, bring on lively ditties that make people feel good! Surely God will be blessed. And, above all, do not permit long prayers.
Postman asks, “What happens when you put religion on television, what do you lose?” His answer is, you lose everything that is important, specifically, a sense of the transcendent. It is God who is missing when religion is put on television. And I am afraid that when television is allowed to reshape our churches, God is missing from them too.
My second objection is a point I’ve already made: we must not believe that television is making us think. It is not. If we are to learn to think, we must go about it in a different way. We’ll have to leave the set off more often and begin thinking.
Thinking and the Church
So what is the answer? How do we combat the entertainment agenda infiltrating our churches? How do we stop being entertained to death and learn to think? We do it by following Paul’s instruction in Romans 12:2: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” That’s the way it happens. The answer is to study the Word of God. That is how we learn not only to think but to think as God does. I used to say, “If you’re not feeding yourself with the Bible all the time, you will be thinking like the world.” In view of our television culture, I have amended that saying to, “If you are not feeding yourself with the Bible all the time, the world is going to entertain you and you’ll end up not thinking at all.”
This presents a unique opportunity for churches today. The world is filled with entertainment and entertainment is fun and people like it and will go where they can have a good time. But sooner or later some will get sick of being entertained-they are made in the image of God, you see, and part of that image is the capacity to think. They will realize that life is more than entertainment, more than just a good time. They will come to a crossroad and say, “There has to be more to life than this. I’m not here just to be entertained, to be sold products, to spend my money on what people want me to buy. Aren’t I more important than this?” They will come looking for an alternative. Now, it will not be the vast majority of people, but it will be the people with whom God is working. Churches, if they have not sold themselves wholesale to the entertainment agenda, will be that alternative. “Yes, you are more important!” they will say. “You’re infinitely more important because you are made in the image of God. God has made you to be like Him!” Then the churches will point them to Jesus Christ and encourage them to be “transformed by the renewing of [their] minds.” But if churches have absorbed the entertainment mentality, if they have themselves lost the ability to think, they will offer seekers nothing more than what they have already. Instead of pointing out the path of the righteous which is like “the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day,” these churches will be like “clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted” and will leave the lost on a downhill path with the vision of God becoming increasingly dim. Then, like the Newsweek article I referred to earlier said, they will be no better than so many ducks on a pond.