It would be easy to moan about the negative impact that television has had on our ability to think.
So here goes.
Despite the impact of computer technology, television continues the shape the way people think, feel and behave. And in some ways the impact of TV may be greater even than schools, families and churches.
Many people get their news, and have their opinions moulded by, television (rather than by books and newspapers).
This creates a peculiar climate for Christian apologetics. The television mind tunes out extended reasoned discourse. Appeals to evidence carry little weight with those who like to channel-surf until they find something they like. Television makes plausible post-modern assumptions of relativism, subjectivity and personal constructions of meaning.
The mental processes involved in watching television, in contrast to reading a book, are noteworthy. Neil Postman points out that reading requires and encourages sustained concentration and the development of long trains of thought and reasoning. Television, in contrast, demands only a short attention span, an immediate response, and concrete sensation. Whereas reading fosters the gradual accumulation of knowledge and the sustained exploration of ideas, television lends itself to fragmentation and immediacy of (mainly emotional) response.
It may take weeks to read a book, but a television programme must grab its audience’s attention immediately, or else viewers will switch to another channel. Within the programme itself, as well as between its segments in commercial breaks, the viewer is confronted with completely different and possibly unrelated information in pre-formed packages lasting only a few seconds. In reading of fiction, for example, the imagination is engaged in thinking about the characters, the plot-line and so on.
Television’s intellectual stock-in-trade is persuasion, exploited with consummate skill by the advertisers. Complex political ideas have to be presented in 30-second sound bites. Image consultants and spin doctors rule. Your political allies are the heroes; your opponents are villains.
We believe what we see. Television constructs what viewers see, but what is constructed is an illusion of reality. Documentaries focus our minds on the unusual and the spectacular; and ‘reality’ shows take extreme personalities and provide them with an environment that forces them into behaving in as odd and bizarre fashion as possible.
Of of this means that television will struggle to be an effective medium for spiritual realities, where ‘faith is the evidence of things not seen’ (Hebrews 11:10). Visual and dramatic arts can convey such realities through symbols and evocation, but television has little time for such subtleties.
Television works best as an entertainment medium. And even when it is not trying to entertain – as with news programmes, documentaries, arts programmes, religion and suchlike – it must assume the characteristics of entertainment, or it will fail. It is, then, not just the content that is the problem (sex and violence, say), but the form.
One effect of this is people are conditioned to insist on being entertained even when they are not watching television. School children will not pay attention to their teachers unless they are as entertaining as the cartoon characters on educational television programmes. Without such external stimulation, incapacitating boredom sets in for children and adults alike.
The entertainment industry is linked to a pop culture, which drives out both folk culture and high culture. The former requires communities, with their own histories and values. The latter requires reflection, sustained thought and creativity.
In contrast to television, radio, a purely linguistic medium, has possibilities for apologetics, as C.S. Lewis demonstrated. Television tends to be personality (or even celebrity) driven, and Christian television has followed this pattern. Cerebral discourse does not work for religious television: dramatic spectacles are needed. If viewers can see a charismatic miracle for themselves, they will be persuaded (oblivious of the extent to which the phenomenon might have been ‘staged’).
Although some attempts are made to incorporate apologetics into Christian broadcasting, generally the emphasis is on evangelism rather than apologetics. The message is proclaimed, rather than proven. The appeal is to the heart, rather than to the head. This is not necessarily wrong, but it does mean that televised Christianity will tend to lack doctrine, depth and complexity, and will fail to articulate a distinctive world view. This may carry over into the real world, manifesting as shallow piety and theological illiteracy.
We may hope that many of those brought up on a television culture will long for something more authentic and meaningful. If vague New Age mysticism fares well in the television medium then Christians will do well to rediscover their own heritage of spirituality. While avoiding the over-rationalising that make our less appeal to the television culture, we might draw attention to the truly mind-blowing doctrines of incarnation, atonement and so on.
Minds that are shaped by television are often interested in other people’s stories, and these can provide valuable openings for Christian apologists. The television mind is allergic to absolute claims and ‘judgmentalism’, and the presentation of truth in concrete and personal ways can defuse some of the antagonism. If we start with the mindset of television viewers, we do not have to stop there. Doctrine, ideas and abstractions can follows. Those who have known only the little world of the television may find their minds opened to a far larger, richer universe than they ever imagined.
Based on art. ‘Television’, G.E. Veith, in New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics (IVP, 2006).