Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why TV makes it so difficult to believe

Don’t grab your tinfoil hat quite yet. This isn’t a conspiracy theory.

However, it does deserve some thought as to why we have turned, in the space of a couple of hundred years, from finding it impossible to not believe to finding it possible to not believe to finding it impossible to believe in God. I blame it on TV.

Of course I would. It’s an easy target. What interests me is not how it does it, but why. Why the hostility toward God? Why does TV routinely trash belief in general, and Christianity in particular?

(I’m not going to presume to answer for other religions, but I’m sure they share much of this experience.)

If you say “so what?” let me ask you to be a little observant this Easter about who gets to say what, and how long they are given to say it. For instance, where I live, we’ve just had the trailers for a mini series of documentaries on the Secret Life of Breasts. I’m sure there’s plenty of good science in there, and most of the population will have their curiosity piqued either by having an interest in owning a pair or by having the chance to look at some.

I might have missed it, but I see nothing in the schedule about the meaning of Easter. Call me a pessimist, but the most I am looking forward to is a grudging acknowledgement that some people think Easter might be important (balanced with some views on why it isn’t) followed by a sound bite talking head with a dog collar. Don’t misunderstand me; I believe the talking head with a dog collar will do a good job with the sound bite that he (or she) has been given, but why limit it to a sound bite? It’s embarrassing. It’s like trying to compress the entire content of John’s Gospel into a Twitter.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only son that … Oh crap, we’ve run out of characters. Moving on to the football …

The answer to why TV and Christianity don’t mix very well might simply be that they are bitter rivals.

Back in the day before media, the Church was the media. If you wanted to know anything about the world, you went to Church to hear about it. If you were educated enough, you read the repository of writings kept in the Churches. Then came Gutenburg and his repeatable press, so that you didn’t have to go to Church to read the writings, but it still helped because there were Church people on hand to interpret the information. The Church knew this, and trained its people in the interpretation of the information. The good interpreters pointed their flocks down the good paths, and there was a sense that some paths were worth going down, even though they were not the easy paths. The Church was the repository of knowledge, and it interpreted that knowledge for their flocks so that their flocks knew how to live their lives for the better.

TV has moved into that role. TV is now the repository of knowledge and it interprets that knowledge for its consumers so that its consumers consume its products. When it points people down paths, it doesn’t care if they are good or bad paths, as long as they keep buying pizza.

The key thing here is that for TV to assume that role, it had to push aside the Church. Not all of this is good news. Allow me to expand a few thoughts;

  1. TV trades on outrage. Nothing is as effective at getting you back to watch the fight. Pick a side, it doesn’t matter which one, as long as you stay long enough to hear the sponsor’s message. In short, TV is Coliseum 2.0.
  2. TV hates tolerance. See 1. Opposing views are only worth expressing if they generate some camera-friendly conflict in a controlled studio environment.
  3. TV is not answerable to you. You can turn it off, but you’ll have to pay tribute before it will listen to you. Anyway, TV is not interested if you or it is right after the event - why reflect on the past when the ratings have already been compiled? (I have some limited experience here)
  4. TV is your peer group, family and friend. In the light of 3, the relationship can only be described as exploitative. There’s no interaction or negotiation here.
  5. TV is the repository of all knowledge. Except that it isn’t. The key criterion for broadcast is not the quality of the content, but the presentation. It is worth noting that the leading philosophers on TV are, actually, the comedians.
  6. TV personalities are carefully groomed. Understandably, they want to be liked. Understandably, this will get them to subjugate absolutely everything to the need to be liked by the widest possible audience. Virtue is nowhere near as important as image.
  7. TV’s personality cult blocks out the ordinary, little people. If, like me, you are ordinary and little, you’re only chance to get on TV is to be a freak. Ordinary religious people can be freaks, but they are only worth filming when they are being freaks, not ordinary. Ergo, religious people are freaks. Don't become one.
  8. TV doesn’t care how you live your life. Do what you want, as long as you buy pizza. By the way, TV knows that you’ll keep on grazing and browsing as long as it keeps flattering you with the soothing message that you’re doing the right thing. This might seem a contradiction until you realize that by “right” TV means whatever it takes to keep you buying pizza. Morality is banished like the friz under that must-have hair-straightener (postage extra).
  9. TV is obsessed with keeping you. Heaven forbid that it should lose you to a rival, or that you disengage. To this end, TV is full of helpful hints and emotive images to keep you safely in its embrace.

That last point doesn’t just block out potentially competing messages, it denies the very possibility that there might even be competing messages out there. You see, if you knew that there were competing messages out there, you might go to a competing media outlet to find them, and so you would be lost. As the Church is a competing media outlet, this is the greatest sin in the whole of TV-land. It is better to deny the possibility of the competitor, but if that competitor cannot be denied, then it must be belittled, minimized and ignored at all costs. Who told you that that was what the Church did?

And so we come to the impossible-to-believe situation that we find ourselves in. How can we believe in God, when TV assumes a posture of utter indifference to belief in anything but itself?


  1. Interesting, Martin. Now what about the Internet?

    1. The internet is far more interactive and organic, so it's more like a conversation. You can choose who to talk to, and there is an equal likelihood that you and they will be talking absolute rubbish. The internet is still primarily a written medium, and there are profound differences between written and spoken communications.

      It will be interesting to see how the formal authoritative medium of TV fares against the anarchy and fragmentation of the internet. I hope that TV does not try to pretend that it is in conversation with you, because it can't be.

      In terms of belief, I don't think there is anything new here. If the early church dealt with the Coliseum and market-place conversations, we can deal with TV and the internet. The bigger question is how.