How TV Transformed Theology

The TV, a staple of modern life and a reformer of theology.


The Television

Following Luther, I would argue that the single greatest reformer of theology in recent memory is none other than the TV. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. TV’s impact on theology is very noticeable and it is everywhere, you may have noticed or you may have missed it, either way you’re going to look at the TV in a whole new way and I’m not talking about in 4K resolution.

It’s important to understand the impact that TV has had on our day to day lives, beginning with its place in our household. Think about it for a moment. Every room in a home fulfills a survival purpose. Your kitchen is where you preserve and prepare food, a necessity. Your bedroom is where you rest and sleep, another necessity. Your bathroom is where you relieve yourself and clean yourself, also necessities. Perhaps you have a porch, a library, an office, a computer room, a garage. All of these rooms accommodate and fulfill some function and need required for day to day living. The living room has become the TV room, such a juxtaposition cannot be ignored. Today’s homes are designed around the TV room:

house plan

A House Plan

There may have been a time when the TV was important for news or catching up on current events, but that’s not the case today. Even when this was the case, newspapers and radio were other popular mediums to access this information. The central role of the television has always been entertainment. The first TV broadcast reflects this purpose quite explicitly –

Theology is not supposed to be entertainment, that is to distract or amuse. It’s supposed to actively benefit and transform one’s life, provide a moral foundation for ethical living, fulfill the needs of spirituality and to aid in the acknowledging of one’s Creator. Sure, it can amuse, but that is not religion’s primary purpose. The TV’s primary purpose however, was to provide entertainment. When religion appeared on the TV, it faced stiff competition. A viewer had the option of not watching religious programming, of having the ability to change the channel or switching off a religious show. Religious programming had to compete for viewership and to do so meant that it had to compete with entertainment. The only way you can outcompete entertainment is to provide more amusing entertainment. The sets had to become flashier, the content had to be stimulating, the presenter had to draw the viewer in. To compete, religious programming had to effectively become entertainment.

There was no longer time for two and three hour sermons, the attention span for this simply did not exist. You couldn’t just show up without a suit and appear unprofessional, what the presenters wore became as equally as important as the theology they were to be espousing in the first place. This is where theology was transformed by the television. There was no longer a need for having to go to a physical space for theological benefit, one could stay at home and receive the same, television itself became a sacred space and in so doing, cemented entertainment as a doctrine of modern day theology. Sure, the same can be argued about the radio but the distinction is that with television you had the ability to see, which added a whole new dimension to what could be achieved by merely staying at home. Yet the holiness and sanctity of religion was to suffer a blow to its inherent authority.

If religion was not as entertaining as compared to other programming, all you had to do was press a button and change the channel. That’s all it took. The television was the great equalizer. It made religion equal to and then subservient to entertainment. Religious programming merely became another genre of entertainment. Religion became something that people could ignore when they wanted to, something they could switch off if they didn’t like what they were hearing and seeing. Religion was no longer something greater than the self. With this transformation haven taken place, the effects of it can be seen to this day. Televangelism is big business. Without the television, the contentious prosperity gospel teaching would not be as widespread as it is today. Televangelism is presented as no different than an infomercial , you’re being sold something. Someone in a fancy suit, with flashy graphics and exciting music is telling you about some amazing opportunity that you simply cannot miss out on! Televangelists earn big money due to their sheer audience sizes, advertisements on religious programming became more important than the programming itself, after all, it’s the advertising that keeps the show on the air.

What has the television done for theology? It has reduced it to a point of nonexistence, it simply is not entertaining enough. Television contributes to the passivity of the brain, it’s not actively benefiting anyone. Rather it’s harmful:

2. Both active TV viewing and passive TV exposure were related to shorter sleep duration and sleeping difficulties, especially sleep-wake transition disorders and overall sleep disturbances.

3. There was also a clear association between the contents of actively viewed TV programs and the sleep problem scores. Watching adult targeted programs, such as current affairs programs, police series, movies, series, was related to an increased frequency of various sleeping difficulties.

4. Watching TV alone was related to sleep onset problems.

5. Watching TV at bedtime was also associated with various sleeping problems, especially sleep-wake transition disorders and daytime somnolence.

6. Particularly high passive exposure to TV (>2,1 h/day) and viewing adult-targeted TV programs were strongly related to sleep disturbances. The association remained highly significant when socio-economic status, family income, family conflicts, the father’s work schedule, and the child’s psychiatric symptoms were controlled for statistically.

Research also exists where television has contributed to the rise of ADHD (an attention disorder) among children:

But is a child’s fascination with the screen a cause or an effect of attention problems — or both? It’s a complicated question that researchers are still struggling to tease out.

The kind of concentration that children bring to video games and television is not the kind they need to thrive in school or elsewhere in real life, according to Dr. Christopher Lucas, associate professor of child psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. “It’s not sustained attention in the absence of rewards,” he said. “It’s sustained attention with frequent intermittent rewards.”

So increased screen time may be a consequence of A.D.H.D., but some researchers fear it may be a cause, as well. Some studies have found that children who spend more time in front of the screen are more likely to develop attention problems later on.

Could there be a link between the modern social phenomenon of a rise in agnosticism and atheism? Religion simply does not provide the entertainment that is so readily accessible today. There is no instant gratification for faith, if prayers aren’t answered instantly, we’ve been taught that there’s no harm in merely “switching off” faith. When religious programming resembles infomercials and game shows, can we really condemn those who view religion as something not to be taken seriously? When televangelists are as famous and as wealthy as celebrities, should we really be surprised that faith leaders are compared with people who pretend and act for a living? Thus, it can be argued that the television is today’s greatest theological reformer.

and God knows best.

Related Read: Neil Postman – Amusing Ourselves to Death


Categories: Philosophy, secularism

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