A colleague of mine recently posted a quote from John Piper, highlighting the dangers of, amongst other things, watching TV:
The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night. For all the ill Satan can do, when God describes what keeps us from the banquet table of his love, it is a piece of land, a yoke of oxen, and a wife (Luke 14:18-20).
I agree with John Piper, and with Jim – this is a real danger. And (as someone else said, but I can’t remember who) when Jesus comes back, no-one will wish they’d watched more TV. But is this the whole story? I love TV. I don’t just enjoy lounging in front of it and switching my brain off – I love it as an artform, as a medium for communication, and as a tool for education. So here are some of my thoughts on why and how Christians should engage with TV…
Why should Christians watch TV?
Hear me correctly – you can definitely be a Christian without watching TV! But there are some good reasons with engaging with TV (I’ll talk more about what I mean by “engaging” later). It’s estimated that 97% of UK households have a TV, and now that many channels and programmes are available online, TV provides access to nearly every household in the country. But it’s more than a simple question of availability – TV is also familiar to all of us. We trust it. Our TVs sit in the corner of the room pumping images and opinions into our lives for hours each day. (Clive has some interesting stats on what people are watching in this blog post).
While TV series might not tell epic stories in the same way film can, their power lies in their regularity and their familiarity. Those of us who grew up with Friends will have been taught a particular view of dating, sex and relationships, but we were taught it while we chuckled at a group of people we felt we knew.
But TV programmes also become part of our life as a nation. It’s an individual experience which is also shared. An important storyline in a soap will even be discussed on the news and in Parliament, let alone by you and your friends. Popular programmes provide common conversational ground – which British people often need! They also provide a way for us to talk about big issues – when we’d rather not tackle politics or philosophy, we’ll happily discuss Alan Sugar’s latest mistakes or an Eastender’s cliffhanger.
And TV will both reflect and challenge our culture’s attitudes and values, so the pace of change is often more gentle than other media. But it’s important that we don’t underestimate the power of TV in challenging stereotypes, and representing minorities and views that most people would not normally come into contact with.
TV is important. But how should Christians watch TV? Here are some of my thoughts…
* Realise that what you’re watching is a piece of art, created by real human beings for real human beings. It’s easy to write off TV as meaningless triviality. But TV shows get made because people want to watch them – why would people want to watch this programme? And they’re made by people who want to communicate something – what are they saying through this programme?
* Find something good to acknowledge in what you’re watching. We’re ‘glorious ruins’, made in God’s image although tainted by sin, and so are the things we create. There might be lots of things you dislike, but are there any hints of glory? How does this programme tell some aspect of truth? Make sure you can say what you liked or appreciated, not just what you disliked.
* Work out if and where this programme departs from the truth. What view of human nature is represented? What are the important things in life? What alternatives to the gospel is it offering?
* Respond. Your response is what changes passive TV watching into engagement. The first step in responding to what you watch is to think about it. But then you need to use it. Compare it with the truth you know – where does Jesus fit? How does he affirm the good things and challenge the lies? Talk about it. Ask people what they think. Don’t just sit back and soak it up. Respond.
* Don’t become a ‘Relevance-Pharisee’. Don’t look down on other Christians because they aren’t as relevant as you. Jesus is the one who saves us. Engaging with TV might help you to talk to your friends about Jesus, but it’s Jesus they need to meet. Your relevance is (largely) irrelevant.
* Be aware of your limits. It will be unwise for you to watch some things – don’t watch them. You need to work out what those things will be. And I’m not just talking about nudity or violence. Top Gear might cause you to lust after fast cars. Loose Women might feed a sinful desire for gossip. And bear in mind that your heart is deceitful (Jer 17v9). So…
* Be willing to be challenged about your TV watching. Allow godly friends to ask you questions about your TV watching habits. Get them to ask you about the content and the amount of time you spend.
* Give thanks. It’s when we give thanks that we acknowledge God’s goodness and glory as the one who gives us all good things. Watch TV to the glory of God, giving thanks to Him for it, so that it won’t becomes and idol (see 1 Cor 10v31). And where sin and the lies of the world become painfully clear, give thanks that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the way, the truth and the life.
Although I haven’t read it, I’ve heard good things about Get More Like Jesus While Watching TV by Nick Pollard & Steve Couch (even if the contents look slightly dated…)