Anything good on the box?
Like it or not television has utterly transformed our world over the last seventy years. In 1946 only 0.5% of American households owned a television. Fifty years on and the average American home had a television switched on for more than seven hours per day. One writer describes television as the single most significant shared reality in our entire society, replacing the role Christendom once had in our culture.
But let’s rewind for a moment, all the way to the beginning… when God made Adam and Eve He commissioned them to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’. They were placed in a garden to ‘work it and take care of it’ (Gen. 2:15). Humans were commissioned to use their God-given creativity to develop the resources of the natural world for the glory of God and the benefit of society. By Genesis 4 we have the first technologies: tools of bronze and iron, and the first musical instruments: the harp and flute (vv.21-22). And then ploughs and the printing press and eventually the iPad!
The point is that technology, including television, is not inherently bad. In fact it’s a good gift from God to be used for His glory. How? Well, here are a few suggestions:
- Television shrinks the world, we can be aware of cultures and events happening thousands of miles away, thus allowing us to pray more intelligently for our world and God’s people spread across it.
- Television allows us to see and enjoy the beauty of many parts of God’s creation which would otherwise remain hidden to most of us. We can also enjoy the gifts, creative or athletic for example, that God has given to people in His common grace. How many of us were captivated by the opening ceremony of the Olympics, let alone by the athletic competition that followed? God made His world to be functional and enjoyable (Gen. 2:9).
- Television, like all popular culture, is produced by and therefore reflects the values and worldviews of the people around us. A better understanding of our culture may help us, as it did Paul in Athens, present the unchanging gospel in the particular time and place that God has put us.
- Television provides a point of contact for building friendships and sharing the gospel with unbelievers, as the pagan Greek writers did for Paul on Mars Hill.
For these and other reasons it is possible to watch television to the glory of God. However, our world is not how God first made it. The fall brought sin and idolatry into every area of life, including our development and use of technology. God’s good gifts easily become aids to drawing our hearts away from God. The same technology that can provide sustainable power to a city can also be used to destroy that city. And television can be a vehicle for both good and evil. Rather than unthinking rejection or uncritical acceptance, we should therefore aim for what Tim Challies calls ‘disciplined discernment’ in our attitude towards television. Here are some areas to think about:
1. Images vs words
Images and words are processed by different parts of the brain: images by the right hemisphere which deals with intuition and holistic perception, words by the left hemisphere which deals with logic and linear analysis. Irrespective of the content, the medium of television itself will, over time, change the way we think as we exercise one part of the brain at the expense of another, which is a problem for Christians, being people of ‘the book’. Our faith is word-based. God uses words to communicate with us. In a culture where messages are conveyed more and more through images, we need to intentionally train our, and our children’s, brains to engage with words and books, especially ‘the book’.
2. Starve sinful desires and idolatries
Images are extraordinarily stimulating to the brain and can remain embedded in our minds for a long time. Television has enormous power to feed the sinful desires of our hearts. This is seen most obviously in the explosion of pornography over recent years. But even apparently innocuous programmes, about beautiful homes or fast cars for example, might feed covetousness and greed.
Rather than feeding these desires we’re called to starve them, and live out our new life which is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3). Jesus might put it like this: if your television causes you to sin, switch it off, throw it out. We should watch (or not watch) knowing that God, who has bought us with the precious blood of His Son, is watching us.
3. Find refuge in God alone
We all need to switch off sometimes, but TV and films can easily become a refuge from the difficulties of real life. The problem is the refuge can only be temporary and is always an escape from reality. The Psalms constantly speak of the blessing that only comes from finding refuge in God. He doesn’t take us out of the realities of life but sustains us in them.
4. Switch on… your mind that is, not just the TV
We’re to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2). We should watch television with our minds switched on. We’ve been duped if we think that as long as we avoid sex scenes, bad language and violence then we’ll be safe. The influence of television is often much more subtle and pervasive than that. Does the programme lead to you sympathising with the wife or husband who has an affair? Does it present sin as glamorous or without consequences? Does it leave you feeling jealous of people who have apparently found the good life? Does it encourage us to find our identity in beauty and ‘stuff’? Our TVs, including (especially?) the adverts, bombard us with the lies of our culture (are you ‘worth it’?). We must thoughtfully engage, not mindlessly soak it up.
5. Switch off… the TV that is, not your mind
The average person watches over four hours of TV each day. That’s about twelve years of the average life. Yes, television might help us understand our culture better, enjoy God’s creation more, switch off at the end of a busy day, or be a good excuse to get the family sitting down together. But twelve years worth?! One day we’ll have to give an account for that time. Do we need to go on a TV diet… or fast? One programme from my youth surely got it right: ‘Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go Out And Do Something Less Boring [More Worthwhile] Instead?’
God wants us to know Him better, love our families well, work hard for His glory, love and serve in His church and our community, reach unbelievers with the gospel. Those things can last for eternity. As C.T. Studd put it: ‘Only one life, t’will soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.’
John Richards is a pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Mold.
 Kenneth A. Myer, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Crossway Books, 1989) quoted in C. J. Mahaney, Worldliness (Crossway Books, 2008), p.38
 Tim Challies, The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion (Zondervan, 2011), p.17