catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 12 :: 2008.06.13 — 2008.06.27


Befriending big bad

Want to kill a conversation? Try this: Raise your shirt and ask, “Would you look at this rash?” Or, if someone mentions popular media, you could just say, “I don’t watch TV.” End of conversation. Period. You look like a thoughtful, countercultural, creative, academician, and they look like, well, lazy dopes.

For a long time in my life I did not watch TV. Or, to be precise, I did not watch much TV. I grew up in a home with a 1970s television in the 1980s. We did not have a remote. I thought cable was something that held up a bridge. We had to ask permission to watch Mister Rogers (which I happily watched until sixth grade) and reruns of Lassie. I had a crush on Gilligan. Mom thought Electric Company was too, well, I don’t know, but we weren’t allowed to watch it. On the occasional Sunday evening, I’d watch 60 Minutes with my dad. TV watching was a highly controlled, communal event. It was one of the few things in the house we had to ask to do. Play outside? Great. Practice piano? Terrific! Climb a tree? Any day! Watch TV? Ask Mom or Dad…but you might as well not ask because they will probably say “no.”

Once, under the auspices of a new babysitter, I watched some late-night movie that showed blood coming out of a showerhead onto a bathing woman. Babysitter’s choice. It scared me for weeks. I told my parents about it; the babysitter never came back and I’ve never figured out what that movie was.

There are a lot of opinions out there about television. Within the evangelical world, it’s not uncommon to hear or read harangues against TV in magazines or books. A professor of mine at Regent College once spent a whole lecture discussing the problems of TV and children. She mentioned such titles as Marie Winn’s The Plug-In Drug: Television, Children, and the Family and Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander. We heard a story about a family who, for a period of time, turned off the television. Instead, they played games, they made things, they shared more meals, the husband and wife had more sex. When they turned the TV back on, they went back to their previous rut, doing less of all the above-mentioned things. It’s a compelling story and I really understand why individuals, couples and families decide not to have a television. My husband and I didn’t have one when we first married—but then I got sick and wanted to watch a movie. So we got one.

This accumulation of a television only occurred several months before I read article by Bethany Torode called “Avert Thine Eyes: Life Without TV” in which she describes the uncomfortable situation of visiting her grandmother in the hospital while the television was on. What was playing was a scene from The Godfather when a husband beats his pregnant wife. As you can imagine—or have even possibly experienced—it was difficult to converse while violent scenes played out on a screen in the same room. Torode then goes on to discuss her personal observations of how television has made her feel, how it caused her friend’s three-year-old to act, and how we, as Christians, should avoid television and, in fact, most movies in order to avoid “[giving] the Evil One as few opportunities to attack us as possible.” When I read it, I was mad. I find rhetoric that unilaterally dismisses a single aspect of culture to lack thoughtfulness and appreciation of how God can work in and through the lives and minds of non-Christians and their art—“high” or “low.” “Anyway,” I thought, “Why couldn’t she just ask to turn off the television if what was on it was out-of-context and disturbing?”

However, as I was preparing to write this essay and researching the source for Torode’s article, I encountered her personal blog that describes her current journey into acting. Yes, a former critic of television and entertainment is now pursuing the silver screen. In her blog are allusions to Law and Order, country music videos and a TV in the home. Does this indicate the inability of humanity to uphold our own ideals, or does it exemplify the consistent conflict of our calling to be “in but not of the world?”

We are a people of extremes. We like rules. There’s a certain thrill we receive from saying, “I don’t do this or that.” It separates us from others. It keeps us from making the really tricky relational and cultural choices we encounter every day. But simultaneously, we are a people who change our minds. Torode is an example of this on several counts, and so am I. For instance, I went through an “I don’t date” phase in college. I told all my friends and family about it, yet I continued to “date” less formally but with more expectation. In hindsight, I’m embarrassed by my choice. I’m even more embarrassed by the announcement of it.

In the same way, I didn’t watch much television growing up, or even in college. But after September 11, 2001, I watched it a lot. Too much, I’d say. I think I was afraid that if I didn’t watch TV, something else would happen and I wouldn’t know about it. I was afraid of losing touch with the outside world. Television made things feel secure. It was a bright light in our basement apartment as the autumn days grew shorter and darkness came at 4 p.m. It helped me forget our leaking bedroom, the shock of graduate school and the conflicting expectations my newly married husband and I had for matrimony. And anyway, I had never watched much TV. It was a new world to me, and I didn’t have to ask permission anymore.

Television creates a false sense of security and brightness as well as a false sense of insecurity and discontentment. There’s the advertising, of course, and the bad news of people getting shot or robbed. I’ve heard that the general public has more fear of strangers than is actually warranted because of the crimes (real and fictional) they see on television. We long for the excitement we see portrayed on TV, but we don’t want the risk.

However, television also creates cultural currency. Television programs and events can provide conversational fodder that can sometimes lead the way to even more engaged discussion. It can provide a common ground, a common language, a common experience. Contemporary cultural literacy includes Bart Simpson, the Dharma Initiative and Simon Cowell whether or not you (or I) like or approve of them. And, frankly, I find some of TV stories highly engaging. Last Thursday night, during the season four LOST finale, I had to put down my knitting. I gripped the couch as the helicopter took off from the ship; my mouth gaped open at the sinking island; my eyes teared up at Sun’s loss. I love the imaginary world of LOST, just like I love the imaginary world of Hogwarts and Narnia and Middle Earth.

So, what I’m arguing, is, in fact, a neutral perspective of television. Sure, it can separate people from each other, but it can also bring them together. It can definitely waste time and prevent individuals from doing more profitable things. But sometimes it can provide a reprieve, a laugh, or a journey into a well-written world. I believe, like many things, television can be used or abused. But we must be mindful about how we use it. Just because I could eat a whole pan of brownies doesn’t mean that I don’t bake them. I don’t bake them every week and when I do, I practice self discipline not to stash them away somewhere and pig out on a lonely afternoon.

If you wish to practice television mindfulness, I have a few suggestions. These are not rules, by any means, but they have all helped me develop what I hope is a healthy, balanced perspective of television use. First, don’t put a television in anyone’s bedroom. Sleep and marriage experts advise this, and I’ve found it helpful to listen to them.

Second, don’t allow the television to be “background noise” while other things are going on—conversations, meals, housework, homework. Televisions can be distracting. I’d recommend—if you’re brave enough—even when you’re visiting others and the TV is on, to ask if it can be turned off. Try saying, “I’m sorry, it’s hard for me to concentrate on our discussion while the TV is on. May I turn it off?”

Third, don’t start watching a new program halfway through. Scripts, like books, are written from beginning to end, not middle to end. Context and genre are both important when thinking about and discussing television. Would you pick up a random book, open it to the center, and start reading? Probably not.

Fourth, don’t just “watch TV.” Watch a program. When the program is over, turn the television off. There is a lot of bad, repetitive programming out there.

Finally, whether or not you watch television, when someone mentions a show or event you are unfamiliar with, don’t say, “I don’t watch TV.” This statement ends the conversation. Instead, try something like, “I’m not familiar with that. Would you tell me about it?” And then, even if you don’t have a TV, if you want to, you can probably go home and watch it online anyway.

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