Monday, July 25, 2005

Apologetics on the Tube: Exegesis of a Medium

Popular apologist and best-selling author Lee Strobel (The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith) has ventured into the expensive and tumultuous world of television with his new one-hour program, "Faith Under Fire." I salute his audacity in attempting to create a television program that addresses matters of Christian apologetics and ethics in a national forum. However, the medium does not suit the message. Let me begin to explain this through an anecdote that may serve to exegete the medium.

Before the first installment was aired, I was asked to appear on "Faith Under Fire." I would "debate" Neal Donald Walsh—the author of Conversations with God and several other equally excremental spin-offs—on the nature of God. (Walsh is the sage who claimed God told him that Hitler went to heaven because Hitler did no evil. In m class, I often hurl his book across the room to illustrate points against New Age theology.) I would not shy away from a legitimate debate with such a pantheist. Over the past twenty years, I have written about 1000 pages (give or take a few hundred) critiquing pantheism, and have spoke on this subject hundreds of times. But I refused this request because of its format (and, of course, because of my general animus against television). I was asked to come to a local studio where I would be televised. Walsh and Strobel would appear only on television monitors. I would be part of an eight-minute segment. If it went well, we might be given another eight-minute segment.

This media situation requires some analysis. We would be discussing matters of metaphysics: the nature of God. Strobel, Walsh, and I would interact only through television monitors. No two people would be in the same room together, addressing each other face to face. We would have only eight to sixteen minutes to take up this titanic issue of the ages. If it went to a second eight-minute segment, it would be interrupted by about four minutes of totally unrelated and propagandistic commercials. Without a lot of reflection, I said, "No," and explained why. Now on to the program itself.

Since I don’t orient my life around television, I didn’t plan to watch or record "Faith Under Fire." However, I got a wild hare and decided to watch it, but it started an hour earlier than I calculated, so I only saw about the last twenty minutes, which consisted of a segment on doctor-assisted suicide and another on how faith relates to politics. The program has been billed as having a format similar to the raucous, rude, and ridiculous "Hard Ball." I have never seen this chaotic show, but have heard audio clips on talk radio. It is little more than a shouting match, which excels in incivility above all else. Obnoxious and stentorian voices win; others, no matter how intelligent or learned, lose. That’s television. That’s insanity.

The segment on doctor-assisted suicide consisted of a pseudo-conversation—remember each person is in a different location and their contact with the two others is mediated by only a screen—that never rose above the level of sound bites interjected between interruptions. There was little coherence and almost no argumentation. The format excluded it in principle and by necessity. The segment on faith and politics, "Is God a Democrat or a Republican?" (the question itself poses a metaphysical impossibility and a false dichotomy) was even worse. Cal Thomas, a television veteran with a booming voice and a permanent swagger, was pitted against a slow-speaking and soft-spoken egghead, who worked for a think tank. He was clearly no television veteran (to his credit). Thomas, who has a long history with the Christian right, has modified his views somewhat, as indicated in Blinded by Might, which he co-authored in 1999 (a book worth reading, by the way). But he is still clearly evangelical and politically conservative—just less messianic about the prowess of politics to improve the world. The other fellow was liberal in both politics and religion. There was precious little of any substance exchanged between them. Thomas’ opponent was worried about a Christian theocracy (a ridiculous notion), but Thomas was more concerned to nail him theologically on the supremacy of Christ. I agreed with nearly all of what Thomas said about faith and politics and with his theological position. Nevertheless, he used his media-savvy style (stentorian and rapid-fire rudeness) to bludgeon his quiet, slower speaking, and less combative opponent. Strobel didn’t referee the exchange very well (if that is even possible in this medium).

American evangelicals are populists. They have always labored to reach as many people as possible for Christ using every available means and method. This motivation is praiseworthy, but should be tempered with media exegesis. Some media are not well suited for some topics and issues. Television, as I have argued in Truth Decay, favors the image over the word; it also favors certain kinds of personality (the charismatic, simplistic, telegenic, image-oriented communicator) over character and intellectual ability. Television has little patience for carefully developed arguments or nuances. Consider the first of the presidential debates of 2004. Each candidate was a given a mere two minutes for his opening response. That is 120 seconds to present matters of global import. The exchange with the other candidate brings the total time on an issue to about five minutes. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, each candidate spent about five minutes per sentence. Those debates went on for several hours and, of course, were not, televised. (For more on this, see Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, chapter four.)

Perhaps "Faith Under Fire" would better serve its subject matter if it addressed one topic per program instead of four. Yet even that requires more patience than either television or the television-addled public has to offer. But an hour devoted to one topic would still be dogged by all the intrinsic limitations and stupefactions of this medium that dominates our American culture and the American psyche. If you desire to develop your apologetic prowess do this: unplug, read, and discuss with unbelievers "the faith given once for all to the saints" (Jude 3). The basic principle is this: Eschew television, no matter how well intentioned it may be.

7 comments:

Ted Gossard said...

Dr. Groothius, Thanks so much for this critique on television. Style does seem to reign over substance on the tube.

I wonder if a politician today who decided to campaign as did Lincoln or Douglas would get anywhere. We are too "ADD" due to stimului around us that thinks for us.

I guess one program, at least, that maybe makes some headway over this problem is "Meet the Press". Tim Russert may keep things on a certain track, but at least there is true give and take as well as the person being able to express their view (Mr. Russert ends interviews by saying something like: "Thanks for sharing your views with us today.") But compared to pretelevision and cinema, I'll bet that program would seem to be short shrift for people to present their view.

Thanks again, and glad to have found your blog.

Mike said...

OK, I admit it: I had to look up "stentorian" in the dictionary. Boy, do I feel stupid.

Mike said...

Oh, sorry: it means "very loud or powerful in sound." Or, perhaps, I should say, "VERY LOUD OR POWERFUL IN SOUND."

Johnny-Dee said...

The medium does matter, and I wish more Christians were aware of the issues you (and as I've noted before, Ken Myers) raise about the medium of the message. There are some issues that are so important and difficult that they take more than eight minutes to discuss them without strawmanning the issues. Way too many Christians are willing to Baptize every form of media in evangelical culture and declare that "it is good." Every church that has a "video ministry" should read Neil Postman's book, and then reassess whether this ministry is compatible with the cause of Christ.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Johnny-Dee is on target. However, "strawmanning"?! Can any noun be verbed? Are there no limits? That's Pet Peave #293.

Jeff Downs said...

Doug, I'm in much agreement with your views here, as my wife can attest.

What do you thing of the John Ankerberg Show? When John does a topic for a series, I think the information provided (debate or otherwise) is incredible.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Years ago, I used to watch "The John Ankerberg Show." It was sometimes too sensational or slanted against nonChristian guests. Most of the time the information was apt and arguments were given in support of Christianity and against non-Christian worldviews. But once again, the form has intrinsic limitations. One needs to study apologetics, not just watch it be done by others. To their credit, though, the program would make books and booklets available.