Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Television Termination at the Christian "Booksellers" Convention

On July 12, 2005, a friend offered to pick me up and get me into the Christian Booksellers Convention in downtown Denver. I have attended four of these circuses previously when one of my books was being promoted by one of my publishers. This time I was a civilian taking in the show, and what a show it was.

First, books and booksellers are marginalized—literally. The displays that feature bona fide books were at the edges of the huge convention hall. Most prominent were the religious trinkets—Scripture candy, religious "art," religious jewelry, and so on.

Second, nearly everything was advertised by video screens. One children’s video, "Angel Wars," was hawked by a mountain of various screens all showing the same hyperactive, violent, and nightmarish images. It must have taught "family values."

Third, celebry-ism (or celebrity-itus) was evident everywhere. The hall was filled with posters and videos of the sacred images of the hottest authors and speaker, most mugging for the camera shamelessly. "Little children, keep yourselves from idols," said the Apostle John (1 John 5:21).

Yet, by the grace of God (which also held back the "cleansing of the temple"), four things made it bearable. (1) The companionship, wisecracks, and astute comments of my curmudgeonly friend, Douglas Van Dorn. (2) The fact that solid publishers with good books were in evidence, if in the phenomenological minority. (3) I was able to pick up a few free books (and not because I waited in line to have Jerry Jenkins sign one of his). (4) I brought my TV-B-Gone with me. This is a universal television remote control device that turns off most televisions. I have been learning the esoteric skill of temporary television termination for several months now, but this surfeit of screens made it possible to break my personal record for TV kills in one day: thirteen terminations (eleven at the convention and two at restaurant before that). I was able to hit four of the God-knows how-many screens showing "Angel Wars"—a partial victory, but one I savor. One must use this blessed device discretely, since one doesn’t want to be caught zapping the great Idol of our age. The downside is that you have to usually watch the screen for up to a minute to properly aim the device. (It cycles through possible frequencies in sixty-nine seconds).

What does this convention tell us about American Evangelicalism (if that term has any concrete meaning left)?

  1. Jacques Ellul’s observation that the image has humiliated the word in Western Culture is proved true in this domain, which is supposedly the domain of the word, the world of books! The image has triumphed in the minds of most evangelicals…but not all. The remnant remains. (See Ellul’s masterpiece, The Humiliation of the Word. For some reason, I didn’t see this book advertised.)
  2. Most of the evangelical business represented (some did not publish books at all) are dominated not by the virtues and vision of the Kingdom of God, but by consumer preferences. I remember the sad and oxymoronic phrase coined by Keith Green a quarter century ago: "Jesus junk."
  3. Many of the businesses represented were more concerned with personal religion and subjective values than with propagating biblical truth, which is always sharp, living, and active—exposing reality, no matter what the cost (see Hebrews 4:12). While the truth hurts (beore it heals), it may not sell.
  4. Of course, business, in itself is not wrong. Selling worthy Christian books can and should be a wonderful thing, especially considering that so many countries in the world forbid it or even confiscate and burn Bibles, such as Saudi Arabia.

What is the constructive curmudgeon to do? Keep buying and reading thoughtful books. Recommend them to others. Give them as gifts. Mention and quote them from the pulpit. Review them in newspapers, on, and in your blogs. Develop a substantial church library and put it in the front of the church. Turn off as many television sets as possible through TV-B-Gone or by any means necessary. Be an iconoclast by being a bibliophile.


EWZ said...


I enjoyed your post very much, and agree with the words against idolatry.

I've had my TV-B-Gone for about a month now, and have had much enjoyment in using it at shopping malls, dining establishments, and at the Ballpark in Arlington during Rangers games.

Does yours cause your wife as much embarrasment as mine does?


Chris Meirose said...

Dr. Doug,
Bethel Sem student here (and fellow blogger). Do you have a book list of suggested readings? Your post mentions passing on books, but no books which you do/would like to pass onto others. Just a thought.

Big Chris
Because I said so blog

Susan said...

I dont often say this but ...
I gotta have one of these!
TV B Gone


Jeff Burton said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jeff Burton said...

I have two questions for the curmudgeon. The first regards this:, which claims that Christian books are the fastest growing segment of the book publishing industry. I can kind of anticipate your reaction, but am curious anyway. The second regards your use of a remote to turn off other people's TV's without their permission. I hate TV as much as you do, but I see your actions in conflict with a number of NT precepts. I guess either you see yourself in the role of Christ cleansing the temple, or perhaps you see your device as the 21st century equivalent of the sword that Jesus urged the disciples to purchase.

burttd said...

Dr. Groothuis -
Welcome to the ranks of the bloggers. I must say, you're off to a strong start.

Jeff -
From the books I've seen in various places (stores, churches, etc.) that growth is mainly due to fiction and self-help books with "Christian" overtones. And the quality of the books offered is in inverse proportion to the quantity.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Groothuis on TV zapping:

1. My wife is usually not with me with I zap. I have tried to zap TVs through windows when she and I go on walks, but that failed. I was too messianic about the device at first. We need the Pentagon to work on developing it.
2. The ethics of it: I am not breaking property or doing anything harmful when I zap. I am not "disturbing the peace," but creating some people. "Seek peace and pursue it," says the Psalm. They can always turn the unreality appliance back on, sadly.
3. The best book ever about TV is Neil Postman, "Amusing Ourselves to Death" (1985).
4. A lot of "Christian" books are sold, but most are trashy, bathetic fiction (such as "Left Behind") or terrible, theologically corrupt self-help books such as those by Joel Osteen.

Mike said...

Another good post, but you need to open up and let us know how you really feel about some of these things.

Phil Steiger said...

Dr. Groothuis-

You are a breath of fresh, if not pedagogical, air in the blogging world. I look forward to following your posts.


Johnny-Dee said...

I found your post both humorous and enlightening. Your TVBGone stories were absolutely hilarious, but they also reveal a very sad truth about our culture.

I'm looking forward to reading your blog on a regular basis. Keep up the good work.

Cheerful Curmudgeon said...

The city of Longmont, near my home in Boulder, recently passed an ordinance banning smoking in all restaurants. One restauraunt that I frequented for dinner had a huge smoking section. After the ordinance was passed, the hostess met me at the front door and instead of asking: "Smoking or non-smoking, she asked TV or No TV?" I was stunned; the room that prior was for smokers only was now plastered with big screen TV screens. I guess culture just replaces one addiction for another. The TV-B-Gone needs to happen universally, not just by individual remotes. When it comes to TV screens plastered in public domain...just say NO!
Pastor Doug
The Cheerful Curmudgeon

Steve Cowan said...

Great post! Keep up the good work! You have inspired me to be more courageous--I'm gonna be getting one of those zappers!

Josh S. said...

Great post! I completely sympathize (and agree) with you.

I have been planning on getting a TV-B-Gone for a while now...

Josh S. said...

My wife is usually not with me with I zap. I have tried to zap TVs through windows when she and I go on walks, but that failed. I was too messianic about the device at first. We need the Pentagon to work on developing it.

I can't stop laughing.

donnyjoe said...


We would differ on a number of matters but I genuinely admire and grow from your courageous heart and hunger for Truth. In that spirit of brotherly and colleagial appreciation I, like "Jeff," was a bit taken aback by your use of TV-B-Gone. I also found your response to Jeff to be a most curious ethical rationalization. If I understand the logic of your response, this unilateral (and clandestine?) act of turning off others' TV sets is justifiable because it does no permanent damage and because they, whether or not they should, can choose to turn them on again. Perhaps you would want to develop that further. It comes across as if: (a) a passive moral structure like that found in the Hippocratic oath ["to do no harm"] is adequate for a Christian response, rather than taking the extra effort to seek a genuinely redemptive and constructive response, (b) an action may be justified on the basis that its effects are not permanent and can be easily reversed. By that logic, it would seem to me, those who choose to send a message to delinquent car-washers by writing "Wash Me" in the dirt on a car with their finger are likewise justified. So are those who take umbrage at the political position of others and stick a protest sign in their front lawn (no damage and easily removed). When you say that you are "not doing anything harmful," the possible effects of using this device might be worthy of further reflection. To wit, what if the TV you tried to zap through a window as you took a walk happened to be that of my extremely elderly and lonely grandmother who can barely walk, who can only read and sew for so long, and whose TV is her only companion (as dubious a companion as it may be)? Do you know what is involved for her to get across the room to turn it on again? What are the effects on our personhood when we are, even in subtle ways, invaded? Are you really privy to the effects that your action might have? What effects does the use of a device like this have on the personhood of the user, not least in the view of others (those banal TV users!) that it cultivates? It seems that the issue with TV-B-Gone is whether we really respect the property of others and, in turn, truly respect them. Actually taking or destroying others' property are, of course, flagrant ways (condemned in the OT) of disrespecting others by how we treat their property. Yet, since Scripture seems to allow human dignity to be reflected in the ownership of property, our treatment of their property in less dramatic ways is still a reflection of our respect for their personhood. I don't think I'm overstating the case or being too melodramatic. We both understand the significance of little things. I've gone on too long for a "comment" section. After all, this is your blog, not mine. I would only hope to stimulate further reflection on a practice that may allow the user an illusory sensation of occupying the moral high road while possibly constituting a more morally deficient act than that against which it is directed.

Andrew said...

That's punk rock.

Great to discover your blog. Terrific post. I've linked to it from here

Susan said...


As a student of Dr. Groothuis' I have observed that he is a much more gracious soul than you seem to have concluded after reading this post on "Television Termination."

Your appeal to more redemtive forms of action is a good one but I'd love to see that fleshed out more and hoped you had your own blog. I clicked on the link in your profile and the link does not work. Perhaps you could publish a corrected/changed link and post on this?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

More apologetics for TV-B-Gone:

1. I do see a moral difference between zapping someone's private TV (in their home) and public TVs. The chances of zapping an elderly person's TV and causing grief are slight, however. Remember their remote control. I probably wouldn't sneak my TV zapper into someone's home and turn off their TV there from within. I would simply ask them to turn it off. That is more radical. You cannot so ask in public places usually.

I once turned off a TV in an emergency room because it interfered with my wife explaining the frightening symptoms that brought here there. I used my hands to turn it off and would have used my hands to stop the besotted functionary behind the desk from turning it back on.

2. Since TV does so much harm, my motto that TV zapping does no harm seems warranted, since it turns them off. Jesus overturned the money changers tables in the temple. That was a kind of violation of their property. He may have even broken some of the tables! I break nothing, except the comas and torpor induced by the unreality appliance.

3. TV zapping is only one part of my redemptive cultural strategy. See the chapter, "The Fixed Point in the Postmodern World" in my book "Truth Decay" for more. But here are are a few: (1) Value silence and rumination (2) Read good books (3) Relearn the lost art of conversation. The conversations at Schaeffer's L'Abri changed many for a lifetime, as, of course, did Jesus' conversations. (4) Write thoughtful prose that glorifies God.

Thanks for the workout! I do teach ethics, after all.

K+ said...

This is a great read. there is good reason to evaluate the ethical considerations of when and how something like "TV B Gone" is used. The benefits of such a tool should be weighed against the hazards of having it fall into the "wrong" (i.e. less ethical) hands. It seems like Donnyjoe did go a little off the deep end in this instance, though I suppose he, too, is seeing the potential abuse of such an item. Interesting, though, that his mind went straight to harrassing little old ladies watching TV in their sitting room while mine immediately pictured a storefront with TVs blaring out to the street and assaulting passersby. While many passages of this conversation made me laugh, I especially liked the "thanks for the workout" remark. K+

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Another response to a new critic of TV-B-Gone activism.

Turning off a TV is "a form of theft"? What am I stealing? I am taking nothing. I am simply turning something off that can be turned back on again by the owner. I do not assume ownership, nor do I break anything. I am not breaking into homes to do this. It is not a childish prank. There is an entire philosophy of culture behind it.

Joe said...

I have to agree with those that have found the use of TV B Gone as childish.

If you have something to say and feel you are justified by God, then express it openly, do not be ashamed of God.

Do you think turning the TVs off taught them something? OR do you think that they were confused as to why they TVs were turning off?

If they don't know what they are doing wrong, why do you expect them to change?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

The last two posts get quite high-minded and morally outraged, invoking terms that have no application and even accusing me of not being "manly" in doing it. That's a sexist remark; some of the most courageous people I know are women. The language needs reform. There is no parallel with someone shutting down my blog. I turn off sets for a short period; people turn them back on. That would not be the case witht the blog. I'd have to start all over and would lose content. The TVs do not express the owners' thoughts, but are dominated by others use of images. It is not like not working on the job! That is a form of theft. I am simply causing a small nuisance to make a point. I do, by the way, turn them off manually and ask them to be turned off. But some are out of reach. But here is the main point: If someone can foist a TV on me without my consent in public, I can turn it off.

That is the end of the debate on this one. It is strange that this issue raised more response than any other post.

Rob said...

I thought the article was well written and the TV-Zapper incident humorous. However, both Doug and critics alike are getting defensive over what? Turning televisions off! Does this REALLY matter? Is this really an ethical issue?

Killing television sets isn't going to win awards for most chivalrous man of 2005 but neither is complaining about it.

Don't get all pharisee on us because you are too good to do such a thing. Shouldn't we be more concerned about what the post was actually about: the commericialization of Christ's own name for personal gain by supposed followers.

Stick to the main stuff guys: we're all brothers and sisters here.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

The discussion rages on about TV zapping. Thanks to David for his recent post. I'm glad he came back. "The Rocky Mountain News" should be publishing my editorial, "A Civility Manifesto," in the near future. When they do, I'll post it here. It addresses matters of cultural manners, including television. Get ready to attack me, you subwoofer fans!

Larry said...

Good Book you ask? Yeah, for something really different than anything out there today, try
"Martyrs of the Cross, Passion for Christ." Website,
Groundbreaker, absolutely nothing like it anywhere. Reality T.V.? This is tooo real reality book!
A real "strap yourself down for a ride of a read" type book!