Sunday, July 31, 2005

Tired Anti-TV Curmudgeon

I won't do this often, but I'm going to bang out a short diary piece related to ministry.

Tonight I lectured on "Television: Agent of Truth Decay" at a Sunday night service at a local church. (The material was largely taken from the appendix to my book Truth Decay.) The crowd was mostly in their early twenties or younger, with only a few grey hairs and other "mature" folks. It was a tough crowd, about 120 strong. I realized early on that I wasn't capturing everyone's attention (believe it or not, this is always my goal in speaking). I was cutting against the grain and taking some time and effort to do it: biblical passages, social science research, theological principles, and other heavy intellectual items. I could not bring the talk down to a lower level (although I could have gone higher). So, I just blasted them as best I could with the best, most passionate arguments I could muster. After over an hour, I answered questions from the floor for about 20 minutes, and then talked with people for over an hour informally. No one was hostile; they were very engaged and asked thoughtful questions.

There was much interest afterward, but I'm not sure how many I reached or touched in the message itself. It was a battle. Much of what I said was utterly at odds with what they have heard and how they have lived. A woman my age afterward told me that one of her young friends said, "I disagree with everything he said!" (That is disturbing, since I quoted or referred to so many Scriptures.) When pressed as to why she disagreed, the woman had no response. She just repeated her outrage. It was sheer emotivism. She has been well-trained by television.

I feel old. But there is a remnant out there. The pastor is only 24 (half my age), but he invited me to speak on this topic and enthusiastically promoted it. He may take some heat for that, but I'm sure he will handle it well. God bless him.

A day in the life of the Constructive Curmudgeon. Selah.


Bloggy said...


I just recently gave a similar presentation to a mixed audience (age, sex, ethnic, class, etc), and ironically, it was very well received. My topic was a look at the empty self syndrome in culture, and the effects of television as the medium for information delivery.

After the presentation, I had at least a dozen people tell me how much they enjoyed it, and several asked me if there were any books they could read on the topic...

What's sad is- I had to use pictures of Ozzy Ozbourne, Homer Simpson, Paris Hilton, and a man wearing a diaper to grab their attention. Nearly half the compliments were about the use of humor in the presentation, instead of the content.

However- I'm still optimistic. For one thing, I'm 24 years old, and was recently in a volunteer role as a young adults pastor at a church. Aside form that, once I can convince people to give a few books a shot to challenge their thinking- such as Postman's book, or Moreland's book on Loving God with the mind, they are usually hooked! ie: a friend of mine who is a paramedic, whose greatest intellectual achievement a year ago was finishing the Left Behind series. I lent him a copy of Moreland's book, and a year later he just finished Augustine's confessions, and has all but unplugged his television.

Tu Quoque
an unoffical blog of Southern Evangelical Seminary students, alumni, faculty and friends.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Davis says: "What's sad is- I had to use pictures of Ozzy Ozbourne, Homer Simpson, Paris Hilton, and a man wearing a diaper to grab their attention. Nearly half the compliments were about the use of humor in the presentation, instead of the content."

This is what I will not do, and Davis did not have to do it either. If you cannot win their attention through your ideas, your passion, your prayers, and your character, then give up. Paris Hilton is always immodesty dressed for photos, so I would never show her. Her chronic "come hither" looks are enough to nauseate any self-respecting person.

I appreciate Davis's concern to "win their attention," but I must disagree with this strategy. It undermines what one goes on to say. It is based on the entertainment/image template that dominates culture, and, as Postman points out, we are "amusing ourselves to death." Turn off the screens that feeds the stomachs of the idols. Starve them to a well-deserved death by inattention. "Little children, keep yourselves from idols," warns the Apostle of Jesus Christ.

I preached my sermon "Television: Agent of Truth Decay" in a very large church with jumbotrons at my right and left. (I hated them, but really couldn't demand they be turned off for all of my five months of sermons there.) I arranged to have them turned off a few minutes into the message--to make a clear point. Later "they" turned them back on (although they were not supposed to do so); so I had to tell them to turn them back off and to leave them off. The battle goes on...

Here is a way to get people's attention. Pause. Look at them. Speak wise words. Pause. Look at them. Speak wise words. And so on.

Kobra said...

I am currently working my way through "Truth Decay," and I am enjoying it. I haven't reached the point where you go into any depth about t.v. being a bad thing. Yet, just for clarification, and the bragability factor of being able to say I heard it directly from the oral cavity of the horse himself, I'll ask..."Is it the medium itself or the content that you have a problem with?"

Anyway, thanks.

Bloggy said...

Doug, I agree and later did regret using so many images. The Paris Hilton image was one of the rare ones where she is modestly dressed, and was holding up a sign encouraging citizens to vote. For that specific example- the point was well taken- actresses who achieve fame the way she did have no qualifications whatsoever to influence politics but have somehow been granted that authority in recent years. The other images, albeit humerous, were in no way used to condone their behaviour (ozzy, etc).

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

To Davis: I appreciate this response and clarification. People can attend to rational and abstract thought far better than many of our evangelical pundits admit. I know. I preached five months of intellectually heavy sermons at a multi-ethnic middle class church in downtown Denver and was very well received. I gave them 3-4 pages of notes every sermon.

To Theophorus: Both the content and form of TV are problematic, but I focus on the form, the nature, the structure of it. The medium is the message, as McLuhan said. We must exegete the form as well as the content.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Dr. Groothuis, Are you saying there is no redemptive element in the media of television?

I watched a movie this evening on Winston Churchill called "the Gathering Storm". It seems to have been carefully researched and attempted cinematically to portray what he was and was about- at that time.

Also in watching the more recent "Luther" film, I thought a good view in keeping with the historical Luther was given (based on what I have read, and on what most theological historians said about the film).

So again I would ask, isn't there something to be said for television at all as a media- in some limited spheres?

From a person who would rather read than watch television.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

As Neil Postman said, television is at its most dangerous when it tries to be serious. When we realize it is best at rather mindless entertainment, we are less disarmed and helpless before its charms. We don't pretend that it can educate or edifiy us. Yes, a Churchill or Luther documentary is less mindless than much of the rubish on TV, but it fall far, far below what can be learned through a good article or biography--or through a meaty conversation with someone who has studied the lives of either (or both) world-historical individuals. And, yes, someone who views something about Luther or Churchill might go out and read something as a follow up. (What a titanic difference there is between "viewing" and "reading.")But Churchill and Luther were (and are) consequential not because of anything visual, but because of their ideas--world-changing ideas. To quote Postman again, "Thinking doesn't play well on television."

With so many books to read, and so little time, whence television? Life is too short.