Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sunday Meditation: Turn my eyes away from gazing at worthless things 08.23.15

Ps 119:37: Turn my eyes away from gazing at worthless things, and revive me by your ways.

Prof. Postman points out that not everything is “televisible”, for instance religion. Religion does not translate into television without severe loss of meaning (pages 118ff).  Christian religion cannot be taught in sound bites, it takes time to be taught, and so to worship. Postman points out at least four ways television is not conducive to actual religion of any sort:

1. “Sacrality of space”: not that a space, such as a room, is sacred itself, but it becomes sacred, that is, set apart for the purpose of the divine Word, with the introduction of say a cross or crucifix, praying in silence, wearing vestments and  kneeling, reading Scripture.   Even, “…a gymnasium or dining hall or hotel room can be transformed into a place of worship”.  In our little mission here in Lexington, Virginia, we, and many other missions, have done so in funeral homes and other odd spaces and here in the main library’s community room.  One visitor from a neighboring congregation e-mailed me following worshiping with us on Holy Trinity Sunday:

“That was a wonderful worship service yesterday, truly the Church gathered around the Word. Meaningful in every sense, studying the Word together, Law and Gospel properly divided and preached in their purity, the sacrament rightly administered. The wonderful hymns were uplifting; for a moment you could imagine the Church in heaven and on earth worshiping together the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. What a wonderful day.” (emphasis my own)

Again, this is in a library’s community room with a dozen worshipers. This simply cannot happen on TV. As the Holy Spirit works through the Word alone, it must be remembered that the Word is not disincarnate.  The Holy Spirit can work wherever the Lord wants to so work but we know from the Bible it is only in the real time and real space of His people that the Lord, the Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth” in the Word made flesh.   I have discovered that watching liturgy on TV is not good TV.  The Church and liturgy is not two dimensional like a flat screen. The Church and her head, Jesus Christ is multi-dimensional:   “…may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth.” (Ephesians 3: 18).  Even when TV will probably become a kind of 3-D “holodeck”, it can never be the same as actual body of Christ in Liturgy.

2.  “Psychology of secularism”:  What we watch on a TV screen is not neutral and so the screen is not neutral:  “The screen is so saturated with our memories of profane events, so deeply associated with the commercial   and entertainment worlds that it is difficult for it be recreated as a frame for sacred events” (page  119).  We can switch from someone talking about Jesus to a commercial whose hook is lust  then to a report on a suicide bombing, and nothing registers.

3.  Marketing of religion: Television is for selling and religion can sell itself and only by doing so can religion have an audience.  One time watching the Hour of Power from the Crystal Cathedral, Robert Schuller was hawking that day, “The Positive Thinker’s Bible”  in which all the positive passages were highlighted in blue, kind of like an enthusiast’s version of the Jefferson Bible.  Most of those offers are ‘free’…for a donation, but the real danger is selling the faith, actually, selling out the faith.  Postman:

“The executive director of the National Religious Broadcasters Association sums up what he calls the unwritten law of all television preachers: “You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want.”
 You will note, I am sure, that this is an unusual religious credo. There is no great religious leader—from the Buddha to Moses to Jesus to Mohammed to Luther—who offered people what they want. Only what they need. But television is not well suited to offering people what they need. It is “user friendly.” It is too easy to turn off. It is at its most alluring when it speaks the language of dynamic visual imagery. It does not accommodate complex language or stringent demands. As a consequence, what is preached on television is not anything like the Sermon on the Mount. Religious programs are filled with good cheer. They celebrate affluence. Their featured players become celebrities. Though their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings, or rather, because their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings.” (page 121)

Joel Osteen is not unusual among televangelists.  He and his team have simply fine-tuned his program and it’s message on television to a greater degree.

4. The Danger of Idolatry:
“…I think it is both fair and obvious to say that on television, God is a vague and subordinate character.  Though His name is invoked repeatedly, the concretenenss and persistent of the image of the preacher carries the clear that is he, not He, who must be worshiped.  I do not mean to imply that the preacher wishes it be so;  only that the power of a close-up televised face, in color, makes idolatry a continual hazard.  Television is, after all, a form of graven imagery far more alluring than a gold calf.” (pages 122-123)

What has changed for the Church since Postman’s book?  Simply:  the television/computer screen has now been brought  into the sanctuary and in order to sell faith,  the Christian message has been dumbed  down into entertaining sound-bites, preaching to “real life” and  desacralized sanctuaries and the congregations therein turned into studio audiences.  Pastors want to be personalities.  As Prof. Postman cites when Father O’Connor when became Archbishop (later cardinal) of the New York Diocese hammed it up.  Prior to this  quote he cites a television Roman priest at the time, Fr. Sacowicz, “”You don’t have to be boring in order to be holy”:

“Meanwhile in New York City at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Father John J. O’Connor put on a New York Yankee baseball cap as he mugged his way through his installation as Archbishop of the New York Archdiocese. He got off some excellent gags, at least one of which was specifically directed at Mayor Edward Koch, who was a member of his audience; that is to say, he was a congregant. At his next public performance, the new archbishop donned a New York Mets baseball cap. These events were, of course, televised, and were vastly entertaining, largely because Archbishop (now Cardinal) O’Connor has gone Father Sakowicz one better: Whereas the latter believes that you don’t have to be boring to be holy, the former apparently believes you don’t have to be holy at all.” (page 93)

We have grown familiar and even accustomed to pastors, bishops, district presidents and popes mugging it up during a liturgy. It works because it is like TV.

Dear reader in Christ, please understand I like TV and television per se has been one of my major interests over the years.  Television showed us in the ‘60s, the civil rights movement, the assassination of a president, and the Vietnam War.  We watched live on TV as man stepped foot on the moon.  It is a source of entertainment but Prof. Postman’s critique demonstrates the danger regarding television:  all the major aspects of life are now to be  entertainment and this has had consequences for the Church.  The church is also amusing itself to death. I think that the “worship wars” is really between TV style worship and actual worship.

My conclusion has been over the years we need education about television and the internet itself.

Prof. Postman:
“Twenty years ago, the question, Does television shape culture or merely reflect it? held considerable interest for many scholars and social critics. The question has largely disappeared as television has gradually become our culture. This means, among other things, that we rarely talk about television, only about what is on television—that is, about its content. Its ecology, which includes not only its physical characteristics and symbolic code but the conditions in which we normally attend to it, is taken for granted, accepted as natural.” (page 79;  bold-face emphasis my own)

Prof. Postman wrote about the idolatry of television.  In confirmation classes, when I teach the 9th and 10th Commandments, I have taught about TV commercials whose hook is original sin shown in covetousness.

The television commercial is the most peculiar and pervasive form of communication to issue forth from the electric plug. An American who has reached the age of forty will have seen well over one million television commercials in his or her lifetime, and has close to another million to go before the first Social Security check arrives. We may safely assume, therefore, that the television commercial has profoundly influenced American habits of thought. (page 126)

We all have an ache for something: I WANT it!  We have been educated, catechized again and again, by commercials alone. Remember:  Covetousness is idolatry (Colossians 3: 5).  Once I want something so bad I can taste it then I have an idol and I am back to the 1st commandment. 2 million commercials work to draw out covetousness.   Prof. Postman also demonstrates that the message of TV commercials forms the notion that our problems  can be solved in 30 seconds, or should be.

 Think of how many families we know in which the television has become a third parent, a very powerful parent. In the latest Imprimis from Hillsdale College, the article is by Dr. Anthony Daniels about his work as a physician among the poor in London:

I should mention a rather startling fact: By the time they are 15 or 16, twice as many children in Britain have a television as have a biological father living at home. The child may be father to the man, but the television is father to the child. Few homes were without televisions with screens as large as a cinema—sometimes more than one—and they were never turned off, so that I often felt I was examining someone in a cinema rather than in a house. But what was curious was that these homes often had no means of cooking a meal, or any evidence of a meal ever having been cooked beyond the use of a microwave, and no place at which a meal could have been eaten in a family fashion. The pattern of eating in such households was a kind of foraging in the refrigerator, as and when the mood took, with the food to be consumed sitting in front of one of the giant television screens. Not surprisingly, the members of such households were often enormously fat.

“Honor your father and  mother. Television and  computer deserve no honor whatsoever.  We must learn about television and about the internet, to use it and not abuse it  There is whole body of literature on the effects of television on culture and society,  as Prof. Postman’s book. Here your input towards a catechesis of television  and internet is needed.