TV Unplugged

All last week the story of Justin Timberlake ripping off part of Janet Jackson's bodice during the Super Bowl halftime show kept the country in an uproar. CBS apologized, but the raging debate continued. Most people had the innate sense that this was a watershed moment in the culture war. Jackson, of course, was trying to jump-start her sagging career. And Timberlake left his band and is trying to make it on his own. What do entertainers in that position want more than anything else? Publicity. And they got plenty. But it wasn't just the bodice-ripping. As FCC Chairman Michael Powell told Good Morning America, "I personally was offended by the entire production." As I thought about Powell's comment, I realized that our concerns go well beyond the Super Bowl fiasco. That's only the tip of the iceberg. I personally am offended by most TV. I realize that it is an entertainment medium, and the nature of entertainment is to push the limits. But, as Ken Myers wrote in his book All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes, "Television's role as an entertainment appliance presents at least two problems." First, access to televised entertainment is easy, and we humans have an endless hunger for entertainment -- something that will distract us in a fallen world. It pains me to see my own grandkids sitting zombie-like channel-surfing, focusing on nothing but fleeting images. The second problem, says Myers, is that television is a visual and dramatic medium. "The dramatic images of television have much more power than anything that is said on the air," he writes. "Television doesn't have much power to encourage reflection." Television is a flood of sights and sounds that overwhelms everything else. The flow never stops, and we don't have time to think -- at least not until someone's bra gets pulled off. Yet as Myers notes, "Abstract ideas are . . . essential to the maintenance of the social order; freedom, justice, and duty, to name a few abstractions, can be illustrated in drama, but understanding the essence of them requires the analytic powers of language." He goes on to apply this to our faith, saying that drama and images can illustrate, but cannot communicate "the essence of what God has revealed in propositions." Now, I know some Christians who advocate, as the bumper sticker says, "Kill Your TV." Just get rid of it. Well, if you can't control it, that's good advice. But I have a suggestion that allows you to keep it for important things like current events, sports, and movies. My advice is: Unplug it. That way if you want to watch, you'll have to get down on your hands and knees, reach behind the furniture, and plug it back in. The inconvenience may make you think twice. Plopping down in your favorite chair and flipping the remote will be a thing of the past. And every time you want to watch TV, you'll be forced to make a choice rather than going on auto-pilot. While we need to protect ourselves and our kids from the overt problems with TV programming -- sex, bad language, and violence -- we need to be just as careful about the less obvious problems of a visual, image-driven medium. My solution is: Unplug it. For further reading and information: Dan Ackman, "The FCC Is Not Amused," Forbes, 4 February 2004. Nekesa Mumbi Moody, "Jackson, Timberlake Apologize for Flash," Associated Press, 3 February 2004. Leonard Pitts, Jr., "What was really exposed on national television," Seattle Times, 8 February 2004. Katy Kelly, Kim Clark, and Linda Kulman, "Trash TV," U.S. News and World Report, 16 February 2004. BreakPoint Commentary No. 040203, "Only a Matter of Time: Why the Super Bowl Incident Isn't Surprising." Ken Myers, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Crossway, 1989). Chris Jones, "When is bad publicity a bad career move?Chicago Tribune, 8 February 2004. BreakPoint Commentary No. 020208, "Must-Close-Your-Eyes-TV." (Archived commentary; free registration required.) Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (Viking, 1986). Call 1-877-322-5527 to order ($18). Thomas Hibbs, Shows about Nothing (Spence, 1999). Peter Kreeft, How to Win the Culture War (InterVarsity, 2002).


Chuck Colson


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