Reality or TV?
by Nathan Brown
Once upon a time, the Kingdom of God was like, “like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field” (Matthew 13:44, NLT) found by careful search. Nowdays — we are told — the Kingdom of God can come to your home via satellite. In those days, the Kingdom of God was, “like a mustard seed planted in a field” (Matthew 13:31). Nowdays — we are told — it looks more like a television network, with the kingdom growing as household after household tunes in, the baptism-like initiation taking the form of the installation of the necessary technology, and the channel of choice becoming the new denominationalism.
Christian television and broadcasting does have its place. For those isolated by distance or limited mobility, Christian TV can be a source of encouragement and teaching. And there are those who have grown into a relationship with God, with God working through Christian television broadcasts as an influence in their decisions. But there is no such thing as satellite Christianity.
Commentators on the social phenomenon of television suggest we should adopt a ‘reality index’ to assess the unhealthy pervasiveness of TV on our lives. For example, we should ask how many times each day we laugh at jokes made by real people compared to how many times we laugh at the carefully scripted one-liners from comedy characters; or we should compare how many times we have sex with how many times the act is portrayed, hinted at or alluded to in what we watch. This, they say, can give us some measure of the artificial reality we experience via television.
When we come to religious broadcasting, we could adopt an analogous index. Perhaps we could ask how much we worship as compared to how many worship events we watch as spectators (and this does not just apply to TV), how many conversations we have about God with real people compared with how much time we simply watch other people talking about God and how much time we spend with our own exploration of the Bible and God’s world compared with how much we expect ourselves to passively absorb from the broadcast experience of others.
Reality TV is a myth. While aspects of reality can be packaged, in most cases there is reality or there is TV. Of course, there are better and worse examples of television content and presentation. But even the best-intentioned television presentation is influenced by the constraints of production, broadcast and audience. In the context of religious media, Brian McLaren terms this sometimes-subtle influence, “radio orthodoxy.”
According to McLaren, the voices of ‘radio orthodoxy’ are given credence by numbers: “Since he’s on the radio [or TV], he’s heard by thousands; he must be right.” And, by circular effect, the pressure — professional, personal and financial — to hold that audience can impact upon the message.
Even if only by virtue of being in the form of TV, the even-more-passive-than-passive consumption of TV-style religion renders Christianity something less than it must be. Christianity should not be reduced to pre-packaged, ‘harmless’ entertainment or mere companionable background noise. Our acts of devotion and worship should not be governed by TV guide and remote control. We need to check our religious ‘reality index’ and ensure we are not blunting our faith in the Christian ghetto of the electronically over-churched.
But perhaps my lack of enthusiasm for Christian TV is merely a generational thing. I find myself more easily identifying with a comment by Mark Joseph: “In the same way, the previous generation thought, ‘We have our own religious channel, isn't that great, 24 hours of Christian TV.’ This generation says, ‘Why do we want to be on the kooky channel. We want to be part of the cultural mainstream and have our ideas considered there.’ One generation was content with having their ideas available, albeit on the sideline. This generation is saying, we want our ideas up front and center, part of the consideration that all ideas have.”
But whether generational or otherwise, perhaps if we collectively contributed to just one hour of “ordinary” TV each week, we would be better off. And with our schedules freed up to allow more real-world treasure hunts, we could more effectively connect ourselves — and others — with the Kingdom of God.