The following guest editorial gives one view of how to cope with television. Everybody is taking aim at the tube these days. Now that spring and reruns have arrived, maybe we can find other diversions. What did people do before television? Or before radio?

For one thing, people worked longer hours outside the home and had more chores to do inside it. Also, judging by the length of commentaries and books of sermons, and by the number and frequency of religious periodicals, Christians used to read a good deal more. CHRISTIANITY TODAY does what it can, not only to provide alternative fare to television, but to direct our readers to other options, especially books.

But if you can’t avoid television altogether, at least be discriminating. Martin E. Marty of the University of Chicago has observed that articles in conservative Catholic and Protestant periodicals “consistently assume great familiarity among the readers with the most minute details of the very prime-time shows that serious humanist critics describe as dehumanizing, trivializing, banal, boorish.” He concludes that there aren’t more references to the really worthwhile public or commercial shows because not enough readers watch them.

Don Morlan of the University of Dayton accuses the public of hypocrisy. Like any business, commercial television has to provide what its customers want. The ratings systems that networks use are not rigged. They are intended to measure as accurately as possible what people watch, or if they watch anything at all. Networks make expensive program changes even in midseason in response to the ratings. Morlan rightly says that we have “a national system in which the public has unmatched control in determining media content.” Last February the National PTA released its list of the top ten shows for the fall season. By the time the list appeared, three had already been cancelled. (But then so had three programs of their worst ten.)

No one makes anyone watch television, either in general or in particular. If you do watch, do so carefully. If you don’t like a particular show, forget it. If certain episodes or portions of a basically enjoyable program disturb you, then let the local station or the networks know (ABC, 1330 Avenue of the Americas, New York 10019; CBS, 51 West 52 St., New York 10019; NBC, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York 10020). And if you take the trouble to write, be polite, get to the point, and in addition to any complaints, compliment what you do like. It’s a good idea to follow such guidelines when you write any business, agency, or magazine.

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The Demon In the Box

The impact of television fully struck me when I was working for a political candidate. At the time I was living in a large apartment complex and had been assigned to call on each family there. Moving from one identical apartment to another, I soon lost any sense of what part of the building I was in.

One bit of interior decoration always stayed the same, though. The television set was nearly always on. When I knocked on the door to talk about politics I hoped I had knocked during a commercial. Otherwise I was an intruder. Whoever opened the door was slow coming and quick to take my literature and shut the door.

That in itself wasn’t odd; I don’t like being interrupted by a stranger pushing a political point of view either. What struck me as strange was that there was as little variety in what was happening inside an apartment as in its floor plan. Think of it. For hours on end, night after night, only a few programs captivated most of those families. I imagined an unending series of identical doors, behind which families sat immobilized, immersed in the hypnotic flow of pictures and words. I saw the identical cubicles of my apartment complex multiplied many times across the country, and everywhere the same programs being watched.

Most of what we read and hear about on television focuses on its effect on children and/or potential criminals. That is certainly appropriate. But I am worried about the effect of television on adults. Statisticians tell us that the average American household watches television six hours a day, forty-two hours a week, which is probably more hours than people work. That much time is bound to affect them, just as anything we do—whether it’s reading the Bible or going to baseball games—affects us. I doubt that the effect of television is good.

But I am not alone. Many people are angry at TV and its effects. Perhaps that anger was depicted most vividly in the popularity of the film Network. For some of my friends and acquaintances Network seemed to provoke an almost religious excitement—the sort of feeling you might expect in, say, an anti-Communist society listening to Alexander Solzhenitsyn describing Soviet repressions. These people seem not just annoyed at TV; they seem to hate and fear it. To them, it is a monster, a demon devouring society.

Of course, the words “devil” or “demon” aren’t used, except perhaps rhetorically. Most Americans don’t believe in demons. But as far as television-haters are concerned, they hold that TV exerts a force over people that they are helpless to resist. Demons possessed the studios in Network, where the competition for ratings destroyed any sense of morality or even of sense. The protests against the system became a TV series and worked to strengthen the network of evil. (Indeed, the networks did screen Network.)

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Or, perhaps the demons inhabit the box. The only cure is a kind of exorcism. The demon box must be driven out of the house, and as though reassuring themselves, heroic couples talk loudly about how they don’t have a television any more. Forsaking television (along with losing weight) seems to be the last heroic deed possible in our society.

There is something demonic about TV. Think of the ghostly, fluorescent images playing in the half-dark room before an audience of slumped forms. Think of children, who could be playing outside on a sunny day, instead choosing a dark room, and doing so day after day.

But all the talk of demons is shattered by a simple piece of equipment: the off-on button. There is no need for exorcising the danger. With a poke of the finger you can kill it entirely.

Nothing is shown on TV that the viewers do not voluntarily watch. It may be true that the producers and writers should be ashamed of themselves for airing certain shows. But, shouldn’t we be ashamed of ourselves for even being tempted to watch them?

Primitive cultures are often governed by fear of demons. They believe that there are certain places and things demons inhabit, which you must avoid at all costs—a swamp, a dead tree, a haunted house. In the New Testament the view is different. With the exception of the herd of pigs, in which the demons had a short tenure, New Testament demons only inhabit people. The central problem here is not in avoiding the things (or people) that demons live in, but in finding out how to get them out of the people they already inhabit.

This observation could help us with television. The problem does not live in the TV; the problem lives in us. If television is demonic, it is we who are possessed.

This is an uncomfortable conclusion. I am radical about reforming television but staunchly conservative about reforming myself. But perhaps this conclusion offers us some hope. We aren’t going to do away with television or with any form of technology that tends to enslave us. Most people like TV just the way it is, anyway. But if we cannot reform our environment we can in Christ reform ourselves.

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Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not speaking against campaigns for better programming. I hope that reform will be successful. But I think we ought to have the modesty to admit that the reason we need reform is that we are weak.

While I was growing up, my father had no doubt that TV was a vice. We did not own a TV, but occasionally—often at World Series time—he would come home with a set he had rented. We became, joyfully, a family of zombies. Day or night, we sat in front of the set, our eyes glazed and staring. Reading, talking, playing stopped. Not a bit selective, we would watch anything—cartoons, soaps, test patterns.

After a few weeks, we woke up. The TV would lose some of its hold on us, and we would come home from school and the TV would be gone.

The man who rented television sets regularly offered to sell one to my father. “You could have bought one by now, Mr. Stafford, with all the money you’ve spent on rentals.” But my father would thank him and decline. His view had much to commend it. It was moderate, it did not waste energy railing against demon TV; nor did we fight about how much we could watch it. And it was humble. He regarded himself and his children as weak human beings who were better off not tempted too much. I recommend the viewpoint, if not the method, to those who are angry with television.—TIM STAFFORD, west coast editor, Campus Life magazine.

The Whole Flock of God

A young lamb cavorting in a field, is delightful to watch—until he wanders away from his mother and from the rest of the flock. Then the lamb quickly becomes bewildered as he senses that he is lost.

Most of us are not personally familiar with the ways of sheep and shepherds and so hold unrealistic, overly romantic views about them. And in some places where sheep are numerous, such as New Zealand, they are watched by specially trained dogs and are not tended by shepherds. This is not how it was done in biblical times.

Jesus knew what sheep were like. The people who listened to him teach did, too. When Jesus compared them to sheep they knew it was no compliment. Yet, believers were comforted when they understood what Jesus meant. In Matthew 18:10–14, for instance, Christ told the parable of missing sheep. The passage hints that the lost one is a lamb (v. 10), not a ewe. He knew how easy it was for one of a hundred sheep to wander off. The immature need special care and are helpless without it—sheep and people.

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When the good shepherd discovers that a lamb has gone astray, he goes after it (v. 12), even when the lost one represents only 1 per cent of the flock. Some expositors suggest that the other ninety-nine sheep were abandoned by the master when he went to look for the lost one. The text does not say this. In his absence the shepherd no doubt provided for the care of the sheep.

Finding the stray lamb is cause for joy, and not only because he is no longer lost (vv. 13–14). The departure of that lamb left a gap in the flock. His return restores wholeness to the fold. That too is cause for rejoicing.

It would be good if we could remove some of the nastiness from the abortion controversy, but I suppose that is unlikely. Militant crusaders have little time for the niceties of parliamentary debate. But that is a characteristic of all crusaders, and it is true of people on both sides of the abortion question. A writer on the op-ed page of The New York Times recently lamented the escalating violence of the antiabortion movement and then proceeded to do violence to the truth by identifying the U.S. Catholic bishops with an extreme right-wing coalition and questioning their constitutional right to urge their position on an important question of public morality.

Recently certain supporters of the prolife movement have adopted some of the tactics of civil disobedience that were forged in the fires of the civil rights and antiwar demonstrations of the 1960s and early 1970s. They have not only picketed abortion clinics around the country but, in certain instances, have engaged in sit-ins and physically blocked the entrances. The number of those arrested in scattered incidents around the country is growing, and the varied decisions of the courts reflect judicial perplexity.

For the prolife movement to engage in acts of civil disobedience creates some troubling dilemmas for many liberals who applauded the civil rights and antiwar demonstrations but now resent what they see as interference with the constitutional rights of women who wish to have abortions. But if an immoral war justifies the violation of civil law and if immoral segregation statutes should be defied, is not the systematic destruction of human life another reason important enough to invoke a higher law? One that would justify, for example, trespassing on another’s property? At least that is the way some prolifers see it.

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Let me say, though, that I am against such tactics. Even though I recognize their legitimacy, I do not think they will work. In fact, I think they can be self-defeating. They harden resistance and close minds. What the abortion debate needs is not barricades but communication. The tragedy of permissive abortion can only be fully recognized when seen as part of a total vision of human life and love. That vision is easily obscured in American life today, and it will not be rescued by narrow passions.

No theory of civil disobedience, of course, can justify acts of violence that endanger the safety of the innocent. The recent firebombing of an abortion clinic in Cleveland injured two persons. Bishop James A. Hickey not only condemned the bombing but responded to the irresponsible accusations of William Baird, proabortion crusader nonpareil, with an invitation to dialogue. Although Mr. Baird had called for a “battle plan” to combat abortion opponents, he left the meeting with Bishop Hickey’s representatives with the remark that there are “decent people on both sides.” Now there’s a triumph for civility.—JOSEPH A. O’HARE, editor-in-chief of America. This editorial appeared in the March 11, 1978, issue of America and is reprinted by permission.

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