Neil Postman, prosperity, tv

The Medium Changes the Theology

Amidst my browsing of the internet lately, I found two very different circumstances that point to the same relationship: theology and television. While I am no luddite, I find a problem with the two when they merge.

Television is a one-way communicative medium, which in itself may or may not be inherently problematic. However, I suspect for theology, and religion in general, that television is not merely a tool. Instead, this “tool” has its own limitations that it forces theology/religion to adhere to. Simply put, to maintain an audience beyond the commercial break, or even from changing channels while the pastor is preaching, Christianity that attempts to publish itself on television undergoes a change that may dramatically alter the core substance of the Christianity being broadcasted.

The first instance from this week concerned the prosperity gospels of Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar.

Osteen here:

And Dollar is here (although I can’t seem to imbed the video):

The second instance concerned the well known “row” involving Rowan Williams, from the BBC:

…two factors in particular work against Rowan Williams.

The first is his inability, or refusal, to say everything in the neatly-packaged soundbite most of the media now demand.

It’s hard work understanding an archiepiscopal speech or sermon these days. But it’s always worth the effort, which has certainly not been the case with all his recent predecessors.

It is interesting to note that Williams does not function like Osteen or Dollar. In fact Osteen and Dollar are the antithesis of Williams for Williams does not seem to alter his theology for the medium of television — out of context sound bites, glitzy stage production and the cult of personality — and I think rightly so. But what is the problem with altering theology for the medium? I cannot say it any better than Neil Postman in his classic work, Amusing Ourselves to Death:

… on television, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. On these shows, the preacher is tops. God comes out as second banana. (116-117)

The second conclusion is that this fact has more to do with the bias of television than with the deficiencies of these electronic preachers, as they are called. It is true enough that some of these men are uneducated, provincial and even bigoted. … What makes these television preachers the enemy of religious experience is not so much their weakness but the weaknesses of the medium in which they work. (117)

… Though it may be un-American to say it, not everything is televisible. Or to put it more precisely, what is televised is transformed from what it was to something else, which may or may not preserve its former essence. For the most part, television preachers have not seriously addressed this matter. They have assumed that what had formerly been done in a church or a tent, and face-to-face, can be done on television without loss or meaning, without changing the quality of the religious experience. Perhaps their failure to address the translation issue has its origin in the hubris engendered by the dazzling number of people to whom television gives them access. (118)

… 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. I believe I am not mistaken in saying that christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether. (121)

Perhaps we would do much better as Christians to not serve up snippets for the media. But you say, isn’t that why Williams is in this mess to begin with? Sure he is, but its not his fault for creating the hysteria. Perhaps its time for the media to finally deal with Christianity that is honest and thinks. I wonder that if we were to package our theology all neat and tidy, we would be tremendously dishonest, or at least misleading. If there are a few things that are not tidy, it is human relationships and theology.