The Return of Television — And I for One Look Forward to These Two Overlords

The Season 6 promo for Dexter looks interesting — interesting enough I might return to the show:

Also, the new show Awake seems like it could be very, very interesting:

list, movie, tv

6 Opinions on Christianity or Religion that Fail to Stir My Interest

The following is a list of movies, tv shows, general entertainment, and media personalities that I find rather underwhelming when it comes to critiquing Christianity, because of their boring, uninteresting, or simple repetition of narratives that they themselves have refused to critically reflected upon. They also seem to simply trip over their own feet, or at least from a theologian’s view point. Its like they haven’t familiarized themselves with theology at all. Terry Eagleton was right. On my own, I do not plan on or normally enjoy watching them.

1. Bloodline. The Da Vinci Code without its crappy narrative and writing, and perhaps more crazy!

2. Religulous. I realize this has yet to come out, but the trailer seems to indicate that Maher is maintaining a certain level of continuity with statements on his show about religion being the root of violence.

3. House’s rants on rationality and against religion.

4. George Carlin’s rants that characterize Christianity by certain Christians. He seems to thoroughly miss the radical, counter-political nature.

5. The Rational Response Squad/ Christopher Hitchens/ Richard Dawkins/ other Enlightenment believers that don’t quite get what they’re critiquing.

6. Youtube videos by people “taking on Christianity.”

Have I missed any?

Anthony Kelly, complicity, Neil Postman, tv, violence

On Complicity and Engagement

Some may find the pictures below disturbing. The intent is not to disturb or shock for the purposes of sickening the reader into numbness. They primarily function to point towards our complicity.

Union is holding a conference on empire, “Empire: Resistance and Reimagination.” But they are far from alone. Empire studies seems all the rage right now. The sole purpose of some theologians is to engage complicity. And not to be left out, some fellow bloggers have focused on complicity in one form or another lately as well. Talk of complicity seems to be in the air. However, complicity goes deeper than a mere theological fad. One could argue that the constant question of complicity thoroughly permeates theology, if theology is being rightly done.

And so, how do we do Seminary, or more general, how are we Christians to live in a country of power? Power to abuse, that is. Importantly, there is little room in the Jesus story for those who kill. In the narrative, we’re the centurion at the foot of the cross. Covered in blood that is not our own, how do we read the bible with stained hands? To complicate reading, and indeed living as well, we do not exist apart from our context. We (or at least I) live in a milieu that is called American society. It is important to note, that in such a society, discourse is fundamentally violent, voyeuristic, and governed by Hollywood/TV.

To say that pop-culture’s imagination is violent is an understatement. We have a culture that relishes imaginative situations, which demand the good hero resort to gladiatorial violence and Machiavellian means.1 The beauty is in the blood that flies.2 “Through the safe distance of the media, we become death-watchers, voyeurs of what has become culturally obscene.”3 This warped view of aesthetics is based on a milieu of voyeuristic entertainment: “Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.”4 Comedian, and social critic, Jon Stewart made this same point when he visited the political show “Crossfire.”5 Even the “news shows” that make space for pundit “discussion” are primarily oriented towards entertainment. What is more, Stewart went on to lament, such entertainment is violent, as indicated by the name of the show and the argumentative action of the participants.

However, television is not simply voyeurism for a few; rather, it functions as a nation-wide, visual bacchanal of violence that forms society’s identity. “Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing itself. Therefore—and this is the critical point—how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged.”6 Quite simply, the visual storytelling of Hollywood, imaginative and adrenaline-filled, defines culture’s categories and the primary category is the unquestioned use of violence and Machiavellian means.

And, so, again, how do we read our Bibles, construct a theology, and live our faith in such a context?

Well. First we have to acknowledge what we look like. We (or at least I do, as a complicit person) look like this:

and this

and this

and this

However, merely acknowledging our hands drenched in blood that is not our own (perhaps stemming from a theology that seeks or cares not about other’s blood) will not do. I am attempting to raise the issue in a way that breaks with our common method of discourse. We must engage complicity, rather than passively take it in like the hermeneutics of Hollywood would like us to do.

So, what should our method be? It can’t be violent or voyeuristic or subject to commercials. It must be loving, dialogical, and free. But what does that look like and how do we maintain that method of discourse?

1. The television show “24” is one of many examples.
2. An example is the movie 300.
3. Anthony Kelly, Eschatology and Hope (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2006), 97.
4. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 87.
5. CNN’s “Crossfire,” October 15, 2004. A rough transcript may be obtained here:
6. Postman, 92.

I took the pictures above from a performance by a friend of mine for the Empire conference here at Union.

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.

discipleship, quote, theology blogs, tv

Quote from M*A*S*H

Good morning. Well, here we are. It’s Sunday again. I’m sure you’ve all come expecting to hear a sermon. Well, I have to admit I’m not as prepared as I’d like to be. I’m not even dressed as I’d like to be. I was working on my sermon, which I’d hoped would be particularly inspirational in honor of Cardinal Reardon. But I was called away. Well, to be honest, I never got back to it. If you’ll just bear with me, I’d like to share with you the reason why.

I want to tell you about two men, each facing his own crisis. The first man you know rather well. The second is a patient here. Well, the first man thought he was facing a crisis, but what he was really doing was trying to impress someone. He was looking for recognition – encouragement – a pat on the back. Whenever that recognition seemed threatened he reacted rather childishly – blamed everyone for his problems but himself – because he was thinking only of himself.

But the second man was confronted with the greatest crisis mortal man can face – the loss of his life. I think you’ll agree that the second man had every right to be selfish; but instead he chose not to think of himself, but of a brother – a brother. And when the first man saw the dignity and the selflessness of the second man, he realized how petty and selfish he – I – I – I had been that made me see something more clearly than I’ve ever seen it before.

God didn’t put us here for that pat on the back; He created us so He could be here Himself – so that He could exist in the lives of those He created in His image.

Father Mulcahy on discipleship, Season 9, Episode 18

theology blogs, tv, violence

M*A*S*H, War and Theology

I really like M*A*S*H. In fact, I think its some of the best (if not some of the only) war commentary on TV. It can be repetitive at times and sometimes too silly, but it is also often intelligent, witty and profound. Aside from the war commentary, the diverse characters grow throughout their time on the show and truly do take on a life-like quality that is rare in general, much less in current TV shows.

Recently a friend of mine told me he thought M*A*S*H to be stupid, silly him, but it also came up in a comment on the Niebuhr post on military chaplaincy. With the consistent inclusion of the chaplain (and therefore Christianity) and questioning the ethics of war, M*A*S*H provides a particularly fertile ground for theological discussion on all sorts of things war.

And so here is a list of episodes of some of my favorites to A. prove that M*A*S*H is not stupid, but instead thoughtful and B. supply a curriculum/syllabus, if you will, of some episodes that may provoke theological thought. This list is not intended to be a best of (though it does include some of my favorites) or is it meant as an introduction for someone looking for an overall idea of what the show is normally like, simply this list attempts to supply a beginning for those seeking a theological interaction with war and violence in M*A*S*H. Lastly, the episode summaries are shamelessly copied from Wikipedia.

1. Season 2, Episode 24 “A Smattering of Intelligence”
Two different American intelligence agents arrive at the camp and both appear to be trying to thwart each other and score federal funding for their rival espionage organizations. Hawkeye and Trapper John decide to have some fun by tricking both spies into going after Frank Burns.

2. Season 3, Episode 5 “O.R.”
A series of short sub-plots all focusing around drama in the operating room after a major assault. An Ethiopian soldier is featured.

3. Season 4, Episode 24 “The Interview”
A stateside television correspondent interviews M*A*S*H personnel about their experiences and thoughts. (in Black and White)

4. Season 5, Episode 13 “Hawk’s Nightmare”
Hawkeye’s sanity is wearing thin. He experiences constant nightmares and bouts of sleepwalking, so Dr. Sidney Freedman arrives to help Hawkeye deal with his problems.

5. Season 7, Episode 15 “Dear Sis”
December 1951: Father Mulcahy sends his sister a Christmas letter bemoaning his feelings of uselessness and his desperate desire to provide more comfort for the troops. Mulcahy has run-ins with two problem patients; one who won’t take anesthetic and nearly chokes Mulcahy, and an hysteric who punches Mulcahy.

6. Season 9, Episode 14 “Oh, How We Danced”
B.J. is upset as his wedding anniversary is coming up while he is thousands of miles away, so the camp gets a home movie shipped in from his wife. The camp also takes care of an injured Korean child and Major Winchester grudgingly performs a hygiene inspection on a front-line unit.

7. Season 9, Episode 17 “Bless You, Hawkeye”
Hawkeye has a serious sneezing problem that appears to be psychological in nature, so Dr. Sidney Freedman arrives to find out what has him sneezing around the clock.

8. Season 9, Episode 18 “Blood Brothers”
A G.I. dying of leukemia cares less for his own health than for the health of his critically wounded comrade. Father Mulcahy must prepare for an inspection from a particularly strict Cardinal.

9. Season 10, Episode 14 “A Holy Mess”
An AWOL soldier requests sanctuary during one of Father Mulcahy’s services, leading to a huge legal dispute and potentially ruining plans for a special breakfast in the mess tent-turned-chapel.

10. Season 11, Episode 16 “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”
July 27, 1953 The armistice is signed, ending the war, and the hospital staff must come to terms with the effects the war had on their lives. The finale ran for 2 1/2 hours. (I wouldn’t watch this one until I’ve literally gone through most of the available episodes, it is just too good to skip to the end and rob it of its punch.)

not so theological, tv

More Daily Show

From the Times:

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) – A new hub for Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” headlines a slate of two-dozen targeted Web sites that Viacom’s MTV Networks will launch by the first quarter., which launches in the fourth quarter, will archive the entire video history of the show including headlines, interviews and the “Back in Black” feature. The portal also will present the previous evening’s episode in its entirety an hour or two after its broadcast.

Woo hoo!