Tearing Down the Temple

Reactions to reading the book of Romans

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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Romans 1:18-24. The Unholy City—XIII. The world, the flesh, and the devil

So what are the messages of television?

First, the message is, seek me again. Second is, obey me. Third is, what I speak is true.

Martin Luther wrote, “Reason is a whore,” presumably because it serves the wicked as well and as easily as the Godly, just as He “sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt. 5:45) It is probably not appropriate to characterize reason in such strong language, and we can conclude that this was merely Luther’s revolt against legalism. If we have a reliable set of principles and premises, and apply reason carefully and faithfully, it seems to me that we should be able to obtain some truth at the end of the process. Certain kinds of falsehoods are eliminated from the possibilities immediately by the application of reason. That is surely some advance that reason affords. The important thing to learn about reason is that it is an instrument and not an end in itself.

In particular, the blandishments of merchandising can be disarmed with reason; every one of them contains or conceals a fallacy that, with enough effort, can be brought to light and refuted. The real trouble with this analysis is that we don’t actually carry it out. We take in the advertisement, absorb it at face value, truth, lies, and all, without the intervention of analytical reasoning. Rather than speaking to our heads, it speaks to the dormant, caged beast within us that knows no reason: our appetites. We don’t want to resist the appeal to our appetites; that is why we pay no attention to reason when we watch television.

St. Augustine wrote, “We can say, my body does not obey me, but we cannot say, my will does not obey me!” We love the endless flattery and narcissism that flows from the television; we don’t want to stop it. And so we seek it out repeatedly, in moments of weakness, fatigue, boredom, or ill humor.

The overriding desire of television producers, after attracting viewers repeatedly, is that they should obey the imperative suggestions of the television advertisers. Not all of us have to purchase a product on the television’s suggestion, just enough of us to make the television production cost-effective to the sponsor. In the beginning of commercial television, in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, advertisers presented information and testimonies about their products so that the viewers would have favorable knowledge when they were making a purchase decision. Later it became evident that the powers of persuasion could be harnessed to create a false but plausible impression of a product or service. Ultimately, it developed that demand could be created when there was no prior demand, as in fashions or fads.

The substance of this trade was not different from that of the carnival barker or the snake oil salesman. The important thing was that enough people believe the claims of the television presentation. And so they do, by the billions. Today’s lesson for children is that the world is as the television says it is, not as parents say it is, nor schools nor the church nor even science.

Into this comes the world-inverting message of the Gospel. It is a threat. It must be reduced to the level of the competition. So there is Christian television, with Christian programs and products and Christian host personalities. Christianity is thus confined to and safely contained in one or two of the channels of your television set, to be one or two among many, subject to the ratings within its own category, just another competitor making the medium healthy with diversity. Christianity is thereby reduced to a particular kind of television watching.

This emasculation is routine treatment for the things that threaten television. From the point of view of the programmers of television, it is vital to diminish that threat. Billions are at stake. By placing Christianity on television, its truth is vitiated: you can change the channel.



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