I’ll confess this to you.
I’ve watched roughly 1,320 hours of television the past five years.
Well, probably way more, but I had to stop calculating. Do I regret this?
I love TV.
I love television. It possesses forms of beauty unattainable by other mediums of entertainment. Few movies have taken ordinary characters and a regular company and created something excellent. The television series, The Office, has done this. People came home from work, to watch other people at work. The creators of The Office took ordinary characters and created something extraordinary. Like literature, television carries truth about the human experience. Television is a glimpse into the human experience. In a way, television sympathizes with its viewer. As popular culture television can change our perception of the world.
Television has the potential for positive or negative influence, but it depends on how an individual engages with it. H. Richard Niebuhr outlined these ways of engaging culture:
Simply go along with it and consume in a passive engagement.
Distance yourself by withdrawing completely from it.
Act condescending by looking down on it.
Transform it by engaging with an intentional and critical awareness.
Now television has a seductive element in its beauty, and as a result, many default to the first option and consume in a passive state. As a result, audiences fail to see television as instructive, but are still instructed. Ancient Roman Poet, Horace, writes, “The aim of the poet is to inform or delight, or to combine together, in what he says, both pleasure and applicability to life.” In the same manner, television operates as an “informer” and a “delight,” but many fail to recognize the information being conveyed because they lack awareness.
Audiences remain in a passive and unaware state while viewing, so the values infiltrate into the viewer's belief system. C.S. Lewis writes,
“I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition. . . Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. . . But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world. . . one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?”
Through the form of story, creators can sneak morals past the audience usual defenses. If the viewer simply consumes and remains unaware of television’s instruction, then the television’s morals will be trojan-horsed into their viewers worldview. Adding to this problem, television peaks viewers during evenings (Prime Time), so consumers are in a state of rest and passivity.
Television has experienced a change, so the viewer who has created certain defenses towards explicit teaching fails to defend against these new changes. So, no longer are TV shows explicitly teaching morals, but now have adjusted to postmodernity. A simple explanation lies in the differences between The Cosby Show and Seinfeld. The Cosby Show has blatant morals taught to the audience through character interaction, however, Seinfeld does not explicitly teach morals, but each character has traits of selfishness and narcissism. This change is seen with the nine seasons of Seinfeld. None of the characters experience growth or development, on the other, in The Cosby Show each character progresses to a point of maturity. For example, the first scene of the first episode of Seinfeld, has George and Jerry in a cafe discussing the importance of button placement on a shirt. Then the last scene has the exact same dialogue between George and Jerry, showing how these characters are the same.
Television has a potent effect on culture. James K. A. Smith says,
“What we do is driven by who we are, by the kind of person we have become. And that shaping of our character is, to a great extent, the effect of stories that have captivated us, that have sunk into our bones--stories that ‘picture’ what we think life is about, what constitutes ‘the good life.’ We live into the stories we’ve absorbed; we become characters in the drama that has captivated us.”
These characters in TV shows have a deep effect on the individual. Tweets like this support Smith. Furthermore, society sees their favorite characters as role models. The average American consumes around 5 hours of television a day. The constant consumption and “cool” characters result in powerful influence on the individual.
Mark Sayers, cultural commentator, defines this form of influence as a “soft power.” He writes, “Soft power, an indirect yet powerful sort of influence. They don’t bludgeon you out of your faith; they subtly coax you, each option quietly proclaiming a kind of gospel in itself” (Disappearing Church). Soft powers indirectly persuade. So, television’s soft power changes the viewer's perception of morals and can eventually change their morals and behavior.
So as a soft power, television influences viewers morals. Postman writes, “For, like the printing press, television is nothing less than a philosophy of rhetoric” (Amusing Ourselves to Death). If Postman is correct, then the viewer has morals taught to them, so the question remains, what morals do shows like Seinfeld, Friends, or How I Met Your Mother, push for?
This iconic Seinfeld scene promotes certain values. Furthermore, Journalist Mike D’Avria writes, “Between the six characters of Friends — Ross, Rachel, Joey, Chandler, Monica and Phoebe — have had sex with 85 different people.” This show proposes to the audience two things. Firstly, promiscuity is a light and causal activity. Secondly, frequent sexual activity is a criteria for “normal.”
Another example comes from How I Met Your Mother. Similar to Seinfeld, several characters experience little growth throughout the 9 seasons. Simply watch the first and last episode and this will become apparent. Hint: Robin lives exactly where she did, and Ted does the exact same thing he does in the first episode. More than that, Ted Mosby’s love life teaches the viewer that everyone must be validated by their relationship.
Throughout the show Ted searches high and low for his soul mate, as a result he experiences devastating depression at times. The whole show revolves around Ted telling his children how he met their mother (hence the title). The show climaxes when Ted meets his wife, and she finally validates him. While the show makes mention of the importance of the journey, it heavily emphasizes Ted’s destination. Ted has a chasm in himself until she can fill it.
Now many of these shows are satirical, but these observations are valid nonetheless. In New Girl (Season 4. Episode 9), a main character, Schmidt, introduces “Bangsgiving,” which is the idea that each friend will bring a sexual partner for another friend. The influence does not lie with the idea “Bangsgiving,” but the underlying assumption that they need frequent commitment-free sexual activity. More so, casual sex seems more acceptable in contrast to “Bangsgiving.”
Even though examples like these can influence morals negatively, Christians should not disengage from this medium of culture. Instead, Christians should be active in their viewership and able to distinguish between positive and negative values.
Television possesses truths Christian’s can learn from. Take Seinfeld and Friends for example, even though the characters in the series have morality issues, they also have redeeming qualities. Mike Cosby writes, “Even Seinfeld [and Friends], whose characters were largely downright despicable, had a kind of enduring commitment to one another.” Seinfeld, In “The Bottle Deposit,” (S. 7. E. 21/22) Kramer schemes to make several hundred dollars by depositing bottles, but earlier Jerry’s car had been stolen, so when Kramer saw Jerry’s stolen car on his way to Michigan, he ditches all the weight of the bottles in order to follow his friends stolen car.
The Office has a vast amount of truth’s Christians can learn from. For example, in the last season, Jim and Pam’s marriage meets rigorous trials, and at the pinnacle of their fighting they experience indifference towards one another. Pam no longer looks back at Jim as he leaves the office, but then she sees he left his umbrella. Scrambling, she grabs his umbrella and races downstairs to meet him before he leaves for his new job. They have a lukewarm goodbye. Pam turns to walk away. Then Jim turns her around and holding her hands, he looks down and sees the ring on her finger. Without dramatic music, the scene flashes back to their wedding showing unseen scenes with someone on the altar reading 1 Corinthians 13:
“Love suffers long and is kind. It is not proud. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never fails. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Finally, after months of bitterness and indifference, Jim and Pam embrace one another saying, “I love you,” because they remember the vows they made.
Hayley Maycock writes,
“True, the show kicks against basic Christian beliefs, making casual sex, adultery, drunkenness, and profanity a part of most plot lines. But for me, those problems become smaller when I think about the overarching message of The Office: that quietness is better than distraction, and loyalty more satisfying than lust.”
While the majority of shows advocate for negative morals through subtleties and underlying assumptions, Christians should not refrain from watching television. Instead, Christians should equip themselves to withstand these negative morals whilst simultaneously enjoying the entertainment value and learning from the truths taught.
The passivity and unawareness is the reason the promotion of these negative morals carries such an effect. These values “Trojan-horse” into the individual’s worldview, because of their element of secrecy.
So Christians can continue to passively consume, disengage completely, or engage in an active and transformative way.
The almost constant bombardment of television carries powerful influence. So be aware of how many times you click “Continue Watching.”
Christians must be aware of what television teaches. You should distinguish between good and bad lessons.
Christian’s should also set boundaries. Cultivate a sensitivity to inappropriate shows that could cause stumbling. How far is too far?
Christians must equip themselves by understanding their own worldview. So, as Christians view television they should seek out the truths and the falsities, and be aware of them. So what do you believe?
These shows are more than simply good and bad lessons. They’re art, and they should be enjoyed. More so, like literature, they give a deeper understanding of humanity. Who can deny this after seeing The Office scene of Jim’s first rejection from Pam?
On a personal note, television has taught me more than I would like to admit-- both good and bad lessons. Television finds a certain place in my heart, as it has been my companion through hardships. I can recall what show I watched through what season of hardship. I binge watched How I Met Your Mother through the hardest time of my life. My friends were Marshall, Lily, Ted, Barney and Robin. They kept me laughing and they even gave me some insights; some were bad and some were good. More important than morals, these TV shows sympathized with me.
Of course, Jim, Pam, Michael, and Dwight have always been good friends of mine. I write this not to discourage watching TV, but to equip you with the awareness needed to enjoy this extraordinary medium of culture.
Thank you, Professor Daniel Gleason, Joy Yancey, Alan Terry, Elise Barnes, and Kat Frazier for your assistance in writing this article.
Nathan Ecarma studies Bible, culture, and language. He serves on the Worldview Initiative and as a Managing Editor on the school newspaper, the Bryan Triangle. In between theological conversations, he enjoys binge watching Netflix and attempting to sing his favorite songs.