Discover more from Passing Through Digital Babylon
S1E5: Walking by Faith and Sight
(The following is the manuscript for episode five of season one of the Breaking the Digital Spell podcast, which premiered on September 18th, 2018. Available wherever you get your podcasts, or you can listen online here.)
There are going to be a couple of ideas that we repeatedly touch on in this season, because not only are they going to pop up over and over again, they’re crucial to understanding what has changed and what those changes have done to the way we think about God.
First, like we looked at in the previous episode, mediums are not value neutral. They ask us to do certain things, and ask us to not do certain things. They actively encourage certain forms of engagement or consumption and actively discourage others, and in doing so, our communities become reshaped around the terms of engagement set forth by these mediums. In a culture where books and words are the dominant medium of communication, not only are you expected to know how to read and interact with this medium but you expect everyone else to be able to do this as well, and the same is true with television. But, as we started contrasting in the last episode, word-based mediums have radically different terms of engagements than the ones television set forth when it became widely adopted, and those terms of engagement have implications for how we engage with Christianity.
Second, and this is something we are not going to emphasize as often but it’s still very crucial to understand, Christianity has always revolved around the medium of the spoken and written word. We fleshed this concept out some in Episode 3, and before we keep going forward, we need to revisit it again, because I deliberately left out something very important. I failed to mention the 2nd Commandment.
Exodus 20:4-6, also known as the 2nd Commandment, states that:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. - Exodus 20:4-6 (ESV)
Now, why do I bring this up? Well, part of the reason I bring it up now is because television is a visual medium, and Christianity, in being a a religion revolving around the medium of the spoken and written word, is a religion that explicitly did not revolve around visual mediums, and we know this because of the 2nd commandment. Lets take a look at where this commandment is even located. The first commandment is straightforward enough: you shall have no other gods before me. Right off the bat God is making clear that His people will be different from the surrounding religions in that He alone is to be worshipped, and not to be included in the pantheon of gods of ancient near eastern culture. You would think that what comes next would be a commandment about giving God respect and honor, but that’s not what happens. Before we get to the third commandment – the commandment prohibiting taking God’s name in vain – we are told that we are prohibited from making images of God. God saw this commandment as being so important that he gives it immediately after the first commandment, and before the one concerned with insulting him by misusing his name, before honoring the Sabbath, even before “honor thy father and mother”. What is God saying in the placement of this commandment? He is saying that not only will his people be different in how they will only worship one God, his people will also be different in that their god will not be represented via an image – like every other surrounding pagan god was. Throughout the Bible, we see that the presence of images among the people of God is always a bad sign, regardless of whether or not they were worshipping them or not. I don’t think its a coincidence that, immediately after the Lord gives Moses the 10 Commandments, that Moses goes down to the mountain to find the Israelites worshipping a Golden Calf – they had just come from a land where the Egyptian deities were depicted everywhere and worshipped by their Egyptian neighbors, and so they were accustomed to having visual representations of deities as a focal point of worship. Likewise, in Daniel 3, Nebuchadnezzar threw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the fiery furnace because they refused to worship an image recognizing Nebuchadnezzar as a deity. Later in the New Testament, one of the most significant moments in the book of Acts is when the apostle Paul comes into conflict with a man named Demetrius, who instigated a riot in the city of Ephesus because his business of making images of Artemis was threatened by the Gospel. There are a range of opinions about whether or not the 2nd Commandment applies to the post-incarnate Jesus or not, but regardless of whether or not you believe images of the incarnate Christ are exempted or not, we can agree that this commandment absolutely applies to the Father and the Spirit and, like the rest of the 10 Commandments, this commandment is still binding and in effect among believers today.
But why, though? Why did God give this commandment at all? I think part of the reason why God is because God knows our nature, and knows how our nature became corrupted by the fall. As the other 10 commandments emphasize, God knows that, in our sinful state, that we are prone to idolatry, to violence, to lust, to greed, to ungratefulness. In God forbidding visual representations of himself, he does so knowing that mediums value certain things, and that the things that visual mediums value are not the things that God values – but they’re things that we value in our sinful state. Specifically, as Postman outlines early on in his book, the written and spoken word values abstract thinking and contemplation, which are things we do not value in our sinful, fallen state. Television, like we talked about in the previous episode, doesn’t ask us to engage in this higher level of thinking and meditation – you can if you want to, but you get by watching television just fine with relatively minimal focus and attention. I don’t think it’s inherently controversial to say that watching a show on television is easier than reading a book. I also don’t think it’s inherently controversial to say that reading a book requires abstract thinking and contemplation, and that if the God of Christianity was to be understood through the medium of the Word, then this God must value abstract thinking and contemplation as well, and desires that to be reflected in how we worship him. It’s hard to worship the Lord with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength if the locus of your worship is a medium that does not ask of you all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength – something we all know we must give if we are going to walk by faith and not by sight. And again, the problem here isn’t that television doesn’t ask us to engage in higher, critical thought – there’s nothing wrong with watching a sitcom, crime drama, or other television entertainment and veg out in doing so. That’s just not okay in Christian worship.
Now, all of that being said, its time to introduce a third idea that we are going to repeatedly come back to in later episodes, but we need to do some setup first.
If the printing press is what made the Protestant Revolution possible, then I think it’s safe to say that television is what made the health, wealth, and prosperity Gospel possible. Both were theological revolutions, but these theological revolutions are only made possible because of the media revolutions that undergirded the way these evolutions spread. I don’t think I need to spend much time detailing the prosperity Gospel and who its main proponents – whether you agree or like that designation or not, you know who I’m referring to, and what they teach. But, regardless of your opinion of the prosperity Gospel, I think we can agree that – the theological content notwithstanding – the television broadcasts of these guys make for pretty good television. The production quality is usually pretty slick and solid. The talking heads, whether its the pastors or guests, have good communication and speaking skills. It’s not necessarily the exciting stuff to watch, but it is watchable. Even if it’s a sermon recording and you can see a massive crowd in attendance, the pastor usually knows where the cameras are located and is able to look directly into them and, as he preaches to the crowd, preaches to the individual at home as well. I know that Joel Osteen is usually treated as the poster boy for the prosperity gospel – and regularly whipped for it as a result – but to give him some credit here, being able to communicate to a crowd while simultaneously knowing when and where to turn his head and look so that he’s simultaneously looking into a camera is a pretty difficult thing to do. The result the people in attendance feel as though he’s speaking to him, and so does the individual at home – which, as we’ve talked about, the people watching a home are watching this message in a radically different context than those watching it live and in person. But, if you’re a technological optimist, that’s a huge opportunity! Television allows you to reach the people who might not ever step foot in the church and reach them in their homes without having to send anyone out and without having to cross the threshold of anyone’s front door. The late Reverend Billy Graham, one of the pioneers of translating Christianity to television and harassing the medium’s power, wasn’t technically wrong when he said that:
Television is the most powerful tool of communication ever devised by man. Each of my prime-time “specials” is now carried by nearly 300 stations across the U.S. and Canada, so that in a single telecast I preach to millions more than Christ did in his lifetime. - Billy Graham, as quoted by Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death.
But – as Neil Postman argues, and as we will constantly re-state throughout the rest of the season:
If the delivery is not the same, then the message, quite likely, is not the same. And if the context in which the message is experienced is altogether different from what it was in Jesus’ time, we may assume that its social and psychological meaning is different as well. - Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Simply put: there’s a difference between watching a sermon preached in a church and watching a sermon through a television. That might seem obvious, but I want to explore this a bit. How do you go to church to hear someone preach? You (hopefully) take a shower and get on some decent clothes, get in the car with enough time to arrive at the start of the service, walk in, find a seat, and participate in a shared experience, and this shared experience takes place in a space, or context, of some kind. You may not know anyone else in the room, but you are sitting in the same seats as they are. You’re expected to sing when it’s time to sing; you’re expected to be quiet and listen when someone is speaking. You feel the laughter in the room at a joke or a gaffe, or the dead silence after a stunning rebuke or controversial declaration, but regardless of whether or not you’re enjoying the sermon or not, you cannot leave without physically getting up and walking out – a social fear many introverts like myself know all too well. You make eye contact with people. Maybe you’ll shake some hands and say hello. And, once everything is said and done, you go back home, change into your lazy clothes, and go about your day. Now, if you were to tune in to hear that same sermon preached, very little of what I just said would not apply to you. You don’t need to bathe; you don’t even need clothes! There’s no need to weave through the crowd for a seat, nor will you be asked to leave if you shouting out to someone in a different room of the house. There is no eye contact. There are no handshakes. There are no awkward side hugs. Whatever there is of a shared experience, it comes at the expense of an experience tied to a context, because the space you’re in is not the same. The context is no longer the church, but the living room; no longer the gathered body of Christ, but an individual Christian in the space you’ve created to reflect who you are and what you love – and as prosperity gospel pastors would soon discover, television is a powerful medium to speak to people in such a way that reinforces the love of comfort, security, wealth, entertainment, and success as communicated through the television that our living rooms are designed around.
I re-wrote this episode at this point several times because detailing the social and psychological changes that come through the context of television are so sweeping and wide ranging that we could spend an entire separate season explaining it all, and I know I am leaving out quite a bit more that ought to be said. But, one change I want to highlight and end this episode on is a change relevant to the changes in technology and media we’ve yet to talk about, and one of the social and psychological changes brought by Christianity delivered through television is the increased emphasis on the individual at the expense of the group. [Neil Postman, at the end his chapter on religious television, is not obscure at all about the impact television has on Christianity and how it re-centers our focus on individuals instead of Christ and the church:]
“I think it is both fair and obvious to say that on television, God is a vague and subordinate character. Though His name is invoked repeatedly, the concreteness and persistence of the image of the preacher carries the clear message that it is he, not He [meaning God], who must be worshipped. I do not mean to imply that the preacher wishes it to be so; only that the power of a close-up televised face, in color, makes idolatry a continual hazard. Television is, after all, a form of graven imagery far more alluring than a golden calf.” - Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 122.
The thing about our idols, whether its the literal Golden Calf of the Israelites or the ones we create from our favorite actors, shows, and preachers on television, is that we cannot converse with them. But on the next episode of Breaking the Digital Spell, we are going to look at what happens when another technology revolution takes place that allows us to talk to our idols – and they can talk back to us.