James Boice on Television

I would like to call my next witness to the stand to testify against the offender. . .

These are all excerpts from James Montgomery Boice’s essay “Whatever Happened to God?

People have lost any real sense of the fact that when we come to church we come to worship and learn about God. Years ago I spoke at a conference and my topic was on a number of the attributes of God. Later I got some feedback from a gentleman who was listening to my presentation. He had been in the church for thirty years, and in fact was now an elder, and that was the first time that he ever heard a series of messages on the attributes of God. And after hearing this his friend asked him, “Well, whom did you think you were worshiping all that time?” But he hadn’t really thought about those things and I’m convinced that we have literally thousands of people in our churches today who really seldom, if ever, think about who it is they are worshiping, if they think about God at all.

Now, I think there are some reasons for this. One reason is the terrible impact of television on our culture which has produced a virtually mindless age. Television is not a medium which shares information well, it is primarily an entertainment medium. It puts pictures on the screen onto which people project their own aspirations and desires, and because it works so powerfully and is so pervasive it has the tendency to transform anything it touches into entertainment, and it does it very quickly. One of the most significant books I’ve read in the last few years in terms of what is actually happening to the mind is Neil Postman’s, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show-Business. It’s not that entertainment itself is bad. But television is most damaging when it tries to be serious. So when you put news on TV, you get brief little soundbites encased in slick images, and this is not really information, it is entertainment.

This happens to politics, it happens to education, and according to Postman, it happens to religion. Postman even raises the question of what one loses when one puts religion on television. It is obvious what there is to gain: a mass audience, money. But what do you lose? He argues you lose everything that is important: tradition, creeds, theology, etc. And he says above all, you lose a sense of the transcendent. And what he means is that you lose a sense of the presence of God. When Christians meet together to worship God, whether it is in a cathedral or a simple chapel, typically there will be prayers and open Bibles for the study of God’s Word. There is a sense that God is present in these activities. And you lose that when religion is put on TV. All you have on television is the picture of the star of the show who is the “entertainer.” Postman says God necessarily, in that kind of medium, comes out second banana. And when the preacher becomes the star of the show he begins to think and act as if he is a Hollywood star then you have the kind of tragedies that we’ve seen in the industry. Postman has a very serious comment at this point. He says, “Now, I’m not a theologian and maybe I don’t have the right word for it, but I think the word for it is ‘blasphemy.'”

All of this would be irrelevant if it were not for the fact that all this has a significant impact on our churches. So just as God is absent from televised religion, there is tremendous pressure to push him out of our church services in favor of a more upbeat entertainment-oriented Sunday morning visit. We do all kinds of things to fill in that vacuum, but as Augustine said, we are made for God and our hearts are restless until they rest in him. In my judgment, we have a hollow core at the heart of evangelicalism, and that is the cause of all the restlessness.

If there is any doctrine that rivals God’s sovereignty in importance it is the holiness of God. But do we have any sense or appreciation of the holiness of God in our churches today? David Wells writes that God’s holiness weighs “lightly upon us.” Why? Holiness involves God’s transcendence. It involves majesty, the authority of sovereign power, stateliness or grandeur. It embraces the idea of God’s sovereign majestic will, a will that is set upon proclaiming himself to be who he truly is: God alone, who will not allow his glory to be diminished by another. Yet we live in an age when everything is exposed, where there are no mysteries and no surprises, where even the most intimate personal secrets of our lives are blurted out over television to entertain the masses. We are contributing to this frivolity when we treat God as our celestial buddy who indulges us in the banalities of our day-to-day lives.

First, ours is a trivial age, and the church has been deeply affected by this pervasive triviality. Ours is not an age for great thoughts or even great actions. Our age has no heroes. It is a technological age, and the ultimate objective of our popular technological culture is entertainment.

I argue that the chief cause of today’s mindlessness is television, as I discussed earlier. Because it is so pervasive-the average American household has the television on more than seven hours a day-it is programming us to think that the chief end of man is to be entertained. How can people whose minds are filled with the brainless babble of the evening sitcoms have anything but trivial thoughts when they come to God’s house on Sunday morning if, in fact, they have thoughts of God at all? How can they appreciate his holiness if their heads are full of the moral muck of the afternoon talk shows? All they can look for in church, if they look for anything, is something to make them feel good for a short while before they go back to the television culture.

Second, ours is a self-absorbed, man-centered age, and the church has become sadly, even treasonously, self-centered. We have seen something like a Copernican revolution. In the past true worship may not have taken place all the time or even often. It may have been crowded out by the “program,” as Tozer maintained it was in his day. But worship was at least understood to be the praise of God and to be something worth aiming at. Today we do not even aim at it, at least not much or in many places.

In this television age of ours, preachers are expected to be charming and entertaining. And so your sermons have to be shortened because people have short attention spans, they are funny if they can be, and you have to eliminate any theological material that would cause people to think, and you most certainly do not bring up negative theological material like sin because that makes people feel uncomfortable. Preachers want to be liked, and in order to be liked today you have to be entertaining. I am reminded of Jesus’ harsh words to the Pharisees about wanting to be popular, seeing the smiles from the folks in the market place. As our Lord said, “They have their reward.” But for pastors who are looking for more than smiles, and parishioners who are looking for more than to have their ears tickled, our Lord gave a very simple explanation of what the exposition of the Word is really all about. “You search the Scriptures thinking that in them you have eternal life: yet these are they which testify of me” (John 5:39). The preaching of God’s Word is about Christ, and him crucified. This central message is food for our souls. But we are settling for junk food.

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Filed under Culture, Television, Worship

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