Orthodox America

  WHAT ABOUT... Television?

by Fr. Alexey Young

Editor’s Note: In the last conversation I had with Fr. Seraphim before his final illness, he asked me to read an article from "US News and World Report" (Aug. 2, 1982), and urged me to write the following article. He felt a sense of urgency, because the question of television was so often raised by his spiritual children. It was, in fact, a topic of considerable discussion at last year's St. Herman Winter Pilgrimage in Redding. The following article, however, is not any kind of "official" Church view, but simply the opinion of one pastor. As al ways, we invite reader response.

"Soon after 28-year-old David Radnis watched the movie '9The Deer Hunter" on TV he was dead-one of at least29 viewers in the U.S. who shot themselves imitating the show's Russian-roulette scene."

This is the opening paragraph of a cover story, "What is TV Doing to America?", in "U. S. News and World Report" for August 2, 1982, an in-depth analysis of the evidence for and against the medium of television. "TV's increasingly pervasive influence on America " the article continues, has "staggering" consequences for our moral values, cultural standards, and family relationships Why?

Citing a recent study, the article shows that "television has become surrogate parent and substitute teacher"; by "age 16, most children have spent 10,000 hours watching television-more time than they have spent in school.

Among the negative effects of so much TV is the evidence that TV has made "viewers impatient by distorting their notions of what to expect from life;" it encourages Americans to be "contemptuous and suspicious of their leaders," floods networks, cable systems and video-cassette machines with programs of high sexual content (sometimes even X- rated programs), and creates a "national tendency to exa1t entertainment above crucial needs such as health and education." Two peculiar but interesting side-effects of excessive TV are the fact that television programs "stimulate primarily the right half of the brain, which specializes in emotional responses, rather than the left hemisphere, where thinking and analysis are performed," and the difficulty of "rapid linear movement on TV images, which gives viewers little chance to pause and reflect on what they have seen. Scientists say this torrent of images also has a numbing effect.. normally associated with daydreaming or falling asleep"!

This article in "U S News and World Re port" concludes with the hope that "the new video age will benefit from the industry's past mistakes, , ,and do the country far more good than harm"; yet the writer adds this ominous note: "We stand-prepared or not-on the threshold of a new television age that promises to revolutionize our habits as viewers, as consumers, and ultimately as citizens."

An Orthodox Christian reading this extremely interesting article must come to certain conclusions:

1. Without our being really very aware of it' television itself is making us, as individuals and a people, into something very different from what we were a generation or two ago. (The article itself says: "It is difficult to imagine the Kennedy generation, the '60's, Watergate, the Woodstock generation

2. Since we are being reshaped, re formed, by television content, we should ask what are we being changed into? And: do we like what we are becoming at the hands of television; are we the better for it? Anyone watching a typical evening's fare (such as our children watch) on any of the networks, would see programs like "Three's Company" (where all human relations are reduced to the level of a dirty joke), "Dallas," (where all human relations reflect a cave-man mentality), or a series of programs involving children being smart-alecky and insulting to other children and adults. As one who earns his living in the world as a principal of a small elementary school, I can assure the reader that most children today sound like escapees from "Joanie Loves Chaci" or "MASH," rather than children Indeed, our children are in danger of becoming the Frankenstein monster of the 20th century-cold, unloving, greedy and insensitive little reflections of the flickering images they see on TV.

It is not surprising that the terrifying apparitions and demons of the new film, "Poltergeist" (another movie brought to us by the creator of "E . T.") enter a home through the medium of the television set itself! The daughter in the story even calls the voices and ghosts that come out of the set "TV people." The horror wrought upon this family is unforgettable. In the closing scene, the father literally throws out the TV set. It may be an exaggeration to say that a television set is the doorway to hell (as it is portrayed in the movie), but not much; it is certainly a medium which is presently filling the minds of children and adults with all sorts of vile, immoral, banal, and otherwise corrupt and corrupting ideas and attitudes which do the work of the devil as surely as if it were the Evil One himself.

Many parents have simply eliminated television from their homes altogether. They encourage their children to read, take up hobbies, etc. This is certainly an admirable approach to the problem. The difficulty is, however, that many of these children watch television in the homes of neighbors, where there is no adult monitoring or censorship whatever; some of these same children also see movies at theaters which are far worse than what they might see on TV. Parents often have no influence over what their children do and see once they leave the home. And the danger is that by not having a TV at all, they actually create in their children a real thirst for television fare, a strong desire to taste of the "forbidden fruit."

As a priest, father of three children, and educator, I have a different view. I believe that television should be treated the same way we treat a public library or bookstore. There are many books we would not want our children to read4 so we guide them towards those books that will be genuinely edifying, instructive, and inspiring. In much the same way, there are a few programs on TV that are worthwhile. Mostly they are of a documentary nature; occasionally one can find moving and worthwhile drama.* Children should be encouraged to see these kinds of programs. They are few and far between, but a sincerely interested parent can find them. The problem with this approach is that it takes a good deal of work on the part of a parent. It's much easier to either let the children watch whatever they want, or not have television in the home at all; both of these are extremes reflecting a b a 5 i c lack of self-control on the part of the parents. To act as teacher and guardian when it comes to a child's television viewing is a difficult but noble and rewarding task.

What should guide a parent in selecting the few programs his family will watch?* Fortunately we have some basic principles, outlined by a saint of God at the dawn of our technological age: St. John of Kronstadt, who had quite definite ideas about modern culture and entertainment and what parts of it we should allow into our minds and homes. With regard to music, for instance, he said:

"If the sounds of music evoke in you calm, pure, holy sentiments-I is t e n to them and nourish your soul; if, on the other hand, they awake passions in you, stop listening and turn away from both the sound and spirit of this music." Whenever he encountered any thing in art, and entertainment, or the culture of his time that violated the sanctity of the soul, he would quote from St. Pau1: …but having itching ears will heap to them- selves teachers after their own lusts" (II Tim. 4:3). This verse from Scripture, and his comment on music, can serve as an in fallible guide to parents struggling to deal with the phenomenon of television. St. John begged parents to make sure that their children were not learning about life from "secular journalists, novelists and actors... (who) it they do not say it in words, tacitly affirm:

'We need neither the Gospel nor the Church"', for this is exactly the message being conveyed by these "entertainers.',

To be sure, if parents cannot reasonably control the use of television in the home, it is better to ban it altogether; but how much better to use TV wisely and carefully, selecting those few outstanding programs that can be well used for the elevation of mind and soul, never forgetting our Saviour’s words?

"You.. .know how to give good gifts to your children," so "whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it were better for him to have a great millstone hung a r o u n d his neck, and to be drowned in the depths of the sea" (Luke 11:13; Matt. 18:6).