Real-Life Sanctification: How Much Television Should a Christian Watch?
Just thought that you might want to know.
And with that, I bring this bad joke to a close, even as I ask this question in a serious manner: how much tv should we watch as believers? It strikes me that this question ties in with our sanctification more than some of us might think. Sometimes we talk a good deal about sanctification--our progressive, life-long, Spirit-given growth in godliness as redeemed believers--but fail to put any feet on it. We forget to go the next step and ask, what does it actually look like to be sanctified in our contemporary age? In a culture that gravitates to certain sins and patterns of behavior, what does it look like to live a transformed life per Romans 12? We ought not to think that we can talk a great deal about sanctification without clear practical application. That's like talking a great deal about the importance of political engagement but never actually doing anything to enact that love. We would say that such a person is full of hot air--always possessing an opinion, yet never coupling that opinion with action. Many of us, however, can fall prey to just such a lifestyle.
In asking questions like this, then, we're not trying to get pinned down on tiny little matters that have no tie to our faith. No, we're trying to carry out Romans twelve in a very meaningful way and ask ourselves, what does it look like to be an American Christian? I appreciate this about my former boss, Dr. Al Mohler. He teaches about sanctification as a systematic theologian, but he then seeks to discern the particular challenges of contemporary culture to the sanctification of the individual Christian. I want to do the same, and I want to encourage others to do the same. Toward that end, many Americans watch a ton of television. Here's a quotation on the absolutely stunning amount of tv your average American watches (source):
"Figures from Nielsen Media Research show the average US household consuming eight hours and 14 minutes of TV per day; with the average individual American watching four hours and 35 minutes a day."
This is an obviously unhealthy amount of television viewing. I'm not even going to attempt to ground that claim. I don't need to. And yet we have to wonder how many Christians fit this "average" profile. I'm guessing, sadly, that many do. Beyond this, I'm guessing that many healthy, reformed, book-reading, intentionally holy Christians do as well. Why is it harmful to watch so much tv? Well, it's wasteful. One ends up lolling in front of a constantly blinking set with very little to show for it in the end. Of course, we all need some relaxation time, some period of the day when we rest our minds and allow ourselves to kick back. But we should not make the apparently national mistake of thinking that "relax" equals "television". It does not. Furthermore, there are so very many more healthy and helpful things we can do than to watch massive amounts of television. We can pray with our spouses or friends; we can read a good book together (yes, normal people actually do this!); we can go on a walk; we can go visit a person in need; we can call an unmarried friend who is in need of encouragement; we can check up on family members by a quick telephone call; we can write a blog post of endless length and little actual readership (just checking that you're reading). In these and so many other ways, we can avoid letting television do its voodoo work of mental hypnosis and physical paralysis.
Television is not nearly as neutral as many of us "engaging culture" types think it is. Bethany and I don't watch much of it, but our limited viewings of The Office definitely influence us. We repeat funny lines to one another, wonder out loud about whether Jim and Pam will ultimately marry, and laugh about Michael's antics. Though these acts are not inherently bad, necessarily, they show us that even in our very limited viewing, we are being impacted by our subject material. Many of my "engaging culture" friends have not caught on to the fact that though they, like me at times, think that they are impervious to all cultural influence on their faith, they in fact are not, as inarguably demonstrated by their use of a style of humor that one learns from shows like The Office, Saturday Night Live, and 30 Rock. Do you really think that your ironic comebacks and affected coolness come only from your own comedic preferences? No, just like me and everyone else, you've been influenced to joke in that way by culture. It's not neutral, and neither is your approach to it.
In watching lots of tv, then, we'll be shaped by it in profound ways. Unless you're watching John MacArthur shows on loop on TBN, that's not a good thing, broadly speaking. Am I arguing here for legalism, for some prune-like, sour-mouthed Christianity? I don't think that I am. I'm merely trying to point out that we have a limited amount of time in the day, and what we take in during that limited time will shape us. It should not surprise us at all when we are less spiritually hungry and fruitful in seasons when we're consuming (and being consumed by) popular media. It only makes sense that this happen. If we want spiritual health and vitality, we're going to have to force ourselves to fight for holiness and to discipline ourselves for the purpose of attaining spiritual health. Christians who do so are most often the ones who, when cancer or financial difficulty or spousal sin or lay-offs or rejection letters or broken friendships hit, are most able to maintain a strong faith and even radiate joy in the midst of their trials. When you've been working through a good Puritan paperback, or listening to Mahaney sermons, or volunteering at your local crisis pregnancy center, you're going to be healthier than the person who has taken in lots of television, film, and music. It only makes sense.
Let's wrap this up with a personal word. My wife and I are working hard at this. At night, when we're both tired, it comes fairly naturally to put the tube and put our feet up. It's easy, it's fun, and it makes sense. While we've both realized that there are definitely times in the week when it is fine (and even good!) to do so, we can also both see that a steady diet of tv or movies dulls us spiritually and hinders us from doing really important spiritual things that will mature and grow us both personally and as a couple. We've recently drawn up a weekly schedule (shades of legalism--flee!) that will give us a basic form for the week. On a number of nights, we'll do lots of different things--have company, pray together for an extended time for the salvation of family (or the defeat of institutional abortion, the welfare of orphans abroad, the coming of God's kingdom), go on a walk, read a book on parenting--and on other nights, we'll watch something, often just a few shows of something we like, like The Office. In this way, we hope to avoid legalism and self-righteousness on the one hand and undisciplined media gluttony and spiritual torpor on the other.
We haven't necessarily solved this question, and we don't claim to have the perfect answer, and having a child is going to change everything, and we'll probably fluctuate in our actual practice of this plan, but we are resolved to use the limited time we have in this life well, and to grow in holiness. Eight hours a week may work, or it may not, but whatever the perfect answer is to the question posed in the blog's title, we are hopeful that we and many others can rebel against the culture and engage with God in real-life sanctification that defeats the whispers of the evil one ("just relax, you don't need to be all spiritual") and that in fact transforms us even as we pursue it.