How The Screen Won
by Michael J Penfold
British journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990), writing before the dawn of the internet age, observed that “…the media in general, and TV in particular, and BBC television especially, are incomparably the greatest single influence in our [British] society today, exerted at all social, economic, and cultural levels. The influence, I should add, is, in my opinion, largely exerted irresponsibly, arbitrarily, and without reference to any moral, or intellectual, still less spiritual, guidelines whatsoever.”1
Imagine what he would say today, now that the average teenager’s non-School ‘screen time’ exceeds 50 hours a week. Is it any wonder, when cable TV and the internet offer them a near infinite number of movies, music tracks, games and social networking updates twenty four hours a day? There’s not enough time in a thousand lives to watch it all, despite constant 24/7 access on the smartphone in their pockets. Perhaps that’s because the average teen is too busy sending an average of 3,339 text messages a month.
20th Century technology has evolved into 21st Century ‘technopoly’, a state where technology dominates and controls one’s life. Concerned observers have highlighted this new disease’s numerous harmful side effects:
- Shortened attention spans
- Desensitisation to violence (‘frog in kettle’ style)
- Learning difficulties
- Addiction and distraction (checking your phone 500 times a day)
- Sleep disorders
- Moral corruption (gambling, pornography etc.)
Some are claiming that the generational shift from the script to the screen – from a written to a visual culture – is actually changing the way we think, read and remember. Check out Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman or The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. The fear is that our brains are being rewired. Seemingly, neurons that fire together wire together. Whatever the brain does repeatedly and frequently, it gets good at and becomes addicted to.
Until the latter half of the 20th century, parents used to slowly build up their children’s cognitive abilities by giving them building blocks to play with, singing nursery rhymes with them and reading them story books. Today’s parents allow their children’s brains – from their very earliest years – to be negatively impacted by the overwhelming power of the screen, preferably the widest screen they can afford. At a hundred or more frames per second, the frenetically paced, ever changing, high definition, technicolour, 4D, surround sound, music-accompanied content of movies and video games assaults the minds of two-year-olds and ruins them for life. It is akin to putting rocket fuel in a lawn mover. Compared to the widescreen’s delights, reality seems dull, books are boring, and focussed learning becomes difficult.
During the second half of the 20th century, as our word based culture gave way to an image based culture, Western civilisation took a giant leap backwards. This technological ‘advance’ did not represent real intellectual progress for society as a whole. Neil Postman rightly criticises the assumption that “a new medium is merely an extension or amplification of an older one; that a [car] for example, is only a fast horse, or an electric light a powerful candle. To make such a mistake…is to misconstrue entirely how television redefines the meaning of public discourse. Television does not extend or amplify literate culture. It attacks it. If television extends anything, it is of a tradition begun by the telegraph and photograph in the mid nineteenth century, not the printing press in the fifteenth.”2
Then there’s the issue of distraction. “A new email message announces its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. A few seconds later, our RSS reader tells us that one of our favourite bloggers has uploaded a new post. A moment after that, our mobile phone plays the ringtone that signals an incoming text message. Simultaneously, a Facebook or Twitter alert blinks on screen. In addition to everything flowing through the network, we also have immediate access to all the other software programs running on our computers – they, too, compete for a piece of our mind. Whenever we turn on our computer, we are plugged into an ‘ecosystem of interruption technologies’.”3 Smartphones, those strangely alluring and hypnotic portable computers we carry about everywhere like some digital ball and chain, have only served to make this problem exponentially worse.
On the back cover of Maggie Jackson’s acclaimed book Distracted – The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Prometheus, 2009) she asks: “How did we get to the point where we keep one eye on our [smartphone] and one eye on our spouse – in bed? We can contact millions of people worldwide, so why is it hard to schedule a simple family dinner together? How did we get to the point where we tweet on holiday, text during family dinners, read emails during meetings and classes and learn about our spouse’s day from Facebook?”
Technopoly has thrown up a number of ironic consequences:
- What was meant to be a tool for becoming cleverer and wiser has, for the most part, had the opposite effect.
- What should have proved a time saver has become the world’s biggest time waster.
- Instead of looking at the news as a way of discovering important events that are worth knowing about, we’ve ended up looking at videos of “Watch a teenager drop cat in bin on way to work” or “Woman driver caught reading a book down middle of Motorway”. As advertising mingles with news content across modern media, the seriousness of life has also been trivialised. “We’ll be right back to the crisis in Ukraine after a word from Burger King”. In his cracking little book How the News Makes us Dumb (IVP, 1999) John Somerville asks “…of the tens of thousands of newspapers you have read, how many are you saving for your grandchildren?”
- We’re ‘connected’ to hundreds of friends on Facebook, but have become disconnected from the real world. We’ve “plugged in and tuned out”. Have you ever seen two people sitting opposite each other in a coffee shop working independently on their phones while their coffee grows cold and no conversation takes place (save to share a piece of trivia from their mobile)?
- Instead of learning about others, we use media to promote ourselves. Narcissism – excessive absorption with self – has flourished through the internet. What was YouTube’s initial strapline? “Broadcast yourself”.
Aldous Huxley accurately predicted much of this fallout in his 1931 novel Brave New World. Neil Postman makes a thought provoking comparison between Huxley’s work and George Orwell’s book 1984 (written in 1949). These novels predicted bleak but very different futures. “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…In [Orwell’s] 1984…people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.”4
A picture is worth a thousand words.
What makes the screen so desirable and addictive? Why is “television…for most people the most attractive thing going any time of the day or night”?5
Fast moving, rapidly changing HD colour images are going to win hands down against boring small black print on a white page any time. ‘Viewing’ is less taxing than ‘reading’. Viewing is more exciting, more stimulating, more captivating. A picture is worth a thousand words. A moving picture is worth a million.
Satan is well aware of the power of the visual. How did he tempt Eve in the garden of Eden? “When she saw that the tree…was pleasant to the eyes…she took of the fruit.”6 Note the progression. Saw, pleasant, took. Why did Pharoah desire Abraham’s wife? “The Egyptians saw that she was very fair…and the woman was taken.”7 Saw, very fair, took. How did King David fall into sin? “David saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon…David…took her.”8 Saw, beautiful, took. How did Satan try to tempt Jesus Christ? He gave Him a vision of the glory of the world’s beautiful kingdoms. If Christ would just worship Satan, He could take the kingdoms for Himself.9 See, beauty, take. How does Satan work today? Through the “lust of the eyes” he tempts people with the attractive delights of “this world”.10 “Lust, when it has conceived, brings forth sin.”11 See, beautiful, take.
This is how modern advertising works. Companies spend large sums on consultants and psychologists as they seek to pinpoint their customers’ deepest needs and longings and exploit them for profit. In the economic boom that followed World War I, major corporations feared an overproduction glut. Big business, with the help of manipulative psychological advertising, successfully countered this threat. Paul Mazur, a Lehman Brothers Wall Street banker from the 1930’s said, “We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed…Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” In the documentary series The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis explains how American citizens were deliberately turned into consumers by the introduction of Freudian psychology into advertising. Using the ideas of his uncle Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, the father of “public relations” (PR), pioneered the change from adverts which described the reliability and durability of say a car’s engine and bodywork, to ones describing how the colour, style and appearance of a car would make the consumer feel about him or herself. Abraham Maslow’s psychological theory of a hierarchy of needs sat nicely alongside this new style of advertising.
How does Apple sell its iPhones and Macs? The seductively portrayed product design is intended to solicit a “Wow, how cool is that! I have to have one!” from its open-mouthed customers. So, the queues form two days before the next model appears with millions of units instantly sold at £500-1000 a pop, even when the upgrade may not actually amount to much.
If this kind of power is wielded by simple oft repeated 30 second adverts, what influence must wall to wall music video be having? Let Bob Pittman, founder of MTV, speak for the industry: “The strongest appeal you can make is emotionally. If you can get their emotions going, make them forget their logic, you’ve got them. At MTV, we don’t shoot for the 14 year olds, we own them.”12
The populations of 21st Century Western liberal democracies view themselves as free agents. Compared with their forefathers, who were slaves to the Church, the Monarchy and to the cultural traditions of yesterday’s patriarchal and hierarchical societies, Generation Xers, Yers and Zers are free. Really? The worldwide 50 hours a week addiction to the screen – movies, games, social media, music, sport, pornography – is surely the worst case of mass enslavement in world history; a captivity made all the more terrible because the chains are invisible to the slave. Indeed, the slave thinks he is free. What a devastatingly damning deception!
Surrounded by a corrupt enslaving culture, what should Christians be doing? Three basic options have been suggested:
1. Conform to culture and go with the flow
Is this what the Bible had in mind when it warned:
“Love not the world”13
“Be not conformed to the world”14
“Whosoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God”15
2. Convert culture
Can we not Christianise culture and turn it into a force for good? No. This world system, the culture all around us, which grew up out of our first parents’ disobedience and rebellion in the Garden of Eden, has been judged and condemned by God as a result of the rejection and crucifixion of Christ.16 Ours is not to rearrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Though Christians are certainly called upon to be “salt and light” as they to bear testimony to their Lord in a world that rejects Him, Christians have not been given the mandate to disinfect the dunghill of the world’s culture. Individuals may be redeemed and delivered from this present evil age, but the system, which is under the control of the “god of this age” Satan, is “under judgment” awaits final destruction at the return of Christ.
3. Confront culture
Christians from the first century onwards have been aware that their job is to swim against the tide. Our task is to be different. To come out and be separate. To walk a separate path in the midst of ungodliness. To make hard choices, especially in the realm of media. Let’s be intensely practical and ask, for example, if Christians should watch movies? Consider the following four issues:
The vast majority of Hollywood, Bollywood and the rest of the film industry’s content is sprinkled, if not saturated, with infidelity, impurity, vulgarity, violence and blasphemy. Why? Sensationalism gets noticed; sex sells. So, the envelope has to be constantly pushed and the ratings have to keep slipping. Content for 12-year-olds is now off the scale of Biblical sanctification.
“I can handle it. It doesn’t affect me.” Really? Do Downton Abbey and Titanic’s immoral scenes not defile their viewers? How would you answer Tertullian’s questions, coming to us from the 2nd Century AD: “…if we ought to abominate all that is immodest, on what ground is it right to hear what we must not speak? For all licentiousness of speech, nay, every idle word, is condemned by God. Why, in the same way, is it right to look on what it is disgraceful to do? How is it that the things which defile a man in going out of his mouth, are not regarded as doing so when they go in at his eyes and ears?”17
Perhaps even more dangerous than the directly defiling content in movies is the worldview being subtly pushed through their story lines. Bearing in mind that 86% of Hollywood directors seldom or never go to church, what kind of unbiblical philosophy will their movies be likely to promote. The briefest of research will uncover the corrosive anti-Christian mindset of the world’s leading movie producers. Woody Allen’s nihilism is all too apparent in his movies. James Cameron promotes shamanism in Avatar. Quentin Tarantino pushes postmodernism and a world without absolutes in Pulp Fiction. George Lucas is less than subtle in his depiction of a New age ‘force’ in Star Wars. Occult messages and themes permeate everything from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones. The philosophy of existentialism lies at the heart of a host of modern movies. Readers wishing to pursue this theme should read Hollywood Worldviews (IVP, 2002) by Brian Godawa.
Though movie audiences may not have studied or even heard of these potent philosophical ideas, they are nonetheless being subliminally brainwashed into accepting them. In a speech at the USC Entertainment Law Symposium in 1988, British film producer Baron Puttnam (Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields, The Mission), perceptively reminisced about his own childhood, growing up in the United Kingdom but watching American movies: “Far more than any other influence – more than school, more even than home – my attitudes, dreams, preconceptions and preconditions for life had been irreversibly shaped more than 5,000 miles away in a place called Hollywood…Movies are powerful. Good or bad, they tinker around inside your brain. They steal up on you in the darkness of the cinema to form or confirm social attitudes…To an almost alarming degree, our political and emotional responses rest for their health in the quality and integrity of the present and future generation of film and television creators…I remain entirely convinced of the law of cause and effect. I also firmly suggest that the images of the film maker are responsible, frighteningly responsible, for the attitudes and behavior of the young and overly impressionable.”18
The Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, gives clear warnings to God’s people about “separation from the world”. Israel was forbidden to mix with the Canaanites and the other idolatrous tribes in ancient times – tribes in which sexual immorality and idolatry were the order of the day. Paul in his letter to the Ephesian church describes the immoral and idolatrous citizens of the Roman Empire and tells Christians not to associate with them.19
Consider the associations Christians enter into when watching movies. Sir David Frost OBE (1939-2013), an English journalist and media personality, once humourously but perceptively remarked that “Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your house”. Thus, though the leading actors and directors of our generation need to hear the gospel and are part of a world that God has loved to the point of giving His Son to die for, we must ever remember that they are the Canaanites of the 21st Century and should have no place in the affections of the Christian.
Professional acting is not an honourable profession, looked at from the Bible’s perspective. Why? Because pretending to be what one is not, assuming the counterfeit persona of a Minister of religion one day and of a serial rapist the next – and making big bucks out of it – is clearly not a noble, respectable or principled way of making a living. Addressing the United Nations in September 2014, leading Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio said bluntly, “I pretend for a living.”
The etymology of the word hypocrisy makes for an interesting study. Hypocrisy derives from the Greek word ὑπόκρισις (hypokrisis), which means dissembling or play-acting and was employed in ancient Greece for any kind of public performance (acting, rhetoric as a civil art etc.). The noun hypocrite comes from ὑποκρίτης (hypokritēs) and was employed a technical term for a stage actor. In ancient Greece actors were not considered fit for public office. Demosthenes judged Aeschines an untrustworthy politician. Aeschines had been an actor prior to becoming a politician. His ability to act and impersonate called his sincerity into question.
It’s time for Christians to end their adulterous love affair with Hollywood and serve MTV, Netflix, and HBO with a bill of divorcement. A clear break is required. It is time to stand up and be counted, to stop pretending “It doesn’t affect me”.
The following principles from the Word of God will provide guidance for living out a Biblical separated walk with God in the midst of a confusing, corrupting and compromising culture. As you consider your media choices ask yourself:
1. Is there any glory for God in it? (1 Cor 10:31)
2. Does it grieve the Holy Spirit? (Eph 4:30)
3. Is it a good use of my time? (Eph 5:16)
4. Does it please the Lord? (Heb 11:5)
5. Is it worldly? (1 John 2:15-17, James 4:4)
6. Is it a good example? (1 Tim 4:12)
7. What impression does it give to the world? (2 Sam 12:14, Rom 2:24)?
1. Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media, (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2003), opening paragraph.
2. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (London: Methuen, 1987), 86.
3. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows (London: Atlantic Books, 2010), 91.
4. Ibid., vii-viii
5. From a speech given at the 24th Media Ecology Conference, April 26th 1982 in Saugerties, New York by George Gerbner, then the Dean of the Annenberg School of Communication.
6. Genesis 3:6
7. Genesis 12:14-15
8. 2 Samuel 11:2-4
9. Luke 4:5-8
10. 1 John 2:15-17
11. James 1:14-15
12. MTV is Rock Around the Clock, Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov.3, 1982.
13. 1 John 2:15
14. Rom 12:2
15. James 4:4
16. John 12:31
17. Tertullian, De Spectaculis, Ante-Nicene Fathers, (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 87.
19. Ephesians 5:7