How Television Shapes the Way We Think (and Live): Part 3

(In the first part of this series, I look at how televisions portrayal of the “60 minute” day affects our understanding and appreciation of reflection. In part two, I look at the way heroes have been replaced with the ideology of heroification.)

The Relegation of Faith
The final thematic element that bombards viewers (in most TV viewing) is the pandering of faith as acceptable but unfounded and irrational. “Faith is fine — for you.” Several episodes of House M.D. drew this conclusion. But don’t suggest for a moment that it has any place in a fact-founded, reason based discussion.

How is this different from generations past? Consider and compare the ways that faith were viewed over the past 50 years:
1950s–faith national: “a cultural thing.”
1960s–faith critical: “a personal thing.”
1970s–faith assumed: “a Sunday thing.”
1980s–faith political: “welcome at the table.”
1990s–faith ignored: “irrelevant to the conversation.”
2000s–faith individualized: “mystic, abstract, personally relevant; corporately irrelevant.”

Watch episodes of the original Twilight Zone series particularly an episode called “The Obsolete Man.” Faith was an accepted practice in the 50s. In the 1960s, it came under attack as part of a larger assault on the family and become “a personal matter.” (Watch the original Star Trek series and you catch glimpses into the cultural tenor regarding faith.) Then in the 1970s, religious affiliation dropping, it was relegated to a “church thing,” something for “those” people (both Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons both presented this approach). In the 1980s, faith seemed to have its greatest voice in the Moral Majority as a political power. And in the 1990s, it seemed to serve only to advance a neo-evolutionary worldview (watch the movie Contact , with Jodi Foster); or else be dismissed as purely relativistic.

Post 9/11, faith has been given this mystical position: on the one hand, it’s non-scientific–which is to say irrelevant and of no consequence; but, on the other hand, it is “good” for people to have a faith. “It” helps with life. “It’s” irrelevant, except to the one who holds it–then “it’s” relevant, tolerable, significant, and worthy our respect.

Numb3rs takes up the issue of faith: Don nearly dies, and starts going to the synagogue (he’s Jewish by birth). His girlfriend is antagonistic, and his brother is dismissive. His father is encouraging, and his brother’s girlfriend is tolerable. Conclusion: faith is relevant — for some.

House M.D. takes up the issue of faith: a woman is dying and she believes her “faith” will save her. House is antagonistic. Cuddy is permissible. Foreman justifies. Cameron is encouraging. In the end, she is healed in ways that remain subject to interpretation. Conclusion: faith is relevant — for the believer.

“I believe! Help my Unbelief!”
This is faith today: unfounded and non-factual. It’s a table, really, around which all sorts can come and offer varying views and opinions: some accept, others believe, criticize, dismiss, argue, lambast, encourage, support, and still others don’t care. This is the mystic and “non-concrete” faith as presented on television.

What is wrong with this? It teaches us that faith in God, or a god, is something wholly abstract. For religious proponents, faith has always had concrete consequences. Whether one was a Buddhist, Muslim, Jew or Christian–faith is real. The Being in whom one believed actually affected reality. Faith even changed and transformed reality. Christians, for example, do not believe faith itself–expressed in prayer or fasting or spiritual devotion–is an appeasement to God. Rather, that God in his Grace ennobles faithful expression by dignifying it with consequence. A man prays and is delivered. Another fasts and receives direction in some decision. This is the ennobling of consequence. Taleb would petition silent evidence, of course. But that aside, faith was always concrete–and for true believers, it always will be.

What is the benefit of having faith relegated to the non-concrete? Namely, you put an end to fundamentalism. If what a Muslim or Jew or Christian believes can be reduced and relegated to some abstract feeling of peace and goodwill–then maybe there won’t be many more reason to have wars that grow out of religious convictions (the Afghanistan war is more religious than political in nature, proving that religion impacts politics, and has very real consequences — aka, 9/11). Where science failed to “prove” religion irrational, and philosophy (Nietzsche) failed to render “God dead,” television presents religion as relevant to a diminished sphere of influence: an individual life. Continue to reduce that sphere, and eventually religion has as much power as a “mall cop” (I’m thinking the new movie that’s out): enough to be an annoyance, but not something to take seriously.

But as Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists–we must insist that faith is concrete. Either we insist that God (a god) can save us, and give him the opportunity to prove it–or else we have no grounds for proselytizing. We must insist that the God, in whom faith is put, if real, has real and significant effects upon reality. Otherwise, we accept Hollywood’s version. And when that happens–we stop praying, stop fasting, stop seeking the direction of the Creator who made us and God who sustains us. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Faith is empirical in its outworking, or else it is nothing more than the feel-good preference that House and Numb3rs (and a dozen other shows) would have us believe.

What we Become
This is particularly harmful to children who, on the one hand, are told by parents and pastors that God is real and He really works in and through events; but are instilled, on the other hand, with the assurance that their faith is powerless over the lives and events of those who don’t believe (the way magic has now power over the logical, in the movie Flight of Dragons!).

Such is the philosophic assault that TV has upon us. We watch their shows that convey “faith” and feel good afterwards. But reflect upon these conventions: I believe we will certainly find our faith less reliable, ourselves less confident, and our God less powerful. Under such subtle attacks, our faith withers away from the desperate spaces of creation. Redemption ceases being a divine act and becomes a human endeavor. Faith may fill our heart, but never does it overflow into others. It may comfort us, but we are left bereft of opportunity to encourage others with “the hope that is found within us.” In an environment where believers insist upon empirical consequences for faith, mysticism grows weak. The invitation by the God of the Bible is: test, taste, see.

Compare that to the invitation of television and the contradiction is obvious: “Just watch.”

Go back and read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

Joel Hathaway lives in St. Louis, MO. He holds a BA in English Literature with minor emphases in Art and Creative Writing. He lives online at