According to studies, Americans spend anywhere between four to six hours a day watching TV. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry tells us that by the time they graduate from high school, children in the U.S. will have spent more time watching television than learning in a classroom.
Television viewing is a daily routine in American life. On a regular basis, Americans watch sitcoms, news magazines, sporting events and reality shows. Busy families turn on the TV to distract children while parents are trying to make dinner. Our television sets are turned on as we relax and get ready for bed.
Religion on television
According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, religion has been a fixture of television from its earliest years, with formats that have evolved from the days of radio. Broadcast networks aired shows featuring religious content early on Sunday mornings. Christmas Eve masses and worship services pre-empted late night programs. Religious programming was, and still is, personality-driven. Some personalities from the past and present include Jerry Falwell, Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, Oral Roberts, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and Pat Robertson.
There are the occasional shows where religion makes its appearance in an episode. A common theme depicts Christians who act violently or irrationally because they feel it is God’s will (e.g., murdering a physician who performs abortions, exorcisms gone wrong, allowing a child to die without needed medical care). Who would want to be a Christian after watching that?
In 2012, ABC-TV premiered a series about Christians. After 18 years, a once-popular high school girl returns to suburban Dallas, now a widow with two children. She is the object of revenge by the “GCB.” Its website says: “Based on the book “Good Christian Bitches,” “GCB” is a funny, sassy and heartwarming drama that prompts the question: Can you go back home to a place where no one seems to have grown up?” The show caricatures Christians as well as women.
Then there’s religion as the subject of satire. Some of us remember Dana Carvey of “Saturday Night Live,” dressed in drag, hosting a fictional talk show as the pious Church Lady. On late night TV, Stephen Colbert regularly lampoons Christians, and does it specifically in a feature where he gives thumbs up or down on a topic (“Yahweh or No Way”). Bill Maher, who hosts “Real Time” on HBO, makes no apologies for his view that all religion is ridiculous.
News on television
On the 24-hour news networks, it is more typical to hear opinion than journalism. Much of what we see and hear on FOX, CNN and MSNBC are panels of in-house personalities engaged in repetitious conversation. It is rare to see investigative stories.
Fewer journalists are stationed around the world to give us first-hand reporting. A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that “religion” accounted for 0.7 percent of total news in 2011. Of that less than 1 percent of air time, almost one-quarter was devoted to religious violence and extremism; the vast majority of these stories focused on concerns about extremism in the Muslim community.
With a U.S. presidential election on the horizon, “Christianity” matters. However, the “Christianity” that is being defined by politics and TV news has more to do with measuring up to a new set of commandments based on particular issues, such as gay marriage, abortion, and very seldom on Christian concerns for peace, justice and compassion.
Christianity and news
If I were to choose a faith based upon how TV news treats Christianity, I would probably find an alternative. From watching the news, Christianity is often about people who are declaring a God of “no” rather than a Jesus of forgiveness.
Christianity from TV news is portrayed as a club with rules, not a movement of believers going out into the world to spread good news. TV’s Christianity sets moral standards that claim to be biblically based (one group’s understanding) rather than what I understand John 3:17 to mean: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (NRSV).
We so-called “mainstream” Christians have allowed others to represent the faith in which we believe. We regularly see people on the news apply Colbert’s “Yahweh or No Way” in real life. We have allowed others to define Christianity as people who follow a set of (their) rules.
With this kind of media exposure, some of our own members may be confused. We need to continually educate our members on the fact that the yardstick put forth by political personalities and TV news is not necessarily one we wish to be measured against. As the song goes, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” That’s our yardstick.
Lutherans and the good news
I want to believe that all of us as members of the ELCA, Lutheran Christians, are newsmakers. We have been touched by the good news! We may not appear on national TV or even local news, but we can still share the good news.
Your congregation is a city on a hill — don’t hide that light under a bushel. Your congregation can share its ministry by doing “PR” (public relations). Think of public relations as one way to share how the good news moves your congregation to action. Find out how to contact your local media (television, radio, newspaper) and contact them regularly. Do you participate in a food pantry or cook for a meals program? Do you house the homeless? Does your congregation offer health screenings? Are you planning a vacation Bible school this summer? Is there a community garden in your backyard? Are you helping immigrants? How do you celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Easter, Earth Day, World Malaria Day, Reformation Day or Christmas?
How does the resurrected Christ live in your church?
All of these are stories waiting to be told. Share the news.
Fern Lee Hagedorn is the Friday morning voice of WJFF, public radio in northeastern Pennsylvania and the Catskills in New York. For 10 years, she spearheaded a project to translate Scripture into new media for the American Bible Society.