The 3 Most Disturbing Words on TV

Not long ago, Justin Taylor linked an excerpt from a sermon by John Piper. The clip was about Piper’s fears that certain cultural attachments could cause this whole gospel-centered movement to unravel. Here are a few quotes:

  • “There’s the giving of zeal for truth in biblical doctrine back and forth among young people, and I’m concerned that there are some loose wires dangling between the majesty of God that is sung about in the services that causes people to soar with the kind of emotional euphoria about the greatness of God and the wires of our daily, practical, detailed lives.” (2:08)
  • “They dangle disconnected between big thoughts about God and big appetites for beer.” (2:40)
  • “They dangle disconnected between infinite purity of God and the lure of pornography.” (2:46)
  • “They dangle disconnected between the majesty of Christ and the carelessly attended default weekend movie, no questions asked, it’s just a thing to do.” (2:53)
  • “They dangle disconnected between white-hot, all-satisfying divine holiness and hip-huggers and plunging necklines.” (3:06)

Several friends sent me the clip wondering what I thought. My initial reaction was concern over the collection of issues. There are differing degrees of moral ambiguity between “hip-huggers” and pornography. Other comments could be made regarding movies and beer, but Piper is too wise to simply throw these at us as blanket statements. The modifying phrases, such “big appetites” and “carelessly attended,” should be what catch our attention.

It got me thinking about the concept of “art facing the church” (how we as Christians respond to the culture of creativity around us). Much of our media consumption could be called “careless” or “mindless,” and the effect it has on our souls is little noticed. It reminded me, too, of the three most disturbing words on television.

Good Art Tells the Truth

As I’ve admitted here before, I grew up kind of a TV junkie, and remain to this day an avid apologist for television. I love TV for its ability to tell a complex, many-layered story, likeLost or Mad Men do, or like The X-Files did when I was a kid. Even formulaic shows likeThe Mentalist, which essentially repeat their premise week after week, are telling a larger story about a man haunted by his wife’s murder, wracked with guilt, and in spite of his charming exterior, seething with vengeance.

To me, the problem with our television viewing, like our movie viewing, has less to do with content than it does with our hearts. In our tribe of evangelicals, the conversations tend to focus on lust and sexuality. But there’s far more than sex happening in our hearts when we watch TV and movies.

Let’s take a fairly friendly show like The Amazing Race. I’m not a huge fan but watched a few episodes several seasons back, and I catch glimpses of it now and then. I remember when it dawned on me that the casting directors on the show are the true geniuses. Like any good story, they give you sympathetic characters, underdogs, and villains. It’s with the villains that we need to examine our hearts. There’s almost always a verbally abusive alpha-male, dominating his poor wife or girlfriend throughout the show. It brings out the bile in us, and we hate him. In fact, this sort of slimy weasel character shows up on a lot of reality television.

Now why would casting directors consistently put people on TV for us to hate? You’d think our tendency would be to change the channel when they were on TV. On the contrary, we love the villains. We love to hate them. Having a villain, an enemy, a monster to watch puts us as the viewer on the judgment seat. We’re empowered to stare down our noses at these villains, and the contempt feels great.

The villain role was so successful in reality TV that it gave birth to this whole second-generation of shows like Rock of Love, I Love New York, and Jersey Shore—houses full of contemptible people doing dehumanizing things for a moment of fame. The phrase, “I’m not here to make friends” has become a mainstay of all reality TV shows, indicating the moment when the villain is revealed, the contempt pours out, and things get ugly.

Why do we watch them? Why do we have “big appetites” for contempt? Because it fans the flames of our self-righteousness. The fall has left our souls without gravity, adrift, looking for any indication they can find of their security. Reality TV’s villains present us with the minimal assurance that, no matter how bad things may be, at least we aren’t eating animal entrails for a chance to date a washed-up rock star.

Other Terrors Lurk

There are other terrors that lurk in primetime slots of our national networks. Few Christians would openly defend viewing a show like Rock of Love, but who doesn’t get teary-eyed watching the final moments of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition? Never mind that it’s a spinoff of a show about radical plastic surgery, EMHE pulls together a whole community to give a deserving family a new, grandiose home. Who could argue with that?

Which brings me to the three most disturbing words on television: “Move that bus.”

Again, there’s no arguing with the warmth and altruistic sentiments of the show. The families who have been profiled always seem to be wonderful people, I don’t impugn them or the show’s creators with secret evil intentions. But a disturbing thing happens in the final moments of the show. After profiling the family’s suffering, after talking about hardship and perseverance, after recruiting an army of volunteers, the family is brought in front of the new home, which is hidden from view by a large touring bus. They count down and call out those three words, and the reaction can only be described as worship. There are tears and shouting while people fall to their knees, hands raised in the air.

Here it is on bold display: the ultimate hope of most Americans. It’s as though a phantom voice is responding to their suffering with the words, Well done, good and faithful servant. Here is your reward: dreamy bedrooms, big-screen TVs, privacy fencing, and wireless internet. We watch. We weep. And we hope for ourselves. It’s yet another gospel alternative, this one packaged as a heart-warming vision of the way life is “supposed to be.”

Instead of just asking yourself about lust when you watch a film, ask yourself about hope. What’s the hope being proclaimed? What other desires are being stirred? Does it feed your sense of self-righteousness? Does it give you cause for contempt? Or does it give you a call to worship at the feet of the American dream?

Good art tells the truth, and sometimes the truth is ugly. Sometimes people who suffer don’t receive a reward. Sometimes the truth involves sinful people doing sinful things, and in telling a story (even a redemptive story) it’s necessary to talk about that darkness. Sometimes what appears to be good for the heart and the family is actually an idol in disguise. At all points in the spectrum, individual tolerance for media should be constrained by a Scripture-soaked and gospel-informed conscience and by the input and feedback of our community in the church.

Mike Cosper is pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He writes on the gospel and the arts for The Gospel Coalition.