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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: Apart From "Religious Television"... What About The Non "God-Slots"?

Apart From "Religious Television".... What About The Non "God-Slots"?

In August 1979, John Wilson was concerned with the portrayal of Christians and Christian faith on television.


 IF there is one thing that appears sure to arouse committed Christians it seems to be Religious Programmes on Television. Temperatures are raised at the simple sentimentality of “Stars on Sunday”; the easy nostalgia of “Songs of Praise”, or the unresolved confusion of the many programmes revealing the new Prophetic Voice of “Yes, No – Don’t know”!

Religious television, apparently anxious to offend no one except Christians, does tend to present a God Who makes no demands and calls for no repentance. But what about the other programmes?

Even apart from the occasional morally offensive items, should not Christians be concerned about the content of all the programmes that fill the screen between the “God-slots?” What view of the Church, Christian Faith and Christian life are to be found in the documentaries, plays, features and entertainment that comes with hypnotic force from the flickering screen? Television, we are continually assured, is only reflecting real life but how real is it?


 Real life for many people still includes the church and the Christian Faith. It is a fact that, even in our increasingly secular age, more people still go to church on a Sunday than are at football grounds on a Saturday, and even in the lazy days of summer there are more people to be found in church than at Test Matches or Wimbledon. That is a facet of “real life” which television does not reflect.

On the general run of programmes Christians are conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps I have been unfortunate in my choice of viewing but I cannot recall ever seeing a play or documentary in which a man is sitting reading his Bible. Apart from the old, usually American nostalgic films, I have never seen a family saying grace before eating a meal. I cannot remember a character advising someone to pray, or promising to pray for them. In Soap Operas, does the church play any part in the life of any of the characters? Yet Bible reading, giving thanks, praying, going to church is very much part of  “real life” to a great many people.

The unreal way in which television treats Christians is probably best seen in their portrayal of ministers. Again it may be the limitation of my viewing but I have never seen a sympathetic study of a minister on Television. I is usually the cheap stereotype, a vague “do-gooder” often effeminate and always irrelevant. For some strange reason it is always assumed that Anglican vicars are always good for a laugh; they are all “gas and gaiters”. THE vicar who was in “Dad’s Army” was probably typical – a helpless, hopeless incompetent.

 Real life

Presbyterian ministers do not appear to be in this tradition. Perhaps John Knox is to be thanked for this – whatever else you may do to him you can’t laugh at him! Certainly an attempt was made some years ago to present a Drama series of “Adam Smith” – a Church of Scotland minister. It revealed practically nothing of the Christian Faith, the Church or, I suspect, the true life of a minister. Indeed one perceptive critic remarked at the time that, apart from the calling of the hero, the series might have been sponsored by the British Humanist Association.

Apart from Christians and ministers being misrepresented on television is God allowed to fit into the little screen? The answer, of course, is that television reflects “real life” and what has God to do with real life? His name and that of His Son, provide convenient oaths for dramatic purposes, but other than that He is generally ignored and His Commandments forgotten. God, it is assumed, has nothing to do with the real life of the 20th century.

Occasionally lip service is paid. Some comedians, not necessarily those noted for the shining purity of their wit or humour, often end with “God bless.” I doubt if it can be taken as a sincere prayer or benediction. Another comedian ends with the more memorable benediction of “May your God go with you.” This is probably a multi-religious prayer for a plural society implying we have got beyond the Judaeo-Christian God back to all having our own little tribal gods.

But generally God is ignored. Even in those otherwise excellent films of natural history where we are shown something of the wonder, diversity and glories of creation, it is all presented in a completely Godless evolutionary context. There is no intention of helping us to catch a glimpse of the Creator behind the creation. Rather, idiotically when you think on it, we are called upon to admire the brilliance of the animals in adapting and evolving to suit their environment. It is intellectually and scientifically, assumed that it all just started and it all just happened. As one of the Producers of David Attenborough’s admirable series ‘Life on Earth’ has said, ‘Whichever you look at it , it’s going to be a bad three months for Adam and Eve.” (Listener 18 Jan. 1979).

Common myth

It’s not just the history of the first three chapters of Genesis that is ignored; more recent history is changed to suit the modern mythology. Last year, in the interesting and well produced series on Darwin’s voyage of The Beagle, the ending was skilfully edited to preserve the common myth of the church as the enemy of science.As was almost predictable, the last episode dealt almost exclusively with the confrontation between science and the church in the Wilberforce and Huxley debate at Oxford. This gave, as was probably meant to give, the impression that the only objections to Darwin came from the church. It ignored the great number of scientists who were totally opposed to Darwin. Scotland’s Lord Kelvin was one of them, presenting scientific objections of which at least one is still a problem for evolutionists. Indeed 617 physicists signed a petition disassociating themselves from Darwin’s theory. But nothing of this was shown on television. The church is always a handy shipping horse.

Fake view

The truth seems to be that when television touches the Christian Faith some quite astonishing things happen. When ATV decided to make a multi-million pound epic “Jesus of Nazareth” they did not get a team of devout Christians together; they got the author of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ to be one of the Scriptwriters and a Marxist to direct the film.

When the history of the Church e was made for television under the title of The Christians” it was not a committed Christian who made the series. “The Long Search” was supposed to be a television portrayal of a man’s search for God but was essentially a denial of the Christian Faith which, according to the Bible reveals a God who is searching and calling for man. “The Long Search” could come to no conclusion because it started at the wrong end.

All this is not carping criticism but raises real issues of which, ironically, the Marxists are aware. Herbert Marcuse is probably the leading Marxist philosopher alive and he argues that the basic problem of television is that it is giving a false view by asserting that a lifestyle based on material goods and affluence is the only one possible. This, he argues, is done so skilfully and subtly that no one notices and the possibility of an alternative way of life is not even considered. Television brainwashes and indoctrinates people into accepting wrong values and standards.

Without becoming Marxists we can learn from Marcus. Television has a tremendous influence in society’ as McLuhan has said, only a “technological idiot” would suggest otherwise. The idea that television merely reflects and does not influence is the defence of a Pilate who washes his hands after signing the execution warrant. Television does claim and appears, to be showing real life but all the time it is a careful selection and interpretation designed to affect our attitudes.

There was a notable example some years ago in a filmed documentary about Billy Graham. The end was set at a Rally where Billy Graham was preaching a sermon, and, while he was preaching, the cameras cut to a room at the back of the stadium where the collection was being counted. All the time, as the stewards counted the money, the soundtrack of Billy Graham preaching the Gospel could be heard. It was clever and it was true – a man was preaching and money was being counted but it is easy to see how subtly a false impression was given. Billy Graham might be a preacher of the Gospel but he was coining in the money – we could see it with out own eyes.

Perhaps we have got used to everything being reduced toa show for our entertainment that we never think of what it may be doing to us. What happens to a people when a “”Miss Word” contest is treated as seriously as a general Election and films about bombs exploding in Belfast is more gripping, and interesting, than prayer meetings by the Peace People?

Gift or gimmick?

As Christians we should certainly object to all blasphemy and immorality on television and be concerned about the lack of balance between good and evil. Violence and death on the small screen never seems to be balanced with a corresponding amount of compassion and the saving of life. As an African Student said after seeing our television for the first time: “I did not realise the West valued human life so cheaply.” But should we not be concerned with more than violence, sex and blasphemy on our screens?

Should we not be asking what is the general effect of all the programmes on us? What view of the world, the church, the Christian Faith is daily being indoctrinated into our minds by the clever and gifted artists on television? Does God have anything to do with “real life” as presented on the cathode tube? Indeed has television itself anything to do with real life - or is it all an image without substance?

Television is a glorious gift. It can widen our knowledge, enrich our lives and extend our experience. But equally it can influence and distort. Whatever else we must do, we must never accept it uncritically. It is not just religious, or morally dangerous programmes we should criticise, but are the items to see what worldview they are really presenting. These are all helping to direct and shape our nation.

The BBC Handbook for 1928 could assert: “The BBC is doing its best to prevent any decay of Christianity in a nominally Christian country.” This is no longer true on any of the channels. Watch the programmes and see what kind of Christianity they are portraying.