Most culture-monitoring books and magazines begin with the understanding that the author’s responsibility is to label and separate wholesome movies and television programs from their wicked counterparts. This labeling is often based solely on the amount of profane language, sexuality and violence in a given production.
Watching What We Watch: Prime-Time Television Through the Lens of Faith offers a model that digs deeper into the heart of television theology. If you weren’t sure that there was such a thing, the authors—Walter Davis Jr., Teresa Blythe, Gary Dreibelbis, Mark Scalese, Elizabeth Winans Winslea and Donald Ashburn—suggest you need to pay more attention.
Watching dissects the values and theology of several popular television programs, selected as representatives of TV genres ranging from situation comedies to sports programs. “The Simpsons,” “ER” and the evening news are among the shows discussed.
Each show is examined through several lenses, including production and commercial values, the values of the genre, particulars of a given episode, and the cultural norms reflected in the show. A concluding section of theological reflection rounds out each analysis.
The book also doubles as a textbook for TV history. Each genre is given its own historical review and the chapters devoted to each program consistently compare it with other shows from television’s past. “The Simpsons” are compared to “Father Knows Best” and “ER” is held against “Dr. Kildare.”
The authors of Watching want the reader to recognize the impact that television has made and continues to make on the world. Rather than following the rules of the old model, which suggest shutting off the TV and, in effect, a large part of the world, Watching suggests we learn to be “in the world” of television and view it through eyes that are not “of the world.” In this model the viewer is both culturally relevant and capable of discerning viewership.
These are the lessons of postmodern Christianity. If people of faith are to be “salt” of the earth, they must transform culture, not ignore it. Before transformation can begin, the culture must be understood. So, say the authors, we watch what we watch through all the lenses and we wrestle with the ethical implications we find.
For example, as we watch “ER” we see a culture that values self-sacrifice, equality and all human life. However, we are also watching a program that rakes in millions of dollars per episode from commercials that suggest our value comes in what we own, not in our humanity. Wrestling with these sorts of issues is at the heart of Watching What We Watch.
The Christian community should pay attention to the book’s noble premise. It is irresponsible, in this age, to avoid our culture. It is here, in our faces, and in the faces of our children.
Unfortunately, this book is so wrapped in the minutiae of textbook-like television history and communication theory that the reader can get lost and never find the book’s heart.
Lengthy chapters for each of 12 shows, histories of four TV genres, and discussion of the analytical methods are a bit overwhelming. Also, as each show goes through the same lenses, at points it becomes an exercise in redundancy that frustrates the reader. The book would have been strengthened by shorter discussions of the genres and fewer television shows.
One of the appendixes implies that it was written for clergy or church leaders to read and, in workshop form, pass the method of program analysis along to congregation members. However, given the form and length of the book, the time it would take to wade through the material and prepare for such a workshop is more than most ministers have for such subject matter. A more practical book, intended for the layperson and the clergy to read together, would have worked much better.
Many of the book’s ideas would be helpful to people of faith, but few have the time and concentrated interest in television to devote to a book of this magnitude.
If you truly love television and are a great connoisseur of all TV history and production, regardless of the show, you may enjoy this book. If you are not, hold out hope that someone will write an abridged version for the rest of us.
Johnny Lewis is a student at M. Christopher White School of Divinity and associate minister at First Baptist Church Middlesboro, Ky., where he works with youth and children’s ministries.