Television: Agent of Truth Decay

This is excerpted from Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay(InterVarsity Press, 2000).

First, television emphasizes the moving image over written and spoken language.  It is image-driven, image-saturated, and image-controlled.   …When the image overwhelms and subjugates the word, the ability to think, write, and communicate in a linear and logical fashion is undermined.  Television’s images have their immediate effect on us, but that effect is seldom to cause us to pursue their truth or falsity.  …As Kenneth Myers stresses, ‘A culture that is rooted more in images than in words will find it increasingly difficult to sustain any broad commitment to any truth, since truth is an abstraction requiring language.’

Second, [television brings] a loss of authentic selfhood…the self is filled with a welter of images and factoids and sound bites lacking moral and intellectual adhesion.  The self becomes ungrounded and fragmented by its experiences of television.  …Postmodern illiterates live their lives through a series of television characters (better: shadows of characters), and changing channels becomes a model for the self’s manner of experience and its mode of being.  Moral and spiritual anchorage is lost.  The self is left to try on a pastiche of designer personae in no particular order and for no particular reason.

Third, television relentlessly displays a pseudo-world of discontinuity and fragmentation.  …The images appear and disappear and reappear without a proper rational context.  …This is what Postman aptly calls the ‘peek-a-boo world,’ – a visual environment lacking coherence, consisting of ever-shifting, artificially linked images. …Without any historical or logical context, the very notion of intellectual or moral coherence becomes unsustainable on television.

Fourth, the increasingly rapid pace of television’s images makes careful evaluation impossible and undesirable for the viewer, thus rendering determinations of truth and falsity difficult if not impossible.  With sophisticated video technologies, scenes change at hypervelocities and become the visual equivalent of caffeine or amphetamines. …This means that one simply absorbs hundreds and thousands of rapidly changing images, with little notion of what they mean or whether they correspond to any reality outside themselves.  …Habituation to such imposed velocities tends to make people intellectually impatient and easily bored with anything that is slow-moving and undramatic – such as reading books…experiencing nature in the raw, and engaging in face-to-face conversations with fellow human beings. …The overstuffed and overstimulated soul becomes out-of-sync with God, nature, others, and itself.  It cannot discern truth; it does not want to.  This apathetic attitude makes the apprehension and application of truth totally irrelevant.

Fifth, television promotes truth decay by its incessant entertainment imperative.  Amusement trumps all other values and takes captive every topic.  Every subject – whether war, religion, business, law or education – must be presented in a lively, amusing or stimulating manner.   …Even off the air, people now think that life (and Christian ministry) must be entertaining at all costs.  One pastor of a megachurch advises preachers that sermons should be roughly 20 minutes in length and must be ‘light and informal,’ with liberal sprinklings of ‘humor an anecdotes.’  Just like television, isn’t it?  The truth is that truth, and the most important truths, is often not entertaining.  An entertainment mentality will insulate us from many hard but necessary truths. …Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles held the interest of their audience not by being amusing but by their zeal for God’s truth, however unpopular or uncomfortable it may have been.  They refused to entertain but instead edified and convicted.  It was nothing like television” (p. 283-292).

Undermining Truth in God’s Name

Undermining Christian mission is a constant threat, on the horizon and already in the midst of churches, seminaries, and Christian organizations. Our call, our sacred duty and privilege, is to proclaim, explain, defend, and apply the truth of the one true and living God, and to endeavor to do this in every area of life and thought. As Francis Schaeffer so often affirmed, “The Lordship of Christ covers all of life and covers all of life equally.”

Seminaries can undermine their very reason for being—making known the truth of God. If so, they deserve a millstone around their necks, not a crown on their heads. One assured way of deconstructing the mission of God is to deny propositional truth and knowledge as belief aptly supported by reasoning and evidence.

Just today I listened to the concerns of a student at a seminary—not my own—who was told that the theories of George Lindbeck should be embraced. The truth-decaying, knowledge-undermining philosophy of postmodernism (or post-liberalism) is welcomed and dissent is not allowed. Truth Decay, my 2000 jeremiad and apologetic, takes this on, but let me reiterate.

Professor Lindbeck and his followers (such as the late Stanley Grenz) deny that the affirmations of Scripture are true in the sense of matching objective reality. Scripture gives us the rules for shaping the church. It cannot speak beyond that as to mind-independent states of affairs. This view is theologically deadly; it is funereal in tone, if popular among benighted advocates.

First, this view commits the fallacy of false dichotomy, which is, perhaps, the most commonly practiced fallacy today. Yes, the Bible tells us how to live for God: Love God and neighbor according to biblical revelation and godly character. Rules are required. But rules are only worth following if they work with the grain of the universe and cohere with the mind of God. Christ calls me to serve “the least of these” because as we do, we serve Christ himself. The rule is tied to the reality, the objective, Christological state of affairs.

Second, all sixty-six books of Holy Scripture affirm a propositional and correspondence account of truth. A proposition is what an indicative statement means. Statements can be read or affirmed in various languages because they share propositional content. I often have my students say aloud “Jesus is Lord” in as many languages as they can. Despite the differences in words and sounds, they mean the same thing (however slight the difference in nuance). A proposition stakes out the facts—either rightly or wrongly. Yahweh is the true God. Baal is not. Jesus is the way. Buddha is not. If a proposition corresponds to the reality it describes, then it is true. This is the metaphysics of truth, what truth is. Without this understanding, Christians can only talk to themselves—and not make much sense of it either.

Third, the mission of God is to reveal the truth of God so that it is known and obeyed (Matthew 28:18-20). For this, we need knowledge, not mere belief. A truth claim can only be knowledge in a person if that claim matches reality (Jesus is Lord) and if one has adequate justification for that claim (the claims and credentials of Christ).

I address all this is great detail in Truth Decay and Christian Apologetics. For now, I exhort all my readers to not be blown by every wind of doctrine, but to be firmly rooted in the truth of Scripture. Truth is nothing to play with; revelation is nothing to reject through shoddy thinking.