A Year without Television, Part I: The Church Fathers

This is part 1 of 5 in the series A Year Without Television

It all started back in Advent 2016 as I was preparing for the midweek services. Our congregation was going to spend the three Wednesday nights in Advent on the theme “Life with an Eye on the End.” We would consider what the Last Day has to do with how we view Mammon, Entertainment, and the Passions.

I was reading through certain works by the Church Fathers in preparation for preaching on entertainment. I knew the Church Fathers had a good deal to say on the topic of theaters and public games and so forth, as much as I was poised to dismiss their outright condemnation of such things as overly rigorous and zealous. But still, they never disappointed, and I stood ready to glean a great deal from them.

I came across two writings, De Spectaculis (On the Public Spectacles) by Tertullian, and Libri de Spectaculis (Books on the Public Spectacles) attributed to Cyprian. As I read through these works, I found it was not as easy to dismiss their “rigor” as I had anticipated. Here are some quotes, with comments interspersed:

“Innocent” Entertainment?

“However certain I may be, then, that you are no less respectable in the conduct of your life than faithful in respect of your sacramental vow; still, since there are not wanting smooth-tongued advocates of vice, and indulgent patrons who afford authority to vices, and, what is worse, convert the rebuke of the heavenly Scriptures into an advocacy of crimes; as if the pleasure derived from the public exhibitions might be sought after as being innocent, by way of a mental relaxation;—for thereby the vigour of ecclesiastical discipline is so relaxed, and is so deteriorated by all the languor of vice that it is no longer apology, but authority, that is given for wickedness,—it seemed good in a few words not now to instruct you, but to admonish you who are instructed, lest, because the wounds are badly bound up, they should break through the cicatrix of their closed soundness.” – Cyprian, Libri de Spectaculis, §1; ANF05, 575

In the opening of Cyprian’s treatise he makes it clear that his hearers are Christians (he is not condemning them of lapsing). He warns them against those who use what we might call “Evangelical freedom” as an excuse for indulging in the public shows. He notes the smooth arguments: “the shows are innocent pleasures; watching them is a form of mental relaxation” – smooth arguments still prevalent today. He also mentions at the end of this introduction that the saints are being wounded by watching the public spectacles, and yet whatever treatment they’re receiving is insufficient and haphazard. Or in other words, no one is showing the saints what a danger there is in the shows.

“For even suppose one should enjoy the shows in a moderate way, as befits his rank, age or nature, still he is not undisturbed in mind, without some unuttered movings of the inner man. No one partakes of pleasures such as these without their strong excitements; no one comes under their excitements without their natural lapses. These lapses, again, create passionate desire. If there is no desire, there is no pleasure, and he is chargeable with trifling who goes where nothing is gotten; in my view, even that is foreign to us.” – Tertullian, De Spectaculis, ch. XV; ANF03, 86

Tertullian notes that even if, hypothetically, we can watch immodest things in a modest way, we have opened ourselves to them, partaken of them. Our flesh is naturally inclined toward sin, and given a stimulus, the flesh will respond with swelling sinful passions. John Chrysostom preached similarly:

“Do you see others continuing altogether in chastity, and in gravity passing their lives; and cannot you command yourself even so long as the period of youth? Do you see others ten thousand times overcoming pleasure, and cannot you once refrain? With your leave, I will tell you the cause. For youth is not the cause, since then all young men would be dissolute. But we thrust ourselves into the fire. For when you go up to the theater, and sit feasting your eyes with the naked limbs of women, for the time indeed you are delighted, but afterwards, you have nourished thence a mighty fever.

“When you see women exhibited as it were in the form of their bodies and spectacles and songs containing nothing else but irregular loves (ἔρωτας ἀτόπους, i.e. loves that are ‘out of place’): such a woman, it is said, loved such a man, and not obtaining him, hanged herself; and unlawful loves having mothers for their object; when you receive these things by hearing also, and through women, and through figures, yea, and even through old men, (for many there put masks upon their faces, and play the parts of women,) tell me, how will you be able to continue chaste afterwards, these narratives, these spectacles, these songs occupying your soul, and dreams of this sort henceforth succeeding. For it is the nature of the soul for the most part to raise visions of such things, as it wishes for and desires in the daytime.

“Therefore when you there both see base actions, and hear baser words, and receive indeed the wounds but do not apply the remedies, how will not the sore naturally be increased? how will not the disease become more intense; and in a much greater degree than in our bodies? For if we were willing, our will admits of correction more easily than our bodies. For there indeed drugs, and physicians, and time are required, but here it is sufficient having but the will, to become both good and bad. So that you have rather admitted the disorder. When therefore we gather to us indeed the things that injure, but pay no regard to the things that benefit, how can there ever be any health?” – John Chrysostom, Homily V on Thessalonians; NPNF1-13, 347

Thou Shalt Not Do, but Thou Mayest Watch?

“If any of [the circus’s] madnesses are becoming elsewhere in the saints of God, they will be seemly in the circus too; but if they are nowhere right, so neither are they there.” – Tertullian, De Spectaculis, ch. XVI; ANF03, 86

“But if we ought to abominate all that is immodest, on what ground is it right to hear what we must not speak? For all licentiousness of speech, nay, every idle word, is condemned by God. Why, in the same way, is it right to look on what it is disgraceful to do?” – Tertullian, De Spectaculis, ch. XVII; ANF03, 87

“[T]he father who carefully protects and guards his virgin daughter’s ears from every polluting word, takes her to the theatre himself, exposing her to all its vile words and attitudes.” – Tertullian, De Spectaculis, ch. XXI; ANF03, 88

In the three preceding quotes, Tertullian shows the absurdity of exposing eyes and ears to things that we hold to be sin. What enjoyment can there be in watching people break God’s commandments?

Palatable Idolatry

“Nobody dilutes poison with gall and hellebore: the accursed thing is put into condiments well seasoned and of sweetest taste. So, too, the devil puts into the deadly draught which he prepares, things of God most pleasant and most acceptable. Everything there, then, that is either brave, noble, loud-sounding, melodious, or exquisite in taste, hold it but as the honey drop of a poisoned cake; nor make so much of your taste for its pleasures, as of the danger you run from its attractions.” – Tertullian, De Spectaculis, ch. XXVII; ANF03, 90

“Idolatry, as I have already said, is the mother of all the public amusements; and this, in order that faithful Christians may come under its influence, entices them by the delight of the eyes and the ears.” – Cyprian, Libri de Spectaculis, §4; ANF05, 576

“Thus the devil, who is [the games’] original contriver, because he knew that naked idolatry would by itself excite repugnance, associated it with public exhibitions, that for the sake of their attraction it might be loved.” – Cyprian, Libri de Spectaculis, §4; ANF05, 576

Tertullian and Cyprian argue in these three quotes that the devil uses entertainment to make idolatry palatable. Both authors spend a good deal of time in their treatises tracing the origin of the games and shows, demonstrating that they have their source in pagan ritual and worship. While we may not be able to trace modern shows and sports to a pantheon of deities or ancestor worship, nevertheless, it would be foolish of us not to see that the things portrayed on television involve the worship of our culture’s deities: Fame, Power, Sex, Mammon.

The Immodest Filth of the Screen

“But now to pass from this to the shameless corruption of the stage (scenae inquinamento inverecundo). I am ashamed to tell what things are said; I am even ashamed to denounce the things that are done—the tricks of arguments, the cheatings of adulterers, the immodesties of women, the scurrile jokes, the sordid parasites, even the toga’d fathers of families themselves, sometimes stupid, sometimes obscene, but in all cases dull, in all cases immodest. And though no individual, or family, or profession, is spared by the discourse of these reprobates, yet every one flocks to the play. The general infamy is delightful to see or to recognise; it is a pleasure, nay, even to learn it. People flock thither to the public disgrace of the brothel for the teaching of obscenity, that nothing less may be done in secret than what is learnt in public; and in the midst of the laws themselves is taught everything that the laws forbid.” – Cyprian, Libri de Spectaculis, §6; ANF05, 577

Cyprian comments on the content of the shows in his day – which is not at all different from the shows in our day. Interestingly, while we might include something like “sexual immorality” at the top of the list, Cyprian begins the list of abominations with “the tricks of arguments” (argumentorum strophas). The shows make deceptive arguments, which convince the viewers toward a certain way of belief or life. In other words, the shows are catechetical: they seek to teach and convince. This is perhaps the greatest danger of the shows (a close second being the inflaming of the passions).

Note the portrayal of fathers as dunces; the devil seeks to undermine the order of the family as much now as he did in the third century, and he uses entertainment to do it. He teaches husbands to be idiots, and he teaches wives to despise them and know better.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

“What does a faithful Christian do among these things, since he may not even think upon wickedness? Why does he find pleasure in the representations of lust, so as among them to lay aside his modesty and become more daring in crimes? He is learning to do, while he is becoming accustomed to see.” – Cyprian, Libri de Spectaculis, §6; ANF05, 577

“Such things as these should be avoided by faithful Christians, as I have frequently said already; spectacles so vain, so mischievous, so sacrilegious, from which both our eyes and our ears should be guarded. We quickly get accustomed to what we hear and what we see. For since man’s mind is itself drawn towards vice, what will it do if it should have inducements of a bodily nature as well as a downward tendency in its slippery will? What will it do if it should be impelled from without? Therefore the mind must be called away from such things as these.” – Cyprian, Libri de Spectaculis, §8; ANF05, 578

In the previous two quotes, Cyprian ominously notes that what we hear and see, we become accustomed to do. Outrageous things don’t appear so outrageous when we’ve heard and seen them dozens of times. Part of catechesis is familiarizing catechumens with the chief points by repeating them over and over again so that they begin to sound second nature. With what does television make us familiar?

Now What?

After reading through these two treatises, I had to acknowledge the truth of what the Church Fathers had said. Is it that they’re rigorous, or that we’re lax? Is it that they’re a bunch of pietists, or that we’re oblivious to the danger to which we subject ourselves by gawping at our screens? They aren’t trying to ruin the fun that Christians could have in this world. They’re trying to bind up our self-inflicted wounds and warn us away from things that harm us.

Well, now what? Should I distill these points into a midweek sermon, and then go along watching television as if nothing had happened? How could I? But maybe the shows I watched aren’t that bad: House, The Flash, Green Arrow, Burn Notice, White Collar, Psych. At least those aren’t as bad as Game of Thrones! Yet I had to admit, nothing I watched was innocent. Nothing was mere mental relaxation. It was all familiarizing me with immodesty and sin.

On December 5th, 2016, in preparation for preaching that midweek sermon, I canceled my Netflix account, and my family has not watched TV since.


A Year without Television, Part I: The Church Fathers — 13 Comments

  1. Optimus! When I think of the countless hours spent watching the screen and other trivial pursuits to include vain imaginations over the last 1/2 century, for which I do not expect a “well done, good and faithful servant”, I cringe. I gave it all up 2 1/2 years ago and do not miss it in the least. Sports, in particular football is nothing less than pure idolatry. It is to the point now where I can hardly bear to even glance at a billboard or a bumper sticker. The conscience is the Image of God impressed upon us. (Athanasius). While we are not to pursue asceticism for justification, there is much more peace and joy to be found in the contemplation of God and His righteousness than there is to be found in trivial pursuits. Oh, Father, if I could have those 50 years back.

  2. @St Stephen #1
    I should clarify. I did not “give it all up” as previously stated, especially the “vain imaginations” part. The LORD lifted this from me. I had no part in this. It felt like an guillotine. And then, freedom.

  3. You can watch almost nothing without it disturbing yourself spiritually. If you don’t feel that disturbance, you are in danger of being too numb already.

    BTW, taking this (laudable) approach garners you lots of great labels like “pietist,” “prude,” etc. Just more ways the devil tries to convince us to walk away from God.

  4. @St Stephen #1


    You hit on two very important things. First, that this is not the pursuit of justification. As I told my congregation, “I’m not doing this because I want to be justified. I’m doing this because I LIKE being justified, and I want to avoid anything that would lure me away from Christ who justifies me.”

    Second, Christians have better things to contemplate. Habet Christianus spectacula meliora, as Cyprian said (Libri de Spectaculis, §9): “The Christian has better spectacles.” Tertullian and Cyprian both understood the desire and necessity of viewing something outside of oneself. That desire and basic human need is abused by turning to the pagan shows. Instead, Tertullian and Cyprian both point toward reading the Scriptures, and Cyprian also includes the viewing and contemplation of nature. I’ll touch on the “better spectacles” in the fifth part of this series.

    As far as those fifty years go, take heart! For the sake of Christ, our Father shall replace them with eternal life.

    -Pastor Richard

  5. @S #3

    I would agree that if we don’t feel the disturbance then there’s already a dangerous numbness present. As far as addressing it goes, I like the approach taken in the treatise attributed to Cyprian. He doesn’t come out Law-guns blazing, “How dare all of you do this; you should know better!” He begins, “Cyprian to the congregation who stand fast in the Gospel, sends greeting.” He then shows fatherly sympathy for the fact that no one is warning them against the shows. In his eyes, the saints aren’t so much rebels, throwing the grace of God in his face, as they are stags with their antlers caught in a trap they didn’t suspect. He aims his venom at those who publicly teach and defend watching the shows. He calls them vitiorum assertores blandi, “smooth-tongued advocates of vice.” But his audience he addresses as those who have been wounded and poorly cared for. Now if they had been warned time and again and nevertheless held fast to their folly, that would likely have been a different story. But for those who have never really thought about the folly of the shows before, paternal sympathy and admonition is perhaps the best starting point.

  6. Ah, come on! Sports are pure idolatry? I think you just mean for the pagan public-at-large. My son and I just love the specific style of competition of our favorite sports. Sure it is religion to many pagans, and can morph into violent and hateful cultish tribalism, but it is still just entertainment provided by fallen and sinful people, like everything else, including books and board games. And, when sin occurs on the field, it is immediately pointed out by myself. If a sport ever became purely based on sin, then I wouldn’t watch it, either. Everything and everyone catechises somebody somehow, and I agree that bold measures work (like amputation), but it is not the only treatment. Cheers!

  7. @Stephen M. Travis #6
    Yea, what I meant to say is that televised sports is and has been idolatry for a long time. “Friday Night Lights”. And the money spent on cable packages so they can watch every day of the week?! There is nothing wrong with playing football or any other sport, but as they say, “c’mon man!”, get a Life.

  8. Pastor Richard,

    I believe you ended your article prematurely–I would love to hear if you and your family have gleaned benefits from that decision, and as I’m sure you have, what they are.

    In the last few years I’ve been weaning myself off of screens. This has meant much less tv time, less time on the internet, and leaving my phone at home and my watch on my wrist as often as I can afford. It’s not something I’ve regretted.

    edit–I just noticed this is the first part in a series. Looking forward to the rest.

  9. Excerpts from Rev. Fisk’s “Broken” book, I believe, are helpful points to keep our hearts/minds on Christ and His Good Work.

    “Morality is a good thing, a knowledge of the truths created by God to make the world work efficiently and in harmony. But Moralism does not want you to worship God and believe in God’s morality. He wants you to worship you. Step 1 is teaching you to trust in morality as the path to finding God’s blessings. Step 2 is teaching you to place that morality on your own personal SLIDING SCALE. Whether it is the Ten Commandments written in stone or your New Year’s resolution to eat right, lose weight, or read more books, the moral doesn’t matter. The rules you follow can be your own opinions or an eternal truth. What matters is your belief that by following those rules you will alter the course of your life or the universe or both. What matters is that when you find you can’t follow those rules perfectly, you find a way to make it look like you did.

    In this way, Moralism does not tempt you to believe in good things and do those good things for other people. He tempts you to do good things for YOURSELF. The goal is to be good so that you can look at yourself and say, ‘Hey, check it out. I’m doin’ pretty good.’ So when you fail just a little, you change the definition of ‘good’ just a little to convince yourself that you are succeeding in making the world a better place.

    The more you bend the ‘good’ to fit yourself in it, the more you believe you actually HAVE been a good person. You convince yourself you really HAVE done the right thing most of the time. You buy your own illusion that you really are making the world a better place. But the more this happens, the more you also begin thinking everyone else isn’t quite living up to their end of the bargain. When you look around, you start to get frustrated that no one else can measure up to the new, mostly good measure of all things: YOU. Having come to the conviction that you are (at least) mostly pleasing God by the actions of your hands, what you can’t see is how far you adjusted the meter, how much you nudged the results, how greatly you changed the final score to appear in your favor.”

    p. 57

    And from the Study Guide:

    In “Me versus the Hand-Sewn, Not-Plastic, Carrot” and “Interior Design
    Legalists,” the author relates an account of his family’s battle with toys in
    their living space. What was the purpose of this story? Is the author trying to
    say that having too many toys is a sin?

    *For the purpose of this article, we could substitute ‘TELIVISION PROGRAMMING’ instead of ‘TOYS’.*


    The author is not trying to say that having too many toys is a sin. It is meant
    to be something of a joking anecdote to show how even the little goals we set
    for our lives can become far more complicated “rules” than we originally intend
    and that our natural tendency is then to “bend” those rules in order to convince
    ourselves that we are still keeping them. In this way, we always lean toward
    “self-justification” even in the clearly non-spiritual aspects of our lives.

    I recently signed up for Amazon Prime….and though a good amount of the programming is total TRASH, I’ve found other shows refreshing, enjoyable, nostalgic, and family-friendly.
    * Lost in Oz – an Amazon original based on Lyman Frank Baum’s ‘Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ series
    * Highway to Heaven
    * Little House on the Praire
    * Zoo Baby Animals – educational program about animals from around the world

    Just my 2 cents

  10. @Mac #10


    I commend you for guarding against moralism. Trusting works instead of Christ does dishonor to Christ, does not lead to salvation, and gives the conscience no peace.

    Now here’s the question: is what I’ve written (and what the Church Father have written as quoted here) Moralism? Is it seeking salvation in works? Is it about casting Christ’s merits aside and trusting in our own?

    And the answer is: certainly not! I agree with what Rev. Fisk wrote about Moralism, and at the same time still maintain everything I said above. I don’t speak of television as if by abstaining from it one becomes a Christian. And Cyprian begins his treatise by addressing the congregation as Christians. Rather the television offers great danger. Most of its content, as you have noted, is trash. And even the things that seem good on the surface have all kinds of agendas and assumptions behind them that remain unstated, yet make the viewer accustomed to a certain way of thinking and feeling (see part 3 of this series). So its not that abstaining from television makes one a Christian. It’s that by watching it we subject ourselves to all kinds of things that tempt us away from Christ (as noted above in the article).

    The opposite of Moralism is not true faith. Rather the opposite of Moralism is the other extreme of Antinomianism. While Antinomianism has had several nuanced flavors over the course of the Church’s history, its current iteration seems to be the view that the Christian no longer needs the law, and that the Christian need not bother himself with an examination of his works in light of God’s Word. Yet Paul writes, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise” (Eph. 5:15). This is the same epistle in which Paul has made it inescapably clear that we are saved by grace through faith, so he does not mention works as if we merit something with God by them. Rather he recognizes that partaking in certain works leads the partaker away from Christ. Certainly we can’t elevate ourselves to God’s right hand. Through Baptism we are united to Christ and are seated with him in the heavenly places. We can’t bring ourselves up. But we can cast ourselves back down again. Therefore there’s nothing we earn, but there is something we guard against.

    So in short, I agree that we should beware of Moralism. We should also be aware that there’s more than one way to fall off a horse.

    I offer one last comment, and I want you to know that I don’t mean this in any malicious way: when I read your list of TV shows I couldn’t help but thinking, “Why not just read The Wizard of Oz and The Little House on the Prairie?” The best that TV has to offer is adapted from good literature, and yet the good literature always remains better than the TV adaptations. In the sixth part of this series I plan to offer suggestions of good literature and audio books (and your comment has reminded me to add The Wizard of Oz and The Little House on the Prairie series). Perhaps you’ll find something you like in the list.

    -Pastor Richard

  11. …and then there are the commercials, as well as the cost. ain’t no more free tv. I’ll never go back. Even if I had money to blow, I would not subject myself to the messaging. That’s not moralizing, and I should know.

  12. @Pastor Andrew Richard #11

    Pr. Richard,

    Firstly, and always, thank you for your well-thought response. I believe you understand my comment rightly, in that it was not a condemnation of your choice but simply a reminder that the ‘rules’ we set for ourselves *CAN* be a first step down the path of moralism.

    I cannot judge your heart nor intentions, but trust when you say this is not the case.

    + soli deo gloria +

    RE: Reading instead of watching
    How is reading instead of watching beneficial (or more beneficial) to our walk with Christ?
    We have read all of both series….and find watching them equally pleasurable, further the “lost in Oz” series is more like an extended universe–not available in print.

    Re: Antinomianism
    Does it burden the conscience that I, and others, watch TV instead of read books?

    “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor…..But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?

    So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

    I find both, reading and watching, equally beneficial.

    For years I made the mistake of being quite disagreeable with folks that donated their time and talents to non-profit organizations that weren’t directly connected to the church and/or didn’t deliver the Gospel. If what is done, can be done in the name of and to the glory of God, far be it from me to condemn the gifts God has bestowed on Christians to bless others….even if only in temporal matters.

    A drunken peasant sinner may dangerously fall from both sides of the saddle, indeed! Thank you, again, for your well-thought responses and posts….propping us all up from both sides. 🙂

    + To God Alone Be All Glory +

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.