A Year without Television, Part I: The Church Fathers

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.

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