A Year without Television, Part III: The Benefits

This is part 3 of 5 in the series A Year Without Television

Well, having taken to heart the paternal warnings of the Church Fathers, and having preached against the folly of the screen, it remained for me to see exactly what life without television would be like. I had some misgivings, not the least of which were the niggling speculations about the addictive cliff-hangers from which I had abruptly walked away. “What happens to the characters?”

The first thing I noticed about life without television was that my evenings were less predictable, which I did not like. It had become habit to do a few set chores, then sit down and watch a couple episodes of a show. I found myself doing the few set chores, and then, not knowing what else to do, continuing on with chores until it was time to go to bed.

During the day wasn’t much better. The children were quite upset with the change. They never watched more than an hour of TV each day (unless we had a family movie night), usually less than an hour, and sometimes none. Yet after we cut out television they wouldn’t stop begging, “Can we watch TV? Will you put this or that show on?” For as little TV as they watched before, I hadn’t realized how addicted they were to the screen!

Between the hectic evenings and the whining children, I wondered if this had been a good move or not. “Yes, it’s a good thing,” I kept telling myself. “It might be hard, but it is good for our family, and it will become normal soon enough.” And sure enough, it did.

It took a couple of weeks before my wife and I realized that our leisure time in the evening had turned into a flurry of housework. Our home certainly wasn’t hurting because of it, though we missed sitting down and enjoying a story.

And so we turned to reading: I read aloud, and my wife worked on some of her hobbies. We quickly read through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. There were some other books, and then Paradise Lost. Here were good stories: stories that didn’t rely on catering to the passions or manipulating the emotions or sucking us in with overly-contrived suspense; stories of substance, with good and evil, and right and wrong (according to the right standard of right and wrong!).

We also amped up reading together as a family. I had already begun the practice of reading a good book out loud after supper. We started spending more time on that, and also took to reading at other times: a fairy tale here, a fable or two there, and many, many storybooks from the library.

It took about two months for the children to stop asking to watch TV, though even four or five months after we had stopped they would occasionally ask. One day my wife came up with a brilliant response. One of my daughters asked, “When can we watch TV?” and my wife said, in a silly voice and with a sweeping gesture, “NEVER!” The children thought that was a riot. For a while afterwards they kept asking that question, “When can we watch TV?” not because they wanted to watch TV, but because they wanted to hear and see Mommy’s humorous response. Eventually they stopped asking entirely.

With the difficulties thus being overcome, then came full enjoyment of all the benefits. The chief benefit of giving up television has been an overwhelming clarity: clarity of thought and expression, clarity about what is good and true. I’ll take these two in turn.

First, clarity of thought and expression. There is a certain way the world talks and reasons, an idiotic idiom that it employs, a snicker and a connotation to everything, and a general abuse and misuse of the English language. I had not realized how watching and listening to such things acts like a shroud on the mind!

Now certainly, replacing television with good literature will give clarity to thought and expression. But even before I had replaced television with anything but chores the fog began to lift. Scoffers tell us that religion is the opiate of the masses. That’s simply not true. Television is the opiate of the masses.

Second, ceasing to watch television led to a clarity about what is good and true. This one, I suppose, is no wonder. TV is the world’s catechism. Daily partaking of two diametrically opposed catechisms does not lead to clarity, but confusion. It’s not that I assented to the tenets of worldliness. It’s that my emotions had been programmed to sympathize with the wrong things.

This deserves further explanation. Television is not a catechism like Luther’s Small Catechism. It does not ask questions verbally and call for the “proper” verbal response. Television does not catechize the reason nearly as well as it catechizes the emotions.

For instance, I do not condone cohabitation before marriage. God’s Word is clear that such a thing is not pleasing in the sight of God, and is a violation of the Sixth Commandment. Why, then, was my heart glad when two characters, who had long been dancing around each other with romantic interest, finally confessed their love and then moved in together without so much as a thought of marriage? I should have cringed at such behavior! Or why was my heart sad when one of them left the house in a rage, saying it’s all over? Was it not their lot to come to an unhappy end for violating God’s Law? So why was I sympathizing? And why was my heart comforted when they made up later with implied fornication?

Television catechizes the emotions much more than the reason, and it’s easy to let our guard down. It’s easy to say, “I know that’s wrong; that’s not what I believe,” while at the same time feeling joy at sin and sadness at sin’s punishment. And this leads to grievous consequences in Christian life. Why don’t Christian parents confront their children with their sins? Why aren’t we Christians as bold in our confession as we ought to be? Why do we always feel the need to begin denunciation of sin with a winding, “understanding” prologue? In part because everyone’s emotions have been programmed to react in reverse of what they should! We can “know” the right answer, and say it over and over again by rote. But as long as we sympathize with the wrong things, as long as our emotions are the world’s emotions and not the Church’s emotions, we’re going to be living double lives.

Let me tell you, abstaining from the world’s catechism has led to immense clarity about what is good and true. And I’ll add that the liturgy does an amazing job of catechizing the emotions properly, when it doesn’t have something like television competing with it. Emotional catechesis is important. Our emotions are just as fallen as the rest of us, and must be taught how they should feel. Sending our emotions down the tube’s dark tunnels is only going to further disorder them, whereas the liturgy rightly orders the emotions. Much more could be said about this, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

Besides the chief benefit of clarity, there’s also the obvious benefit of having more time on your hands. Instead of television, I’ve read many of the classics: the Iliad and Odyssey, Herodotus’ Histories, plays by Sophocles and Euripides and Shakespeare, plus a good amount of poetry. After reading Paradise Lost out loud I started writing poetry. I’ve been brushing up on Greek, and I learned Latin. I’ve been translating quite a bit, and also writing more than I ever had before. Nor is any of this tiresome. It was more tiresome sitting in front of the television!

I never found out how the cliff-hangers of the old TV shows resolved. I stopped caring a while ago.


A Year without Television, Part III: The Benefits — 14 Comments

  1. Very well written, Pastor Richard. It was both interesting and nourishing. I had once quit watching television, for about two years, in the not so distant past. Err…with one proviso: I still watched sports.

  2. I stopped watching television in 2001. Now I live on the internet during those hours. I haven’t watched even 5 minutes at a time since then. I was wondering what would happen next in the two soap operas I was “watching” (while eating breakfast and doing jigsaw puzzles, which I also haven’t done since then). But now I can’t even remember any of the characters, and the only actress I remember is Hunter Tylo because she refused to have an abortion when her producer demanded it. I was really happy she was able to do that and get away with it. They worked around her obvious pregnancy with camera angles. We stopped our subscription to DirecTV a couple of years later. I will never turn back, even for the occasional show worth watching. I’ve got better things to do. Lest you think substituting the internet is a problem, it depends on what you do there. One of my biggest activities is having deep discussions with Lutherans around the world, about doctrinal and other similar issues. I have learned so much, and done so much reading in support of those conversations and for other reasons, that I feel blessed.

  3. @David S. #2

    Well, sports are pretty much a waste of time. Most people probably don’t remember much of what happened in that area two years ago. And what does happen really doesn’t matter. Sports is the national religion. Think about it.

  4. Pat…no disrespect intended, but your comments strike me as so sad and so assuredly spoken. I’ll not defend my thoughts as to the importance of sports to the youth; as morally non-judgmental in it’s rules and play when properly implemented; nor how it unifies individuals, cities, states and countries, if only momentarily. A religion…no, not to most, I believe, but an interest that serves the same purpose as gardening, stamp collecting, or woodworking. As you stated “it depends on what you do there”.

  5. @David S. #5
    Hi, David,
    I don’t mean to “team up” against you, but I have recently (within the last couple of years) come to agree with Pat. When I think of the time I have wasted watching and playing sports, I am deeply regretful, with one exception. I did have some quality time watching baseball with my grandfather in the ’70s and into the ’80s. The Kirk Gibson home-run! But we’re talking a couple of hours here and there. I had no business playing 7th and 8th grade football/basketball/softball when I should have been studying/learning. Sports for physical fitness, sportsmanship and team-building, yes I am all for it, but a little bit goes a long way. I could have run 5 miles, done a couple hundred pushups, and a couple hundred situps and got started on my homework, and prayer and catechesis on a regular basis in the time I wasted standing/siting on the sideline/dugout. And the time wasted watching football on TV!? LORD Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. I had no right to waste the life that You had given me.

  6. I’ve never been much of one for sports, mostly because I’m fairly unathletic. As a boy growing up in the Metro Detroit area, I enjoyed watching the Red Wings dominate the playoffs. But I haven’t kept up with it, mostly because it never became any sort of priority. All this to say, I can more easily conceive of the uselessness of watching sports than the benefit of doing so, but part of that is my background.

    Pat, I would find it easy to agree with you that sports is a national religion. I call the ball parks at the end of our street the Our Lady of Entertainment Memorial Ball Diamonds because they’re packed on Sunday mornings, more so than any congregation in town.

    At the same time, David, I’ve personally had no enjoyment of the unifying nature of sports, so I can’t say anything against it. I think there may be a good way to enjoy sports – which I can’t say about TV shows – and if you have a Christian way to enjoy sports, well and good.

    I will offer a couple of additional comments. First, I find it interesting that the “team” aspect of sports is not as inherent to sporting as we might suppose. In the Greco-Roman world, sports were competitions of individuals against individuals. A quick survey of the actual events in the early Olympics is revealing in this regard. I’m not sure at what point we began tying “teamwork” inseparably to “sports.” Whatever the case, it’s clear that the Greeks exercised better teamwork in society and politics than we do today, and they didn’t learn their “teamwork” from sports. In short, sports isn’t the only (or even the best) way to learn teamwork, and is not even necessary for learning teamwork. Many hold sports up as the chief way in which our young people will learn to work together, and this position is completely unwarranted.

    I also find it disconcerting that sports figures are some of the primary role models of our society, and yet oftentimes live awful lives and display vice rather than virtue, both when they play their sport and when they conduct themselves elsewhere. A significant part of literature studied by children in school in the Roman Empire was “eulogy,” that is, “lives” of noble people. From these “lives” (such as Plutarch’s “Lives”) you could learn virtue, and have something to aspire to (a secondary purpose was to learn what leads to downfall). The Church adopted something similar with various commemoration calendars. Jerome even openly states that he patterned his accounts of Christian lives on Greco-Roman counterparts. This was Christian “eulogy,” meant to instill virtue in people. Today, what do we have as a counterpart? Movie actors and sports legends, not known or loved for their virtue, but for their fame, or skill throwing a ball. We have come to adore mere skill as the height of human achievement (and not even particularly useful skills – we don’t idolize good farmers, for instance), but we no longer look up to people for virtue. I contend that a weak spot of the realm of sports is that it teaches us to marvel at people who are not truly marvelous, and by marveling at them we learn to value the wrong things. This isn’t to say that Christians can in no way enjoy sports. It is to say that sports as they exist on TV today are closer to deceptive catechesis than they are to innocent entertainment.

    Finally, I think the best way for Christians to enjoy sports is to get a few people together and PLAY. Why watch someone else throw a ball or slap a puck? You can do it yourself, and have a lot more fun. And I say this as a physically uncoordinated person! I have fond memories of playing kickball, and not bringing much to the table myself – but nevertheless enjoying the company of friends who didn’t make fun of me, and the activity, and the fresh air, and the outdoors.

  7. Pastor Richard, I appreciate the points and depth of your thoughts on the role of athletics in today’s society, and it’s implications on the effects of the ‘hero-worship’ of many athletes who display the wrong behavior/morals, primarily when off the field. All of your statements are well put, insightful, and gives one pause. My concern, however, is when a blanket judgement, without qualification, of the entire realm of organized sports opens one to a charge of experiencing an hyperbolic moment, thus minimizing or eradicating one’s point. Once again I must refer to an excellent point Pat made: “it depends on what you do there”.

    The following reinforces the validity of sport’s contribution to the individual as well as to society:
    From the web page of LCMS Michigan District: http://www.michigandistrict.org/schools/athletics/sportsmanship12

    Inspiring Bible Verses About Sports by Kelli Mahoney
    Updated November 01, 2017
    A number of Bible verses tell us how to be good athletes. Scripture also reveals the character traits we can develop through athletics.
    Here are some inspiring sports Bible verses that help us gain a proper sense of competition, preparation, winning, losing, and sportsmanship. https://www.thoughtco.com/sports-bible-verses-712367

    As for watching sporting events live or on television, moderation in all things, of course, is paramount.

  8. @Pat #4

    Most people probably don’t remember most of the everyday things that happened 2 years ago.

    [I may remember Houston’s World Series next year.]

  9. @helen #9

    You’re right that we don’t remember much of anything. I think that says more about our lack of cultivating memory than it does about the merits (or demerits) of the things forgotten. The tendency in our day is to let remembrance happen as it will, regarding the mind as a camcorder that will capture everything for later recall without any effort on our part. Except, no one actually finds that the mind works this way. Remembering takes effort. The term “mnemonic devices” continues in our vocabulary, but scarcely in our practice.

    Some things are worthier of remembrance than others. Being able to say in which year a quarterback last threw a pass that far is not worth remembering as much as, say, the names of the twelve sons of Israel. There’s a certain knowledge of factoids which is valued in the realm of sports, and this is not unique to our day. Here’s what a treatise from the third century AD attributed to Cyprian of Carthage has to say:

    “Then, to say nothing of whatever idolatry more generally recommends, how idle are the contests themselves; strifes in colours, contentions in races, acclamations in mere questions of honour; rejoicing because a horse has been more fleet, grieving because it was more sluggish, reckoning up the years of cattle, knowing the consuls under whom they ran, learning their age, tracing their breed, recording their very grandsires and great-grand-sires! How unprofitable a matter is all this; nay, how disgraceful and ignominious! This very man, I say, who can compute by memory the whole family of his equine race, and can relate it with great quickness without interfering with the exhibition—were you to inquire of this man who were the parents of Christ, he cannot tell, or he is the more unfortunate if he can” (On the Public Shows, section 5).

    Cyprian essentially says, “I can pay attention to what you go out of your way to remember, and by that I can tell what your god is.”

    Now fortunately as Lutherans, we have many of the old memory aids. We have children learn the catechism by heart. We have so internalized the liturgy by repetition that it cannot be completely forgotten, even if we tried to forget it. Our hymnody is second to none, and has a way of writing itself on the heart and embedding itself in the mind. In the Divine Service and in Catechesis we devote our memory to what is truly important.

    All this to say, some people won’t forget what happened in sports two years ago, because they’ve devoted their memory to it. Others will forget, which is wiser. What’s most important is that we consciously devote our memory to remembering the things of God, rather than leaving remembrance to chance.

    Psalm 78 speaks to this:
    “I will open my mouth in a parable;
    I will pour forth dark sayings from of old,
    Which we have heard and known,
    Which our fathers have recounted to us.
    We will not hide them from their sons,
    Recounting the praises of Yahweh to the following generation,
    And his strength, and the wondrous works that he has done.
    He raised up a testimony in Jacob,
    And set a Torah in Israel,
    Which he commanded our fathers,
    That they should make them known to their sons,
    In order that the following generation may know them,
    Sons who will be born,
    In order that they may arise and recount them to their sons;
    That they may put their confidence in God,
    And not forget the deeds of God,
    And that they may keep his commandments…”
    Psalm 78:1-7

  10. The TV is the world’s catechism point is spot on!

    Our family has done this as well for almost a year now. Our four children are under the age of seven and their behavior was so poor because of TV time. They often fought over what to watch and my wife and I wasted time together in front of the TV. Our kids didn’t flinch. They spent the summer outside acting like kids and have grown from. I don’t miss it a bit and have no intention of setting the TV back in our living room. We break it out once every other month or so for a family movie night, but its back downstairs before the kids get up in the morning. BTW we home-school and care about catechesis. We’ve read more books together and learned more hymns after supper than we ever would have done with the TV on during those hours. This, we believe is a good thing.

  11. @Matt Wurm #11


    It sounds like we’ve had similar experiences in this regard. We homeschool as well, and enjoy reading and hymn singing. Our TV has long sat in a cubby on a shelving unit that covers one of our living room walls. It still sits there, mostly because I haven’t gotten around to unscrewing the wall mount. It’s shoved back against the wall, and we use the shelf for other things. It looks rather humorous, having a bunch of books and teapots piled up in front of the television.

    Calling the television the “world’s catechism” is a phrase I picked up from Rev. Andrew Packer, one of the editors here at BJS. He’s done some good research on catechesis and the brain.

    Thank you for sharing your experience with this. I agree with you that it’s a good thing.

    Pastor Richard

  12. That old TV that I haven’t watched for 3 years now, I put it in the dumpster 2 weeks ago. Good riddance.

  13. Holding on to at least one “TV” that can receive broadcast signals – could be very valuable in an extended emergency situation.

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