TV and Christian Values: Media Literacy Techniques for the Home

This article was written in 1992 for use with a religious adult study program.

It's how we interact, not what we watch, that's most important.

 "Do not model your behaviour on the TV world, but let the disciplined renewing of your minds transform you, so that you may discern for yourselves what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and mature."  – Romans 12:2 (interpretation)

TV was a part of my childhood family as far back as I can remember. During the Vietnam war, Dad angrily talked back to the TV, and many times would turn off the set when I came in, stating succinctly that they shouldn't show those gruesome scenes when kids might be watching.

One of my first childhood memories is connected intimately to television. I was holding a new toy rifle, and Dad was watching the evening news on our small black and white Zenith. Dad suddenly got very angry because of something on the TV, took my rifle, strode to the front door and threw it out into the yard, where it broke in half. As he did this, he said angrily "You're never going to have another gun again."

At the time, I was crushed. But mixed with a little adult omniscience (and the knowledge that he was probably reacting to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Robert Kennedy), there was a crazy pattern of logic to my father's TV-inspired outbursts that taught an important lesson: what the TV says is not necessarily the truth.

I'm not suggesting that the way to teach Christian values is to get emotional with your TV in front of the kids (though it may help). I am saying, however, that there are certain ways of interacting with television that will make it easier to teach Christian values to your children.

In fact, the content of television does not matter nearly as much as your interaction with the television. That doesn't mean you should watch as many NC-17 rated movies as possible, but it does suggest we can learn how to deal more creatively with the worst – and the best – of television. To do that I propose two "Golden Rules" of television-watching. And each of them has two ways to practice

Golden Rule #1: Take Control of Your TV-Watching

Much TV-watching is done by the clock. The TV gets turned on at 6 p.m. and turned off at 11. Many people sit down in front of the TV and blip through channels until they find something worth watching. This illustrates a subtle relinquishing of control. Network programmers, not the viewer, are in control of when the set is turned on and off.

The first step toward changing your interaction with the TV is to use TV Guide or the local TV Weekly to choose what you watch — watch by the show, not by the clock.

I tried this out with my two boys last summer since I work at home part time. After Mom left for work, the first thing the boys and I did was decide what they would watch on TV that day. They were allowed to watch two hours of anything on PBS or Nickelodeon. We spread out the TV listings on my office floor, and I called out the names of all the eligible shows until they had negotiated their two hours worth.

To me, this process helped me feel okay about letting them watch TV. For the boys, it subtly communicated that they were in control of their TV-watching. In addition, it set clear limits on how much TV-watching was acceptable – which, for me, was about two hours.

Another great idea is to select a regular time every week to decide as a family what shows you will watch together during the week. Plan to record important shows with your VCR if you won't be home. If you make TV-watching a family activity, you can begin to practice four other ways of taking control of your TV-watching.

    • Make Connections with Stories in the Bible

      How many times have you watched a TV show or movie in which a character gives her life to save another? Don't just enjoy the parallel to Jesus' life – make it explicit by saying something about it.

      Similarly, look for parallels and echoes of your favorite bible stories when you're watching with your children. For example, Jeremiah 20:1-13, one of my favorites, is an impassioned plea to God in which Jeremiah complains because everyone is making fun of him, even parroting his own words back at him as if he is a lunatic. Does this ever happen in TV-land? Of course it does!

      So be subversive. Keep a bible by the TV and note the slightest echo or reference to something familiar. TV writers and editors can control what they put into a show, but they sure can't control what you get out of it. Constantly mentioning bible connections, however, can get tedious if done too often. Be sensitive.

    • Talk Back to the TV

      Perhaps the easiest strategy for teaching Christian values while you watch is to talk back to the TV. This, I'm sure you recognize, is what my father used to do (though he did a little more than just talk at times). You don't have to be quite as energetic as him. Still, if you like or don't like something you see on the tube, say so!

      So I tell the phosphorescent image of Ted Koppel: "If you interviewed Jesse Jackson or Alice Walker (outspoken author of The Color Purple) about the causes of war... or poverty... or the budget deficit... you'd get a different story."

      Or I say to Bart Simpson: "Come on Bart, don't be such a slouch." Or to Homer Simpson: "Homer, you don't need those $125 tennis shoes." Or to Bill Moyers: "Are you saying that democracy now means the freedom to choose the image we want to buy? Wow. That's scary: ‘Step right up! Buy your image!'"

      I can hear the neighbors now: "I was out in the back yard, and I just happened to look into the Davis's back window. You wouldn't believe what Mr. Davis was doing. He was talking very animatedly to the TV, waving his arms around and stuff. There wasn't anyone else in the room as far as I could see."

      The point being: Go ahead and be odd! Talk back to that glowing inanimate object in front of you. Maybe, just maybe you'll share your Christian values with your children at the same time.

Golden Rule #2: Make the Consumerism Connection

The final two strategies take a little more effort, mainly because they require that you have a little knowledge of how TV is produced and financed. These strategies focus on the techniques of television, and the commercial side of television. What do these things have to do with Christian values?


I'm convinced that the root of most Christians' uncomfortableness with television is its commercialism, since virtually everything we see on television is somehow connected to someone's desire to make money (see Matthew 6:24). Perhaps even more troubling to Christians, however, is the way that consumerism is sold to us — i.e., the techniques advertisers, news editors and sitcom producers use to "hook" us, making consumerism irresistible.

It's interesting to note that this is one thing that both liberal and conservative Christians agree about. We're all worried about the materialistic turn American society has taken in the past 50 years. It gets personal very quickly: Garrett, at six years-old, is at an age where he'll watch anything on TV and wants to watch everything. In him, it's painfully clear how we get socialized into being rabid consumers. He can describe and he wants every Ninja G.I. Joe Airplane Ballwicky that's advertised.

From this experience, in fact, I have seriously considered suggesting that children below age seven shouldn't be allowed to watch commercial TV at all. But it does little good to forbid Garrett from watching Saturday morning cartoons when all his friends watch them and bring their TV-inspired toys, candy and lunchboxes to school with them. There's really no way of avoiding it aside from moving to a mountaintop and starting an alternative community of some sort.

What this means is that, in order to proclaim an alternative set of values that challenge consumer madness, we must deal with consumerism on TV and the techniques that are used to sell us this consumerism. First, the techniques, which suggests the third way that you can use TV to teach Christian values:


    3. Point out how TV techniques attract me to watch – and to keep watching so I'm there when the commercials come on.

    Very little we see on TV is accidental. Usually, in fact, months of planning have gone into even the simplest-looking 30-second commercial. How are these things done?

    Many you know instinctively, but conveniently ignore — laugh tracks, for example. Try this. Next time you watch a comedy with your children, tell them before the show that you're going to count laugh tracks in the show. Then, keep a tally of how many times a laugh track is used. Your children will probably love it.

    Or this. Before a show starts, tell your children that you are going to count camera shot changes (like when the camera switches back and forth between two people in a conversation). There are tons of things you can count or simply watch for, including how background music changes during shows, how lighting is used, or how "extreme close-ups" are used. Extreme close-ups, or ECU's as they are often called, can make characters look ugly because they show so much detail, so they are often used for bad guys. Harsh lighting has a similar effect.

    Once you've counted or analyzed the use of certain techniques, ask your children, "Why do you think they use canned laughter and what response do you think they're expecting from you?" The point is that TV programs are very carefully "constructed" in order to attract and audience – and keep them from flipping to a different channel.

    By asking these kinds of questions, you can begin to teach your children that TV's world is not real but completely made up (even the news is "constructed"), and you can begin to expose the underlying assumptions and world view of TV-land. Then, you can contrast those with your values — and with reality.

    4. Focus on Commercials

    The final strategy focuses on commercials. Commercials, in fact, are the bread and butter of TV. I often say that the phrase "This show has been brought to you by Alabaster Petrol" is really backwards. More accurately, the phrase ought to be "You have been brought to Alabaster Petrol by this show."

    Your children should be told this. They should be told that not only is television always trying to grab the largest audience it can, more importantly, it's trying to grab the largest audience with the highest possible disposable income. Most everything we see on TV is concocted to attract those with money and to make those who don't have it, want it.

    This is, to say the least, problematic for Christians. Christian parents should assume that everything has something to do with money on TV. If you see a brand name product in a movie, for example, ask your children "How much do you suppose Virtuoso Detergent paid to have Kevin Costner use their detergent in that scene?" "Product placement," as they call it, is a very lucrative business in Hollywood these days.

    Another idea is to try to predict the kinds of commercials that will appear during specific shows. We've had fun doing this in our family. Seàn, who's nine, pegged about half of the commercials during The Wonder Years the first time we tried it, including food commercials and car commercials. He said these were targeted toward families who, he explained, would be watching the show.

    For younger children, it's also a great idea to record toy commercials and "take them apart" together. A classic resource for this is the excellent videotape called Buy Me That! which demonstrates the various advertising techniques used commonly in commercials addressed to kids. It's a great resource for both pre-schoolers and their parents – even grandparents!. In fact it would make a terrific intergenerational activity for your church's Sunday-night potluck.

Now Is the Time

So to summarize: take control of your TV-watching! Watch by the show, not by the clock. Set clear limits on how much TV is okay, and plan to watch TV together as a family. As you watch, try these activities:

    • Make connections with stories in the bible.
    • Talk back to the TV.
    • Point out TV's techniques.
    • Focus on commercials.

Author Bio: 

J. Francis Davis, an adult educator and media education specialist, was on the staff of the Center for Media Literacy from 1989 to 1992. He holds an M.Div. from Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Atlanta where he currently works in the computer industry and lives with his wife, Elizabeth, and their children.