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Television

by Archbishop [now Metropolitan] Vitaly

We have not yet felt the huge after-shock of the coming of television which in a short while has managed to secure a niche for itself in almost every home. Its powers of persuasion and attraction have proved to be practically supernatural and are coupled with a subtle and awesome ability to corrupt. Today, the priesthood cannot and must not ignore the phenomenon of television—a phenomenon unrivaled in the extent of its influence over the human soul. Without exaggeration, a campaign against it must be our immediate and primary concern because every day and every hour its effects are being felt in our own homes.

Its power can be overcome! All we really need to do is to see it in perspective. It is indisputably a brilliant invention and our chief problem lies in the fact that our conflict is not really with it at all, but with ourselves and our own perpetually debilitated wills. We simply do not have the strength to tear ourselves away from its extraordinarily seductive spell. I am reminded of the words of St. Paul: "All things are lawful unto me but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any" (1 Cor. 6:12).

So let us look at television objectively, see the good and the evil in it, and only then will we be in a position to make use of its positive aspects and to reject the negative.

Firstly, no invention, no mechanism nor electronic device is inherently evil—there is no such thing as intrinsic evil, for evil exists only in the will of those who act contrary to the will of God. Such phenomena as television are rather manifestations of the Divine Wisdom which man has the privilege of discovering within the laws of nature, so that he may all the better and with all his heart give praise and thanks to the Creator. Given nothing else but the sheer quantity of programming, it would be foolish to say that no good at all comes of it. The chief good and perhaps the only good fully realized is this television has brought people home again.

The whole period beginning with the First World War and ending with the nineteen-fifties has been singled out by sociologists because of one characteristic, the tendency of people to "go out" in search of stimulation. People may have slept at home and even had their meals at home, but "leisure time" was spent elsewhere. People "went out," coaxed by sports events, movies, dancing, and an endless array of "entertainments." The results, especially for children, were catastrophic. "Home" became not much more than a dormitory and all the former connotations of the word were lost. It had been a place where children first learned to comprehend the things around them and to use their imaginations, a place where the newly-awakened imagination lovingly animated lifeless forms around it and first learned to dream. But now, the children were cast out into the streets, completely unprepared for the cruel and bitter realities they encountered, the realities of our times, which so insult the soul.

Suddenly, for the first time in five decades people came home—to watch television. Television was not presenting anything new; we cannot credit it with that. It was simply appealing to the lower instincts of the common man and bringing those same things which he had sought in the streets into his living room. So there is no use speaking of the "morality" of the change that came about, and yet the change itself gives cause for optimism. Amidst the indignity, corruption and temptation that we now live in, we must clutch at straws and hope that they will keep us afloat.

Let us concede, then, that television encourages us to stay home and try to build on that. Were we to damn it outright, we would find no one to listen. Such is the power it wields over us.

Conceivably, television could graphically and comprehensively present us with the complex issues confronting science, art and technology and thus increase our knowledge and awareness. Conceivably, it could eradicate ignorance and that peculiar semi-literacy which has always brought the world to grief.

Let us for a moment assume that it seeks to do these things, for the sake of the argument, and go on to examine its destructive influence on the soul.

Television keeps us from reading. Why bother when we can both hear and see everything on television? Why strain our imagination when television can do all the work for us? We are handed programs on a platter, masterfully prepared and piquantly sauced—all we have to do is eat.

Television has carried us to the ends of the earth and into space, taken us to the ocean’s bottom and into the earth's crust, into factories and operating rooms where we have practically participated in the most complex surgery. It has shown us nations and peoples whom we might otherwise never have seen. And yet, paradoxically, it has made us slothful and apathetic. Television's vast storehouse of audio-visual information has proven to be an indigestible glut which has made us indifferent to the real world around us. When all is said and done, it has nurtured our ignorance.

I will try to explain. When we read, an extremely complex psychological process occurs. It involves, first and foremost, an effort of the will. To choose a book and read it through requires a concentrated effort, whereas it takes no effort at all to watch television. No matter how brilliant the author of a given book may be, our imagination creates its own images as we read. We create a universe of our own. In fact, we may be drawn to our favorite authors precisely because we participate with them in the mysterious process of creation.

The imagination is only one aspect of the soul. It is the source of creativity and exploration and it is developed through reading. This helps to make us not only useful members of society but life-loving individuals as well. Television, on the other hand, far from stimulating the imagination, has no need of it. The work of the imagination is completed by the time a program is broadcast, and all we end up doing is looking at the end-product of the imaginations of others, often alien to our own. As we are deprived of our imaginations, so are we deprived of our souls, and our creative powers are paralyzed.

We see God's creation through a glass darkly and forget that "...the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made..." (Rom. 1 20). Very subtly, television turns us into materialists who retain an intrinsic animal ability to see, but lack any inner vision—the vision of the soul. We are being encouraged to look more and more but not to see. We are becoming like the idols which King David the poet and prophet spoke of in his psalms: "They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not. They have ears, but they hear not; noses have they, but they smell not. They have hands, but they touch not; feet have they, but they walk not; neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them (Ps. 115 5-8). Once we are able to look and yet not see the essence of things and the threads that bind them all together, we have become truly ignorant.

Much has already been written about the corrupting influence of television, but I would like to bring it to mind once more. No parent would ever take his or her children to any place of dubious repute. If someone suggested a stroll through the slums, it would be taken as a bad joke, a sign of mental instability, or of intoxication And yet, let us not be hypocritical, all you parents of respected and honorable; Orthodox families! Of course you declined the invitation to the slums, but you think nothing wrong in gathering in your living room and with a barely perceptible and innocent flick of the wrist inviting the lowest forms of human society into your homes, the walls of which are probably even graced with icons. You are about to meet every conceivable sort of maniac, murderer and psychopath. You won't even flinch and your conscience will remain clean. But your children will have nightmares; they will grow nervous, irritable and insufferably rude. Even you will not fall asleep as easily as before because of the oppressive burden of the immoral hideousness you have seen.

All of these things are a profanation of your home, which, in the highest understanding of the Orthodox Church, is your church as well. The Apostle Paul often called the Christian home the "church within the house" (Rom. 16 5; I Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Phil. 1:2). You are also profaning your soul and the souls of your children, because your eyes and your ears are the instruments of your soul and the images you see, as well as the things you hear, enter into it. Images are stored in our subconscious like photos in an album and they can profane our heart of hearts. They re-emerge from the disturbed mind at any moment and in any place, in accordance with laws that we know nothing about at present. The interfere with our relationships with other human beings and take away the joy and the immediacy of living. It was with these things in view that the Orthodox Church stated succinctly and without equivocation, "Your eyes see the truth and what the eyes perceive goes directly to influence the soul. Wisdom tells us that this is so. Therefore guard your heart above all else you treasure, for the source of life is there" (100th canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople).

What a Mephistophelian joke we have become the brunt of since then! Knowing full well that we Orthodox would never knowingly engage in unlawful assembly, Satan so cleverly and completely clouded our judgment that, with our own hard-earned money, we obtain an electronic device which introduces us to corruption, debauchery and murder and turns our home into an insane asylum. Satan has taken away from us that sense of human dignity which the holy prophet David so treasured that he constantly and tirelessly besought the Lord not to let the devil make a laughing-stock of him.

Since we undeniably do see all the above-mentioned depravity on television, it becomes important to note another critical consequence of our actions. In our everyday lives we have practical, moral, psychological and social barriers placed between us and the commission of evil. The soul, if only through inertness and laziness, tends never to remove them. But the impact and example of the realism of television effortlessly overcomes these barriers. It familiarizes us with all the approaches to sin as if they were of our own making, and consequently sin comes easily to us. This would explain the waves of appalling crimes which have become endemic in our time and which even our social agencies are concerned about—crimes which cannot be predicted—"motiveless crimes." A young boy, for no apparent reason, murders his parents one morning. A student indecently assaults his teacher. There are countless examples in the police records, but it would be inappropriate to cite any more here.

What means of resistance can I suggest, for it is clear that we must resist? First of all, we must work together, both the shepherd and the flock, making this our highest priority. Of course, the best and simplest thing to do would be to sell the television set, and the sooner the better. Let me qualify that: sell it and give the money to the Church for the benefit of the poor. This first suggestion is for those righteous souls who have already taken up the sword, those elect of God whose aim in life is salvation. Even more blessed are those who never acquired the thing in the first place, who never needed it. However, I understand that for the time being this, my first suggestion, will seem too harsh for the majority of the faithful. We have been captivated by television and our wills have become so feeble and sickly that few can respond to such a call. But do not be dismayed—there have always been few heroes and even fewer martyrs. The righteous always seem to be alone.

I would like to remind us all once more, as faithful Christians, of the positive qualities of television, particularly of its ability to keep us at home and together. We have all noticed on many occasions where the family gathers in the evening, with apparent dignity and decorum, before the television set in the semidarkness. Our struggle against the harmful effects of television comes down to taking advantage of its ability to bring us together and at the same time negating its corrupting influences. We must revitalize our willpower and establish a firm "modus operandi" in our use of this invention. Firstly, only the parents or some responsible member of the family should be allowed to turn it on. Secondly, it must be given the aura of "forbidden fruit" and children should be permitted to see only the occasional good movie, solely as a reward for their achievements and good behavior.

It is important to accompany every such film with a discussion and one's own conclusions, putting the subject into an historical perspective and citing related themes from literature. Everything must be seen in the light of Orthodoxy and the teachings of the Holy Fathers.

I would like to believe that those who choose to oppose fervently the corrupting influence of television will also be guided by the Lord who will suggest ways to ward off evil. During all fasts it could be made a rule to disconnect-the television or even to remove it altogether. Our diligence will of course depend on the extent of our desire for salvation, on our piety as a community and on our devotion to the Church.

From Orthodox Life, vol. 31, no. 1, 1981, pp. 42-46. Translated from Russian by Alexander Maidan.