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Tuned In to Faith Lessons

Teresa Blythe

Do the kids in your ministry worship at the altar of PBS, CBS, ABC, NBC, and hundreds of other cable channels? Or would you say that the kids in your ministry are appropriately entertained through the high-tech medium of television?

If you're like most parents and children's ministers, you're concerned about how much television your children watch. And rightly so. The latest Gallup Organization poll on TV viewing indicates that 57 percent of Americans spend more than three hours a day in front of the television, and Nielsen Media Research says the average American child between the ages of 2 and 17 watches more than 19 hours of television a week.

The question for us is whether TV viewing is something to encourage children to shun or to use to shape their faith?

Turned Off to TV

"Television, like a wheat field, has weeds among the wheat," says Walt Davis, professor emeritus of religion and ethics at San Francisco Theological Seminary. "What is weeds to one person might be wheat for another, and at different times in our lives we might define weeds and wheat differently. That's why it's important that we talk openly about the values we see portrayed on television. We will learn from one another."

Television may not be partial to any one religion but it is, in a sense, religious. That is, if you define religion as Harvard theologian Paul Tillich did - that which is our ultimate concern. Tillich taught that anything drawing us into the mystery of life or introducing genuine perspective is, in some way, religious. If we believe that our spirituality involves all of life, even the ordinary, then we must include the stories we're drawn to on television in that spirituality. Most stories on television don't tackle explicitly religious or doctrinal subject matter, but many do skirt around the edges with stories of ethical dilemmas, life-and-death decisions, and paranormal experiences.

Turned On to TV

It's not that television promotes any one set of values or religion, but you can find evidence of all kinds of values and faith experiences on TV. And scholars of the relatively new discipline of media literacy generally reject the view that television "injects" its values into naive and unsuspecting viewers anyway.

"Television is a form of communication, and once a message is delivered to us, there are any number of ways we can interpret and respond to that message," says Sister Rose Pacatte, director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Boston.

We as viewers form meaning from what we see on TV. One of the best ways to enhance that formation is to talk about faith and values during and after watching a TV show together.

Reverend Dan Wolpert and his wife, Debra Bell, a family practice physician living in Crookston, Minnesota, brought their two boys up to be media savvy. They knew their 10-year-old was catching on when he announced to the family one night after watching an advertisement for a new car: "These commercials want you to believe that if you buy this car everything will be perfect." Wolpert says, "We have a lot of conversations about how the perfect life is not about acquiring more possessions."

Television is neither a child's best friend nor his worst enemy. It's time we remove the generally negative value judgments from an activity that's become as common to us as sitting around the bonfire listening to the village storyteller was to our ancestors. Television can be a tool, even for something as important as teaching values and religious beliefs.

Plugging Into Faith

So how do we use television in this religion and values exploration? You've no doubt heard media literacy experts tell you to watch television with your children. Lots of people do that. What they fail to do, though, is talk about what they watch in any meaningful way. The fact is that parents sometimes feel inadequate bringing up topics of faith and values with kids. The good news is that it's easier than you may think!

Beth Merry, a college communications teacher and media literacy advocate from Bethel, Pennsylvania, always attempts to make a TV-faith connection with her two daughters, ages 11 and 14. While watching TV dramas together, she and her husband ask the girls questions such as, "Do you think what the character did was right?" or "How would you feel if someone treated you that way?" Merry says, "It usually leads to a lively discussion about faith."

Single mom Susan Griffin, an attorney in San Francisco, says her favorite question to her 7-year-old son while watching television is, "Which character is your favorite and why?" Griffin says it's a great way to learn about what he's beginning to value in life.

Parents and educators fall into traps when they use television (or any other medium) to preach or persuade children to adopt what they think are the most acceptable values. Learn the importance of the open-ended question combined with judgment-free listening and you'll hold the key to a richer relationship with your child. Even if you don't like what you hear, it's valuable to know what a child is thinking. Creating a nonjudgmental atmosphere doesn't mean you can't give opposing views. Just give views in a way that allows for a difference of opinion. Faith grows best when it's given room to stretch and explore.

Is watching television the only way to engage your child in discussions of faith and values? Of course not. It may not even be the best way for you and your child. But if you combine sensible TV viewing with thoughtful discussion afterward, then what we used to call the idiot box can be transformed into a box of blessings that you just might've overlooked before. cm

Using TV In Class

Obviously, you can't watch TV programs with every child in your classroom, but you can ask questions to connect television to children's faith in your lessons. Try these questions to stimulate discussion.

  • What's your favorite TV show and why?
  • Who is a character on a TV show that you would most want to be like and why?
  • Who is a character on a TV show that you would most not want to be like and why?
  • Are there any TV shows that you think a Christian should not watch? If so, which ones?
  • Are there any TV shows that you think Jesus would enjoy watching with you? If so, which ones?
  • Which family on a TV show is most like your family? Explain.
  • If you could trade places with any character on television for a week, who would you trade with-and why?
  • How much time do you think is appropriate for a person your age to watch television each day? Explain.
  • Do you think watching television can be harmful or helpful to your faith in God? Explain.

Teresa Blythe is co-author of Watching What We Watch: Prime-Time Television Through the Lens of Faith (Geneva Press). Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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