Television is being transformed. Long considered something of a low-art stepchild to cinema—both the fuel and fodder of mass culture in all of its capitalist glory—TV has decidedly matured. No longer bound to old broadcast models and the confines of “Mondays at 8/7 Central” timeslots, television’s very form is changing. But so is its reputation. Through shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, and many others, television is now considered a “prestige” medium attracting the best visual storytellers of the day.
Coinciding with the maturing of television has been a maturing of TV theory and criticism, including theological criticism from faith-based viewers and publications. Watching TV Religiously: Television and Theology in Dialogue reflects this trend. The academic volume combines the theological expertise of Kutter Callaway (assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary) and the industry insights of Dean Batali (TV writer on shows like That ‘70s Show and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) to create a “mutually enriching, two-way dialogue” between contemporary television and theology.
Desire and Secular Liturgies
The book’s first half is largely focused on TV literacy in terms of formal terminology (single vs. multi-camera, writers’ room, and so on), laying a helpful scholarly foundation on par with the best secular textbooks of television studies. Starting in chapter five (“A Very Brief History of the Church and TV”) the authors begin outlining the contours of their theological project, drawing from a variety of thinkers (from Robert Johnston and Craig Detweiler to Jacques Ellul and Malcolm Muggeridge) in summarizing various theological approaches before describing their own approach. They employ Augustine’s work on desire to claim that mediated experience is fundamental to embodied existence, more than in just an “information transmission” way. Communication and mediated forms like TV, they argue, shape our rituals and relationships and communities.
James K. A. Smith’s work on desire and cultural liturgies figures prominently into their approach, though they take issue with what they see as Smith’s “fundamentally antithetical” posture toward secular liturgies. Whereas Smith seems to restrict the Spirit’s presence to the forms of Christian worship, Callaway and Batali suggest “God’s wider presence” through the Spirit can also inhabit secular forms like TV. Their project is summed up when they ponder how they “might make use of Smith’s understanding of the formative nature of secular liturgies while, at the same time, move beyond his construal of those ritual practices as fundamentally distorted and distorting.”
They move beyond Smith by way of Martin Buber, George Steiner, and William Dyrness, whose “poetic theology” makes room for God’s activity in human desires even when those desires are admittedly “marshalled by capitalism and the ‘secular’ devotional practices it promotes.” Essentially their argument is that yes, secular liturgies (like binge-watching Stranger Things or ritually tuning in to Monday Night Football) can cultivate in us disordered desires and promote rival visions of human flourishing, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. Can’t God be present and working to form us in positive ways even through these secular liturgies? Callaway and Batali do fine work exploring the question in the well-established terrain of general revelation and common grace, though at times the importance of special revelation and saving grace feel unfortunately ancillary to their vision.
I’m with the authors when they ask, “What if, rather than rejecting modern capitalism as wholly depraved, we asked where the Spirit was present and active in our consumption?” That’s a good question and worthy of consideration, so far as it goes. But is there a point at which our exploration of “finding God in [insert popular TV series here]” becomes more compelling to us than “finding God in church” or “finding God in Scripture”?
Theological Freedom or Spiritualized Free-For-All?
The authors advocate a “theological freedom” that is both essential for this work and decidedly hazardous. They write:
If in fact the Spirit of God is present and active in cultural products and practices to such a degree that God can and does speak through them, then we are free to explore and even affirm culture without fear or trepidation.
But could this not provide justification for engagement with almost any product or practice? If God can work through Game of Thrones, Westworld, and The Walking Dead, could he not also work through an explicit reality TV series about porn actors or a sitcom about Satanism? What are the limits of this “theological freedom,” and who determines the spiritual value of its frontier pursuits?
Approaching popular culture with an awareness of its formative power is valuable (à la Smith) and doesn’t preclude a discerning Christian consumer from gleaning goodness, truth, and beauty from secular liturgies. But we must take care that our theologizing of pop culture isn’t forced or distracting, as if finding a roundabout Good Samaritan lesson in House of Cards (as the authors do in the book’s conclusion) is preferable to simply reading Luke 10 and discussing it in a church Bible study.
There’s a lot in Watching TV Religiously about how the Spirit works in shows to shape our moral imagination in terms of empathy and embracing the “other” amid their imperfections and stunted growth. For example, the authors suggest that Friends is an example of how TV characters (especially sitcoms) don’t really change, but that this is a good thing. “Our primary concern regarding TV characters,” they write, “is not so much whether they develop moral insight or transformation but whether the empathetic mirroring that takes place when a character’s attributes are slowly revealed forms us into more empathetic people.”
So Seinfeld and 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation have spiritually formative power since the lack of moral development in their characters inspires in us empathy? This strikes me as not only roundabout theological justification but also a reflection of the “brokenness = authenticity” problem currently plaguing society (and the church). Is the ability to empathize with broken people really a lacking skill in today’s average human? Do we really need Leslie Knope to reveal to us the depths of our moral failure? It seems like a more pressing need is models of people who grow and break out of the cycle of brokenness. Shouldn’t we seek out and celebrate TV shows whose characters model the sort of change fundamental to a flourishing life?
Callaway and Batali observe that in the post-Christian West the “historic practices of Christian worship that once served to shape our common ethic are no longer a part of the cultural imagination.” But is that a reason to advance the notion that TV is a suitable alternative for moral formation? It may be true that the Spirit can work in our consumptive habits, but Scripture is clear that the Spirit is uniquely present and visible in God’s people, the “temple” (1 Cor. 3:16) through which his presence is revealed to the world. It would be tragic if people read this book in a way that affirmed the de-churching trajectory of modern culture, wherein popular culture replaces the church as the new locus of “transcendence” (construed in the most spiritually vague sense of the term).
The rather uncompelling ecclesiology of Watching TV Religiously suggests church practice as something unavoidably embedded within (and thus tainted by) secular liturgies, thus neither special nor exclusive in its formative ability. The Spirit apparently doesn’t privilege the church as a site of supernatural power and divine encounter, such that the secular characters on The Big Bang Theory can illuminate the meaning of Paul’s interdependent body metaphor (1 Cor. 12), as the authors argue in the book’s conclusion. But was Paul’s body metaphor really about any group of misfits in community who collaborate and labor and struggle together?
No. Paul was talking specifically about the people of God in the church, the body of which Christ is the head (Eph. 1:22–23). Paul was talking about the Spirit as an empowering advocate given to members of Christian community for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7), to build up the church (Eph. 4:12), not just to have relationally healthy lives with roommates.
Careful Reading Required
Books like this sometimes seem so afraid of being lumped in with the “old way” of skeptical Christian approaches to culture that they err on the other side. They make no hint that special revelation in Christ is the answer to man’s desires, or that the Christian church’s liturgical practices are in any way superior to secular liturgies. They critique attempts of Christians to challenge or change culture and instead call the church to open her eyes to the movement of God in culture.
But it’s not an either-or. Christians can celebrate the joy of online fan communities of a show like Glee and learn from the metaphysical themes raised by a show like Lost, while adopting a critical posture that recognizes the dubious theological messages and underlying business motivations of both (for example, open-ended narratives that purposefully spark online theorizing to build a larger, more lucrative orbit of fandom).
Insofar as we see books like this as tools to sharpen our eyes to see general revelation, this one has its valuable contributions. But we must not spiritualize the secular to such a degree that the word “Spirit” can mean anything and everything. Does the Spirit of God work through Stranger Things? Quite possibly. But we know for a fact that he works in the church, so why not encounter him there?
Kutter Callaway and Dean Batali. Watching TV Religiously: Television and Theology in Dialogue. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016. 288 pp. $27.99.