Jeremy Sarber On Life & Scripture
Jeremy Sarber

Unplugging the television

Unplugging our TVs altogether is an extreme measure, but following Christ is all about extremes. “If anyone wants to follow after me,” Jesus said, “let him deny himself.”

Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar. You wake early, shower, scramble out the door, fight the morning traffic, put in a full, exhausting day at work, leave again, fight the evening traffic, and return home just in time to pull off your shoes and collapse into your favorite chair. A nice, leisurely evening might await if not for your young offspring. Mommy’s great, but daddy’s a different kind of great, and the kids are tugging at your arm, insisting with those precious voices that you drop to the floor and play with them. The spirit is willing, of course, but your flesh would rather stay right where it is. After all, you need to conserve your strength. You’ve got to do it all over again tomorrow.

Daddy’s tired,” you say. Give me just a minute.” Then, you reach for the remote.

Should you feel guilty? Haven’t you earned a few minutes of downtime? Plus, it’s not as though you intend to waste away the evening on frivolous entertainment. You’re a responsible adult. You would never neglect your children for sitcom reruns you’ve seen a hundred times already or the latest reality show where a celebrity chef belittles its contestants. You’ll watch the news instead, which is practically your civic duty. How can one lead his family unless he knows what the President tweeted this morning or which Middle Eastern country is at war with another?

Distractions abound, however, and you will have to turn off CNN or Fox News eventually. Maybe your wife calls you into the dining room for dinner. Perhaps it’s time to put the kids to bed. Regardless, you can’t stay planted in that chair forever.

Later the same night, you and your wife retire to the bedroom. Peace and quiet are yours at last, except your wife has pined all day for some adult conversation. She has stored discussion topics over the previous twelve hours and proceeds to unload. Tommy did this. Janie did that. How would you feel about new patio furniture? Did you hear about—? You love your wife, but your capacity for concentration is depleted. Between robotic replies—Uh-huh. You don’t say. Oh, yeah?—you reach for the remote once again. Your wife surely understands. Everyone needs to rest their brain now and then, and television is the perfect facilitator since it does most of the thinking for us.

As I tried to articulate when addressing our smartphone addictions, we’re all prone to grab the first available electronic distraction in moments of boredom. Sometimes, we don’t even need to be bored. My daughter is one of the most entertaining people on the planet, yet when daddy’s tired— Hey, baby girl, do you want to watch the baseball game with me?”

Thankfully, the television doesn’t tempt me as aggressively as it has in the past. My distaste for modern programming is largely responsible. Frankly, I don’t understand most of it. How many police dramas or singing competitions can the viewing public tolerate? Is a group of unscripted women discussing their political opinions over coffee supposed to entertain me? And don’t get me started on those sixty-second prescription drug commercials that evidently fund this endless stream of video nonsense. I’d rather have the disease than most of the cure’s side effects.

To be clear, I am not holier than thou in this regard. I may have lost most of my interest in TV, but I’m still a human being with three flatscreens in the house, not to mention two laptops and an iPad, all of which provide access to countless channels and streaming services. If I want an excuse to turn off my brain and stare at one of these devices, I have plenty. More to the point, I don’t hesitate to use them when the mood strikes, even if I have become better disciplined over the years. If I want to tune out by tuning in, I’ll find something or another to watch.

Neil Postman wrote some of the most insightful commentary on our entertainment-obsessed culture I have read. The observations in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, have a Solomon-like quality. Thirty-five years ago, he noticed Aldous Huxley’s dystopian vision of the future in Brave New World becoming a reality thanks, in no small part, to television’s popularity. This particular medium, he notes, is ideal for flashing graphics that appeal more to the eyes than the mind, short segments that quickly move to the next before the viewer has time to process the last, and dramatic music that elicits a raw, emotional response rather than a thoughtful one. Consequently, our attention spans are embarrassing, and truth has become a casualty of our lust for irrelevance.

An example may help. Postman’s criticisms of television primarily focus on news programs and networks, and rightfully so since the news should be the medium’s most serious, least entertaining content. We watch the news to stay informed—to learn the truth if you will—yet it is just as dramatized, sensationalized, and shallow as the rest of TVs offerings. Every story is so-called breaking news, implying it is both pressing and relevant. Compelling music plays as the anchor unfolds the day’s events with his or her grave disposition staring back at us. The producers are prolific at seizing our attention and then stirring our emotions. Thirty minutes into the spectacle, we may actually believe the world is ending because the media has given us more than enough evidence to draw that conclusion.

Then again, what have the anchors and their expert panel of guests given us? Look closer. Planet Earth is home to 7.8 billion people in 195 countries. You are one of them. Local weather reports notwithstanding, the odds of you seeing any coverage that has personal relevance are slim. Unless the media reports on an erupting volcano that happens to sit within spitting distance of your home, your day-to-day activities remain mostly unaffected. The same, however, cannot be said for your peace of mind.

But the news is important,” you say, and I won’t argue with you, but please permit me to make a few points for your consideration.

First of all, news is a money-making venture. Ted Turner did not launch the first 24-hour news network out of some benevolent concern for the American public, as though non-stop coverage of world events would somehow improve our lives. Even if he did believe it, you’ll notice CNN is not a non-profit organization. Return on investment is the broadcast company’s priority, which means it needs advertisers, which means it needs as many eyeballs as possible, which means it must do everything it can to keep us watching and coming back for more—riveting stories, shocking videos, attractive personalities, controversial topics, popular biases—whatever it takes to please the shareholders.

Second, long-form journalism doesn’t pay. I don’t think so anyhow because I never see it on TV. No matter how much context is needed to understand a particular subject, mainstream media always allocates the same amount of time. The networks believe we prefer quantity over quality, giving us only the abridged versions of today’s top headlines. Each story is contained within a three-minute segment, and whether it truly has any significant impact on us, well, we may never know.

Lastly, why do we need the news at all? At the risk of sounding redundant, most of it isn’t directly relevant. Perhaps it gives us something to talk about at the water cooler, but it doesn’t change much else. If it does, I won’t need an anchorman to tell me about it. When I see lava flowing down the block toward my house, I’ll know. Otherwise, all I’ve accomplished by watching the news is getting myself angry, annoyed, or possibly fearful.

In short, television’s most serious type of programming is little more than an odd kind of entertainment, one more distraction from what really matters, albeit one that feels justified. Maybe I can’t think of a plausible reason to watch Ross and Rachel break up yet again, but no one will question me if I turn on the news.

Dear Christian, you don’t need me to tell you we should be making the most of the limited time we have (Eph 5:16). You don’t need a reminder the days are evil. Even if you don’t get out much, you own a television and see all the proof you need whenever you tap the power button. Though producers and screenplay writers strive for subtlety, they inevitably promote a worldview that is anything but godly. For example, when was the last time you saw a 21st-century show that did not include at least one character engaged in sexual immorality if not homosexuality? You may have to reach back into the previous century’s archives to find one, yet we embrace this godless propaganda and call it harmless entertainment.

When I was a child, I remember staying with a friend one night as his Christian father watched TV in the next room. Every few minutes or so, this man would throw up his hands and shout a mumbled Ug!” to express his disgust at something on the screen. At least once, I heard him ask his wife, Why do they have to put such filth in an otherwise good show?” He was clearly bothered by whatever moral atrocities he witnessed, but I couldn’t help but wonder, Why doesn’t he just turn it off?

Why doesn’t he just turn it off? I could ask myself the same question today. Hauling my TVs to the sidewalk and placing a FREE sign on them would not be out of character for me. I quit paying for cable a decade ago. I cut off Netflix a few months before they started producing child pornography. I’d have to ask my wife, of course, and I’m sure my daughter would protest once she learns she no longer has access to Daniel Tiger, but the idea tempts me.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. Unless we exclusively use the television to stream biblical sermons and maybe the occasional Andy Griffith episode for a laugh—you didn’t think I was against all entertainment, did you?—we cannot claim TV is good for us, especially at the volumes the average person watches. A typical American child consumes five hours each day with his or her eyes glued to a screen. A teenager comes closer to nine. The Bible says, Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Ro 12:2). Is that even possible if we welcome the unbelieving world’s influence into our homes day after day for hours on end?

Perhaps unplugging our TVs altogether is an extreme measure. It is, but following Christ is all about extremes. If anyone wants to follow after me,” Jesus taught, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me (Mk 8:34). I’m not suggesting we subject ourselves to the horrors of crucifixion here. Forgoing the silly pleasures of television is hardly a great sacrifice. If you insist on keeping your TV, we can, at the very least, use wise discernment regarding what we watch and be mindful of how much time we give it.

Jesus also told his disciples, If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away (Mt 5:29). I’m partial to this approach. I’d rather lose a troublesome eye than attempt to blink every time something comes along I shouldn’t see. Though not inherently sinful, my smartphone was a perpetual distraction, so I got rid of it. I exchanged it for the Light Phone 2, a device only a technological masochist would enjoy. After the politics and pandemics of 2020 left me mentally exhausted, I quit the news. I quit watching, reading, and listening to it. These are just two areas of life in which I have happily gouged out my right eye.

Perhaps you think I’m taking things too far, but I disagree. When I stand before the judgment seat of Christ, will I regret having watched less TV to spend more time playing with my kids or talking to my wife? (2Co 5:10). It isn’t likely. Television’s current state has few redeeming qualities. Is it so outlandish for a believer to reach for his or her Bible or even a decent book rather than the remote control? Why can’t one just sit and enjoy the quiet, for that matter? We may be surprised by how refreshing a day, week, or month can be if only we power down that endlessly quacking box.

Ultimately, though, I want to grow closer to Christ, and I can’t think of a single way the TV helps me along. I can, however, list a plethora of ways it hinders me. While I’m not ready to join the Amish quite yet, you won’t hear me criticize their chosen lifestyle.

Originally published in February 2021.