Television: The Devil’s Tabernacle

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light; but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be.”  ∼Matthew 6: 22 – 23

I recently had a tooth extracted. Ignoring the collected wisdom of dental hygiene, I flossed irregularly and stopped going to the dentist before I was 17. If nothing hurts, it’s fine, right? Nearly 30 years later, decay reached the point where the tooth broke in half in the midst of a BLT on sourdough (fortunately, I could still finish my half and half). Now my tongue goes probing into the gummy vacancy where the tooth had been like Nemo seeking his mother. It got me thinking. What happened to my tooth is analogous to what has happened to basic moral principles in this country. The late Cardinal Francis George’s now famous prognostication eloquently sums up this development: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” The public was confused. “What is he talking about?” we wondered. Nothing hurts. And, the new Apple TV is set for release. We’re fine. Catholics are now so assimilated within secular society that we have become dissolved into it, like salt into water.

Marriage is only the latest battle Catholics have lost. We’ve been going along to get along for decades. Pornography is a normalized abnormality we have been far too sanguine about. When is the last time your priest tackled this one? Abercrombie & Fitch continue to enjoy Christian patronage. Not only do we contracept and cohabitate at the same rate as everyone else, we Catholics watch the same movies and TV programs, perhaps believing our faith renders us impervious to the influence of TV’s glorification of vice. Small doses of arsenic are basically harmless, but, small doses taken continually over a long period of time will kill you.

Many Christians blame the “Sexual Revolution” of the 1960s for the moral decline of our nation. Yet, such claims suggest the 1950s were free of sin. Revolutions are composed of many ingredients that heat up on a slow boil. Lust is not the only sin, as Dorothy Sayers shrewdly observed in her wonderful essay “The Other Six Deadly Sins.”

Perhaps the bitterest commentary on the way in which Christian doctrine has been taught in the last few centuries is the fact that to the majority of people the word immorality has come to mean one thing and one thing only…. A man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous, and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct—and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man. I am reminded of a young man who once said to me in perfect simplicity: “I did not know there were seven deadly sins; please tell me the names of the other six.”

If the sin of the ’60s was lust, the sin of the ’50s was avarice. Suburbia appeared in vibrant, glossy visions like a new Promised Land. Maybe there wasn’t as much fornication (though the ’50s spawned Playboy), but there were a lot of grasping, unscrupulous people in the 1950s. Mike Nichols’ The Graduate captured the ignoble characteristics of the ’50s in one memorable scene. Ben Braddock’s father arranged a party for his son’s college graduation. Mr. Braddock’s business acquaintances want to know what the young Braddock is planning to do with his life. Ben doesn’t know. A friend of his father pulls Ben aside. “Ben, one word…. Are you listening? One word. Plastics.”

Ignoring Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, the ’50s bought the lie of consumerism that claims man’s fulfillment is a company car, a house in the suburbs (a trim green lawn in front with all edges meeting at right angles), and children gleefully scampering around the yard spraying each other with the garden hose. TV promoted this paradise regained. Middle-aged businessmen told us to hurry out and buy boxes of Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks. Happy children sang songs celebrating the magic of Bosco, making chocolate milk rich with vitamins C and D. A smiling Mike Wallace shared an amazing shortening discovery, Proctor & Gamble’s Golden Fluffo. And, who can forget Speedy and his miraculous hangover healer, Alka Seltzer? Mother now joined the family entertainment since she had been liberated from the kitchen sink by the installation of a shining new machine that washed everything for her; no more drying dishes for the kids either. Howdy-Doody sprang into our living rooms like a great liberator freeing us from the dull round of daily domestic routines.

American Catholics in the ’50s were complicit in America’s turning away from God toward mammon despite the fact they were doing many good things, too, like going to mass, baptizing their kids and sending them to Catholic schools. Fidelity was more common. Folks played bridge in their living rooms, put flags out on Veterans’ Day, volunteered at parish carnivals and bake sales. They were living the successful life and they had the brand new, automatic sprinkler system to prove it. Never mind all that clap-trap about the world, the flesh, and the devil. What’s wrong with plush carpet, comfortable sofas, electric can openers, and a mini-bar? James Dean was, indeed, a rebel without a cause. Look what plastics could do for you! Strictly speaking, there wasn’t anything immoral about all of this. But, a constant stream of this kind of messaging supplants virtue with personal comfort, something Plato and his peers would have adamantly resisted.

The Boomers rejected the empty promise of consumerism (though they embraced it tightly a few decades later with the dawn of the SUV and gated communities), however, they smashed the idols of their fathers only to make room for their own. One thing both decades shared was an uncritical acceptance of mass media. Perhaps more than any other influence, mass media has contributed to the nation’s moral erosion because of how pervasive it is. We demand it now as a civil right, raising the cries of injustice and income inequality if a home does not have internet access. We’d rather pay $25 for a shirt from China than $45 for one “Made in the U.S.A.” so we can pay for cable re-runs of Ally McBeal at 3:00am.

TV Clearly Shapes Opinion by the 1970s
By the 1970s TV’s power to shape opinion was clear. Sitcoms provided space to consider moral, racial, and economic issues. Who can forget Archie Bunker, the man America hated to love and loved to hate? In the conflicts between Archie and Meathead, we saw the tension caused by shifting values between generations. In the tussles between the arrogant Bunker and hard-headed George Jefferson, we saw the sheer stupidity of racism. Yet, even Archie Bunker treated priests with minimal respect whenever they came knocking. Catholics were still influential enough in the ’70s that producers were careful about offending us. When I was in high school, a local channel aired re-runs of Good Times. I became a fan, always getting a kick out of Jimmie Walker’s “Kid DY-NO-MIIIIITE!” Good Times addressed economic and racial inequality through the family of James and Florida Evans, a hard-working couple trying to raise three kids in a Chicago housing project. The show was often preachy, but I don’t recall any incitements to immoral acts. It gave me a window into a world I did not know existed as a young white man living on a safe, air-conditioned corner of southwestern suburbia. Good Times made me grateful for what I had. It also made me wish, just a little, that our neighborhood was a bit grittier. For, while I saw my own suburban, middle-class family drifting apart around the nucleus of the television, the Evans family in the projects always hung together.

By the 1980s, I began seeing TVs in the bedrooms of some of my friends. Writing in Paste Magazine a year ago, Josh Jackson summed up just how far television infiltrated family life in the ’80s.

I certainly spent as much time with the Keatons, the Huxtables, the Seavers, the 4077th and the Cheers gang as I did around my own kitchen table. This was the decade of the VCR, but you still didn’t make plans on Thursday nights. It was a golden age for sitcoms and for big, silly action-adventures where the good guys always won—plenty to distract us from the last vestiges of the Cold War and a pair of nuclear arsenals that could do a decent imitation of the Death Star. Nostalgia for bygone eras gave me a connection to the ’50s with Happy Days and the ’60s with Wonder Years, but mostly shows captured the 1980s in all of its neon glory. Big hair, loud colors and very special episodes ruled the day, as TV dared to talk about issues that had always been taboo.

In the ’80s, talking about issues on TV really meant promoting certain sexual behaviors and economic ideals. Chaste couples and poor people were rare on ’80s TV. The Evans family had been replaced by the upper middle-class Huxtables living in a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. We laughed while Sam Malone bedded one bimbo after another while the two schmucks George and Cliff cheered him on. We watched the American middle-class family morph from a place of love and formation into a toxic crucible of cynicism and insults under the guidance of the great American moron, Al Bundy. Even shows that, by today’s standards, seem safe were sending certain messages that, in my house at least, were not critiqued. As a 17 year old male without a father, I could not imagine a better life than Thomas Magnum’s, for the following reasons:

  1. He lived in a spacious guesthouse, rent free, on a beach in Hawaii.
  2. He drove a Ferrari.
  3. He hardly worked.
  4. One of his best friends owned a helicopter and could fly him anywhere.
  5. His other best friend owned a bar and gave him all the free beer he could drink.
  6. Although getting dumped regularly, he was continually meeting a new eligible lady.

As a teen being formed morally and intellectually by TV, I thought Thomas Magnum had reached the zenith of happiness for an American male.

TV in the 1990s gave us shows like Seinfeld, South Park, Beavis and Butthead, and Sex and the City, all of which promoted perpetual adolescence characterized by promiscuity, banality, and idiocy. Will and Grace brought homosexuality into prime time and Catholics watched with everyone else. Thanks to cable, the ’90s brought us more violence and nudity through programs such as The Sopranos. Though a lapsed Catholic at that time, I was surprised by how many of my Catholic friends never missed an episode of Friends. Some of them gathered weekly to watch the show, though they made no such commitment to attend mass together. I thought it odd my Catholic peers would enjoy watching a clutch of young, aimless people continually hunting for “casual sex.”

Violating Parameters: A Characteristic of Contemporary TV
Like many other areas of American life, there is not much daylight between Catholics and secularists when it comes to television. Like the unbelievers, we now pay ridiculous prices for the privilege of bringing more licentiousness, promiscuity, and violence into our living rooms than ever before, not to mention the continual anti-Catholic bias that portrays virtually every priest as a homicidal pederast and every nun as a sexually repressed Cruella De Vil in a wimple. It’s not hard to understand why some pastors refer to TV as the devil’s tabernacle. TV producers now try to violate parameters that once were inviolate. Indecency is lauded effusively by reviewers. The onslaught of both hetero- and homosexual pornography, even on network TV, makes it painfully clear nothing can be offensive enough. Programming is not obscene, it’s “daring.” The inmates are running the asylum and we Catholics gave them the keys.

Given these circumstances, much anticipation attended the debut of The Jim Gaffigan Show. Gaffigan’s stand-up comedy is hilarious, and clean. Yet, the first episode of The Jim Gaffigan Show was disappointing. Jim’s wife asks him to pick up a Bible for her at the church on his way to work. After his routine, a fan asks him for a picture. The photo, showing a smiling Jim with an enormous Bible, appears the next day on the Huffington Post website. Factions form around the photo either supporting or condemning Jim for his religious beliefs. A corporate executive offers Jim a seven-figure deal to be their spokesman because he represents their views. “We’re pro-life,” he says. “That’s me,” Jim responds enthusiastically. “Pro-family.” “That’s me.” “And, the repudiation of homosexuality.” “That’s not me,” Jim says. When Jim complains to his wife that he doesn’t want people thinking he believes in God, she reminds him that he does believe in God. Jim agrees, but that’s his “private belief.” In the end, we realize that the whole show was only Jim’s imaginings of what could happen if he picks up the Bible. His wife, still waiting for a response, recalls Jim to himself. He tells her he doesn’t want to get the Bible and she lets him off the hook saying she’ll pick it up the following day.

While the show did a wonderful job exposing the mindlessness of mass media, in one episode, a Catholic privatizes his beliefs and rejects Church teaching. While the aim may have been to satirize the media, the real achievement of the first episode was to show the world what American Catholics look like today. We are DITP: Dead in the Pews. Gaffigan Catholics, I call them Gafflics, are the reason why secularists have had such success advancing their cause. Gaffigan and his wife wish to create a neutral space where believers and non-believers can gather and share some laughs. One sympathizes, but no such neutral ground exists. There is the city of God and the city of Man. Someone raised in Sheepshead Bay might live in Manhattan, but they’re from Brooklyn. The distinction defines them.

Secularists have a creed, too, and they hold to theirs more zealously than Catholics. Whatever Gaffigan’s motives, it’s a Faustian bargain. Secularists allow Gafflics into the public square precisely because they have nothing to fear from their presence.

Time for a Catholic Howard Beale Moment
Fr. Alfred Delp, awaiting his execution in a Nazi prison in Berlin, sharply noted the regime of falsification that fills the vacuum created by the preference of mammon to God.

Since the name of God is no longer the first and foremost of all names in the land and the voice of the people, then everything else that was once precious and prized has lost its name and been subjected to false and falsifying labels. The cliché, the label, the uniform, the slogan, the “dominant trend of the masses”—these are our rulers. And pity the one who dares to differ, to proclaim his own thoughts or use his own name.

TV provides a falsified alternate reality where God is not “all in all” and virtue is never required. Catholics who spend too much time in this false world are lulled into a moral numbness. We sit and watch with everyone else as the madness unfolds, giving ourselves the lie that our watching is somehow different than that of the unbelievers.

The indecency we’ve accepted from American television over the last four decades would be impossible in Muslim countries, not because of tyrannical theocrats, but because of the massive protests that would explode in the streets. I remember watching Forrest Gump in Cairo. All kissing had been cut out, and Jenny’s nude performance of Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. We are wrong to dismiss criticisms we receive for our celebration of promiscuity, even when those critiques come from sources that are otherwise poor models for us. Any TV executive in Qatar who allowed the smut American producers promote would have a throng of angry Arabs outside his office screaming for his head.

I am not suggesting Catholics should engage in violence and terror. I am suggesting that judges, like those of the infamous 9th Circuit, should not be allowed to simply nullify the will of millions of people without consequence. Entertainment executives, politicians, school boards, and homosexual activists can ignore us because we have become morally and intellectually enervated along with the secular masses. Some righteous Howard Beale anger is in order. Imagine thousands of Catholics marching in the streets proclaiming, “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore!” We need to stop sleeping under the birds like Tobit, allowing the fecal matter of modern American TV programming to blind us to the truth, goodness, and beauty of God’s designs for us. We must reorient ourselves as Catholic Americans and re-establish ourselves as a credible moral force that will not be silent.

Lest anyone think I am overestimating the power of TV to shape public thinking, consider the resources authoritarian regimes expend to gain and keep control of media outlets. Faced with credible opposition in Russia, Vladimir Putin seized control of the media and he continues to use it successfully, both nationally and internationally, to shape public perception of Russia. Turkish President Erdoğan has done the same, even shutting down social media networks from time to time. Communist China still airs a propaganda “minority film” from 1963, called The Serf. In our country, TV has become the preferred forum for the promulgation of every conceivable vice, a factory of lies.

Howard Beale said it best in Network (1976).

We’ll tell you any sh*t you want to hear. We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds…. We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here…You do whatever the Tube tells you. You dress like the Tube. You eat like the Tube. You raise your children like the Tube. You even think like the Tube. This is mass madness! You maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing. We are the illusion! So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off. Turn them off right in the middle of this sentence I’m speaking to you now. Turn them off!

In the fall, ABC is bringing back The Muppets. No doubt we’ll discover that Kermit is homosexual. Miss Piggy will be caught in a compromising situation with Animal. And, Fozzie? Clearly, his name is indicative of an indeterminate sexual identity that he’ll work out with his friends.

Tom Jay

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Tom Jay is a teacher at a charter school in Scottsdale, Arizona. Prior to his current position, he taught junior high at a Title I parochial school in the Diocese of Phoenix. Tom is a graduate of the University of Dallas.

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