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Smash the Television Set?

November 30, 2018


“The Catholic Church is not opposed to violence; only to unjust violence; so smash the television set,” instructs the late John Senior in his important book, The Restoration of Christian Culture.

These are not the words of some extremist on the fringes of Christian academia. These are the words of an esteemed Catholic scholar and cultural commentator who during his years as a professor of humanities proved greatly influential, not only as a man of letters but as a man of faith. Teaching at the University of Kansas from the 1970s onward, Senior had a great intellectual and spiritual impact on the students he taught. Many of his students, in fact, converted to the Catholic faith; some even answered the call to the religious life. Among those who trace their faith back to John Senior are Archbishop Paul Coakley of the Oklahoma City diocese and Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. The irony of all this is that the University of Kansas was a secular institution.

“In death as he was in life, Senior is ever the ‘teacher of souls,’” writes co-founder of Wyoming Catholic College, Robert Carlson. “Readers [of The Restoration of Christian Culture] must gird up their loins and prepare for the hard truth.” Which brings us back to Senior’s bold exhortation to smash the television set. “You cannot be serious about the restoration of the Church and the nation if you lack the common sense to smash the television set,” he asserted. Senior argued that the TV is inherently evil, basing his argument on its two principal defects: its radical passivity and its distortion of reality. He wrote:

Watching it, we fail to exercise the eye, selecting and focusing on detail….neither do we exercise imagination as you must in reading metaphor where you actively leap to the ‘third thing’ in juxtaposed images, picking out similarities and differences, a skill which Aristotle says is a chief sign of intelligence. So television is intrinsically evil…There is nothing on the television which is not filtered through the secular establishment.

Now these are some hard sayings. Hard, yes—but true? The pill of truth is, after all, not always easy to swallow. Admittedly, it is hard to see how a world without television could be (all things considered) worse off.

Could John Senior be right?

My wife Amanda and I tried out a similar strategy a couple years ago. We didn’t go so far as to smash the television set. We didn’t trash it. But we put it away, far out of sight, into storage for a long while. Our primary motivation was our parental consciences—and our dwindling parental sanity.

We were fully aware of the warnings and restrictions being issued by reputable paediatric organizations (with a multitude of research to support their conclusions) in regard to TV consumption for children. But aside from dry statistics, we also noticed first-hand that when our girls (ages 1 and 3 at the time) were exposed to screens, their behavior subsequently worsened. When they watched television in the afternoon or evening, bedtime became an absolute circus. While baby kitten videos on YouTube had a bad enough effect on our girls, PAW Patrol on Netflix was downright disastrous. Choosing a show for our kids was like choosing between a teeth-cleaning or a haircut; there simply was no good option. And like addicts, we knew the harmful effects of our choice, but chose to let them watch anyway.

Eventually, enough was enough. We decided to do something radical. Actually, Amanda did. She proposed that a full year without screens was in order! For the kids at least. To be honest, I was still not as convinced as she that a complete one-year fast was going to be a good idea—nor a possible one—for anyone at that stage of the game. I fought back at first but in the end she reigned victorious. She was, after all, the one at home with the kids all day while I was at work. So that was that. Our children would be screen-free for a year, and we would be very limited compared to before. We cancelled Netflix and moved the television downstairs. What happened next?

After the initial day or two of crying and pleading (not me—the girls), things became surprisingly serene. Acceptance of the new norm had set in. The house was quieter. The girls played better. We read more. We read more to the girls. We talked more, listened to music more; and my oldest daughter Anna started to sing. Now this was a breakthrough. Anna never sang. And what was even more incredible was that she was singing songs she had heard weeks before! The lyrics and melodies had been stored up in her little head for days, but only once the hyper-stimulation of the screen was removed was she able to do anything with them.

Now, time for a confession. We didn’t make it through the whole year without the television, but we did persevere for five solid months. And here and there, Amanda and I would cheat and watch a movie when the kids were sleeping. But for the most part, we stayed true to our television fast for almost half a year—and it was worth it.

In a blog post where she laid out our experiment in greater detail, Amanda listed seven reasons why we chose to fast from television for a time. Some of those reasons were mood improvement, increased productivity, greater family cohesion, and quieting of the conscience. All of these things, to some extent, were realized. And more.

After those five months we became much more discerning of what we watched and when. We were much more intentional with our time, and always on guard against “Netflix paralysis,” a condition that occurs when you scroll, and scroll, and scroll—and scroll—until you realize you’ve been scrolling for not any good show but the show; and by the time you realize the time you’ve wasted scrolling for the next best show, your brain is too fried to watch anything. Any parent will know that kids, like adults, are not immune.

A good way to avoid “Netflix paralysis” or “Prime paralysis” or any other scrolling-induced, mind-numbing condition is to get rid of streaming services altogether. Unsubscribe. Go back to the DVD. Rent or buy movies or television series. This older fashioned way of selecting what we watch forces us to be much more intentional, especially when we are paying every time we want to watch something new. And it perhaps compels us to watch great films over and over again. Films like The Song of Bernadette (1943), A Man for All Seasons (1966), Schindler’s List (1993), Braveheart (1995), and Gran Torino (2008) have something important to teach us, whether it is our first time or our tenth time watching. Series like The Twilight Zone (1958-1964), Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983), and Downton Abbey (2010-2015) have the potent potential to permanently change us for the better.

Do I think we should smash our television sets? Not unequivocally. Just as it may be appropriate for a porn addict to get radical and smash his laptop, it may be appropriate for some people to literally and physically destroy their TV. Such an action, for the right person, can function as both a rite of passage and a practical choice. But for most of us, a disciplined fast—and perhaps a very long one—will be enough to remedy the soul.

That is not to say that John Senior was not onto something. In some ways I think he was prophetic. I think we all need to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves whether we suffer from an inordinate attachment to the screen. As theologian Jared Staudt points out, “We may not want to take up John Senior’s advice to smash the TV, but we at least need to question the role of technology in our life. We need to make sure that prayer, more than technology, shapes and orders our time.”

Dr. Senior was not, in the final analysis, interested in destruction so much as restoration. Indeed, he wanted to see the creation of something beautiful for God. The purpose of smashing the television was to pave the way for something better. Thus he recommends, as an alternative to the screen, the spending of one’s time and money instead on the renewal of music and the reading of good books in the home. On this I think he is dead right.

It is hard to see how the restoration of the culture could start with anything but the restoration of the family; and it is equally hard to see how the restoration of the family could happen without the reading of good books—beginning with the Bible—and the playing of good music. Which books are the good ones? If there is any confusion, start with Senior’s list of the thousand good books. These are books “for children in the nursery to the youth at college, which we read and reread all the rest of our lives.” And when you’re not reading, play good music. I mean literally play good music. Buy a piano. Learn to play the guitar. Or at least consider giving your children that gift and put them in lessons. Maybe they’ll teach you. And when you’re not playing good music, listen to good music, classical and contemporary. Be cautious, but not afraid, of what is modern.

So fill the heads in your home with sounds and images of real beauty; fill the hearts in your household with the tranquility of silence in the in-between times; and you will experience a renewal of the home: the first step in the restoration of the Christian culture.

Smash the television set? Probably not. But then again, why not?