Of Television – and Liturgy

One of the biggest consumers of time in our culture is television, whether on the home screen or our computers or on our phones. TV, in its various forms, delivers all kinds of experiences that suck us in, whether it’s watching sports or a drama, a detective story or a cute cat video. For convenience here, let’s just call all of this TV.

Since – obviously – TV claims many of our waking hours, with our complicity, when we could be doing other things, it demands careful attention. What might seem harmless collapsing in front of the TV after a hard day begins to raise issues that go way beyond merely wasting time. The great theologian Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the first who studied entertainment theologically, says that “in [theater or TV] man attempts a kind of transcendence, endeavoring both to observe and to judge his own truth, in virtue of a transformation . . . by which he tries to gain clarity for himself.”

In other words, in TV, which is a kind of mirror on society: “Man [as a spectator] himself beckons, invites the approach of a revelation about himself [from the drama on the screen]. Thus parabolically, a door can open to the truth of the real revelation.” Even a nature video, for instance, can tell us something about the Creator if that’s the way we approach it. But notice that von Balthasar is expecting us to be actively responding to the light patterns on the screen.

By real revelation, he means the revelation of God that comes through Creation and, the presence of Christ, who is the fullness of revelation and is witnessed to in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. He only says that the deeper revelation can happen, because what can also happen – and knowing how most of us watch TV, most often does happen – is that we are mesmerized by something shallow and unworthy of the dignity of the human person, which produces either a sluggish stupor or an adrenaline rush. Either way, it’s mindless passivity.

Actively responding, in von Balthasar’s sense, means approaching things with our minds fully engaged. We’ve all gotten accustomed, for example, to watching serious news reports interrupted by ads for weight loss programs or fast food deals, that mock real human suffering or serious catastrophes or reports of major historical events. We should not let this disconnect pass unnoticed because it subtly insinuates itself into our minds and hearts. The commercial structuring of the TV experience lacks the solidity of real life, which demands deliberate language and gestures for the really important things.

The great French Catholic poet Paul Claudel says that we go to the theater (or watch TV) to “learn about how things begin and how they cease.” Even an ordinary detective story teaches us something about life and death – particularly about the great void left when someone dies and the most the world can do is, perhaps, find the killer and exact justice.

Properly handled, the liturgy – strange as this may seem to many of us – should be the standard of how we treat important things; it is a steady corrective to TV’s superficial handling of human experience. It can be a school – provided we go dressed for the occasion and spiritually attuned – for learning to develop a proper sense of formality in the presence of the great human truths.

Understood in this way, the liturgy is not separated from life, but takes us into the disposition to see how things really stand, the beginnings and endings as God sees them.

Religion or even prayer are rarely part of television coverage of human tragedies and crises. But prayer and liturgy are – and ought to be – part of good times and bad for God’s creatures such as ourselves. Outside of the mostly secular newsrooms of the developed world, religion bulks large in the lives of people from various faith traditions all over the world.

Unfortunately, TV floods the viewer with inauthentic images of real-life situations. This is why the Church has always had her doubts about theater and other forms of entertainment, not just because they can be bawdy, but because of the false vision of life that they present in such convincing ways. It’s our task to remain vigilant, to maintain a different way of viewing things, even when the spiritual dimension has been suppressed.

We should recognize the role and value of theater (and TV) in cultural life. But responding authentically to what it brings us means actively maintaining a fully Christian perspective. Unlike the television, Christianity does not have an off switch. Being a Catholic involves learning to be a Christian in the world.

Watching TV is not a time-out from our role as followers of Christ. It is just another occasion to practice Catholicism. Will this program show me something of the beginnings and endings of man? Will it take me beyond the TV show to the horizon of the world the way God views it? Will I become a better Christian in the process by not sitting passively with my mind in neutral but rather making connections to the great vision of life, the one found in the psalms and in St. Paul’s Letters?