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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

"Watching TV Religiously" (Kutter Callaway)

TITLE: Watching TV Religiously: Television and Theology in Dialogue (Engaging Culture)
AUTHOR: Kutter Callaway with Dean Batali
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016, (278 pages).

It has been said that watching TV is a great way to understand the cultural contexts of our day. Even in an age of online streaming and changing types of media consumption, the ubiquitous TV is still a major channel of audio-visual dissemination of information, news, entertainment, sports, and others. Current affairs inform minds. Science fiction and imagination influence futuristic thoughts. History educate minds. Through story-telling, TV as a medium can be used to communicate a tapestry of human thought and culture. For the Christian, it is wise not to consume these programs uncritically but to develop a thoughtful and theological mode of thinking, even as we watch such programs. How do we watch TV religiously? This question is explored using examples of TV programs both past and present. The three purposes in this book are:

  1. To outline a set of analytical tools for critical engagement with TV programs;
  2. To supply a process of theological reflection to articulate and perceive the movements of God
  3. To develop a theology of television for both celebration and critique.

This does not mean watching only religious content but to recognize religious and cultural themes coming through the TV. It is not enough just to condemn programs on the basis of sex, violence, and vulgarity. As such elements are increasingly added into general programs, we need to be more discerning, knowing that total abandonment of the TV is not only impossible, it cuts us off from the world. It creates a balloon that is not only unrealistic, it deprives us of opportunities to engage meaningfully with the outside world. After all, light that is kept under our pillows will be useless. Watching TV is not about focusing on the 'text' of the program, but the trend and 'trace' the program is part of. There is a narrative that's happening in TV themes. With TV being such a big cultural force, it is good to see the whole process as dialogue. See the storytelling on TV as a way to discuss cultural moods. We are urged to watch TV relationally as well, that the TV narratives are about meaning making in real life. They could even manifest the ideals written by script-writers, producers, and actors. This makes the book an exciting read as we learn the tools of analysis and interpretation; to develop a way to critique and to enjoy the shows; and to form a theological mind in an often irreligious and irreverent world.

Like a typical TV series, this book starts with a "pilot episode" to set the stage for deeper discussion. Callaway sets four basic assumptions: Technology, narrative, commodity, and ritual. Technology provides a way for TV to represent the world to us in the living room, and at the same time to re-'present' the alternative world to us. Producers are aware of the variety of media used by consumers nowadays and they package TV to fit all distribution mediums. From Netflix to YouTube; computer streaming to TV boxes; DVDs to portable hard-drives; the TV still holds a primary space in our entertainment and information world. On narrative, we learn that TV is about storytelling obsession. TV episodes are structured not only around commercial breaks but plot points of individual character formation. This storytelling does not just portray the world we live in, they attempt to give meaning to our world. On commodity, TV is a sales medium. They try to sell us not only products and services, but ideas and consumerism. On ritual, we learn of the power of TV to shape minds through regular programming. They could dictate family time. They shape our real-life rituals.

Some of the tools for analyzing TV include the three elements of structure, sights, and sound. On structure, we learn about following the narrative flow; analyzing the narrative complexity; and seeing the whole big picture. On sights, we look at camera perspectives, stage scenes, and the editing process. On sound, there is music to accompany the narrative, dialogue to flesh out the complex interactions, and sound effects to heighten meaning.

Some TV shows like Seinfeld is pretty much about a show about nothing, yet, it is amazingly popular. Some shows are abruptly canceled while others have their proper finales.Other shows like Lost are open-ended while the Sopranos left viewers wondering whether there is such a thing as right or wrong. Shows like Breaking Bad and Dexter question our sense and understanding on morality and ethics. Sex in the City verbalized the culture's infatuation with sex. I appreciate the author keeping a chapter just to talk about TV's relationship with Church and Christianity. Many of the TV programs have references to the Bible. There is Big Bang Theory that contains episodes that cast slurs on Christianity while maintaining that atheistic and secular view of the world. The author also analyzes the various gospels according to programs such as Lost, Breaking Bad, Disney, and Buffy! He also uses various media analysis from Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan, Martin Buber, and others to give us tools for interpretation and critique. He even gives us a map to move from TV to theology; from avoidance to caution to dialogue to appropriation and to divine encounter.

There are lots of really good stuff in this book. Readers will be encouraged to learn to enjoy TV while maintaining a critical eye on themes to understand culture. They can appreciate the interactions and dialogues of the character that narrates the relationships in the world; with the Church; and eventually between us and God. Shows that seem to be secular in origin do have a religious tone hidden somewhere. That is because behind every effort, every search, and every TV program is a human person searching for meaning and significance in life. Whether it is clothed in shows about spirituality (X-Files, Buffy, Sleepy Hollow, Supernatural, etc); or post-religious world (M*A*S*H, 7th Heaven, The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, The Good Wife, etc); TV is a communicating medium that is complex. Christians are exhorted to engage with the world knowledgeably, and not to dismiss programs outright. The key is to learn to sift the good ones from the bad. Even then, the not so good TV series do have a purpose we can perceive. Though they may not be box-office success, they are no less significant when it comes to presenting the world's reality into our virtual reality TV. I highly recommend this book as a tool to educate and equip believers to engage with the world of TV.

Kutter Callaway is assistant professor of theology and culture and Fuller Theological Seminary. He teaches at the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts, and is the author of Scoring Transcendence: Contemporary Film Music as Religious Experience.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Baker Academic and Graf-Martin Communications without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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