Monday, November 21, 2011

The Idiot Box

My wife and I do not own a television. We never had. Judging by the reviews of this year’s TV season, so far, we’re not missing much.

However, our refusal not to purchase a television isn’t really related to our dislike for what’s on television. My pet reason for not having a television is that many scholars suspect that watching even a small amount of television detracts from the ability to read well. Repeated exposure to TV develops the synapses and neural pathways in the brain that decode television; but this brain development seems strongly correlated to lack of development in the reading center of the brain. For Christians, who are people of the Word—undermining the ability to read well and deeply is a spiritual issue.

Even Camille Paglia, a famous culture critic best known for celebrating television’s role in the “repaganization of Western Culture,” understands how television is dangerous in this respect. She writes that in the second command God forbade the use of all images in heaven above and earth below because God understood that such images create a powerful, spiritual urge to ignore words. So Paglia calls for “the enlightened repression of our children,” by which she means rigorous word-centered education to the exclusion of TV, if we want our kids to become all they can be. Commenting on this insight, Neil Postman said, “With the Second Commandment, Moses was the first person who ever said, more or less, “Don’t watch TV; go do your homework.”

So what about your TV watching habits? I have a few suggestions. First, inform yourself about the State of the discussion when it comes to the benefits and risks of TV viewing, especially for children. I’d recommend Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, and Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. In my book, Not Sure, you can find a long bibliography on the relation of television to reading on page 42.

Second. Make reading together a family-time priority until well after the kids are reading on their own, a lot, with pleasure. As an added benefit, you’ll double and triple your cuddle time. My wife and I took turns reading to our children for an hour a day until the oldest was well into high school. That daily hour is easily one of our kids’ best memories of growing up.

Third. Don’t ever allow the television to play when a parent isn’t watching along. Children of all ages need instruction and wisdom about what they see on television because television mostly portrays a fanciful world without God where greed, envy, and several more of the deadly sins carry the day. That’s a very jaundiced view of how things really are; kids need another perspective to interpret TV for them.

Finally, if you don’t have time or energy for the above—and I take it that includes a lot of this blog's  readers—I have one final suggestion. It cuts through all the difficulties that go with having a television. Get rid of it.

Our family fell into life without a television when I was in seminary and couldn’t afford cable, much less the television itself. Somehow that circumstance has become a blessing that continues to give and give. Over the years we’ve avoided countless hours of uncommunicative stupefaction and had discussions, reading, and lots of other fun activities instead.

The bottom line here is that all the time and energy it takes to watch television responsibly may simply be out of reach for most of us. On the other hand, all those extra hours without a television could provide a rich, rich resource for raising kids in the way they should go. All for the price of a trip to the trash can.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

News About Not Sure, Upcoming Events

Bob Cornwall, a Disciples of Christ pastor, Fuller Grad, and church historian from Troy, Michigan, has written a review of my book, Not Sure: A Pastor's Journey from Faith to Doubt on his blog. Very thoughtful. Check it out at

I have two upcoming events, one in Grand Rapids, and the other in Sarnia, Ontario!

I'll be talking about my book at Eerdmans in Grand Rapids, this Thursday at 7 pm. They are located at 2140 Oak Industrial Dr., NE. We expect a great crowd.

The next day I'll be in Sarnia, Ontario, giving a talk and signing books at The Green Room, DeGroot's Nursery, London Rd., at 8 pm. There will be goodies, too!

I'd love to see many old friends and acquaintances at these two events. Come on out!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Let's Take Christ Out of Christmas

            I say, let’s take Christ out of Christmas. It would solve a big problem for us religious types.

            The problem, of course, is the commercialization of Christmas. Sometime between Canadian Thanksgiving and American Thanksgiving, say in mid-November, the Christmas season begins in earnest. North Americans make pilgrimage to their malls to shop and to see Santa and his little helpers in their crimson miniskirts. None of us is very surprised when our little kids ask if the wise men came to Bethlehem in a sleigh pulled by Rudolph.

            The bottom line is that even though we all dutifully tip our hats to the real meaning of Christmas, all of us know that Christ comes in a poor second to parties and decorations, gift giving and receiving, shopping and credit card exhaustion.

            So, I say let’s turn the other cheek. Instead of letting modern culture squeeze Christ out of Christmas, Christians should just volunteer to take Christ out of Christmas, and pick another day to celebrate his birth. December 25 was always a sort of suspicious date, anyway. It was the Roman Emperor Constantine (312-337) who chose December 25 for Christmas, since nobody knew when Jesus was really born. But he chose that date because he wanted to replace the pagan celebration of the winter solstice, the day on which the sun is “reborn,” with a holy day celebrating another birth. The Romans may have been okay with giving up paganism, but they didn’t want to give up the partying.

            But now so little is left of Christ in Christmas that I don’t think anyone would notice if Christians moved the celebration of his birth to some other date. December 25 could then be officially renamed “Xmas.” Just think of the advantages. Christians wouldn’t be faced with the difficult task of keeping the real meaning of Christmas alive for our children anymore. We wouldn’t have to hassle with conflicts between Sunday School Christmas programs and office Xmas parties. We could open presents on Xmas morning without feeling like we are shortchanging the memory of Jesus’ birth into a life of rejection and suffering. We wouldn’t have to explain how Christmas joy is about a lamb being born to the slaughter rather than about eating as much turkey as we want.

            A less-hyped Christmas would also help us properly stress the celebration that is the real heart of the Christian calendar, Easter. That is, assuming we can hold the line against the Easter bunny and chocolate egg hunts.

            Let’s move Christmas to another day. I think Jesus would approve. It doesn’t much matter what new date we choose for the real Christmas. I’m thinking June 25 might work. You see, my wife’s birthday is December 25, and I’ve already figured out that by honoring her birthday with a gift on June 25, her birthday doesn’t get lost with everything else on Xmas Day.

            And in the end, isn’t that what we want for Jesus too? That he doesn’t get lost?