Spring 1983, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 38-50.

Maureen Rodgers:
      Electronic Media and the Spiritual Life

A healthy life of faith will integrate into Christian life and mission the new mode of perceiving and evaluating reality which electronic media have produced.

Maureen Rodgers, who currently resides in Mishawaka, Indiana, has been professionally engaged as a communicator in the field of electronic media for over a decade.

I'LL never forget the day I first saw the television show "Laugh-In." I was in the community room of a religious convent, and we had decided to turn on the TV set "to see what was on." What we experienced was a revolution -- in perception, in culture, in comedy. Perhaps you remember "Laugh-In": a montage of rapid-fire visual jokes, quick "cameos" by famous personages, and a succession of "one-liners" so fast that you barely had time to registermuch less laugh -- before the next "scene" was upon you. Goldie Hawn and Rowan and Martin were catapulted to national fame in this series which I can only describe as a "phenomenon." Ten minutes or so were all my cloistered sensibilities could take; I left the room shaking.

In the half-hour or more that it took me to calm down, I realized that something profound had happened to me, to the audience, and to television. The rapid-fire visual and verbal jokes overran my ability to assimilate perceptions. The pacing of the program jarred my whole being.

For me, that chance experience was a turning point. It drew my attention to the medium of television in a way that nothing else had. It alarmed me. It surprised me. It disoriented me. It represented a departure from all my past experiences of media: radio, film, theatre, "home movies," the television of the 50s -- all of which I could keep up with, and control my responses to. This "jet-age" style was beyond my control.

Up until that time, my experience of electronic media had been much like my life: disciplined, controlled, useful, purposeful, and enjoyed only occasionally in community with family or friends. I had looked upon the electronic media only as a source of entertainment and as extraneous to my "real" life. Today, after twelve years as a radio and television producer, I know differently. The "electronic media" today, in their all-pervasive presence, are no longer extraneous to our lives, or to our values, but have become, in fact, a part of our environment, one of the major influences shaping our perceptions, our values, our culture, and our spirituality. As such, the influence of electronic media deserves our critical attention and our reflective action.

How are we to understand this all-pervasive influence of the communication media? Can we extricate ourselves from the fate of having our lives manipulated by the proliferation of sounds and images, all competing for our attention? Do these new stimuli have any redeeming and redemptive value? Is it possible to direct, control, and even employ the electronic buckshot coming at us from the media cannons?

Critical questions, indeed! They demand a better understanding on our part of electronic media and of their relationship to us in our lives. They demand of us, ultimately, judgment and action. But first, let us define a few terms.

When today we use the term electronic media, we mean commercial and public television and radio, of course, as well as educational "ITFS" channels, usually confined to schools. Cable television has enlarged the distribution possibilities of these media across market (geographic) lines. But in addition to these "electronic extensions" over-the-air to vast numbers of people (the "mass" of "mass media"), we are seeing in the 80s a proliferation of "small-format' video and audio, intended for home and personal use. These include video cassette and disc, smaller audiotape units, and home computers and computer games (which have brought about the return of neighborhood "arcades" and their concomitant problems). New technologies, especially computer and satellite technology, will continue to make possible greater distribution of present media, and the creation of new forms of communication. (Not included in our discussion are the "educational media," those trusty helpers of the classroom, also known as "audio-visual aids": the 16mm film projector, 35mm filmstrip projectors and slide projectors, phonographs, overhead and opaque projectors, and audiotape equipment. These have come to be known in the last decade as "group media.")

How pervasive are these media in our lives, in our culture? One has but to examine one's own habitat and habits: the constant "background" music in our cars, homes, stores, restaurants, and doctors' offices; the television turned on "for company" when one is home alone; the frequent sight of joggers, cyclists, and even commuters tuned in on their stereo headphones and tuned out of traffic noises and conversations.


While I cannot prove this thesis biologically or neurologically, I do believe that we have been changed, not only quantitatively, but also qualitatively to the degree that we have been exposed to, and have been unreflective about, electronic media in our lives. I believe that our senses have been effectively extended and their acuity heightened; and that we now possess altered patterns of perception as a result of the developments in the technologies of television-image reproduction and alteration, stereo-sound reproduction, and electronic creation of sound. Not only have electronic media altered our perception and learning patterns; but, I believe, they have also altered our ways of perceiving, and dealing with, ourselves and our world.

I offer only one example to illustrate this power of the changing technology -- television commercials. TV has taught us that, in life, as in a commercial, "everything must be communicated quickly and efficiently or we tune out." In a TV commercial (the common length is thirty seconds), we experience an "all-at-onceness," a simultaneity of perception and participation. Do a little exercise: think of the most effective commercials you have seen and ask yourself why they are such. You may recognize your experience of immediate involvement and participation in the events or with the people in the TV spots. You were entertained, touched, or excited . . . quickly. Some examples: the "Jello" commercials with Bill Cosby and children; the "Mikey" commercials -- "He likes it!"; the Coca-Cola Christmas commercial of over a decade ago -- "I'd like to sing the world a song in perfect harmony . . ."; the Bell Telephone "Reach Out and Touch Someone" situation comedies and dramas; the low-key humor and acting in the current Polaroid commercials. This almost instantaneous process of communicating and perceiving through auditory and visual means creates a greater personal involvement with the product than does the magazine ad or the billboard. It also possesses a greater power for emotional and psychological manipulation.

When perception changes, values change. Witness the amount of seminudity (male and female) common now in commercials, soap operas, and even "prime-time" series and movies. What was once only seen in burlesque theaters is now an everyday occurrence on commercial television in our homes. A passive toleration has led to a passive acceptance which in turn has created titillating expectancies in the regular viewer.

And yet, on the positive side, consider the change of attitude and the actions taken in most cities and towns across the United States since public service announcements and some outstanding television specials (for example, "The DeBolt Family" special and "Bill") have pointed out the humanity and the needs of mentally and physically handicapped people. Concern, as well as esteem, for the handicapped and their courage have grown in this country; and I do not think it could have happened without the campaign through media and the media's cooperation, locally and nationally. Television and radio can reinforce and enlarge positive values.

The extent of visual-media power is most recently proved by the phenomenon of E.T., the theatrical film which has done what an infinite amount of preaching has not been able to do: make "ugly" into "beautiful." In a culture which all but worships youth and physical beauty, a gobliney, grinchy little creature from another planet (or galaxy?) has captured the hearts and the imaginations of countless children and adults in a story of life, death, and resurrection, a story of finding, helping, befriending, letting go, and going on.

Perhaps the most dramatic and frequently cited example of changing perception leading to changed values and to action for change is the television news coverage of the Vietnam war. Film footage of the war and its atrocities shown on network television, as well as the persistence of the initially small group crying out against the war, effected a reassessment of the national administration's policy by the public and helped put the war in a different light. I know of no study to verify it, but I would conjecture that a goodly amount of support for the nuclear weapons freeze at this period in our history comes from those people whose moral sensitivities were awakened by the awareness of war made possible by the television coverage of the Vietnam conflict.


Given the scope of the social, cultural, and perceptual changes of the last thirty-five years to which electronic media have contributed, one may well ask where spirituality fits in. One might be tempted to resort to a sort of hopeless isolationism, rather than confront the current tangle of developing technologies, media industries, and moral challenges.

But good spirituality -- healthy faith life -- keeps integrating the experiences and even the "technologies" of life. Rather than reject the modern media-world out of hand, let us, as God's people, take a good look at it, past and present, to see what should be kept and what rejected towards integrating these instruments of communication into a grace-filled future.

Striving to bring the kingdom of God to fullness in ourselves and in our world demands creativity -- "creation." "Thy kingdom come!" is a creative imperative if ever there was one. It means fidelity to God's call to us in our lifetime, and in the many different areas and apostolates open to us in our world. It means living the values of the gospel: loving God and our neighbor, our friend and our enemy -- with courage. It means showing preferential concern for the hungry, the thirsty, the oppressed, the poor, the lonely, the sick, the homeless, the imprisoned (Matthew 5 and 25). How can the media help us to integrate this call into our lives today? How can we help the media to integrate this call and serve the needs of people in a healthy way?

In our search for a new approach to media and their relationship to our spirituality, it seems appropriate to take a brief look at their. recent history. The history of the media, from my vantage point as a professional communicator for the last thirteen years, does not break down into pre- and post-Vatican II periods, as so many other movements in church and society do, but, rather, into pre- and post-World War II eras. The communications revolution antedates the Second Vatican Council.

Prior to World War II, television did not exist for the average person; it was in the experimental stage. What we had were radio, movies, and magazines. (Remember Life and Look? Their wonderful photographs grabbed hold of history and held it for us. We became aware that photography could make social statements which moved us to new awareness.) In the immediate postWorld War II period, for Catholic laity and religious, the media were "outside stimuli" and suspect, generally rightly regulated in the home and in the religious community. The family would gather around the radio once a week to listen to Bing Crosby or Bob Hope or Fred Allen as religiously as they would later listen to, or watch, Bishop Sheen. Radio was an entertaining diversion and an important source of news. Movies were also entertaining, but could be potential "occasions of sin."

The focus of our spirituality was ourselves, our family, and our church community. Observance of the laws of the church dominated our religious lives and identified us as Catholics. What we did in the religious or parish community was very important and very structured, and usually done in an institutional setting -- the church or the school: going to Mass; saying the rosary or the stations of the cross; benediction; novena devotions. Our personal spiritual lives focused on ourselves: the practice of reverent silence, examination of conscience, keeping the laws of fast and abstinence, spiritual reading, meditation, etc. Most of our spiritual practices were repetitive and done alone, even while physically in community. The value placed on silence allowed little value to be placed on articulating and communicating our faith to one another. Religious lived in semicloistered separation from "the world," and even lay Catholics and their families had a somewhat "cloistered" mentality flowing from closely knit parishes, schools, and neighborhoods.

The television "explosion" changed much of that. With the availability of television in almost every home, a new element was added to our lives, to our homes, and to our spirituality. And it would make demands upon our time which no religious leader would have presumed to make.


How, then, do we approach the media as adult Christians, looking realistically at the media, as well as at ourselves and our world? The question for most people pertains to commercial radio and television programming, including that on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) and on home video movie services, usually provided via cable. The challenge today proceeds not so much from the ubiquitous media technologies (the quantitative fact) as from the content and style of the programs (the qualitative consideration). This qualitative aspect is the focus of the following assessment of what is wrong with radio and television programming, what is right with it, and how we can sharpen and exercise our critical powers in regard to it.

The following negative considerations of our mistakes and TV's dangers are proposed for the reader's reflection. This list is by no means exhaustive. It is hoped that it will provoke further examination of the media on one's own.

1. For some reason, television seems to be the medium that fosters the most unrealistic expectations in us, perhaps because, with film, it most closely represents human reality to us. The advent of television was greeted with wonderful expectations by educators and religious leaders, and welcomed as "a gift of God" by the authors of Vatican II's Pastoral Instruction on the Means of Social Communication in 1972. Television has always been the "glamor" medium, but now the glamor seems to be wearing thin. Unrealistic expectations may be cured by a good dose of reality in the form of information about the way that the broadcasting industry operates in the United States, the way programming decisions are made, and critical judgments on the quality of programming. This information may be obtained in local newspapers' radio and television columns, in TV Guide, or in books in the local public library on the subject of broadcasting.

2. Television demands too much of our free time and diverts us from other important activities. For instance, we do not read as much as we should because of TV.

3. Television can create a passive audience. The enormous number of hours spent in front of a TV set by the average American can have the effect of "narcotizing the brain." Recent studies indicate that education and preaching suffer because they are directed to the opposite, less used portion of the brain from the "television-watching" side.

4. TV dramas, particularly the "soap operas," falsify life. Whether in "General Hospital," "Knots Landing," "Dynasty," or "Dallas," we find no, or few, transcendental values portrayed. Perhaps a graver injustice to the audience is that these series and their creators assume public acceptance of immoral behavior. This latter problem raises the famous "Which came first? The chicken or the egg?" type of controversy: do media shape society, or do media reflect society? Network and station heads, and producers and syndicators of commercial television programming, have frequently claimed the latter, of course; but as I compare the experience and life-style of my family and friends, I find very little if anything in common with the values and experiences of the "soaps." What accounts then, for their enormous popularity from college dorms to nursing homes? There are probably a number of psychological and moral explanations, but I think of these: a fascination with evil, with that fatalistic, darker side of our nature that loves bad news; and a love for the melancholy, an exaggerated and unhealthy sentimentality that is the opposite of Christian hope.

5. Action dramas, such as "CHiPS," are probably among the greatest offenders, for they not only falsify life, but falsify art as well. "Cops and robbers" series, along with such obvious examples as "Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island," are frequently "formula shows" in which a rigid pattern of plot construction and pacing must be maintained in order to build up to -- a commercial! The United States Catholic Conference has not called commercial television "a delivery system" of audience/consumer to advertiser/product for naught.

Television news, which describes our world to us "at six and eleven" each day, and which tells us, in Walter Cronkite's absolute terms, "that's the way it is," also has failings. Most of these inherent weaknesses are the result of the American system of commercial broadcasting which has rigid time slots and programming schedules, and is profit making.

1. Television news segments are too short. Most news is being told or shown in a matter of ten to thirty seconds, or the equivalent of a half page of double-spaced typescript.

2. TV news is too selective of "news" incidents. The major criterion for choice of what is to be included is visual excitement or interest; or, as I have been told often by news editors, what is "different or unusual." (One can see the difficulty in getting "good news" on the air.)

3. TV news is necessarily shallow in its treatment of serious matters, which may give a false impression of reality. Programs such as "Nightline," "The McNeil-Lehrer Report," "Washington Week in Review," and the network weekend panel interviews of national figures by newsmen, such as "Face the Nation" and "Meet the Press," try to overcome this shortcoming, and often do so admirably.

4. Radio news, in particular, can be repetitious, and thus distort reality by giving more time to a subject than it deserves. Station "formats" contribute to this situation, since "all news" stations must repeat the news regularly and frequently, and most radio stations, regardless of format, carry news at least hourly. On "low" news days, even minor news of accident or tragedy can seem out of proportion.


By pointing to these negative facts about the electronic media, I am not trying to discredit the media, their finer programming, or their potential. I am trying to destroy some of the false assumptions about media that concerned people have, because false or lazy assumptions about the media can lead us to false assumptions about ourselves and our society. it behooves us, therefore, to become more thoughtful, more informed, more sophisticated about electronic media and, consequently, to take more responsibility for them and for their effect on us and our world.

In order to do this, it is necessary to do two things. First, we need to give up a naive and unquestioning acceptance of the electronic media as automatically true in themselves, and to begin separating the wonder of the technology and its comfort from the lack of quality in its content. To place our faith uncritically in the media and their authors is a form of idolatry. Second, we need to turn again to artistic ideals as viewers and programmers, and to become critics (doers, too, if possible, but critics at the very least, for it is everyone's responsibility).

The early days of television drama ("Playhouse 90,"for instance), saw innovative and creative drama transferred successfully to the new, live medium. The classical criteria for good drama held firm at first. But the consuming demand of upholding such quality in a new production every week and the advent of videotape recording both took a toll and provided a new opportunity.

When we watch television today, do we apply the old, but still valid, classical standards to drama and comedy? I maintain that television cannot only live up to those standards "in spite of itself," but can even improve upon them because of its unique technical and artistic potential, particularly as a close-up, highly efficient medium. The values of theme, characterization, plot, logical progression of action, poetic intuition, coherence are as important today as they ever were as basic criteria for judgment of the value of a particular program or series on radio or television. Beauty, truth, and goodness are still qualities to be sought after and cherished when they are found in a modern production. How do the endless one-liners of "Family Ties," the inane shenanigans of "That's Incredible!" and the violence (sophisticated as it may be) of "Knight Rider," "Magnum, P.I." and "The Fall Guy' measure up to the aesthetic or artistic values of good drama or comedy?

Other critical questions of value arise when one asks what is the influence of "CHIPS" or "The Dukes of Hazzard" on young children. What kind of role modeling for children is taking place in these programs? How beneficial are the images of women portrayed in commercials, or the images of blacks in sitcoms? Or, on the other hand, what are the positive values underlying "FAME," "M.A.S.H." and "Hill Street Blues"? Why do we watch and like the programs we do, and reject the others?

Media can be used as a springboard to developing more discerning taste and to refining an aesthetic sense, a saving grace, a gentling factor, not only in each individual life, but in society as well. I suggest four steps: examination, reflection, study and aesthetics, and choice and compassion. Like the "media-reflects-society, media-creates-society" question, these steps cut both ways.

1. Examine our behavior and attitudes in regard to media. Do we reject today's programming out of hand in condemning generalizations, or do we study and reflect on the techniques, the substance, the over-all impression created by the music or program which we dislike?

Do we judge our behavior in regard to media as harshly as we judge the media itself? Or are we using the vicarious experiences provided by media (laughter, romantic love, violence, etc.) as substitutions for the rewards and pains that real relationships with other human beings bring? Or do we use the media as an entertainment or educational vehicle?

2. Reflect on the media and their development. What have been the reasons for the values portrayed in the media? What has been the impact of the historical, social, and technological revolutions of the last thirty-five years?

3. Develop a stronger aesthetic appreciation through exposure to good programming. In a series such as "Brideshead Revisited," with its superb cinematography and its sensitive unfolding of a tortured soul, we see television at its dramatic best. Other "Masterpiece Theatre" offerings by the British Broadcasting Corporation (Company) (BBC), as shown on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States, elucidate spiritual values through authentic drama or comedy, and through writing, characterizations, pacing, and story development possessing logic and integrity. American offerings such as "Hallmark Hall of Fame" and occasional specials do also. The "eternal verities" described by William Faulkner in his Pulitzer Prize speech live on in such productions.

4. Articulate our values. It is usually only in articulating our observations, beliefs, and judgments about media to others that we know what we believe. Articulation follows reflection and study, and, if honest, challenges our old ideas and values. Discussing programs with others is an important part of the critical process and opens us to new insights into cultural, social, and religious movements and values in the media.

5. Take action. Does the challenge of the media lead us to constructive action, to the making of choices and the exercise of compassion? When a reflective, articulate person, consciously applying and developing his or her aesthetic sensibility, participates in media thoughtfully, a corresponding growth takes place. It no longer remains possible to watch or hear a report on the evening news about nuclear capability and not write to one's legislators. It no longer remains possible not to respond compassionately with prayer and monetary offering when the plight of the people in Lebanon, Poland, or the drought-stricken regions of Africa is shown. It becomes possible to develop a global commitment rather than maintain a narrow one when put in touch instantly with world problems via satellite transmission of news and special reports. And our voice is heard: we have."media capability." Broadcasters are quick to admit the great importance they assign to unsolicited written response to their programs, positive or negative, at both the local and national levels.

6. Discern and select. just as there is a proliferation of books, magazines, and newspapers, there are many TV programs. We have to choose. We must resort to selective viewing, just as carefully (and frugally) as we subscribe to newspapers and magazines. Our decisions can be based upon the good opinions of experts, friends, and our own experience. Help in making a critical selection is available from a variety of sources: from the film and television critic of the United States Catholic Conference carried in most, if not all, diocesan newspapers (Michael Gallagher); from most Catholic magazines (U.S. Catholic, St. Anthony Messenger, etc.); and from the Mass Media Newsletter, which also does a fine job of reviewing movies. Popular reviewers syndicated to television stations (such as Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert of "Sneak Preview/" and now "At the Movies") perform a valuable service in letting one know what the movies are about, and freely pan and praise, but in a somewhat watered-down fashion when it comes to values.

7. Finally, seek values. Look for the programs on television -- or, in radio, the stations -- which respect the values which uplift the human spirit. This does not exclude programs which portray evil and sinful activities, as long as they portray them as such. The old verities still hold: beauty, truth, goodness, the integrity of a work of art, the value of a good program which draws on, and somehow redeems, human experience through tragedy or laughter. What good is a medium or a program which is glamorous, but dehumanizing, which leaves out the realm of grace? Using my personal positive criteria, I look for programs which set forth nurturing values rather than destructive ones, which are not afraid to explore human relationships, and which allow for the possibility of change for the better and growth in the human being. I remember Shakespeare and John Donne and T.S. Eliot and Tennessee Williams and Georgia O'Keeffe and "Citizen Kane" and Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. And I judge, and I select -- and I enjoy.

The days of "Laugh-In" seem almost naive now, so complicated have become the video and audio technologies and our responsibilities. They have heightened our psychophysical sensibilities; television has created in us a new acceptance of diversity. It is up to us to translate these qualities into our spiritual lives, not with the fear or rejection of diversity characteristic of fundamentalists, but with openness to the Spirit of God, so that we extend this heightened sensitivity, this increased awareness, into service and caring -- into an affective, effective, integrated way of living our lives as Christians, followers of the one who, after all, taught us what life, death, and resurrection are, and who constantly calls us forward to a future full of new being. It is a challenge! With the grace of God, we are up to it!