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How TV changes Christianity

Leading academic Peter Horsfield says Christianity doesn’t just use communication. Everything that Christianity is and does is an act of communication in a form available in the wider culture. When that wider culture of communication changes, Christianity itself is changed.

THE QUESTION we ask about the effects television has had on Christianity are no different from questions that can be asked about how writing, Greek, Latin, icons, statues, churches and cathedrals, painting, printed bibles and academic theology have changed the original speaking of Jesus in Hebrew.

Television can’t be understood on its own.

It drew on and extended a number of social and cultural developments that were already shaping the 20th century: the visual culture of photography and popular use of cameras; the mass audience concept of newspapers and radio; the novel idea of “broadcasting” developed by radio; the sound technologies of radio and the phonograph; the electrification of music, of rock and roll; moving images of the cinema; practices of visual advertising from newspapers and magazines; and attracting people by flashing lights from neon signs.

Television also took over from newspapers and radios the commercial idea of creating news, drama and stories to assemble an audience to sell to corporations, so corporations could sell products to the audience by advertising.
Television’s novelty came from putting together in a new way things that were already there.

But it rapidly became the dominant social mass medium of the twentieth century.

Television’s ability to catch people’s attention and lock up people’s time at home was so great that almost everybody reorganised their social lives and communication practices to stay at home and watch it.

Television’s formats, audio-visual aesthetics, rapid stories, easy accessibility and lack of demand produced a change in culture that was unmatched since the 15th century, when the printing press sparked a transformation of the religious, social and political life of Europe.

Every other form of social communication has had to adapt to the television challenge or die.

After initial downturns, radio, magazines, newspapers, the cinema, and book publishing have adapted, redefined themselves, and successfully forged a new place for themselves in the media marketplace.

Magazines, for example, abandoned the old strategy of a small number of huge circulation mass market magazines and successfully redefined themselves as niche market, low circulation, highly visual, specialist publications.

Christianity, as another major form of social communication, has been faced with the same challenge: adapt or die. The result is a mixed one.

Some “brands” or denominations of Christianity have been so deeply rooted in the old culture of print that they have not been able to adapt successfully, are seen as “old” cultures and are declining in numbers. The Uniting Church in Australia generally is one of these.

Those brands of Christianity that are doing well are those which have redefined Christianity in a quite different cultural and communication style.

In general they tend to emphasise greater dynamism in worship and activities, use more (loud) electric sound, are more visual, present a theology that reflects television’s narrative view of insiders-outsiders, dramatic conversion, and the impression of exciting things happening, create opportunities for intimate community, actively recruit new members from the marketplace, build and promote their particular “brand” of Christianity, emphasise the practical benefits of believing, and frequently link faith to material possessions, success and prosperity.

There are mixed opinions about whether these changes are necessarily good ones.

Many question whether, in the process of embracing the new, something essentially Christian has been lost.

It’s interesting to note, though, that historically the same objections were raised when Christians started using new media like writing, painting, printing and vernacular languages, things we now readily take for granted.

Christianity is always embodied in particular mediated forms that colour tastes and opinions about whether something is right or not.

All of that is changing again, of course. The previously dominant medium of television is now just one aspect of a wider screen culture that young people live in.

Broadcast and cable television are losing their younger audiences to web 2.0 internet and mobile phone based television, downloaded movies, short films, multi-media newspapers, blogs and vlogs, computer gaming, and global networking.

Here we go again.

Peter Horsfield is Associate Professor of Communication at RMIT University in Melbourne