Monday, April 2, 2012

The Theology of Television by John Piper

If there's ever a compelling reason why Christian homes and television do not mix, here it is:

Sam Storms, “Christian Hedonism: Piper and Edwards on the Pursuit of Joy in God,” in For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper (ed. Sam Storms and Justin Taylor; Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 49–50.

John Piper is known for many things. . . .

Some would likely mention the fact that he’s never owned a television! I vividly remember my first visit to John’s home in 1992. He had invited me to speak at his annual pastor’s conference which, as it turns out, is regularly scheduled during the week following the Super Bowl. Upon arriving at his home after the Sunday service, I told John that I had been looking forward for quite some time to watching the game with him. “Not at my house,” he said. “We don’t have a TV.” After I recovered from the initial shock, John graciously agreed to take me to the home of a church member where I could indulge myself in this annual affair. And yes, John stayed and actually watched the game!

As strange as it may sound to those unacquainted with Piper, his decision to rid his home of the influence of television was not from a disdain for pleasure, but an expression of his radical pursuit of it. What John regards as the banal and mind-numbing distractions of TV serve only to diminish his capacity to enjoy the one preeminent delight that never fails to satisfy, namely, the mind-expanding and ever-fascinating knowledge of God as revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. The rationale for this will, I pray, become clearer in the course of reading this chapter. See also John’s article, “Why I Don’t Have a Television and Rarely Go to Movies,” June 25, 2009, available at

John Piper, “Sky Talk,” September 14, 1980:
We are told today that we live in a visual age instead of a verbal one. People need pictures not lectures. Television and movies have conspired to make us disenchanted with reasoning and enamor us with films. This is mostly true, I think, but partly misleading. Our minds have been weakened, but I am not sure our eyes have been strengthened. That you have been conditioned to crave to do something does not mean you are better at it. To be sure, we are more visually dependent and hungry, but I doubt that we are better at seeing than our forefathers.
There are at least two kinds of seeing: one is active and one is passive. Seeing actively means construing what you see, working on it with your mind to find meaning—not necessarily verbal meaning—but all the pattern and design the artist (whether God or man) intended. When a trained eye looks at Rembrandt’s Paul in Prison, he sees more than an untrained eye, because his eyes are active and construe, while the untrained eye is passive.
Well, my suspicion is that television in general does not train active seeing but rather encourages passive watching. Nobody goes to the Minneapolis Institute of Art to watch a painting; you go to see, to look at, to inspect. But you go home to watch T.V. Therefore, I am not very encouraged by our culture, because even though we are more visually dependent today, I don’t think we are more visually acute or perceptive. Our skill in active seeing is no better and perhaps weaker than in the pre-T.V. days.

The upshot of this is that we all have a long way to go in becoming more adept at seeing the voiceless speech of nature. We need to apply ourselves to form the habits of active seeing rather than passive watching.

John Piper, “Jesus Is Precious Because He Removes Our Guilt,” February 21, 1982:

Some people keep the television on all day for a constant barrage of sound and sight on their minds to guard them from what Simon and Garfunkel called the unsettling “sounds of silence.”

John Piper, “Grow in Grace and in the Knowledge of Our Lord,” June 20, 1982:

I know that in my preaching I am addressing a visually oriented and TV influenced people. I know that 98% of you have televisions, and in 1971 the average adult in America watched 23 hours a week. I believe John Stott is right in his new book on preaching when he says that lengthy exposure to television tends to produce physical laziness, intellectual flabbiness, emotional exhaustion, psychological confusion, and moral disorientation. What this means for us preachers (especially me) is that we must improve our ability to communicate effectively and hold attention with no antics, no stringed orchestras, no violence, and no sex. But it does not mean that we can abandon our calling to preach the whole counsel of God. And therefore it should be expected that preaching will sometimes be the most demanding thing you hear all week. I can’t see how it would be otherwise, unless I make easy what the apostles couldn’t.

John Piper, “When Not to Believe an Angel,” February 6, 1983:
O, how we need to meditate on the horror of rejecting the gospel. Satan does his best with television and radio to create in us a mind that is so trivial and banal and petty and earthly that we find ourselves incapable of feeling what terrifying truth is in this word anathema. O, how we need to guard ourselves from the barrage of eternity-denying entertainment. We need to cultivate a pure and childlike imagination that hears a word like anathema the way a child hears his first peal of thunder, or feels his first earthquake, or suffers his first storm at sea. The Bible does not reveal to us the eternal curse of God that we may yawn and turn the page. The wrath of God is revealed to shake unbelievers out of their stupor, and to take the swagger out of the Christian’s walk and the cocky twang out of his voice. Don’t skim over verses 8 and 9 quickly. There is much humbling and sobering and sanctifying to be had here. Ponder these things in quietness.

John Piper, “Blessed Are the Merciful,” February 23, 1986:
When Jesus says, “Don’t neglect the weightier matters of the law,” he means, “Beware of going through the day doing only trivial things, thinking only trivial thoughts, feeling only trivial feelings. The Lord wants us to pinch ourselves again and again lest we be found swooning in front of the television, making no plans for the weighty matter of mercy.

John Piper, “Preaching as Worship: Meditations on Expository Exultation,” Trinity Journal 16 (1995): 44:
Turn off the television.
It is not necessary for relevance. And it is a deadly place to rest the mind. Its pervasive banality, sexual innuendo, and God-ignoring values have no ennobling effects on the preacher’s soul. It kills the spirit. It drives God away. It quenches prayer. It blanks out the Bible. It cheapens the soul. It destroys spiritual power. It defiles almost everything. I have taught and preached for twenty years now and never owned a television. It is unnecessary for most of you, and it is spiritually deadly for all of you.

John Piper, “By This Time You Ought to be Teachers,” September 29, 1996:
The startling truth is that, if you stumble over Melchizedek, it may be because you watch questionable TV programs. If you stumble over the doctrine of election, it may be because you still use some shady business practices. If you stumble over the God-centered work of Christ in the cross, it may be because you love money and spend too much and give too little. The pathway to maturity and to solid Biblical food is not first becoming an intelligent person, but becoming an obedient person. What you do with alcohol and sex and money and leisure and food and computer have more to do with your capacity for solid food than with where you go to school or what books you read.

John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 68:
There is so much soul-refreshing, heart-deepening, mind-enlarging truth to be had from great books! Your people will know if you are walking with the giants (as Warren Wiersbe says) or watching television.

John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 120:
Television, the Great Life-Waster
Television is one of the greatest life-wasters of the modern age. And, of course, the Internet is running to catch up, and may have caught up. You can be more selective on the Internet, but you can also select worse things with only the Judge of the universe watching. TV still reigns as the great life-waster. The main problem with TV is not how much smut is available, though that is a problem. Just the ads are enough to sow fertile seeds of greed and lust, no matter what program you’re watching. The greater problem is banality. A mind fed daily on TV diminishes. Your mind was made to know and love God. Its facility for this great calling is ruined by excessive TV. The content is so trivial and so shallow that the capacity of the mind to think worthy thoughts withers, and the capacity of the heart to feel deep emotions shrivels. . . .

John Piper, Pierced by the Word: Thirty-One Meditations for Your Soul (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2003), 77–79:
You Have One Precious Life: Is TV Too Big a Part of It?
IF ALL OTHER VARIABLES ARE EQUAL, YOUR CAPACITY TO know God deeply will probably diminish in direct proportion to how much television you watch. There are several reasons for this. One is that television reflects American culture at its most trivial. And a steady diet of triviality shrinks the soul. You get used to it. It starts to seem normal. Silly becomes funny. And funny becomes pleasing. And pleasing becomes soul-satisfaction. And in the end the soul that is made for God has shrunk to fit snugly around triteness.

This may be unnoticed, because if all you’ve known is American culture, you can’t tell there is anything wrong. If you have only read comic books, it won’t be strange that there are no novels in your house. If you live where there are no seasons, you won’t miss the colors of fall. If you watch fifty TV ads each night, you may forget there is such a thing as wisdom. TV is mostly trivial. It seldom inspires great thoughts or great feelings with glimpses of great Truth. God is the great, absolute, all-shaping Reality. If He gets any air time, He is treated as an opinion. There is no reverence. No trembling. God and all that He thinks about the world is missing. Cut loose from God, everything goes down.

Just think how new TV is. In the 2000 years since Christ, TV has shaped only the last 2.5 percent of that history. For 97.5 percent of the time since Jesus, there was no TV. And for 95 percent of this time there was no radio. It arrived on the scene in the early 1900s. So for 1900 years of Christian history, people spent their leisure time doing other things. We wonder, what could they possibly have done? They may have read more. Or discussed things more. For certain they were not bombarded with soul-shrinking, round-the-clock trivialities.

Do you ever ask, “What could I accomplish that is truly worthwhile if I did not watch TV?” You see, it isn’t just what TV does to us with its rivers of emptiness; it is also what TV keeps us from doing. Why not try something? Make a list of what you might accomplish if you took the time you spend watching TV and devoted it to something else. For example:

You might be inspired to some great venture by learning about the life of a noble saint like Amy Carmichael and how she found courage to go alone to serve the children of India. Where do such radical dreams come from? Not from watching TV. Open your soul to be blown away by some unspeakable life of dedication to a great cause.

You might be inspired by a biography of a businessman or doctor or nurse to work hard for the skills to bless others with the excellence of your profession devoted to a higher end than anything you will see commended on TV, which never includes Jesus Christ.

You might memorize the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, and penetrate to the depths of his vision of God, and discover the precious power of memorized Scripture in your life and ministry to others. No one could estimate the power that would come to a church if we all turned the TV off for one month and devoted that same amount of time to memorizing Scripture.
You might write a simple poem or a letter to a parent or a child or a friend or a colleague expressing deep gratitude for their life or a longing for their soul.

You might make a cake or a casserole for new neighbors and take it to them with a smile and an invitation to visit some time and get to know each other.

So there are good reasons to try a TV fast. Or to simply wean yourself off of it entirely. We have not owned a TV for thirty-four years of marriage except for three years in Germany when we used it for language learning. There is no inherent virtue in this. I only mention it to prove that you can raise five culturally sensitive and Biblically informed children without it. They never complained about it. In fact they often wondered out loud how people found the time to watch as much as they do.

Justin Taylor, “Conversations with the Contributors,” in The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World (ed. John Piper and Justin Taylor; Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 152–54:
Justin Taylor:
What about your approaches to pop culture? Pastor Mark [Driscoll], you go to movies. You watch TV. You listen to modern music and go to comedy shows. Pastor John-you don’t! So John, how do you stay relevant by mainly avoiding pop culture? . . .
John Piper:
My short answer is that I think I’m weak and therefore would probably become a carnal person if I plunged more deeply into movies than I do. That’s the first answer: Piper’s weak; he has to steer clear of certain kinds of things in order to maintain his level of intensity.
The second answer is that I think there are common denominators in human beings that are so massive that one can get a lot of mileage out of feeling them very strongly. For example, take the fact that everybody’s going to die. You should try feeling that sometime. Just feel it. Everybody’s going to die. And everybody loves authenticity. Try to feel that and go with that. People generally like to be held in suspense and then have something solved. I read the newspaper, listen to a little bit of NPR, and look at advertisers. I think they’re the ones who study human beings, so I just try to read off what are they doing there. But mainly I’m trying to understand how John Piper ticks. I go deep with my own heart and my own struggles and my own fears and guilt and pride and then figure out how to work on that, and then from the Bible I tell others how they can work on that—and there’s enough connection to be of some use.

John Piper, “Why I Don’t Have a Television and Rarely Go to Movies,” June 25, 2009:
I think relevance in preaching hangs very little on watching movies, and I think that much exposure to sensuality, banality, and God-absent entertainment does more to deaden our capacities for joy in Jesus than it does to make us spiritually powerful in the lives of the living dead. Sources of spiritual power—which are what we desperately need—are not in the cinema. You will not want your biographer to write: Prick him and he bleeds movies. . . .
But leave sex aside (as if that were possible for fifteen minutes on TV). It’s the unremitting triviality that makes television so deadly. What we desperately need is help to enlarge our capacities to be moved by the immeasurable glories of Christ. Television takes us almost constantly in the opposite direction, lowering, shrinking, and deadening our capacities for worshiping Christ.

One more smaller concern with TV (besides its addictive tendencies, trivialization of life, and deadening effects): It takes time. I have so many things I want to accomplish in this one short life. Don’t waste your life is not a catchphrase for me; it’s a cliff I walk beside every day with trembling.

TV consumes more and more time for those who get used to watching it. You start to feel like it belongs. You wonder how you could get along without it. I am jealous for my evenings. There are so many things in life I want to accomplish. I simply could not do what I do if I watched television. So we have never had a TV in 40 years of marriage (except in Germany, to help learn the language). I don’t regret it.

John Piper, tweet on November 25, 2011:
Watching TV in 1986 I wrote in my journal: No good shows. Just cute evil and clean godlessness. I assume it hasn’t improved.


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