With the onset of fall comes the arrival of new (and returning) TV series. In a way unique even in our 365-TV cycle, cultural conversations center around TV this time of year. That’s a good thing for Christians, according to the authors of a new book.
For Watching TV Religiously: Television and Theology in Dialogue, a theology professor and TV professional come together to build, essentially, a theology of TV. Kutter Callaway, who teaches at Fuller Seminary, and Dean Batali, a TV industry guy with years of experience (working on and writing most notably for That ’70s Show), take readers on a tour of TV history, along the way raising questions about American identity, the ethics of entertainment and how Christians fit in.
Around the time of the book’s release, we talked with Callaway and Batali about their book and what you might call the Christian case for watching TV. Trust us, after this fall’s lineup gets underway, you’ll thank them.
RELEVANT: This book is pretty big, and obviously there are endless shows out there. Boil it down for me: What’s your elevator pitch for your book?
Kutter Callaway: It’s almost impossible to understand America without American TV. And if that’s true, then Christians absolutely need to be in conversation with it both to understand what [TV] means but also how it might help shape our own theology, our understanding of who we are as people—and who God is and how God is present in the world.
RELEVANT: TV takes a lot of flack for being a waste of time, promoting laziness and on and on. What’s your response to that?
Callaway: There’s a couple of ways that you can respond to it. The first is a pretty false narrative that this medium is somehow inherently more passive and vegetative than others. I mean, all throughout human history, when it comes to art and art-making and storytelling, there really are those forms that are facile and mindless and don’t demand much of anybody. Because something is in print doesn’t make it better than something on a screen. It’s just a different medium of doing something mindless now.
That’s why we redefine TV in some ways, especially currently, where there’s more TV being made than ever. That means there’s more good TV being made right now, more than ever—and a lot of rubbish.
I teach a class at Fuller on theology and television, and the first time I taught it we, were giving the students early drafts of the manuscripts and having them respond. Students will say this: “Well, to be honest I kind of watch TV when I’m tired and at the end of the day.” And I want to say, from a Christian perspective, from a theological perspective, what’s wrong with that? There’s actually something good about playing, doing something that doesn’t have its own intrinsic production of something.
We’ve convinced ourselves that unless we’re producing something, whatever we’re involved in is worthless. Can’t I mindlessly veg-out on anything in a way that is relaxing and healthy? Now, there’s a way to do that that’s unhealthy and a way to do that that’s destructive.
Dean Batali: When Jesus said, “Go consider the lilies,” I don’t think He was saying go ahead and watch mindless television. But I do think He was saying it’s OK just to rest and be amused.
This is where Kutter and I had some good debates—some of which made it in the book. A lot of people are surprised to find out that I think a lot of TV is destructive in terms of the worldview it promotes in terms of the behavior. My biggest problem working on That ’70s Show wasn’t that it was a show about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It was that it was a show about people who were mean to each other. So I tried to make the characters less mean to each other when I was writing those episodes.
I’m looking for shows that promote values the Bible says are positive values, you know, kindness, grace, forgiveness, redemption, love, joy, peace and patience.
People say there’s nothing good on TV. Well, my argument is 90 percent of most art forms aren’t very good, and if you don’t believe me, listen to every symphony ever written or read every book ever written. But I do think there’s quality to be found. And as Kutter says, I think entertainment is a valuable thing, but I also think there are shows of depth to find.
RELEVANT: Particularly in literature, but increasingly in movies too, we have categories of “classics” and “trashy”—must-watch and B-level. In academic programs around the world, people mainly consume the same works while others are left to discretion or free time. Do we have similar categories when it comes to TV—are those even helpful categories?
Batali: I think they’re very helpful. One of the challenges you have today is that there’s so much TV, there’s too much. And there’s only so much time each of us have. You’re watching this show and a friend’s watching that show, while it used to be everybody was watching the same shows at the same time—40 or 50 million Americans would watch The Cosby Show every night it was on. If you go back to Sid Caesar and Milton Burrow, it was like half of America at a given moment watching I Love Lucy. Now, people who didn’t watch Breaking Bad when it was on air just watch it streaming so you can kind of catch up on most shows.
There are the shows I think are better today that very few people are watching: There was a show called Rectify on Sundance, and fewer than 500,000 people watched that when it was on. The best show on TV right now is The Americans, and only about 1 million people watch it. (The Americans is on FX. It’s an R-rated show, but it deals with real issues of truth about marriage about America and about Christianity.) Kutter and I agree one the greatest spiritual statements of TV of the past several years was a show called True Detective on HBO. (Again, it’s dark and R-rated. It’s got violence it’s got sexuality.)
Callaway: We started with the basically the top 100 shows according to the writers. So you’ve got things like Mash, you’ve got The Sopranos, Mary Tyler Moore, The West Wing. Those probably are what I would call the canon of well-regarded shows that were either aesthetically done great or they shifted the landscape of TV in some ways. Mad Men, for example, was a fairly well-watched or highly watched show, but not tons people watched because it’s AMC. But nothing happens today without that show happening. Same thing with The Sopranos. These shows were watershed moments for TV.
So [the canon of TV] is some combination of quality craftsmanship and these seminal moments.
RELEVANT: What are some things Christians should consider when watching a show (or considering a show to watch)?
Batali: I think that we should evaluate shows based on the world. Let me put it this way: I think it is helpful to evaluate shows based on the worldview they are presenting and whether or not they are elevating behavior that we agree with or don’t agree with. Just because shows might be elevating behavior we don’t agree with doesn’t mean we shouldn’t watch it.
For example, the show Seinfeld, which is I think is probably one of the top three greatest comedies ever done, is funny just in entertainment value. But we write about it in the book that if you watch the entire series and get all the way to the end, you realize that it’s a morality play about how people shouldn’t behave—much the same way Macbeth is a morality play about how people shouldn’t behave. So I don’t mean that I only watch shows that support my worldview. I respond to shows that tend to elevate the values I think are valuable. I tend to not watch anti-hero shows that just sort of elevate the anti-hero for no purpose.
What is the value I’m getting out of this from an entertainment point of view? I mean, it has to be good storytelling to begin with, but also I find myself latching onto these shows that have some through-line of characters trying to be better. That’s what I think Christians should be doing.
Callaway: I want to see the work and activity of the spirit of God rather broadly, that God is active and present in the world, whether or not the Church is there, whether or not Christians are there. If that’s the starting point, and that is the starting point for me with any sort of cultural engagement, we enter into the conversation confident rather than cautious. I go in expecting to encounter something of God moving in the world. Now, it’s often muddied and it’s often not clear.
But if I go in with that posture of saying, You know what, God’s up to something here. And the reason people tell stories, and the reason that people consume these stories is because they’re motivated by something. This would be Augustine’s “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you, God.” I want to demonstrate some sort of patience, some sort of ethical patience, theological patience and give a given story its due and allow it set the stage for conversation.
In the process, I go to what Dean’s saying: Are there moments along that process that you would realize that this show adds up something unkind, something uncharitable, something that moves me away from empathy? At that point, I think you say, What’s really the end game? Am I doing this just for mindless entertainment? Then maybe pick another show.
I had a coworker who loved South Park and so I actually first started watching South Park simply because I worked with this guy everyday at a coffee shop. I wanted something to talk to him about. A few years ago, I stopped because I don’t work with him anymore. For a while, watching that particular show was a point of connection, a point of conversation and so I went into it knowing this show is going to do something to me, that if I had no other reason may not be right, but in this case I wanted to take that risk because I cared about this human being.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.