Australian evangelist John Smith asks how do we find true wisdom in the Tele Age.

John Smith
John Smith

Recently I spent some time with Tony Campolo at Eastern College in Pennsylvania. In one sociology class he pointed out to his students that they were from a television-watching generation rather than a reading one.

Even the top selling American newspaper, USA Today, has gained its sales by adopting a television-style format, based on the belief that the way to entertain people is not to have them concentrate on anything for more than seven minutes. Now, one of the things about television, Tony pointed out, is that it pretends to build knowledge and wisdom. He set out to test this.

He asked the students if they remembered when the American hostages were taken captive by Iran. They did. "Every night for 12 months," he went on, "American television covered what was happening to the guys taken captive in Iran. Now, if news is really information that means that after 12 months you should be fairly wise about Iran. So I'm going to ask you some simple questions."

One of those questions was: How did the Shah of Iran get into power? Not one person in that entire class had a clue. Being cheeky, I called out: "CIA." "There you are," Tony said. "A bloke has to come all the way from Australia to tell you about the activities of the CIA. Yet you were watching television about Iran every night for 12 months!"

What television gave about Iran wasn't information, argued Tony, but drama. "It didn't teach you about Iranians. It didn't tell you about their social, political, economic problems. It didn't tell you why there was a backlash against America.

"What it showed were fanatics with their fists in the air, screaming tyrants and maybe a skinny-looking American in some prison. But it didn't fill in any detail at all. It was entertainment."

Tony contrasted this with 100 years ago. Then, political contenders would debate the philosophies behind their parties for five hours straight. They would leave no stone unturned in seeking out the meaning of things. It is obvious that the success of presidential elections can depend on the 'right image' being projected on television than really what's being said by the candidates. As an older Christian, I struggle with how few younger Christians are prepared to put in work in terms of reading. You see the same unwillingness in the television evangelism phenomenon.

This isn't simply a religious aberration but a sociological one. One of the reasons tele-evangelists operate as they do is because we now have a generation of people who simply aren't interested in anything unless it's dramatic enough to go on television. The obsession with television even extends to the poverty-stricken Two-thirds World. Ten years ago in Bangkok, in the midst of fetid swamps, I saw up to 30 or 40 people living under just a few sheets of tin, watching a colour TV.

In most societies now, poor people are willing to have their children suffer from malnutrition rather than be without a television set. Television is an appallingly destructive influence on true wisdom and understanding because it is so very passive. It's not simply that you get bad ideas from television, but that it produces passivity, a lack of thoughtfulness and application.

Where is knowledge and wisdom in the television age? Plainly, if we are truly to achieve these, we must first evaluate our sources of information. Are we uninformed, simplistic, irrelevant? Proverbs 2:2-6 states: "Listen to what is wise and try to understand it. Yes, beg for knowledge; plead for insight. Look for what it means to fear the Lord and you will understand about God. It is the Lord who gives wisdom; from Him come knowledge and understanding" (GNB).

The call to attain knowledge and wisdom is part of our call to honour Christ, to live for Him and to speak and act on His behalf and in His strength. CR

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