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Volume 7, Issue 3: Disputatio

Entertaining Liberty

Douglas Wilson and Charles Church

Modern culture is deeply wedded to the notion that the chief end of man is entertainment. In the powerful hands of cinema and especially television, the modern obsession with entertainment has permeated all levels of life, often flaunting its idolatrous values without shame. In the relentless spiritual battle between Christian and non-Christian culture, what is the biblical response to television culture? In repudiating idolatry, where are the divine lines drawn? Do biblical principles call for a total prohibition against modern media, especially television? Or is such a response just more dangerous, fundamentalist legalism? Is the problem the content or the medium itself? How can we fight idolatry without sacrificing Christian liberty? These questions and others form the subject of the following interchange between the editor of Credenda/Agenda , Douglas Wilson, and Charles Church. Apart from being a husband, father of six, private businessman, and founder of Mt. Carmel Publications, Charles Church is the author of the book The Devil's Pulpit: A Biblical and Historical Evaluation of Television and Its Patrons (Porter, OK: Mt. Carmel Publ., 1994 [(918)483-2901]) in which he calls for a prohibition of television. In that book he notes that our age "is not likely to view any prohibition of the television as much more than the words of a barbarian. . . . [T]he book will seem altogether outrageous to the modern American for . . . the inexcusable rashness of failing to unconditionally flatter all the established institutions of ignorance and idolatry in our day."

DW: In a licentious age, Christians frequently fall into the trap of confusing things which are malum in se evil in themselvesand other things which are not. Any activity which is evil by its very nature is always identified as such, by name, in Scripture. An example of this is the prohibition of stealing. But other activities require a context before we can evaluate them biblically e.g., cinema, theatre, television. Before we can say whether such activity is sinful, we have to know a host of additional factorslike why, how long, what, when, etc. If we rush to judgment, we may soon find ourselves defining sin according to our own lights .

CC: Do you sincerely suppose the apostles should have forbidden television "by name?" Stealing is evil in itself. But is gouging stealing? If it is, and always is, then gouging is "evil in itself," though it is not named in Scripture, ad infinitum. Thus the claim that everything "evil in itself" is named in Scripture is, frankly, absurd. John Witherspoon said that your method "is to prescribe to the Holy Ghost, and to require that the Scripture should not only forbid sin, but every form in which the restless and changeable dispositions of men shall think fit to be guilty of it, and every name by which they shall think proper to call it."
DW: Of course, stealing bicycles does not have to be mentioned by name. The same goes for cars and stereos, ad infinitum. But the thing common to them stealing would have to be identified as sin by Scripture before we could call it sin. So the Scriptures do not need to name television. But that which makes television-watching a universal sin does have to be named in Scripture. The "restless and changeable dispositions of men" do not limit themselves to new names for old sins; those dispositions may also trouble the church with rules that bind the consciences of the saints. The Westminster divines recognized a fence here"God alone is the lord of the conscience. . ."
CC: That is why they forbade the theatre. First, the question isn't what is stolen, but if gouging is stealing. But no matter: you have expressly admitted that if practices unnamed in Scripture may be associated with a named sin, then it is thus proved to be "evil in itself," and thus confess my own thesis, and deny your own. Second, you said practices must be "named" in Scripture before we may count them sin. Now you say they don't need to be named. By what logic did you reach that conclusion? Thirdly, the Westminster Confession repudiates your view (I:6). Lastly, the consciences of saints are troubled by sin, not by those faithful to reprove it.
DW: It is not enough to associate a named sin with some modern activity. Rather, we must show a necessary association between the two. For example, there is an association between drunkenness and the consumption of alcohol. There is not a necessary association between them. This remains true even if a majority abuse God's gift of beer through drunkenness. In order to condemn biblically, we need to name the sin which is named in Scripture, and then show by good and necessary consequence how this sin is necessarily and always connected to cinema, television, theater, etc. This is because those who reprove sin should always do so with an open Bible, opened to a relevant passage.
CC: You agree with me again: the necessary association of a practice with that which is condemned as sin in Scripture, proves it to be malum in se, though it is not named in Scripture itself. First you said television cannot be malum in se because it is not named in Scripture. Now you say it can be malum in se, so long as it is necessarily associated with what the Bible condemns as sin. But that is my exact position, and an explicit repudiation of your original thesis. If you are going to thus abandon your original thesis as untenable, then acknowledge it and assert another which I disagree with and hence can argue against.
DW: The careful reader can retrace our steps and probably ought to. I have not argued that television cannot be sin because it is not named in Scripture. I have stated that if it is sin, then it must be necessarily connected to a sin named in Scripture and that this necessary connection must be demonstrated. Since we agree on the principle, all that remains is for you to name the sin which Scripture does mention i.e., the sin which is always and necessarily associated with television, cinema, etc. Your reproof of this mystery sin is clear. What is not clear is your scriptural foundation. Let's turn to the Scriptureto the law and testimony.
CC: You again propose the possibility that practices unnamed in Scripture can be proved to be "always and necessarily" a sin. But if "always and necessarily" a sin, then "evil in itself." This contradicts your outlandish claim that, "Any activity which is evil by its very nature is always identified as such, by name, in Scripture." "Careful readers." You also say, "I have not argued that television cannot be sin because it is not named in Scripture," as though that were the question. Whether it can be sin in itself was the question, which you plainly denied, but here affirm, again. But the sin necessarily associated with television is the sin of not loving God (Deut. 6:5).
DW: So, watching Robin MacNeil on the tube tell us about an earthquake somewhere is the sin of not loving God? If you say this is ridiculous and that of course such an isolated action is not sin, then my initial point standsin determining such things context matters. There is a moral difference between mindlessly watching humanistic sitcoms for entertainment and intelligently watching a debate on Firing Line. But if you say that such an action is the sin of not loving God, I would say our obligation to love God can also be set aside through making up rules. "And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Mark 7:7).
CC: Suppose there were a book that vilified the character of your wife. Would it be read nightly in your home, or defended in Credenda/Agenda? Would you not destroy it; yea, even though it sported a quote from John Owen, or even Robin MacNeil? In what light would your wife regard the reasoning that your practice was not "necessarily connected" to the sin of infidelity, because you only recommended this book for John and Robin's sake? If this would satisfy your wife, you have an unfortunate marriage. If your god, you are an idolater. You are "walking in your own lights," not that of God's love, thus voiding His commandments with blinded human tradition (Lk 11:42).
DW: Okay. Suppose there were a book that vilified the character of my wife. Suppose I then imagined that my consequent duty was to swear off all booksanything that combined ink and paper. I have a set of bookschannel 49 is Darwin's Origin and channel 18 is Augustine's City of God. Is Augustine out because of Darwin's foolishness? On your reasoning, why is the apostle Paul not an idolater for being able to quote from the play Agamemnon? Suppose I read the book that vilified my wife in order to prepare for the lawsuit I was bringing against the authorI read Darwin for the purpose of attacking his idolatry? My first point stands context matters.
CC: All attempted resurrections of your "first point" are referred to its grave in my fourth paragraph. And you utterly misconstrued my similitudethe "book" was network/cable television. Therefore: (a) No other book was reprobated. Other "books," such as video machines may have legitimate purposesreviewing lawsuit evidence perhaps; (b) Augustine's and Darwin's writings would be chapters, not separate books; and yes, if they were under one cover with a thousand other blasphemies (the only parallel to television) true love would make saints discard it; (c) Paul never watched television. Now tell us. Would your wife grudge your nightly reading of this book (though only Robin's quote) or of defending it in "Disputatio"? Please answer.
DW: When you say perhaps, you grant that context matters. And I did not misconstrue your similitudeI showed how arbitrary it was. It is sin to read Augustine between the covers of the same book with Darwin, but if he is in a separate book he is clean. Unanswered is the problem of books in a set and whether or not we can keep Augustine on the same shelf with infidels. Your inability to make necessary distinctions provides yet another excuse for those worldly Christians who really do love television more than God. And before my wife would object, she should want to know the answers to my earlier questionsshe knows that context matters.
CC: What? Your wife wouldn't object to your defending this book in a Disputatio, until I proved that an "Augustine-television" doesn't exist? Hmmm. . . . Reread point (b). We've both admitted that "context" can establish something as "evil in itself," so what's your point? You prevaricate by restaging previously defeated objections, only because my argument stopped your mouth. If your objections are valid, why not just say, "My wife wouldn't care"? If valid, this answer is obviated, not obscured. But you know this answer would appear preposterous, and so all your specious objections with it; so you say, with the Pharisees, "I cannot tell." Your silence only proves that either option is fatal. This will be evident to thinking men.
DW: I always thought there was a difference between "defending a book" and "defending reading a book." Somehow, my doing the latter under certain circumstances has been changed, through some arcane process, into the former. For example, to criticize a legalist is not the same thing as criticizing reading a legalist. I certainly do the former in this discussion, but I am far from the latterI want people to read your arguments. Only by doing so will they be enabled to see the extent of your rebellion against the constraints of Scripture. Obedience to God is never easy, but it has always been hardest for the religious. Christ is gracious and frees us from man's arbitrary laws.
CC: So you " want people to read" this book about your wife, so they'll perceive her virtues, right? The Ephesians, doubtless, should have studied, rather than burned, their witchcraft books so they could refute witches with heady success, when they found they couldn't prevail with the word of God, because of their sin. Thus, you confess your impotent "Christianity." Consider another "legalist""If you had the love of God, you would no more go to a play than you would run your head into a furnace." (Whitefield). Ditto the church throughout history. Who are you? Were they without light? Scripture isn't silent; men are deaf. Scripture gives light, but only the grace of God can give sight.
DW: I have asked for Scripture, and you have given me the fathersand a nonrepresentative sampling of them. True, Whitefield and Witherspoon opposed the stage, but their views concerning Crossfire are not in print. Calvin's colleague Bucer supported a Christian conquest of the stage. Your scriptural argumentation consists of saying that people who watch any kind of television are guilty of not loving God (Dt. 6:5)the debating equivalent of shooting in the air. Why not say that wearing any blue T-shirt is the sin of not loving God? If asked why , the innovative ethicist can reply that many such shirts have had bad words printed on them. "Wisdom is justified by her children" (Matt. 11:19).

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