Volume 7, Issue 3: Disputatio
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
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
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"?
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
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).