When is a TV Show Immoral?

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
20th February 2009

Tagged: censorship culture media

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When is a TV show immoral?

It is hard to watch TV without, gratuitous violence, sexual exhibitionism, vulgarity of speech, dehumanising of the body in grotesque forensic murder investigations and comedians who rarely rise above toilet humour. There seems little point complaining about all this because it only gives free publicity to unworthy shows.

The alternatives are to watch the news and the sports shows. But the news is distorted by the need to have visuals (e.g. they love bush fire season, floods and train wrecks) and by the agenda of politically motivated journalists. And the sports shows appear dominated by gambling, the abuse of alcohol and overpaid professional celebrity athletes.

The solution that is given to us is: “If you do not like it then switch it off. Nobody forces you to watch it and it is not costing you anything.” It is true that we do not have to watch it but it is not true that it costs us nothing. Taxpayers pay for the ABC and the free-enterprise taxation system called advertising pays for the commercial stations. All products we buy are more expensive because of TV. Whether or not you ever watch it—you are paying for TV.

As a society we do not want censorship. Censorship is always dangerous—as the censor's power grows, truth is often his victim. Instead our society has chosen individualism and “community standards” as the basis of public entertainment. This assumes that what is watched does not affect community standards. It opens the door for the steady descent of the community into accepting decadence. So far only child pornography has been left as a taboo.

Of recent times I have purchased and watched DVDs of TV series. This means I can see what I want to, when I want to, without the intrusion of commercials (that for some reason are always louder than the show they interrupt). It means that I can better monitor what fills my mind. God, in Philippians 4:8, commands us to fill our minds with whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Given the cost of DVDs one wonders whether in the future parish churches will develop community libraries to pool our resources of quality viewing.

Since Christmas I have watched the three series of a British show called Doc Martin. It is a quirky British comedy with a cast of dysfunctional people. The hero is a London surgeon who vomits at the sight of blood and so has taken an appointment as a GP in a Cornish fishing village. It is the story of a man unable to express any emotional connection with people trying to do a job based on interpersonal relationships. The Cornish villagers are a collection of odd and eccentric characters whose fundamental humanity keeps showing through.

It is a show with very little swearing or violence, explicit sexuality or indecency. It is a subtle and quite funny interplay between a set of likeable and yet quite peculiar people. It is a moralistic show that reflects and promotes much of the immorality of our modern society while raising the larger issues of our humanity. Is it then an immoral show?

A loveable but adulterous aunt is considered too immoral a woman to care for her nephew. But the parents who take such objection to her adultery are unloving people who are keen to dump their unwanted child on somebody else. Their hypocrisy is demonstrated in their own later adulteries. The moral that is taught is hypocrisy trumps adultery. But does it?

The hero is moral because he would not sleep around but waits till he in engaged before entering into a sexual relationship. But it is assumed that once engaged, sleeping together is normal. This maybe the norm of our society today—but how much is the media responsible for making it the norm? And why make behaviour that is known to cause harm to people the acceptable unquestioned behaviour of “the moral man”?

Every explicit religious or Christian reference in the show is a put down, made to appear silly or rejected outright. The local vicar only appears in the last show and he is an alcoholic madman just as the organist is the lovesick pharmacist. This is not as bad as it all sounds given that everybody else in the village is weird in one way or another! (It is a wonder that the Cornish have not raised questions about ethnic vilification.)

Yet the show is intensely moral. It is not about Christian morality—which it rejects, but about the secularist morality of humanity. It is about the intuitive morality that Jesus appeals to when he challenges the Pharisees. They would strain out gnats while swallowing camels for they were concerned about tithing herbs but ignored justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matt 23:23f). It was the religious people who were worried about work on the Sabbath while ignoring the need to do good by healing (e.g. Luke 13:10f).

But just as the Christian viewer despairs of the anti-Christian bias, that replaces the Christian moral reasoning with the world's intuitionism, there is a sudden lurch towards Christianity. For another peculiar vicar appears. This one poses the question to our woebegone hero—is marriage about your bride making you happy or about you making her happy? Suddenly marriage is not about sex and romance but relationship and other person centredness—and it is this very odd Christian who raises the bar of moral discourse.

So when is a TV show immoral?

The scripture says "To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; both their minds and their consciences are defiled” (Titus 2:15). It is our task by the renewing of the Holy Spirit to fill our minds with that which is pure—so that we will know what is the good and perfect will of God. By so doing we will be able to see the putrid garbage of immoral decadence for what it is, and engage in the morally confusing world in which we live as we rejoice in those things that will bring glory to our Saviour.