Five years without TV: Why I joined a post-legalist cult

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Today, it’s trendy to denounce consumerism and individualism. But do we know what they are? Consume This! looks for a new way to be Anabaptist in the 21st century by highlighting habits taken for granted. How are thought, faith, and action connected?—Eds.

In The Year of Living Biblically, journalist A. J. Jacobs set out to live according to all the commandments of the old and new testaments in their most literal form – in Manhattan no less. That meant growing a huge beard, not mixing fabrics in his clothes, stoning adulterers, not sitting on the same seat as menstruating women (a difficult task, he says, on the NY subway), and treating his slaves well – or in his case, unpaid interns.

You can’t help but laugh when he throws small stones at suspected sinners, offends would-be friends by avoiding lies, and joins up with a whole underworld of literalist groups – from the ultra-Orthodox, to Jerry Falwell, to snakehandlers. Nevertheless, towards the end of his journey, Jacobs finds that he has a “new appreciation for the sacred.”

Jacobs is an agnostic Jew, who says he’s Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant.

For a descendant of puritanical Mennonites who supposedly adhered to “what’s in the Bible,” I viewed Jacobs’ stunt as a moment to take stock not only of the follies of literalism, but just how non-legalistic we’ve become. For the last five years I’ve been part of similar cult-like practices – the cult of not watching TV. Though I can hum the theme songs of MASH, the Wonder Years, and the A-Team (an especially Anabaptist show, since no one was ever hurt by violent force), I have absolutely no desire to watch TV.

To the urban MB Christian, I’m a kind of cultural outcast, though the shunning this time isn’t a hard-and-fast legalism. It comes in the form of disinterest when the subject comes up. Something subtle has happened in our homes over the last 50 years. I call it post-legalism.

Post-legalism is the ability to rationalize any behaviour as either useful or pleasurable based on the common sense of our times. With urbanization and democracy, the heavyhanded moral authority of our once tight-knit communities has dissolved and converted itself into another law – the tyranny of the majority. The modern democratic Christian swims upstream through the constant barrage of mass opinion. Make an appeal to higher standards in morality or culture, and postlegalism is there, in the friendly form of family and neighbours.

Sure, TV isn’t all bad. So why did I give it up? Because I don’t want to be sunk. Sunk in a world that’s amusing itself to death, swayed by irrelevant curiosities. There’s even a faint murmur in my heart – I desire to be holy. My chances of looking at a woman lustfully and committing adultery in my heart (Matthew 5:28) are increased exponentially with TV. Subjecting myself to hours of commercials and cortex-throbbing music makes living according to Ephesians 5:3 unthinkable – “among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for the Lord’s people.”

Malcolm Muggeridge, the famous broadcaster and journalist of the 1970s, concluded at the end of his career that the effect of the media at all levels is to draw people away from reality, “which means away from Christ and into fantasy.” Not having a TV for five years has given me fresh eyes to see. I love the world less (1 John 2:15–17) and God’s creation more.

Skeptical of TV’s virtues, I went back and read the 1958 Canadian MB conference resolution: “We are convinced that under the present conditions and with today’s programs the influence of television is detrimental and of a destructive nature in our homes and so affects our churches. For this reason we cannot but condemn the installation of television in our homes.”

They go on to enumerate the ways in which TV is spiritually destructive – it callouses habits and morals, creates a completely false conception of life and its working, encourages the pursuit of celebrity, poisons children, makes spiritual life shallower, draws you away from times of study and worship, and tries to convince you that marital unfaithfulness is OK. Strangely, I can’t say I disagree with my legalist forebears.

The irony of the 1958 resolution is trenchant – a year later, it seems everyone and their dog went out to buy one. One man remembers his dad hiding the TV in the closet every time guests came over. Now with post-legalism, it’s embarrassing not to bring it out. Post-legalism raises the question whether any of our resolutions are binding, since technically, we’re still not supposed to have TVs.

What strikes me most is the ambivalence today of the older generation. They’ve softened up and accepted the adage – “With every technology come new responsibilities.” But why bother with more responsibility, I ask? Invention is also the mother of necessity. Spiritual necessity.

Join the cult of not watching TV today. It’s free.

Nicholas Fast is an alumnus of Providence College and a freelance writer.

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