The Tube

I’m sitting in a medical facility waiting room.  I’m not afraid of dying, but medical stuff terrifies me.  To calm me down, inane daytime television is on.  I may be one of the very few who brings a book to such places, but I can’t read with the insipid chatter going on.  This time, since I’m waiting for someone else, I brought my laptop.  Nevertheless, I can’t help but think of Ray Bradbury at times like this.  Many people think Fahrenheit 451 is about burning books.  Bradbury did write about burning books in his short stories, and it does happen in Fahrenheit 451, but that’s not what the book is about.  In interviews he said that he intended, as is pretty obvious from a straightforward reading of the text, to warn about the invasive nature of television.  It was, metaphorically, burning books.

Waiting rooms always bring that to mind.  Not only that, but it’s Valentine’s Day and all the talk shows are going on about how it’s “the day of love” (every day should be).  It’s not a day off work; I had to cash in a sick day to be here.  The word “holiday” keeps cropping up on the television, to which I have my back. Ever since leaving Nashotah House I haven’t watched television.  On our recent move to Pennsylvania our cable company didn’t offer a non-television option.  It was unthinkable.  We pay for something we don’t use.  Burning books.  I don’t have time for television.  I see shows that have proven their worth via DVD well after they’re off the air.  And that only when I can read or write no more in a day.  I guess I’m a Bradbury disciple.

Like any disciple, I have changed certain teachings of my leader.  Bradburyism is a religion objecting to ubiquitous television.  At the same time, I grew up watching the tube, and to this day I’ll stop just about anything to watch DVDs of The Twilight Zone.  Rod Serling, however, selected stories and teleplays that were well written.  This was a literate show.  Besides, my daily life often feels like the Twilight Zone.  Like Valentine’s Day in a waiting room.  The book beside me remains unopened.  It’s the same when I take the car to the garage, or go in for an oil change.  You can’t escape it, even though everyone else is paying attention to their phones.  How long until we learn to switch off?  Of course, medical waiting rooms are the places where I may need brainless distraction the most.

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

And Found

For a kid who grew up on a steady diet of television, I have to admit being out of practice.  A combination of Gilligan’s Island and Dark Shadows informed much of my young outlook.  Starting all the way back to our days in Edinburgh, my wife and I had stopped watching TV.  We were in our twenties then, and it was a matter of not being able to afford the luxury.  Back in the States, cathode-ray tubes were ubiquitous, but cable was expensive and my employers not generous.  We had a television but only watched very occasionally, and then only what fuzzy programs we could pick up on the aerial.  So it continued.  We’re now at the point of not having had television service for over half of our lives, and we understand from the younger generation that a good internet provider makes cable superfluous anyway.

This prologue is simply a way to introduce the fact that we have finally, after two or three years of watching (we still have little time for it), finished Lost.  Now, I don’t get out much, but I had heard people talking about it when it originally broadcast.  More importantly, I’d read about it in books published by university presses.   I knew going into it—spoiler alert for those even more behind the times than me!—that the castaways were in Purgatory.  That seems to have been the point all along, but when money keeps rolling in because the story is compelling, you don’t want to reveal your hand too quickly.  Last night we watched the final episode where what was suggested back at the beginning was made clear: the passengers of Oceanic flight 815 had died in the crash and were making up for past sins.

The role of Jack’s father (Christian Shephard) as leading the passengers to the light may have been a bit heavy-handed, but the church where they finally meet has the symbols of many world religions, conveying the message that there is more than a single path.  The truly surprising aspect of all this is how popular the series was.  There were religious overtones from the beginning, but since the series wasn’t preachy, viewers apparently didn’t mind.  Yes, as the star character’s surname indicates, people don’t mind being led.  In fact, the names of many of the characters are indicative of some of the paths up that mountain.  I have to wonder if those who vociferate loudly and longly about their religion being the only way might not learn a lesson from television.  Even if the suggestion only comes from someone who grew up watching Gilligan’s Island.

Ned Ludd and Company

I’m sure you’ve seen them too. Maybe in the movies, or on a newsreel, or maybe on a filmstrip in school. I’m referring to those scenes, usually in some foreign location, where bicycles, ox-carts, cars, buses, and pedestrians all crowd the same streets in a holy confusion of conflicting human intentions. Some can afford no transportation at all beyond their own feet. Others can own, and use, automobiles. On a scale like this I’d put myself around either the bicycle or ox-cart-driver level. I’m referring to technology, of course, and not actual transportation. At a recent family discussion I was left completely in the dust and exhaust fumes of new technology, trying hard to comprehend the words that other family members were speaking so fluently. Software names, devices that do things I can’t divine, and what is a dongle anyway? I’ve fallen behind not only on my movies and books, but on technology as well.

Tech develops quickly despite how slowly the rest of the world moves. Some members of my family don’t have computers or use the internet. Others have devices so advanced that they might’ve been salvaged from Roswell, and I wonder how all this happened when I thought I was paying attention. I’m a late joiner when it comes to tech. Although I’d been warned, I made it through my Master’s degree having barely touched a computer. When I took a decidedly low-tech job teaching at a medievalizing seminary, we couldn’t afford television service and we haven’t really watched TV since. Now I hear that you don’t need to pay for the privilege. If you have the time, black boxes, sticks, and even software downloadable on your phone can be your television. I look at our flatscreen at home and wonder where the on/off switch might be. How have I fallen so far behind the times?

The real problem, from the view on my bicycle seat, is that in order to maintain some level of expertise in my field of study, I have to dedicate quite a bit of time to it. While others tickle their devices on the bus, I’m reading my books made of genuine paper. I’m thinking such activities will make me better informed. Most of these books address the past. If I want to upgrade from to an ox-cart, however, I have to learn a whole new language and the nouns that accompany pieces of hardware that look an awful lot alike to these antique eyes. Perhaps we have become cyborgs after all, and I just missed the introductory session. I wouldn’t know; I’m too busy trying to keep this bicycle out of the path of that speeding lorry.

Night of the Museum

I admit to being a relative stranger to contemporary commercial television. We don’t have “triple play” at home, and since the internet provides more information and entertainment than one person can possibly handle in a lifetime, why pay extra? On a visit home, however, where internet does not yet exist, I fell to the default of watching TV. Scrolling through the cable channels available in this small town, I start to understand why we don’t pay extra for this at home. Much on offer appeals to the lowest common denominator, and although some educational programs exist, they have to put somebody in danger in some remote location in order to draw the viewers in. Then I stumbled on Mysteries at the Museum.

For those of us hopelessly enamored of the past, museums are an irresistible draw. I joined the program already in progress. It was talking about Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, through which we’d driven to get here. A resort town in the Poconos, I always think of Stroudsburg as a traffic bottleneck, particularly on a holiday weekend. Instead the story was telling of a haunted jail in which a prisoner had to be exorcised after it was found that he could make it rain inside his cell. Then the name of the Warrens was mentioned. The Bible used in the exorcism is from their occult museum (thus the tie to the title of the program). Ed and Lorraine Warren, as my regular readers know, get mentioned here every once in a while. Real life ghost hunters, they kept a museum of the occult in their Connecticut home. I’d missed the part of the program where they revealed the provenance of the artifact. Now things started to make sense. After the commercial break, however, the story shifted to a historic pair of hiking boots.

Image credit: Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Photo by Doug Kerr, Wikimedia Commons.

What was so striking about this brief segment of the show was not the implied credulousness of the investigation, but rather the certainty with which those interviewed declared this was a water demon case. Okay, so I’d just finished a seven-hour drive and I may not have been at my sharpest, but where did such certainty come from? Who were these experts telling us what had happened? I’ve read enough of the Warrens’ accounts to get a sense of how they worked, but not even the name of the priest was presented, let alone that of the demon. What we had, then, in this 15-minute segment, was a Bible and an anecdote of rain falling in a Stroudsburg jail. As I switched off the program to go to bed, I knew that I’d find the missing information on the internet. Even without triple play.

Undiscovered Countries

My friend Marvin always amuses me with what he’s got in his refrigerator. He likes to buy products that he considers appropriate to the season. On a recent visit he pulled out a bottle of Arrogant Bastard Ale. He said it was prophetic, in the sense that later this month we’d all be faced with someone fitting of such a moniker. I appreciate his sense of humor—I think we’re going to find that laughter, incredulous and otherwise, is going to help get us through to 2020. Once we reach that mythical date when there will be cities under the sea (unless my childhood cartoon watching has steered me wrong yet again) crewing aquagum all the way, we will have to begin undoing the damage that our government is planning even now. Of course, we were supposed to have a moonbase in 1999, and that show wasn’t even animated. Television produces the biggest liars of all, I guess.

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January always makes me think of Janus, the two-faced god. Looking forward and looking back. Even Janus seems to have taken on new meaning this year. That’s the thing about symbols—you can’t pin them down to one thing. One of the benefits to studying religion is that you get to feel comfortable around symbols. There may be no real symbology department at Harvard or anywhere else, but scholars of religion inhabit that territory. We skulk around the dark places that human beliefs may go, even allowing people to believe things that are factually false. Instead of getting too dark, maybe we can think of a joke. Two Corinthians walk into a bar…

The future is the famously undiscovered country. Maybe by the time we get there we will have realized just how silly the very idea of countries are. Seems now that citizens of foreign nations can legally take over the US election process, so why bother with borders at all? Put in another way, who wouldn’t welcome the spy who came in from the cold? It’s January out there and all people need shelter from the chill. I keep telling myself there’s no mess that’s so bad that it can’t be cleaned up. Or maybe I’m just thinking of Bruce Almighty again. My friend Marvin refuses to let reality get him down. When the days are short, it is especially important to be the light. Maybe he’s right.

Eye of Survivor

I don’t watch television. This isn’t any kind of moral stance. It’s financial. We can’t afford any “triple play” plans for the little free time we have for television. My wife and I both work long hours. We like to read, so we don’t have time for the tube. We buy the shows we want (it’s more honest than advertisements) and movies are a one-off thing. I sometimes lose track of culture, though. Maybe I’m two-faced. I grew up watching television. Then I grew up. But I still occasionally read about television. When we stay with relatives or in a hotel sometimes we imbibe. What I’ve noticed the past few times we’ve been away from home is reality television. Programs with more and more bizarre “real” situations fascinate those who don’t get out much on their own. One of the venerable ancestors of the genre is “Survivor.” I’ve never seen it but even I know what getting “voted off the island” means.

A recent piece in the New Jersey Star-Ledger celebrates a local young man on the show, now in its thirty-third season. This youth, who fancies himself, well, a survivor, notes that his role models are Jesus Christ and Ronald Reagan. I shudder for the future of our species. This young man says he likes to “screw with people’s heads and lie every chance I get.” Is that Reagan or Jesus? Or is it all just a game? The piece by Amy Kuperinksy goes on to quote the boy as saying his tactic for survival is to manipulate people, getting one over on others. But then he’ll use Christianity to build bonds. Machiavelli might have been a better choice of role model here, but then, who has time to read when “Survivor” is on TV?

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

This isn’t going to devolve into an old person’s jeremiad about the younger generation. Nor is it a castigation of television. (As Homer Simpsons reminds us, many of us were raised by television.) Rather, this is a question posed to our future selves. Perhaps we simply can’t see far enough ahead to get an idea of the consequences of our actions, but my question is what values do we wish to see in our society? Rugged individualism may have worked in the early days, but it led to genocide. Have we gotten over all that? Have we come to the point where we make stars out of those who don’t even pretend to be someone else any more? Maybe I’ve got that wrong—lying and manipulation may well be acting after all. Reagan was among that pantheon. I’m just not sure where Jesus Christ enters the picture.

Grim Where?

An inordinate amount of my childhood time was spent on television. While the device of the day had been around for a decade already, I was among those who grew up learning that watching was easier than reading. Like most children, I took the path of least resistance. I watched. As a teen, however, I rediscovered reading and from that time television began to take a back seat to books. When the great switch-over to digital occurred we didn’t get a conversion box, and we could never really afford cable for as little TV as we watch. When a program gets commended, or if nostalgia takes too great a toll, we can always purchase programs—the price of watching television without the commercials. So it was that I began watching Sleepy Hollow. Very quickly in the first season the monster of the week trope was established as the plot grew more and more tangled. The Bible was so prominent in that season that I wrote an academic paper on it.

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Over the past few months my wife and I have been working through season two. The DVD version was delayed and we only watch on weekends. Recently we finished the eighteen episodes of the second installment. Clearly the budget had improved over the first season, but the Bible, it was also clear, had diminished. Throughout the first season the driving motif of the story was that biblical “prophecy” (from the book of Revelation) was unfolding in Sleepy Hollow. This is what one scholar has termed a “local apocalypse.” Throughout season two, however, the end of days is shut down. Molech, its architect, is killed. The headless horseman is less Death than a jilted lover. The second horseman, War, loses his armor and dies.

Magic, however, along with special effects, take on an increased roles. Instead of turning to the Bible to solve problems, the most helpful book to have on hand is a grimoire. Sleepy Hollow, which is anything but what its name suggests, is full of monsters. Powerful magic is required to contain them, and, it seems, the Bible is no longer needed as a tool to take down evil. Perhaps there is a parable at work here. I was drawn into the series by its biblical literacy, as well as its literacy in general. More action has been introduced, and fewer books. It’s a pattern I’ve seen before. I suspect I’ll watch season three presently. When I do I’ll be casting a wistful eye on the stack of books I have yet to read, and I’ll be wondering if reading may not have become easier than watching.

Live Long and Prosper

He lived long and prospered. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but the icons of my youth have been dying. I have to confess to having sat far too many hours in front of the television as a young person, but fantasy of all sorts helped me cope with reality. Leonard Nimoy was a kind of father figure, in a way. Similar to Jonathan Frid, Russell Johnson, and Fred Rogers, all of whom stood in for an absentee parent and showed me different aspects of what it meant to be a man. Watching them die is like having someone tear pages from the book of my life—they made strong impressions, even though it was all make-believe. It’s difficult to say why Leonard Nimoy’s passing hit me so hard. I guess that the conceit of Spock living far longer than humans took hold at some level, and the rational, unflappable Vulcan seemed like a stable, if somewhat emotionally cold father to a child who was, in his own mind, conceived by the television itself.

I don’t really consider myself a nerd. I don’t have the tech to back me up. I’m more like a hermit who spends weekdays in Manhattan. Still, when anyone says Kirk or Picard, there is only one right answer. I watched Star Trek when it was new, still in original reruns. My mother decried it as “silly nonsense,” but along with other monster generation kids, I had my face pressed to the screen waiting to see what new and weird form of life might appear. It was the late sixties and all of this was fresh and untried. Star Trek became a vital part of my childhood. I think it might have been because this was a place with no limits. No limits beyond a shoestring budget, in any case. Space, as I was learning, was vast. There were endless possibilities out there.

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As an adult, the possibilities seem somewhat severely effaced. I’ve tried to be rational and moral and conscientious, but I haven’t really held down a regular career. I don’t watch television any more, and instead read books and ask probing questions. Why does Spock resonate so much with me? Was it because he was apparently immune to emotion? Or maybe he was simply able to rise above it, since everyone knows he is half-human and even Vulcans have emotions, albeit deeply buried. Those of us who followed the original crew through the movies suffered through his death before. And his resurrection. This time, though, it’s not Spock who’s gone. Leonard Nimoy is one of those few people who, in their own lifetime, become a symbol. And symbols, if they are of any use, live long and prosper well after their creators pass on.

Which Way to Eden?

We don’t have television service, and I haven’t watched TV regularly for about two decades. Over the years, however, we’ve collected the DVDs of the shows we miss, or which we wish we’d seen so that we missed them, and use those in lean times. Feeling a bit lonesome over the weekend I downed a few Twilight Zones followed by a Star Trek chaser. On a three year mission to explore strange new worlds, my wife and I have been working our way through Star Trek, the original series. We’ve finally reached the final chapters of the final frontier. I’ve noticed as we’ve gone through the episodes just how biblically literate the series is. Even Spock quotes the Bible from time to time. Over the weekend, to keep my mind off present reality, we ended up watching “The Way to Eden.” As much as I enjoyed Star Trek as a kid, when it was still new, the overtly ’60’s-themed episodes bother me as an adult. I’m very much still a hippie at heart, but I don’t like lingo, and the alien cool cats in their weird shorts and funky hairdos chanting “Herbert! Herbert!” still really bother me. Somewhat predictably the aliens hijack the Enterprise to reach their fabled paradise.

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Spoiler alert! For those of you who’ve been asleep since 1969, or have had no curiosity about the inspiration behind all those geniuses who’ve ushered in the technological revolution, I’m about to reveal some details. Eden is deadly. The landing party finds the short-pants wearing, funky guitar-strumming crooner dead under a fruit tree. “His name was Adam,” Spock laconically notes. The scene of Dr. Sevrin’s burned foot has stayed with me since childhood, and I still cringe when he leaps out of the shuttlecraft to take a bite of the poisoned fruit. It was only as an adult that I realized his name was reminiscent of Eve, indeed, a kind of blending of the words “sin” and “Eve.” In a kind of homoerotic death scene, the two male leaders end up under the tree together. Probably my overactive imagination.

Sometimes I ponder how much a biblically illiterate society misses. I frequently told my students that the Bible is foundational for our culture. Whether or not you’re aware of it, it is reinforced regularly in ways both ortho- and heterodox. Despite our very secular self-awareness, entire movies, such as The Book of Eli, can be based on the premise of biblical literacy. It is entirely possible to watch movies and television shows, and to read novels (graphic and literary) with enjoyment and not notice the allusions. The reasons they are there, however, is that despite the abuses of literalism, the Bible does have some profound things to say. It’s up there with Shakespeare and Chaucer. And even with Roddenberry and his host of staff writers. And I suspect that it still will be, in some form, in the twenty-third century.

Duck and Cover

Although it is the twenty-first century, I’ve never had cable television. From my youngest days watching muddy black-and-white that sometimes revolved in a dizzying array up and down the screen, I’ve always considered television as a basic, constitutional right. You shouldn’t have to pay for it. Not far from New York City, even before digital boxes were required, analogue signals were so weak and unreliable that I just gave up on television all together. Except when I stay in a hotel. After a day out doing whatever a family does when not at home, we’ll stumble into a hotel room and flip on the TV. I am amazed at home many uncouth, self-made individual reality shows are on. Last hotel stay, I watched a show about heavily bearded guys in the Yukon trying to catch some lampreys so the dogs wouldn’t starve that winter. When they were about to shoot a moose, I switched channels to watch a family of over-fed, heavily bearded bayou store owners making turtle soup and sipping it from the very shell of the martyred terrapin. Manhattan felt like a slap in the face Monday morning.

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All of this is preamble to the fact that I’ve never watched Duck Dynasty, a show featured in this week’s Time magazine. Another heavily bearded family (I’ve had a beard since 1988 and it hasn’t landed me a reality show yet; how about Unemployed PhDs in the Land of Prayer?), now rich off of making duck calls and a reality show, are apparently one of the highest rated programs on the binary airwaves. The article, by Belinda Luscombe, makes the point that the Robertson family is a born-again clan whose religion is almost as important to them as shooting ducks. She notes that patriarch Phil grew up in extremely humble circumstances, and that his faith in the Lord doesn’t waver. People across the country are fascinated. The ducks, I presume, are nervous.

I am fascinated by this national obsession with hard-time, simple folk. From Ice Road Truckers to Dirty Jobs (not done dirt cheap), this country of sitting-behind-a-desk-staring-at-a-numbing-computer-screen culture is hungry for the authentic. The lived existence of those who face difficult times and get out of them with homespun ingenuity. The duck hunters whistle all the way to the bank. I grew up in humble circumstances, and to my recollection it was anything but glamorous. I’ve never seen Duck Dynasty, but Luscombe’s article reveals the hidden demon in the room as Phil Robertson laments his children building bigger houses and moving away from the Sears and Roebuck-toilet paper ways of his youth. The internet doesn’t help you much when you’re in the outhouse and the last catalogue arrived a decade ago. I wonder what would happen if more of us led meaningful lives. Would we still need the television to remind us that out there, far from the urban centers that define our civilization, godly duck hunters haunt the swamps of Louisiana? Would we even need television at all?