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Speaker Says Influence of TV Makes Teaching Religion Difficult

August 17, 1996|JOHN DART

Though Americans grow up glued to the television screen, scholars in religious education generally have ignored how much TV's enormous influence hampers efforts to teach religious subjects to children or adults at churches, synagogues and religious schools, says an expert in the field.

"We have pretended that it's peripheral to our concerns because we are interested in the verbal and the literary"--lectures and books--said Charles F. Melchert, whose lecture opened a seminar of nearly 100 religious education specialists this week at the University of Judaism.

Examples of how television places conventional religious education at a disadvantage were cited in a talk and interview by Melchert, who teaches at Lancaster (Pa.) Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ:

* The virtual absence of religious themes and news on mainstream television "communicates to the public at large that religion is not really very important; or, if it is, it is more a negative influence."

* The high dramatic quality of television productions can make viewers, especially young people, feel that the less impressive presentations in religious classrooms or houses of worship indicate the subject is unimportant. "Often by comparison, everyday life seems boring," Melchert said.

* Television programs are, in essence, the vehicles for commercials that use whatever techniques work--reducing viewers' ability to think critically. "The careful consideration of truth is not one of the primary criteria," he said. "I don't think advertisers try to dupe the public, but they are willing to mislead people if it will produce the sales."

Religious educators are "just beginning to think about these issues," agreed Hanan Alexander, vice president for academic affairs at the University of Judaism and editor of the journal Religious Education.

"We [belong to] traditions of the Book, but now we live in a culture of the media image," said Alexander. "We need to learn how to transmit the cultures of the Book into the medium of the electronic image."

Melchert noted that a Los Angeles-based group, the Center for Media Literacy, has worked for years to teach religious and other organizations how to analyze what they encounter in modern media, especially television. "I think they do a great job--I subscribe to their magazine and use their materials," he said.

Sister Elizabeth Thoman, director of the media center, disputes critics of television who she said act "as though media creators were all-powerful manipulators, and viewers [are] only passive participants." Consumers can critique the media effectively when they reflect on such questions as what is shown and what is left out, and which social, political and economic groups profit most from what is shown, she said.

Melchert agrees that most people are not completely passive viewers. "They do talk back to it, turn it off and have the ability to see the way things are," he said.

"On the other hand, I think the deck is stacked," Melchert added. "I think there is a cumulative effect from the power of the media to set the agenda.

"There is a sense in this country that sports is an incredibly important part of American life, whereas data [on attendance and money spent or donated] suggests that religion is far more important in daily life.

"People not already in a religious community have acquired a sense from the media that it's not really terribly important," he contended.

That does not mean that explicitly religious programs are the only answer, Melchert said.

"If you put on good programs that say something about the human condition, then issues arise that are religiously significant," said Melchert.

A similar stance is espoused by the Human Family Educational & Cultural Institute in Pacific Palisades, which sponsors the annual Humanitas Prize for best television scripts and conducts monthly workshops for screenwriters--efforts that grew out of the work of producer-priest Ellwood Keiser.


Similarly, Michael Horan, who teaches religious education at Loyola Marymount University, says that ostensibly nonreligious TV shows and films often have subtle spiritual themes.

"People come out of movie theaters engaged in religious conversations because topics in contemporary films often coincide with the religious dimensions of human experience, such as forgiveness, reconciliation and seeking the purpose of life," Horan told the University of Judaism conference, which ended Friday.

Horan also agreed with Melchert in contending that religious education scholars have so far ignored television's impact. In a recent study by Horan, he said a "scant number of articles on entertainment media" were published by four religious education magazines and journals over the last 25 years--"no more than a dozen by each in that period."

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