Our Cultural Tongue

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If a pastor were to begin a series of messages on “the tongue,” more than a few of his listeners would start running a finger around the inside of their collars. They would do this before he had even said anything on the subject — we all know that gossip, and backbiting, and inane conversation are condemned in Scripture, and if we were in a biblical church we would expect to hear these sentiments repeated and applied to us.

But sin is never so dangerous as when it is invisible, or when we actually believe the sin to be a virtue. A place where this point could be made again and again would be in an examination of our “cultural tongue,” by which I mean our public discourse.

In doing this, we must not gravitate to pious platitudes. Of course, when some shock jock screams obscenities over the radio, we all lament the decline of civility, manners, and so forth. But what about those areas where we think everyone is behaving themselves? Take the evening news, although with a caveat; even here the issue is not the overt “liberal bias” of the anchors. This bias is pretty much obvious to everyone except for them, and can actually be pretty entertaining. The problem is the nature of the medium itself, and what it does to our discourse (that is, our means of communication), and how that relates to the Bible’s teaching on speaking and listening.

In their book How to Watch TV News, Neil Postman and Steve Powers observe that “every night an estimated forty million people watch the news on the major networks and millions more watch local news coverage” (p. 5). When we couple this with the instruction of the Larger Catechism, which says that we break the ninth commandment when we passively listen to lies, “receiving and countenancing evil reports,” an obvious question presents itself. When we watch the national news, are we guarding our tongues? We have perhaps wandered into a place where we believe we do not need to guard ourselves as we would in an ordinary conversation. But as Richard Weaver pointed out, “the decay of conversation has about destroyed the practice of dialectic. Consequently the habit of credulity grows” (Ideas Have Consequences, p. 97). And we should know the requirements of the ninth commandment prohibit such credulity.

This habit of credulity is largely invisible to us. We sit down and watch footage of Bosnia, of a presidential news conference, of some referendum in a western state, and a report of teen pregnancy in Minneapolis. We think we are growing in knowledge, but the length of each segment can actually be measured in seconds. If knowledge puffs up, what does pseudo-knowledge do? We walk away thinking we now know something about the Bosnian situation, and so on down the list, when actually we still know next to nothing about them. We are nothing more than info junkies, better prepared (perhaps) for the next Trivial Pursuit game, but hopelessly at sea if we want to know something substantive about the complexities of each story.

This is not to say that everything about our addiction to the news is worthless. If you live on the coast and the weather guy starts talking about a Major Hurricane, heading for the tall grass would be a reasonable thing to do. But here the story here is relatively simple. “Big winds. Run.” However, if the story has any complexity at all (like factories closing down, or test scores in government schools plummeting), the reports you take in night after night can be counted upon to be almost entirely false or misleading. This is not said because the background of all the stories has been examined and researched, but rather because the nature of infotainment has been weighed in the balances and found wanting. If a man tells a lie about whether it is raining, we must go check his story before we accuse him of misrepresenting the truth. But if a man says that he can adequately explain quantum physics in fifteen seconds, there is no need to check anything. The nature of the limits on him necessitates that whatever he says, the end result of his explanation will be misleading at best. The evening news shows are similarly constrained. How can a conflict on the other side of the world, one which began in the Middle Ages, be reduced to a few manageable sound bites?

Nothing will be done about this problem by the news providers themselves. They are competing with one another for major amounts of advertising dollars, and they consequently have a desperate need to keep your finger off the remote. “Don’t go away,” is their constant and nervous exhortation. Their advertisers keep a close watch on how they are doing, and so their drive to gratify the flesh continues apace. That’s show biz. But one thing the flesh likes is to hear the latest, whether true or not. Proverbs describes the reception of such a report as a sweet morsel.

A responsible Christian needs to think deeply about his own regard for the commandments of God, whether or not his favorite evening anchor, his favorite hair cut in a suit, has a similar regard for the truth. But a superficial conclusion that some might draw from this is that we shouldn’t ever watch the news. Rather, the conclusion should be that we must think about everything we hear, and everything we pass on, in the light of God’s Word.

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