Metropolitan Vitaly (Ustinov) – Television as a contemporary pastoral problem.

This article was printed in 1959 in Russian in the Canadian Orthodox Herald [Kanadskii Vestnik]. It is reproduced here, both in Russian and in English translations, as its subject matter, far from diminishing in relevance, has acquired a much more important place in our pastoral work. – Editor.

WE HAVE NOT yet fully understood the enormous consequences of the invention of television. Possessed of a truly magical power of fascination and attraction, and at the same time concealing within itself the terrible poison of corruption, it naturally wins for itself the most honored place in every home, in every family. The contemporary clergyman cannot and must not pass television by in silence, as it is surpassed by nothing and nobody in its power of influence over the human soul. The campaign against television must be our foremost task, and 1 say this without exaggeration, because of the influence it has over us, hour by hour and minute by minute, in our very homes. Our struggle against it must be based on a correct attitude to this invention of modern genius; the difficulty and complexity of this struggle is due to the fact that we have to fight, not against television itself, but against the infinitely weakened power of the human will, which simply cannot find the strength to tear itself away in time from this exceptionally deceiving and alluring pleasure. Here we can remember the words of St. Paul: "All things are lawful unto me, but not all things are expedient; all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any" [1 Cor., 6, 12].

So, in order to struggle successfully against television and, once and for all, to develop a correct attitude to it, we must first apply extreme objectivity in examining all its positive aspects, and then bring to light all its hidden evil. Only then can we begin to make use of its good features, while systematically and energetically turning away its corrupting influence from ourselves.

First of all it should be said that no invention, no mechanism or machine, is evil in itself, just as there is no such thing as self-existent evil. Evil exists only in the will of rational creation, when it does not fulfill the will of God. On the contrary, in such inventions we should see the seal of God’s wisdom, which it is given to man to discover in the laws of nature, and so to send up praise to his Creator from his whole heart. Despite the volume of tempting images going out over the airwaves, it would be undiscerning not to mention also its positive influence on the masses of people – television has brought people back to their own homes.

Sociologists and specialists in education have observed that the entire period from the First World War until the present has been distinguished by the fact that people strove to "go out" in the search for entertainment.

People slept and ate at home, but never stayed at home in their free time. Sports, the cinema, dancing and all manner of other amusements, saturated with the poison of corruption, took everyone out of their own homes. Catastrophically, the home began to lose, especially for children, its significance as a nest, where the child would begin to look at things and evaluate them, adorning them with his own fantasy, where his living imagination would see living forms in the domestic surroundings, creating a whole world out of his naive, childish fantasy. The street lured the child as well and so, almost straight from the cradle, in a coarse and harsh manner, without any preparation, he came to know the realism of life, which immediately brought grief to his soul.

Then, for the first time in many decades, television began bringing people home. Its role in this great social change was very modest: it simply appealed to the lower instincts of the same people who had previously gone out into the streets, and it returned them to hearth and home only because all these same amusements and distractions of the city and street had now been transferred into their own homes.

Of course, there is nothing of a high moral quality in this principle, but amid the sea of disorders, temptations and corruption in contemporary life, we must be prepared to clutch at a straw, if here also there is at least something that can be used for the good.

Let us agree to recognize the fact that television helps to bring people home, and then we will be able to make use of its good influence. It is endowed with an almost magnetic force, attraction and allure, to such an extent that if we simply deny it categorically, raising our voices from the Church cathedra and ambon, then we will make ourselves appear like sticks beating the thin air.

Finally, television is capable of giving vivid and comprehensive lessons on all questions of science, art and technology, thereby raising the level of education and knowledge, and so delivering a strong blow to the dark ignorance and half-knowledge which have always brought so much grief to the world.

Having considered all the positive aspects of television, let us now turn to a study of its destructive influence on the human soul.

Television completely alienates people from reading. Why read, when on television everything can not only be seen, but heard as well? Why exert your imagination, when everything has already been done for you, worked over and served up to you in a finished state, with all the finest nuances explained, such that one can just take them in without any effort?

Paradoxically television, which can transport us to any distant part of the world, take us down to the bottom of the ocean, and open up the bowels of the earth; which take us into all manner of factories and industrial plants, into restricted operating theaters where we virtually join the surgeon in performing the most complex operations; which enables us to see peoples, whom we would otherwise never have seen in our lives; despite this magnificent panorama of sights brought before us, television makes us more idle and apathetic than ever before, as if surfeited with knowledge, indifferent and, in the final analysis, ignorant.

I will explain this thought.

When a person reads, a complex psychological process takes place within him. First he has to exert his will. We have to compel ourselves to pick up a book and start reading it, but nobody compels us to watch television. However precisely the author may describe what is happening, our imagination creates its own images, a whole world of its own, in parallel to our reading. In fact we are grateful to the author of a good book for the very reason that he has helped us in this unseen creative effort.

Our imagination, which is very important part of our soul, the source of creativity and daring, is developed through reading; it not only makes man useful to society, but also gives him liveliness and joy of life. Television makes no appeal to our imagination, which thus becomes superfluous. Everything is ready, everything has been done, all we have to do is watch and accept the images created by someone else’s imagination, which often works differently to our own. This is the psychological enslavement of our soul, a violation of it and a vanquishing of our creative powers.

Television makes us forget how to imagine and even how to think. It makes us spiritually idle, and in our private lives we become people without any imagination, looking at God’s world with a dulled perception and not seeing that "the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made" [Rom. 1, 20].

Thus, very subtly, television makes us materialists, who look at things following the animal instinct of just looking around, without the participation in this process of spiritual perception, through which the soul also looks. More and more we are taught just to look and not to see, which makes us likened to those soulless idols, of whom the crowned prophet David says in his psalms: "They have eyes but they cannot see; they have ears but they cannot hear; they have noses but they cannot smell... Let those that make them become like unto them, and all who trust in them" [Ps. 113, 13-14, 16]. And as soon as we look but do not see the essence of things or the threads which bind them together, then we are truly ignorant.

Much has already been said about the corrupting influence of television, but 1 want to comment on it one more time and remind you about it.

There is not a single father or mother who would take their family to a house of ill repute. If a friend suggested they should go out one evening to the most filthy parts of the city, where sin and vice abound, they would treat this as a stupid joke, a sign of madness, or would think that such a suggestion could only have been made under the influence of drink. But, О fathers and mothers of good Orthodox Russian families – why are you so hypocritical? You have just shrugged your shoulders at this dubious invitation to visit the vice spots of a big city, but now you are sitting down. in an orderly fashion, with your whole family, in your living room and. with an easy, innocent turn of the knob on the television set, you are inviting into your home, whose walls are blessed with holy icons, all the dregs of human society – gangsters, murderers, psychopaths of every colour, the most improbable maniacs and traders in human souls, and you are going to watch them without the slightest pang of conscience, as if you were not doing anything wrong. Meanwhile your children, after seeing such spectacles, will cry out in their sleep, will gradually become nervous and irritable, and will insult you in ways previously unheard of and unimaginable. You yourselves will be unable to close your eyes for hours under such a heavy burden of images of all kind of moral impurity.

You are defiling your own home which, in the profound understanding of the Orthodox Church, is your home church, as it was proclaimed to on several occasions by the Apostle Paul, when he called the Christian home "the church that is in your house" [Rom. 16, 5; 1 Cor. 16, 19; Col. 4, 15; Phil. 1, 2].

You defile your souls and the souls of your children, for through sight and hearing, which are its senses, all these images penetrate into the human soul. Like photographs they settle in the regions of our subconscious, defiling the most secret places of our souls. Then, at any moment in our life, following certain laws of the psychology of fallen human nature which are not yet understood, they suddenly burst forth from these secret places, at the most unexpected moments of our life, darkening our prayer, harming our relationship with people and taking the joy of life away from us. It is not without reason that the Orthodox Church, knowing what profound harm is brought to us by contemplating sinful sculptures and pictures, has given us the following rule in the 100th Canon of the Sixth Oecumenical Council of Constantinople:

"Let thine eyes look aright, and keep thy heart with all diligence" [Prov. 4, 25 and 23], Wisdom bids us. For the sensations of the body can easily foist their influence upon the soul. We therefore command that henceforth in no way whatever shall any pictures be drawn, painted or otherwise wrought, whether in frames or otherwise hung up. that appeal to the eye fascinatingly, and corrupt the mind, and excite inflammatory urgings to the enjoyment of shameful pleasures. If anyone should attempt to do this, let him be excommunicated."

What a diabolical mockery this is of us, Orthodox Christians! Knowing that we will never dare to take part in sinful gatherings, the devil has darkened our minds so cleverly that we use our own money, which we have worked hard to earn to buy ourselves a television set and thus bring into our homes corruption, debauchery, murders and insanity. We have lost all love of our own selves in the face of the devil a feeling with which the Holy Prophet David was richly endowed, when he frequently and incessantly asked the Lord, throughout the whole of the Psalter, that the Lord would not give him over as a laughing stock to the devil.

Looking, as a result of television, at all these horrors of sinful life, we should note yet another very subtle destructive facet of this phenomenon. In everyday life, between a person’s soul and the sin itself there is a path blocked by protective barriers derived from moral, psychological and social factors, from one’s way of life, which the soul, in its laziness and sluggishness, will not find the resolve to overcome. The realism of television helps its viewers bypass all these hindrances without trouble - it makes the approaches to sin seem habitual, as if the distance had already been covered; the sin itself, when the occasion presents itself, is committed easily and freely.

This is why, in recent times, a multitude of the most improbable and most unexpected crimes has been committed, as attested by many social workers' crimes without the slightest warning symptoms or apparent motive. Thus, for example, early one morning a boy guilty of no previous crimes murders his parents. A schoolboy assaults his teacher. There are countless other examples from the annals of the criminal police, which I do not wish to cite on the pages of this brochure.

What method of struggle can and should we put forward? First it should be said that we must struggle. Both the pastor and his flock must without fail set themselves the task of struggling against television. The best and simplest method is to sell the piece of equipment as soon as possible. Here we could make a further small recommendation to those whose spiritual eyes have opened sell it and donate the proceeds to the Church or to the poor. This first approach is within the capacity, of course, of the righteous souls of God’s chosen ones, those for whom the greatest aim in life is the salvation of their soul. More blessed even then these people are those who have not yet bought this piece of equipment and have never felt any need of it. However I well understand that at the present time this first strategy will seem like very unpalatable food, which the mass of our believers cannot accept. Television has already bound us so securely, and our will is so weak and infirm, that few people will respond to this first measure. We should not be surprised at this' heroes are always few, martyrs are always isolated individuals. The righteous ones are always alone.

To all of us, ordinary Christians, I would recommend that we recall once again all the positive qualities of television, and in particular its capacity to bring people back under the roof of their own home. When walking along the streets we have all seen in what an orderly and cosy fashion many families gather at home and, in the semi-darkened room before the television, seem to be spending their evenings in a friendly and patriarchal manner. So for us the whole task of struggling with the destructive influence of television amounts to making use of its socially cohesive powers while at the same time cutting off all its corrupting influences. This will require an act of willpower and the establishment of a strict discipline in dealing with this apparatus such that, under threat of dire punishment, nobody except the father or mother or another responsible member of the family would dare to touch the television, which would require the aura of a forbidden fruit. Children can be shown just the occasional wholesome film, but only as a reward for success or good behaviour.

It will be very useful to give our own commentary and explanation to each film, broadening its scope with examples from history and from the best of our literature, but always basing our outlook firmly on the ancient Orthodoxy of the Holy Fathers.

We can presume to hope that, if anyone starts to struggle so zealously with the destructive influence of television, the Lord Himself will inspire further methods of protecting oneself from evil.

For all the fast periods we can make a rule of either disconnecting the television set or putting it away completely out of sight.

Of course, the extent of our zeal depend upon the degree in which we desire our salvation and on our general level of religious fervour, on our devotion to the Church.

Metropolitan Vitaly

Translated from Russian by Fr. Christopher Birchill.

Metropolitan Vitaly (Ustinov), Television as a contemporary pastoral problem, Montreal 1988, pp. 9-15.