God’s Word through Modern Media

Updated from an article by John Wijngaards in THE OUTLOOK Vol. 19 Number 8. Winter 1985.

Housetop Centre is just one of the many Christian communication centres that have been established in the last two decades. I am grateful for the opportunity to explain our involvement in mission; not because we carry so much weight – we are very small indeed! – but because the kind of ministry we are engaged in is characteristic of a new development in the Church’s missionary task.

The name of our Centre, ‘Housetop’, was carefully chosen. Jesus told us: ‘Announce from the housetops what I tell you face to face’ (Mt 10:27). For us this expresses the heart of Christian communication. It consists in witnessing to one’s own faith, to the exciting Gospel values Jesus tells us face to face. It also implies making one’s witness known ‘from the housetops’, which means in our own day: making use of all the new media of communication. Communication is very much part of our faith. Jesus, the Incarnate Word, revealed himself to us as God the communicator.

The Church may rightly be considered a vast communications network designed to free people from their isolation and to bring them individually and corporately into communion with God in Christ. We cannot be adequate ministers of Jesus’ salvation if we do not communicate effectively with the people to whom we are sent. Communicating properly is not a peripheral question, a luxury, an extra; it belongs to the essence of the apostolate. This has always been so. But the communication channels of our own day have become much more diverse and complicated than they have ever been. Apostolic Christians cannot afford to ignore the challenges and problems created by the new media.

‘To be at all effective in their apostolate, they should know how the media work upon the fabric of society and also the techniques of their use . . . . Indeed, without this knowledge an effective apostolate is impossible in a society which is increasingly conditioned by the media.’ Second Vatican Council, Communion and Progress, no 110-113.

This need applies also to Third World countries where great changes are taking place in the area of social communications. Ministry often requires specialization. Full-time Church personnel have been assigned to education, hospital work, development, adult literacy, in-service training of catechists and similar tasks. The area that will require much more attention and many more full-time people in the future is the one of communications. Housetop Centre responds to this need.

The Transforming Power of the Media

I am sure that we can all vividly recall examples of how a simple news item in the press or in a radio broadcast resulted in unexpected grave consequences. I myself remember vividly how a news flash on Hindu-Muslim clashes in Amritsar brought on the outbreak of violence throughout India. On the other hand, a single moving news report on famine in Ethiopia triggered relief campaigns through Europe that lasted for years. We live in a world that is dominated by the news. Our hopes and fears are continuously fed by the news that is presented to us in the media.

The flow of information that comes to us through news is a complex reality. In the socalled free world it is a commercial product. It is sold in a fiercely competitive market. The value of a piece of news is determined by many unpredictable factors: sensation, the national mood, the relative importance of other events happening at the same time. News can also be greatly influenced by the social or political motivations of journalists and produceres.

On 27 October 1968 London saw a demonstration against the Vietnam war. The demonstration was overwhelmingly peaceful. But the press and television coverage concentrated on the few violent incidents in such a way that the ‘news’ resulting from it had a social influence that went far beyond the original incident. A 328-page classic study on this occurrence shows the complexity and farreaching consequences of just one item of news. See J.D. HALLORAN, P. ELLIOTT and G. MURDOCK, Demonstrations and Communication: a Case Study, Hammondsworth 1970

The flow of news between east and west, north and south, has changed the world in which we live. People are learning new values, good and bad, in record time. nations are growing together, are becoming more conscious of what happens to human beings outside their own boundaries. Developing countries have become acutely aware of the fact that the selection of news was until recently almost exclusively controlled by Western agencies. A UNESCO report of 1978 introduced the concept of a ‘New World Information Order’: an international agreement that would ensure that fundamental principles of truth, equality, human rights, and so on, will be safeguarded.

Various international initiatives have been undertaken, such as a link-up between Asian countries, to redress the imbalance of the present information systems. It is vital that Christians should take a creative part in building up the new information order the work is looking for. Although Housetop is a small centre, we try to make the Christian voice heard.

Leap-frog into the Electronic Age

Technology is developing so rapidly that it is hard to keep up the pace. In 1965, the year when I began my work in India, a first communications satellite was put into space: Intelsat 1. It carried 240 telephone circuits and a single TV channel. Intelsat V that was put up in 1980, can handle 12,000 simultaneous phone calls and several TV channel. In 1965 we could only telephone within the city of Hyderabad; trunk calls to other cities in India had to be booked in advance, connected by hand and often took hours to complete. Now Hyderabad can be reached from most places around the globe by direct dialling! In 1965 TV was unheard of in India; now it reaches the major cities and many rural areas

I could see the impact of television with my own eyes in 1984 when Indira Gandhi had been assassinated. Formerly it would have taken days if not weeks before the details of the plot and the riots in Delhi could effectively reach the population. Now people all over the country could actually see what was happening. Indira’s funeral was televised live and so provided a unique opportunity for Indians from all States to partake simultaneously in the sadness and grandeur of the moment. It unified the nation. It also acted as a catalyst, purifying the people’s indignation and filling them with the sense of dignity conveyed by Indira’s son who presided over the funeral. It was clear to me that a new level of communication had been reached.

It may well be that after agriculture and printing, this ‘third wave’ of electronics will totally revolutionize human life on earth. It certainly is opening undreamed of possibilities and posing problems we have not yet understood.

It seems clear to me that practically all over the world the Christian community has been unprepared for the new situation. I do not only mean we fail to take the opportunities offered by the new media for witness and evangelisation. I mean especially that as Christians we have not realised what the media do to our lives.

TV, for instance, can be such a powerful means for righting wrongs. In 1950 the South African Government resisted the introduction of TV. ‘TV will be the end of the white man’s rule in South Africa’, it stated. Events in recent years have proved that judgement right. On the other hand, the rise of the electronic media in developing countries may create new elites and strengthen social inequality and oppression.

To guide and moderate the forces inherent in the electronic media will be a difficult and challenging task. Housetop is involved in a number of electronic projects. Since video is now on the scene as an enormous challenge, we decided to focus on the development of good Christian video. We also actively support non-televangelist Christian cable stations, among them ARK2 in the UK.

Video Courses

Our research brought to light that the immediate need was for high-quality productions that could reach out to people’s homes, to schools and parish groups.

In the beginning we concentrated on prayer – that is: Christian spirituality in a modern age. Our first video, The Seven Circles of Prayer, won a Certificate of Creative Excellence at the United States’ Industrial Film and Video Festival in 1987. It has been translated into 15 languages and is being distributed in over 50 countries. Peace in Your Home received the Pater Award for Professional Excellence at Expo’ 88 in Brisbane, Australia. Other successful videos have been Coming to Terms (for the elderly) and Loaves of Thanksgiving (on the Eucharist).

These productions gave us the experience we needed for our major international co-productions: My Galilee My People, Together in My Name, I Have no Favourites and How to Make Sense of God. “How to Make Sense of God” won two international awards: the Grand Prix of Warsaw for its film and the Catholic Press Association Award of the USA for the accompanying book.

The Printed Word

Important though the electronic media may be, they will not be able to replace the printed word. For one thing, even a TV production needs a script. Then, while visuals have enormous power in entertaining and captivating audiences, certain educational functions are best performed with the aid of printed text.

  • A book remains with us. We can study it, read it again.
  • It stretches the mind precisely because it is not so gullibly consumed as TV or radio.
  • The written word forces us on by the ‘pain of learning’ by the fierce concentration needed in trying to figure out something which is beyond our present understanding.

Books and articles will therefore retain a specific function. In developing countries many other advantages of print show up.

  • Print is much cheaper to produce than electronic media.
  • Print does not require the back-up of high technology: it does not need a plug!
  • A printed text can be carried around from one place to the other, sold and re-sold, lent out and so reach many people in succession.
  • Print also possesses a higher level of credibility; people are more likely to believe what they see in print than what they hear spoken.

Even though the rate of literacy is low in certain countries, it would be a grave mistake to neglect the printed word. In fact, for some time to come it will certainly hold the primacy.

My own experience in India confirms this very much. When in 1967 I founded Amruthavani, the Catholic communications centre for Andhra Pradesh, I began with the publication of a correspondence course on Christian faith. The correspondence courses are still a great success. During the past ten years they were sent out to 150,000 religious enquirers. Since each course is read by at least four different persons as studies show, we can be sure that more than half a million benefited from these courses.

I myself still spend a good deal of my time writing spiritual books and articles. Many are published both in the West and in Third World countries. Background to the Gospels which has had six English re-prints in India, saw publication in England and in the USA, and was translated into four Indian languages. An Illustrated Life of Christ has seen fourteen translations, including Luganda and Swahili. Communicating the Word of God was published separately in England and in India, and is now available m French, Chinese and Spanish. My Galilee My People has gone into fourteen languages. These are just some examples of how the printed word spreads.

Dynamic Flexibility

I have outlined so far areas of Housetop’s involvement in communication apostolate. There are also some pastoral projects we have taken on, notably the one of giving information on the so-called New Religious Movements for people in London. With the background of our Asian experience, our Housetop staff is sometimes better able to cope than other pastoral workers, as many of the new religious movements find their origin in India.

One aspect of the new situation in the apostolate is that the scene is changing all the time. The ‘heavy’ institutions we built up in the past, with costly premises and long-term programmes, seem less suitable for the kind of work we are trying to do. We intend, therefore, to stay small and flexible. In the naval battles of World War II small gunboats often proved a more dangerous and versatile weapon than clumsy battle ships. A small car may not be as durable as a locomotive or a tank; but it will bring you to many more places for a fraction of the cost.

In Housetop we have learned to take up new projects and discard old ones as we discern the need. We are prepared to tread new paths where the Sower will lead us; unpretentious, but hopeful. Qoheleth (11,6) gives us courage:

‘In the morning sow your seed; do not let your hands lie idle in the evening.

For which will prove successful, this or that, you cannot tell.

And for all you know, it may be that both will turn out well together’.