Video Friendlies

By John Wijngaards in THE TABLET 26 September 1987

Public attention has focused on the nastiness of videos. The Director of Housetop Centre, which produces Christian videos, explores their power for good.

Video surrounds us and has come to stay. About ten years ago the first half-inch recorders were for sale in Harrods. Now two fifths of homes in Britain have their own VCR and the market penetration is forecast to double in the next five years. As usual Christian people are only waking up slowly to the implications.

The first reactions have been those inspired by panic. How to stop the unbridled distribution of horror movies, violence, soft porn? How to shield children and teenagers from fouled-up flights of fantasy? When these legitimate concerns had given rise to the Video Recordings Act of 1984, the publicity about vampires, Rambos and nymphos left little more than a lingering taste of nastiness.

Parents sank back into their armchairs; so did pastors. Observation suggests that priests and ministers on the whole view video as a spiritual hazard, a danger to warn their flocks against or, at best, the latest sign of degenerate luxury.

It is my contention that video may well prove in time a technological turning point for family spirituality. Through video people are suddenly given back what radio and television had forcibly taken away: control over what they want to see and hear.

It has long been known that the strongest and most erosive power of television does not lie in its occasional flirt with physical violence or sex, but in its all-pervasive presentation of mediocre values. As Gregor Goethals has shown in her study, The TV Ritual (Boston1981). the broadcasting channels create the new symbols which, in turn, mould us. Human beings need symbols that convey and fix a network of social and personal meanings. The images of television provide the makings of an alternative liturgy that offers its believers a worship of humanist ideals. That is, unless viewers cast off the spell and begin to use the programmes instead of the programmes using them. Video has come as a mighty ally.

It is easy at this juncture to lose one’s sense of direction. The prophets of doom consider the world evil and video Lucifer’s latest prank. For the evangelisers video provides another pulpit; in their view a programme is only Christian if, in the words of a critic, it rams the Gospel down people’s throats. Then there is a small section of “holy innocents” for whom communication does not really exist; and a much larger one, who have virtually surrendered themselves and their families to media inundation. A recent piece of research into video in many countries, commissioned by the European bishops, revealed precisely such widespread ignorance, confusion, complacency and general unpreparedness.

For our faith to survive in an aggressive audio-visual culture, our response will need to be well informed, balanced and subtle. The media offer us immense new possibilities of discovering the reality of our world and of integrating ourselves into its mosaic of human communities. But this calls for more than passive participation. In my view video can help families regain control of their own spiritual wholeness; thus putting into effect Vatican II’s vision of a family centred faith formation.

To exercise control, we must select from the plethora of material dished up by radio and television what we find palatable and wholesome. Through video we shift the programmes in such a way that we are able free for it. Moreover, from video libraries and rental shops we can obtain what broadcasters may fail to offer. To ensure that we view critically, we plan the programme within our own time, making space for reflection and discussion afterwards; all of which means we may have to change our habits.

Many families have grown accustomed to sitting back in the evening and allowing the screen to take over for five or six hours. Responding to people’s expectations, comedy and light entertainment form its principal menu. More informative or thought provoking films or documentaries are lost in the indiscriminate maelstrom of images. Not only does television then undermine more creative leisure activities such as reading, working on a hobby or playing social games, it robs the individual and the family of critically digesting the information offered, of growing in empathy and in one’s conquest of truth. Entertainment obviously has its place. But a selected feature film or documentary followed by discussion and, occasionally, a second viewing, might well prove more enjoyable and satisfactory.

This mode of viewing is characteristic of what is professionally known as “group media”. The programme does not dominate. It functions as a stimulus to reflection, an “input”. It is the group, in this case the family, that stands central. Video is, perhaps, the best group medium to date. It needs no clumsy apparatus like a film projector. It can be viewed even in daylight. It lends itself to addressing the whole group as a unit. Video supports cohesion.

It is important to see the family’s more re-assertive stand within the wider issue of Church renewal. For growth in faith the family is a more basic unit than the parish. If the laity are to resume their full dignity and responsibility in the Church, some of the educative functions now expected from schools and parishes have to revert to parents. Clergy and teachers should retain supportive roles, guiding, encouraging and providing resources. And here too video can be helpful.

The baptism of a child, first communion, engagement and marriage are family events. It is the family that should discuss, prepare and celebrate them. Appropriate videos lent out by the parish could ensure Vatican II, “the domestic Church where parents are the first to preach faith to their children”. But life demands more than the sacraments alone.

Instead of waiting for RE teachers to tackle the social dimensions of our Christian calling, parents should stimulate discussion of real problems with their teenage children. Programmes taped off the air or selected from Christian video catalogues could provide a realistic back-drop. “The whole of family life”, the Council tells us, “could be a sort of apprenticeship for active Christian involvement. Children should be educated to transcend the family circle . . . to recognise God’s love for all people.”

There is a crying need of authentic Christian software. Imports from the United States, especially of televangelist inspiration, will not do. The images presented will need to reflect real situations, not fanciful utopias. Considering the sophistication of the audience, the production standard cannot afford to be less than professional. This, in turn, demands an adequate level of funding: producing good video now costs £1,000 a minute. If more parishes, schools and families are willing to pay for good programmes, their production becomes economically feasible.

London has more video shops than bookshops. Many newsagents have begun to rent out videos. A video club just around the corner from where I live supplies 2,000 members with a choice of 7,000 titles, all dutifully listed in its catalogue. Rental charges are £2.50 a day. Who could maintain that video cannot be made a paying proposition?

The family is to become once more “a domestic sanctuary of God’s people”. This means that families should not allow their own space of believing and loving to be overrun by powerful and ruthless mass media. They can take a constructive stand by exploring and harnessing the unlimited new possibilities of video.

Why live in a world with horizons dictated by broadcasters? Why burn incense to idols on the altar of the screen? Visual material has become a tool in the vital business of social communication. It frees us to reach out to people everywhere. Its images, if rightly used, can be a means to spiritual growth.