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Sport and War in a Television Culture

By June 1, 2003 No Comments
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We have a TV in our home. It rarely gets used. So I can’t claim to be an expert on television programming. However, when I have occasionally engaged in a 30 minute channel flipping exercise, I am shocked–shocked by the content, yes, somewhat, but more so by the lack of variety. All the imagery that greets me from the flickering screen is blandly uniform regardless of the channel I call home. I am beginning to think that the worst part of contemporary television programming is not its violent or sexual content, but rather its repulsive homogeneity. If television is considered the predominant shaper of culture, then I fear that future generations will not only be more violent and perverted, but detestably dull and uncreative as well.

So what is it that makes TV so monochromatic, so redundant? Some have criticized television for its technological bias that turns everything into entertainment, from education to political discourse. I would agree. But I’d like to suggest that TV proliferates a particular type of entertainment. Contemporary TV programming is competition. From the news to sports to sitcoms to the Oscars to reality TV, it’s all competition–a competition fueled by our desire to see one individual gain an advantage over another; a diabolical fascination with seeing two or more individuals striving to reach or obtain something that only one can possess. In televised sport, competition debuts as an individual or team playing solely for the glory of the victory stand. In the primetime sitcom, it enters as the witty slam at the expense of another. In reality TV, it appears as a Darwinian survival of the most popular.

But what about the news? Can one argue that the news has gone competitive?

I flip on the TV. Two things dominate the screen: the Iraq war and March Madness basketball. On one channel you see in the foreground a well-known ex-basketball player provide the viewer with the “keys to victory” as the producer skillfully mixes and fades statistical graphics superimposed on breathtaking slam-dunk replays slowed down to effectively dramatize the moment. The statistics carefully outline the inventory of weapons each team had in their arsenal . . . a relentless full-court game, an ability to sink free-throws under pressure, a dominant game in the paint, a strong bench, a point-guard with lethal accuracy from long range, or a power-forward who can pound the boards.

Just a couple channels over, there is a similar picture. In the foreground a highly decorated ex-Marine is busy providing the viewer with the “keys to victory” as the producer skillfully mixes and fades statistical graphics superimposed on breathtaking replays of smart bombs and stinger missile launches, slowed down to effectively dramatize the moment. The statistics carefully outline the pre-game inventory of each of the teams . . . the capability of achieving air superiority, the most ships, planes, or tanks, the edge in mobility, the strongest supply lines, or the strongest reserves.

I hit the flashback button on the remote. The screen changes from flashing blue and red fighter plane icons representing U.S. base locations, to flashing blue and red basketball icons representing typical shot selection on the playing field. It’s all the same entertaining competition. The choice is up to the viewer; the game in the desert or the war on the court. We have successfully turned war into entertaining competition and our competitive sport into war. I find both transformations to be equally destructive.

What is troubling to me as a Christian is that this notion of competition, as it is understood in our contemporary culture, is diametrically in opposition to who we are created and redeemed to be as humans. There is simply no room for this competition ethos in the Christian worldview.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only at your own interests, but also the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” How can this service attitude be reconciled with a desire to see one individual gain an advantage over another? It can’t. Unfortunately, I think the Christian community has too often relegated this Biblical service ethos to areas other than sport, humor, business, or politics. In these areas we graciously let a pagan competition ethos have its way.

This leaves us with questions such as this one. If we dare to throw away–or no–let’s say reform the notion of competition, how might this make the Christian game of basketball, hockey, or racquetball look radically different from the accepted norms of play? Maybe it’s time for Christians to break a few unholy rules . . .

Ethan Brue is Assistant Professor of Engineering at Dordt College, in Sioux Center, Iowa.