TV, culture and curiosity

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I’m following up on the discussion around TV and pastoral visits from the other day with some further thoughts, less to try and reach a definitive answer on the original question and more to work through some things that started to come out of the discussion.

One key thing that I think came out of the discussion was the need to understand culture, both the culture of others and our own culture. How much of what we expect and presume in any situation is based on what the Bible and the Gospel actually call for and how much is down to what we are used to and our preferences?  Are things that we observe and things that we do, culturally neutral, good or bad?  Do we immediately assume that something is idolatrous and an addiction when it isn’t whilst missing our own idolatry and addictions?

Steve Kneale has picked up on one example today by discussing what people consider rude.  It was assumed by a lot of people that leaving the TV on when the pastor (or anyone visits) is rude.  Steve argues that rudeness is subjective and points out that many people would not consider leaving the TV on rude.  Other examples might include food.  Consider this:

  • In some cultures it would be considered rude/offensive to leave food on your plate. It would suggest you didn’t like the meal offered.  In others, it is considered rude not to leave some food, in fact, if you empty your plate, your host will keep refilling it.  You are indicating that you are not yet satisfied.
  • I know of  church leader who was deeply offended because a church member would always avoid eye contact with them.  I did some reading and in their culture it was deeply disrespectful for her to make eye contact with a man, especially a leader.
  • Some people would consider it rude not to offer food to guests but also rude if the guest just went to the fridge to help themselves. In other homes, you would be expected to just go and help yourself.
  • I grew up in a context where you would just drop in on people to see them.  My wife grew up in a culture where that would be rude, the idea of just turning up on someone’s doorstep unannounced is an anathema to her!
  • Some people would be very upset if the pastor didn’t visit them. In some cultures, if the pastor says “can I come round” it means you are in big trouble.

I would make a small modification to Steve’s argument. I do think it is possible to identify objective rudeness. Partly because I think that you will find some boundaries that all cultures would recognise, even if they draw the line in slightly different places.  Partly also because I think the objective element is not in terms of the action but in terms of the motive (which is much harder to read of course) but if I intend to be rude, then yes I am objectively rude, even if my friend misses the insult!    I remember Reginald D Hunter in one of his stand up shows observing that English insults are so subtle that he would only realise a few days later that he had been insulted!

This brings me to the main point of this article.  There’s a crucial instinct that pastors, church planters, missionaries etc need, incidentally it is one they share with comedians.  It’s curiosity.  We should have a genuine interest in both what happens in our culture and in people’s lives and why it happens that way.  Pastors and planters need to be asking that “why?” question often.  This also should slow us down in giving quick answers to questions like “Should I ask people to turn the TV off.”  I wonder if curiosity was demonstrated in the social media discussion about TV and pastoral visits.

My concern is that we can be too quick in such situations to give a surface answer.  This does mean that we shouldn’t immediately rush to say that something is definitely not idolatrous.  Surely, the answer is that it depends.  It is possible that someone having the TV on all the time is struggling with an addiction and an idolatry.  Perhaps, we might argue that all of our culture, until redeemed by Christ is idolatrous, or at least potentially so.

However, there can be, and seemed to be in this instance, a quickness to assume that people who had the TV on all the time were being sinful and idolatrous, addicted to the box, that they were bad parents who left their kids in the hands of Nickelodeon and/or that they were hooked on  the need for continuous entertainment. Yet, it seemed to me that these assumptions, because there wasn’t a pause to ask why and show curiosity missed out on some possibilities.

We’ve already picked up on some of those possibilities both in my previous article and in Steve’s.  To be sure, some people might find background noise and sights a distraction but others may find it helpful.  Others may actually find it helpful and make conversation less awkward. It’s funny isn’t it how we are quick to see having the TV on as a problem and a distraction and yet, traditionally some classes have used things like a day at the cricket to catch up socially or even to carry out some business negotiations.

One major assumption throughout the discussion is that the person should be welcoming the visit both in terms of making the visitor feel welcome and facilitating undistracted serious conversation.  Yet, this may be a faulty assumption.  The visit may not be welcome.  I may not have the level of relationship that permits that, the home may not be the place where those kinds of conversations happen.  The host may be giving me a clue by keeping the TV on that it isn’t really appropriate for me to be there or at least for long. This might seem to be their politest way of letting me know that it isn’t a good time or a good place.

It is possible that they are sending such signals whilst still genuinely welcoming me into their home.  In some parts of the UK, whilst people are warm and friendly, the welcome normally ends at the front door, friendship as well as business happens in other places, the pub, the front doorstep etc, not in the house because that’s their family living space. It’s private.  So, if in fact, they have welcomed me in, that may indicate a high degree of welcome, they are treating me as family but that also might mean that a TV off, formal conversation isn’t what they would be expecting to have.  They just want you to be there and share their life with them.

Another factor that we might want to consider is the role of noise in people’s lives and cultures.  Some cultures particularly value noise, it is an indicator of happiness and contentment.  If the TV wasn’t on, then there would be other sources of noise, the radio, music, general noisy chatter.  Indeed, for working class communities, the noise of the TV may have replaced the noise of industry as mills closed and mines fell silent. 

Meanwhile, it is also easy for us to presume that people should switch off the TV to provider silence if we live in quiet places.  I personally find it hard to concentrate if there is noise in the background, I’m different to my wife in this regards. She would prefer to have music or the TV on in the background, though it would have to be a repeat or something she is familiar with, when working. I struggle with that. I struggle even more though if there’s even the slightest level of noise from a neighbouring house, even just the very low rumble of the bass.  So, when I lived in a flat with thin walls, I actually was more likely to put my own TV or stereo on because it was less distracting to have the actual noise in the room.  You know, its easy to insist that people switch off the TV and let silence in if we don’t have the M6 motorway running right through the estate and over our houses as is the case just a few minutes walk from here.

My point is this.  We can be quick to jump to assumptions and to make generalisations about people, especially based on class stereotypes.  When we do this, we miss a vital skill and a vital step in evangelism and pastoral care. It stops us rom getting to know people properly and to understand them.  We need curiosity.

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