If television provides any public service it provides us with a long string of evidence regarding the myth of progress. As one of my favorite atheist-turned-Christians Malcolm Muggeridge opined, “All news is old news happening to new people.”
It may seem counterintuitive; I mean, in just a little over 100 years, mankind went from the horse being the primary engine of transportation to becoming bored with landings on the moon. But, even though we now take for granted the fact we can cross our continent in about four hours, communicate instantly via cyberspace and receive television images from around the globe any time, day or night, are we really all that different from our forebears?
With regard to progress, certain things are certainly a lot better. The poorest person in America lives better than a Medieval Lord. We grow taller, live longer and have access to a host of scientific and medical discoveries that make our external lives so much easier and down-right more pleasant than those “modern” conveniences prior generations enjoyed.
Although existential progress is definable, the trickier part of the equation is when we look inward, and if our reflection is coming back at us off a television screen, we are exposed as the progressive frauds we are. Take the low-speed car chase which has become a staple of local news anywhere in the USA.
Not that the televised slow-speed car chase by a fleet of helicopters and law enforcement vehicles is some kind of mega-metaphor, it is nonetheless revelatory as to how little we have changed since we moved out of the three bedroom one-and-a-half bath cave in the Olduvai Gorge.
Maybe at the dawn of man, some panicked Homo Habilis was running for his life as a large fanged four-legged carnivore pursued him, that many of his fellows stepped out of their dwellings to watch the spectacle. A Roman plebeian may not have been on the highest rung of the empirical cultural ladder, but he was far more advanced than your average Australopithecus — yet how was an afternoon’s entertainment in the Roman Colosseum any different from his just upright ancestor transfixed on the neighbor running for his life trying not to end up on the bottom rung of a Scimitar Lion’s food pyramid?
The technology and cast members may be different now, but we still slow down our lives and watch human disasters. We just can’t seem to help ourselves from either falling in with a mob or not having the self-control to divert our gaze from the most recent display of human folly brought to us in our living rooms via television.
God gives us plenty of warning flags about this tendency. In the Old Testament, despite being freed from generations of bondage in Egypt, the children of Israel acted en masse and in short order decrying how badly they had been lead “astray” by Moses. And Lot’s wife, well, she just had to look didn’t she.
We don’t fare much better in the New Testament as we read about an angry mob with rocks at the ready, eager to participate in a little 1st century justice on a scarlet woman or see how fickle crowds can be as they go, in just a week’s time, from singing praises and waving palm fronds to screaming “Crucify him!” at the top of their lungs on the exact same subject.
It may make us feel better about ourselves to think about these examples of not-so-nice human activity as having happened so far in the past and, in doing so, render ourselves inoculated. If we’re honest with ourselves we must admit more progress needs to be achieved.
There’s a worn-out cliché that says the definition of comedy is tragedy plus time. The eons that have elapsed during human existence on earth has seen its fair share of both and just when we start to believe our own PR regarding progress, television comes along and gives us another vehicle by which to demonstrate what a short distance we have truly traveled and show us that progress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
It was television, after all, that has turned criminals fleeing the police in vehicles into a spectator sport worthy of the Circus Maximus. And it was television again that turned a media-savvy reality show family with no detectable talents of any kind into multi-millionaire mavens of fashion and lifestyle and, in doing so, created as real a golden calf as any that might have been smelted at the base of Mount Sinai all those thousands of years ago.
Pope Benedict XVI hit the progressive nail right on the head in the 2007 encyclical Spes Salvi:
“The ambiguity of progress becomes evident. Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth (cf. Ephesians 3:16; 2 Corinthians 4:160, then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.”
As our technological progress continues to outpace our internal progress maybe there is a television formula to apply that posits the less artificial light we absorb on a television screen that might move us toward true progress and toward the Light of the world.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry.