Screening the screen: Media literacy and the Christian

Who am I? Where do I live? What is my relationship to those around me and to the environment in which I live? What is reality? How do we define our values, our ideas, and our concerns? How must we relate to one another? What can we expect from tomorrow or the day after or the day...?

These are profound questions that face human life in today’s world of technology. Time was when a person could turn to philosophy or religion for an answer. But today, with the mass media turning the world into a global village, we have become creatures shaped by the media—television, film, internet, radio, and so on. The mass media provide the content from which we develop our sense of self, the nature of our relationships, our view of the world, of us and them, our ideas and ideologies, and our deepest values and concerns. Without mass media, we feel a sense of lostness: We are often unaware of what is real and what is reality. We have allowed the media to educate us as to how we should behave, what to think, feel, fear, believe, and desire. The cartoon character Bart Simpson is right in his remark to his father, “It’s just hard not to listen to TV—it’s spent so much more time raising us than you have!”

But that need not be so. What the mass media, particularly the TV and cinema, offer to us is a pseudo-reality, an increasing isolation and loneliness, and a breakdown of relationships that raise serious questions about the usefulness of technological advances. Can we think more clearly? Can we see, hear, and feel more intensely? Have we been duped and doped? Even more frighteningly, what has happened to truth in the midst of the ideologies and myths that permeate the soaps, sitcoms, news reports, and films that are part of our daily lives?

Owners of this mesmerizing technology have the power to export knowledge as a commodity and monopolize the dissemination of ideas. What we watch must therefore be prefaced with “how” we watch. As Neil Postman says, our culture is where we amuse ourselves to death. Style has replaced substance, violence marks the major share of entertainment, human relationships have been commodified and trivialized. Consequently, Postman suggests, technology drives us without analysis or thought.1 Indeed, we should be able to talk back to our television sets. Perhaps such questioning may break the spell arising out of the mesmerizing power hidden in modern media.2 So what are the questions that need answers in order to debunk the media myths?

First of all, we need to understand that there is an ongoing conflict between the values of traditional social institutions such as the home, the church, and the school and those represented in the hyper-reality of the media, resulting in social schizophrenia. One way to approach the problem is to prepare a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” with regard to media and prepare some guidelines as to what movie or TV program to watch. But such an approach is too simplistic and does not recognize the powerful and intrusive socializing influence of the media.

There is another more significant approach: to fortify ourselves with a media literacy grounded on biblical principles. This demands thoughtful and prayerful study leading to a construction of a worldview that will help in the wise choice of media.

Basic assumptions

At the base of such a worldview is the fundamental assumption that God exists and that He has revealed to us what is good and what is evil. Between the two, God expects us to choose wisely. The freedom to choose implies not only that we are rational beings, but also that we are expected to be responsible beings. Rationality and responsibility, rooted in an unshakeable faith in God, provide us a certain discernment and wisdom with which we can approach the options that the media poses. With that as a given, we need not find any tension with the church’s stance on what is acceptable and what is not.

A second basic assumption is the context in which we are to make choices out of the varied menu of the media. Jesus expressed this context thus: “‘My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth’” (John 17:15-18, NIV).

Fischer points out that the world in which Jesus wants us to live and work is the world we find ourselves in—here and now. We are stewards of this world, and as such we have a responsibility.3

But stewardship does not mean just taking care of the planet’s physical resources. It includes a responsible relationship to our leisure time and to our cultural landscape. This means that we understand the media and its culture in their entirety—their potential artfulness and their pervasive value messages. With such an understanding, we will approach, for example, the television for its pleasure and enjoyment, but will do so it with a critical participation. This is necessary in view of the typical evening prime-time diet, which Duncan aptly describes:

“The screen flashes close-ups of mostly good-looking people fondling each other, punching each other out or laughing their heads off. Cut to car chases in underground parking lots, set to the sound of tires squealing and fenders bashing. Cut to newscasts with short snatches of segments on disasters, murders and wars—mixed with chatter from politicians who reassure us that all will be well. Cut to high-jolts-per-minute commercials featuring persuasive pitches for instant beauty, and relief from constipation, and warning not to leave home without a certain plastic card that offers limitless pleasures. This supermarket of the soul can be truly mind-boggling.”4

Hence the need for media literacy. Media literacy is “the ability to sift through and analyze the messages that inform, entertain, and sell to us every day.”5 Media literacy involves critical inquiry into what makes the media—what is there, what is not there, their motives, money, ownership, and values, and how these factors influence the content. What is the message media are trying to convey to us? From where do these messages originate? What are the strategies employed to convey the message?

The following outline can provide a framework for using a semiotic approach (that is, analyzing the signs and symbols) to visuals/texts (cartoons, advertisements, photos, etc.). They can be used to discover the levels of meaning, namely, the denotation, connotation, and values, as well as the ideas or ideology of the communicator:

1. Isolate and analyze important signs in the text.

2. Identify the central structure, theme, or model of the text.

3. What is the narrative structure of the text?

4. Does the medium being used affect the text? How?

5. How does the application of semiotic theory alter the original meaning that you might have ascribed to the text?

Try this out

Use the questions above to unpack the meaning of the message of the cartoon below. The signifier (the supplied cartoon) is made up of signs. A sign is a representation of something; it has a referent. The “devil” is a sign and so is the “angel.” The “world” is a sign. All of these signs make up the signifier, which is a representation, i.e., a message that has a meaning that the communicator wants to communicate. The signified is the meaning and in some cases the reality, i.e., a picture of a dog probably represents some actual dog, etc. There is therefore a “gap” (between the signifier and what is signified) that the recipient of a message has to bridge from his or her experience, etc.

The cartoon illustrates the ideological struggle, the great controversy between Christ and Satan. Take the Bible and explore these themes, and then apply them to life in the context of a Christian worldview. Use the text below as a starting point. You will be amazed at how contemporary, how relevant the Bible is.

“Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:11-18, NIV).

I have used such analysis in media literacy classes, and student’s comments varied: “I’m not going to allow myself to be insulted again.” “I did not know that there are such meaningful programs!” “Why always so late at night!” “May I borrow that tape so that I can show my friend?” “This course caused me to realize that I am a person in my own right and that I must be on the look-out for those who wish to take this away and make me a puppet.” “I did not know that the mass media could have such a negative influence on those that are unsuspecting.”

Not only did the students become selective, but they also testified to the influence that discussions about truth, reality, and beauty in relation to the media, had on their Christian experience. One student remarked that all young people want to be different and that he had discovered that the only authentic way to be really different from the masses is to be a Christian.

Paul expresses this concern in Romans 12:1-3, “I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—which is your spiritual worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (NIV).

A daily battle

Living with the media and not becoming a victim to their hidden devices is a daily battle. Media shapes our culture. It affects our thinking, our identity, and can lead us away from God. It comes in various forms and shapes: in what we see, in the literature we read, in the economics and industries that affect our daily life, in the public opinion and politics that we are called upon to participate in. It plays a significant psychological role in how we work, worship, serve, and lead our family lives. It involves design, fashion, aesthetics, and philosophy of who we are and the nature of reality and truth.

The challenge of its dialectics and its message is no different today than it was in Paul’s time, and we will do well to ponder with the apostle: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.... For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Corinthians 1:20-22, 25, NIV).

Ellen White too emphasizes this continual process of weighing what we see, read, and hear by a careful exercise of the power of choice God has given. “Every human being,” she wrote, “created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator—individuality, power to think and to do. The men and women in whom this power is developed are the men who bear responsibilities, who are leaders in enterprise, and who influence character. It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train young people to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other people’s thought.”6

We cannot confront the dangers that arise from the media by an attitude of quiet acceptance, conformism, and sacrifice of our individuality. Christian media literacy requires that we be aware of and confront with moral and spiritual rectitude the hidden dangers of the media—the dangers that employ high-tech tools and anthropocentric ideals to destroy the distinction between right and wrong, and in the process destroy the image of God in the individual at the altar of so-called societal entertainment. The ideology that means can justify ends cannot be allowed to have its unbridled say when it comes to examining the media and its effect on us.

Only thus can we screen the screen—that is to say, withstand the bewitching power of the media and be free to choose what is right and good.

Delyse Steyn (D.Ed., University of South Africa) teaches in the Department of Communication at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A. Her email address:


  1. retrieved March 2, 2004.
  2. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (London: Penguin, 1986), p. 166.
  3. J. Fischer, Real Christians Don’t Dance (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1988), p. 141.
  4. See note 1 above.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ellen G. White, True Education (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 2000), p. 12.