God and man at PBS

I hadn’t been tempted to watch the PBS special last night on the religious implications of 9/11. My only exposure to it had been a lead-in I heard on the radio with a woman complaining “where was that nice loving man [God] I had been talking to all those years … after that I couldn’t believe any more …” A friend who was watching called, though, so I went to the TV and watched a series of snippets from interviews, for example a Jewish Conservative rabbi who talked about how for him “One God” now means pantheism and human love, and who chanted some extracts from phone messages to their loved ones from those who were about to die.

The message of the show seemed rather consistent: 9/11 made it impossible for many people to believe in a personal, loving, provident God, but left them with a residual faith in some sort of all-embracing this-worldly unity and in the importance of human love. “We are the world” substitutes for “Hear O Israel the Lord our God is One God.” The shocks of life reveal what our religion—our most basic understanding of things—really is. People used to say there are no atheists in the foxhole. The point of the show seemed to be that there are no believers in an authoritative personal deity after 9/11.

I was surprised by the response, although I suppose I shouldn’t have been. Where had those people been all these years? Hadn’t they noticed that everyone dies and utterly horrible things happen? For that matter, what had they been getting out of the religion they professed? God tortured to death is at the center of Christianity. Hadn’t they ever wondered why? And why did they think people read the psalms and prophets in times of trouble? For assurances that nothing bad ever happens? I would have thought that the point of religion is dealing with overwhelming realities. Not any more, it seems.

So one thing the show demonstrated is that for many people today religious life is purely decorative. It’s there to make things nice and can’t stand up to recognition of genuine evil. People can’t bear the notion that there are basic problems that can’t be fixed. That’s why, on a more everyday level, comfortable middle-class Americans refuse to believe there is anything basically wrong with our country, for example with what their children are taught in school. If they saw anything wrong there’d be something wrong with how they are carrying out a fundamental responsibility, looking after their children, and that would be intolerable.

Another aspect of the show is that it demonstrates how TV gives rise to its own religion. X, Y and Z say A, B and C, and TV presents them all right next to each other, each on a par with the others. The real truth therefore becomes the mutual presence of inconsistent particular statements of the truth. The particular statements become relativized and what remains is human striving for truth tempered by consciousness that one truth is as good as another so all truths are just personal assertions. The ultimate truth therefore becomes recognition that we all make assertions that we must limit by recognition of their purely personal nature and acceptance of the assertions of others. Abstractly speaking, of course, that “ultimate truth” is just another assertion. However, it can’t be seen as such because the TV camera can’t show itself as the proponent of a particular truth. From the point of view of TV, the camera is the eye of God. The media overall therefore become God. The medium, it turns out, is indeed The Message.
Posted by Jim Kalb at September 04, 2002 09:11 AM | Send


Doesn’t Plato say in The Republic that the Good is the light, analogous to sunlight, in which the truth of things is seen? Television is therefore the anti-Good, a “light” that destroys the truth and makes the false appear to be true. Television, by jostling incompatible truths together (which is the way discourse is conducted today in the media and the universities generally) leads to the conclusion that all truths are personal assertions so that the supreme “truth” is the belief that no one should believe his own truth too strongly. The producers of this program set it up in such a way that that becomes the inevitable conclusion. In the absense of an authoritative, broadly accepted tradition of religious/moral understanding, all that’s left is a lot of selves singing their own song. So the very organization of the program, the presenting of one contradictory voice after another, becomes the message that the show’s producers want to convey. And the specific content of that message turns out to be identical to the secular, liberal, man-centered, multiculturalist orthodoxy.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on September 4, 2002 9:42 AM

The problem is that TV is able to pretend to be the universal light that shows everything just as it is without distortion. It shows everything but those who construct what is shown—camera, crew, producer, editors, etc. It’s the images on the screen in Plato’s cave passing themselves off as realities but worse because they look much more like realities and they’re put together by someone with an ax to grind.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on September 4, 2002 10:00 AM

Well, I agree about the cave analogy, though I didn’t see the show. My sense of it is that a kind of “theodicy backlash” is underway in the popular culture. The Episcopal bishop Bennison - about as good a Kultursmog sensor as there is - even wrote an article in his diocesian newspaper about how mad he is at God over 9/11. And this is the same man who denies all supernatural events in the Bible, including of course the miracles by and about Jesus. It strikes me as utterly gnostic to rail against one’s own deist view of God who doesn’t - in one’s own opinion - intervene in nature.

Posted by: William Riggs on September 4, 2002 8:25 PM

Someone should collect Episcopalian responses to 9/11. At Trinity Church/Wall Street, a couple blocks from the WTC, they put on a conference the following November about how murderous “fundamentalism” is.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on September 4, 2002 9:25 PM

I found the article itself in the September Issue of the Pennsylvania Episcopalian at:


In addition to the “It is appropriate to get mad at God” whopper, Bennisen also quotes the Bishop of New York City as claiming that they cleaned up the mess too fast in Manhattan, so people didn’t have enough time to “grieve”.

Common sense is not these folks strong suit.

Posted by: William Riggs on September 6, 2002 9:30 PM
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