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‘The Glass Teat’

14:02 13 February 2013

Adrian Newman, Bishop of Stepney

Adrian Newman, Bishop of Stepney

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The Rt Revd Adrian Newman, Bishop of Stepney

Harlan Ellison (the man who wrote the very first series of Star Trek) once called TV ‘the glass teat’ – and then wrote a book of that name.

We might not like Ellison’s phrase, because it makes us sound like irresponsible children incapable of being weaned from something comforting and reassuring - rather like Maggie constantly sucking on her dummy in The Simpsons. But it’s a powerful image of the role that television plays in our world, pervasive entertainment that enters our homes uninvited, and spins a web of dependency around us.

Roman emperors offered their citizens 93 days of games each year to keep them entertained and pacify the masses, but contemporary viewers watch an average of 4-5 hours of TV every day. That’s like spending 15 years of your life night and day solidly watching TV. Forgive me for sounding old-fashioned and out of touch, but that is quite simply a waste of a life.

Today the churches mark the beginning of Lent, a period of self-discipline and voluntary restraint meant to prepare us spiritually for the horror of Good Friday and the glory of Easter Day. It is traditional to ‘give something up’ in Lent, which is a way of exercising a small but manageable control over those things that tend to hold too much influence in our lives.

Many religions teach this way of restraint. I was struck last Summer with how powerful Ramadan is as a public expression of self-limitation in a consumer society. We don’t know how to control our appetites for consumption, and lack of self-control runs like a thread right through a range of our social ills – credit and debt, diet and health, pay differentials, the bonus culture, tax avoidance.

My Muslim brothers and sisters, in their celebration of Ramadan, fasting from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, offered a great gift to us. Human beings flourish through self-limitation, through self-denial, through self-control. These are qualities of personal transformation. If I want to change the world, I have to start with myself.

I know people who give up alcohol or chocolate for these 6 weeks of Lent. I’ve heard of others who stop wearing a watch, or refuse to use their credit card.

But the really tricky one? I think it could be TV. If you doubt this, O television junkie, try going 24 hours without switching it on. Or 6 and a half weeks………

If television really has become a glass teat for many of us, maybe it is time we weaned ourselves off it. Self-restraint is not for dummies.

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