Par-lor, n. 1: a room used primarily for conversation or the reception of guests.

I am defining parlor because many of our younger generation would not be able to tell you what a parlor is, or even how to spell it. The parlor of yesteryear is today called the living room or the family room. And I worry considerably about the “guest” most often present there — the thief that is otherwise known as a television set.

A thief, by definition, steals. How can I call something that offers so much marvelous programming, that gives us a window to the world, a thief? Television does, indeed, come bearing gifts, some superb, some just trash in fancy wrappings. But that is the problem. It brings gifts 24 hours a day, with many selections for each hour of every day. It tantalizes us, making us curious about what the next program may have to offer. Perhaps it will show us something new and exciting! Perhaps it will intrigue us with yet another depravity. Well do I remember my family’s first radio. I thought I would be able to hear many things when I was home alone that my parents wouldn’t approve of. My hope didn’t pan out back then, but had I been a teenager nowadays I could have gone OVERLOAD and TILT on the sleaze that TV has to offer.

TV’s thievery grieves me because it’s so subtle, so seductive, so — doggone it — welcome! In 1991 Nielsen reported that the average American watched nearly 50 hours of television per week. Another survey revealed that only 24 respondents thought television should have the greatest influence on children’s values but 56 percent thought it did have the greatest influence — more than parents, teachers, and religious leaders combined (Mellman and Lazarus, 1991 American Family Values Study).

Remember when there was no TV? Kids would go from one friend’s house to another, calling for someone to come out and play. Remember hopscotch, jump rope, hide-and-seek, the more kids the better? Sometimes, out of sheer boredom, finding no one to play with, they might pick up a book and actually read it for pleasure.

Unlike a book, TV doesn’t allow you the privilege of putting it down and picking it up again later. Unless you keep on watching, you miss what comes next forever. ( Granted some folks have TiVo but that’s not yet a staple in every home.) If you visit someone who is reading a book, chances are she will put it down and turn her attention to you. But if she’s watching TV, you might very well have to wait until the end of the program for her attention. Sometimes you feel you can either watch television with her or go home. In some homes, the TV is the extra guest at the dinner table. In others, this armless, loveless machine tells the children their bedtime stories. Too often it is an ever-available baby sitter. It is so easy to follow the path of least resistance instead of reaching out and touching someone.

John Paul II in his message for World Communications Day noted that “even when television programs themselves are not morally objectionable, television can still have negative effects on the family. It can isolate family members in their private worlds, cutting them off from authentic interpersonal relations…” For example, the thief in the parlor can steal the intergenerational tales that used to take place around the fireplace.

Would your child want to hear you reminisce about your childhood when “Power Rangers” is on? There is something to be said for becoming familiar with one’s family history–it may shed light on the present.

Has TV stolen time that might be used to pass on skills–to teach a child to crochet or whittle or cook or play chess? Is your child likely to tell you about his day in school if it means missing the “After School Special”? Tuning in is tuning out from the nitty-gritty of real relationships with real human beings. Unplug the TV for a day and you might find your child talking to you because there is nothing better to do– and it might be the best thing that could happen.

TV can be mas mind-numbing and fruitless as drug addiction–all the more so because it, like drugs, seduces us into thinking it is mind-enlarging. More often it lulls and fills the mind with things we accept without knowing why. It’s like being spoon-fed and just swallowing without chewing. The computer programmer’s acronym, GIGO, is just as true for TV viewers–Garbage In = Garbage Out.

Not only can TV steal our minds away but it also steals our bodies. Nothing on earth equals the power of a television set to get a kid to sit or lie still, doing absolutely nothing, for hours on end. It gives us fat, flabby children, with fat, flabby parents. The only muscles we exercise as we idly watch whatever comes into view are our chewing muscles. Watching TV is an “activity” that requires no action.

People do not write poetry while watching TV, nor do they build better mousetraps, develop hypotheses, or run for public office. What capabilities remain unrealized because imaginations are held captive by the boob tube when they could be ranging free in the wild blue yonder?

When you boil it all down, what TV steals is precious time–hours and hours of time that might be better used to reflect, to create, and to relate. Sometimes I am tempted to believe that Satan, the “prince of the air,” is using television to anesthetize a whole population, to render them weak, unthinking, unloving, and apathetic, and all the while quite content to be in that situation. He welcomes even “good” programming if it will distract us from Jesus and no doubt chortles when we cry more over a soap opera than aborted babies and starving children.

Some have weighed the advantages and disadvantages of having a television set, have banished it from their homes. They may borrow tapes from the library or watch a movie together on special occasions. There is much on TV that is breathtakingly beautiful, much that is educational, much biased reporting, much that is soft porn or worse. With a VCR one has the option of taping the best ;programs and then watching them at a time of one’s own choosing, thus taking back one’s life instead of literally pouring it down the tube.

There is a lot to view but also a lot to do. Time is too valuable to waste and if enough of us stopped watching trash it would disappear. Above all else, we are called to love, and loving is a person-to-person activity. There are many ways to show love, few of which involve watching TV.

If the voice of God is not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, neither is it on ABC, HBO or MTV. We need to come apart from our busy-ness on occasion to tune in to the still, small voice of the Lord. We need, on occasion, to ask, “Lord, what would you have me do with this time that is allotted to me today?” He might answer with something as simple as “Smile at a real person.” Or, “Call home.”

The TV is my shepherd:
I shall not want,
It makes me lie down on the sofa,
I leads me away from the faith,
It destroys my soul.
It leads me in the path of sex and violence for the sponsor’s sake.
Yea, though I walk in the shadow of Christian responsibilities,
There will be no interruption,
For the TV is with me.
Its cable and remote csontrol they comfort me,
It prepares a commercial for me in the presence of my worldliness.
It anoints my head with humanism and consumerism.
My coveting runneth over.
Surely laziness and ignorance shall follow me all the days of my life
And I shall dwell in the house watching TV forever.

John Pinedo