Posted by: Kenn Hermann | April 23, 2006

E. J. Carnell on Living as Children of Light in the Age of Television

E. J. Carnell was a brilliant young theologian in the early post-WWII period. He, along with Harold Ockenga and Carl F. H. Henry, led the neo-evangelical movement to revitalize what they found to be the stultifying, culturally isolated, and anti-intellectual Fundamentalism of their youth and early training. They established a beachhead for their reform movement at the newly-founded Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California in 1947. Ockenga, after a successful pastoral career in Boston, served as its first president. Henry and Carnell, both with Harvard Ph.D.s, taught systematic theology and apologetics at the fledgling seminary. Carnell established his early reputation in apologetics with an award-winning essay on An Introduction to Christian Apologetics (1948). He went on to write eight more apologetic works that brought conservative orthodoxy into conversation with the latest currents of philosophical and theological thought. Carnell’s revitalizing contributions to an evangelical renaissance were cut short by his untimely death in 1967.

In the flurry of writing his first book, completing two dissertations (he did a second Ph.D. on Kierkegaard at Boston University) and offering a full load of classes at Fuller, Carnell found time to write a ground-breaking book on Television: Servant or Master? (1950) just as this new medium was about to explode into American popular culture. We would now call it a work of cultural apologetics. In this work Carnell used the Augustinian framework of the entwinement of the City of God and the City of Man to interpret the ambiguities of this new phenomenon. Fresh from his Harvard dissertation on Reinhold Niebuhr, Carnell was able to weave the insights of neo-orthodoxy and a firm commitment to classical Christianity into a sophisticated analysis of television’s potential for good and for evil.

After 56 years Television: Servant or Master? still merits close attention for its arresting insights into evangelicalism, popular culture, and technology. (The sub-text of his subtle critique of Fundamentalism is worth reading in its own right.) All Christians seeking the norms that ought to shape their understanding of television — and all other technological objects — will benefit greatly from wrestling with Carnell’s challenge to live as Children of Light in the television age.

Some years ago I gave a short presentation on this book, hoping to write an article on it. Though the article lies still-born I can, through this medium, offer you some thought-provoking excerpts from this long-out-of-print book.

(By offering this brief introduction to Carnell, I cannot fail to note the irony of the deep gulf that separates the origin of modern Evangelicalism, which was rooted in a fertile theological and philosophical soil, and the origin of many large modern conservative churches, which is rooted in the power and allure of the commercial spirit. Something is tragically amiss in the Church when it exchanges Carnell’s The Case for Biblical Christianity for Rich Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life and seminaries for mega-churches. Can Orthodoxy long survive this exchange of strong meat for milk? If it can, it will be the first time in its history that the Church has been revitalized without nurturing the life of the mind. But I digress . . . .)

By the way, you will know that you are ‘thinking Christianly’ about television when you decide to dedicate it to the service of Christ the Lord, as Carnell suggests. That we think this is silly — as do most of my audiences to whom I have presented this option — is a measure of how far we have moved toward ‘thinking secularly’ about technological objects.



  1. I’m a little confused about your connection of the emergent church and Rick Warren. Most people within the EC movement are quite critical of mega-churches and anything remotely purpose-driven. They see it as representative of the “institutional” church and the modernist mindset.

    Just curious.

  2. Good point, Brian. I have changed ’emerging churches’ to ‘many modern conservative churches.’

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