I learned about slow TV through NPR’s Invisibilia podcast. They dropped an episode about it back in May of 2021, introducing their audience to the slow TV programming of Norway’s public television. Beginning in 2009, Norwegian creators broadcast everything from a night of knitting to a ten hour train ride to a five and a half day boat trip. No commercials. No commentary. Just salmon fishing. Or wood chopping and stacking. They created it and the people watched. Lots of people. One million people (about 1/5 of Norway’s population) tuned in to the first program.
I found one of the Norwegian train rides on YouTube. It begins with the train sitting still on snow-covered tracks in the train yard. Through the front windshield of the train, you see street lights and traffic lights, other train cars, big industrial buildings, and some rain on the windshield. For the first couple of minutes the train doesn’t move. That was too slow for me, so I advanced the dot on the progress bar to the point when the train was actually moving along the tracks – out of the train yard and through the town.
I felt it—the pull of this slow TV—watching the cars on the roads next to the tracks, the lights shining bright in a house we buzzed by, a bird, a cemetery, graffiti, the windshield wipers clearing and smearing the view. It looked like early morning. My mind wandered. How do Norwegians take their coffee? Where is that man on the footbridge going?
But after about five minutes, I was done. Who has time for this? I wondered. Somehow I figured watching it at double-speed would defeat the purpose.
And speaking of purpose, the hosts of the Invisibilia podcast had a purpose in exploring slow TV. As a podcast that researches the “unseeable forces that control human behavior and shape our ideas, beliefs, and assumptions,” they were considering the power of narrative and wondering about the possible power of weak narratives.
People are meaning-making creatures and we usually want a strong, compelling narrative to pull us into and through a story, to pull us into and through our own stories!
As Reformed Christians, we love the biblical narrative of Creation-Fall-Redemption-New Creation. We appreciate the catechetical narrative of Guilt-Grace-Gratitude. We’re compelled by a story that tells us where we’ve come from, how we’ve gotten into the messes in which we find ourselves, and what will bring us restoratively into a future, abundantly full of God’s plans for us.
I remember when I took a three month leave of absence a couple of years ago. Three months! I knew I needed it, but what was I going to do with those months? It didn’t take me long to come up with some chapter headings. My first month was going to be about Stopping, my second, Stilling, and my third, Strengthening. These words shaped my story as I lived it and then afterward, as I told it.
We need strong narratives to help us make meaning and to move us forward. But you know what a strong narrative inevitably does? It de-complexifies things. It ignores things and edits things out to narrow our focus. At best, this can be helpful and efficient, but it can also be reductionistic and problematic – especially when those efficient and strong narratives are used to control or manipulate people.
At the beginning of the slow TV podcast episode, one of the hosts, Yowei Shaw, told listeners that she’d been working on a story
about how good people are getting at weaponizing narrative… Using narrative to advance political agendas. People feel defenseless against narrative. (Host Abby Wendle: Like they just feel vulnerable to its power?) Yeah, it’s just like, well, whoever’s the best narrative master will win. Nothing we can do except, maybe just do it better?
I listened to this episode just before the CRCNA’s Synod this year. I thought about the narratives of the various stakeholders. Each group had a strong and compelling story bringing them into the deliberations. As Synod finished, summaries and analyses emerged, propelling individuals and groups into chapters of lament or hope or action.
There’s a part of me that appreciates the attempts to strongly narrate the story of my denomination. We need to create stories to simplify, navigate and manage our reality – and maybe the strong stories we articulate are true and helpful.
But sometimes the narratives are too strong, too fast, or too simple. A part of me wonders what it would be like to weaken the narrative – or at least slow it down – just for a bit, so that we have time to see as much of the picture as possible.
When the Invisibilia hosts asked Thomas Hellum, the creator of Norwegian slow TV, if it’s supposed to be boring. He said, “I wouldn’t say boring. Of course, we use boring as a compliment because it’s not boring-boring. It’s just that everything is there.” It’s just that everything is there.
Fred Turner, media historian and professor of communication at Stanford, researches ambient media and its relationship to democracy. In summarizing his work, Invisibilia host Abby Wendle said that
slow TV’s style of storytelling (weak narrativity) might cut against actually the threat of violent nationalism. Because rather than handing people a script about their country and their place in it, ambient media engages people in daydreaming and debating for themselves questions like, Who is nationalism for? What is this thing we call ours?
Turner encourages people to watch footage from Robert Kennedy’s funeral procession. After his assassination, Kennedy’s body was moved by train from New York City to Washington, D.C.. The camera quietly captured the crowds of people lining the tracks—waving, saluting, running, weeping. It’s not boring-boring. It’s just that everything is there. Turner says,
You’re not being told what to do; you’re being offered a chance to participate in an experience. You don’t have to do it one way or another. You don’t have to laugh at the joke. There’s no canned laughter telling you “Now’s the time you giggle.” There’s just the sounds, and the air and the people waving. And you can decide how you feel. You might feel really sad because you liked Kennedy. You might feel really angry because you disliked Kennedy and now everyone is celebrating them… You can see so much and decide what you want to do with it.
Ambient media like this helps you to see “things around you and [see] yourself among those things as one of those things – as a citizen equal to others; not as someone above or below, not as someone in competition with, not as someone who has to take a stand on a fault line, but as someone who belongs to a whole” (Turner).
I have no idea what ambient media could have to offer the CRCNA. There’s no budget available to stage a train ride through the parking lots and pews of all the CRCs. I suppose I’m just inviting us to slow down our narratives… loosen our hold on oversimplifications of our current reality or even of scripture (which is probably less a single story and more a collection of various narratives in conversation with one another).
Or how about this? If we’re going to tell a story to help us navigate our current reality, can we tell it in a way that doesn’t drown out the other stories? Could our narratives be “weak” enough to leave room for the complexities of the whole or “slow” enough to patiently wait for the emerging voices?
After all, wasn’t Jesus one to slow things down? The stones were about to fly, and he bent down to write in the sand. Lazarus was sick, and Jesus waited a few days before going to Bethany. It was time to go to Jerusalem, and he entered at donkey-speed. The powers of darkness were raging, and Jesus got on a cross and died.
What can we learn from Jesus, who knew the power of Slow and Weak?
I don’t know. Maybe for some of us it isn’t the right time to lean into a weak narrative. Some of us have been Weak for a long time, and it’s time to Strengthen… Slow for a long time, and it’s time to Move… Dying for a long time, and it’s time to Rise. Quiet for a long time, and it’s time to Tell Our Story.
Bless you, friends, in all your story-telling and story-listening… at whatever speed or strength you need for your journey.