(February 2001 – Volume 7, Issue 2)
One is tempted, when dealing with such a subject as entertainment, to immediately face the current issues as related to the matter at hand. We are anxious to explore the place entertainment plays in our society, its encroachment upon the church, and its impact on the changing face of corporate worship. But to do so would be not only premature but superficial. It is important first to lay a foundation upon which we can build and inspect. We need to travel down the road of the past to understand how we, as a society, got to the present. Having made that journey we would then be wise to take stock, consider precautions, and contemplate some adjustments. All of this before we discuss entertainment in the context of the church. If you will bear with me, this will not be a study of Scripture, but a perusal of our society — both past and present. In our next paper I hope to tie all of this together from a scriptural frame of reference.
The Road Most Often Taken
It would probably come as a shock to those who live in a culture in which entertainment has become the primary and most cherished value to learn that it has not always been this way. One researcher discovered that the word “fun” was of “recent origin and that no other language had an exact equivalent to the English meaning, leading him to speculate that fun was neither readily understood nor fully accepted until the twentieth century. At the highest levels of culture it was taken for granted that good things were serious things” (Life the Movie, by Neal Gabler, p. 20). It is interesting to do a word study on the words laugh and laughter, as found in Scripture. While these words are found a couple of dozen times they are almost always used in a negative sense – usually of one who is expressing scorn or mockery (e.g. Psalm 2:4). Only twice, Psalm 126:2 and Proverbs 14:13 is laughter defined as something clearly positive. Additionally, none of the great personalities of biblical times are ever said to have laughed as an expression of joy and happiness. Jesus wept, but we never hear of Him laughing. The same is true of many others. This is not to say that godly people in biblical times never laughed, but for whatever reason God did not see it as important to tell us about it.
As for the issue of fun, the Scriptures usually cast a pejorative connotation on the idea. The prodigal son no doubt had fun, as he squandered his wealth and his life, but then he came to his senses. But in fairness, when he came home his father threw him a great party where all but one person were merry and rejoiced (Luke 15:32). Of course their joy was over a marvelous thing – the repentance of a sinner. We find a similar pattern throughout Scripture. The Old Testament Jewish feasts were unquestionably times of rejoicing, at least that was their original intention. We find singing, fellowship, good food and drink. But it was all in the context of worshipping and pleasing God. The joy wrapped around the feasts (and other happy events) was supposed to be centralized on God – He, and His great provisions, were to be the focus.
Solomon, on the other hand, gives us one of the few biblical pictures of a man pursuing happiness and entertainment in which he and his interest were center stage — and it is not pretty. In the book of Ecclesiastes Solomon chronicles his journey in pursuit of something that would satisfy the gaping hole in his heart left by his abandonment of God. In this quest for pleasures, in all its forms, he ultimately did not find joy but increasing emptiness. When the laughter had died down he was still the same hollow man that he was before. Solomon learned almost too late that while “there is nothing wrong with entertainment… we all build castles in the air. The problems come when we try to live in them” (Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 77). Scripture, then, would not appear to condemn fun, laughter or entertainment, but would point us in the direction of examining both the focus and the motive behind such endeavors. For instance, the joy of the Lord is a common theme, especially in the Psalms. This is a joy centered on God, drawn from God’s greatness, and focusing on God’s glory. This is not exactly the typical concept of a “good time” today.
Outside the biblical picture, and throughout the ages, until recently, many who could (usually the wealthy) without question chased certain pleasures – drunkenness, orgies, immoral pursuits, mindless amusement — but usually these activities were seen for what they were – godless substitutes for the finer things in life. Nothing like the entertainment age, as we know it today, appears on the pages of history. Even during the days of the Roman Coliseum only a few were “entertained,” the masses were excluded, or worse, executed.
Many have traced the roots of the entertainment explosion among the common people back to radical changes taking place in Western society during the 1800s. No one has brought this to our attention better than Neil Postman in his excellent book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, which we will refer to often.
As these changes began to sweep across our land the intellectuals and cultural aristocrats were most often found sitting in their own corners, scoffing. For centuries the upper crust had an appreciation for the arts. But to enjoy the arts required a person to think, to meditate, to engage the mind and the soul. This new brand of entertainment, increasingly being enjoyed by the masses, was mindless. It was “about gratification rather than edification, indulgence rather than transcendence, reaction rather than contemplation, escape from moral instruction rather than submission to it” (ibid. p. 16).
In other words, the new forms of entertainment now gaining popularity with the ordinary man was nothing more than senseless fun – and it was loved for just that reason. The elite hated entertainment for the same reasons that the working class delighted in it. Siding with the elite was the church, but for somewhat different reasons. The church opposed amusement because its values and interests were in competition with those of organized religion – and because when a person was distracted by entertainment they could not focus on God.
But the church, especially in America, had virtually no restraining effect on the new amusement juggernaut for two reasons. First, Americans simply did not go to church in great numbers in the nineteenth century. Many estimates place church membership at around 7% at the dawn of the nineteenth century and only 15% by 1850, after the so-called Second Great Awakening. Secondly, a dramatic shift had taken place in American forms of worship following the Revolutionary War. In the early decades of the 1700s churches and preachers were still under the influence of the Puritans. Sermons were highly doctrinal, often read verbatim from manuscripts. Church services were geared for the mind not the emotions (although many, like Jonathan Edwards preached to the heart, he did so, however, through the conduit of the mind); sermons were judged by their content not their delivery (Edwards read every word). Music was carefully controlled. Hymns were often “lined out” (a method whereby the song leader read one line at a time, which the congregation would then sing then wait for the next line to be read), and sometimes eliminated altogether for fear that the people might be manipulated.
All that began to change in the 1740s at the time of the Great Awakening and the preaching of George Whitefield. When the embers of this time of revival died down the church went into a drought. Church attendance began to dive, theology lost its appeal, the teachings of the Enlightenment began to catch on, and Deism became popular. By 1800 the American church was in a dismal state and ripe for anything that would offer some kind of spiritual sustenance. The Second Great Awakening, which began in 1801 in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, would fill that void and forever change Christianity in America. Sermons of substance were replaced with emotional diatribes. Doctrine was replaced by stories. The preacher’s performance became more important than what was taught. Music took on a central role as emotionalism became the order of the day. Ministers began to study “what worked” in order to draw a crowd. Charles Finney would perfect all of this, changing the heart and soul of the church. In other words, the church became a form of entertainment.
And so, when amusement began to grow legs in society, the church had little that it could say. Its biggest complaint would have to be that they were now in competition with secular forms of entertainment. The church could not speak with authority against these amusements because it had lost its voice.
If someone had fallen asleep in 1850 and awakened a hundred years later he would be just in time to watch society giving birth to the perfect entertainment transport – the television. Neil Postman argues persuasively that, “Television has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience…. The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue all together…. Television is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business” (ibid. p. 80, 87). Television did not invent the entertainment age, it just perfected it.
The age of television ascended from the ashes of the age of exposition. In the 1700s and well into the 1800s almost everyone in this country was a reader. “America was as dominated by the printed word and an oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of” (ibid. p. 47). The outcome of such a state was a nation of people who could think, analyze, debate, formulate an argument, understand and discuss issues, including theology. All of that began to change in the nineteenth century as entertainment started sending down roots into the lives of the American people.
Entertainment soon began to wrap its long tentacles around every aspect of American society. Not only was religion affected but so were politics, the media, advertisement and life in general. Politicians today no longer debate issues so much as they project an image, and why not for, “Image is everything” according to the Canon commercials. And have you noticed how newspaper articles increasingly open like novels, setting the scene and attempting to draw interest. Education too, has caught the wave. If kids would not listen to teachers and read books maybe they would listen to puppets and watch cartoons. So the experts invented Sesame Street, and its clones, then soon thereafter began to praise its results.
Today kids also enjoy computer software that has furthered metamorphosed learning into a game. But the long-term prognosis is not so bright. Our children are entering higher education and the adult work world with a game mentality. The consequence, educators are increasingly recognizing, is that we must make education fun and entertaining if we expect to keep the interest of our young adults. All that Sesame Street ultimately proved, as Neil Postman observes, is that children would love school “only if school is like Sesame Street…. As a television show Sesame Street does not encourage children to love school or anything about school. It encourages them to love television” (ibid. p. 142). And unfortunately, “Television’s primary contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable…. [Which in turn] has refashioned the classroom into a place where both teaching and learning are intended to be vastly amusing activities” (ibid. p. 146, 148). And when they are not, students become restless and detached.
Then consider advertising, which is as fine a mirror as you are likely to find to reflect what a society values and how it reasons. Prior to the twentieth century advertisers assumed that consumers, since they were readers, were literate, rational and analytical. Therefore they advertised their products in rational ways – explaining their benefits – in order to entice a thinking society. That did not begin to change until the latter part of the 1800s when advertisers began to adopt jingles and slogans. The evolution of advertisement from that point would be an interesting study in itself, but even the casual observer today would note the almost complete lack of content in modern commercials. Increasingly modern advertisement has almost no link whatsoever with the product. A product with redeeming value is not being sold, an image is. What this tells us about ourselves is that we have become a people who no longer thinks and analyzes, rather we respond to clever manipulation of our emotions.
“Television commercials made linguistic discourse obsolete as the basis for product decisions. By substituting images for claims, the pictorial commercial made emotional appeal, not tests of truth, the basis of consumer decision” (ibid. p. 127). The implications of this for the church should be self-evident. Postman suggests that, “The decline of a print-based epistemology and the accompanying rise of a television-based epistemology has had grave consequences for public life, that we are getting sillier by the minute” (ibid. p. 24). “Entertainment reaches out to us where we are, puts on its show and then leaves us essentially unchanged, if a bit poorer in time and money. It does not (and usually does not claim to) offer us any new perspective on our lives” (All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, by Don Myers, as quoted in Family-Based Youth Ministry, p. 144).
Of course Christianity was not far behind. Neal Gabler, who has no ax to grind in this area, making no pretense to be a Christian, has noticed, “Evangelical Protestantism, which had begun as a kind of spiritual entertainment in the nineteenth century, only refined its techniques in the twentieth, especially after the advent of television. Televangelists like Oral Roberts and Jimmy Swaggart recast the old revival meeting as a television variety show, and Pat Robertson’s 700 Club was modeled after The Tonight Show, only the guests on this talk show weren’t pitching a new movie or album; they were pitching salvation” (Life the Movie, p. 120). Christianity on television, by necessity, has always been presented in the form of entertainment. Theology, rituals, sacred worship, prayer, and most other true components of the Christian faith, simply do not “play” well on television.
As might be expected the local church caught on as well. If they were to draw the masses it could best be done by wrapping the faith in the package of entertainment – for the people, having now been trained to be consumers, have also been taught that the ultimate sin is to be bored. Hence the birth of the market-driven church which caters to the insatiable appetite for amusement in society in general.
Overall there has been a great shift in what our culture values. One student of the times remarks, “The old Puritan production oriented culture demanded and honored what he called character, which was a function of one’s moral fiber. The new consumption oriented culture, on the other hand, demanded and honored what he called personality, which was a function of what one projected to others. It followed that the Puritan culture emphasized values like hard work, integrity and courage. The new culture of personality emphasized charm, fascination and likability” (Life the Movie, p. 197). Steven Covey, in his widely poplar book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (many teachings of which I do not endorse) notices this same thing in his in-depth study of the “success” literature published in the United States since 1776. He writes that, “Almost all the literature in the first 150 years or so focused on what could be called the Character Ethic as the foundation of success – things like integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty, and the Golden Rule…. But shortly after World War I the basic view of success shifted from the Character Ethic to what we might call the Personality Ethic. Success became more a function of personality, of public image, of attitudes and behaviors, skills and techniques, that lubricate the processes of human interaction…. The basic thrust was quick-fix influence techniques, power strategies, communication skills, and positive attitudes” (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Steven Covey, pp. 18-19).
We live in a society that increasingly drifts towards the form rather than the substance, which embraces the superficial, which lives to play, which will pay almost any amount of money to be amused, and which prizes fun as the highest pursuit of life. Conviction has been replaced by thrill and few seem to notice. One cannot help but think of Pinocchio and his buddies on Pleasure Island. In the midst of mindless fun only Pinocchio seemed to understand that they were all being turned into donkeys until it was too late.
One would hope that things would be different among evangelical Christians, but such does not seem to be the case. It appears that the church is in lockstep with the world. The problem is this – Christians have been seduced and trained by the same forces that have enticed society as a whole. Too many Christians, just like their unsaved counterparts, are impressed by the form rather than the substance; are seeking thrills and excitement; are more apt to respond to emotional manipulation than to rational discourse. How does a church compete in this rather crowded marketplace? If entertainment has become the primary value of the American way of life (as some are suggesting) then how can the church vie unless they become bastions of entertainment? But if they give in to this powerful temptation has not the church been transformed into something other than the church? Postman, who does not pretend to be a Christian, nevertheless recognizes that, “Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether…. There is no doubt, in other words, that religion can be made entertaining. The question is, by doing so, do we destroy it” (Postman, p. 121, 124). The problem is that the main business of entertainment is to please the crowd, but the main purpose of authentic Christianity is to please the Lord. Both Scripture and history have repeatedly shown that it is seldom possible to do both at the same time, for very long.
Is there an antidote for a culture being drained by laughter? I think not. When everything from politics, to education, to religion has become defined by its entertainment value the culture as a whole would seem to have become too trivialized to redeem. But there is an outside chance that God’s people (at least some of them) can see through the smoke and come to different conclusions, and different ways of living. The key lies in the area of discernment. The author of Hebrews, addressing a whole different set of issues that had left his Christian audience immature and ineffective, called for this very thing, “Solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). There was no shortcut then, as there is none now, to maturity and discernment — solid food, in the form of in-depth study and application of the Word of God, is needed.
When Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World he certainly did not have biblical discernment in view as the remedy for his envisioned societal ills. But he did have a point to make worth considering. “In the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking” (ibid. p. 163).
Christianity is designed by God to be a “thinking” faith. God desires His people to consider, reason, analyze and study. He has given us His Word in propositional form; a Word that must be carefully dissected if it is to be understood (II Timothy 2:15). To allow ourselves to be pressed into the world’s mold of entertainment without careful reflection based on Scripture is a terrible loss. God is not calling His people to a life of grumpiness, but surely if we, like the saints of biblical times, are looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10) it will shape the way we live and enjoy our time on this earth. More on how this subject relates to the church next time.