Citizenship Confusion: John Piper and an Entertainment Addiction

Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.

The basis for my column has been the idea that U.S. Christians live in multiple kingdoms with conflicting values, and that we have to diligently discern our values and intentions or risk unknowingly buying into the ideologies of competing kingdoms. The two major kingdoms in the US that compete with the Church are the State and the Market. These kingdoms have their own vision of The Good Life, Goodness, Failure, Community, Truth etc. What I have tried to do is to expose these visions and show how they relate to Christian visions.

Recently, John Piper discussed the allure and dangers of one of the defining features of The Good Life according to the Market: perpetual entertainment. A Christian wrote Piper and explained that she was addicted to entertainment, that she desired to be entertained more than to read the Word, and that she wanted advice for how to break the addiction. Piper’s response, which The Christian Post transcribed from a radio show, is helpful, although I think it requires some reflection and nuance.

First, Piper points out the relevance of this question for our culture, which gives us immediate access to lots of entertainment. He then notes that figures like Jonathan Edwards complained about the way young people of his day would waste time on “frivolous conversation”; the implication being that in our contemporary situation, young people spend nearly all of their time on such chit-chat, between texting and Facebook.

Next, he notes how most of us carry in our pockets a, “radio, television, internet, and games, and anything that would be titillating, fun!” and he repeatedly calls for “seriousness” as opposed to entertainment. But then, something strange interjects itself into Piper’s text:

John Piper has just reminded us how dangerous it can be to have forms of entertainment, such as the Internet, with us at all times, and yet dividing his text in two is a request from The Christian Post to “Like” them on Facebook. This juxtaposition is ironic and maybe a bit humorous, but what is most fascinating is that the sudden interjection of Facebook into a discussion about the potential dangers of easily accessible and addictive entertainment doesn’t really constitute a contradiction, because we know that Facebook and the Internet in general are not necessarily problematic “entertainment.”

Piper rightly challenges our addiction to entertainment in the US, and I believe we could all do to hear this message more often. But the intrusion of Facebook into the middle of Piper’s serious message and the fact that we can read this critique of entertainment on the Internet (one of the sources of entertainment he listed earlier) highlight the great need for some nuance in his criticism.

There is no simple, easy way to discern what is entertainment, and what is not; or what is edifying, and what is not, with modern technology. Which means that before we can begin to cut out our “entertainment” or break our addiction, we need to do the hard work of figuring out what those actions even mean.

For example:

  • The Internet is quite entertaining, but it can also be incredibly edifying. And often, it can be both at the same time!
  • More specifically, Facebook can be a waste of our time or a good way to build community and grow.
  • I’ve had wonderful, “serious” conversations with friends while playing video games.
  • I’ve had deep theological discussions with friends while watching an NBA game.
  • TV shows and movies have led to great conversations with friends about “serious” subjects.
  • I’ve even been profoundly engaged by comic books while also being thoroughly entertained.

What this means is that just because you are “entertained” by something, doesn’t mean that it isn’t “serious” or edifying. So, if we want to be discerning about the kinds of things we spend our time on, we’ll have to look elsewhere for criteria. It’s not that Piper isn’t right to challenge our culture of perpetual entertainment, it’s that deciding what “entertainment” is, and when it is “bad” isn’t easy. If it were, Christ and Pop Culture wouldn’t be around.

If we are going to have any success in properly discerning how to invest our time in our media-filled world, we need to start with a reminder of what our purpose is and what our values are, and an honest assessment of how we line up according to that purpose and those values (a method I suspect Piper would approve of).

The Market would lead us to believe that our purpose is to be happy and to experience wonderful things (read: products, or experiences facilitated by products). Our values are shaped by that purpose. But as citizens of heaven, we have a different purpose: we are called to Love God and our Neighbor.

In many cases, I suspect that we’ll find that entertainment can be an act of love. Entertainment is a part of our culture, and our neighbors exist in culture. Sharing the cultural experience of the Super Bowl, or the NBA Playoffs, or the release of a new game can be a meaningful and even serious use of our time. If you want more examples of the potential goodness of culture and entertainment, click around Christ and Pop Culture some more. You’ll find plenty of examples from film, TV, music, fiction, and politics. (Or better yet, Like us on Facebook! I’ll accept it as an act of love.)

John Piper is correct that our entertainment-dominated culture ought to be a source of concern for Christians; we should not blindly accept the Market’s teaching on the Goodness of endless consumption of goods and entertainment. Yet, if we are going to lovingly and God-honoringly begin this process of culling our media choices, we must start with the more basic questions: what is “entertainment”, when is it edifying, when is the time for play, and when is the time for seriousness? If we do not begin by answering these questions and those like them, we run a very real risk of uncritically rejecting or embracing our culture, the one overseen by God and crafted by our neighbor.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • http://www.diannaeanderson.net Dianna

    As I read this, I remembered those times that you and Brittany invited people over to play Rock Band and have fun together. I also remember my neighbors at the Quad inviting us to their place to play Settlers of Catan (the devil’s game!). Both of these regular events were extremely useful in terms of facilitating a deep, strong community that may lead to further serious discussion and edification.

    The problem I’ve found with John Piper is that he has a type of thinking that plagues many American Christians – black and white. It’s either this or that – there is no middle ground. Yet, as you point out, it’s impossible to apply black and white thinking to the entertainment world. It runs afoul of logical thinking – for example: I personally try to avoid gambling because I know I have an addictive personality when it comes to that sort of stuff, but it’s not necessarily that I think gambling itself is sinful. I know plenty of people who have lots of fun throwing one or two dollars into a slot machine while out of with friends. What’s problematic for one isn’t problematic for another, and yet, Piper seems to be insinuating that if something is problematic for one, then it’s problematic for EVERYONE. Which…frustrates me.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    I had an over-zealous friend chastise everyone via Facebook recently. He said something like, “Instead of posting Bible verses and statuses about loving Jesus, why don’t you go out and witness to a real person!” I thought it was strange that he would have confidence that the rebuke would work on real people via Facebook, but posted verses of the Bible were not.

    Sometimes, our thinking, it no is good.

  • Daniel

    Brad–so ironic: it’s “sinful” to spend time posting on Facebook, rather than witnessing…but it’s “righteous” to spend time on Facebook, telling people what a “sinful” waste of time it is! I hope you or your friends pointed this out to him (gently, of course.)

    I do believe that Facebook in particular and the Internet in general can be additicive. I sometimes find myself spending more time than I ought, when I should be doing some dreaded chore. And certain things, like online games, are designed in such a way to be addictive.

    In the end, like all things, a Christian must be discerning. If you find you are shirking responsibilities to be entertained–no matter the form of entertainment–you need serious time with God to re-evaluate your priorities.

  • Alan Noble

    @Dianna,

    Absolutely. Lots of good, community-building memories of “entertainment”!

    I think Piper’s Puritanism shows here, for better or for worse.

  • http://42lifeinbetween.wordpress.com Matthew Rushing

    Thank you for this well thought out response. Entertainment can be and has been for me, a great way to have conversations with people about deep things that I would not have been able to have if not for the “frivolous” topic of movies or TV to start the conversation. It’s all in how and why we watch and then use that for the glory of God or just as a way to mindlessly entertain.

  • Justin

    @Alan Noble

    Could you elaborate on what you mean specifically by his Puritanism? I suspect you are not using the term offhand, so I am curious what you mean by it and/or how it applies here.

    Thanks.

  • Mike

    Rather than checking status updates and tweets while waiting in line to build my own burrito, I’m trying to be more intentional about memorizing Scripture. It’s not revolutionary, but I think a lot of us would benefit from unplugging and meditating on God’s Word.

  • Doug

    This take by Darryl Hart is very helpful. He crtiques a statement of Piper’s and concludes: “To set up such a competition — the more you delight in aspects of human existence, the less you love Christ — is to take the joy out of life. How sad.”

    http://oldlife.org/2012/02/i-loved-the-artist-because-jesus-made-it/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=i-loved-the-artist-because-jesus-made-it

  • Beau W.

    Hey…what happened to my original comment?

  • Alan Noble

    Beau W.

    I’m not sure! When did you post it? Our spam filter might have mislabeled it. I’ll check.

  • http://sarosefics.livejournal.com Rose Bexar

    Is this where the unabashed writer and reader of sci-fi/fantasy fanfiction chimes in to refer everyone to C. S. Lewis’ On Stories and Other Essays and Alister McGrath’s repeated comments about apologetics by appeal to the imagination? G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, specifically “The Ethics of Elfland”? J. R. R. Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf?
    (True story: I once got a gushingly grateful email from someone facing a struggle similar to the one Piper’s responding to; she’d deleted all of her fandom bookmarks and then stumbled on my Monkeefans for Christ website. I was at a complete loss for how to respond!)
    Yes, we do need to be discerning in what media we consume and how often. And we do need to keep our loves in order. But I’ll second Alan’s labeling Piper’s position as Puritan because, for example, in rejecting all forms of drama, the Puritans threw out one of the most powerful teaching tools in the church’s toolbox. Story teaches in ways lecture can’t. And as Matthew notes above, how we watch (or read or play) and what we do with the messages is as important as what we watch.

  • Chris

    I don’t think that Piper had anything to do with where the Facebook interruption that came in his response. If you recall, his response was audio, so the fact that you go on about this as if this interruption somehow validates your point is sort of humorous.

  • Alan Noble

    Chris,

    Yes, I understand that Piper had nothing to do with the interruption, and I never said he did. And the interruption did validate my point. But hey! I’m glad you found it humorous!

  • Brad Swenson

    Alan,

    Great post! I hope i can lend some credence to your point in that I wouldn’t be reading this blog had we not “met” playing Halo. While I agree with your overall sentiment, I feel that you are mis-representing Piper’s stance a bit. I did not read a “Puritanical” stance in his response. In the context, he is speaking to a person who admits addiction, a condition that would warrant a more black and white break from the source of the problem. I did not see at any point where he sought to demonize entertainment. Instead he addresses his concern over the desire for entertainment eclipsing our desire for God. He never prescribes avoidance of entertainment, but pursuit of a greater satisfaction. He challenges her to fill her life with the weighty things of God under the assumption that such a pursuit would, by default, cause her to shed the aspects of entertainment that hinder rather than help this pursuit. In conclusion, I agree with you that developing a view on the proper role of entertainment requires nuance; but I also think that Piper’s response leaves room for nuance and discernment. Plus, the guy can’t be completely against all entertainment, since he did call Cormac MaCarthy the Judges of the American canon. Keep up the good work Alan, and maybe if I ever get my XBox fixed we can continue this conversation over a gaming session.

  • Alan Noble

    Brad!

    If I could still play video games, I would totally be up for that. Unfortunately, my hands have kind of pooped out on me.

    As for the Puritan comment, in retrospect, that was too offhand. I suppose what I had in mind was a Puritan-like (and I don’t even know if this is the right group, here) suspicion of leisure.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X