Charles Dickens wrote a most excellent essay against proposed Sabbath laws, Sunday Under Three Heads. Certain puritanical types wanted to close absolutely everything closable all Sunday and ban harmless pursuits, though they were harder on the middle-class and poor than the rich. Dickens would not stand for it. He admitted that a day of rest was needed, but denied that “rest” should be described and entertainment proscribed by government.
In fact, Dickens argues that government should encourage wholesome entertainments by opening museums and art galleries on the Sabbath. He also urges the government to provide playgrounds for wholesome sports so the whole family can enjoy fresh air. He cites a pastor of a rural church who had organized and encouraged games of cricket for his parish as a model.
Religion would be served best when it became associated with wholesome joy. After all, Dickens said, people only wanted harmless and beneficial amusements. Banning such things would lead them to idle about wasting their time and encourage them to visit the gin shop or prostitute.
The kill-joy is about as dead after Dickens as any character could be. I have met a few of their kind, but outside their unfortunate homes they are powerless. Is there a figure so universally mocked in media as the man who thinks having fun is a sin?
And he deserves the mockery.
Yet Dickens buried him on the assumption that the libertine and idle man would receive no encouragement. He has no problem distinguishing between worthy and unworthy, healthy and unhealthy amusements.
Quaint if not offensive in his moral assumptions, Dickens argues that nobody thought bumming around was a good thing and the author of Christmas Carol had no patience for bosses who demanded, or at least suggested, work on the Sabbath. Dickens assumed that a Christian nation would give its workers a holiday, but rightly feared that legalists would take the feast out of the holiday and turn Sunday into another kind of work: religious work.
Friends who would be horrified at ignoring the point of view of other culture groups, even ones that seem wicked, feel free to ignore these Victorian assumptions. I have learned tolerance too well, however, to be intolerant of the Victorian and refuse to discriminate against the voice of the dead simply because they are dead.
America has its workaholics, especially in my generation. For those folk (I speak to myself) comes the reminder that forcing those who work with me to forgo their day of rest by efforts is wrong. A sabbath to think of things not of this world, particularly to reflect on eternal things is necessary to soul health.
And yet surely I should not take my rest in idleness. There is healthy sleep, but as Proverbs and my iPad sleep app proclaim there is over-sleeping. After my power nap on the Sabbath what should I do?
It is here that a new idea, “free time,” confuses us. We think any time not given to work or religious duty as our own: free time. But surely for a Christian, at least, no time is free and even if the time is given to us as a gift by good no good gift should be abused?
Idleness is “doing nothing” (by this I do not mean resting or contemplating) or doing things not worth doing. It is to waste time, a precious gift, by doing an unworthy thing with it. As I approach my sabbath, or even the rest at the end of the day, I must ask if my amusements are fitting for my age, occupation, station in life, and duties. To give one example, will my habits at rest make me less able to go back to my vocation . . . as the weekend workout warrior discovers when he over indulges in sporting events best left to to the young!
Thinking is a good way of resting, reflecting on beauty is another, and pure quietness too rare. Moderate amounts of entertainment consumption, live or on television, can be good, but it is tempting to just binge. The minute I start thinking about leisure, I realize that some leisure activities leave me rested and better as a person. Other kinds of leisure may be “fun” and restful, but they do (at best) nothing else for me. The movie watched with a group is good, but how often should I watch films by myself in a room? What kinds of films are wholesome? Does this game leave me more like Christ?
Why not (I ask myself) choose the better way of leisure and rest instead of “mere amusement?” Can I give my leisure to Christ trusting Him that if I do it will be better? Do I fear the Lord Jesus is a kill joy? What an insult to the Lord of Glory!
I would not dream of giving specific answers to someone else about the big question: ”How should we then amuse ourselves?” It strikes me as being very personal and nearly impossible to judge from the outside. It is enough to ask . . . to realize that fun is not enough. I want my every moment to be profitable to the Lord Jesus and His Church.