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.