In ancient Rome the masses were pacified with bread and circuses. Today in the West we find ourselves in the same mind-numbing and soul-destroying situation. Almost all Westerners have the basics: food, clothing and shelter. So now we spend much of our time on entertainment, amusement and trivial pursuits.
Indeed, we spend billions of dollars a year drugging ourselves with all manner of entertainment. Our homes are filled with plasma TVs, video games, and entertainment systems, and we spend countless hours at sporting matches, movies and other forms of amusement.
These trends have not gone unnoticed. Many have remarked how we are destroying our lives and our societies by this constant need for amusement. Twenty-five years ago a very important book appeared dealing with this very issue. Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death was an incisive expose of the entertainment culture.
The primary focus of the book was television, and how it dumbs us all down. It is an invaluable assessment of the many ways in which television has trivialised and downgraded the important issues and institutions of life. Today of course with the Internet, cable TV, DVDs, mobile phones and so many other new technologies, his criticisms of a quarter century ago are even more relevant.
We might well expect those who have no hope and no newness of life in Christ to fill their every spare minute with amusements of every sort and nonstop entertainment. But the real concern is how the church is little different. Multiple millions of Western believers seem to live to be entertained.
Not only would most Christians live lives exactly parallel to non-believers in terms of the amount of entertainment they imbibe every day, but our churches have also hopped on the amusement bandwagon. We seem to think we must offer every form of worldly entertainment available to keep people coming to our churches.
Interestingly, Postman, who writes from a secular perspective, has some incisive comments on how the church is being adversely affected by the entertainment culture. Indeed, he devotes an entire chapter to the issue of how religion fares when television enters the picture (no pun intended).
On television, says Postman, “religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. On these shows, the preacher is tops. God comes out as second banana.”
He is worth quoting at length: “I think it is fair to say that attracting an audience is the main goal of these [religious television] programmes. . . . To achieve this goal, the most modern methods of marketing and promotion are abundantly used. . . . The preachers are forthright about how they control the content of their preaching to maximize their ratings.
“You shall wait a very long time indeed if you wish to hear an electronic preacher refer to the difficulties a rich man will have in gaining access to heaven. The executive director of the National Religious Broadcasters Association sums up what he calls the unwritten law of all television preachers: ‘You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want.’ You will note, I am sure, that this is an unusual religious credo.
“There is no great religious leader – from the Buddha to Moses to Jesus to Mohammed to Luther – who offered people what they want. Only what they need. But television is not well suited to offering people what they need. It is ‘user friendly’. It is too easy to turn off. It is at its most alluring when it speaks the language of dynamic visual imagery. It does not accommodate complex language or stringent demands. As a consequence, what is preached on television is not anything like the Sermon on the Mount. Religious programmes are filled with good cheer. They celebrate affluence. Their featured players become celebrities. Though their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings, or rather, because their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings.”
As Leonard Ravenhill said in Sodom Had No Bible, “Can you imagine Paul and his party confronting this pagan, wicked hoard [in Rome] with hip-swinging girls and hand-clapping boys singing, ‘Something Good is Going to Happen to You,’ or offering them a Prosperity Pack for a donation?”
But the issue is not just whether Christianity fares well in the new forms of communication. Like everything, media can be used for good or ill, and believers certainly can seek to utilise mass media for the promotion of the gospel. My main concern is how the church has simply surrendered to the values of the surrounding culture, and reduced much of biblical Christianity to entertainment and amusement.
Not only do individual Christians seem to exist simply to be entertained – just like their non-Christian neighbours – but so much of the church has also succumbed to keeping members happy and amused. The absence of the hard word in most pulpits is evidence of this. We would rather tickle the ears of our audience (notice how we use that term nowadays instead of congregation) than impose upon them the hard demands of the gospel.
Some Christian leaders have tried to waken us from our addiction to entertainment and amusement. One certainly thinks of A.W. Tozer who had much to say about this. He was one clear prophetic voice of last century who warned the church ceaselessly about our carnal and worldly pursuits.
Consider a few of many quotes here: “Jesus Christ never offered amusement or entertainment for His disciples, but in our day we have to offer both if we are going to get the people – because they are common Christians.”
“It is now common practice in most evangelical churches to offer the people, especially the young people, a maximum of entertainment and a minimum of serious instruction. It is scarcely possible in most places to get anyone to attend a meeting where the only attraction is God. One can only conclude that God’s professed children are bored with Him, for they must be wooed to attend a meeting with a stick of striped candy in the form of religious movies, games and refreshments.”
“We must have a new reformation. There must come a violent break with that irresponsible, amusement-mad, paganized pseudo religion which passes today for the faith of Christ and which is being spread all over the world by unspiritual men employing un-scriptural methods to achieve their ends.”
The problem is, we live in a me-centred culture. So we demand the right to be entertained and amused. And the churches have largely bought into this me-centred spirit as well. For decades now we have been preaching a me-centred gospel, so why should we be surprised to find Christians living a me-centred life?
But biblical Christianity is not about me, me, me. It is about Him, and Him alone. Sadly, in an entertainment-mad culture, we have lost sight of that altogether. But we must remind ourselves why we are here. It is to serve Him, not ourselves.
We desperately need to realise these truths. Some believers have. Consider what Catherine Booth, the wife of the Salvation Army founder William Booth, said as she prayed over her children in their cribs: “Darling, you are not here in this world for yourself. You have been sent for others. The world is waiting for you.”
How we need to soak up those words and the truth they contain. Instead we soak up countless hours of TV, movies, games and other time-wasting pursuits. Sure, there is a place for relaxation, rest, and refreshment. But surely we all must ask ourselves, how many hours a day do we spend on being entertained?
Then we must compare that with how many hours a day we spend in prayer, Bible study, fasting, worship and evangelism. No wonder Ravenhill once exclaimed: “How can you pull down strongholds of Satan if you don’t even have the strength to turn off your TV?”
It is imperative that all of us get down on our knees and ask ourselves some hard questions. Is our life dedicated to the one who died for us and gave everything so that we might have life? Or is our life dedicated to being entertained, amused and kept happy?
As Paul wrote in Col. 3:1-3: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”