CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

I Am Amused, Therefore I Am

Jun 23, 2010

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.”

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24 Responses to I Am Amused, Therefore I Am

  • A thought that came strongly to me a couple of days ago, is that if I just realized, in its fullest sense, that I am the temple of the Holy Spirit then perhaps many of my day to day activities might need a serious reconsideration. I’m quite sure that God’s temple is not designed to sit for hours watching ‘stuff’ that, mostly up front, contradicts that way God would have me use this temple that he has given me. Thanks for this and your other observations.
    Graham Irvine

  • Thanks Graham

    If I can piggyback on what you have said, it bothers me when I sometimes look at the info pages of my FaceBook friends (who are almost all Christians). Under interests and likes many of them list various TV shows, including sleazy things like Two and a Half Men. I have never watched a whole episode of this, but the bits I have reveals that it is simply about one gal after another being bedded. Why would a Spirit-filled believer want to soak up this sinful, unholy entertainment? How does that relate to being a follower of a holy, righteous Lord? Why waste hours polluting one’s soul with such rubbish?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Your post certainly hit a chord with me. A number of years ago I came to a realisation of the amount of time I spent on entertainment (e.g. computer games, tv, etc). Mindless entertainment at that. (Looking back now it was probably an addiction).
    Since then I have been more careful with my time. The way I see it now, if what I do with my time doesn’t benefit someone else or myself in some positive way, then its most likely a waste of time.
    I am reminded of this verse from Phil. 4:8:

    Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

    A lot of entertainment is anything but this.
    Jeffrey Carl

  • I think perhaps some kinds of worship (involving endless chorus singing and repetition) can reinforce the tendency to think of our faith as something that gives me a nice experience (and it is not so far removed from some kinds of TV entertainment); however, for others, the sacrament is the backbone of worship, and that has (or should have) the result of concentrating the mind on the Lord’s death and sacrifice. Yes, communion is ultimately an experience which is/can be “nice for me”, but there is at least the possibility that it will cause one to dwell on the things that are worthy and good, etc., as Jeffrey reminds us we should be doing.
    John Thomas, UK

  • Nowadays all this entertainment bores me, like sports and so on. TV is rubbish. I still like popular music and going to concerts, but that’s just one thing. But I am even reducing that. I am bemused why anyone needs to be entertained ALL the time. When I sometimes listen to morning radio, there are times I feel my I.Q. dropping by the minute.

    So I am entertaining myself by reading and I want to get into history of all the 20th century dictatorships and will need some recommendation of some good books on the USSR, China’s Moa, Castro’s Cuba, Pol Pot Nazi Germany etc. (I should read the bible more too.) I just finished reading a book called The Rage against God by Peter Hitchens whose the brother of that famed atheist Christopher. I find it amazing that two brothers that one can believe in God and the other is so militant and hostile against Christianity.

    Carl Strehlow

  • Thanks for this Bill. Related to this is the command to keep ourselves separate from the world (eg James 1:27; Romans 12:2)

    The more that the world continues and expands its rebellion against God, the more that our decisions to focus entirely on God will make us appear as insane in the eyes of the world.

    If we continually try to be normal as the world views it, then we will find ourselves worshipping the same gods they do. God will accept no rivals (eg Exodus 34:14)

    When I examine my own actions, priorities and attitudes, I am continually challenged by the question – am I really worshipping the same things that the world worships?

    Peter Baade

  • To me this subject is where I live. I don’t think I could better say anything that’s already been said here so far. Really good stuff guys, makes me feel good to know there are people in the world like you.
    Daniel Kempton

  • While we lived in Aus for two and a half years, we attended a church where sung worship regularly continued for 3/4 of an hour. Before this wonderful opportunity to enjoy many things about Australia, I would, maybe, have thought like John Thomas, as many in the UK decry ‘repetitive’ chorus singing. However, I have to say that I learnt more about worship (rather than just singing) at that church than I had in my previous 41 years as a Christian and am very grateful for that. The same church taught many other things, both in formal courses (from Harvest West) and in practical giving (not to get) and service. They also blessed us in encouragement and love and many wonderful friends – enabling us to obey easily the Philippians quote given by J Carl. Perhaps if more churches spent more time investing time to nurture and disciple their congregation – and in encouraging them to take advantage of what was on offer in the way of life building opportunities – there would be less temptation just to slump in front of the television?
    Katharine Hornsby

  • ‘Amusing ourselves to death’. I really want to buy and read that book sometime. A number of the Summit Ministries staff quote from it, the author seemed to make some great remarks. Thanks for the review + additional commentary!
    Keith Jarrett

  • Well said Daniel Kempton. I am so thankful that there are people out there who are repelled by so much of the rubbish that passes as entertainment these days. The Lord showed me this when I was a young Christian many years ago – “When the king is on his throne, he continually needs the court jester to entertain him”. Interpretation – when I am on the throne of my life, I continually need to be entertained.
    I now look to how much entertainment I need each week as a spiritual barometer of my life. As you say Bill, rest and recreation is valid and a need, but constant entertainment to the detriment of my walk with my Lovely King is not good.
    Ian Brearley

  • Hey Carl, I like your attitude. Read, read, and then read some more. I can recommend FW Boreham, the 20th Century essayist. His works (oftentimes stories) are a treat.
    Keith Jarrett

  • Absolutely true Bill. I am amazed at how modern parents feel the need to constantly amuse and entertain their “bored” children; despite them having almost every conceivable gadget. I myself have learned that less is more and how our material possessions can become our burdens. Our reliance on the “entertainment industry” to keep our economy ticking over is a major concern. The Government is addicted to revenue streams from the gaming industry and then hands some back some of the revenue to repair broken lives. Entertainment can be a useful distraction and worthwhile pursuit at times but if you will also pardon the pun, it should not take centre stage in our lives.
    Peter Coventry

  • In my church the preaching is always on the texts for that particular day so we do get solid teaching over time as the entire Bible is read in church over each three year period. Since “Faith comes from hearing” that can only be good, though you need to be a daily Mass goer to hear the whole lot! Of course much depends on the preacher too. If he is a man of deeper prayer who prepares his homily prayerfully we get a better result since he is more open to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I do believe also that its important to censor what media we allow into our homes,as the pervasive ethos there is definitely secular humanism. We can become utterly deaf to the Holy Spirit, no matter how inspired the preaching, if we immerse ourselves in that rubbish all week and don’t have a daily prayer life at all and if our daily living is not based on genuine Gospel values. All of us who claim to be Christian must get back to faithfulness to Jesus and pray, with Him, for the unity for which he prayed. That way we’ll be better prepared for the trials ahead which we must go through. I recall a scripture verse which says in this connection “Do not pray against this, for it must come.” But I don’t know where it comes {Catholics!!}
    Anna Cook

  • Thanks for your reflection Bill. I don’t know whether you have read “Fahrenheit 451,” by Ray Bradbury – written in the early 1950’s – but it has some remarkable parallels to the issues you’re raising. The way in which TV is used to dupe the minds and hearts of the population is, as I say remarkably similar. It’s a secular work.
    Richard Temby

  • I agree totally with you Bill. I have felt very ill at ease with what is happening in many churches for a long time, where they are performance orientated and endeavouring to compete with the world by adapting to it’s standards and values, and fail to exhibit the new life in CHRIST, where ‘all things become new’. They send no message to the lost world outside except a kind of fluffy, lovey, feel good, acceptance and even that is sometimes missing because the Christians have fallen into the worldly standard of self-centredness. And at home I have also felt convicted myself, when using the TV for leisure, because of the shocking standards. I’m pretty choosy really, about programmes, but there is’nt much decent stuff to choose from. It hit me most, recently, on bringing an Indigenous friend from a remote village in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea down for a holiday. Sitting to watch some TV with him I found so many things on TV made me feel really uncomfortable. It wasn’t just the sex which permeates everything and is truly unbelievable in it’s casual and violated presentations, there was the absence of manners and respect at all levels, the emphasis on greed and materialism, the continual put down of Christianity, and the portrayal of murder and all sorts of criminal activities that is constantly poured into our living rooms. It made me realise how numbed we have become to all this stuff, we simply ‘turn off’ mentally, but I felt distinctly aware of it while my ‘innocent’ NG friend sat there beside me. (The ads are as bad as the programs.) We have just gone so far down this bad path there seems no limit to what people are able to get away with… We must be more vocal and active about getting higher standards as no one else will!
    However I do want to say I do relate to Katharine’s experience in worship. We have to be careful not to lump everything together and make judgements across the broad field. For to me habitual repeating of songs can be boring and meaningless in some instances, and in others the elaborate scores and presentations seem like pure entertainment ,difficult for the congregation to join in with, but I have experienced the most meaningful worship when led by the repeating of songs in a truly God-glorifying way, allowing you to shut out other thoughts and focus better on God. Opening myself up to Him alone, is humbling and makes you aware of just who He is and what he wants in you and the world at large. I find the simpler tunes and expressions of faith more effective, especially using the words of scripture. Of course our own heart attitude is more important in any means of worship but I think it more helpful if lead singers and musicians are not centre stage making it a stage performance, but in the background or over to the side, out of the limelight, leaving one to focus on God alone.
    Lesley Kadwell

  • On the blog owned by the American Lutheran Gene Veith, there is a section on SMALL GROUPS IN CHURCH with a interesting quote that described “walking into an average evangelical church as walking into a non-alcoholic cocktail party.” Quiet reverence is gone, and in its place is a chatty, mingling informality, “where words flow like wine.”
    I thought of my own church, where Sunday morning has coffee, a band playing, followed by a play or a DVD around the topic for the morning, then the sermon. The midweek service is more reverent. But it struck me that under the guise of being an evangelistic service, the Sunday service is more Cabaret.
    Wayne Pelling

  • Here is Augustine’s take from the “City of God” which sums up the situation beautifully. Sorry about the length though.

    “10. Of the kind of happiness and life truly delighted in by those who inveigh against the Christian religion

    But the worshipers and admirers of these gods delight in imitating their scandalous iniquities, and are nowise concerned that the republic be less depraved and licentious, Only let it remain undefeated, they say, only let it flourish and abound in resources; let it be glorious by its victories, or still better, secure in peace; and what matters it to us? This is our concern, that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities, and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes. Let the poor court the rich for a living, and that under their protection they may enjoy a sluggish tranquility; and let the rich abuse the poor as their dependants, to minister to their pride. Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure. Let no severe duty be commanded, no impurity forbidden.
    Let kings estimate their prosperity, not by the righteousness, but by the servility of their subjects. Let the provinces stand loyal to the kings, not as moral guides, but as lords of their possessions and purveyors of their pleasures; not with a hearty reverence, but a crooked and servile tear. Let the laws take cognizance rather of the injury done to another man’s property, than of that done to one’s own person. If a man be a nuisance to his neighbour, or injure his property, family, or person, let him be actionable; but in his own affairs let everyone with impunity do what he will in company with his own family, and with those who willingly join him. Let there be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes for everyone who wishes to use them, but specially for those who are too poor to keep one for their private use. Let there be erected houses of the largest and most ornate description: in these let there be provided the most sumptuous banquets, where everyone who pleases may, by day or night, play, drink, vomit, dissipate.
    Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud. immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement. If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it let him be silenced, banished, put an end to. Let these be reckoned the true gods, who procure for the people this condition of things, and preserve it when once possessed. Let them be worshiped as they wish; let them demand whatever games they please, from or with their own worshipers; only let them secure that such felicity be not imperilled by foe, plague, or disaster of any kind. What sane man would compare a republic such as this, I will not say to the Roman Empire, but to the palace of Sardanapalus, the ancient king who was so abandoned to pleasures, that he caused it to be inscribed on his tomb, that now that he was dead, he possessed only those things which he had swallowed and consumed by his appetites while alive. If these men had such a king as this, who, while self-indulgent, should lay no severe restraint on them, they would more enthusiastically consecrate to him a temple and a flamen than the ancient Romans did to Romulus.”

    Lennard Caldwell, Clifton QLD

  • Thanks Wayne

    I liked the Veith quote you provided.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks again Bill. I love my church, it is the church I became a Christian in at the age of 18, however is has changed a lot over the years or perhaps I have. There is that atmosphere of entertainment now and teaching is pretty watered down, it always seems to be about “this is what you need to do”. Jesus said to Peter feed my sheep, there are a lot of hungry sheep out there, Jesus also said go and make disciples, not common Christians. I often wonder what the 10 of the 12 original disciples, those ordinary men whose lives where first changed, would think today of some of our churches especially as they were martyred (?) for professing their faith and teaching the gospel because of their love for Christ and what he did.
    Jenny Johnson, Vic

  • Leonard Ravenhill said something like, (in the context of church), that “entertainment is the Devil’s substitute for the Joy of the Lord.”

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  • Bill, what you have to say is sadly true in a lot of respects. At the same time, I would like to add in my two bits.
    It is easy to form opinions about various churches based on a narrow perpective provided by a television camera. It is important to remain aware that behind the editted glimpse of what is often a celebratory Sunday service probably lies a far more rounded church. You may not see the prayer meetings, community outreach programs, teaching meetings, missions etc etc, but they are there.
    One may form the view that a particular meeting attended or seen on TV seems to cater to a superficial type of Christian. It is important to keep in mind that all of us are at various stages of our individual Christian journeys. What we are is not necessarily what we are becoming.
    It is probably uneccessary to denigrate worship that may not be your cup of tea as a “pagan, wicked hoard(sic) [in Rome] with hip-swinging girls and hand-clapping boys”.
    As if worshipping Him should not be enjoyable! Entertaining even! I guess I lean towards 2 Samuel 6:21 in this respect.
    Matt Puusaari, Brisbane

  • Thanks Matt

    Yes I am with you to some extent. But two things if I may: If we only see part of a church’s life in the television lens, whose fault is that? Who is it that chooses what we get to see? It is the churches themselves who are selecting what they present to the world. So it is a bit odd to say one is wrong to evaluate a church based on what they are showing us, giving that they are the ones who determine what we see. They are the ones who want us to see this!

    As to the quote, it of course is not mine but Leonard Ravenhill’s. I know of few men who were more holy or close to God as he was. So I think he speaks with real spiritual authority here, and is hardly denigrating worship. In fact, you might be shooting the messenger here! It is we who are denigrating worship, and people like Ravenhill are rightly concerned about it and calling our attention to it.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Bill and congratulations on such a great website.
    May I add that there are many “Christian” TV programs that I simply cannot and will not watch. Life is too short to waste on tripe.
    I think I understand the points in your response and believe that they are applicable to the type of programming that is blatantly bad, false, unbiblical, etc.
    Nevertheless, my personal opinion is that it is often difficult to evaluate a church based on what they are showing us on a TV program. It may indeed be only the “entertaining” part of their overall ministry. So realising that limitation, we then are the ones who must decide whether to evaluate them on that basis.
    As I haven’t read Leonard Ravenhill’s “Sodom Had No Bible” maybe I’ll should take your word for his holiness and good standing with God. David also was reasonably close to God so his words have some authority also.
    Having said all that, your posting was, as always, good, thought provoking and dare I say, entertaining.
    Matt Puusaari, Brisbane

  • James Montgomery Boice also refers to Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves To Death in an online sermon. He explains what has happened to our culture (of entertainment) and why we don’t think any more. media.sermonindex.net/13/SID13908.mp3

    He also speaks of churches that use entertainment to draw in the crowds – entertainment does away with thinking – and mindlessness does away with truth.

    Before I listened to this sermon (and having been involved in one of these churches), I was thinking about how much preaching time is wasted addressing problems that the church itself has created. That is, the church is often so entertainment based that we now have stages that the ‘church celebrities’ perform on. Not unlike secular performers, these celebrity leaders can wrongly be perceived as having ‘made it’ and issues like envy within the body tend to be an ongoing problem. But ‘television studio’ churches have created these monsters in the first place!

    What also struck me through Boice’s sermon is how, Bill, you have used the modern technology of the internet to do exactly what Boice refers to as the bygone days of the ‘age of typography’ whereby people communicated through written words and a kind of verbal discourse occurs. Through reading words, if you don’t understand something, you can step back and think about it, and read it again. It encourages interaction – people might not agree with everything, but they are encouraged to think things through and your website allows for discourse in the comments section.

    It appears that you and Boice do think alike (great minds think alike.) Isn’t it sad that today, people have forgotten how to ‘think’, let alone, think alike.

    Annette Nestor

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