Samuel D. James's post on America’s Lost Boys is both a moving and depressing read, and his call for the church to rise to the challenge of addressing the problem is on-target. Yet the call to seriousness is one thing. How it can be done is quite another.
As James implies, the problem is much deeper than video game- and porn-addicted young men. These addictions are simply symptoms, albeit very obvious ones, of the moral and cultural bankruptcy of our present age. Thus, unless we address the deeper issues—the elephant in the room—we will get nowhere. And herein lies the problem. To borrow a question from the art critic Sven Birkerts, what do you do when the elephant in the room is the room itself? Neither video games nor porn nor idleness are the problem. The problem is that entertainment is not simply a part of our world. It is arguably the dominant essence of our world.
To use philosophical jargon, entertainment is now ontology. We live in Xanadu, within the confines of a stately pleasure-dome of our own making. We have an economy that is significantly dependent upon the production and consumption of entertainment, a society where men who play children’s playground games are lionized and paid more than the President, and a world where technology is not simply a tool but one of the structuring principles of our very existence and our ways of life, right down to the most mundane details. Ours is an era in which teleology has been collapsed into a perpetually present singularity and the ideal type is increasingly the sempiternal orgiast.
Thus, to say that the church needs to break with entertainment and offer meaning is true. But how we do this is very far from obvious. Indeed, it is even hard to conceptualize what the possibility of such a break might look like in practice, for this is no cosmetic change which is being proposed. Churches cannot accomplish it by, say, simply abolishing praise bands and reinstating Renaissance polyphony and classical liturgy. These might themselves be the entertainment of the high-brow aesthete. Nor can preachers simply ditch the jokes and focus stern-faced upon the cross. It is, after all, possible to enjoy good oratory for the mere fact that it is good oratory, regardless of content.
Further, if entertainment is the very essence of our social existence today, then we are in a sense not faced with addressing meaninglessness. It is just not that simple. I suspect the lost boys do see their lives as having meaning—the meaning of the moment, the meaning of a solitary orgasm, the meaning given by myriad solipsistic fantasies. The church is not combating meaninglessness so much as offering an alternative meaning in a competitive marketplace. And the idioms of plausibility in that marketplace are themselves part of the problem.
How can the church assert the truth of the gospel—an exclusive truth which makes demands in the present because of promises which will be fulfilled only in the future—in a world predicated on consumer options, entertainment, and instant gratification? Just a brief glance at the advertising for the most numerically successful and conservative evangelical conferences indicates the importance of the aesthetics of this present age in marketing, even for a serious, exclusive faith. Can we use such methods and still claim that something crucial has not already been conceded at the outset? To answer, “Well, if we don’t do this, if we don't have the slick, attractive marketing, the cool branding, and the celebrities of the evangelical subculture, then nobody will come”—something I have heard many times—makes perfect sense. But the fact that it makes perfect sense—that, yes, we know that such an approach is culturally wise and necessary—is what is so significant, for it indicates that we are all now trapped inside the stately pleasure dome.
There is a linguistic problem, too. It might be oversimplifying the picture (though not by much) to say that Europe secularized itself by abandoning the Christian idiom, America by co-opting the same. That makes the task here incalculably difficult because the very words we should use to communicate a serious message and to confront the world around us—holiness, sin, grace, repentance, faith, forgiveness—have been transformed, so that they now mean trivial things that have no real connection to orthodox Christianity. They, too, have become part of the linguistic currency of the pleasure-dome.
We clearly need a reformation as dramatic, if not more dramatic, than that of the sixteenth century. How that reformation can be accomplished and what forms it must take are far from obvious at this moment in time. But it has to start with a wholesale critique of the anti-culture of immediacy in which we live. And that must include acknowledgement that we are ourselves—individually and corporately—deeply embedded in the very essence of this present age.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.