I’m tempted to concur with the diagnosis of our current malaise offered by Carl Trueman: “[E]ntertainment is not simply a part of our world. It is arguably the dominant essence of our world. … [E]ntertainment is now ontology.”
I’ve been teaching college students for nearly thirty years, and I can affirm, with Neil Postman, that entertainment has been “the dominant essence” for students for at least that long. I’ve been a member of the body of Christ for even longer, and can attest to a similar attitude of careless consumption in too many pews (and a good number of podiums). Yet the problem, I think, is not that entertainment is ontology. Rather, it is that we don’t know what place to accord entertainment within our ontology. We should beware giving it too low a place, as well as too high.
Our human ability to delight in the world means that entertainment is part of human nature. Today, technology makes entertainment so ubiquitous that our only options may seem to be to consume it mindlessly or to reject it mindlessly. Some may propose, as Trueman does in another essay, a third way, begrudgingly making room for entertainment as a due distraction from the really important things (like church and work):
When I arrive home at night, I sometimes just want to sit down, have a drink, and relax while listening to a piece of music or watching a movie or reading a good book. Pascal was right when he saw that such entertainment was perfectly legitimate in and of itself, when it helped one recover from the drudge and dreariness of the daily grind.
Far be it from me to improve upon Pascal (or Trueman), but a robust understanding of human nature finds entertainment to be more than “legitimate.” Every culture includes entertainment. It is a gift (literally, “that which is given”) of the human condition. If it is a gift that our age (including the church) has misused, then its misuse is the result not of caring too much about entertainment, but of caring too little. Entertainment isn’t the problem; acedia is.
The Greek word acedia literally means “without care” or “care-less.” It also denotes listlessness, being without appetite or desire. The monastics nicknamed acedia the “noonday devil,” that languor or dullness that besets us around midday. Acedia is most often translated as sloth, and understood imprecisely as idleness or laziness. But in a fascinating book, Acedia and its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire, R. J. Snell explains that sloth does not necessarily manifest itself as inactivity. Paradoxically, the slothful are often busy, very busy. And few things keep us as busy today as entertainment.
But to regard entertainment merely as a distraction, as something to keep us busy, is reductive. In a recent essay, Nathan Roberts cites a passage by Michael Chabon that reminds us of more capacious senses of the word entertainment:
Derived senses of fruitful exchange, of reciprocal sustenance, of welcome offered, of grasp and interrelationship, of a slender span of bilateral attention along which things are given and received, still animate the word in its verb form: we entertain visitors, guests, ideas, prospects, theories, doubts and grudges.
The etymology and literal meaning of entertainment suggest “mutual support through intertwining,” evoking “a kind of midair transfer of strength, contact across a void, like the tangling of cable and steel between two lonely bridgeheads.” Contrary to our sense of it as passive and frivolous, “entertainment” connotes a relationship of reciprocity. Entertainment, then, is implicated in community, for good or ill.
As with all good relationships, entertainment requires sacrifice. It can yield good rewards, but only after an investment of time and attention. Further, entertainment comes to us by the sacrificial labors of others. The careful consumer will be mindful of sacrifices that are too great. We should not, perhaps, pay to see the performance of an actress who must get herself drunk in order to act out a sex scene with a married co-star, any more than the film industry should allow animals to be harmed in the making of a film. Our appreciation of entertainment must accept both the necessity and the acceptable limits of sacrifice.
At its best, entertainment becomes active, thoughtful recreation. Recreation (literally, re-creation) reflects the order of creation, participating in the nature and order of reality as given by God. As Ted Turnau argues in Popologetics, all of culture, including popular culture and entertainment, “is simply a working out of our heart responses to the inbuilt messages of creation.” Recreation is a good in and of itself.
But sloth prohibits recreation. In the state of acedia, Snell explains, one “abhors what God has given, namely, reality and its limits of order.” Sloth is characterized by “frustration and hate, disgust at place and ‘life itself.’” In acedia, all being is treated “as something to possess and discard,” and the slothful “violate the integrity of any and every thing.”
To pursue entertainment without falling into acedia requires care. It requires attentiveness to the subject as subject, not merely object; to the integrity of craft; to form as well content. Such thoughtfulness is proper, because meaning is not merely constructed by us but inheres in things. By contrast, sloth “rejects the weight and destiny of living in an ordered creation” and prefers autonomy to reciprocity.
There is more than one way to resist participation in the order of creation. Consider two very different consumers of entertainment: the prurient and the prudish. Both apply the same subjective standard of judgment: shock. The former seeks what the latter avoids, but the attention of each is less on the objective integrity of the thing than on the subjectivity of experience. The judgment, “I like it” (or don’t) is rendered far more easily than the judgment, “It is good.”
A case in point is a recent scene in a popular series that portrays two partially clothed teenagers having sex. On the surface, the scene seems gratuitous, an offense to the prudish and titillation for the prurient. But in a later episode, this scene is paralleled by another involving the same girl and a different boy who, unlike his predecessor, cares about the girl, who has just been traumatized and needs comforting. The careful framing and camerawork focus on the wide space between the two teenagers as they lie side-by-side without touching, the physical distance powerfully communicating genuine love. This important point is clear only when the series is viewed with care: not with surface-level detachment, but with attentiveness to the truth and goodness under the tarnished veneer.
Christians are called to be neither prurient nor prudish. We are the little physicians the Great Physician has placed over the earth and all that is in it. When the patient stands before us in all her inglorious nakedness, we should not gape or recoil. The cure for sloth, Snell says, is a therapy of loves. Sloth is “a rejection of our own loves” and “is overcome when we affirm the goodness of the world, just as God does.”
Elements of the church today have fetishized culture in general (and entertainment specifically) to a degree that is unhealthy, not only for the church, but for the culture, too. If some make an idol out of entertainment, others make an idol out of abstention. Both extremes ignore the reality that culture is like air: We can’t exist apart from it. We might as well speak of “engaging the air” as of “engaging the culture”—or of separating ourselves from either.
I often say that the best measure of my own teaching effectiveness is whether or not I am having fun. Perhaps the most important thing I can teach my students—and that we can teach one another in the church—is to delight in the goodness of creation and re-creation. It is a lesson taught by modeling the perpetual entertainment that comes from delight in the Lord and the world he has given us.
Karen Swallow Prior is professor of English at Liberty University, a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.