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The Blissful and Trivial Life: How Entertainment Deprives a SoulBy Marshall Segal — 1 year ago
When we, as a society, stopped reading and started watching, we began thinking and talking less — at least with the same substance or effectiveness. That was the bright red flag Neil Postman began waving in the sixties, captured for future generations in his classic work, Amusing Ourselves to Death. The book was published in 1985, the year before I was born.
With the introduction of the television, Postman observed, entertainment did not merely become a bigger and bigger part of our lives — it became our lives. And everything else in our lives — news, politics, education, even religion — was increasingly forced to perform on its stage. Suddenly, everything had to be entertaining. Newspapers gave way to “the nightly news”; classroom lessons made their way to Sesame Street; worship services transformed into televised concerts with TED talks.
“The television slowly taught us that nothing was worth our time unless it was entertaining.”
The television slowly taught us that nothing was worth our time unless it was entertaining. And anything entertaining, almost by definition, requires less of us — less thinking, less study, less work. Entertainment, after all, isn’t meant to be taken seriously. But when everything is entertainment, doesn’t that mean little, if anything, can be taken seriously?
For those who take the glory of God seriously, and our joy in him seriously, that becomes a very serious question.
What Will Ruin Society?
Postman warned about this devolution long before others noticed what was happening. He writes,
[George] Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in [Aldous] Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. . . . In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right. (Amusing Ourselves to Death, xix)
When he wrote those words, television had only been around for thirty years (invented much earlier, but not common in households until the fifties). The internet would not become publicly available until the 90s. Social media didn’t come along for another fifteen years (and really didn’t become widespread until the iPhone in 2007, several years after Postman died).
If Postman was right about the early years of television, how much more today — a day when we no longer have to schedule time to sit and watch our favorite shows, but carry our entertainment with us literally everywhere we go? If entertainment could control our lives from a small box in the living room, how much more so when it’s nearly surgically attached to us on our phones?
Postman, I believe, was more correct than even he realized — and the implications are not just social or cultural, but spiritual.
Irrelevance Binds Us
What makes television such a terror to the collective mind of a culture? Postman begins by arguing that the “medium is the metaphor.” Meaning, any given medium — whether text, television, or social media — doesn’t only distribute content, but unavoidably shapes the content. How we consume, he argues, is as important as what we consume. Mediums determine how we take in information. For instance, over time typography (despite its own limitations) generally taught us to follow arguments, test conclusions, and expose contradiction. Television, by contrast, consistently does away with arguments, strips away context, and darts from one image to the next.
Television, however, not only teaches us a new way to process information, but it also floods us with information and from far beyond our everyday lives. The telegraph, of course, had begun doing this with words long before the television, but notice what was happening then, even with the telegraph:
In the information world created by telegraphy, everything became everyone’s business. For the first time, we were sent information which answered no question we had asked, and which, in any case, did not permit the right of reply. We may say then that the contribution of the telegraph to public discourse was to dignify irrelevance and amplify impotence. (68–69)
For the most part, the kind of information that would interest people in both Los Angeles and Minneapolis, would need to be nonessential to life in either place (irrelevance), and all the more so with news from around the globe. Stories had to transcend ordinary life in a real place (part of the appeal for people looking to escape the malaise of ordinary life).
And, for the most part, the information had to be the kind of information neither could do anything about (impotence). Postman asks a pointed question of all our media consumption: “How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve?” (68).
Television only made the irrelevance that much more accessible and that much more appealing (actual images and videos of celebrities doing everyday activities as opposed to the short descriptions the telegraph could produce). And how much more is this the case through social media? We know more and more about our favorite athletes, actors, and musicians and yet often less and less about our neighbors and the places where we might actually make a difference.
Worth a Thousand Images
But isn’t a picture worth a thousand words? In 1921, the marketer Fred Bernard famously said so, promoting the use of images for advertising on the side of streetcars. He was probably right as far as streetcars go. If you want to make a memorable impression on someone in a couple seconds, by all means use a picture — but is this effective communication or just effective marketing? Maybe it’s more accurate to say a picture is worth a thousand more sales, or clicks, or likes. Even then, though, can a picture really convey what a consumer needs to know about a new phone, or clothing line, or dish soap? For serious shoppers, haven’t we learned that one coherent sentence of honest description might be worth a thousand pictures?
Postman saw that as images overtake words as the dominant form of communication in a society, communication invariably suffers. “I will try to demonstrate that as typography move to the periphery of our culture and television takes to place at the center, the seriousness, clarity and, above all, value of public discourse dangerously declines” (29). We descend into “a vast triviality,” he says. We get sillier.
As he attempts to summarize his warning to the ever-entertained, he says, “Our Ministry of Culture is Huxleyan, not Orwellian. It does everything possible to encourage us to watch continuously. But what we watch is a medium which presented information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical, and noncontextual; That is to say, information packaged as entertainment. In America, we are never denied the opportunity to amuse ourselves” (141).
In the Beginning Was the Word
According to Neil Postman, America (and much of the modern world) has laid our collective minds on the altar of entertainment. But why should followers of Christ care about television (or websites or social media)? Should we spend much time worrying about how much we watch and how little we read?
Yes, because the fullest Christian life is firmly anchored in words and sentences and paragraphs. When God revealed himself to his chosen people, of all the infinite ways he could have done so, he chose to unveil himself with words. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1–2). God didn’t build a gallery or start a YouTube channel, he wrote a Book (2 Timothy 3:16). “In the beginning was the Word. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14). From the beginning, God has put the Word, his Son, at the center of reality, and, in doing so, he has given words unusual power and importance in anticipating, explaining, and celebrating him.
Yes, the heavens are declaring the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). Yes, his eternal power and divine nature have been seen, from the beginning, in the things that have been made (Romans 1:20). But “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). For now, faith looks “not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). And we look to the unseen through words. We may see God in mountains and oceans and galaxies, but we only know him savingly through sentences. He wrote the story that way.
Serious Joy in Silly Days
If the way we’re using entertainment erodes our ability to reflect, reason, and savor truth, it erodes our ability to know and enjoy Jesus. “Blessed is the man . . . [whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1–2). If we lose the ability to think, we lose the ability to meditate. And if we lose the ability to meditate, we lose our path to meaningful happiness. The life of the mind, and heart, is a pivotal battleground in the pursuit of real and abundant life.
“The life of the mind is a pivotal battleground in the pursuit of real and abundant life.”
The medium is not the enemy — television and YouTube and Instagram are not the enemy. But if Postman was right, the medium can be wielded by our world, our flesh, and our enemy when we soak up entertainment and ignore the consequences. What, if any, of your entertainment habits need to be curbed or redirected for the sake of your soul? What are ways you are seeking to cultivate the spiritual gift of your mind — slower Bible study or memorization, reading substantive books, meaningful conversation with friends, more time in unhurried reflection and meditation?
As we learn to guard and nurture our minds as our God-given pathways to God, the kinds of mindless entertainment that are undoing millions today will be far less appealing and far less dangerous. And we will find pleasures deeper, and far more enduring, than what we see on our screens.
Some Answered Prayers Hurt: The Hidden and Faithful Love of GodBy Jon Bloom — 10 months ago
Scripture tells us that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). But have you ever received a good gift from the Father that arrived in a package that appeared to be anything but good?
Jesus came into the world to make the Father known to all whom “he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12, 18). He came to help us “see what kind of love the Father has given to us” (1 John 3:1), that “as a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13). He wanted us to know that the Father abounds “in steadfast love and faithfulness” toward us (Exodus 34:6).
This is why, when Jesus promised us, “Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (John 16:23), he made sure we understood the Father’s heart toward us:
Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7–11)
It’s an astounding promise of astonishing goodness and faithfulness: “For everyone who asks receives” (Matthew 7:8). Why? Because our Father wants our “joy [to] be full” (John 16:24).
However, Jesus, of all people, also knew that some of the good gifts our loving Father gives in answer to our prayers — some of his best gifts, in fact — arrive in painful packages we don’t expect. When we receive them, we can be tempted to think the Father gave us a serpent when we asked for a fish, not realizing till later the priceless goodness of the gift we received.
“Some of the good gifts our loving Father gives in answer to our prayers arrive in painful packages we don’t expect.”
Why would the Father do this? As just one in the great cloud of God’s children across the ages, I can bear personal witness that he does it so that our joy may be full. And I’ll offer that witness here, with the help of one of history’s most beloved pastors and hymn writers. Because both he and I know how important it is to trust the Father’s heart when we’re dismayed by what we receive from his hand.
Near Despair an Answered Prayer?
John Newton was the godly eighteenth-century English pastor most famous for penning the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which describes the best gift Newton ever received from the Father: the forgiveness of his sins and eternal life through Christ.
But at times he also received, as I have, gracious gifts from God that amazed him in a different sense. He expressed this amazement in a lesser-known hymn, “I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow,” which begins,
I asked the Lord that I might growIn faith and love and every grace,Might more of his salvation know,And seek more earnestly his face.
’Twas he who taught me thus to pray;And he, I trust, has answered prayer;But it has been in such a wayAs almost drove me to despair.
I remember vividly the first time I experienced the reality Newton describes here, just after I turned 21. Following an extended season of asking God for the gifts Newton described in his first verse, I received an answer that had the same effect as that second verse. It devastated and disoriented me. I found myself reeling.
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I hoped that, in some favored hour,At once he’d answer my request,And by his love’s constraining powerSubdue my sins, and give me rest.
Because my prayers reflected a sincere “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6), I assumed God would answer my prayers with a sort of download of growth in grace. And I envisioned this occurring as God led me through “green pastures” and along “still waters” (Psalm 23:2).
Instead of this, he made me feelThe hidden evils of my heart,And let the angry powers of hellAssault my soul in every part.
“I assumed God would answer my prayers with a sort of download of growth in grace.”
As it turned out, the holiness and righteousness I (and Newton) hungered for — greater freedom from sin and greater capacities for faith and love and joy — were not available in a download. Such sanctification is available only if we’re willing to enter a “training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). And apparently the best training environment for us was a “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4).
Lipstick on a Pig?
The season of disorientation and confusion usually lasts a while before we grasp what’s going on. And while it lasts, we feel dismayed. What’s happening? Did we do something wrong? Is God angry with us? Newton voices the confusion we feel:
Lord, why is this? I trembling cried;Wilt thou pursue this worm to death?
At this point, we can also be tempted to doubt God’s goodness. Having sincerely asked him for a good gift, a gift Scripture says aligns with our Father’s desire for us, and having received in return a severe trial or affliction, we can wonder if our attempt to interpret God’s answer as a good gift is like trying to put lipstick on a pig. Perhaps God simply gave us a serpent instead of a fish after all.
I mean, what kind of loving father intentionally gives his child pain when he asks for joy?
The Father often lets us wrestle with that question for some time, allowing the pain to do its sanctifying work. But when the time is right, he will reveal his answer, which Newton concisely captures:
This is the way, the Lord replied,I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I now employFrom self and pride to set thee free,And break thy schemes of earthly joy,That thou may’st seek thy all in me.
See What Kind of Love
Like John Newton, I had asked the Father for what I wished and found him faithful to give me what I asked for, though I didn’t expect it to come in the package I received.
But Jesus, the Son, the Firstborn, came into the world to help us, through his teaching and example, to “see what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1). And one manifestation of the Father’s love is to sometimes answer his child’s request for joy with a painful experience if it will result in his child ultimately experiencing more profound good and greater joy than if he withheld the pain. Because our Father wants our joy to be full.
And there’s a great cloud of God’s children bearing witness to the goodness of the Father’s painful gifts, each from his own experience. They would recite for us the famous proverb:
My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof,for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights. (Proverbs 3:11–12)
They would quote the famous epistle:
[Our earthly fathers] disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but [our heavenly Father] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:10–11)
And they would “Amen” the famous psalmist, whose painful discipline produced this prayer: “In faithfulness you have afflicted me” (Psalm 119:75).
For when our training in righteousness has done its sanctifying work, one of the peaceful fruits is that we learn to joyfully trust the Father’s hand because we’ve learned to trust the Father’s heart.
The Song of Songs for SinglesBy Eric Ortlund — 1 month ago
You may have heard how rates of depression (and even suicide) tend to rise during the Christmas season. What many consider the happiest time of the year is, for some, the hardest to get through. But Christmas is not the only time of year when this happens: Valentine’s Day can be excruciating for those without a valentine. The way the holiday is celebrated in America can make you feel like you’re at a party where everyone is having a good time except for you — and you just have to stand there and watch. Our culture’s tragic elevation of sexual fulfillment into an idol makes this even worse.
Strange as it might sound, however, you don’t have to avoid the Song of Songs if this time of year is hard for you. In fact, the Bible’s one book about marital love and romance can be a place of comfort and calm for singles in three ways.
Don’t Try to Fall in Love
Our society gives relentless attention and pressure to finding that one special someone who will completely fulfill your longings within. (Think how many movies portray a romantic connection in such unrealistic terms.) Your own family may make matters worse by constantly dropping hints about how long you’ve been single. These pressures can make it easy to start giving as much energy as possible to trying to fall in love — or settling for someone you’re not crazy about, just to get out of the “single” category (see Isaiah 4:1).
Strikingly, however, the Song tells us to do the opposite:
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the does of the field,that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases. (2:7; 3:5; 8:4)
This is the most frequently repeated verse in the book, its refrain, and the main lesson its readers are supposed to remember: let love awaken on its own or not at all. Being in love can look so wonderful from the outside, and the rapturous speeches of the Song’s young couple might lead readers of the book to try to taste this experience for themselves as soon as possible. But the Song goes out of its way to tell us this is unwise.
“If love and romance never awaken for you, you can still be vibrantly alive in God’s world.”
For those unmarried, this verse is your Creator giving you permission to excuse yourself from the romantic rat race. If love and romance never awaken for you, you can still be vibrantly alive in God’s world. Our culture makes sexual fulfillment central to human fulfillment; I get the sense a lot of people think you’re not fully alive (and maybe not even fully human) unless you’re dating or married. God’s word is far kinder. If you fall in love, that’s wonderful. If you don’t, there is no need to worry about it — get on with the business of enjoying life and imaging God in the world, waiting patiently on his timing.
No ‘Happily Ever After’
The Song, along with the rest of the Bible, portrays marriage as a deeply good gift, and falling in love as something so beautiful it almost will not go into words. But the same book that poetically adorns romance also makes it clear that love will not always be easy or pain-free. We see this mostly clearly in 5:2–6:3, which describes, in dream-like fashion, a break in the couple’s relationship that is eventually healed.
That’s what seems to happen, anyway; the shifting, prismatic poetry makes it difficult to be sure. The passage begins with the woman refusing to open a locked door to her husband, either teasing him or making excuses (5:2–3); but even the sound of him at the door awakens her desire, and she throws the door open (verses 4–5). As sometimes happens in dreams, however, he simply vanishes. The woman searches everywhere, calling without answer (verse 6); things become nightmarish when she gets beaten up (verse 7; apparently the city guards think she’s an intruder or prostitute).
Thankfully, the woman is not abandoned. After describing her husband to the “daughters of Jerusalem” (verses 10–16), her friends are convinced to help her look for him (6:1) — but there is no need. She has found him already, in the garden they both share (6:2). Apparently, the sexual bond between wife and husband means that breakdowns in the relationship will be temporary.
A married couple I know extended hospitality to a single woman in their church by giving her a key to their house: she was welcome to invite herself over any time. The couple said that one of the benefits of their generosity was that their single friend got to see a marriage from the inside, and that marriage is not always great. This passage is doing the same. Just because the bond is so profound, married couples will at times suffer excruciating pain, for reasons they won’t always understand. The grass is definitely not always greener.
You can see this aspect of the Song in another way. The book begins and ends on the same note of unfulfilled desire, as the couple expresses their desire to get away together (1:2–4; 8:14). As beautiful as the book (and love itself) is, there isn’t much forward progress. The emotional and sexual fulfilment of marriage is temporary and sporadic; a sense of longing and unfulfillment is as much a part of marriage as anything else. This reality guards us against any unwise romanticization of romance.
Single Sexuality Still Achieves God’s Purpose
For most people, the desire to fall in love and get married can be overwhelming, especially when you are young. This can make it unfortunately easy to feel resentment toward God if he does not send anyone to you. Why would he give us overpowering desires and then not give (to some, anyway) any way of fulfilling them without disobeying him?
“The Bible’s one book about marital love and romance can be a place of comfort and calm for singles.”
The Song’s most famous passage answers this when it describes romantic love as “the very flame of the Lord” (8:6). Romantic love is ultimately a reflection of God’s character. The ultimate reason God made you sexual was not so you could fulfill that desire in marriage (good as that is). Your sexuality is meant to give you the vocabulary and imagination to appreciate how your divine Husband feels about his bride — the only Lover whose love is stronger than death, jealous beyond the grave, fierce, not to be denied. The next time you are driven to distraction by your own desires, think, “My feelings right now are the merest echo of the desire of our divine husband” (see Isaiah 62:5).
Think of it this way: if you had to describe the human experience of falling in love to an alien whose species reproduced asexually, what would you say? You’d be reduced to metaphor. God created human sexuality because without it, we would be blind and deaf toward one dimension of his love for us.
Even if you aren’t married, your sexuality is still achieving God’s ultimate purpose for which it is designed. If you long for a wedding day and honeymoon, your divine Husband longs for his eschatological wedding day and eternal honeymoon even more. Without the sexual dimension of the human person, you would not be able to understand this aspect of God’s character. Your longing for love and romance is a subset of a much deeper longing that, fortunately, has no doubt about its fulfillment. The ardour of your divine husband will not allow it.