A Theology of Entertainment

A few months ago I had a fascinating conversation with a friend of mine over something that happened at his church. Valentine’s Day is now a big thing in many Ghanaian churches and the week it falls on, a church will do something to commemorate the love of Christ (or so they tell us.) The youth at his church had a Valentine’s Day get together where they decided they wanted to use secular music. They asked church leaders for the go ahead and they were allowed. A short while after they had some performance at the main service (I can’t precisely remember what sort of performance it was, maybe dance or drama) where they played to my estimation at least, some very benign Celine Dion song. They got a lot of criticism for this from elderly folks in the church, the same ones that gave them permission for the Val’s Day shindig. So my friend asked, what gives? Why was it allowed in one setting and not the other? You at least got to commit to one. Through the discussion I realised that beyond the immediate question of whether the setting was appropriate, the church has a deeper problem of not having a theology of entertainment and that is where the real confusion lies.

Theology and entertainment are not words that are usually found in close proximity. By a theology of entertainment I do not mean this whole endeavour to be “culturally relevant.” Relevance as an ideal, which I will come to later, can be very hollow and transient if we do not anchor it to something firm. What I do mean by the phrase is as the people of God, thinking through carefully and biblically, the reality of living day to day in an entertainment saturated world. I find it rather interesting that we can talk about the internet, social media, its effect and how we should approach it as a church but casually ignore the big issue of entertainment. Sure we do talk about things that happen in the world of entertainment but we do not talk about the world of entertainment. When we do, it is often pejorative or condemnatory. Usually when someone does a wholesale, rote condemnation of something large and complex, it is usually because they have not taken the time to properly understand what they are denying. This can be sometimes a very bad idea because you run the risk of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water.

I mentioned grappling with the daily reality of living in an entertainment saturated world in my definition of a theology of entertainment because I believe there has been an unprecedented change in human society. Humans have always entertained themselves with roughly the same things but the way we are doing it today, has never been done before in the history of our species. For most of history, people lived in primarily rural, agrarian societies, doing a lot of physically intensive labour. The industrial revolution which began in Great Britain changed how work and consequently how society as a whole functioned. With regimented work hours and remuneration structures, it allowed a shift to a far more sedentary lifestyle, essentially give more people more time for leisure. The very idea of a weekend is fairly recent in human civilization.

Having more time and more money meant people had more access to entertainment, some of which used to be the exclusive preserve of the well-to-do. In this new industrialised age technological innovation soared. Music records, film, radio, television were all invented in the last century or so. Electronic computers and the internet only a few decades ago. The invention of affordable mass media technology meant entertainment could be taken to a new commercial scale. Today we have a multitrillion dollar industry. Now the interactive entertainment industry, that is, video games, which was a novelty interest three decades ago makes more money than the global film industry. People actually earn a living, sometimes a very comfortable living, of entertainment. It used to be that brilliant artists and entertainers were sponsored by the social elite. Now it is the general public that funds entertainment which is evidenced by the power and ubiquity of contemporary pop culture. Humanity is living in very strange times.

I have brought up these profound changes to highlight the fact most of Church history and the pivotal events that shaped it occurred in the pre-industrial age. The first major event in Church history was its formation. The early Jesus movement, which eventually became known as Christianity, arose as a “mutant” off-shoot of second Temple Judaism. The next major event was the rise of Gentile Christianity. Then there was Roman Catholicism, the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation. All these historic turning points occurred in a very different socio-cultural milieu. No one could have predicted with any meaningful accuracy the unprecedented changes of the last two or three centuries. Therefore, the theology they developed did not directly address many concerns of the modern era, including entertainment. Pentecostalism is the only major event in Church history that has coincided with globalisation which is a result of industrialization. (It’s amazing how much Pentecostalism is carefully unacknowledged in Western Christianity even though it is truly unparalleled in scale.) Pentecostal theology however is too nebulous to form a concerted response to the phenomenon of modern entertainment. As a result of historic changes in human society and how the Church has developed historically, Christians today have been largely speaking left theologically unequipped to deal with modern entertainment. It’s no wonder situations like what happened at my friend’s church arise.

Christian theology basically addresses two categories of people, the church and the world. We live in tension with society where we move both to and away from the world. We have to both be in the world and not be of it. This is was predicated on the even older notion of the natural tension between the sacred and the profane, god and the world, which has existed for the majority of human society. Then this relationship was unduly cut in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation resulting in the religious/secular divide. Like a messy divorce, some cultural chattels and real estate went to either one partner or the other. Very little was left to share. As for the kids it’s even more complicated. It’s an easy guess who got entertainment. Entertainment is often seen as a very secular enterprise that has little, if anything to do with the Church. Some Christian churches and denominations therefore frown upon “secular entertainment” or reject it altogether. However, the omnipresence and popularity of pop culture has led in my estimation to most churches taking the route of providing Christian alternatives. I guess if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. This policy has had some very interesting to results to the say the least.

Conversations about entertainment often revolve around art like music for example, which was the scenario at my friend’s church. Way before the chat I had with him, I had a talk with another friend who used to work in the entertainment industry about Christian music. (In Ghana he thinks a real industry does not exist but that is a matter well beyond the scope of the blog.) I think Christian music is the most visible form of Christian entertainment there is. The way it is can give us a pulse on the overall state of Christian entertainment. To my surprise we both agreed Christian music was generally sub-par. I used to think I was the only one who thought contemporary Christian music wasn’t really good music. By contemporary I do not mean a specific genre but Christian music in general today.

Perhaps, one of the most progressive forms of Christian music is Christian hip-hop (CHH). This friend of mine made the astute observation that some of the biggest tracks, by the biggest CHH artists, were using beats two or three years old. The contemporary hip-hop scene had already moved on to do other things. Of course CHH has does have logistical and financial constraints but it is symptomatic of a trend in Christian art in general, lateness and a lack of originality. It is quite understandable why Hip-Hop or the Christian variety of it anyway, has only recently gained some sort of tepid mainstream Christian acceptance. Hip-Hop only became the most profitable genre of music in the world in the late 90s. Christian Contemporary Music on the other hand is a genre that has become thoroughly mainstream in the Christian world. However, it too came late because it was heavily influenced by rock music which was anathema to most people in the Church and the older population in western society. The slogan “Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll” will make most pastors, parishioners and parents quite alarmed. Just because you come late on the scene does not mean you cannot put your own spin on things. However, we hardly see that with the Christian take on things. One roommate of mine when I was in final, who was a fellow hip-hop aficionado like myself, complained that when Christians get into an art form, they simple regurgitate it. I fully agreed with him that such unoriginality is just boring. Christian music should not only be theologically precise but it should be actually entertaining as well. There is no need to sacrifice one for the other.

Ironically, this was not always the case. Christian art used to be original, innovative, pushing the boundaries and quality of art further. Take the great Renaissance paintings or the amazing music of the baroque period for example. A bit more recently the power of Negro spirituals have had a huge effect on many modern music genres. Christianity has influenced art more than any other worldview. This reversal is I believe an indirect fallout of the religious/secular divide. We have become like that awkward kid at school who desperately wants to be cool. He arrives one day dressing and behaving weirdly in attempt to copy the in-crowd making him look even more out of place. This is what relevance is often reduced to among Christians, more and more unnecessary cultural awkwardness. We moved so far away from the “secular world” and only realised too late that it was a mistake, so we are constantly playing catch-up. We cannot want to be relevant for relevance sake. The current confusion as to what to do with entertainment is a manifestation of our failure to fully inhabit out priestly duties, to mediate between God and the world, the religious and the secular. Even though entertainment is hard to define because of cultural and personal preferences, most will generally agree it is something that you do other than your profession. This means it can be safely put into the category of avocation. If we are to discuss avocation we must get a handle on vocation. Essentially our view of work informs our view of non-work.

Developing a biblical view of work, particularly in relation to this topic, is not as straightforward as it seems for the reasons I earlier mentioned. We have to make very careful moves so we can draw lessons from scripture on vocation and avocation. First of all we should not see them as antithetical to one another. When do that we run the risk of the either/or worldview of modern dualism. Instead we must look to a not so obvious stepping stone towards the biblical concepts of entertainment, the Book of Ecclesiastes. This ancient book addresses the age old question: what’s worthwhile doing?

In observing the natural rhythms of existence, human activity and the transience of life, the Preacher reckoned that it is a divine gift to humanity to enjoy the fruits of our labour (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13, 5:18-19.) Regarding human activity, he sees work and rest not as polar opposites but complementary pairs, meaning we cannot have one without the other. Rest is taking time to properly have pleasure in our accomplishments. The pleasure we derive in turn refreshes us so we can continue our labours. We work so we can rest, we rest so we can work. The Preacher deemed work and rest as fundamental binaries, placing them within the natural order of things. This assumption was not strange to the ancients at all who saw human activity as part and parcel of the natural order. In fact he sees it is as a cosmic injustice for a person to work and not enjoy what he has worked for (Ecclesiastes 6:1-2.)

When you look at the very construction of the word ‘entertainment’ it suggests having delight in a thing itself. The picture of rest in Ecclesiastes encompasses that specific sense of gratification, enjoying something for what it simply is. Rest is therefore not seen idleness, which is the true opposite of work, but rather as a different sort of activity. This is because during leisure is something is being done. Even though it is not a means to end, which in some capacity is the case for every occupation, but the means is an end itself. As philosophical as this book is, it is set firmly within the Hebrew monotheistic worldview. He sees legitimate pleasure, one derived from legitimate labour, as something God given. In other words our capacity to delight in a thing itself, to be entertained, is something God made. This means we can trace this understanding of human activity back to the Torah.

Rest was enshrined in thinking of the ancient Hebrews in the Sabbath. The command was itself a direct reference to Genesis 2 where God rested on the seventh day from the work of creation. (Some scholars think it might have been read at the start of sacred festivals in ancient Israel.) I think the purpose of the Sabbath command was to invest the space-time world with liturgical meaning. Anytime they observed the Sabbath they were reminded of creation where each day God ordered the different elements of the world around them. This meant YHWH alone, as the creator of everything, was deserving of worship. As we have already seen rest does not mean ‘doing nothing.’ Something did indeed happen on the seventh day.

‘Rest’ was temple language for a deity coming to inhabit his home. The temple was the home of the gods. Comparing with other ancient Near Eastern texts, scholars have shown that Genesis 1:1-2:3 is about the inauguration of the cosmic temple. No ancient temple was complete without an idol but instead of a lifeless effigy, God makes humans in his image placing them with in sacred space. God had made the world to be his sacred temple and on the Sabbath he came to dwell in it. This was the most crucial part of any temple inauguration ceremony, it was only when the deity took up residence, that it could begin to function as sacred space. Instead of nothing happening on the seventh day the most important act of creation happened through which everything began to properly function to his glory.

In obeying the Sabbath the Israelites were participating in divine activity by resting from work just as God did. This is what the entire human vocation of being bearers of the divine image is all about. All human activity uses in some way creation. Creation, from start to finish, is divine activity. So as his image, his representatives, when we work we are participating in his work. Therefore when we rest and take pleasure in what we have accomplished, we are also sharing to a degree what the Creator feels, his sense of pleasure and delight in what he has made. As the source of everything, he does not enjoy what he has made for what it can offer him. That is why as his image we are able to enjoy doing things for their own sake. When we are entertained it is a confirmation of what he has done; creature agreeing with the Creator on the goodness of his creation.

Things that hold our attention, that interest us and afford us pleasure matter to God. In fact all human activity, vocational and avocational, interest him. He has made us for himself. Delighting in something requires recognising how wonderful a thing is. This is related to having a sense awe which also involves acknowledging what a thing is in itself. Expressing worship requires both a sense of awe and delight, being aware of what he has done and celebrating it. Creation as a cosmic temple means everything is geared towards that singular but multifaceted thing. Instead of the religious/secular divided we have world made to serve its maker, in whatever capacity he has endowed his creation, including the ability to entertain and be entertained. Worship is kaleidoscopic, full of colour and many dimensions.

The question now is not whether entertainment is a religious matter or not. It is rather, how do we act in a God-honouring manner in all our human endeavours? There are no easy answers but it does mean we should not consume entertainment mindlessly. The creational work-rest cycle can serve as a template in sorting out what qualifies as legitimate entertainment or not. If what we consume moves us out of that cycle into inactivity then there is a problem. Rest is meant to refresh so we can work. When we are made listless, we are not motivated to participate in creation which is what work allows us to do, using something God has made to accomplish something. When something takes away our urge to participate in the world it means we are being desensitized to reality. This makes us indifferent to truth. Escapism should not be the goal of entertainment but rather engagement and connectedness. This indicates that even though we select what entertains us according to our interests, what we choose also informs our appetites. There is a symbiosis between the entertainment and the entertained. I am not just referring to something well-known by marketers that both consumer and product have an effect on each other. I mean something more profound, affecting who we are on the inside. The emergence of pop culture shows that entertainment can be a very powerful thing.

God has no problem with us having fun and enjoying various things whether it is fine wine or a video game. If anything the Sabbath teaches us having leisure is important to him and it something that he built into the created order. In an age of undiscerning fun, that which God has designed to refresh us, often becomes something we use to damage ourselves. There has to be a balance. Worship needs to be kept at the centre since it is only our maker who can give us true joy and delight. Without him in the picture, whatever we do is incomplete, a shadow of the real thing.

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