When watching the the music video of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana it can be tempting to dismiss it as nothing more than teenage angst. The lyrics of the song are nearly incomprehensible beneath the roar of guitars and mumbling speech. One could interpret Kurt Cobain’s vacuous stare as he looks at the camera as typical of adolescent apathy. Yet, when I watch him sing the words, “Here we are now, entertain us,” I get the feeling that he is being profoundly insightful. With them he has hit upon an important theme or value of our American culture that belongs not just to the young, but to nearly everyone.
Sitting through the trailers which preceded the Hobbit I saw a trend. Almost all had something to do with the fate the world being solved by a brave few; at last that is what I gathered between the quick cuts of flashy machines and mass destruction. Yet for all this visual power, they seemed to lack any real substance. They were all cotton candy and no steak. It was as if the directors were shouting at the audience, without saying anything that important. Then I watched the Hobbit. While the movie was immensely entertaining, I walked away from it feeling hollow. Whatever it was in the book that stretched my mind and imagination had been replaced by spectacular CGI of dwarfs running.
The shootings in Clackamas and Sandy Hook occurred about the same time. As I watched the new coverage repeat the same facts over and over again, I began to question my motives for watching. Was I watching for the purpose of being an informed citizen? Helping the victims? Understanding the evil that had taken place? I realized that my real reason was probably the vicarious experience of grief and the catharsis which the news gave me. Not to mention a smug desire to “be in the know.” Couldn’t I get the same experience distress and catharsis from watching Romeo and Juliet? News of someone else’s tragedy was functioning as entertainment for me. Of course, Neil Postman pointed out the way that news functions as entertainment long before this in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death.
If one looked, I am sure they could discover many other areas where a culture of entertainment has pervaded American society. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with entertainment. Entertainment allows us to relax and have fun, which are good things. The problem exists when everything becomes merely entertainment. Entertainment, as I use it here, is the passive enjoyment of a stimulus. There are things which can entertain and cause us to think, respond, and act, but mere entertainment does not. Mere entertainment doesn’t challenge the way we perceive the world and force us to grow. Entertainment turns people into mindless consumers instead of creators.
A culture of entertainment no only exists in the wider society but the church as well. Many people come to church simply to consume, to be affirmed by the music and the sermon. As history, and the nightly news, have taught us, entertainment demands that there be a little discomfort or element of tragedy. A movie without peril will not be entertaining; so long as the peril remains inside the world of the screen. Likewise, a good sermon will have just the right amount of condemnation without putting the congregation in actual danger of having to reorient their life priorities.
Social media only seems to have enhanced our desire for entertainment. It is far more easy to be frivolous on Facebook than it is to be serious. This is not a call to be somber. Personally, I take humor seriously. However, we have a tendency to think that humor and frivolity are the same thing when they are not.
I often find myself wading against the current of our culture in the area of mere entertainment. Often times I would rather relax and float with the current. Why continue to be purposeful about learning now that I am out of school? It would be far more enjoyable to veg on computers games or watch the news than read this book which is just beyond my level. Why write a story or poem when I can read one that has already been written? The answers to many questions in life are unknowable, so why bother asking them?
A society bent on mere entertainment cannot help from feeling empty. It can only keep trying to fill the self-made void with more entertainment, or at least use entertainment to distract it from the existence of the void. Even Jesus can be one more attempt to fill the void. When we try to use him superficially as a plug, we tend be superficially filled. If we understood what he wants to do with us, if only we would let him, we would run in terror. Maybe that is why he doesn’t let us know before hand what he is going to do. I can simultaneously say that salvation is by grace through faith and that God is very demanding. In the words of George MacDonald, “God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.”
Christians who wish to respond to Kurt Cobain’s cry can learn a lot from J.R.R. Tolkien. In his foreword to Fellowship of the Ring he states his purpose for writing the book, “The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.” Anyone who has enjoyed Lord of the Rings knows that he did this and much more. He imparted courage, wisdom, beauty, and comfort to his readers. To the cry, “Here we are now, entertain us,” Christian can respond, “I’ll entertain you and much more.”