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FIRST-PERSON: Entertaining ourselves to death

EDITOR’S NOTE: The blurring of lines between discipleship and entertainment continues to be a topic of considerable concern expressed within the evangelical community. Today Kelly Boggs largely reprises a column previously published in 2003 in response to the current discussion about the state of entertainment in America.

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–Charles Colson is concerned about a trend in Christian radio that is jettisoning teaching and talk-oriented programs and replacing them with programming that is more oriented toward entertainment.

Voicing his concerns in a recent issue of Christianity Today, the founder of Prison Fellowship wrote, “One station canceled my four-minute BreakPoint commentary saying that four minutes is the equivalent of one song…. Besides, the station manager allowed, BreakPoint is too serious and not contemporary enough.”

It is not only his radio commentaries that Colson is concerned about. “Several stations recently -– many acting on the advice of a leading consulting firm –- have dropped serious programming in favor of all-music formats,” he reported. “For example, a major station in Baltimore has dropped four talk shows in order to add music.”

American society and even Christians, it seems, are surrendering to the insatiable desire to be entertained. Our quest for amusement has become not only a national past-time, it has become an addiction.

There is little about life in the United States that is not tarnished by entertainment. GameBoys, Walkmans and iPods provide fun and diversion that is portable. Cell phones and PDAs now come with games as standard equipment.

Americans pursue electronic pastimes via television and computer. The Internet, which helped usher in the information age, now is used primarily for amusement — much of which is unseemly. And movies are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year via cable.

Professional sport even has been affected by America’s entertainment addiction. The contest itself was once amusement enough. Not any more. I was treated to an NBA game recently. There I encountered non-stop entertainment. During breaks in the action there were contests, souvenir give-a-ways, dancing girls, and video replays. It was dizzying.

Even politics is dominated by entertainment. A candidate’s image has become more important than a substantive platform. Televised debates are nothing more than rehearsed sound bites and staged spin. A political pundit recently declared that a particular individual would make a good candidate because he makes the public feel good.

Even the church is succumbing to the quest to be entertained. A local fellowship was once evaluated by its commitment to biblical truth. No more. Many who file in and out of houses of worship now expect a service to flow with flawless musical presentations and engaging messages peppered with humor. Conviction must now contend with amusement.

There is little in American society that has not been tainted by entertainment addiction. Perhaps we should consider the song “Let Me Entertain You” as our new national anthem.

All addiction has consequences. America’s obsession with entertainment has produced a society that has become increasingly more passive toward life. It seems we would rather watch reality on television than experience it first-hand.

Entertainment is designed to appeal to an audience’s emotions. Those addicted to amusement lose their desire to think critically. The entertainment addict reacts to information, and even life, based on how it makes him or her feel. Emotion, rather than fact, is the supreme barometer for those enslaved to entertainment.

Addiction is also, by its very nature, an escalating condition. That is, an addict’s appetite never plateaus. Hence those obsessed with entertainment desire more and more amusement that is increasingly more spectacular. The end result is that the sensational trumps the substantive.

The attention span is the casualty of all addiction. The entertainment addict is not only easily bored and distracted, but also has difficulty retaining relevant information for a very long period of time. Those obsessed with amusement are unable to juxtapose contemporary happenings with history. Thus, current events become nothing more than passing bits of trivia.

A society addicted to entertainment is comprised of individuals whose obsession is their own pleasure. Once a people lose the desire to pursue life and to think critically, once a society fails to recognize the substantive and cultivate a historical perspective, once these realities become the rule rather than the exception, a society is in real danger.

There are many things in life that taken in moderation are not necessarily negative. Entertainment is one of them. However, America has crossed the line of moderation and is plunging headlong into addiction. It seems we are, in the words of New York University’s Neil Postman, “Amusing ourselves to death.”
Boggs is editor of the Baptist Message newspaper in Louisiana.

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  • Kelly Boggs