Danny E. Olinger
A generation ago, media theorist Neil Postman feared that modern men and women, enamored with technology and entertainment, were losing the ability to think critically. He also believed that they were erring in making technology—in the place of a moral universe that spoke of sin and righteousness—the new standard for behavior. Such changes that signaled the surrender of American culture to technology made spiritual devastation inevitable, even if masked by the entertainment that technology is able to offer. Postman concluded that the modern man was amusing himself to death.
Methodist theologian D. Brent Laytham does not share Postman’s technophobia, but he does share Postman’s concern for the misappropriation of technology and entertainment in his sharply argued and cleverly titled iPod, YouTube, Wii Play. Laytham examines what entertainment is, how it works, and what it means. He also reflects on how technology and entertainment have distorted or displaced a proper, church-centered ethic. Postman could identify the threat, but he could not provide a positive answer. Laytham does both—and with a theology that points both to Christ and to his church.
For Laytham, the fact that we use the Internet and watch television is more crucial than which websites we visit and which shows we watch. His basic premises are: (1) entertainment isn’t theology, even if it is ripe for theological reflection; (2) in a culture saturated with entertainments and overwhelmed with amusements, theology must engage entertainments; and (3) entertainments will converge toward, complement, compete with, confuse, or confute Christian conviction.
The Christian’s proper response to entertainment (and technology), then, involves refusing its pretension of being
ultimate, while affirming its subordinate role as a good creation. One resists entertainment as a principality, but one embraces it as a triviality.
Illustrative of Laytham’s approach is his chapter on the iPod, where he argues that it epitomizes music’s journey from “we play” to “I listen.” The nineteenth-century Christian’s iPod was a pocket hymnal, where singing was communal and it was essential to know melodies, harmonies, rhythm, and tempos. Laytham writes, “The hymnal implicates and assumes relationships with fellow Christians and with God; one does not sing hymns by oneself or to oneself. Even if I’m the only person in the room, I sing praise with all Christ’s saints. Even when I love the song, I sing it not for myself, but for and to God. And the hymnal invites action, a bodily practice learned in community and shaped by tradition” (p. 45).
The iPod moves in the other direction. Rather than societal, communicative, and active, it is individual, consumptive, and passive. It is, after all, an iPod, not a wePod. Richer in musical recordings, we have become poorer in musical relationship and less fit for the musical work of worship, which is always an active, social communication, never a passive, private consumption.
But, unlike Postman, who undoubtedly would have viewed the iPod as he did television—as a technology that should be avoided at all costs—Laytham believes the iPod can still be used positively for God’s glory. One needs a strategy for using it, but should not fear it.
YouTube is more complex. It combines a top-down platform for the distribution of popular culture with a bottom-up platform for personal creativity. YouTube creates fun with sharing and can be educational in giving tips on a wide range of subjects. But it can hold people captive for hours, encourages excessive behavior to get noticed, and includes degrading spectacles. With such technology, Laytham argues, the Christian needs to develop a sense of decorum, a proper moral repugnance that knows when to look away from that which degrades human dignity, diminishes proper desires, and weakens the common good.
Laytham also notes that some have sought to incorporate YouTube videos into worship as a way of capturing a churchgoer’s imagination and interest. However, he warns against making worship a highly produced form of entertainment. This is exactly what Walt Kallestad did in the 1990s at the Phoenix megachurch Community Church of Joy, growing its weekly attendance from two hundred to twelve thousand. Laytham writes:
As it turns out, Kallestad himself now claims to have been on the wrong track. Coming back from a three-month sabbatical, he noticed that his congregation’s worship “was shallow,” indeed, that it “was a show.” Participating in his congregation’s life with new eyes, he saw that entertainment as drawing in spectators rather than forming and sending forth “transformed, empowered disciples.” Put another way, Kallestad discovered that entertainment couldn’t be used for evangelism, because it was evangelism; a set of processes and activities that shaped how people felt, thought, and acted. (p. 6)
Wanting to avoid both the Scylla of “entertainment is whatever you do for fun” and the Charybdis of “entertainment is utterly passive consumption” (p. 80), Laytham endorses play. Play stretches the imagination, sharpens the mind, and engages the body. It is not justified by the work it does, the effects it produces, or the difference it makes. Play is a needed area of life that is not fraught with ultimacy. He writes:
If entertainment is defined as whatever we do for fun with our leisure time, then play is certainly entertainment, even if we are both entertainer and audience in one. On the other hand, if entertainment is defined as whatever we “watch” for fun, as another’s activity presented for our pleasurable but passive attention, then play is only entertainment if we are being entertained (note the passive verb) by the play of others. (p. 79)
While Laytham’s ideas are undeniably creative and properly stress that we are better off being engaged and interacting with others, rather than being passive consumers, I wonder if “play” is the great alternative to entertainment that Laytham believes it is. Take it from a former athlete, play can take on primacy in our lives just as easily as passive entertainment.
Of course, life with all its legitimate pleasures is a gift from God. Jesus himself used the ordinary enjoyments of life as figures to describe the blessedness of heavenly life. But all of life, including entertainment and play, is to be lived for God’s glory. Laytham would certainly affirm this, but his exaltation of play might point to a difference between a Methodism that sees the insignificant as significant and a Presbyterianism that constantly focuses on the eternal. Still, this is an excellent book that deserves a wide reading.