Amusing Ourselves Unawares
by Mark Gutman
Mark Gutman – September 13, 2013
Item #1 – Theater attendance has been a hot-button issue for years, but I don’t remember much criticism of television programs such as Lassie or Jeopardy. Fundamental Belief #22, Christian Behavior, includes “our amusement and entertainment should meet the highest standards of Christian taste and beauty.” That probably makes those who were Adventists before the 1980’s think of the theater. Those words just don’t seem to apply to Jeopardy, sports, or “reality-TV.” Once you avoid the major no-no, you don’t really need to spend more time evaluating alternatives. (For a similar theme, see my “Squeaky Wheels” column of Oct 2012.)
Item #2 – Years ago I read about a couple people who were trying to break the world teeter-totter record. They understood they needed to reach a certain number of hours to break the record. As they neared that number they learned that the record was actually a couple hours more than they had originally thought. The comment was made that they were fortunate to have learned the correct record in time. Otherwise, they might have quit too soon and wasted all that time. I’m not sure, but I presumed the “wasting time” comment was meant to be funny. The long teeter-tottering hurt people’s health, but so what? Teeter-tottering isn’t a bad activity.
Item #3 – Journalist Guy Harrison reflected on his ignoring the coverage of a recent media event. “I suppose I could have spent the summer of 2011 keeping up with the Casey Anthony murder trial that seemed to captivate most of America. But I chose instead to use that time hanging out with my kids, reading, writing, and doing other things I felt were a more valuable use of my time. . . . It’s also curious that so much attention was given to the Anthony case – centering on the death of one child – considering the fact that during the forty-two day trial more than one million children under the age of five died in the developing world from malnutrition and preventable diseases. How much coverage of those child deaths did you see during the summer of 2011?”1 I doubt if anyone was threatened with church discipline because of watching the trial.
Teeter-tottering or watching Jeopardy or a murder trial. What’s the big deal? Isn’t religion already too nitpicky, majoring in minors? Let’s take another look.
Harrison’s words could well apply to other popular media or current events. Keeping up with “American Idol” or commenting frequently on Twitter and Adventist Today is not considered taboo. (Disclosure: I’ve watched American Idol and made many comments online.) But what are those activities crowding out? Chris Hedges reports that “a third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42 percent of college graduates. In 2007, 80 percent of the families in the United States did not buy or read a book.”2 The popular media have helped keep us from reading books or from helping our community or from all kinds of other useful activities. Church members who wouldn’t waste their time on TV have found the internet a less objectionable entertainer and time-user. More hours on even 3ABN or on internet must mean fewer hours reading books or spending time with live people.
Life must include amusement and diversion. There are many positives in having fun, commenting online, teeter-tottering, or watching moving pictures. The problem develops when we trick ourselves into thinking that we are doing something useful with our time when we aren’t. While we pat ourselves on the back for not doing anything bad, we can fail to notice that we are being distracted or sidetracked from activities such as the ones mentioned by Harrison.
Brian Wansink tested people who ate at McDonalds and Subway. He found that the Subway eaters get a certain impression from Subway’s ads (or napkins, trays, or cups). “It seems to give them false confidence in what they are eating, and it gives a health halo to all the Subway foods, including the mayonnaise, bacon, potato chips, cookies, and large drinks.”3 McDonalds patrons weren’t fooled by any “health halo.” Isaiah 55:2 (NIV) asks, “Why spend money on what is not bread?” Adapting the wording to fit time use: “Why spend [so much] time on what isn’t going to make you healthier or stronger or more productive?” Because we’re not using our time at junk-food McDonalds, do we figure all our time at Subway is well spent?
Some who spend a lot of time online accomplish far more than I do. And others online don’t care if they achieve much. The main problem is that often the posting accomplishes little, while many posters (or readers) are puzzled at their lack of accomplishment. Are we unaware that time reading little snippets online crowds out other activities? Sometimes we don’t realize that saying yes to the easy short media presentations may mean saying no to more thought-provoking or informing material.
The first three paragraphs of this column describe situations in which people may innocently be amusing themselves, unaware that they are not really engaged in activity to make them better able to help their community and deal with life’s problems. If their goal is to spend an hour (or whatever) a day in relaxing entertainment, and that’s their goal in TV, so be it. But many self-entertainers are insisting to themselves that they are in the serious business of informing themselves or others.
Harrison’s chapter about TV news laments the fact that so much of TV news is a waste of time, serving more to divert watchers from the real issues. Neil Postman sounded a similar theme in Amusing Ourselves to Death several years ago, pointing out that we entertain ourselves by watching TV under the guise of informing ourselves (about politics, news, religion, and education). “[M]ost of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action.”4 C. John Summerville recommends skipping the news, with its emphasis on the sensational, the still-to-be-figured-out, and the weird. He recommends reading books instead, to get more of “the whole story” instead of a slice. “As you get into whole books, you’ll be amazed at how little the news taught you about the world you live in.”5
Joel Zaslofsky lists 49 lies we tell ourselves.6 His #28 is that “I value spending more time learning over applying what I already know.” Is it possible that we are fooling ourselves into thinking that we are accomplishing something when we are actually merely entertaining ourselves? How often do we change our thinking because of something we read online, whether the topic is women’s ordination or creation/evolution or other church issues? Do we read (or watch) to confirm our biases, to understand someone else better, or to gain meaningful information? What do we really expect to accomplish by our reading? George Gillespie, a Scottish theologian, wrote that “Reformation ends not in contemplation but in action.”7 Substitute the word “study” or “learning” and see if the sentence holds true for you. Let’s keep checking ourselves to see if we’re missing out because we’re overdoing the amusement.
1Guy P. Harrison, 50 Popular Beliefs that People Think Are True (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2012), 168.
2Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (New York, NY: Nation Books, 2009), 44.
3Brian Wansink, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 2006), 188.
4Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1984), 68. In the book, he points out that the Iranian hostage situation was getting extensive media coverage, but intimated that most people following the coverage, “well-informed,” did not even know the main language spoken in Iran or the religious beliefs of most citizens. 107
5C. John Summerville, How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society, (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 1999), 147.
7The Works of Mr. George Gillespie, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Robert Ogle and Oliver and Boyd, 1846), 420.