I make a parenthetical comment in my book TheoMedia that “the great media sin of our culture is to be boring.”
The converse probably also rings true: the great media virtue is to be entertaining.
I will be offering a few posts here at HR on entertainment culture, something I actually write very little about in TheoMedia. My concern is not to lambast our society’s entertainment industry or to make wholesale critiques of our own desires to enjoy screen-mediated amusements. “Entertainment” is one of those words that sounds quite shallow and full of kitsch as soon as we hear, and it is so easy to pick on the entertainers of our world (as much as we love them). When I hear the word ‘entertainment,’ I immediately think of John Tesh co-hosting Entertainment Tonight—it was the silly show that presented itself as newsy just after my family would have watched serious news (I just checked online and saw that the show is still running. Just no John Tesh, sadly).
But ‘entertainment’ deserves to be treated a bit more seriously. ‘Entertainment media’ can actually include certain parts of the Bible—many of those old stories, songs, and poems would certainly have had some entertaining qualities… though, as Erich Auerbach has pointed out, the way they entertain is markedly different from the entertainment media of other cultures, ancient or modern (more on this in a later post).
For now, I am just curious about one way our culture of entertainment has shaped our moral conscious at a meta-level:
boring = unimportant.
Our entertainment culture is often blamed for the immorality of Western society. Sex and violence abounds on screens small and large. But most films actually promote a strong sense of morality in that right and wrong, good and evil, are portrayed in dramatic conflict.
Entertainment culture is teaching us something more sweeping, something we rarely observe. It is teaching us that boredom is wrong. This idea establishes a standard for our media use and appropriation. A medium that is boring (like a textbook) is considered inferior to the more exciting medium of video footage. Educational curriculum in schools and churches are incorporating more video footage to make the subject matter more exciting.
Pedagogically, I get it. I totally understand the efficacy of these media decisions—adolescent kids (especially boys, perhaps) will surely find science more exciting if they can watch CSI-style video footage with creepy music and gruesome crime scenes.
The alternative of a reading assignment in a science textbook seems increasingly outdated.
But along with the intended science lessons, this entertainment-based curriculum teaches unintended lessons: something is worth learning if it is entertaining; if something is dull, it is not worth the effort of learning; to be educated I must be entertained; my teachers must amuse me.
I am what media specialists would call a “soft determinist,” meaning that I think media has some influence on (rather than a dominating control over) its content or message. But I am not hard-nosed about this, and I think the message often shapes and configures its medium, as well as the other way around. But I think Neil Postman made a good point in his chapter “Teaching as an Amusing Activity.” Once we allow the entertainment complex to enter the educational sphere, we may find ourselves disparaging the academic disciplines required for learning hard stuff that does not come packaged in a video clip.
So what about the media of the church? Preaching, for instance: when we say a sermon is “good,” to what degree is that assessment based on the values of our entertainment culture? Good as in it held my attention? And if it held our attention, how did it do that? By engaging us with a compelling vision of God, or by stimulating our entertainment needs?
I think sermons should be engaging. What is the difference between engaging and entertaining?
See the next post…