Saturday, May 14, 2005

What, No Explosions?

This is a long read, but highly worth it. It's not my writing. If you are not accustomed to reading much, and prefer to be blown away by an intense action movie, slammin' concert, nail-biting sports event, or reality TV that "pushes the envelope," this will be a snooze-fest. Unfortunately, you're the kind of person who NEEDS to read it the most.
I'm not saying I don't enjoy the pleasures listed in this article, but it's a matter of degree. If I've made any progress in this regard, it's the fact that I would rather read this article now, rather than automatically wait for the big-screen HD version, complete with car chases, explosions galore, and a femme fatal. It's Saturday night as I write this. It's tempting to put on a movie now that the kids are asleep. Instead, I think I'll mediate on Psalm 46:10

"Be still, and know that I am God"

Here's the article, or, if you'd prefer to read it on it's own page:

Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment

By Dr. Richard Winter
Rediscovering Passion and Wonder

Let your imagination wander for a moment. You have an evening free: nothing to do, no responsibilities for other people. I wonder what your first thought is. A movie? A video or two? Imagine what it would be like to have none of the movies, TV programs, sporting events, web sites, theme parks, or radio shows that are available to modern people in developed countries.
We find it hard to conceive of such an existence; in fact, some would find it frightening. What would we do with ourselves? How would we survive the famine of entertainment? I suppose a major power failure could give us a taste of what it would be like. What did previous generations do with themselves?
In one weekend, my city of St. Louis can offer baseball and football excitement (at the right time of year), multiple concerts, movies in cinemas and on video, plays and art exhibits, and a plethora of TV channels to watch at home. How could anyone be bored in this culture of entertainment? It seems almost impossible. And yet, paradoxically, a recent annual study of the opinions of consumers revealed a boredom boom. This survey found that most people desired more novelty in their lives.
The Disease of Our Time
We are bored, despite living in remarkable times. Just as a drug user develops a tolerance and needs larger doses to achieve the same effect, so we too have developed a tolerance to amazing events and, perhaps, to entertainment. Reader’s Digest highlighted this in an article called “How to cope with boredom.” It says, “Despite its extraordinary variety of diversions and resources, its frenzy for spectacles, and its feverish pursuit of entertainment, America is bored. The abundance of efforts made in the United States to counter boredom have defeated themselves and boredom has become the disease of our time.”
This is not only true for the United States. In Britain, a recent article in a major national newspaper reported the Archbishop of Canterbury saying, “We are a deeply and dangerously bored society and we are reluctant to look for the root of that. What has happened to us?” He asks, “Why are we so bored?”
More Leisure Time
Since the mid-1800s, for many people both lifespan and leisure time have increased enormously. People in the mid-1800s worked seventy hours a week and lived forty years. Now in developed countries people can work forty hours a week and live seventy years or more. One author calculates that this gives the average person about 33,000 more leisure hours than a person might have had in the mid-1800s.
Not only that, but the type of leisure activities that people engage in today has changed. Much time is spent alone in front of electronic entertainment. Previously the time would often be spent with family: making music, telling stories, and socializing with friends and the local community. In conjunction with this, “alone time” has also risen as people have moved out of smaller rural communities to the industrialized cities, where anonymity is easily achieved.
Now, when we come home, rarely do we get together to make music or play games. We do not need our neighbors anymore. No longer do we sit out on the porch (air conditioning has contributed to that, too) and talk to neighbors. We go inside, shut the door, and go to our private entertainment places.
Entertained to Excess
Boredom is easily recognized when there is nothing to do. But what about this idea that too much entertainment gives rise to boredom? Not only do we have entertainment and information thrown at us all the time in our homes, but also something is trying to keep us entertained almost everywhere we go. Long lines at amusement parks now come with overhead TVs to help pass the time. Airlines show movies. Cars include radios, CD players, and now DVD players. And when I stopped at one gas station, I was amazed to find a small video screen at each pump, just to make sure that I would not get bored for the few minutes it took to refuel!
When stimulation comes from every side, we reach a point of being unable to react with much depth to anything anymore. The boredom we feel today is probably as likely, perhaps more likely, to come from overload than underload.
Over-stimulation is felt most in relation to entertainment and advertising industries. Instead of making our own entertainment, we rely on radio, TV, movies, video games, surfing the web, and so on. Now I am not saying these things are intrinsically bad. The problem comes when we come to depend on them too much. Today, it is no longer necessary to put work into being entertained. A person can be a “couch potato” and let it all happen. Neil Gablar’s book Life: The Movie, How Entertainment Conquered Reality shows how today everything has to be exciting to grab our attention. Entertainment becomes the primary measure of value. The media create expectations for us so that ordinary life becomes increasingly boring and we grow more dissatisfied. Like drug addicts, we want a bigger fix next time.
Additionally, to the contemporary mind, goodness and beauty often seem boring and unstimulating. They do not give the same adrenaline or testosterone rush that violence and sex do. Abnormal behavior is put on display to engage us, as in TV programs like the Jerry Springer show.
And thinking of extremes, there is a huge and growing interest in extreme sports. In Outside Magazine, one professional skydiver and skysurfer is quoted as saying, “It’s only when my body is screaming towards earth that I feel most truly alive."
Those of us who do not hunger for such extreme stimulation can still find plenty of entertainment in the endless shopping malls, restaurants, fitness clubs, bookstores, tennis clubs, golf courses, concerts, movies theaters, and late night Letterman and Leno.
Now, what does all this do to us? I would suggest to you that being surrounded by and taking in all this entertainment stunts our imaginations and our creative capacities. And it shrivels our own inner resources to make and find entertainment. It is much like not using our muscles anymore; eventually we do not know how to use the muscles of the imagination. As the inner resources shrivel up, we need more and more stimulation from the outside, a bigger and bigger fix, to get the same entertainment and sense of stimulation.
Advertised to Apathy
Not only is our society bombarded with countless entertainment options, we are also met daily by messages from the advertising industry that are designed to make us dissatisfied and bored with what we have and who we are. Perhaps some in our society have become so chronically disappointed by false advertising promises that they have shut down their deepest longings and desires and become apathetic and bored.
Fragmentation of Faith
Patricia Spacks, reflecting on the apparent increase in boredom in the last three hundred years, believes that one of the possible reasons is the decline of orthodox Christianity. Spacks, who does not evidence any particular Christian outlook in the book, says, “The history of commentary on boredom shows a steady decline in faith.” The suggestion is that as Christian faith declines, boredom increases. In the past, the Christian view of life gave a motive to endure struggle and difficulty and boredom in life. Contentment was preached as an important virtue. People felt responsible to work hard, to take an interest in and get involved with life, especially with their family and wider social responsibilities. So boredom was seen either as a sin, or as a sign of moral weakness or character failure.
If there is no God out there to give you a sense of purpose and direction in life, how are you to find meaning and happiness? Spacks suggests that boredom is a metaphor for the postmodern condition. Behind the bright lights, optimism, and busyness of our culture lurks haunting questions that many want to ignore. The heavy topics of “what’s the purpose of life?” and “why am I here on this planet” tend to be conversation killers in most situations. Sports, sex, relationships, work, the latest soap opera, television show or movie are much more acceptable.
In the Bible, the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes describes how he tried to find satisfaction in every possible form of activity: work, wealth, pleasure, gardens, and (many) beautiful women. And instead he ended up with a sense of emptiness that is a lot like the description of boredom: “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired. I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work and this was the reward for my labor. Yet when I had surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Nothing was gained under the sun.” (Eccl. 2:10,11)
Counteracting Boredom
Obviously some things in life are boring. In a fallen world, some tasks are inherently tedious and dull, but how we approach them is crucial. Boredom can be a healthy stimulus to action and a challenge to use our creativity. And to face the most monotonous parts of life we must remember the big picture that gives meaning to the little things. When I am repairing the lawnmower for the sixth time and mowing the grass for the sixteenth time that season, I have to remember that this all contributes to creating a place of beauty in my garden, a place that people can enjoy. Part of what God has set us in the world to do is to create lovely places where we can relax with others and enjoy true leisure. It is important to think of the big picture when washing the dishes and to ask where this fits in with the whole of life and marriage and having families and so on.
We need to grow in delighting in the simple and the ordinary—to, as we say, stop and smell the roses. This is where the busyness and dependence on constant entertainment prevents us from cultivating true wonder at the ordinary things of life. Mary Pipher writes, “Most real life is rather quiet and routine. Most pleasures are small pleasures: a hot shower, a sunset, a bowl of good soup, a good book. Television suggests that life is high drama, love and sex . . . .Activities such as housework, fundraising, and teaching children to read are vastly underreported. Instead of ennobling our ordinary experiences, television suggests that they are not of sufficient interest to document.”
Is God sitting back and feeling bored with his creation? From all that we read in the Scriptures, He feels deeply and passionately about all that He has made. There is a rhythm and order to the creation, a repetition of grand themes in the cycles of nature. The Bible tells us of a God who enjoys beauty and glory in what He has made, and wants us to do that too. And yet He is a God, also, who grieves over the ugliness of sin and the brokenness in His creation. He wants us to develop our gifts, but He also wants us to work hard, redemptively, against the evil and the brokenness of our culture and our world. We are to reflect the image of God and how He has made us, both in how we enjoy His creation, but also in how we fight against evil.
It was Edmond Burke who said, many years ago, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Resignation, apathy, and boredom invade when we feel hopeless and helpless. With such an attitude there is no desire to create a place of beauty out of ugliness, a place of order out of chaos. But if we catch a glimpse of the bigger picture, where our story fits with His, then we are motivated to action. Engagement is not a comfortable path, but neither is it a boring interstate that bypasses life. The test of our spirituality is not in our best clothes, nor in our religious settings, but in our response to the everyday and the unavoidable. The test is in our ability to bring good out of hardship and joy out of the mundane. When we begin to grasp the real nature of the struggle of this life, the drama sharpens and the details take on extraordinary significance.
So why get up in the morning? Bilbo Baggins, a now wonderfully famous character created by J.R.R. Tolkien, could have stayed at home with his little comfortable house and his garden(s). The Bagginses were, after all, very respectable. They never had any adventures or did anything unexpected. But when Gandalf came to call on that memorable day, Bilbo sensed that more was at stake. He was needed in the great battle between good and evil. He faced many dangers and challenges, but his life was certainly never so boring as it might have been if he had stayed at home. And my thesis is that we have all, to some degree, lost sight of that for which we have been made. Oftentimes we cannot see the drama of the bigger picture of life where so much is at stake. We are called to an adventure of living, which may have its profoundly boring and frustrating moments, but which gives meaning to a life in which every situation has significance.
Ultimately, then, we are faced with a choice. We can choose to surf the channels, the web, the waves in order to satisfy our thirst for something more to relieve our boredom. Or we can choose to respond to the call to love and to serve God, who promises partly now and completely in the future to satisfy our pangs of hunger and quench our deepest thirst for meaning and significance. He is the One who gives us a reason to delight in His world and a passion for living and who helps us patiently to endure the inevitable moments of frustration and boredom. And as we live in a relationship with Him, and in the light of what He has told us about the world, our perspective on the often difficult and boring things of life is little by little transformed.

Dr. Richard Winter serves as Professor of Practical Theology for Covenant Theological Seminary. His most recent book is titled, Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment, Rediscovering Passion and Wonder (Intervarsity Press). This article is based on a lecture that he gave for the seminary’s Francis Schaeffer Institute.

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