What should Christians think about entertainment and technology? Are social media, video games, televised sports, and MP3 players healthy or unhealthy for those of us seeking to follow after Christ? These questions aren't new, and the answers to them aren't simple. If they were, the "theological engagement with popular culture" genre of Christian nonfiction would not be nearly so large.
With his new book, iPod, YouTube, Wii Play: Theological Engagements with Entertainment (Cascade Books), D. Brent Laytham adds a smart and provocative voice to the ongoing discussion of how Christians can understand their relationship to the ever-expansive, oppressively ubiquitous world of entertainment.
Sprawling and diverse in its coverage of the culture industry's many dimensions, Laytham's book proposes that a healthy theological engagement with entertainment will require "a consistent dialectical movement of refusing all that diminishes or denies our true humanity, while affirming all that expresses or enhances it." This is not about steering a middle course between being doomsday prophets or utopian priests of pop culture. The via media is a "dead end," Laytham argues, because in our media-saturated world, where we are all surrounded by and habituated to entertainment, "there is no such thing as a balanced diet of idolatry."
Permission to Waste Time
For Laytham, temperance in the area of entertainment consumption is a futile endeavor. Instead, we should do two things at the same time. One is to recognize entertainment as a seductive "power and principality" and "refuse its quest for primacy in our lives"; the second is to understand entertainment as a "triviality" and intentionally enjoy it as such.
Laytham claims that, because we live in a world where entertainment dominates our every waking moment and screens stalk us everywhere (a troubling truth, to be sure), it is largely pointless to attempt to control or redeem it. Rather, our best defense against these "principalities" is to enjoy entertainment as a trivial pursuit, stripping it of any claim on ultimacy and enjoying it as nothing more than diversionary "wasted time." We should not let entertainment assume for itself more gravitas than it deserves. On the contrary, by treating it as a trivial pursuit we are reminded that all of life is God's good gift to us, and that "we have permission, occasionally, to waste time and make no difference at all."
Laytham is right to point out the Sabbatarian place of "wasted time" and "play" in the Christian life, and to affirm the way that enjoying entertainment as a diversion can strip entertainment of its dangerously totatitizing aspirations while allowing us to rest in God's goodness and abundance. His approach is a helpful corrective to those Christians who either take entertainment too seriously (pastors who find ways to turn Downton Abbey into a sermon series, perhaps) or those who don't take it seriously enough (Christians who gorge on music, television, and web amusements without recognizing the powerful implications such habits have on their Christian formation).