In the foreword to his 1986 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman suggested that the culture Aldous Huxley envisioned in Brave New World had become reality.
"As [Huxley] saw it, people will come to love their oppression [and] to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think," Postman wrote. "[What he] feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one."
Postman argued that entertainment technologies had changed public discourse. As in Brave New World, Postman feared that an overload of information reduced culture to passivity and that truth was lost in irrelevance.
In the new book Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment (InterVarsity Press), author Richard Winter says that the same cultural occurrence has "seduced and brainwashed" people away from God.
Christianity Today assistant online editor Todd Hertz spoke with Winter, a professor of practical theology at Covenant Seminary, about how technology and exciting entertainment have created what he calls a "deadness of soul."
What were you seeing in culture that you wanted to address?
Everywhere I looked, I saw people using electronic entertainment. My children come home at night with not just one video, but two or three. They also spend hours on end playing computer games with their friends. I began to wonder what effect this was having on them.
I explored the literature on boredom and came across this idea that overstimulation can lead to boredom as much as understimulation. People tend to lose the ability to develop their imagination and creativity because they're so dependent on input instead of producing something themselves.
In her book Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, Patricia Spack wrote that the word boredom came into the English language about 250 years ago. From then on, there has been an incredible rise in references to it in literature.
You will see that technology boomed in the same age. Access to greater technology increases at the same time that the use of the word boredom does in poetry and literature. People also now have much more leisure time at their disposal and shorter working days than they did back in the 1800s.
How does your theory differ from what Neil Postman argues?
It's very much the same. His book title is so great: Amusing Ourselves to Death. I have very similar themes, but I place it in the Christian context because the decline of Christianity is a very significant factor in all of this. There's a parallel between the rise of these incidences of boredom and the decline of Christianity, faith, and spirituality.
Does the lack of faith cause boredom, or has more boredom created a lack of faith?
I think it's a little bit of both. There's a vicious circle—a deadness of soul leads to boredom, and boredom of course leads to deadness of soul.
Someone who is not a Christian [will experience this deadness of soul] because they're cut off completely from God and from any bigger sense of purpose and reality. On the other hand, when a Christian becomes jaded and feels that God is far away, this person gets bored with prayer and with Bible study. He or she then feels a certain deadness of soul as well.
[The problem] comes down to a loss of a bigger picture of life that, for a Christian, would give significance to all the small details of life. As I wash the dishes, work in the garden, or vacuum, I see it in the context of both the commitment to my relationship with my wife and my family, but also as a commitment to God that I'm called to do these things. And Christ should be Lord of every detail of my life. The seemingly boring, mundane things have a much greater significance in the big picture if you live with faith.
In this culture, is God exciting enough?
We're so dependent on things being exciting. Even as I listen to people giving announcements in church—especially for the youth—everything has got to be really exciting to grab their attention. There's a danger in our worship services when we try to become entertaining.
It's of course good to use illustrations, variety, visual aids, and so on, but one can go over the top so that it just becomes another theatrical production to give people a good feeling, which they then may mistake for an experience of God. But really it's just generated by the sort of entertainment.
God occasionally does amazing, wonderful, and miraculous things. But most of the time, it is the ordinary things of life that he works through. I think our dependence on this sort of hyperstimulation and busyness makes it very hard for us to be content with the small things, with the quieter moments.
How does this hurt a Christian's personal relationship with God?
Overstimulation has led to a culture that has difficulties with delayed gratification. We want things now. We want instant spirituality and an instant relationship with God. Most of the giants of the faith talk about the slow, steady, day-by-day walk of obedience in faith without much drama and with the need for discipline.
The dependence on electronic entertainment doesn't help us to do the hard work of daily practice. If someone wants to play the piano, but they want to do it instantly and they don't have patience, they get too bored with daily exercises on the piano. Our spiritual life is a bit like that. I struggle with this too, to sit still in the presence of God and to read the Scriptures, to meditate, to pray. It's hard. I want to be up, busy, and active.
I was speaking to someone just yesterday who said that he cannot stand the ordinariness of life. He wants action. He wants all of God, or nothing. He wants God to come down and give him a big hug and make him feel wonderful, or, he doesn't want anything to do with God.
This culture also hurts your relationships with other people and with nature. The real world, the natural world, runs at a slower pace. Things are more gentle than the drama of the electronic entertainment.
I went to see the new James Bond film the other day, and it's a classic example of how excitement begets more excitement. The color, the sound, the action, all is up several notches from previous ones to keep people's attention. How long can you go on like this?
How can we battle this overstimulation, not only in our own lives, but also to the people we minister to?
It's about building relationships rather than having exciting events. It's in the context of relationships that we make the most significant movement and growth in life. Even though high drama events sometimes produce results, they often don't last very long.
That's the other thing that technology has done. It's given us lots of wonderful things, but it's helped to undermine community because we don't need to sit on the porch and we have all our entertainment inside on the screen. Entertainment also undermines community in the family because each person sits in front of their own screen. Or you all sit in front of the screen together but you don't talk to each other. So in every way, technology cuts us off from relationships and from reality.
Television suggests that life is high drama, love, and sex. Activities such as housework, fundraising, and teaching children to read are vastly under reported. Most pleasures are small pleasures—a hot shower, a sunset, a bowl of good soup, or a good book.
Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.
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