Recently, a CT editor ran across a six-minute clip on Google Video. Its purpose was to instruct people who were joining a particular church what to expect when it came time for them to be baptized. That's not a bad idea because baptism is an alien thing in modern culture. When John the Baptist dunked repentant Jews in the Jordan, he was building on analogous practices: the convert baptisms practiced by the Pharisees, the ritual baths in the mikveh that worshipers would take before climbing the Temple Mount, and the washing ceremonies of pagan mystery religions.

For people raised outside the church, an instructional video makes sense. Unfortunately, the medium is full of hidden temptations. Twenty-two years ago, when Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death, he pointed out that television has the inherent property of turning everything—including catastrophes—into entertainment. Broadcasting fragmented items, connecting them only by "now this … ," the medium itself requires us to suppress ideas in order to make room for stimulating visuals.

Since Postman's observation, we have continued to amuse ourselves with media that have isolated and distracted us. Much of the time, we plug our ears with "earbuds," shut out the noise and bustle of other people, and cocoon into our private sonic world. Or we sit at our computers and surf videos on YouTube, moving disconnectedly from cute pets to harmless explosions of Mentos and Diet Coke. Entertainment, of course, is not the problem—just the way it now dominates our culture.

Pratfalls for Jesus

Which brings us back to that baptism video. It illustrates Postman's thesis that television has become the metaphor for all discourse, and, as Stefan Schoerghofer writes, that "off the screen, the same metaphor prevails. People no longer talk to each other they entertain each other."

As this metaphor has entered Christian worship, we use video clips to make the message more compelling. We can be seated just a few rows from the pulpit and be more likely to think about the quality of video than the preacher's words.

The baptism video, though it was posted on the internet, was clearly designed to be shown in a worship service. ("If you haven't signed up yet," says the pastor, "I'm sure that after this video you'll be really excited about it and want to sign up. So don't everybody rush to the information center at once after the service. Be careful. Please form a line.") The pastor cannot help using the ironic vocabulary of cheap comedy. And the video is subject to the temptations inherent in the medium: words that have to be bleeped out, pushing a baptismal candidate off the edge of the pool, showing a (thankfully) blurred image of what is supposed to be a naked candidate, and getting drenched when a candidate cannonballs into the pool. This is the vocabulary of Comedy Central, not the discourse of discipleship.

Article continues below

It's not that humor should be banned from worship. Hardly. As Frederick Buechner reminds us, the gospel is a comedy; who has not experienced grace as so wonderfully absurd that at times we cannot help but laugh? And it is one of life's joys to be amused (and distracted) in the cycle of work and rest. But the church must take its cues about humor not from the entertainment culture as much as from the gospel itself. Baptism, the watery half of the "by water and spirit" new birth, is joyous, even hilarious, as much as any birth can be. But the joy of baptism does not comport with an ironic smirk, and definitely not with pratfalls.

This pastor is not alone—although this video is particularly egregious. Shortly after ct editors viewed this video (in the heat of summer), we received a press release from a nationally known church promoting its Christmas program. That church "has been entertaining and inspiring audiences … for more than 25 years," said the press release before it went on to talk about "pageantry, marvel, magic, and awe."

Back to 'The Old, Old Story'

To be sure, the church ministers in the entertainment culture, so it must find ways of arresting attention, engaging, inspiring, and motivating audiences immersed in this culture. It must also resist the insidious nature of entertainment discourse, which demands fragmentation, while having confidence that it offers something more engaging than entertainment: narrative.

There is nothing more arresting than the biblical story of God's great rescue operation to save us from sin, degradation, and destruction. It is a narrative with humor, violence, heroism, tragedy, and triumph. Its parts belong to a meaningful whole. (That's the reason many churches follow the liturgical year, which carries us through the narrative of sin and darkness to the coming of the Messiah.)

Because the gospel is very much a coherent narrative, it can be destroyed by using a discourse that traffics in fragmentation. But a fragmenting culture ultimately longs not so much to be distracted as to be drawn into a rich and transforming story.

Article continues below

Postman pointed out two dangers that can destroy a culture. One is the Orwellian, in which culture becomes a prison. The other is the Huxleyan, in which culture becomes a comedy. You can see the Orwellian danger coming far in advance. It publishes books like Mein Kampf and goose-steps its way into our lives. But the Huxleyan danger sneaks up on us. As Postman wrote, "When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a comedy show, then a nation finds itself at risk."

Let's not fill the church with collaborators. Let's join the resistance, a resistance that, if successful, will allow people to cohere and flourish in ways our culture can hardly imagine.

Related Elsewhere:

Mark Galli's recent SoulWork column addressed how to break the addiction to spectacle.

Timothy George answered, "What is the role of baptism in faith and salvation?"

Collin Hansen outlined debates about baptism in his column, Theology in the News.

Previous editorials include:

What It Means to Love Israel | Beware giving the nation too much theological meaning and the Jews too little. (September 5, 2007)
All That's Good in Sports | The NBA is as good a place as any for working out one's salvation. (September 4, 2007)
Statistical Shell Game | The numbers we report are a matter of gospel integrity. (August 16, 2007)
Virtue That Counts | Why justification by faith alone is still our defining doctrine. (July 13, 2007)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.