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).
But I wonder if his "dialectical" approach is too simple. Laytham's view of entertainment as a triviality is helpful to an extent, but the fact is some entertainment is more than just trivial; some of it is rich with meaning, insight, and value for our lives. Laytham seems to believe that the value of entertainment resides mostly in its triviality—as if the biggest gift God gives us in entertainment is the ability to turn off our brains for a time without caring about anything "mattering." Certainly this is one important part of its value, but to reduce entertainment this way is to preemptively gut it of any potential to profitably engage or form us.
The world of pop culture is far too complex to be approached with a simplistic dialectic of "sometimes feasting, sometimes fasting." Laytham's view here comes across as a false dichotomy, as if entertainment either "diminishes our humanity" or "enhances our humanity." The fact is, sometimes even within a single song, or movie, or media form, it does both. While Laytham's book has many quite helpful insights about diverse modes of entertainment (everything from videogames to gambling to entertainment magazines), it sometimes errs on the side of false dichotomies and questionable assumptions.
Laytham's chapter on the iPod, for example, argues that the personal MP3 player has transformed music into more of a "thing" than a "happening," a commodity that contributes to the gradual morphing of music from "performed social communication" to "passive solitary consumption." Laytham assumes these changes "aren't healthy for Christians" and offers a cringe-worthy argument that hymnals are "superior in significant ways" to iPods. Laytham sounds a bit like Walter Benjamin ("The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction") when he decries the commoditization-via-mass-media of music, but who says the movement away from participatory social contexts degrades the experience of music? When the printing press all but eliminated the "happening" of communal oral tradition by introducing the "passive solitary consumption" of things like books and newspapers, was that also unhealthy? Laytham assumes that "live, participatory" is always better, but what about all those social groups who for economic or geographic reasons could never experience music (say, symphonies or jazz) live? One could argue that the accessibility of music in the iPod age not only injects new energy and diversity into a broader swath of the population's musical diet, but also bolsters the participatory experience of music via shared networks, social MP3 sites (Spotify, for example), and music blog fandom.
Elsewhere Laytham writes off Twitter with a one-page chapter consisting mostly of a footnote, labeling the social network a "debasement of language" that is just "one more mode of entertainment." Given the way Twitter has absolutely revolutionized the way we interact socially, process news, experience live events, foster movements, and engage in communal real-time discourse, it seems like a regrettable form to so whimsically dismiss in a book about smart engagement with culture.
Laytham also downplays the DIY/YouTube agency of consumer-creators, suggesting that the remixes, parodies, and new languages young people so eagerly create—what Henry Jenkins calls "vernacular culture"—simply reinforce and recycle current entertainment discourse rather than create anything new.
The overall view of the Christian consumer presented in the book is a bit pessimistic, as if the best thing followers of Christ can do to combat the "principalities" of entertainment is be wary of the bad parts and to just enjoy the good parts as harmless diversion. But what about that old Kuyperian notion that all culture—being ultimately under the sovereign rule of God—has the potential to be redeemed and made to praise the Creator? Is it really wise for us to so easily dismiss much of popular culture without even exploring how it might be used by God to speak to us or communicate his glory?
Granted, Laytham is right to warn us about the insidious ways that the systems and structures of the culture industry inculcate themselves in our everyday lives; he's correct to point out that it's not always about the content as much as how society's overall orientation toward popular entertainment shapes us and cultivates habits possibly contrary to the kingdom of God.
But as much as savvy awareness and defensiveness are essential ingredients in healthy Christian engagement with culture, so too is a more proactive, constructive approach that comes close to Michel de Certeau's notion of "poaching" cultural texts: the idea that an audience can adapt or appropriate a cultural item for its own purposes, transforming its meaning to better fit one's own perspective or goal. This becomes a sort of countercultural form of consumption: Not only do we actively pursue the meaning and merits of a cultural text (a song, for example), but we also locate those parts that can be reinterpreted through a Christian lens and made to serve the Christian mission and reflect the glory of God.
Christians should not be "helpless victims of popular culture," Kevin Vanhoozer writes in Everyday Theology. Rather, they should "make their own cultural statements out of whatever the culture industries produce...making Christian 'space' in the dominant 'places' that make up our cultural landscape." It's not about simplistically writing off Twitter because it is "an inadequate medium for some of life's most important communication" or dismissing online gaming because "truly being 'with' or 'together' or 'present' is a matter of actual bodily location and duration, not of virtual avatar mediation." It's about empowering Christian consumers to not think of themselves as doomed to passivity, beholden to whatever vision of the good life the culture industry intends. Rather, engaging culture is an act of power and creativity wherein consumers can have just as much agency as the producer, if they are willing to go deeper than the reductive categories of something being either "harmful" or "harmless fun."
I share Laytham's interest in guiding Christians to a healthier mode of engaging pop culture. Like Laytham, I recognize that there are aspects of entertainment that should give Christians pause, just as there are aspects we should embrace. Yet the dialectical approach espoused here—reducing our engagement with entertainment to either "principalities" to be avoided or "trivialities" to be enjoyed in moderation—is too simple. It's hard to argue with Laytham's statement that "there is no such thing as a balanced diet of idolatry," but must we resign ourselves to the idea that entertainment is only an idol calling to be worshipped? What if, through a more thoughtful and intentional engagement on the part of Christian consumers, entertainment is instead re-routed to point away from itself? Then it might become not a thing to be worshipped, but an aid in our worship of the Ultimate source of all things good, true, and beautiful.
Brett McCracken writes about film, faith, and culture in Los Angeles. He's the author of Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Baker) and the forthcoming Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker).
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingWorship Music Is Emotionally Manipulative. Do You Trust the Leader Plucking the Strings?The Spirit is at work, but so are the mechanisms around high-production sets.español
- From the MagazineI Find Comfort in the Divine WarriorA surprising psalm changed my view on God’s presence during seasons of trial.
- RelatedChristians Are Asking ChatGPT About God. Is This Different From Googling?Experts from around the world explain the consequences of the AI revolution for believers on and off the internet.españolIndonesian
- Editor's PickIt’s Time to Forgive Each Other Our Pandemic SinsAs the COVID-19 emergency ends, the church can lead the world into a spirit of amnesty.