EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals by Trevin Wax (Crossway).
SUBVERTING LEISURE: Making Jesus Lord of Our Free Time
IN THE LATE 1940s, George Orwell wrote a popular work of fiction entitled 1984. Orwell's dystopian novel describes a future world in which an all-observing government ("Big Brother") bans books, suppresses original thought, and polices all activities. For several decades, as Communism was rising in the East, many in the West feared that Orwell's vision of a worldwide totalitarian regime might soon come to pass. But after Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe, the threat of such a regime diminished. Instead, the fictional world described in a different book, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (released in 1932) has become more likely.
Huxley's vision of the future stands in stark contrast to Orwell's. In Brave New World, the danger is not that books would be banned, but that people would be so entertained they would have no use for reading them. The hedonistic society in Huxley's book thrives on promiscuous sexual behavior, government-sponsored drugs, environmental conditioning, and genetic manipulation. Whereas Orwell envisioned a world in which the government used technology to hold people captive against their will, Huxley described a world in which people would love the technology that held them captive. Many aspects of Brave New World frighteningly resemble contemporary American culture. We live in a world of constant entertainment.
OUR ENTERTAINMENT-SATURATED SOCIETY
Human beings bear the image of a God who works and rests. In the first chapters of Genesis, we see God working to create the world and then resting from his labors. The divine rhythm of work and rest was instituted in God's blessing of the Sabbath and in his command to the Israelites to keep the day holy. According to Scripture, rest and leisure are gifts from God.
Although leisure is a good gift from God, it can easily take the place of God in our lives. When leisure becomes our reason for living, it stops being a friend and becomes a harsh taskmaster. We are robbed of the joy of working to the glory of God whenever our labor becomes simply a means to an end—a vacation, a new technological gizmo, or more time off for sporting events. This insidious Caesar blinds our vision so that we no longer see the danger in spending exorbitant amounts of money and time on nonstop entertainment.
I often wonder what people from an underdeveloped country (a place where homemade shrines to idols are still prevalent) might think if they could see the layout of the typical American living room. Might they ask, "What is that boxed idol in the center of the room that everything points to? Why do you spend so much time at your shrine to that box? What does it do for you?"
In a roundtable discussion with Silicon Valley investors, the CEO of TiVo (the digital television recorder), Michael Ramsay, spoke to the issue of "storage anxiety." Consumers get anxious because they record so many television programs on their TiVo that they are unable to find time to watch them all. Investor Roger McNamee piped up, saying, "We just want to have a ton of stuff on some storage thing somewhere so that when the urge hits us, we can be entertained!"
Pastor John Piper writes:
Television is one of the greatest life-wasters of the modern age. . . . The main problem with TV is not how much smut is available, though that is a problem. Just the ads are enough to sow fertile seeds of greed and lust, no matter what program you're watching. The greater problem is banality. A mind fed daily on TV diminishes. Your mind was made to know and love God. Its facility for this great calling is ruined by excessive TV. The content is so trivial and so shallow that the capacity of the mind to think worthy thoughts withers, and the capacity of the heart to feel deep emotions shrivels.
Television saturates our lives with mindless entertainment, and then isolates us from other people. Before TV, families created their own entertainment, often gathering around the fireplace for stories or around the piano to sing some favorite songs. The front porch was a staple of American society, a place for neighbors to stop by and catch up on the latest news.
After the onset of television, front porches disappeared. The living room, once the "sitting room," morphed into the main hub of entertainment in the house. The fragmentation began. Families isolated themselves from their neighbors, choosing the banter of neighbors on TV sitcoms rather than real conversation with neighbors across the street.
At least in the early years of television, watching TV still remained a family event. Friends and family gathered together to watch the best comedies and variety shows. But now, as television variety has increased, so has the number of televisions in a home. Children have Nickelodeon at the foot of their beds; preteens have the Disney Channel; teenagers have MTV. Newspapers are now reporting that in many homes, different tastes in television programs have caused husbands and wives to stop watching TV together. He goes one way; she goes another. The fragmentation is now complete. There's something to appeal to everyone. From the entertainer's viewpoint, everyone wins! But in reality, everyone loses.
My Romanian friends and family who visit the United States find it remarkable that Americans seem to have little time for friends and neighbors. We keep to ourselves. We devote our time to the Caesar of Leisure and entertainment. We sacrifice our free time to the television and the Internet. Filling our lives with perpetual entertainment has become easier than ever. One can now download movies to a cell phone or listen to virtually any type of music on a portable MP3 player.
The Caesar that would hold us captive to our free time even affects our children. Parents taxi children from one event to another, focusing all their leisure time on dance classes, organized soccer, Little League, or music lessons. Many times the children are as unhappy with their hurried lifestyle as the parents, and if given the choice, would simply want to go home. When we allow sports, recreation, and other leisure activities to dictate our schedules, we and our children suffer.
In recent years, the Caesar of Leisure has become prominent in the proliferation of video games. For many families, the Xbox is in charge.
When I was attending seminary in Louisville, I spent my afternoons tutoring young elementary and middle-school students in failing Kentucky schools. The tutoring job provided me a unique opportunity to enter a family's home for a couple of hours twice a week and assess the family dynamic. Sadly, I realized that many of these children did not need a tutor; they needed a parent.
One sixth-grade boy was failing in school because he played video games eight hours every night. Yes, eight hours per night! The bookshelves in his room were full, not of books, but of game cartridges. It was no wonder that the boy was falling asleep in school and could barely read. Frustrated with his addiction to video games, the parents took his bedroom door off its hinges. I found it odd that they could take such a radical step to monitor their son's entertainment consumption, and yet never consider the simpler step of unplugging his personal TV and game system.
One of my other students also played video games for many hours every evening. But when I asked his father about the wisdom in playing Nintendo for so long, he replied, "Actually, I'm the one who's playing. He just watches."
Hollywood and the Church
The church has not always properly subverted leisure and entertainment. Pastors today can find a variety of Web sites that offer free clips from popular, current movies to spice up their sermons. Hollywood woke up to the potential to make money off evangelicals after the stunning success of The Passion of the Christ. Now, Hollywood markets anything even remotely "family friendly" to the church.
To top it off, Hollywood offers sermon ideas inspired from each film clip. Why not do a sermon series on revenge and show a Spiderman 3 clip each week? How convenient that the marketers of Spiderman 3 provided churches with film clips to coincide with the film's opening weekend! Instead of offering something of substance, we have chosen to offer the same kind of banality people can find anywhere else.
Most evangelicals watch the same movies as everyone else. We are the ones attending church on Sunday mornings and watching Desperate Housewives on Sunday nights. In our desire to receive Hollywood's approval and attention, we allow the movie-making industry to take up minutes of precious pulpit time on a Sunday morning to market their movies when pastors should be declaring, "Thus says the Lord . . . "
Devotion to leisure did not appear with the onset of television, but has long been a struggle for Christians throughout history. In the Roman Empire, the rulers knew they could stay in power if they pacified the populace with enough food on the table and enough public entertainment. Juvenal, an ancient satirist, called the Roman policy "bread and circus." If you keep bellies full of food and minds occupied with shows and games, you keep control. One of the ways the Caesars solidified their power was through mass entertainment.
The early Christians did not deny that sports and entertainment could have a legitimate place in a person's life. In his letters, the apostle Paul included athletic metaphors mentioning the value of bodily training and the rules by which an athlete must play. Paul spoke of himself as running the race of faith and straining forward to "the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."
However, Christians also saw how love for the arena and the theater could become idolatrous. As they witnessed the pagans' worship of sports and entertainment, Christians subverted leisure by standing against the decadence and wastefulness of the entertainment mind-set.
The early Christians subverted leisure as they imitated Christ, the Son of God who lived according to his Father's timetable. Jesus came not to be served and pampered with the luxuries of this world, but to fulfill his kingdom mission. He also instructed his followers to seek first the kingdom. Christians recognized that a life of perpetual leisure competes with a life that is on mission for God.
The Christian's life is not grounded in leisure; it is grounded in the cross. If we have truly been set free from the bondage of sin and death, then we have been set free from the slavery of perpetual leisure that would have us live only for ourselves. We have been delivered from the desire for constant entertainment and the never-ending pursuit of our own pleasure. God has given us freedom from leisure, and he has also given us a task. We are called to proclaim the good news of God's kingdom. As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus has sent us.
Therefore, the way we spend our free time reveals what we believe about God. If we are imaging God rightly by following his instructions for resting and working, we will not allow leisure to take the throne of our lives. As we put leisure back in its proper place under the lordship of Jesus, we will make different choices when it comes to our leisure activities.
There are three main ways that we as Christians can subvert leisure and entertainment. First, we must think seriously about the choices we make regarding our free time. Next, we must purposefully structure our free time in a way that glorifies God. Finally, we must turn our focus away from the things that entertain us to the people that God has entrusted to us.
Thinking Seriously about Our Free Time
Free time is not a trivial matter. The activities we participate in during our moments of leisure shape our identity.
Thinking seriously about free time means we must resist the temptation to check our minds at the door when we are being entertained. Sometimes I hear fellow believers talking about how much they enjoyed a recent movie that carries a blatantly anti-Christian message. If I ever inquire about a movie's philosophy or teaching, I sometimes receive this reply: "Can't you just enjoy the movie? When I go to the theater, I don't want to think! I just want to take it in."
Such a mindless attitude towards entertainment is devastating for the Christian. If we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, then we must avoid giving Hollywood maximum power to form us into the image of this world. The apostle Paul encourages us to have our minds renewed:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:1-2)
Thinking seriously about our free time means we should carefully monitor the shows that our children watch, too. Television advertising tells our children, at the earliest ages, what they "need" to make them happy. Many of today's cartoons tell children that they need only listen to their heart and believe in themselves in order to succeed in life.
Recently, I sat down with my son to watch an old Disney videotape that had some cartoons from the 1960s. I was horrified to see that one of the cartoons featured Jiminy Cricket singing these words to a catchy melody:
You are a human animal.
You are a special kind of breed.
For you are the only animal who can think, who can reason, who can read!
The only human animal is you, you, you!
Right there in our living room, the television was telling my child he is an animal, and that the only aspect that separates him from animals is his ability to think and reason. What about the mentally handicapped child? What about the elderly woman who loses the ability to read? Are they nothing more than animals? A cute little cricket was making bold statements about humanity that contradict the biblical definition of human worth and dignity. We must be constantly on guard, always thinking seriously about the messages coming from the television.
Structuring Our Free Time to the Glory of God
The New Testament demonstrates a sense of urgency when speaking about the last days. The apostle Paul writes:
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (Eph. 5:15-17)
Paul tells us not to make good use of our time, but to make the best use of our time. His understanding of the present evil age leads him to strong exhortation regarding the way followers of Jesus must manage our time.
Our lives are so short. James reminds us that our life is little more than "a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes."
Why then do we fritter so much of our lives away in front of the television screen?
Why do we spend every evening playing or watching sports?
Why do we spend our weekends roaming the shopping malls, looking at more things we do not need?
Jesus tells us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Seeking first the kingdom means we are not seeking after the same things as the pagan world around us: food, drink, and clothing. We must take a good look at our lives.
Do we shop as often, and for the same things, as our non-Christian neighbors?
Do we covet all the newest fashions?
Are we as drawn to the latest technological gizmos as everyone else?
Too often, we give lip service to seeking first the kingdom, while our lives demonstrate pagan preoccupations.
Prioritizing Our Faith
Structuring our free time in a God-honoring way means we will prioritize our leisure activities so that it is clear that Jesus is on the throne of our lives. We will make time for daily Bible study and prayer. We will share meals around the table instead of in front of the tube. We will engage in family prayer and worship. And when our devotion to Jesus collides with the temptation to put something else on the throne, we will demonstrate to the world who is our king.
One way we can prioritize our activities is quite practical. Many organized sports leagues now play soccer or softball on Sundays, as though it were any other day. What should a Christian do in this situation?
Here's another example: While in high school, my brother played for an advanced soccer league that practiced every Wednesday night during the church's youth group hour. My brother was faced with a dilemma: should he sacrifice his potential soccer scholarship in order to attend church? Or should he sacrifice Jesus on the altar of his sports ambitions? I was proud of his choice to fellowship with the body of Christ, even if it meant he sacrificed playing time during the games. (Later, he was awarded a soccer scholarship to a Christian university!)
Too many Christians pay lip service to Jesus as king and yet demonstrate by their recreational choices that something else is on the throne. Ball is Ba'al. When parents replace Sunday morning worship with a Sunday morning ball game, they are communicating more to their children through that one action than many years' worth of words stressing the importance of church attendance.
Planning Quiet Moments
Another way that we can structure our free time in a way that is subversive of the Caesar of Leisure is by planning moments of contemplative solitude. The constant barrage of noise and entertainment today can effectively drown out the voice of God to us, so that even when we open the Scriptures, we are too distracted to hear what God has to say.
I confess that it is often difficult for me to fit regular times of quiet prayer and contemplation into my schedule. My responsibilities to family, church, and school keep me busy. But even though long periods of silence and prayer may be difficult for me during this stage of my life, it is still important that I seek out those quiet moments with God, even if they are just moments and not hours.
A spiritual discipline that helps keep my life centered on Christ is the practice of praying briefly three or four times a day at certain hours. The Old Testament saints prayed in this manner, as have many Christians throughout the centuries. Prayer books can help guide you through certain psalms and Scriptures during these quiet moments. Praying at fixed hours keeps my focus and attitude on the kingdom of God and helps me add a spiritual structure to a schedule that can too easily become controlled by entertainment (TV schedule), food (three meals a day), or work (clock in, clock out).
Francis Schaeffer writes:
No one seems to want (and no one can find) a place of quiet—because, when you are quiet, you have to face reality. But many in the present generation dare not do this because on their own basis reality leads them to meaninglessness; so they fill their lives with entertainment, even if it is only noise. . . . The Christian is supposed to be very opposite: There is a place for proper entertainment, but we are not to be caught up in ceaseless motion which prevents us from ever being quiet. Rather we are to put everything second so we can be alive to the voice of God and allow it to speak to us and confront us.
From the moment we awake to a noisy alarm clock, our lives are too often filled with constant noise throughout the day. What will this temptation be like for our children? If we do not teach them the value of quiet prayer and solitude, who will? Would it not be better to tuck our children into bed after a few moments of quiet prayer than to let them fall asleep under the glow of an impersonal television set at the foot of their bed?
Avoiding Time Wasters
Responsibly structuring our free time means we will avoid time wasters. Some Christians have decided to toss out the TV altogether, and they will tell you afterwards how wonderful it has been for their family. I applaud Christians who decide to take this radical step of cutting television out of their lives.
Some might not go so far as to throw out the TV, but certainly we should all consider "fasting" from television for a month or two, preferably before Christmas or Easter. Other Christians intentionally limit the amount of time they spend in front of the television.
Just recently, my wife and I decided to return the cable box to the cable company. We didn't watch enough TV to merit the monthly fee, and we were sickened by the filth coming over the airwaves, even on the so-called "Family Plan." When I called the cable company, the man on the telephone tried to haggle with me so I could get more channels for better prices. When he realized I was serious about cutting off the cable, he told me that I would receive a one-time penalty fee on my account. I was getting my hand slapped for downgrading? When I returned the cable box to the company, I noticed the clerk's eyes got big, and she asked, "What's wrong?" The more people I talked to, the more I realized that the simple act of cutting the cable cord was subversive of leisure. The company seemed surprised that we could survive without cable!
We still have a television in our home, but my wife and I practice "intentional TV watching." Every now and then, we will purchase a DVD of a classic television show we enjoy, and over time, we will watch the episodes together. Intentional TV watching does away with channel surfing, not to mention the countless advertisements.
Making intentional choices about how much time to spend on entertainment should also be applied to video games. I am deeply grateful to my parents for limiting my access to computer games when I was growing up. My brothers and sister and I read books, wrote stories, made music, recorded shows on tape, played in the backyard, and even made our own movies! I am thankful that my parents did not give in to our persistent pleas for the newest video game.
But my parents also showed wisdom by not legalistically condemning all electronic entertainment. On rainy days, they would pull the Nintendo down from the closet shelf, dust it off, and let us play our hearts out. We still had fun playing video games, but my parents were wise enough to put the Nintendo back up when the sun returned. Even today, I still enjoy playing video games occasionally. Sometimes, after I finish a difficult semester of schoolwork, I will bring home some games to play with my little boy. We have a great time for a couple of days, but then we put the games away and move on to other things.
Leisure in its rightful place is terrific. Enjoying good, wholesome entertainment can be glorifying to God. But we must not underestimate the power of video games or television to affect how we view the world. Entertainment can and should be enjoyed, but it must never dominate our lives. Christians subvert leisure by limiting the time we spend on these activities. We structure our time in such a way that it is obvious to the world that we have different priorities.
Focusing Our Leisure Time on People Instead of Things
Some of my fondest memories of Romania are the long walks down the streets of the city, talking and laughing and enjoying friendships. My friends and I could have easily taken a tram or a taxi in order to arrive at our destination faster. But what would have been the purpose in hurrying? We had no TV to watch, no video games to play, nothing that had to be done in the next five minutes. So why not walk? Why not enjoy the fresh spring air? Why not talk on the way there?
When our free time revolves around constant entertainment, as is often the case in America, we miss out on what is best. We are enslaved to the fun of a fleeting moment, while missing out on relationships that could last a lifetime. The absence of constant entertainment is one reason many of my Romanian friendships seemed so much deeper than my American friendships. The Romanian friendships were built on quality time, good conversation, and honesty, whereas most of my American friendships were built on activities, hopping from one fun activity to the next, with very little time for quality conversation.
God has created us for more than shallow friendships that boil down to activities and entertainment that rob us of our time together. He desires us to have strong, healthy relationships with others. That will not happen unless we are spending time with people, not things.
Churches also must focus on people instead of entertainment. Some churches have chosen to wade in shallow waters, replacing the Word of God with a bombardment of fast-moving images on a big screen. Likewise, our church calendars are filled with so many programs that we hurry from one church activity to another: game night, choir practice, youth activities, dramas, movie night, softball games, etc. Of course, these activities can be good times of fellowship. But they can also sap us of our energy for true kingdom work and deceive us into thinking our busy calendar represents spiritual vitality.
IS IT WORTHY?
One evening in Romania, I went on a walk through the city. As I arrived back on the university campus, the sun was setting. I noticed a girl who had plopped down in the middle of the sidewalk, her eyes focused on the beautiful sunset. She looked at me and said, "It's worthy of stopping."
We declare something to be worthy by giving it our time and attention. Sports, movies, television, video games, shopping—all of these activities may be worthy of a place in our lives. But in a world in which people are bowing down to the Caesar of Leisure, spending so much time and energy in recreation and entertainment, Christians should intentionally seek to undermine the high status given to leisure by showing people that Jesus is more worthy.
For some, it will mean cutting out certain forms of entertainment completely. For others, it will mean sacrificing Sunday ballgames for Sunday worship. Our friends who are devoted to leisure might think we are crazy for cutting the cable cord, stopping our shopping sprees, praying at fixed hours, or missing some sporting events. Ironically, it is only when we put leisure back in its proper place under the lordship of Christ that we restore true sanity (the Apostle Peter calls it "sobermindedness") to our lives.
What we do with our free time shows who is king of our lives.
Copyright 2010 by Trevin K. Wax
a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers
1300 Crescent StreetWheaton, Illinois 60187
For more information about Trevin Wax visit his blog, "Kingdom People" here.