Book Club: AOTD – Ch. 8 “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem”

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In the early 2000’s I went into a Christian bookstore in southern California. As I looked at the music I noticed stickers on the CDs. These stickers told me what secular artist this Christian one was comparable to. To the well-meaning this meant they could buy a CD of a familiar genre without having to worry about a bunch of nasty content. To the cynic it meant someone who sounded like a popular secular artist, but not as good.

In a related area is Christian film. Every “Christian” film has an uphill fight to overcome the terrible reputation this genre has garnered. One positive is that they are pushing against low expectations. Now there are exceptions of course. There are wonderful talented Christian artists in music and cinema. But the question this chapter presses us to consider is: can religion be entertaining? If it entertains does it lose it’s content?

To make his case Postman begins with three examples: Reverend Terry, Pat Robertson, and Jimmy Swaggart. Reverend Terry is a prosperity preacher. She promises that by accepting Jesus and ordering her products one will receive not only salvation but blessing! The message then is that “prosperity is the aim of true religion” (114). Pat Robertson is more sophisticated in his take. Robertson’s 700 Club seems to be patterned after “Entertainment Tonight” with various segments and interviews. Much of it revolves around the positive impact of the 700 Club itself. Jimmy Swaggart, while more traditional, still comports his sermon to the television audience. “It is the perfect television sermon-theatrical, emotional, and in a curious way comforting, even to a Jewish viewer” (116).

Postman watched 42 hours of this stuff in preparation for this chapter (poor guy). These included: Robert Schuller, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakkar, and Pat Robertson. In doing so he arrived at three conclusions:

1) This was a colossal waste of time. He could have gotten what he needed by watching five hours.
2) Religion is presented as an entertainment. In doing so everything that makes true religion moving and meaningful has been removed. Tradition and theology don’t sell. They are hard to mass market.
3) The reason for #2 is that the bias of television makes it impossible to communicate what is meaningful in religion.

Everything is not made for TV

And here is where Postman comes to what I believe is the place of debate: “…not all forms of discourse can be converted from one medium to another” (117). Postman then grounds his argument by listing certain characteristics of TV:

1) You cannot make it real for the viewer as if they were there.
2) TV has an inherent bias toward the psychology of the secular.
3) The visual media work against the desirability of introspection and spiritual transcendence.

At the end of the day you have to give way to the consumer. Postman gives a haunting quote from the executive director of a Christian network: “You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want.” (121) Not quite what Jesus said, I think. Postman concludes:

I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.

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Personal Reflections

I am not convinced that all Christian movies, music, and television are bad on the whole. There have been positive developments. Yet I do think that Postman’s arguments should be taken seriously. I do agree with Postman that there are limits to what this medium can communicate. And it is no substitute for the Book. Entertainment media can be a helpful way to explore certain themes and ideas. But at the end of the day we must get away from the idea that Christianity can be entertaining.

We see this in church services where there is a philosophy that we must tailor our music to entertain. Gone is the connection to the ancient past of Christians who gathered together to sing psalms and hymns, hear the word of God read and preached, receive the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I once thought it was cool to see the worship band playing secular songs at the beginning of a church service. “See? We are totally connected to the culture. Our guys are super talented.” Years later I am now of the firm conviction that church services are NOT to be entertainment. I’m even trying to figure out ways to add more Psalms into our congregational singing. They aren’t to be torture either. There is nothing noble about an organ. Music is meant to accompany and assist the congregation in singing, not drown them out fog and lasers.

I heard a phrase from Mark Dever years ago. He got it from somewhere else and Postman has actually said something similar: “What you win them with is what you win them to.” If you win people with entertainment (or tradition!) then when they are no longer entertained they will leave. Our services should have a gospel flow to them. Before I get to the pulpit I want us to have heard the gospel at least three times in singing, confession, and prayer.

I will conclude with an anecdote about multi-site churches. These are churches with multiple campuses that live-stream or broadcast the service/pastor. There is an infamous video from years ago between 3 pastors: one traditional pastor and two multi-site pastors. The boast of the latter two is how numerically successful they are and why the traditional guy is wrong because he wants to pastor through one service to one congregation. The problem is that for a church to be multi-site you need a celebrity pastor. It undoubtedly leans toward the ego. Fast-forward almost ten years to today, both the multi-site pastors have resigned or been fired for similar reasons: arrogance, anger, mismanagement of finances among other things. The traditional guy? Still serving the same healthy church.

What do you think? Can our faith be made into entertainment? Should it be? Contact me here. Thanks for reading!