RELAX, EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRY: THE POPULAR CULTURE OF DISTRACTION
Relax, Eat, Drink and Be Merry
Ernest Van den Haag once asked the question, “Who is slain when time is killed?” The answer is obvious - the slayer. Jesus told the parable of the rich fool who decided to lay up for himself ample goods that he may relax, eat, drink and be merry. This rich fool displays the ultimate “killing time” philosophy. If this philosophy sounds much like our modern popular culture, it is. American pop-culture is a culture of distraction, in which deep reflective thought is avoided and the subjects of the culture pass through time simply by killing it.
Kenneth Myers argues that “modern popular culture is not just the latest in a series of diversions. It is rather a culture of diversion.” American pop-culture attempts to establish culture based upon beliefs that “assume humankind’s autonomy from God and reject his creational norms for the world.” The result is an American pop-culture of distraction. As a skeptic, Michel de Montaigne doubted anyone’s ability to reach a certainty of belief in the existence of God. Therefore, to avoid utter despair in facing a world without God, he suggested distraction as an escape from a world of isolation: “Variety always solaces, dissolves, and scatters…By changing place, occupation, company, I escape into the crowd of other thoughts and diversions, where it loses my trace, and leaves me safe.” Distraction kept Montaigne safe because he avoided thoughts about the deeper questions of life and his future destiny by staying occupied with the present.
Not surprisingly, our pop-culture, which denies the existence of a sovereign God, has reacted as Montaigne suggested by providing distraction to avoid despair. The Apostle Paul suggested a similar philosophy of life for a godless world arguing that if there is no knowledge of God and no resurrection of the dead then “let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” Fortunately, Paul refused to live by this philosophy because “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.”
The historic resurrection of Jesus gives Christians the basis for a life of meaning and joy even in the midst of a culture of distraction. Yet escape from the culture is no more a solution than escape in the culture. Christ’s prayer was that Christians should be in the world but not of the world. Accordingly, Christians are called to be simultaneously counter-cultural and engaged in the culture. Christians should not conform to this world, but should seek to understand it and affirm those things in culture which are good and acceptable. Christians should proclaim the gospel to the world in a way that the culture understands. This can be accomplished through contextualization of the gospel message rather than by conforming the gospel to “fit” the culture.
The Air We Breathe
Noise and repetition are characteristics of pop-culture. Noise provides no arena for reflective thought about life’s meaning, but simply acts as a distraction. Our pop-culture songs often communicate a message of consumeristic, instant gratification. Sensual music, technology, sex, and money are the gods that promise satisfaction. Yet, we never seem to question or explain why anyone needs to get these things or what meaning these things will have once obtained; only that getting them is an end goal in itself.
Although many in our time refrain from listening to pop-music, they are no less influenced by pop-culture. Social media creates a world in which every individual is at the center of their own universe. The never-ending scrolling of the screen feeds our desires. Google, Facebook, and other tech giants are more than happy to accommodate and tell us what will make us happy. We know all too well that these screen time binges leave us feeling empty. Yet, the allure of distraction from deeper questions keep us coming back for more. Christians in America must recognize that the pop-culture of distraction is the air that we breathe.
It is naïve to assume that we can be removed from the influences of the time and place in which we live. Rather, Christians must seek to understand pop-culture in order to avoid its inherent dangers and temptations, while engaging people in that culture. Our culture is preaching a false gospel, but we have a true hope to give to those brave enough to sit alone with their thoughts for more than two minutes.
The Culture of Distraction
Blaise Pascal noted that people in despair “have a secret instinct which impels them to seek amusement and occupation…which arises from the sense of their constant unhappiness.” Everyone seeks happiness. The problem is that people “are far too easily satisfied.” A culture dedicated to pursuing happiness in mere stimuli rather than God will never be truly satisfied. Michael Goheen recognized that post-moderns “courageously celebrate and play…in a sort of cheerful nihilism.” Nothing captivates our attention, so we settle for noise to cure boredom and distract our minds. People long to be happy but lack a foundation for happiness, so they seek ever present stimuli to comfort and stimulate. Easily satisfied in trivial stimuli, Americans continually seek new experiences because the present is all that matters when hope in the future is absent. Myers says that,
“if the present is all you have…every experience in every moment is self-justifying.”
Christians have a solid foundation to counter the temptation to seek happiness in pop-culture’s cheerful nihilism. Christians proclaim that joyful satisfaction is found ultimately in Christ alone, the giver of all joy.
If distraction is the characteristic of pop-culture, then immediate entertainment-driven experience is the means by which it is accomplished. The danger in media sites like Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube is the illusion that these forms of entertainment give real intimacy and community. These forms of entertainment avoid face-to-face encounters, but provide the illusion that we are intimately involved with our “friends.” Christians need not avoid such things completely, but should recognize that they cannot replace true intimacy and community found in the church, family, and other social structures. Christians are called to stir one another up in love and good works, “not neglecting to meet together.” Christian community is not optional. Christians are not saved in isolation, but are saved into a family of believers that make up the body of Christ.
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now!
The introductory line of Queen’s 1989 song kicked off the mantra that would come to define our modern pop-culture, which encourages an attitude of consumerism and instant gratification. Pop-culture demands and new technology accommodates the need for instant everything. Myers recognizes the lie of pop-culture which promises that “nothing worth-while is beyond your reach right now. Any experience, sensation, idea, or fantasy can be yours if you have enough money, confidence, and sex appeal. You need not wait for greater maturity, insight, wisdom, or perceptiveness. There is no distance between you and any good thing.”
Pop-culture promises limitless experiences to those who wish to indulge. John Stott warned:
“Our understanding of what is ‘normal’ begins to be modified…We begin to assume that physical violence (when we are provoked), sexual promiscuity (when we are aroused) and extravagant consumer expenditure (when we are tempted) are the accepted norms.”
This modified "normal" is the new normal of our culture. These subtle messages of pop-culture will shape Christians’ worldview if left unchallenged. No one immersed in the gods of our culture is stopping to ask, “Is this normal?” Those who profess faith in Christ must.
Who is Evangelizing Whom? The Danger of Conformity
The Christian church has undertaken many transformations in the name of being relevant. William Willimon warns, “In leaning over to speak to the modern world, I fear we may have fallen in.” Unfortunately, Christians too often contribute to the distracting noise and consumerism of pop-culture by conforming to it. Rick Shrader criticizes preachers who conform their messages to what is “popular” simply to “get people to church.” Likewise, Christians that separate themselves from pop-culture to establish a rival “Christian” pop-culture fail to both engage the culture and to be counter-cultural to it. Imitating secular culture and slapping “Jesus” language on it does not make it the gospel or Christian.
The temptation to conform to pop-culture derives from its popularity. Well-intentioned Christians want to get their message to the most people possible. However, Christians need to be mindful that this goal goes unmet when the content of the message is lost. Popular acceptance runs counter to Christian claims of objective truth and leads to “seeker-sensitive” churches that water down the gospel and provide an entertainment based production to attract people. In the process, the gospel is excluded. Instead, people are simply entertained. Popular Christian messages are often more like good advice than good news and have been described as “moralistic, therapeutic, deism.” If Christians only challenge the content of pop-culture but not the deeper motivation of consumeristic entertainment, then we only promote pop-culture’s idols in a more dangerous form because it carries the name of “Jesus.” Modern American pop-culture presents many opportunities for innocent pleasure, but its principal attributes and attitudes are obstacles to enjoying the best of human experience found in Christ Jesus.
J. Gresham Machen recognized a fault in liberal preaching that is now evident in many churches. In the desire to be relevant, churches make people feel comfortable by giving them a good experience. We dilute the gospel of all offense. However, in doing this churches forget that the gospel calls people to repentance. “They are trying to help men avoid the conviction of sin…Even our Lord did not call the righteous to repentance, and probably we shall be no more successful than He.”
Ironically, the church is most relevant when its main concern is not relevance but devoting itself to the “apostles’ teaching, prayer, the sacraments, and fellowship.” The Apostle Paul did not preach a gospel of comfort and self-esteem but declared that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” The advancement of the gospel would benefit greatly if all Christians took such a posture.
Faithful Gospel Proclamation Through Contextualization
Goheen calls the Christian’s role in culture “critical participation…our relationship to culture is positive: we are part of it and identify with it, seeking to ‘love and cherish all of its created goodness,’ however, we will often find ourselves standing in opposition to it, rejecting and challenging the idolatry that twists and distorts its development.” What then must Christians do in order to critically participate in and speak to pop-culture? The worst thing Christians can do is to approach pop-culture with a list of extra-biblical dos and don’ts. Critically engaging culture takes more effort, but the results of contextualization without compromise will be far more rewarding and faithful to the gospel.
Christians must have strong convictions concerning objective truth recognizing that killing time doing trivial things is not a trivial matter. Scripture calls Christians to seek the things that are above and think about things which are honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. Christians are called to be a family of believers on mission to our culture and firmly grounded in the gospel. “The church exists both through the gospel and for the gospel.” Alison Lentini states that, “to choose to live confessionally is a path both more creative and strenuous than the pursuit of mere relevance or influence. By committing ourselves daily to embodying a faithful, intelligible presence within a difficult and contradictory age, we are freed to work out a dialogic relationship with the surrounding culture. That dialogue, well-anchored in the safeguards of Scripture and community, can enrich and energize our own experience of the risen and living Word.”
Christians must understand that they possess the greatest message anyone could ever offer. This message need not be compromised. By God’s grace, Christians can thrive in a pop-culture obsessed with experience and entertainment. The gospel provides the best experience and joy possible in this life. Christians must also stand firm in the conviction that “authentic experience of the Spirit is an experience in response to the gospel. Through the Spirit the truth touches our hearts, and that truth moves our emotions and affects our wills.” The experience of authentic Christian community lived out in the midst of lives being transformed is far beyond any experience offered by the noisy stimuli of pop-culture.
The redemptive, historical gospel of the church also offers an amazingly entertaining story that pop-culture can appreciate. Sarah Hinlicky comments on the youth of our culture, "We are story people. We know narratives, not ideas…We treat our ennui with stories, more and more stories, because they're the only things that make sense; when the external stories fail, we make a story of our own lives. You wonder why we're so self-destructive, but we're looking for the one story with staying power, the destruction and redemption of our own lives. That's to your advantage: you have the best redemption story on the market." The best part about the Christian story of redemption is that it is true! Pop-culture offers a false story of reality, but the Christian can proclaim Jesus’ story confidently knowing it corresponds to reality.
The Christian Church, despite its many flaws, has the only true hope to offer a world longing for meaning.
As pilgrims passing through this fading world and culture, we are assured that a new creation will one day arrive in the coming of Christ Jesus. Lentini comments, “Our responses as ‘pilgrims through this barren land’ define our discipleship in an increasingly alien culture, but also build creative and relational bridges, as did Jesus on the Emmaus road, which reveal the Father's heart to those looking for a way home.” Christians have the only message that can lead those searching for meaning to their true home. That home is not built by the transformation of America into some sort of utopian “Christian” society, but it is found in the transformation of all creation at the coming of Christ Jesus. We must proclaim this hope to those who desperately need meaning to replace the distraction. Until we reach that home we wait with eager confidence knowing that “the light which shines in the present darkness will fill the earth when Christ appears. Come, Lord Jesus. Our world belongs to you.”
 Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians & Popular Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1989), 62.  Luke 12:13-21  Myers, All God’s Children, 56.  Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 108.  Myers, All God’s Children, 54.  1 Cor. 15:32.  1 Cor. 15:20.  John 17:14-18.  Rom. 12:2.  Ibid, 55.  John Piper, “Christian Hedonism: Forgive the Label But Don’t Miss the Truth,” Desiring God, January 1, 1995, http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Articles/ByDate/1995/1538_Christian_Hedonism/ (accessed May 7, 2009).  Goheen, Living at the Crossroads, 112.  Myers, All God’s Children, 125-126.  Heb. 10:24-25.  Myers, All God’s Children, 114.  John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 73.  William H. Willimon, “This Culture Is Overrated: Why it's dangerous to want to relate the gospel to the modern world,” Christianity Today 41, no. 6 (May 1997): 27.  Rick Shrader, “Postmodernism,” Journal of Ministry and Theology 3, (1999): 56.  Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008), 29-64. Horton borrowed the phrase from Christian Smith.  J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), 68.  Michael Horton, Where in the World is the Church? A Christian View of Culture and Your Role in It (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub., 2002), 143.  1 Tim. 1:15.  Goheen, Living at the Crossroads, 132-133.  Col. 3:1; Phil. 4:8.  Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 31-32.  Alison Lentini, “Virtual Transcendence and Homelessness of the Heart: Culture and the Witness of Presence,” Direction 28, no. 2, (Fall 1999): 174.  Chester, Total Church, 31.  Sarah Hinlicky, “Talking to Generation X,” First Things, no. 90 (Fall 1999):11.  Lentini, “Virtual Transcendence,” 172.  Christian Reformed Church, Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony (Grand Rapids: CRC Pub., 1987), paragraph 6.