We live and move and have our being in a world filled with entertainments, and with the culture industries that produce them, and the structures, networks and devices that mediate them. That we are capable of being entertained, and that our world contains raw reality capable of entertaining us, are both good gifts of a good God who means to draw us into divine goodness.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the United States of Entertainment is a fast ride into the kingdom of God. Our capacity to be entertained and the world’s capacity to entertain us have both been distorted by a loss of orientation to God as their source and goal. The perennial manifestation of this distortion is idolatry. Its contemporary form is an entertainment industry that has become the most powerful formational process in human history, an entertainment culture that has normalized the complete permeation of life by entertainment, and entertainment consumers (us) who have developed a powerful “will to be entertained.”
Now even if you are already nodding your head in agreement, I hope that you are nonetheless eager for evidence and argumentation that supports my sweeping claim. (Sorry, but there won’t be much in a short blog post.) If you are shaking your head skeptically, I hope that you are nonetheless open to careful analysis and nuanced conclusions. (Sorry again.)
Vatican II called for “full, conscious and active participation” in the liturgy. Without parroting that language, United Methodists have a similar goal for our worship. Given contemporary entertainment practices of continuous partial attention, are we capable of participating fully, consciously, and actively in anything anymore? Of course, from the perspective of the enabling power of the Holy Spirit the answer has to be “yes.” But from the perspective of the dissipating habits of the entertainment-Geist, a “no” seems far more likely.
How do our entertainment devices and practices habituate us to continuous partial attention? Let’s consider how musical entertainment has journeyed from full, conscious, and active participation to partial, passive attention. Prior to the development of recording and transmission technologies, musical entertainments were necessarily live events. In some cases, the entertained were also the entertainers, playing or singing their own fun into existence. In other cases, musical performers entertained an audience that had gathered for precisely that purpose. Both cases inherently involved a great deal of intentionality and sociality, and both involved musical communication between embodied persons who were physically present to one another. Although all of that is still possible, nowadays our typical practice of being entertained by music is not pickin’ in the Jamboree, singing in the chorus, or going to a concert but turning on the radio (or an internet or iPod equivalent). Even that may overstate intentionality, as our alarm wakes us to music, or we leave the stereo on in the car and Pandora open on the computer, and as we regularly move through a world in which the music is there before we are—in stores, gyms, elevators, restaurants, even restrooms. Technology has kept its promise to make what we want available everywhere, all the time, but at considerable cost. As I’ve described at greater length elsewhere (“iPod: Our Song Gone Wrong?” in Brent Laytham, iPod, YouTube, Wii Play: Theological Engagements with Entertainment [Wipf & Stock, 2012], 33-49), the ubiquitous and incessant practice of musical envelopment costs us the capacity for silence, the capacity to enjoy life without a soundtrack, and most of all the capacity to attend actively to music itself as aesthetic intonation of beauty and truth, and as authentic communication between persons. In other words, the Sunday worshiper encountering the music of the liturgy is also the Monday worker whose encounter with music will be continuous rather than conscious, and so will be partial rather than full, and largely passive rather than active.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not planning to throw away my iPod. But neither do I want to let it have the formative power that it currently has. Working in, and working out, that tension is the hard work of ministry in our present age.
Shortly after writing this post, I was driving to Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia to give a lecture called “What Would Jesus Do on Facebook?” I heard on the radio that Professor Clifford Nass, a pioneer researcher on the impacts of multi-tasking, had died. His claim at the end of a TED talk seems quite germane to this blog about continuous partial attention: “The moral of this story here is really clear: We’ve got to make face-to-face time sacred,…”