We Americans are undergoing a cultural transformation. I know in many respects that is hardly news. What I’ve been observing though is a confluence of streams of those changes in ways that suggest they are picking up speed, not unlike several rain-swollen rivers coming together to create a massive flood as it works its way down-stream.
It’s difficult to characterize all the subtleties of this growing torrent, but for purposes of this post I’m going to focus on three of these streams in the context of our national demand for endless entertainment. I’ll leave the non-entertaining analysis to the sociologists.
Let’s start with politics, specifically the debates by the Republican presidential candidates. It seems to me the behavior we have observed not only by the candidates, but the very format and “rules” for these televised events is no longer a forum in any classical sense for a debate, that is, a discussion of genuine public policy positions the candidates hold on the important issues facing the nation. Instead, they have been converted into political theater, orchestrated bash and trash sessions analogous to two teams scrambling for a fumbled football, the referee-pundits at the opposite end of the field, commenting on what they think they observe eighty yards away.
The result takes little effort to parse. After umpteen “debates,” we still have little idea what the true policy positions are for each candidate. As successive broadcasts have become increasingly contentious, I have to wonder how soon they will reach the cage-fighting stage.
The candidates have taken a considerable amount of time either appealing to their base by issuing testimonials on what they believe (or mostly oppose, for some of them) or defending attacks from the others over his or her latest Conservative dogma heresy/fumble. To date we have learned almost nothing about how any of them might actually govern if elected president.
Such theater is not unprecedented in American presidential politics. Its presentation of the “demand to be entertained culture” of the United States, however, is, in the fact that the debates are being watched not only by Americans, but through the global reach of satellite television, by countless millions around the world—both those who are our friends and those who aren’t. (I’m not GOP –bashing; I have no doubt if the Democrats were going through the process to nominate a candidate for president, we would be seeing the same thing.)
The second stream of the transformation of American culture is our obsession with being entertained in religious worship, especially in, but not limited to, the Evangelical stream of Christian churches. In one respect, a case can be made that in the twenty centuries of the Church, worship and liturgy have always had an aspect of the spectacle of the sacred. In fact, I think I am on solid historical ground to suggest that every religion’s ritual has had flowing in its stream currents of entertainment that contained the sacred, mysterious, magical and. transcendent. But I would contend that ritual was designed to engage the believer with the divine, not to provide a weekly concert series that happens to contain religious themes for the entertainment of the faithful.
For me, the question arises that in the past century with the meteoric growth of American fundamentalism and evangelicalism, if the entertainment factor in worship has become an end unto itself? Large venues used for worship seem mostly devoid of any religious symbols (a radical historical break from the concept of the “House of God” architectural paradigm) either on the exterior or interior of the gathering places.
I worry that this loss of iconographic representation in the spaces used for worship may be feeding the stream that is transforming religiosity, from a positive value with ontological meaning in the life of both the individual and the community, into the “spiritual but not religious” demographic that appears to have become the dominant perspective of so many people (there are studies showing that the Northeast and Northwest coastal states of the country have the highest percentage of people who hold this view. It has, however, infiltrated every region to some degree).
At the same time, I also worry that the “worship as entertainment” format subscribed to by so many congregations throughout not only the Evangelical streams of the Christian churches, but in many mainline congregations, as well, is tantamount to a new form of iconoclasm. From my perspective, the combination of the two is a dangerous mix for the future of the church. That is, however, a subject for another post.
The third topic, and more difficult to unpack, is “education as entertainment.” I have addressed some of my concerns in an earlier post, A Modern School. How we find the balance between providing an engaging classroom methodology with assuring that our next generation has the capacity to survive the catastrophic activity our planet regularly exhibits, along with the variability of human behavior, and at the same time flourish in their chosen life pursuits is of paramount importance but beyond the scope of this post.
It would be easy to claim the core of this problem is money, both for the schools and for teachers. The situation is far more complex than that. I will refrain from expounding on my deep philosophical disagreements over the amount of funds readily spent (at least in my community) on both public school and collegiate athletics, while the academic programs continue to suffer. The obsession with sports has replaced religion as the “opiate of the people,” to rephrase Marx’s infamous indictment of the Church (which, although never really true in my opinion, did provide the grist for the coffee mills of Europe and the West as countless academics and students “entertained” themselves debating it. As I sit here with my cup of espresso still debating it, I find it most entertaining, on a number of levels). All right, I admit expounding a bit. I hope you were entertained and keep reading.
I want to make the point that the essentiality of education requires that we constantly pursue new ways to think about the future. As such, whatever uncritical demands the community may try to place upon its educational institutions to be “entertaining” has to be firmly declined.
The fallacy of mixing our entertainment obsession with education is two-fold. First, it is a dysfunctional view of the world, which is not entertaining but can be quite brutal and capricious. The wet, blue dot in space on which we live is a dynamic rock with a biosphere and a geosphere, whose natural cycles and changes generate constant dangers to human life. We must always learn from the past to understand how to better cope with future natural events that are guaranteed to happen.
Second, entertainment requires a suspension of belief and encourages that one lapse into a denial of reality. In its proper place, art as entertainment is an integral part of being human. And sports also have a proper place in this regard. Substituting entertainment for education, on the other hand, cuts off the student from learning about the essentiality of preparing for life, not just from a naturalist perspective, but from all the complexities of the human experience that will require that every education.
Education is about the future, about the human face of the future in a human world in which the simplistic rules of fairness, of narcissistic self-indulgence are challenged virtually on a daily basis and can result in catastrophic events far beyond one’s control. If the only resources we give our children are an addiction to entertainment and a corresponding denial that they are indeed vulnerable to the world’s forces, we cannot expect them to flourish in their humanity, and perhaps not even survive.
The swelling streams have reached their confluence…