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June 04, 2009

Yesterday I looked briefly at entertainment addiction and attempted to propose a definition of entertainment. I said that entertainment is an escape or distraction from normal life. Perhaps I should have added that it is an “enjoyable” escape or distraction. While this is an imperfect definition, I think it is useful, at the least. We seek entertainment to take our minds off the stresses and strains and reality of life.

Today I want to offer a couple of ideas that may help you see the impact entertainment has on our lives.

Qualify Entertainment

I think we need to first qualify our entertainment. We need to figure out what constitutes entertainment and this may well vary from person to person. A lot of what we may think is news or information or otherwise beneficial information may really be entertainment thinly disguised. Do you check Drudge Report eight or ten times every day looking to see the newest headlines? If so, I suspect you are being entertained more than you are being informed. That little bit of information you get from glancing at the headlines and skimming through the stories should probably be filed as entertainment. The same is true of much of the evening news or the blogs you read. Are these things really integral to your life and faith? Or are they really just a form of entertainment? In Amusing Ourselves to Death Neil Postman asked when the last time was that you read a news headline and were compelled to take action. He realized that the vast majority of the news that comes to us is news which demands no action; instead, it is mere information that entertains us but without edifying or challenging us. Even news is often entertainment.

So my encouragement here is to take a look at your day and especially the time you spend in front of screens to determine how much of it is genuinely useful, genuinely applicable to life and how much of it is really a form of entertainment. Which of the shows you watch are entertainment and which are genuinely useful? Which of the web sites you read are entertainment and which actually impact your life? Which of the books you read are amusing and which are edifying? Just pause briefly to think about it.

Quantify Entertainment

Once you have qualified what you do to entertain yourself, try to quantify it. Here you simply attach a number to your entertainment—a number of hours or minutes every day in which you enjoy entertainment. I suspect that, almost invariably, you will be surprised at how large that number is.

As of 2008, the average person between the ages of 18 and 24 spent 8.5 hours every day in front of some kind of a screen—whether computer, cell phone, television, or any other. Mom and dad (aged 45 - 54) fared better (or is it worse?), clocking in at 9.5 hours. These are incredible statistics that give a sense of how digital technologies are reshaping our world. Consider that in 1940 the average would have been 0 hours per day. In just 70 years we have radically reshaped our lives.

How much of this screen time is entertainment-related? In most cases I suspect that it would be the vast majority. Almost 5 hours of the 8.5 for that 18 to 24 year-old are spent watching television (with mom and dad tallying over 6). Can any of that be deemed something other than entertainment? Not likely. How much of the computer time is related to work or school and how much is chatting or browsing or looking at pornography? And even when we seek to be productive on our computers, how often do we switch quickly to email or Digg or Facebook, even if just for a moment or two at a time? How much of the time spent texting and chatting on the cell phone is for entertainment purposes? And even when we do sit back on the couch with a good book, do we keep the television on, just within our peripheral vision?

Even when we look exclusively at screen time we find that people must spend several hours a day being entertained. And this does not include all the other means of entertainment available to us. So quantify your entertainment. For just a day or two track what you do and define appropriate categories. Keep an eye out for how often you switch from work to entertainment, school to entertainment, even if for only two or three minutes each time. I suspect you will find that you are demanding hours of entertainment every day.

What To Do?

Before we continue, I wish to emphasize once again that entertainment is not inherently evil. In fact, I am sure that God created us so we desire and pursue times of entertainment. However, I do think we live at a time when we pursue entertainment with reckless abandon and when we demand it in unprecedented quantities. And for this reason it does us good to think about it, to qualify it, to quantify it.

Now we return to the question that triggered these articles. Somebody wrote to John Piper and asked “I believe I do love Jesus, but most of the time I’d rather spend time being entertained than spend time in God’s word. How do I break this hold that entertainment has on my heart?”

Here is Piper’s reply:

1. Recognizing it is a huge step in the right direction. 2. Seek the Lord earnestly about it. Pray like crazy that God would open your eyes to see wondrous things out of his law. 3. Immerse yourself in the Bible, even when you don’t feel like it, pleading with God to open your eyes to see what’s really there. 4. Get in a group where you talk about serious things. 5. Begin to share your faith. One of the reasons we are not as moved by our own faith as we are is because we almost never talk about it to any unbeliever. It starts to feel like a kind of hothouse thing, and then it starts to have a feeling of unreality about it. And then the powers of entertainment have more sway in our life.

What I have sought to do yesterday and today is give some guidance, some context, to this first step. I want to help you recognize if and where entertainment has dominated your time. If you quantify your entertainment and find that you are spending four or five hours a day being entertained, you may will identify with this person’s honest statement: “most of the time I’d rather spend time being entertained than spend time in God’s word.”

At this point I’d encourage you to pursue Piper’s remedy. I know there is much more that could be said at this point but his suggestions are, at the very least, a great place to start. Pray like crazy, immerse yourself in Scripture even (and especially) when you do not want to, talk with others about serious things and share the gospel. Let God’s Word shape and mold you, showing you what really matters.

June 03, 2009

A few days ago John Piper answered a question about addiction to entertainment. He expressed his concern with our need today to be entertained and to be entertained near-constantly. He then offered a few pointers on escape this addiction. This little article got me thinking and I wanted to offer just a couple of thoughts on the topic.

First, I want to try to define entertainment. The best I can do, at least for now, is this: Entertainment is an escape or distraction or break from normal life. That’s not a great definition, but I think it is a start, at any rate. Entertainment distracts us from the cares and concerns and normalcy of life. It is a form of escapism. It is not necessarily bad to be entertained; but it is meant to be just a part of life, not normal everyday existence. Entertainment is meant to be supplemental, not instrumental. I’ve thought also about amusement. Amusement, if we wish to draw a distinction, is a passive form of entertainment. The roots of the word mean “not thinking” and this clues us in to how it differs from entertainment. A person watching television may be both entertained (as he lets himself take a break from the stress of life) and amused (as he just turns his mind off). A person who is playing Settlers of Catan is entertained, but probably not amused, since playing a game of that nature requires him to use his mind.

Not all entertainment is bad; not all amusement is bad. But I think we have a higher capacity for entertainment than for amusement. I may be entertained by reading a Tale of Two Cities even while not being amused by it. Watching The Office or 24 is pure amusement. The entire purpose is to have me turn off my mind, to stop thinking, and to just go with the story. I think it’s a helpful distinction, then, to see whether we prefer entertainment or amusement. Neither is intrinsically evil, but I think if we ought to be careful to measure both.

I want to point this out as well: entertainment is not a right and should not even be a necessary expectation. The Bible gives us no reason to expect it as a right. Entertainment is a privilege. And historically, the widespread availability and expectation for entertainment is the exception, not the rule. In fact, it has not even been a possibility. And this is at least one of the reasons: here is a small table outlining the cost for a general laborer to enjoy the entertainment of that day, given as a proportion of his daily wage (drawn from Todd Gitlin’s Media Unlimited):

18th century (theater)More than a full day’s wage
Early 19th century (theater)
1840s-50sA little less than ⅓ (25¢)
1870 (minstrel, variety shows)⅙ (still 25¢)
1880s (melodrama, vaudeville)1/13 (10¢)
1910 (nickelodeon)¼0 (10¢)
1920 (movie theater)less than ¼0 (10¢)
1960s (television)⅓60 (amortizing cost of $200 black-and-white set)
1998 (cable television)1/100 (amortizing cost of $300 color set plus basic cable

OK, so this is long enough for today. I’ll come back tomorrow with some further thoughts on what to do about entertainment. For now, I’d love to get feedback on what I’ve said here so far. I am really trying to think this through.

May 24, 2009

There are a couple of songs we sing in church for which I’ve seen only the barest information. In our bulletin we generally record at least the author, composition date and name of the tune. For these songs we’ve got nothing (except, in one case,the author’s name). I thought I’d put them up here today to see if anyone out there can point me in the direction of more substantial information about them.

The first is titled, “A Man There Is, a Real Man” and it’s written by Joseph Hart (who also wrote such hymns as “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy” and “Come, Holy Spirit, Come.” Beyond the title and the tune, we don’t really know anything about this hymn. Google and NetHymnal, between them, turn up little that is useful. Does anyone else sing it? Does anyone have any useful information about it (the collection it appeared in, the date it was composed, the name of the tune, etc, etc).

It is a great hymn as you can see by the words. I am especially fond of the fifth stanza: “Come, then, repenting sinner, come / Approach with humble faith / Owe what thou wilt the total sum / Is canceled by His death!” Here it is:

A Man There Is, a Real Man

A Man there is, a real Man,
With wounds still gaping wide,
From which rich streams of blood once ran,
In hands, and feet, and side.

2 ‘Tis no wild fancy of our brains,
No metaphor we speak;
The same dear Man in heaven now reigns,
That suffered for our sake.

3 This wondrous Man of whom we tell,
Is true Almighty God;
He bought our souls from death and hell;
The price, His own heart’s blood.

4 That human heart He still retains,
Though throned in highest bliss;
And feels each tempted member’s pains;
For our affliction’s His.

5 Come, then, repenting sinner, come;
Approach with humble faith;
Owe what thou wilt, the total sum
Is canceled by His death!

6 His blood can cleanse the blackest soul,
And wash our guilt away;
He will present us sound and whole
In that tremendous day.


This second song is one we have not sung for a while, actually, but we’d still like to know more about it. I’m quite sure it comes out of my pastors’ Masters College days and, indeed, when I mentioned the song in the past, several other Masters alumni said they remember it as well. One person suggested it was penned by Don Kistler, though I’ve never seen that confirmed. So once again, if anyone can tell me who wrote this song and the music for it, that would be great. It’s not a bad little song (though I’d love to see someone reimagine the line about “I’ll be the glove for your hand to fill…”).

Here are the words:

Teach Me To Live What You Say

Teach Me to Live What You Say
Teach me to live what You say,
Make me a child who’ll obey;
Holy in all that I do,
May I bring glory to You.

My life is all Yours to shape as You will
I’ll be the glove for Your hand to fill;
I want to be pleasing, to You may it be,
That You might be glorified somehow in me.

To be more like Jesus with each passing day;
More like the Master in every way,
A servant who’s yielded his heart to the One,
Who gives life and says to His servant, “Well done!”

May 22, 2009

This is a topic I’ve written about before, but one that has been on my mind again lately. I’ll be interested in your feedback on it.

Ted Wallis, a doctor in Austin, Texas, recently came upon a lost child in tears in a mall. His first instinct was to help, but he feared people might consider him a predator. He walked away. ‘Being male,’ he explains, ‘I am guilty until proven innocent.’” As awful as it sounds, I sympathize with this guy. As terrible as it might be to see a young child lost and alone, as a man in this society I feel like accusing eyes would be upon me if I was I to walk up to that child and offer my help. My instinct would probably be to look for an authority figure—a police officer or mall security guard—or a harmless-looking stranger, perhaps an elderly woman or a pregnant mom. These people could help the child without making others assume that they have evil ulterior motives.

Jeff Zaslow of the Wall Street Journal has written a couple of compelling articles dealing with our society’s view of men as predators. They are well worth reading (Are We Teaching Our Kids To Be Fearful of Men? and Avoiding Kids: How Men Cope With Being Cast as Predators). He asks, “Are we teaching children that men are out to hurt them? The answer, on many fronts, is yes. Child advocate John Walsh advises parents to never hire a male babysitter. Airlines are seating unaccompanied minors with female passengers rather than male passengers. Soccer leagues are telling male coaches not to touch players.” An ad campaign for Virginia’s Department of Health features a picture of a man’s hand holding a child’s hand with these words plastered over it: “It doesn’t feel right when I see them together.” The message seems clear. “The implication is that if you see a man holding a girl’s hand, he’s probably a predator,” according to Marc Rudov who runs a father’s rights site.

Clearly there are going to be consequences to making society (and children in particular) fearful of men. “Fathers’ rights activists and educators now argue that an inflated predator panic is damaging men’s relationships with kids. Some men are opting not to get involved with children at all, which partly explains why many youth groups can’t find male leaders, and why just 9% of elementary-school teachers are male, down from 18% in 1981.” Children are beginning to be distrustful of men and society in general is becoming increasingly distrustful of men. Men, meanwhile, bear the weight of feeling like they are always on the edge of being accused of some deviant behavior. “The result of all this hyper-carefulness, however, is that men often feel like untouchables.” “While we don’t want sexual predators to harm our kids, we do want our kids to develop healthy relationships with adults, both men and women. Instilling a fear of men is a profound disservice to everyone.”

Here are a few examples of how this is working itself out according to the testimonies of men who responded to Zaslow’s articles:

In Cochranville, Pa., Ray Simpson, a bus driver, says that he used to have 30 kids stop at his house on Halloween. But after his divorce, with people knowing he was a man living alone, he had zero visitors. “I felt like crying at the end of the evening,” he says.

At Houston Intercontinental Airport, businessman Mitch Reifel was having a meal with his 5-year-old daughter when a policeman showed up to question him. A passerby had reported his interactions with the child seemed “suspicious.”

In Skokie, Ill., Steve Frederick says the director of his son’s day-care center called him in to reprimand him for “inappropriately touching the children.” “I was shocked,” he says. “Whatever did she mean?” She was referring to him reading stories with his son and other kids on his lap. A parent had panicked when her child mentioned sitting on a man’s lap.

I am of two minds about this. On the one hand I don’t want to feel (and don’t want my children to feel) that all men are perverts who are untrustworthy simply by virtue of being men. At the same time, I have too often seen the harm done to children through predatory men. Though it may be the case that only the smallest percentage of men are predators, the fact remains that the vast majority of predators are men. Early on in our marriage my wife and I established a couple of ground rules pertaining to our children (such as not allowing men or boys to babysit our children and being exceedingly cautious about sleep-overs). To use these seemed like common sense rules and not ones born out of a great fear of all men. They are rules that we do not tell the children so as not to make them overly fearful toward men. We are cautious towards relationships between our children and other men, but rejoice when godly or otherwise concerned adults show a genuine interest in them.

I would be interested in hearing from the people who read this site to hear how you cope with these situations.

  1. Would you leave your children with male babysitters?
  2. Would you allow your teenage boy to babysit other children?
  3. Are you immediately hesitant or nervous when a man shows friendly interest in your children?
  4. For the men: if you saw a child standing alone and crying in the mall, would you stop to help the child? If so, would you do so with confidence or with some level of fear?
May 14, 2009

Last night as Aileen and I taught some of the teens at church (as we do every Wednesday evening) we encountered the concepts of guilt and shame. It is a tricky concept this, as it may be positive or negative depending on the context. The Bible makes it clear that, in their innocence, before they invited sin into the world, Adam and Eve were “naked and unashamed.” Written after the fact and written at a time when people could hardly conceive of nakedness as being anything but shameful, these words are clearly meant to make people think and to consider a world without shame. Shame, after all, in at least one of its forms, is product of guilt. Shame comes about as we realize our guilt or our inadequacy. Shame comes as we compare ourselves to a better standard or even as we compare ourselves to another standard (which is, more often than not, other people). So while it is a product of sin and a necessity only in an imperfect world, it is also a gift, of sorts. Shame is an aspect of God’s common grace that keeps us from expressing ourselves in ways that would otherwise result in serious consequences.

Some time ago I read The Death of the Grown-up, a fascinating book by Diana West and one that seeks to answer the question of “Where have all the grown-ups gone?” The book’s subtitle is “How America’s Arrested Development is Bringing Down Western Civilization.” I suppose that says it all. West has studied this phenomenon and has determined that it is one that is going to have serious repercussions. One section of the book that caught my attention deals with the loss of shame.

Shame is becoming increasingly foreign in our culture. We hear of the way many teens act these days—with 13 year old girls propositioning their male friends and dispensing sexual favors on the school bus; with men and boys alike proudly discussing just how much pornography they consume; with the sexual preferences of movie stars being discussed in the evening news; with commercials for sexual enhancers constantly playing on television. Where has shame gone?

West traces the decline of shame to the death of the notion of obscenity, especially in the world of art. “By the time the courts, in effect, declared obscenity was dead, they had killed something vital to a healthy society: the faculty of judgment that attempts to distinguish between what is obscene and what is not obscene—the avowedly ‘grown-up’ sensibility of an outmoded authority figure who had long relied on a proven hierarchy of taste and knowledge until it was quite suddenly leveled. From this leveling came another casualty: society’s capacity, society’s willingness, to make even basic distinctions between trash and art.”

This has led to all manner of offensive, vulgar art being paraded in front of us, even if that art is just plain bad. The question is not, as it should be, “is it good art?” Rather, people simply cry “censorship” and allow anything to be displayed, no matter how vulgar, no matter how devoid of artistic merit. We can no longer distinguish between trash and art. Exempting art from censorship laws, effectively concluding that there is no such thing as obscenity, has had consequences.

“Once the law balked at recognizing obscenity, the populace began to doubt the very basis for shame. With no legal, institutional support for consensus, little wonder the bottom fell out from under morality.” As obscenity became a thing of the past, so too did it’s necessary consequence: shame. Shame is increasingly missing from our culture. We do things, watch things, enjoy things, participate in things that at any other time and in any other place would be considered shameful. Politicians show little remorse, little shame, when their dirty sexual deeds are exposed. Parents cavort with children, acting like children. “Shamelessness sheds light on why it is that American matrons are more likely to host sex-toy parties than Tupperware parties; why the Major Leagues showcase Viagra ads at home plate; why a presidential fund-raiser for GOP candidates includes a well-endowing—that is, contributing—porn star and pornographer; and why at grocery store checkouts shoppers can check out “hot sex tips” along with a loaf of bread. We have all learned—or at least we have all been taught—that the mental blush is superseded by the genital tingle.”

The paradox is something Christians know well. “Less restraint doesn’t necessarily deliver greater freedom.” It should be not surprising that the “land of the free” is also the land with more laws than just about any other nation in the world. With rules comes freedom—not with a lack of restraint. Humans being what we are, we rely on rules to keep us acting within the bounds of morality and within the bounds of shame. When these rules are tossed out and when shame disappears, so too does our willingness to restrain ourselves. With no concept of obscenity there is no shame; with no shame, anything goes. “In a shameless culture…self restraint is continually undermined.”

“By the twenty-first century, shame and embarrassment have zero association with sexuality—or so we are endlessly, numbingly instructed—and, correspondingly, an infantile lack of behavioral restraint may be observed in everything from freak dancing, to ‘super-size’ eating, to McMansion-building. Without the concept of obscenity, without reason for shame, the ‘self’ in self-control sees no greater, larger, socially significant point in holding back.”

What has happened to shame? Well, it appears that shame has been put to death. “Culturally speaking, obscenity is all but legally obsolete, and shame is a kind of secular sin—a symptom of ‘hang-ups,’ of repression, of inhibition, of liberty lost.”

The only thing our society tells us to be ashamed of, it seems, is shame itself.

May 08, 2009

This morning I came across the name Jason Dunham and spent a few minutes reading about his life and death. In 2004, Dunham was a twenty-two year-old Corporal in the United States Marine Corps, serving in Iraq. He became the first Marine since 1970 to earn the Medal of Honor—the nation’s highest award for battlefield heroism—for actions in combat.

On April 14, 2004, he was manning a checkpoint near Karabilah when an Iraqi man whose car they were searching, suddenly grabbed his throat. As Dunham wrestled the man to the ground, the Iraqi dropped a grenade with the pin removed. Aware of the imminent danger and without hesitation, Corporal Dunham covered the grenade with his helmet and body, bearing the brunt of the explosion and shielding his Marines from the blast. He saved the lives of several of his fellow soldiers. Dunham died of his wounds just a few days later without ever regaining consciousness.

The official Marine Corps citation says, “By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty, Corporal Dunham gallantly gave his life for his country, thereby reflecting great credit upon himself and upholding the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”

Such gallantry is amazing, inspiring. It should awe us that a man would so selflessly give all he had for his friends.

And yet what Christ did was greater still. As William Farley says in Outrageous Mercy, “At the cross God threw himself on a grenade to save the enemy soldiers…” We would not wish to downplay the gallantry of Corporal Dunham who made the ultimate sacrifice. But neither can we escape the fact that Jesus Christ died for those who were not his friends, but his enemies. What love this is! Even in the greatest of human sacrifices we see just a pale reflection of the depth, the magnitude, of the sacrifice of the Son of God.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
May 01, 2009

This morning I cracked the cover of a new biography—one I spied while browsing the book tables at The Gospel Coalition Conference. It is titled The Life of Rowland Hill: The Second Whitefield and is written by Tim Shenton, a school teacher in England who has several previous biographies to his credit. Dr. Joel Beeke wrote the Foreword and he says this: “Here is biography at its best. Shenton marvellously brings Rowland Hill to life in a balanced and objective way, neither minimizing his remarkable set of gifts nor hiding his destructive blemishes.”

It is only the rare and exceptional biography that can seem to bring its subject to life. If you have read Marsden’s biography of Jonathan Edwards you may have felt, by the end, that you had actually met Edwards—that you actually knew him. The same is true of McCullough’s John Adams and, from what I’ve heard, of his Truman. Some authors have the ability to bring a person to life, to allow you to meet him, even from beyond the grave.

And this is the task of a biographer, isn’t it? His task is to take a person who is unavailable, usually because he is a historical figure who has long since died, and give you a taste of who that person was. A biography that relates no more than cold facts about a person is so much less satisfying than a biography that gives you the man himself.

I paused for a few moments this morning to thank God that we do not need a biography of Jesus. Rowland Hill died 176 years ago. All we can know about him now is what history has recorded of him. His biographer offers 48 pages of end notes, sources, and bibliography—the resources he has had to use to get to know his subject and to attempt to bring him to life in this book’s pages. Jesus died just about 2,000 years ago and a biographer could offer tens of thousands of pages of end notes, sources and bibliography of all that has written about Jesus. At the end of the gospel of John, the Apostle said “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Neither could the world contain all that has been written about Jesus since that day.

Yet we need no biography of Jesus. We have no need of a biographer who can make Jesus come alive. When Jesus ascended to his Father, he sent his Spirit to be his witness. He sent forth the Spirit in his name to testify about himself. Rowland Hill died but did not send anyone to bear witness to him. It is only through the skilled biographer that he can seem to come to life. But Jesus, he died and rose and even today is alive. He is the one man who died, but who has no need for any biographer to bring him back to life. He is, and remains, and will always be, alive!

April 25, 2009

Several months ago I was asked to submit an article to Tabletalk Magazine. The editors had read an blog entry I had written dealing with the subject of accountability and asked if I’d be willing to write a condensed version and submit it for publication. I was glad to do so and the result appeared in this month’s Tabletalk. You may have read a version of this article in the past but, if you care to read it again, you can find it now in a condensed and edited edition. It goes like this:

Admiral Lord Nelson once remarked that “every sailor is a bachelor when beyond Gibraltar.” This was a statement about anonymity, a rare concept even just a few short generations ago. Nelson knew that once his sailors moved beyond the bounds of the British Empire, beyond society’s systems of morality and accountability, they underwent a transformation. Every man became a bachelor and sought only and always his own pleasure. Those who have read biographies of John Newton will see there a vivid portrayal of a man who was a gentleman at home but who was vulgar and abusive while away. Given only a measure of anonymity he became a whole new man.

In days past, anonymity was both rare and difficult. People tended to live in close-knit communities where every face was familiar and every action visible to the community. Travel was rare and the majority of people lived a whole lifetime in the same small geographic area. Os Guinness remarks that in the past “those who did right and those who did not do wrong often acted as they did because they knew they were seen by others. Their morality was accountability through visibility.” While anonymity is certainly not a new phenomenon, the degree of anonymity we can and often do enjoy in our society is unparalleled in history.

We need accountability. Left to our own devices, we will soon devise or succumb to all kinds of evil. As Christians we know that we need other believers to hold us accountable to the standards of Scripture. Passages such as Ecclesiastes 4:12 remind us that “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” The Bible tells us that “iron sharpens iron” (Prov. 27:17) and that we are to “stir up one another to love and good works…encouraging one another” (Heb. 10:24-25). Life is far too difficult and we are far too sinful to live in solitude. We need community. We need accountability. And God has anticipated our need by giving us the local church as the primary means of this accountability.

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