Addicted to Entertainment

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.

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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) 1/3
1840s-50s A little less than 1/3 (25¢)
1870 (minstrel, variety shows) 1/6 (still 25¢)
1880s (melodrama, vaudeville) 1/13 (10¢)
1910 (nickelodeon) 1/40 (10¢)
1920 (movie theater) less than 1/40 (10¢)
1960s (television) 1/360 (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.