iPod, YouTube, Wii Play
July 18, 2013
D. Brent Layham, iPod, YouTube, Wii Play: Theological Engagements with Entertainment (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), x + 220 pp., $24.00
D. Brent Laytham, a professor of theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore, has written a very thought-provoking, judicious, and insightful volume about engaging our entertainment culture. His presentation is a serious one yet it is without the hysteria or simplicity that the topic often provokes. He continually brings us back to the question of how our saturation in entertainment affects our Christian discipleship. The book includes thirteen chapters: "Now That's Entertainment," "No Via Media between Superpowers and Trivial Pursuits," "iPod: Our Song Gone Wrong?," "YouTube and U2charist: Community, Convergence, and Communion," "The Trouble with Twitter," "We Play," "We Watch Them Play (Sports)," "Gambling Doesn't P(l)ay," "Wii Play: Video Games," "CosmoGirl as Cheap Grace," "What Would Bono Do?" "The Church of Oprah?" and "Love the Cinema, Hate the Sin?"
The initial chapter wisely introduces the matters pursued at greater length throughout the book, yet does so without being pedantic. On the first reading, one is not even aware of how well this masterful chapter intrigues the reader about the matters to come. There and throughout the book, Laytham intersperses very thoughtful integrative questions that do not easily let the reader "off the hook" of making some provisional decisions about his various theses. On the very first page, Laytham reminds us of the enormous magnitude of entertainment in our current culture:
In the twentieth century, entertainment became a cultural superpower. That has, inevitably, impacted Christian discipleship, though not always in the most obvious ways...I write with the conviction that entertainment's massive impact on us is rooted mostly in its mundane everydayness: in the way it shapes our subjectivities, affects our affections, cultures our choices, and permeates our possibilities (p.1).
We may tend to regard entertainment as merely what we choose to do with our free time, but Laytham repeatedly reminds us of the powerful commercial interests in the matter: "Capturing attention is one of the most basic components - perhaps the most basic - of the business of entertainment, for in the entertainment economy, attention equals dollars" (p.5). Because technologies and commerce grew somewhat gradually through the twentieth century, the changes were incremental, and hardly noticed. But we are now a profoundly different culture than we were before:
That we go to movies is more basic than which ones we see. That we watch TV is more important than what we watch--even if it's far less than the U.S. average of thirty-plus hours a week! That we listen to recorded music shapes us far more powerfully than whether it's country, jazz, rock, rap, or classical. So we must ask how widely disparate entertainments shape our sensibilities, cultivate our desires, form our feelings, discipline our bodies, pattern our actions, and determine our relationships (p.11).
Chapter Two discusses pop culture, and Laytham mentions the evangelical extremes of "technophobic prophets and pop-culture priests" (p.19). Laytham's approach differs from these two extremes, and is self-consciously dialectic:
Rather, our response to the powers is dialectical: We resist their seductive rebellions while respecting their identity as good creations; we refuse their pretensions to ultimacy while affirming their subordinate role in Christ's triumph; we reject the temptation to hope in their power for good while patiently hoping for their renewal (p.27)...I have suggested a more dialectical approach - both resistance to entertainment as a principality, and embrace of entertainment as a triviality. Such a dialectical engagement is tricky to practice (p.32).
The iPod is not entirely new; it is merely one of the more recent versions of the changes to music that began with Sony's Walkman in the nineteen seventies. Each (and the various intermediaries) has altered the sociology and the psychology of music:
While recording technology blesses us with a superabundance of recorded music, it also transforms music from a situated event to a contextless commodity. And while musical reproduction technology liberates us from the necessity of making our own music, it can also habituate us to disregard what truly matters...Our primary experience of music has gone from a performative event in which we participate, to a commodity we consume and manipulate at will (p.39).
Throughout, Laytham laments how passively we now regard music: "A hundred years ago, a Methodist Christian like me would also have had music in her pocket. Not a miniature musical device, however, but a hymnal...music has gone from being our performed social communication to my passive solitary consumption" (p.42)...The iPod epitomizes music's journey from 'we play' to 'I listen'" (p.43).
In his discussion of YouTube, Laytham reminds us that the early Christians took seriously the question of how their attention to Roman spectacle might erode their discipleship; and he sympathizes with their concerns:
In a culture of spectacle, we need to develop a sense of decorum that knows when to look away. The church must develop a proper moral repugnance rather than a prudish one. Call it the cultivation of taste against what degrades human dignity, diminishes proper desires, and weakens the common good. In our entertainment, we must not only develop a taste for what is ennobling, but a taste against what debases (p.58).
Note how delicately and judiciously Laytham avoids/evades extremes here: prudishness is no answer; but Christian sensibilities that affirm and cherish the imago Dei cannot be surrendered without cost.
In Laytham's analysis of our near-ubiquitous entertainment culture, he refers to what he calls the "convergence" of media technologies, media industries, and entertainment audiences, and says:
First, convergence normalizes the near-total permeation of life by entertainments...Second, convergence valorizes the 'will to be entertained'; increasingly, we choose to be continually entertained...We accept and demand ubiquitous entertainment as a matter of course (p.65).
I thought Laytham was "channeling" Neil Postman here, though I do not recall his mentioning him, and the index does not include reference to Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. Students of Postman, however, will at this point note the remarkable similarities between Postman and Laytham.
Some readers will be surprised at Laytham's embracing of play (not entertainment, but play): "Far more than a stave against boredom or a diversion to pass the time, at its best play is both human need and divine gift, drawing us toward, and fitting us for, divine beatitude (p.72). For Laytham, play ought to function as the proper alternative to entertainment: "To play is, in some sense, actively to make your own fun...Entertainment has been transformed from a homegrown activity to a corporately produced commodity, making us generally more interested in entertainments we pay to consume than in entertainments we play into existence" (p.75). Laytham's analysis here is similar to his analysis of music; we were better off when we were our own performers/entertainers than we are when we passively consume and observe others. His analysis of sports spectatorship is also informed by how electronic media alters the nature of such viewing: "What is new about...our sports culture, is the intervention of mass media, which impacts the experience, patterns, economy, and scale of sport spectatorship" (p.84).
While Laytham deliberately avoids the extremes one often finds in Christian analysis of various forms of entertainment, he is fairly (and, in my estimate, justly) proscriptive regarding video games and commercial gambling. With the first, it is because of the remarkable amount of time expended:
If World of Warcraft were a denomination, its 11.5 million 'members' would exceed my own United Methodism by 48 percent (p.111)...If there is a conflict between gaming and discipleship, its root is not necessarily gaming content or the pursuit of pleasure, but simply time. The intensive natures of gaming and of discipleship suggest that we may not have time for both (p.120).
Regarding the second (gambling), Laytham expresses concern over the magnitude of the phenomenon, and the greed that undoubtedly is an inescapable aspect thereof:
Over the second half of the twentieth century, gambling in the United States changed more dramatically than any other existing form of entertainment. It grew exponentially in popularity and profits. Now, in a given year, the number of people who go to casinos exceeds the combined attendance of Major League Baseball, the cinema, Broadway plays, and live concerts (p.100).
In 1962, Daniel Boorstin called our attention to the idea of "celebrity" in his The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Chapter 11 of Laytham's book ("What Would Bono Do?") continues to raise questions about the role of the celebrity: "While celebrating all of the good that Bono continues to do, we ought to refuse the idea that celebrity is the way God intends to mend the world" (164).
I had hardly finished reading this book before I knew I would eagerly read it again. There is so much thoughtful reflection in the volume (including a very rich, pertinent bibliography and index) that few of us will benefit from it adequately by a single read. Laytham studiously refuses a simplistic analysis of such a significant cultural force; yet the analysis he provides is soundly and authentically Christian. Those willing to open Pandora's Box to consider the challenge our entertainment-saturated culture makes to Christian discipleship will greatly benefit from reading this book, which I commend heartily.
T. David Gordon is Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College, PA. His most recent book is entitled, Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal (P&R, 2010).