Dumpster diving and entertainment


In my job as a teacher, I have fairly literate colleagues, and our discussions often are about literature, music, and film. For a good while I was watching a lot of artistic, critically acclaimed movies based on recommendations of these people and my own reading in magazines like Rolling Stone, Sound & Vision, and other periodicals. Some of these films were a bit raunchy, but I figured it was no big deal because I was a mature, married, churchgoing adult and could handle whatever was on the screen and in the dialogue.

Then I saw a well-made film that won Oscars and told the story of a prostitute and an alcoholic who found each other and fell in love, or lust, or had something like a relationship. Images from that particular movie burned into my brain, and my mind was utterly defiled. I felt alternately horny, sullied, depressed, and, finally, acutely convicted by the Holy Spirit.

After this incident, it occurred to me that I was a lot like a former street person who used to live in a house with me and some other Christian guys. One day I was driving through the Georgetown area of Washington, DC, and this formerly homeless man was riding along. He was pointing out one restaurant after another and telling me about specific delicious dishes that each prepared: filet mignon, lobster tail, seafood Newburg, and some exotic cuisine I had never even tasted myself.

“How do you know so much about all these places?” I asked him. “It’s not like you were a food critic before you moved in with us.”

“Dumpster diving,” he said and went on to explain how he used to climb inside the trash bins behind restaurants and look for food. He explained the subtle nuances of picking through what other people had left on their plates or what had been tossed out during the food preparations. Cream sauces and shellfish were to be avoided, especially on hot days, but he assured me that a person who didn’t mind crawling through garbage could find good things to eat.

It’s a lot like that with books, music, films, television, and whatever else we might consider to be art or entertainment. There may be a lot of good stuff out there, but do we really want to run the risk of getting ourselves sick on all the trash that goes along with it?


The unreality of music and media

Most music and other media is mere “product” that  we consume, disposable and serving no function except to entertain us. There is a place for entertainment because God does give us all kinds of good things to enjoy, but entertainment is primarily an escape from reality that gives us no real benefits or insights. Most novels, virtually all television shows and movies, and music as well, present us with non-reality, absurdly idealized versions of life.

In the little worlds created by these art forms, life is rarely dull. Violence is engagingly brutal, romance—or at least sex–is abundant, and virtually no one is seen actually working a real job, changing a child’s diapers, or doing the other myriad and mundane tasks that are part of reality.

Such an overload of unreality can distort our thinking. A lot of us aren’t beautiful like the people on the big screen. We don’t all live in big houses and drive cool cars. Love doesn’t always feel the way it is portrayed in a song. Life simply doesn’t resolve like television episodes.

Worst of all, most of what we see and hear is godless. By this, I don’t mean it’s necessarily immoral or heathenish or overtly gross, but the microcosms we enter in popular media do not acknowledge the existence of God. He is simply not part of that world.

I can remember sitting in my parent’s house as a young man, terribly challenged by the example of the young, zealous Christians I was meeting, and as I watched a sitcom, I had a distinct thought: “These people aren’t fanatical about God, and they’re normal.” I was no dummy. I knew I was watching TV, and the people were actors spouting lines by writers, yet I considered this God-vacant representation as “normal.”

Christians have reacted to all this godlessness by producing their own media, and the world therein is not exactly real, either. Often, it is just as escapist as anything produced in Hollywood, a distortion of reality where there is no ambiguity or mystery and everything fits neatly within our theologies. Highly speculative dramas about the end of the world, quaint little neighborhood narratives where parishioners seek the wise clergyman’s advise, prairie epics where settlers are monolithically brave and pure and virtuous—the unrealistic scenarios go on and on.

Even worse than being escapist, some cross another line and are unvarnished propaganda that seeks to persuade an audience that their rather skewed and simplified views of God and man and religion are the truth. But they aren’t.


We are entertainment junkies



Of this much, I am certain: we modern people are entertainment junkies. Our days seem too much for us to bear, so we feel entitled to our little escapes. We listen to recorded music, watch videos, log onto our computers, and take it all in without even thinking about what we are doing.

Not too many years ago, the only way to hear any music was to sing it, play it, or be in the same room with someone doing the singing or playing. If we wanted drama or comedy, a play was staged with real actors doing their bit in front of real people.

We were part of a live community sharing an experience that was deliberate and special. Now, we pop in music or movies, sit back, and consume them like junk food. We spend hours disengaged, putting in our earphones and creating little media cocoons while the rest of creation spins around us unnoticed.

At this point in my life, I don’t need a background soundtrack for my life or a host of vicarious experiences to help me make it through my days. Instead, I deliberately immerse myself in a piece of music or select a movie that is worth entering into fully, and I avoid doing more than one thing at once. Generally, I don’t work and listen to music or have the television on. Consequently, I experience these potential blessings more fully, and I also turn them off when they aren’t making it for me. If a song is bringing me down, I turn it off. If a movie isn’t worth watching, I quit watching, even if I rented it for a few bucks. After all, I’m a couple of hours closer to the grave at the end of a bad movie, and I’d like to have more to show for my time.