We used to entertain ourselves.
Anyone who has read Jane Austen knows that in the evenings of the era, people would gather in the drawing room to listen to others play or sing; other times there might be community dances or even balls. In more recent history, my grandmother recounts how on special occasions such as the Fourth of July, the whole town would gather for variety shows in which the girls would perform tap dances or men would sing in barbershop quartets. My mother tells of warm Virginia evenings in her childhood when extended family and friends would gather on the porch to play instruments and sing. I too, grew up singing on the porch, but these times have grown increasingly rare in recent memory. The days of actively entertaining ourselves seem to be disappearing.
If, however, as Christians, we take community seriously, how we entertain ourselves is an important issue. Christian discussions of creativity often refer to the artist as an individual, but there is a type of “communal creativity” that happens whenever a group engages in any endeavor (such as dancing, singing, putting on skits) in order to entertain itself and others. Christians should explore how communally created entertainment might better enrich our social lives and reflect our true humanity.
The loss of communally created entertainment seems directly tied to the massive technological changes of the 20th century, particularly the widespread distribution of mass entertainment. Not only did the advent of TV, movies, and radio make us passive consumers of entertainment, the internet now means that we can view any type of entertainment we want without even having to leave our rooms.
There are perhaps two reasons that the proliferation of entertainment options have decimated our desire to entertain ourselves. Firstly, media commentator Neil Postman notes that cultures with an abundance of information often come to rely on “experts” – those who are presumed more effective managers of information or resources. Thus, once we have access to any entertainment available, including the best singers, dancers, and actors in the world, we begin to think we are “not experts” – and our creative efforts are therefore not as “effective” or valuable. We then abdicate entertaining ourselves in favor of professional entertainment.
Secondly, mass entertainment actually affects our ability to entertain ourselves. Nichlas Carr, in his excellent book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain, points out that every technology has an “alienating” factor; once we adopt it, we increasingly lose the ability to do the same thing for ourselves. Thus, once we adopt the easy use of mass entertainment, we do not learn the skills necessary to entertain ourselves.
Although all technological change brings benefits and losses, Christians should be mindful of what we lose when we “outsource” our entertainment. I would argue that we lose a lot. When we participate in a creative endeavor communally, we are more truly human, reflecting a Creator who created as a community when he stated, “Come, let us make humanity in our image.” Furthermore, communal entertainment fosters knowing those in our community in a richer, fuller way. We see parts of people – skills, talents, quirks – that we may not get to see in a church setting. We also acknowledge that our social lives are a meaningful part of living in the Kingdom of God. When we engage in communal creativity in order to entertain ourselves, we glimpse a forestaste of what C.S. Lewis calls “the great dance” – the communal harmony and purposeful activity which will gloriously characterize the new heavens and the new earth for which we were made.
Somer Salomon has an MLitt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts from the University of St. Andrews, as well as an MA in English Literature from Middlebury College. She currently teaches 11th grade English at a public charter school in Washington, DC, one of her favorite jobs in a varied career path that has included working for an economic development corporation , at a dot.com, and on a horse farm.