The Apostolate of the Laity

Waxing philosophical in communion with one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

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Location: Portland, Oregon, United States

I am just a sinner who holds fast to the notion that every human being on the planet is the result of a thought of God.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

American Idle

Stage plays also captivated me, with their sights full of the images of my own miseries: fuel for my own fire. Now, why does a man like to be made sad by viewing doleful and tragic scenes, which he himself could not by any means endure? Yet, as a spectator, he wishes to experience from them a sense of grief, and in this very sense of grief his pleasure consists. What is this but wretched madness? For a man is more affected by these actions the more he is spuriously involved in these affections. Now, if he should suffer them in his own person, it is the custom to call this “misery.” But when he suffers with another, then it is called “compassion.” But what kind of compassion is it that arises from viewing fictitious and unreal sufferings? The spectator is not expected to aid the sufferer but merely to grieve for him. And the more he grieves the more he applauds the actor of these fictions.
The Confessions of St. Augustine
Book Three

The above passage is worth repeated reading. Read it again then read it a third time.

Back in AD 397 when Augustine wrote this there was, of course, no television or Internet. People entertained themselves with plays. Towns of any size usually had at least one amphitheater. Some of those better productions became the classics man celebrates, but there were no doubt thousands of other plays that simply came and went without ever gaining an audience much like a bad TV sitcom, today.

Going to watch these plays was a daily habit for many. It was an escape from the routine of life, but apparently even in Augustine's day, people invested great energy and emotion into the doings of these fictional characters. Who can say what the ancient version of Melrose Place or CSI might have looked like, but the fact that drama was important seems pretty clear.

Not much has changed today other than the amount of time Americans spend engrossing themselves as a spectator of life. According to the Nielson Company, the folks that do television ratings, the average American spends 161 hours per month watching TV. Considering that there are 720 hours in a 30-day month, that means that Americans are spending over one fifth of their time watching the tube. Put another way, divide 161 by 24. In any given month Americans spend nearly 7, full, 24-hour days watching televison.

Of course, television isn't the only spectator sport. According to Nielson, Americans are averaging an additional 36 hours a month surfing the Internet. It begs the question, what are they looking for? Entertainment? Escape? Connection? Guidance?

Even the so called "reality shows" are largely fiction. Jon and Kate Plus 8 is not real life though America is terribly interested in this couple. Notice how the children have become merely commodities of the story.

It's not that television or the Internet are intrinsically evil. In reality, both are morally neutral; however, the use of these mediums needs examination. For excessive use of any substance often indicates a need to fill a void. So what is lacking in the American experience that requires such a heavy dependence upon spending so much time watching and even caring about the lives of fictional characters? And if so much energy has been invested in this pursuit, at what point does the line between truth and fiction become indistinguishable?

Consider that in St. Augustine's day, a man was valued more by his ability to evoke emotion versus his ability to communicate the truth. Rhetoric was considered a high art. Is that any less true today? Case in point, is there not a tangible, scripted quality surrounding the Obama presidency to the point that even the news media finds it hard to deviate from the fairy tale it helped to spin during the election? The result is a country now led by a phantasm versus a president.

"Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going."
Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.
John 14:1-6

This expenditure of time so many exhaust in front of the television; this form of devotion that might best be described as "idle worshiping"; in reality may be a search for Heaven. The void that America searches for, that all of humanity seeks, is an authentic encounter with the truth. This truth is not a fictional story, but the ultimate reality in the form of a divine person, Jesus Christ.

If upon reflection one comes to realize that one knows better the story of this year's American Idol than the Gospel of Christ, perhaps it's time to turn off the TV and pick up a Good Book.


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