Christianity As Spectacle

I wrote this a while ago and planned to use it in another context, that never happened, so here it is now:

One of the cultural phenomena of the past decade or so has to be the rise of the celebrity chef. Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay are household names and who doesn’t know the whole hokey set-up for Iron Chef? Now one would assume that this would lead to a revolution in our eating habits, a culture valorizing chefs would surely return to the kitchen to cook good homemade meals, and when they went out, they would eschw McDonalds for something better. But no. The frozen food section of your local grocery store is not shrinking, there are still fast food chains opening new locations everywhere. Now some could argue that there is one set of people getting really into food and another set being indifferent to it, I would argue though that the reality is that the same people who watch the food network have perhaps not changed their habits as much as one might think.

Before you roll your eyes and think “oh well, those foodies are just hypocrites, how silly of them” consider that for decades it has been acceptable for grown men to spend every fall and winter Sunday on the couch watching NFL football, eating fatty foods, drinking beer, and without a trace of irony, say they are passionate about sports.

All this reminds me of Slavoj Zizek’s take on laugh tracks. He points out that with a laugh track one can watch some kind of mediocre comedy like Friends and not laugh yet feel that one’s spirits have been lifted by the laugh track supplementing your own emotions. Here we can see the same mechanism: one can watch a TV show about eating good, organic, locally sourced food and feel good about it even as one still eats the same processed junk. The TV show gives the viewer an objectified way to feel really concerned about good food. Likewise, the sports fan can have the players on TV go through all kinds of physical feats and therefore exercise themselves almost in the stead of the stat-quoting couch potato.

 

What does this have to do with the church? Most Christians disregard religious TV as the domain of hucksters so we have nothing like the NFL satellite packages or even the Food Network to turn us into spectators. Up to the past decade this may have been the case. Christians though have been very savvy with all manner of online social media. Churches have been able to promulgate new ideas and best practices through YouTube, Twitter, and even their own sites. This is, for a host of reasons, a good thing. Christians can now share easily across the world in 30 seconds far more than what Paul could share across the Eastern edge of the Mediterranean basin through the course of his entire ministry.

What I worry about though is if this technology may be turning Christians into spectators. I have seen a couple of examples of this, Christians infused with the inspiration of their favourite online pastors are moved not to emulate them but to get the same objectified “lift” out of seeing the success of Redeemer in NYC or Mars Hill (choose Grand Rapids or Seattle depending on your outlook) – or worse, they just complain that such leaders are not in their own city. I remember more than once seeing young Christians stand up, clearly filled with the inspiration that one gets from seeing one’s heroes in action, and ask who will lead the church in this city. Their obvious passion and articulation clearly nominates them for this but they shrink as soon as they are called on to do what they want to see done. To modify Obama’s line, too many in the church are convinced that we are definitely not the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Having a set of media figures, as much as they may believe they are examples or models for others, seems to actually cause people to sit comfortably and enjoy the spectacle. Christians who are passionate about their faith are content to sit in front of their computer screens and gawk at the insights of their heroes. Perhaps we should count all this social media as loss if it is creating nothing but a new set of spectators. An interconnected collection of disengaged spectators, tweeting and retweeting the punch-lines of their heroes does not strike me as a way to deepening our discourse. Rather, it is training us not to participate.