When we talk of human fear we typically first talk about the fear of death, then maybe fear of the unknown, the dark, pain, loneliness or the loss of loved ones. We rarely talk about fear of boredom and yet so much is driven by that fear. We crave change, movement, excitement and novelty because we can't stand being bored. A lot of popular culture is consumed in order to alleviate boredom. If we find the day becoming too tedious, we listen to music, turn on the TV, check Facebook, play a game, or maybe even go shopping.
One of the effects of boredom is that we find ourselves alone with our thoughts and questions. We may ponder our mortality, review mistakes we've made or wonder about the purpose and direction of our lives. Some time ago entertainments were commonly called "diversions" because not only did they divert minds away from the hardships of life but also from the roiling mass of ideas produced by self-reflection. Until the 18th century the word amusement meant something that deceived or cheated. One of the reasons Puritans disapproved of many recreations was that they believed such things could be used to smother the work of the Holy Spirit in producing consciousness of sin.
In A Practical Exposition of the 130th Psalm (1668) John Owen wrote, "There are also other ways whereby sinful souls destroy themselves by false reliefs. Diversions from their perplexing thoughtfulness pleases them. They will fix on something or other that cannot cure their disease, but shall only make them forget that they are sick."
Also writing in the 17th century Blaise Pascal observed in Pensées, "The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room." Pascal believed that people invented diversions to avoid the big questions of life. "You would only have to take away all their cares, and then they would see themselves and think about what they are, where they come from and where they are going. That is why men cannot be too much occupied and distracted, and that is why, when they have been given so many things to do, if they have some time off they are advised to spend it on diversion and sport, and always to keep themselves fully occupied." Maybe T. S. Eliot was thinking something similar when he wrote in the Burnt Norton section of his long poem "The Four Quartets" that humans can't bear much reality.
We all need entertainment in our lives because too much self-absorption, drudgery or inactivity reduces our capacity for enjoyment. The ideal life would have a rhythm of tedium and excitement. Too much inactivity and repetition and we would be in a state of ennui. Too much excitement and we would become satiated. For the sake of our emotional stability we need to be able to cope with both. Hence the old saying "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All play and no work makes Jack a mere toy."
The engineering of thrills
Although there have always been forms of popular culture, diversions and amusements for the masses, the technological developments that have taken place in the 20th and 21st centuries have meant an increased capability for maximizing sensation. In just over one hundred years we have gone from saucy Mutascope machines to hardcore online pornography in HD, from silent black and white films to 3D color movies and computer generated imagery, from kaleidoscopes to video games. The roller coaster, carousel and Ferris wheel have given way to amusement park rides that push human fear to an extreme. Brendan Walker, the world's first "thrill engineer," believes that the future of these rides exists in psychological stimulation: "The human body is a limiting factor," he admits. "There are only so many Gs it can take before it blacks out. So, to make rides scarier, we're having to move towards mental stimulation, playing on real human fears."
Rather than a straightforward listening and viewing experience, rock concerts have become sensory assaults where you are dazzled visually, aurally and physically. You can often feel your body vibrate with the impact of the bass guitar, and the volume can leave your ears ringing for days after. It's difficult to see how much more could be loaded on the senses of a concert audience.
In every area of popular culture the search is on to outdo whatever it was that came immediately before. Audiences become satiated with familiar forms, and when that happens, the experience that once alleviated boredom itself becomes boring. Producers are then forced to find things that are louder, longer, faster, higher and, always, more sensational. The mantra of the true adrenaline junkie is "Too much is not enough."
The selling of experiences
As well as chasing ever-greater thrills, popular culture is constantly extending its reach into our lives. Early 21st century technological developments have meant that it's possible to be in permanent phone contact, to listen to music anywhere at any time of day, to share photographs and film footage instantaneously, and to look up information electronically from handheld devices.
For a documentary TV series six British teenagers were sent to live in various Amish communities in America. On the first program one of the girls complained that it was a "bit too quiet" for her and that she kept thinking about what she'd be doing at home on her laptop or her phone. One of the boys said much the same thing. He said that even when he was on his own at home in Britain there would always be a TV on in the background. In other words, they both found it difficult to be alone either with nature or their own thoughts. A world without commercially produced popular culture was disorientating.
The peace of God
Although God can speak through the earthquake and the whirlwind, there is a special connection between his voice and tranquility. Jesus calms the storm; David says that God leads him "beside quiet waters." In the parable of the sower and the seed it is the "worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth" that "choke the word" (Matthew 13:22). Jesus' recommendation for praying is to "go into your room, close the door" (Matthew 6:6). The "noise" of popular culture can rob people of the quiet time necessary to think about ultimate issues. I am reminded of a poem by Sydney Carter, author of the well-known hymn "Lord of the Dance," in which he says brewing a cup of tea or taking Alka-Seltzer will kill haunting fears and questions.
Churches are not immune from trading in experiences. It's possible to give people uplift through light, sound and waves of communal enthusiasm instead of through doctrine and contemplation, to get them to think religion is exciting because of slick presentation rather than because of the challenge of discipleship, to give them worship experiences rather than worship opportunities. The church should be a place where those frazzled by sensation can come for rest rather than be faced by even more artificially induced thrills.
Excitement, unlike joy, tends to arrive suddenly and disappear just as quickly. It then demands constant top-ups. The things that Jesus promises are much deeper rooted, but last longer. Despite what people may think, he never promises his followers happiness or excitement, but joy and peace. He doesn't even promise adventure or transcendent experiences, but truth and abundance. He doesn't promise a safe passage through life, but the Holy Spirit as comforter. The conclusion isn't that we shouldn't partake in the normal thrills that life offers, but it does suggest that we shouldn't make them our goal, and should always regulate them so that they don't jam the sound of the still small voice of God.