Amusing Ourselves to Eternal Damnation

Man was created for greatness—for God Himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched.
— Spe Salve, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

I recently corrected my seven year old son for telling his younger sibling that, because he told a minor fib, he was going to Hell. The sum of my argument was that, if he wished his brother to choose the good, we motivate more by love than by fear. As I jotted down the title to this post, I wondered whether what I said was always true. For a child’s heart can be moved by love but the adult heart is often in such disrepair that it often requires a jolt of fear first.

Today, I see a culture of entertainment that prohibits us from hearing the call of love. By entertainment, I mean anything that amuses us and at the same time keeps our mind and heart fixed in its current state. If you break the word down, you will see what I mean: “-tain” comes from the word “to hold” (teneo) and the prefix “enter-” means “inside or among”. Entertainment, literally, holds you where you are at. On the college campus I inhabit, I see two forms of entertainment.

The first, a group effort prevalent especially among Greek life, requires an enormous amount of work but very little independent thought. By this I refer to the drinking and hook-up culture on campus. The young men I saw yesterday in front of me in the check-out line are a perfect example. They had spent half the afternoon trying to find cheap margarita glasses, but had to settle for plastic pitchers. What difference in the end? It was a positive improvement, in fact, if the point is to get drunk as quickly as possible. And so the sober hours are spent in indolent pursuit of oblivion. They oddly reminded me of the Danaid sisters from Greek myth who must spend an eternity hauling water in leaky buckets from the river Styx to a barrel some distance away. Night after night drowning in liquor and day after day avoiding the shock to find they are once again sober and dry.

The second, a solitary and more insidious set, are those entertained and addicted to Netflix and video games. The trouble here is that the sinfulness of these habits is less visible than the first group. And even then, the human tendency to rationalize a sin by saying that it harms no one is easily accomplished by it. To this I retort that there is nothing human about locking oneself in your bedroom and watching Netflix or playing Xbox till 2am. Man is a political animal. We are made for relationship. These habits are relationship killing. They remove us from humanity.

At this point I need to come in with a word from St. John Bosco:
“Relax, have fun, laugh, go hiking, do anything you like, as long as you do not sin.”

The fact is that entertainment lacks joy. All the activities St. John Bosco lists have two things in common: 1) they are joyful and 2) they take us out of ourselves (i.e. they are the opposite of entertainment). When we relax (here I picture myself sitting down with a beer with my spouse or one or two friends), we remove ourselves from the concerns of the moment and are present to the past or contemplate the future. A very human activity. When I go for a hike, I cannot be entertained because every moment something new sight, sound, or smell moves my mind.

The best distinction I can make then is that I would call those activities that take us out of our mindset as “leisure” as opposed to entertainment. And as Catholics I would say that our non-work time is meant for leisure, not entertainment. The “weekend”––with binging on booze or Netflix––is entertaining. Sunday––a Sunday of worship, of hiking with friends, of eating and drinking and talking with family around the table––is leisurely.

But we live in an entertaining culture, and there is a danger that our leisure can fade into entertainment. We see this in various abuses of liturgy, we see this in a desire to be seen rather than to see, we see this in how frequently a friend checks their phone in a conversation.

I return then to the quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI with which I started this reflection. We are called to greatness. That calling will draw us out of ourselves. Entertainment has nothing to do with greatness. Golden shackles are still shackles. If your heart does not ache with being stretched from its sin-shriveled smallness to the grandeur God is calling you to, then you are being entertained.