According to research released last summer by The Nielsen Company, American adults spend an average of 11 hours, or almost half of each day, consuming some form of media. From the moment we wake up (and instinctively check our phones), through our daily commutes (with radios or podcasts humming in the background), to the end of the day (when we binge on Netflix), we live those statistics day in and day out. According to Nielsen’s numbers, we spend more time consuming media than eating, sleeping, or any other activity.
With so much of our lives revolving around media consumption, it behooves us to develop what Tony Reinke, in his new book Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age, calls “a theology of visual culture.” Reinke, a senior writer for Desiring God and author of another tech-focused book (12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You), has emerged as a prophetic voice, one crying out in our digital wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” In Competing Spectacles, he asks an urgent question: “In this age of spectacles … how do we spiritually thrive?”
Aching to Be Awed
Reinke’s answer forms the basis of his book, which works anecdotally through various forms of spectacle that are common today. He proves a skillful cultural exegete, making observations about everyday spectacles and spectacle-makers that few of us have the eye to catch.
For Reinke, a spectacle is “a moment of time, of varying length, in which collective gaze is fixed on some specific image, event, or moment. A spectacle is something that captures human attention.” He gives particular attention to the spectacles generated by social media, politics, television, and pornography, among others. Along the way, he opens fascinating windows onto our culture’s addiction to spectacle, such as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’s claim that his company’s biggest competitor is sleep. From Scripture, too, Reinke draws thought-provoking examples, including the story of David on the rooftop watching Bathsheba. This, Reinke states, “is a prototype for all digital pornography: a woman before the eyes of an unseen man.”
None of this means, however, that spectacle is inherently bad. As Reinke observes, human beings are “hardwired with an unquenchable appetite to see glory.” The problem with spectacles, then, is not that we crave them but that we look for glory in all the wrong places. Reinke cites a tweet from John Piper that expresses this reality well: “The world aches to be awed. That ache was made for God. The world seeks it mainly through movies.”
The week I read Competing Spectacles coincided with the release of Avengers: Endgame, the movie spectacle of the decade. Endgame shattered box office records, hauling in $357 million during its opening weekend in the US and capturing another $500 million in its first week and a half in China. It inspired more tweets than any movie before, surpassing Black Panther. In an odd but telling story, a South Korean soldier reportedly went AWOL in order to catch a screening. These metrics seem to confirm Reinke’s hypothesis, that in our quest to quench our thirst for glory, we are quicker to turn to the empty cistern of Hollywood than to the fountain of living water found in Christ.
Reinke affirms that Christ is the ultimate spectacle, the only one worthy of our undivided attention. He writes,
Christ was not merely made a spectacle on the cross; the cross became a shorthand reference for everything glorious about Christ—his work as creator and sustainer of all things, his incarnation, his life, his words, his obedience, his miracles, his shunning, his beatings, his crucifixion, his wrath bearing, his resurrection from the grave, his heavenly ascension, his kingly coronation, and his eternal priesthood—all of his glory is subsumed into his heavenly spectacle.
When we seek out glory in the passing spectacles of this world rather than in Christ, the culprit isn’t an ever-expanding buffet of shallow entertainments; our own sinful hearts are to blame. Adam and Eve didn’t have an endless selection of forbidden fruits tempting them to reject their Maker; they only needed one. And our spectacle-craving eyes have been looking elsewhere ever since. From ancient idols to the CGI-infused movies of today, people have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (Rom. 1:23).
Reinke wisely shuns the idea of digital asceticism as a solution to our hyper-connectedness, in part because spectacle is so unavoidable in our age. But the more important reason mirrors Paul’s warning to the Colossians about captivity to “merely human commands and teachings” (2:22). Rules like “Do not watch,” “Do not stream,” and “Do not surf” are just that: rules, made by fallen human beings, and likely administered not by grace-filled hearts but by digital pharisees all too eager to accuse and condemn. Instead, Reinke provides 10 practical principles for anyone seeking to engage our visual culture in Christ-honoring ways.
When to Push Back?
Competing Spectacles, then, is not a call to give up social media or renounce our visual culture but a call to self-discipline. Reinke alludes to the early Christians who fought to abolish the Roman blood-sport industry, as well as the Puritans, centuries later, who were involved in shutting down the theaters of London. But Reinke doesn’t call Christians today to any equivalent form of protest or activism. By his own admission, Competing Spectacles is geared more toward developing a theology that helps believers think through these issues on a personal level.
But the question does remain: At what point should Christians begin considering how to push back against the spectacle industry? Take pornography, for example. While Reinke urges us to reclaim the category of sins of the eye, he doesn’t call upon Christians to work toward toppling the porn industry as a whole.
Another issue left unresolved, perhaps because it lies outside the scope of the book, is the extent to which Christians should involve themselves in the making of spectacles. Reinke touches on the debate over churches using spectacle as an aid to worship, but many other questions come to mind. If, in fact, Christians should participate in spectacle-creation at all, should they limit themselves to creating spectacles that carry a Christian message? Or does their involvement simply worsen the problem by layering more diversion atop a society already drowning in it?
In our day and age, it’s a safe bet that American media consumption patterns will keep climbing upward. After all, the already staggering 11-hour-per-day figure cited by The Nielsen Company represents a 1.5-hour jump from just four years ago. Where will we be in another four years? In another 10? Competing Spectacles can’t predict this future, but Reinke’s theological framework leaves us better prepared to sort our way through the noise and fanfare—and fix our gaze on the immeasurably greater glory to come.
John Thomas is a cross-cultural Christian worker living and serving in ministry in Central Asia with his wife and their two children. He writes regularly at medium.com/soli-deo-gloria. You can follow him on Twitter @John_Thomas518.