This past New Year’s, I claimed 2017 as The Year of No Fun, much to the confusion of family and friends. The more I say the words, “I’m not here to have fun,” the freer I feel. It’s not that I don’t have a lot of gratitude for laughing with friends, for wasting time over a silly television show when my over-programmed life allows it, or for getting to see the world through a more humorous lens. But I am sick of the tyranny of assuming fun as the ultimate value around which we shape our lives. I am fed up with fun as the stamp of approval needed to make events and people worthwhile. I am rebelling against the sameness of the super-saturated world of fun, the lack of talent it takes to have fun, the unquestioned assumption that fun is the only goal worth having.
Neil Postman’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, reads as eerily prophetic in 2017. He succinctly details our rampant need for all of our relationships with the world around us to be filtered through the standard of entertainment, and he analyzes how this need has changed the way we learn, the way we elect leaders, the way we take in news and respond to that news, even the way we worship God. Television and now social media are masters at competing for precious viewership by dosing current events and political analysis with attractive amounts of humour and attention-getting images. Churches, news stations, classrooms, and (God help us all) politicians, adapt their forums so that fun becomes the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Postman argues that all of this fun comes at a high cost, the packaging implicitly communicating to us that none of it really matters. Information, global events and political engagement is only important as it provides me with amusement. The pervasiveness of fun flattens out human experience, indoctrinating us against anything that is too complicated, too serious, or that moves too slowly.
Those of us invested in Church Land seem to react to the problem of this Culture of Fun in one of two ways. We lament the passing away of the traditions we value so much, or we work at making the church more relevant and appealing. It might, however, be important to wonder instead what insight and wisdom our faith offers to understanding a world so steeped in amusement.
I am convinced that Jesus was hilarious, that his dark Jewish humour runs between the lines of Scripture, just as it runs through the sacred stories that formed Jesus. As a colleague pointed out, he’s a sort of Cat in the Hat figure, so deliberately provocative and hyperbolic that even the most staid, the most beaten down, the most submissive of people are forced to snap out of their weary lives for a moment and ask whether maybe it can all be different. That being said, it would be hard to identify fun as either a goal or a problem at any point in the teachings of Scripture. There are numerous descriptions of sumptuous feasts, of dancing and singing and making music, of merriment that refreshes the soul and even offers a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. However, God’s plan and purpose is revealed throughout the Bible, with very few exceptions, through people of modest or even meagre means. Fun, for our Biblical ancestors, was mostly not an option on the table. If we are wondering then, as people of faith, what a proper relationship might be to the pursuit of fun, we might start with gratitude. We should be grateful that we do enjoy a level of prosperity and leisure that allows entertainment to be a part of our lives.
But that gratitude must also hear the gospel call Jesus hammers throughout his ministry: wake up! Wake up to all of the quiet oppressions against which you can choose differently. Wake up from your narcotized numbness—and every generation has its drugs to keep it complacent and apathetic and ignorant to the true purpose of our lives. Wake up, and refuse to waste your life away one more day. And if you’re wondering what wasting your life looks like, then hear the alarm bells in the parable of Mr. Bigger-Barns, who sees no use for his ample treasures other than to relax, eat, drink, be merry, and who is awoken to the voice of God crying out to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” (Luke 12:16-21)
Surely that Voice calls through the cold instrumentality of our entertaining lives too—where pleasure is not offered and celebrated as a means by which human beings participate in the fullness of all that life has to offer but rather is carefully crafted, floated out by test groups, adjusted, adjusted again, and attached to a whole host of products that we don’t need. That Voice might also make visible the range of other experiences which are part and parcel of the fullness of life to which God calls us and which get levelled by the weight of that need for successful ventures to conform to the standard of fun. The soul-stretching joy of investing our time in what is interesting, meaningful, challenging, inspiring, strange, unsettling, hard, and exhausting becomes lost, or at least subservient to that higher goal of entertainment. Meanwhile what is sad, excruciating, confusing, and especially boring is barred entirely from the realm of acceptability.
That Voice ultimately awakes us so that we might see the evil that is carefully cloaked underneath all of the laughter and titillation. It’s not that God condemns the light-hearted side of our souls. But God does call us to account for lightness that is merely self-serving, for life devoted only to pursuing what is fun for me, for ancient practices of prayer, praise, contemplation, and compassionate service twisted around into valid pursuits only as they can adequately answer the question, “what do I get out of it?”
I strive to hear that Voice more clearly, and I am so tangled up in self-serving assumptions, self-serving practices and a self-serving culture that I can’t always see how to get untangled. But there is a small freedom in saying these words: “I’m not here to have fun.” I invite you to try saying the words too. People will look at you as if you have said something nonsensical or even deviant. And they do loose a particular kind of bondage, a desperate sort of conformity to the heavy-handed tyranny of fun. Say the words, and instead of seeking out the next great entertainment, grate your teeth against the person in your life who drives you crazy and turns out to be really worth getting to know. Say the words, then furrow your brow against something that is hard to understand and remember that God created you with a remarkable amount of pliability for learning new things, and sometimes insight and newness unfurls so gradually you hardly notice it. Say the words quietly under your breath, then shut up, and re-learn the possibilities of companionable silence, of contemplation, of prayer, of surrender, of worship that doesn’t knock your socks off because it’s not about you. Say the words and dare to feel deeply, for real people, real people who will confuse you and leave you and fall apart in a million different ways, and find that your life is being asked of you and you are blessed.
I’m not here to have fun. Say the words, and make a cut against those barely-noticed chains of oppression and discover in the dullness and quiet, in the strange complexity of life that we are mostly trained to avoid, that God has a world of vibrant subtlety and slow-moving majesty at the ready.