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Popular Distractions

This week I am being sequestered in a hotel just outside of Banff for our annual clergy conference. Don’t get me wrong, there are worse places to meet with the clergy of the diocese. The usual activities will occur.  The theme speaker will speak, we will have times of worship, we will eat together.  There will also be a good amount of free time. In these situations, the question inevitably is; ‘How will I spend this free time?’  After all, I will be cut off from my normal routine of all things entertaining.  For the four days in which I will be away, I will be removed from my regular dose of television, movies, and celebrity culture.  Yet, being the ever resourceful person I am, I mitigate this by making sure that I pack the necessities.  I have my Netflix-enabled iPad, along with my smartphone stocked with pop-culture apps like Facebook, Twitter, and iCelebrity.  I bring my portable DVD player along with various movies; I select the various magic tricks that I wish to practice while I am away;  I may even pick up the latest ‘In Touch’ ‘In Style’ or ‘People’ as I drive myself to my destination.  Free time shouldn’t be a problem.

But is this really the best way to spend my free time? When coming out of worship, or a session with our speaker, do I really want to race up to my room to hear the latest drama out of Lindsay Lohan’s rehab stay?  It seems to me that if I see the times of worship, meditation and quietness as places where I miss out on the latest pop-culture gossip, then the opposite must hold true as well; Filling up my free time with these things means that I possibly miss out on the grand things of God which can be found in stillness and quietness.  In the rush to social media and celebrity gossip, could I be effectually leaving myself deaf to God’s voice?  As much as I value pop-culture, I wonder, is it time for me to unplug?

In his book “All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes“, author Ken Myers argues that the main purpose of popular culture is to serve up an endless line of distraction.  Myers traces this back to the Industrial Revolution, where the mechanization of the world increased individual loneliness and boredom.  As people moved away from their families and communities and into the ever-promising city, what they faced was not the land of opportunity but an increase in isolation and fragmentation. All of a sudden, people were cut off from the over-arching story that previously defined their lives, and thus was a created a profound sense of ‘careless restlessness.’ Popular entertainment, then, served to distract those whose lives were filled such uncomfortableness.   Myers writes “Since it is the purpose of most forms of popular culture to provide exciting distraction, we should not be surprised that over time, television programs, popular music, and other forms become more extreme (and more offensive) in their pursuit of titillation” Well that sounds apt.  In watching the scantily clad bodies on many prime-time network television shows, I shudder to think of what my 6 year old son will be watching when he becomes my age.

If it is true, as Blaise Pascal writes (and Myers quotes) that “all the unhappiness of [people] arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber”, then it seems necessary for people to be able to separate themselves from the constant stream of distraction issued through pop-culture. As our Lord invites us to ‘Be still and know that I am God’, we can only heed that instructions as we actively turn ourselves away from the noise of culture.  Yet how can we actively turn away from that noise if we refuse to unplug?

Obviously, I am committed to the fact that pop-culture is an important thing to understand, and even use in ministry-related contexts. However given the propensity of pop-culture to serve as a distraction away from deeper things, my own spiritual health must involve the ability to remove myself from these things.  I would love to say that I won’t bring my phone, iPad, movies, or magic tricks with me to the conference; Let’s be honest,  I will.  However my association with these will change.  No longer will I see these things as a retreat away from the tedium and boredom inflicted by times of quietness and rest. It is only as I consciously remove myself from the barrage of distraction that I am able to be open to the still small voice of the one who created me, redeemed me and calls me.  What is more, this is not to be simply an exercise at a conference, but must be a habit which I will cultivate in my everyday walk of faith.

Have you found that an increasing involvement with pop culture distracts you from deeper pursuits? If so, how have you removed yourself from pop culture?

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith.

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2 Responses to Popular Distractions

  1. Matthew Griffin

    I’m very fond of a line that I’ve seen ascribed to Jeremy Taylor: “There should be in the soul halls of space, avenues of leisure, and high porticoes of silence where God walks.” That may explain part of why I’m just back from a Benedictine monastery that lacks television and internet access…

  2. Matthew Griffin

    It was a marvellous time of quiet, prayer, study, and fellowship!

    I have been going to St. Gregory’s Abbey, outside of Three Rivers, MI, for a week’s retreat each year since I was ordained. They’re an Anglican Benedictine community who welcome guests for undirected retreats. They hope guests will join them for the Eucharist and Vespers each day, but one’s welcome to go to any of the seven daily services that one wishes to attend:

    Mattins at 4am

    Lauds at 6am

    Terce and the Eucharist at 8:15

    Sext at 11:30

    None at 2:00

    Vespers at 5:00

    Compline at 7:45

    I go to all of them—Mattins only seems really early the first two days—and love having the rhythm of the psalms wash over me as we pray every psalm in the course of the week.

    There are work periods after the coffee break after the Eucharist until Sext, and after None until tea at 4:30: I tend to spend them either reading or walking in the woods. Meals are taken in silence, with one of the monks reading from a book. 

    Except of course on Sundays and holidays, when Mattins isn’t until 5:30, and there’s talking at some of the meals! (I was lucky enough to be there for Ascension and the anniversary of the dedication of the Abbey Church, so two holidays in one week!)

    I’m glad that it’s become such an important part of my spiritual life. I come back rested, renewed in my life of prayer, curious about what I’ve spent time studying, and generally more excited to be where I am after the gift of the time of retreat. I always meet other interesting guests, have great conversations with the monks, and know myself to be blessed by the time.

    If you’re curious about St. Gregory’s, check out their website—where you’ll even find video tours and a sense of what a day there is like! http://saintgregorysthreerivers.org/

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