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When I was a child with seven siblings, we used to play a paper-and-pencil version of Battleship, the strategic guessing game. We didn’t have home computers, copiers, or printers, so we laboriously drew our own Battleship grids on notebook paper. We usually played at the dining room table with hardback books shielding our papers from one another’s view. It was fun.

When I was twelve in 1967, Milton Bradley introduced a version of the game played with plastic ships and little plastic pegs on a plastic pegboard. My parents bought us the game one year for Christmas. We played with it, but somehow it wasn’t as much fun as the paper-and-pencil version.

There is a certain pressure in American culture to turn every activity into entertainment and to commercialize it so someone profits from it. What distinguishes entertainment from other forms of leisure? The pleasure in entertainment comes primarily from experiencing an activity rather than performing or participating in it. For most Americans, nearly all their leisure time is spent in entertainment—watching videos, listening to music, posting on social media platforms, viewing sporting events. Even activities that require participation, such as shopping, are pushed toward entertainment. In shopping malls, most of the pleasure to be derived comes from the experience of being in the mall, and there are amusement rides, theaters, food courts, and other attractions that have no intrinsic connection to shopping, right in the mall.

Reading is another form of entertainment that requires participation. Reading is more active than watching a video or listening to a podcast. So it is unsurprising that many Americans never read another book after graduating college or high school, and reading is in decline across all demographics.

Entertainment is often commercialized. The experiences entertainment delivers often require special equipment or a location devoted to a particular activity. The technology required to deliver your favorite streaming shows is much greater than that required to deliver a book. The plastic Battleship game required a plastic game board and pieces. The apparent upside was convenience. I didn’t have to draw my own Battleship grids any more. But that convenience also reduced my enjoyment. I put less effort into the game, so I got less enjoyment from it. Enjoyment requires effort. Entertainment is a trap because it separates pleasure in an activity from effort. We end up comforting ourselves for a hard day at work with effortless (for us) programming from our favorite streaming service.

Not that mindless pleasures are always bad. We all need a break sometimes from effort of every kind. But if we want to be happy, we need to recognize the seductive nature of entertainment and refuse to make it our default. Plan more participatory activities. Turn off Netflix and read a book. Build something. Play Battleship with paper and pencil.

art Christians culture fun jesus music sin spiritual life

The Ministry of Entertainment


Northwestern University here in the Twin Cities operates a Christian radio station, KTIS, which, like all stations nowadays, promotes itself endlessly and shamelessly. I listen occasionally, partly because I am a Christian and these are my people, and partly because I get tired of the unrelentingly secular nature of secular radio stations, where prayer and reliance on God, despite being extremely widespread in the prevailing culture, are treated as oddities. KTIS plays an uneclectic mix of contemporary Christian music by such artists as MercyMe, Casting Crowns, Newsboys, For King and Country, and Lauren Daigle, sprinkled liberally with short feel-good stories, concert promotions, and station promotions. One of their catchphrases is, “a ministry of Northwestern University.” I got to wondering what that means.

“Ministry” is one of those words you hear frequently in Christian circles but much less often outside those circles. In Britain, what Americans call cabinet-level Departments—Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services, et al.—are called Ministries. Monty Python famously introduced a Ministry of Silly Walks to spoof the seriousness of British government agencies and their funding. However, especially among evangelicals, ministry almost always refers to a program of some church or parachurch organization intended to help people somehow. Presumably, therefore, Northwestern University sees KTIS as a means of doing good.

But I see it as little more than Christian entertainment.

When I try to discover what sets it apart from secular radio stations that make no bones about existing to entertain, I have a very hard time. One of their frequent taglines is “uplifting and encouraging,” and I have no doubt that for many listeners this accurately describes what they do. But, then, isn’t that what entertainment does? Helps you forget your troubles, cheers you up, or at least helps you feel that others have it far worse than you? It’s true that secular songs often include references to such morally reprehensible activities as drinking, dancing, and having sex, but it can’t be denied that people do those things because they are fun—at least in some degree—and listeners identify with them.

It might be argued that Christian music lifts up Jesus, something secular music hardly ever does. Indeed, there are songs that exhort the listener to trust God, imitate Jesus, and worship him. But there are also songs that sound an awful lot like spiritual self-help songs, where the hero is not Jesus but the singer, and by extension the listener. Occasionally, the station will play brief clips from listeners who call in to tell how a particular song has had an especially meaningful impact on their lives, but I’ve heard similar claims on secular stations. Artists are popular because their songs connect with people whether they are Christian or not.

Now, I have no objection to Christian entertainment apart from the objection I have to all entertainment: that too much of it distracts us from actually living life in our own bodies, but I do object to the faint air of spiritual superiority that pervades Christian entertainment, the slightly smug condescension with which we Christians tend to view secular music and art, as if to say that ours is superior for what it lacks: drinking, smoking, cussing, sex, drugs, and the less socially acceptable sins. When we call entertainment ministry, we imply that it’s better, that we are better. It’s not. We are not.