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Entertainment, Eh?

Are people today more interested in entertainment than they are in "the arts"? Knowing the difference between them can enhance our understanding of the world.

Pop culture is an industry. Clearly there is a market out there for the music, video, film, drama and what have you. When we speak of the vast array of resources in popular culture—the question often emerges—But is it art?

If … art helps us to get at the truth about things, then perhaps it is time faith communities took art more seriously.

My job is to write on the subject of the arts. What I write shows up in a few places—one is a website that requires the reader to click on Entertainment. I would prefer the heading Arts and Entertainment or simply Arts. I think that entertainment is a subset under arts—not the other way around. And I would go further and suggest that not all entertainment is art. So when you click on entertainment you need not expect any comment about the arts—understood in the more traditional way. You may simply be looking for the latest option for a feel-good experience. Art is more than this.

Don't misunderstand me here. I recognize that entertainment can certainly be artistic and commonly involves a good deal of human creativity to produce. But surely art is much more than entertainment. You might expect a website run by people of faith would want to be sure to make a distinction between—art and entertainment? Is this a case of succumbing to the consensus of popular culture? Or perhaps more to the point are people today—Christians included—simply more interested in entertainment than they are in art?

It is interesting to note that many in our culture are operating on a view that says the self is central and that human needs are met through experiences. We get on a treadmill of experience in the hope of finding something satisfying. And the spiritual quest is no exception. Queen's University sociologist David Lyon in his book Jesus in Disneyland points to how contemporary spirituality has become a commodity to be consumed and reality including our faith is best understood as a spectacle not unlike a Disney theme park.

Certainly there is a place for entertainment, for play, for leisure and simply enjoyment. All of that is good and appropriate. There is no doubt that from time to time any of us can benefit from the pleasures of entertainment. By its very nature entertainment is an end in itself. There is no expectation that it will lead us beyond the mere experience of being entertained. We are fascinated when attending a circus to see what can be done by human and animal alike. We all enjoy a feel-good story, or a good laugh. These sorts of experiences bring us some relief, a bit like a coffee break in the midst of a busy day.

Art at its best comes to us with more to offer than the pleasantries of a good experience. It possesses the capacity to get us to look at life in a fresh way. Art is able to raise questions and provoke our thinking about ourselves, our relationship and our world. This, it seems to me, is just what we don't want when we wish to be entertained. Art is able to probe deeply and takes us beyond the narrow confines of our familiar situations. It can open new horizons for us and is able to effect a profound change within us. Some years ago I spoke with a student who was a recent Christian. He told me that he had become a Christian through reading Albert Camus' book The Plague. Camus was no Christian, an agnostic at best. His book offered a challenge to Christian belief as he depicted the darkness and pervasiveness of evil and suffering. This young student was moved to give serious consideration to the issues raised and came to believe there must be more to life than what Camus had suggested.

If we look at the big picture it could be argued that a steady diet of entertainment is a sure way to foster the trend to dumb-down. No reflection, no thinking no addressing the issues of life, just a good time and some warm feelings. I need to clarify something here. It is possible for a book, a film or a drama to be both entertaining and engaging on the issues of life. I have no intent here to reject entertainment or diminish its value. My simple concern it that we don't come to believe that art can be reduced to entertainment or that art is nothing more than entertainment. So granted there can be some overlap—let's be clear that this is quite different than saying that they are the same thing.

If it is correct to say that art helps us to get at the truth about things, then perhaps it is time faith communities took art more seriously. We live in a consumer society and there are more folk interested in consuming entertainment options than taking time with art. I am not sure this is a good sign. Neil Postman wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he spoke of the dangers inherent in a culture addicted to entertainment and particularly television. The dumbing down I referred to a moment ago has become quite a pervasive trend—but there remains in the culture a longing to understand ourselves and our world and we seem at a loss to know how to gain that understanding. It is here that art can be a valuable resource. When I speak of art in this context I would include, drama, film, visual art, dance, poetry and other forms of creative writing. And I would go so far as to say that art may be one of the things that can save us from being swallowed by the powers of a consumerist culture. Art seems to require that we understand life as a gift rather than a possession. It offers enrichment and reminds us that mystery is something we cannot escape despite our efforts to pin everything down (and own all we can). Both art and entertainment may provide us with a good experience but art is able to take us much further along the path to human flourishing than entertainment could ever do.

John Franklin is Executive Director of Imago. See He can be reached at




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