Western 21st century culture is all about entertainment. In fact there are some “industries” that pride themselves that they have made your entertainment their number one focus. Others aren’t quite as open about the fact, but in reality, there is no other reason for their existence. I’m thinking of the movie industry here. I mean, they want to make money and that won’t happen if they put out movies no one wants to see. They don’t tell you that their chief end is to entertain you like a certain casino that says otherwise in their ad, but there’s no doubt about it: they want blockbusters, movies that rake in big bucks because the public is flocking to see them.
Movie makers don’t say, We’re trying to make movies that influence the culture. Or, We’re trying to make movies that are beautiful and artistic. Or, We’re trying to make movies that are truthful. Why? Because they understand our culture correctly: people want to be entertained.
The value of the entertainment factor is apparent simply by looking at how many people attend or watch football on any given weekend, versus the number of people who visited a local museum. Or perhaps, church.
The idea of leisure in this culture seems to have become synonymous with “be entertained.” Once, leisure was simply time that was freed up to do what you want. But “what we want” these days, seems to be entertainment.
This is the culture into which God has put Christians living in western society in the 21st century. So, how should we then live? More specifically, how should we then write? Or read?
I know some Christians who believe we should write the very best stories we can, and by using the gift God has given us, we bring glory to His name. But I wonder if entertaining people is a way of writing good stories.
I haven’t done an in depth study, but what I know about the history of novels, I tend to think that entertainment is a residual effect, not a primary purpose of stories at their inception. We know from Scripture that parents were to tell their children about the amazing things God did for His people in freeing them from the slavery they endured in Egypt. The point was two-fold: preserve the history of what happened, and teach the children the values that their parents and grandparents held. Some of the “telling” was actually enacted in a kind of “living play” as they held the Passover meals or made booths to live in for a week.
Jesus told a lot of stories, too. None of them was for entertainment value, though I’ve wondered if initially large crowds didn’t follow Him in part because they liked hearing His stories. But what we know from the gospel writers is that Jesus told stories to answer questions, to illustrate a point, to give the people something new to think about.
Early novels—which were a relatively new art form, and were, in fact, suspect by many when they first surfaced—followed much the same purpose. Above all, novels showed. They showed the people in Europe and the East what life was like in the wild, wild West. They showed what slavery was like, what war was like, what working in coal mines was like, what the abuses of the railroad were like, what the conditions were like in the meat industry, what life was like for the “high class” poor, and on and on. A book entitled Pride and Prejudice was not primarily a love story, though it certainly included love stories. More than one.
But the entertainment value of novels only drew people, though some aspects of novels were highly fictionalized. Consequently, many who read the tales of Wild Bill Hickok or Annie Oakley or Davy Crockett or other well-known figures, received a distorted view of the way things were. Much the way people today who have never visited the US have a distorted view of what life in the States is like because they are basing what “they know” from movies.
Nevertheless, a number retained the goal to pass along values to the next generation. Consequently Pilgrim’s Progress became popular, but so did stories by Charles Dickens and even a children’s series about Goody Two-shoes.
At some point novels seemed to divide. There were “serious” novels and there were dime-store novels. Literature and pulp fiction. Art and entertainment. Literary fiction and genre fiction.
Obviously people will have their own individual reasons for writing. I’ve also mentioned that some believe using their God-given talent is enough to honor God for the giving of it.
I have questions about that, and I think Christians can do better. Maybe writing well is sort of the bottom rung of accomplishment. “Good, we’ve entertained well.” Perhaps we’ve entertained by giving “clean fiction.” (There’s actually a small publisher that is called that, I believe). Maybe we’ve entertained well because we weave the same kinds of stories that any other writer writes; we just do it well.
I suggest that’s the low rung.
Christians are to live in a way that points to God, that identifies us as uniquely followers of Jesus. Christians are also to go and tell the good news of Salvation, of Jesus and what He’s done for us.
I suggest that Christian novelists, writing in a culture that loves entertainment, that values stories, are in a unique position. Not just to return to the former purposes of stories, and not just to be like all the others writing entertaining stories. But I think we can and should marry the two. We should be creating stories that show the world what’s what spiritually. We should entertain, by writing truth, by creating beauty.
Easy? If it were, we’d have shelves of books that have won prizes handed out by those who value literature and art, as well as having reached the New York Times best-seller lists. No, it’s not easy. But I think it’s worth aiming to write to our culture what our culture needs to hear.