September 9, 2004
Age of Amusement
Parshat Netzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30)
A gentleman died and his family asked me to officiate his funeral. So we agreed to meet, his children and I, to prepare. Sitting around the spacious dining room table I asked them, "Tell me about your father."
After a long silence one of the sons volunteered: "Dad loved golf."
"Golf is good," I responded, "what else did he love? What were his passions?"
"Golf," they all agreed, "just golf."
"Just golf? What did he dream of? What were his values, his causes?"
"Well, he always wanted to live on a golf course...."
So I prepared a eulogy all about golf. (It's not so hard to do: Eighteen is chai. He's played his 18 and finally got his hole-in-one.) All the while, I felt the tragic weight of this moment: How can a human life be made so small? Reduced to this, to golf?
That was long ago. I have since learned that many people live lives, not as Thoreau imagined -- lives of quiet desperation -- but lives of amused distraction. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard proposed that no one could live the aesthetic, pleasure-seeking life forever because it must eventually grow dull. The pleasure-seeker falls into a cycle of addiction. To hold our interest, each pleasure needs a bigger one to follow. This is the lament of Kohelet in Ecclesiastes: "I said to myself, 'Come I will treat you to merriment. Taste mirth!' That, too, I found was futile."
American culture has accomplished what neither Kierkegaard nor Kohelet could conceive. We have cultivated a culture of such powerful distraction, entertainments, diversions, that today one actually can fill a lifetime with amusement, with golf.
When I was a kid, there were seven channels on the TV. Once you surveyed those seven and found nothing interesting, you turned the set off. Today, there are enough TV channels that you can spend the entire evening not actually watching anything, but just flipping through the channels -- surfing the dial. And if not TV, there's the Internet, DVDs and pay-per-view. That's at home. Outside, there's a whole universe of possibilities. In 1955, Disney invented the theme park. Now there are at least six within a day's drive.
One-thousand years ago, Western culture knew an age of faith so the church was the central architectural feature of a town. Five hundred years ago, we began an age of industry and the factory was the town's notable structure. In today's age of amusement, the mall and its cineplex is the town's most important place.
Paul Tillich, the Protestant theologian, argued that every person has a God.
"God" he defined as each person's "object of ultimate concern." But what if the object of ultimate concern is precisely not to have an object of ultimate concern? What kind of human being does that leave?
In the age of amusement, religion is dangerous. Religion asks annoying questions about life. Religion points out our shallowness, our life's weightlessness. Religion demands our attachment to matters of eternal significance. This obsession with meaning and purpose undermines amusement -- it embarrasses us -- it gets in the way of golf.
But the culture's will to amusement is stronger than its will to believe. In the end, religion is co-opted. Once, religion was accused of being so much empty ritual -- form without content, rite without passion, authority without love. Now, we have a different problem: Religion is becoming another form of amusement. When its only goal is to pass a little time and make us feel good inside, when it ceases to challenge and to expect more of us, when it is afraid to point out the evil within us and to deal with the jagged edges of broken lives and a broken world, when it ceases to wrestle with God and with life, religion becomes a form of amusement.
Then comes a moment when this diet of amusement ceases to satisfy and to nourish. I worry about those who search for depth, but all they find is entertainment. They recognize that life is difficult, that the inner life is a place of struggle. They seek courage. They seek insight. They seek vision. But sadly much of what they find in contemporary religion is weightless amusement.
This week's Torah reading was consciously timed by the ancient rabbis to fall in the week before the New Year. The reading calls us home: "You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God." (29:9)
The word, hayom (this day) noted the rabbis, jumps out of the text and into contemporaneity. "This day" is any day we turn from our distractions and amusements. "This day" is when we come forward to meet God and accept our role as God's partners to heal the world. "This day" is when we bind ourselves to lives of higher purpose, and accept God's blessings -- blessings even greater than golf.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.