Walter Brueggemann suggests in The Prophetic Imagination that citizens of Empire are oppressed by numbness.
The past, present, and future take on a static quality, and no other reality is imaginable. The empire always was the goal of history, is now present, and will be evermore.
While this static reality is enabled by the powers of militarism and consumerism – and the injustices inherent in both – we train ourselves to ignore these forces. Like citizens of ancient Rome, or Panem in The Hunger Games, we turn to entertainment; bread and circuses, the gladiatorial arena, or in our case the ever-present screens of Television, computers, and smart-phones.
As Huxley and Bradbury warned in their dystopian novels, and Neal Postman explained in the brilliant Amusing Ourselves to Death – control doesn’t always look like 1984. It is possible to simply present everything as entertainment, everything as trivia, so that even though citizens are “aware” of the injustices of empire, they take them with no more seriousness or personal responsibility than the following news item about a celebrity divorce or who-wore-it-best at the latest awards show.
I will explore this dynamic more in later posts, and suggest how the church can provide a prophetic voice that breaks through the numbness, but for now I want to turn to the lyrics of a song.
Over the weekend we saw Death Cab for Cutie play at Calvin College, and I think these words from Portable Television provide a helpful starting point for contemplating the role entertainment has come to play in our society.
Portable television, shrouded in snow
In a raggedy van on the side of the road
The night it had frozen through my little bones
So you took me in your arms, you squeezed out the cold
Portable television, take us away
From this burden of reflection we’ve carried today
Oh, the generator’s running but there’s nothing on the air
And the static is a comfort, so we huddle around and stare