During most eras of Christian civilization, people have seen their age as the peak of history and of culture, and with some measure. However cruel and brutal an era may seem in retrospect, its basic direction and impetus have been usually promising. Its sins can be real: the Victorian era was addicted on one hand to pornography sub rosa, and a worship of things classical (Greco-Roman) on the other, but its better side showed remarkable growth in Biblical studies, Christian culture, and a concern for the common man.
A significant shift came with the 20th century. Previously, three concerns governed a culture — the church, the family, and education, and while this latter at one time meant the university, it came in time to mean education on all levels and spheres.
With the 20th century, a new emphasis unknown since the fall of Rome, came into focus, entertainment, and it was accompanied by another, also echoing Rome, statist charity or welfare. Some of us have memories of the kerosene lamp era, before electricity reached the countryside. When the sun set, it was not long before everyone had supper and went to bed. Summers had longer days and longer work hours; entertainment had no such commanding place in everyday life. Radio and films first began to command men's days, and by 1960, some 120 million tickets to films were sold weekly in the U. S. This was little compared to the rise soon thereafter of television, with an average of four hours daily of viewing time per person.
The implications of this were enormous. It created a different kind of person. In 1998, it seems strange to recall that in the 'teens and even into the 1920s a word often used was edification. As a child, it early caught my eye. To edify meant to build, construct, or improve, especially morally and religiously, and reading, preaching, teaching, and drama were all expected to edify people.
Very quickly, however, we went from edification to entertainment. Perhaps the revivalists led the way. Preaching at one time had stressed solid exposition, growth in the knowledge of Scripture; it came quickly to mean entertainment, albeit with a goal in mind. The revivalist very early affected church preaching by cheapening its contents to stress ear-catching entertainment and emotional results.
In other areas, entertainment per se had dramatic results. Earlier humor had been political often, but not ugly. In early film fare, as witness the Laurel and Hardy films, and Jack Benny on radio and in film, one poked fun at himself. After the World War II shift, men like Don Rickles made ugly jokes at others, often audience members. The world had changed greatly.
The older culture, by stressing family, church and education, called thereby for growth and improvement. The cult of entertainment had no improvement in mind: it became increasingly sadistic. Today Don Rickles is a somewhat mild figure compared to modern comedians and film directors. Entertainment directed against others becomes in time sadistic and then drops all pretense at humor to stress sadism. It thereby becomes pathological even to view it.
It is not enough to condemn this return to the culture of Rome, nor to avoid it. We must restore the older Christian priorities of family, church or faith, and education in a Christian sense.
We are seeing a major revival in all these fields, and a recent Minneapolis conference spent time in railing against all such efforts. But the best reform begins on the grass roots level and it attacks the evil closest to home.
Pharisaism, self-righteousness, marks the new culture. It demands sexual freedom, abortion, and feminism, i.e., freedom from responsibility to others in every sphere. It resents any call to moral accountability in any Biblical sense. It is the culture of death. We must separate ourselves from it by affirming the culture of life, Christianity.