In 532 A.D., a series of riots pitting the supporters of two different chariot racing teams, the "Greens" and the "Blues," nearly toppled the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian. The Nika riots resulted in 30,000 deaths and half of Constantinople being burned or otherwise destroyed.
If it sounds like these people took popular entertainment far too seriously, well, you might Google "Noah" and "Christian."
As several colleagues of mine have pointed out, the level of vituperation among Christians over Darren Aronofsky's film is "nuts." In the most-recent high-profile salvo, a theologian accused Christian leaders who endorsed the film of missing "a blatantly Gnostic subversion of the biblical story when it was right in front of their faces."
This of course prompted denials and retorts from those being criticized. As my BreakPoint colleague Roberto Rivera put it, "and the wheels on the bus go round and round."
As Roberto pointed out in a recent column at BreakPoint online, what's missing in all the back-and-forth "is any consideration about why Christians should be so invested in what comes out of Hollywood."
He's not saying that we shouldn't take note of what the entertainment industry is up to. Of course not. Given its outsized role in our culture, to ignore it would be folly. Nor is he saying that we shouldn't be prepared to praise the good stuff and criticize the rest.
But he is saying that we shouldn't look to the entertainment industry for validation of our beliefs and way of life. And that, sadly, is what too many of us are doing. We long to see ourselves-or an idealized version of ourselves-on the screen. Like Sally Fields said at the Oscars thirty years ago, we want to say "I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me."
But while Fields was being humorous, many of us aren't.
What makes this especially unfortunate is that mass entertainment is, almost by design, intended to be a substitute for the Christian worldview that answered what Brad S. Gregory, a historian at Notre Dame, has called the "Life Questions."
According to Gregory, consumerism, including the consumption of mass media, grew out of the rejection of Christian ideas about the good life and human flourishing. As he put it, we have exchanged the "good life" for the "goods life."
These "goods" aren't limited to cars, houses, and electronics. They include mass media: TV, music, movies and the internet. Even more than tangible "stuff," mass media distracts us from the emptiness and the purposelessness of much of modern, post-Christian existence.
That's why "people who couldn't begin to tell you about the biblical Noah can talk your ears off about ephemeral pop culture matters." In many instances, it's the only thing they can talk about.
There are of course exceptions. Some films and TV can serve as illustrations of Christian themes and "conversation starters." But as my friend says, "the goal of such illustrations and conversation starters should be to direct people's primary gaze away from the screen (of whatever size) and toward the places where the 'Life Questions' are supposed to be answered," such as in scripture and worship-not to mention in fellowship and in acts of service.
So let's leave the online rioting to fans of chariot racing.