“Your religion is what you do with your solitude.” -Archbishop William Temple
“Are you not entertained?” -Russell Crowe in The Gladiator
One of the more famous stories in the Bible is the story of the Ten Plagues. It’s where God sends plagues to the people of Egypt to convince Pharaoh to let his people go. But one of the little known parts of that story, is that each plague that God sent had a corresponding god.
There was a God of the Nile River, so God turns the Nile into blood, there was an Egyptian god for the Sun (Ra) and so God makes all of Egypt dark.
In the Bible, one of the interesting things about how God deals with idolatry is that he takes away the thing that people thought they were getting from it. So Ba’al is the rain god, and when people worship Ba’al, God sends a drought. The story of the Ten Plagues is a story of God revealing the idols as not being able to deliver on their promises.
Bored to Death
A few years ago, Leslie and I were in Sri Lanka doing Tsunami relief. One night we left our station, and got to spend an evening with one of the relief workers who lived there. We went to his home, met his family and ate with them. But the thing that surprised us was the arrangement of his small living room.
The chairs and couch, as well as the design of the room, was all facing the center where one of the Hindu statues stood prominently.
And I remember thinking how ridiculous and primitive it was.
Then we flew home, sat down on our couch and turned on the television n the center of our living room, and stared at it for hours.
One of the more interesting phenomenon’s of our current time is the word boredom. It’s interesting because it’s a relatively new word. Previously we didn’t have a word for boredom. In fact, much of the world still doesn’t. If you were to go to many cultures in the world and use that word, translators won’t be able to replace it.
The closest word for boredom in many cultures is something like tired.
Isn’t it interesting that this is where we, of all cultures, are? The average American home has the television playing for more than eight hours a day. We have entertained ourselves into a stupor, and yet we’re still bored.
Did you know that the word amusement actually comes from the world of worship? A muse was a goddess that was said to inspire or give a new thought. But amusement, that’s a word that means without God.
It means to escape the divine.
Bread and Circus
Back in the first century, the Roman Empire had expanded beyond the size of any previous empire. They had taken over the entire known world, and in order to keep their army funded, they had to tax their territories heavily. Many of the people Rome ruled had to live in sub-standard conditions. And Rome knew that if they revolted they wouldn’t have the resources to maintain control.
So they started the gladiator games, where they would entertain large crowds and throw free bread to some lucky fans.
And it worked…It still does.
In her book, Between Two Worlds, Raxani Saberi talks about being a prisoner in Iran for 6 months. One of the things that she learned was that there the main function of entertainment was to keep people from pursuing information elsewhere. It was used to keep the people ignorant of their current situation
The social critic Noam Chomsky would agree.
“There are forms of media whose basic social role is quite different: it’s diversion… This is an oversimplification, but for the eighty percent or whatever they are, the main thing is to divert them.”
If you want to know who or what you really worship (anybody can claim a faith system, or a lack of one) but if you really want to know what you worship look at where you spend money…and look at where you spend your “free” time.
I think we would name many of our problems as apathy but the Bible would call it misplaced worship.
Leonard Sweet says it this way: “When all is said and done, when the ancient gods reign, nothing is said and done.”
Living the Life in Front of Us
We don’t know all the details, but one of my heroes is the man who stood up to this idol. His name was St. Telemachus (we assume he is the patron saint for telemarketers)
Sometime in the 4th century A.D. Rome was holding another one of it’s gladiator games. Once again the gladiators came out to the thundering applause of the masses. They fought each other, or the frail prisoners, or whoever. It didn’t matter because all the crowd wanted was blood.
And when Telemachus saw them murdering one another, he stood up and yelled “No!”
He ran down to the ground that the Gladiators were fighting on, and cried out, “no more killing, please, no more killing.”
But a gladiator has to do what a gladiator has to do, and so there in front of thousands of rabid, amused fans, they slaughtered St. Telemockus.
And then it happened.
Somebody stood up and walked out of an arena, and then another, and then another, and another, until the entire arena was empty. And they never held a Gladiator game again.
Someone had broken through the world of staring at others living life, and forced people to deal with the God very present in this one.
And it cost Telemachus his life, but at least he was fully living his and not someone else’s.
May we all be so lucky.