In a world of shiny attractions that grab our attention and demand our affections, Competing Spectacles helps us to thrive spiritually by asking critical questions about where we place our focus.
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About the Author
Tony Reinke is the communications director for desiringGod.org. He is the author of Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books; Newton on the Christian Life; and 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You.
Read an Excerpt
THE AGE OF THE SPECTACLE
§1: LIFE INSIDE THE DIGITAL ENVIRONMENT
Never in history have manufactured images formed the ecosystem of our lives. They do now. Sixty years ago Daniel Boorstin warned us: "We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so 'realistic' that they can live in them. We are the most illusioned people on earth. Yet we dare not become disillusioned, because our illusions are the very home in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventure, our forms of art, our very experience." Sixty years later, this risk is now our reality. We live as if all the media broadcast into our eyes is life itself, as if our images now offer us an alternative existence.
To this cultural phenomenon I raise my objection.
In a consumer society, images are the language of transaction. Images aim to provoke something in us in order to get something from us. New images ask us for all sorts of things — our time, our attention, our outrage, our money, our lust, our affection, and our votes. Is it possible to resist them? Should we try?
This book is a theology of visual culture, a culture that is increasingly closing in around us. It will not help you prioritize your TV options. Online viewing guides will help you there. It will not help you watch pop films through a gospel lens. Several good books do this already. Nor will it help you untangle the narrative threads of a thoughtful film. Long conversations with friends are superior. More intentionally, this book is a companion for Christians walking through digital detoxes, the now necessary periods of our lives when we voluntarily unplug from pop media, news media, and social media in order to de-screen our eyes and to reorder our priorities.
As a convention, I must litter this book with two hundred footnotes. On first read, ignore them and read slap through the book as if they didn't exist. Later you can return to the notes for deeper exploration.
To keep the book brief, I painted my argument as one rough silhouette using a wide bristled brush and black paint on a white canvas. A much longer book could bring in a full spectrum of detail and color. Here I simply seek to answer one question: In this "age of the spectacle" (as it has been called) — in this ecosystem of digital pictures and fabricated sights and viral moments competing for our attention — how do we spiritually thrive?
§2: SPECTACLES DEFINED
First we must clear up some definitions. Spectacles can mean one of two things. Spectacles are eyeglasses that sharpen human vision, bringing clarity as we look through them. In this sense, worldviews are metaphorical spectacles by which we see the world. But that is not how I will use the word. For this project, spectacles is confined to its second meaning: a moment of time, of varying length, in which collective gaze is fixed on some specific image, event, or moment. A spectacle is something that captures human attention, an instant when our eyes and brains focus and fixate on something projected at us.
In an outrage society like ours, spectacles are often controversies — the latest scandal in sports, entertainment, or politics. A spark bellows, grows into a viral flame on social media, and ignites the visual feeds of millions. That's a spectacle. As the speed of media grows faster and faster, the most miniscule public slip of the tongue or passive-aggressive celebrity comment or hypocritical political image can become a spectacle. And often the most viral social media spectacles are spicy tales later exposed as groundless rumors and fake news.
Whether it's true, false, or fiction, a spectacle is the visible thing that holds together a collective gaze. And that's the focus of this book. A spectacle can come packaged as a brilliant photograph, an eye-catching billboard, a creative animation, a magazine centerfold, a witty commercial, or a music video. It can be an advertisement or a sarcastic anti-advertisement, a sitcom or a mockinganti-sitcom, a talk show or a cynical anti-talk show. Spectacles can go meta: TV shows about TV shows, ads about ads, and movies about movies. Spectacles are ambitious videogame landscapes, network television series, a blockbuster movie, a horror film, a sports clip of an athlete's glory (or injury), or a viral GIF on social media.
Spectacles can be accidental or intentional — anything that vies for our eyes: a historic presidential inauguration, a celebrity blooper, an epic fail, a prank, a trick shot, a hot take, a drone race, an eSports competition, the live streams of video games fought with fictional cannons, or real warfare fought with steel weapons. Spectacles are the latest video from a self-made YouTube millionaire sensation, or a flash mob meant to appear as a spontaneous gathering in public. And the age of spectacle making spawns a particular form of celebrity: the loudmouthed provocateur and the nitwit icon — notoriously unsuited for any other social role but fame.
Ad makers use premeditated spectacles to bolster corporate profits, but spectacles can have more grisly origins: a teen suicide on Facebook Live, a public assassination, a police-shooting video, or traffic footage of a deadly accident.
A spectacle can target you while simultaneously speaking to a million "yous" (like a popular video ad meant to coax purchases). Or a spectacle can gather together a community for a unified purpose (like a live political speech meant to coax votes). A particular tweet can become a viral spectacle, but the whole ecosystem of Twitter is one endless spectacle too.
Some spectacles draw us together in regional unity, like cheering for a local sports team. Others bring us together disconnectedly, like watching a movie in a theater. Some spectacles draw us together in small groups, like projecting movies on a TV in the living room. Some spectacles isolate us, like streaming Netflix on our iPad, scrolling social media on our phone, and gaming on a solo device. Some spectacles spatially separate us, like VR goggles.
Additionally, different modes of spectacle invite different forms of vision. Many spectacles, like our best movies, fixate our minds in a dream-like trance and put our bodies in a state of inertia. Some spectacles, like social media, offer a dopamine jolt as we become the center of attention. Other spectacles, like a TV show watched live and interacted with on Twitter, absorb us into a community of watchers. Spectacles can lead us to be self-centered or self-forgetting or others-focused. Others stoke our obscene voyeurism and personal lust.
Spectacles engage us differently. The Super Bowl is a supreme example, and it gathers our attention in different ways: live and in person, inside a stadium roaring with sixty thousand spectators; live and remotely, inside your living room with six friends; or on-demand, in the time-shifted medium of next-day highlights on your phone. The Super Bowl is also a prime example of how popular spectacles overlap. The event is a hybrid of athletic spectacles, celebrity spectacles, entertainment spectacles, and advertising spectacles — all generating mass interest for the latest consumables, devices, video games, and Hollywood releases. All the culture's most powerful spectacle makers meet at the Super Bowl, and even feed off one another, to create a four-hour, multilayered feast for the eyes.
Behind it all, spectacles want something from us. "Consuming" is part of it, but we don't merely ingest spectacles; we respond to them. Visual images awaken the motives in our hearts. Images tug the strings of our actions. Images want our celebration, our awe, our affection, our time, and our outrage. Images invoke our consensus, our approval, our buy-in, our respreading power, and our wallets.
§3: DISTRACTED SPECTACLE SEEKERS
Why do we seek spectacles? Because we're human — hardwired with an unquenchable appetite to see glory. Our hearts seek splendor as our eyes scan for greatness. We cannot help it. "The world aches to be awed. That ache was made for God. The world seeks it mainly through movies" — and in entertainment and politics and true crime and celebrity gossip and warfare and live sports. Unfortunately, we are all very easily conned into wasting our time on what adds no value to our lives. Aldous Huxley called it "man's almost infinite appetite for distraction."
Worthless or worthwhile, our eyes are insatiable things. And this visual appetite raises interesting questions about what attention is and how we should use it.
In the first volume of his landmark work The Principles of Psychology, William James explained the marvel and mystery of what it means to be an "attentive" being. He said that human attention is a "withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction."
Attention is the skill of withdrawing from everything to focus on some things, and it is the opposite of the dizziness of the scatterbrained spectacle seeker who cannot attend to anything. Thus, attention determines how we perceive the world around us. "Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why?" asks James. "Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind — without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos." James argued that of the many possible things that you could fix your mind on right now, you have chosen to attend to one thing — this sentence. Thus, this book is primarily shaping your life right now, not the one hundred other things around you that you must now ignore. That's attention. Which means that we must learn the art of refocusing a wandering mind, because "the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will."
In other words, we're not simply creatures of our environment. We are creatures shaped by what grabs our attention — and what we give our attention to becomes our objective and subjective reality. Identical twins raised in an identical environment will be shaped differently if they focus on different things. We attend to what interests us. We become like what we watch.
§4: IMAGE IS EVERYTHING
Tennis superstar Andre Agassi was only nineteen years old when he starred in a television commercial for Canon cameras. The spot featured him in all sorts of eye-grabbing poses, a spectacle on display before the viewer's clicking shutter. As the ad closes, he steps out of a white Lamborghini in a white suit to speak his only line: "Image" — he says with a sly smile, pausing, tilting his head down to drop his sunglasses and to reveal his serious gaze — "is everything." The ad caught fire. Agassi said that he heard the slogan a couple times a day, then six times a day, then ten, then endlessly.
In his autobiography, he recounts his shock. The slogan stuck. He couldn't shake it. "Image is everything" became Agassi's image, one he spent years trying to escape. "Overnight," he said, "the slogan becomes synonymous with me. Sportswriters liken this slogan to my inner nature, my essential being. They say it's my philosophy, my religion, and they predict it's going to be my epitaph." Crowds yelled the phrase at him whether he won or lost — because who needs tennis trophies when you can lose in style? The line mocked his tennis goals and minimized his athletic aspirations. It made him cynical, calloused to crowds, irritated by journalists, and eventually sickened by the public gaze. Perhaps Agassi was a victim, not so much of a scripted line but of a new impulse in the age of spectacles. Image and substance were now divorced — because that is what images are: a simulacrum, a representation, an object that makes space between appearance and substance. "In a world dominated by the image instead of the word, interior life gives way to exterior show. Substance gives way to simulation."
In the age of the spectacle, image is our identity, and our identity is unavoidably molded by our media. To use the evocative language of Jacques Ellul, speaking about movies, we choose to give ourselves vicariously to the onscreen lives that we could never personally experience. We escape into lives that are not ours and become adapted to the experiences of others. We live inside our projected simulations — inside the promises and the possibilities of our most beloved celebrities. The result, "like a snail deprived of its shell, man is only a blob of plastic matter modeled after the moving images."
Our popular movies represent "a pedagogy of desire," a place where our loves and longings and identities are shaped for us. In the age of the spectacle, we leave the hard edges of our embodied existence — our shells — in order to find our own shape and definition as we live inside a media-driven life of abstraction. And because we can live entirely inside the world of our images (consumed and projected), we lose our identity and our place in the community. We lose a sense of what it means to be inside the body God assigned and shaped for us. Freed from the hard edges of our humanity, we become autonomous, plastic, shapeable blobs. "Digital technology abstracts society and creation from the particularity of our bodies, the material order, and our social situatedness, placing hypermodern selves within a thoroughly artificial environment of manipulated symbols and images." We become detached selves, abstracted from nature and community — abstracted from our true selves.
All these media-driven identity confusions are amplified by the digital cameras on our phones, which arrived just in time to merge our self-image capture and our self-image editing in our social media.
§5: THE SPECTACLE OF THE SELF IN SOCIAL MEDIA
Today we get lost in a maze of mirrors that distort our reflections of the self, argues anthropologist Thomas de Zengotita. He says that our screen technology has grown to a new pinnacle of addictive delight in the digital age because our screens make it possible for us to live in a dual role: as both spectator and star.
In the rare moments when we catch broad attention — whether through our images or tweets or memes — we become the star. And when we watch ourselves get approved and liked, we become the spectator too. In social media, our dual spectator-and-star role is seen "in the special intensity, the devotional glow you see on the face of a stranger in some random public place, leaning over her handheld device, utterly absorbed ... matching twitter-witson a trending topic, feeling the swell of attention rising around her as she rides an energy wave of commentary, across the country, around the world — it's like the touch of a cosmic force, thanks to the smallest and most potent of all personal screens, the one on her smartphone." As we watch others watching us, we get caught up in the energy of becoming the star. We become spectators of our digital selves.
Our digital photos and selfies only amplify this self-projection. According to global stats, we now take more than one trillion digital pictures per year. We become actors before our own phones and the phones of our friends. We modify our self and filter our appearance. And then we become spectators of ourselves, because "each selfie is a performance of a person as they hope to be seen by others." As blobs, we seek an identity projection that others will celebrate.
Our camera-ready culture has changed us. Until 1920 no one thought it was appropriate to smile for a camera. Today we all must be ready to be photographed at any moment, ready to strike a performance pose contorted for the camera. Image is everything, and social media is where we craft the spectacle of ourselves. As we perform our self-chosen identities in front of our cameras, we find that the magic of computer-generated imagery (CGI) has been put in our hands. Our digital self is now editable by endless filters and lenses and bitmojis — a unique plasticity for self-sculpting offered to no other generation in human history.
After writing a book exclusively about smartphones and how they form and de-form our self-perception, I will not belabor the social media spectacle here. What's important to see in this project is that self-sculpting and self-projecting make social media an irresistible spectacle because we become theself-molded star at the center of it all. As a result of these cultural shifts, we each feel the shift from being to appearing. Our self-made images — our digital appearings — become everything.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Competing Spectacles"
Copyright © 2019 Tony Scott Reinke.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1 The Age of the Spectacle
§1 Life inside the Digital Environment 12
§2 Spectacles Defined 14
§3 Distracted Spectacle Seekers 18
§4 Image Is Everything 20
§5 The Spectacle of the Self in Social Media 23
§6 The Spectacle of the Self in Gaming 26
§7 Spectacles of Tele-Vision 28
§8 Spectacles of Merchandise 34
§9 Politics as Spectacle 39
§10 Terror as Spectacle 45
§11 Ancient Spectacles 53
§12 Every Nine Seconds 55
§13 The Spectacle of the Body 60
§14 The Church in the Attention Market 65
Part 2 The Spectacle
§15 Spectakils in Tension 70
§16 Prynne's Footnote 73
§17 The World's Greatest Spectacle 77
§18 Is the Cross a Spectacle? 83
§19 Two Competing Theaters 86
§20 Spectators of Glory 93
§21 The Church as Spectacle 98
§22 The Church as Spectacle Maker? 103
§23 A Day inside the Spectacle 106
§24 Our Unique Spectacle Tensions 109
§25 One Resolve, One Request 112
§26 The Spectator before His Carving 116
§27 A Movie So Good It Will Ruin You-Would You Watch It? 119
§28 Resistible Spectacles 124
§29 Summations and Applications 127
§30 My Supreme Concern 143
§31 A Beauty That Beautifies 146
§32 The Visio Beatifica 148
§33 Dis-Illusioned but Not Deprived 152
What People are Saying About This
“Thirty years after Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Tony Reinke’s Competing Spectacles takes the impact-analysis of modern media to new levels: a new height and new depth. New height, because Christ crucified, risen, and reigning is brought into the discussion as the Spectacle above all spectacles. New depth, because the focus is not on what is happening to politics, but what is happening to the human soul. The conception of this book is not cavalier; it is rooted in the profound biblical strategy of sanctification by seeing (2 Cor. 3:18). The spectacle of Christ’s glory is ‘the central power plant of Christian sanctification.’ Ugly spectacles make us ugly. Beautiful spectacles make us beautiful. Reinke is a good guide in how to deflect the damaging effects of digital images ‘in anticipation of a greater Sight.’”
John Piper, Founder and Teacher, desiringGod.org; Chancellor, Bethlehem College & Seminary; author, Desiring God
“Tony Reinke has proven to be a wise guide for Christians through this era of technological whirl. Now with this accessible, sagacious book, he has done so again. This book shows us how to pull our eyes away from the latest viral video or our digital avatars of self and toward the ‘spectacle’ before which we often cringe and wince: the crucifixion of our Lord. That’s the spectacle we need.”
Russell Moore, President, The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention
“Tony Reinke has the prophetic knack of helping us see the truth about ourselves and our world. In these pagesas illuminating as they are disturbing and challenginghe stands in the tradition of the spiritual masters who have understood that the city of man’sand woman’ssoul is often attacked and destroyed through eye-gate. But Competing Spectacles not only diagnoses our distorted vision; it prescribes spectacles that give us twenty-twenty spiritual vision. Essential reading.”
Sinclair B. Ferguson, Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary; Teaching Fellow, Ligonier Ministries
“As a millennial who desires to abide in Christ while simultaneously engaging culture, I found this book incredibly helpful. The world seeks to captivate our attention through an endless stream of distractions, but Reinke encourages us to revive our hearts to the spectacle of Christ. I walked away encouraged to gaze upon the glory of the gospel, knowing it will reverberate through me and empower me to walk in Christlikeness.”
Hunter Beless, Founder and Executive Director, Journeywomen podcast
“Your time is limited. But you live in a world where digital eye candy, viral videos, national scandals, and social media are limitlessa world that competes for every split second of your attention. And you must train yourself both to focus and to ignore. Both are gospel skills in a battle between the diversions of our present age and our citizenship in the age to come. Every generation of Christians has faced this struggle, but never in a media-dominated culture like ours. So how can we meet the challenges and avoid the pitfalls of our day? Leaning on Scripture as the lens through which we view this digital age, Tony Reinke communicates in brilliantly lucid prose a proposal for how we can glorify our unseen Savior in this world full of sensory diversions.”
Bruce Riley Ashford, Provost and Professor of Theology and Culture, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; coauthor, The Gospel of Our King
“If this book helps readers to digitally detox and to unplug from all sources of media that threaten to drown us in noise and to rob us of the capacity to attend to the things that truly enable us to flourish as human beings, then it will only have begun to do its good work. Take the spectacles of God’s two books, Scripture and Creation, as John Calvin once called them, and learn to resee your life as God sees it. Take and read! Taste and see!”
W. David O. Taylor, Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture, Fuller Theological Seminary
“How to navigate the Christian life in a media-saturated culture feels more confusing than ever. Tony Reinke provides a dose of desperately needed clarity. Combining careful research with relevant application, this book is for anyone who wants to be more discerning and critically engaged in our culturewhich should be every Christian!”
Jaquelle Crowe, author, This Changes Everything: How the Gospel Transforms the Teen Years
“Tony Reinke issues a grace-filled and prophetic call to examine ourselves as we navigate through a world of endless entertainment, spectacle, and distraction. Are we bored with Christ? Have we become suffocated by the superficialities of our society’s spectacles? Do we crave the freeing and fresh winds of spiritual fervor that come from gazing upon the life-transforming beauty of Christ and his Word? Pick up and readat your own peril, and for your soul’s delight.”
Trevin Wax, author, This Is Our Time
“Decades ago, Malcolm Muggeridge helped us notice something: the Bible came down to us not through Dead Sea Videotapes but through Dead Sea Scrolls. Nor could videotapes have brought us the Word. Now today, with similar insight, Tony Reinke helps us notice something: beyond the media images daily surrounding us, tempting us, intimidating us, and defrauding us, Christ the Word welcomes us. Competing Spectacles can guide us back to reality, honesty, and calm, as we lift our eyes humbly to the Crucified One and pray, ‘Please show me your glory.’”
Ray Ortlund, Pastor to Pastors, Immanuel Church, Nashville, Tennessee
“Tony Reinke offers a succinct exposé of the threat that our image-saturated society poses to faith and to wisdom. Just as the noisiness of modern life so often prevents us from hearing God’s voice, so mass-mediated images blind us from seeing Christ in the church, in the world, and in the face of our neighbor. Reinke’s warning is that of the watchman who sees ‘the sword coming against the land.’ We’ll do well to heed his message.”
Craig M. Gay, Professor, Regent College; author, Modern Technology and the Human Future and The Way of the (Modern) World