“Ivan Ilych saw that he was dying, and was in continual despair […] And to save himself from this, Ivan Ilych sought amusements, other screens, and these screens he found, and for a little while they did seem to save him; but soon again they were not so much broken down as let the light through, as though It pierced though everything, and there was nothing that could shut It off (The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy).“
With an increase of idle time, foreboding news, and uncertainty, we have all come to meet Ivan Ilych in ourselves. We may not be facing certain death, it may just be projected death, economic doom, mistrust, or the despair of being alone with our own thoughts. But all of us have a tendency to seek out distractions. We look for amusements to keep us from wrestling with what burdens our hearts, to save ourselves from facing anxieties, weariness, and failings. These amusements do serve us for a time, but eventually they fail us. They do not provide the rest we seek, because we are seeking in the wrong places, perhaps even in the worst places.
Most Christians are quick to denounce obvious categories of harmful entertainment, but are there perhaps less obvious sources that can deleteriously distort reality? Those things that are not so bad, but really aren’t Good? As we search for distractions we tend to settle on the not so bad things, largely because they demand little from us. This is the nature of amusement. Perhaps in our searching, if we truly want to find rest, comfort, and relief, we ought to turn instead to Art.
Art is truth-telling. It exposes reality, like Anna Akhmatova says of the poet, Art “flings everything wide.” While amusements function to mask reality, to distract us and lull us further into apathy, allowing us to hold our idols more closely, Art can force us to wrestle with reality, it can be the catalyst to bring us to the idol-burning nature of Truth.
Maybe instead of inundating ourselves with the voyeurism of reality dating shows, the saccharine falsehoods of Hallmark movies, or the guilty pleasures of today’s soap operas (and their literary counterparts in penny novels), we might find greater hope in seeking that which wakes us up to the reality we do not wish to face.
Before we turn on our next show, open to the next chapter, or select a playlist, we ought to begin, not by asking, will this amuse me? but instead, will this tell me the truth?
Being amused is certainly easier, it requires nothing from us, but it also gives nothing in return. Like a proverbial candy bar, it may be pleasureful, but it does nothing for our health; it is not harmful per se, but it can be, particularly in large doses and especially when our bodies are starved for true nourishment. While Art may demand more from us, it will certainly reward our efforts. After all, sin wears a mask that is alluring and deceptive, Art can help us tear it off.
Whether it is the breathtaking beauty of a piece of music so well-crafted and executed that it seems to beckon us from another world, as in Bach’s Cello Suites, or a book that speaks of transcendent virtues like bravery, loyalty, and sacrifice, as in The Lord of the Rings; Art can remind us that the physical realm is not the only reality, it can gives us the courage to pursue the eternal good that is worth fighting and dying for, it can point us to the idea that there is One who is the source of beauty, who fought and died for us, that we might finish well.
Whether it is the gut-wrenching wickedness exposed in a Flannery O’Connor novel, or the uncomfortable corruption of “good” people and the multi-faceted nature of sin in every human, as seen in shows like Breaking Bad (or the book of Judges); Art can remind us that when everyone does what is right in their own eyes, evil reigns, and there is no one who does good, not one. It can make our hearts yearn for the Savior who alone is good, who will set things right, and who cleared our record of sin.
When we are weary or feeling the weight of sin, it is not amusement that will carry us through. Art however, can aid us. Like the stars, if we know how to read them, they can help us find North. Art can disrupt us, amusements will merely plunge us into apathy. Art can lift our weary hearts, amusements merely convince us that we want “to go on making mud pies in a slum because [we] cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea (C.S. Lewis).” Art reminds us that there is a sea, that it is what we truly long for, it gives us courage to look beyond the mud, and helps us remember the God who takes us there.
As we face our days with unprecedented free time, and the reality of a world outside of our control, what we choose to turn to can have a great effect upon us. For the Christian especially, our question always ought to be: will this stir me to worship the God who is the source of all Truth, Beauty, and Goodness? If the answer is no, perhaps our time would be better spent elsewhere.