Leisure as Culture

Below are my remarks as prepared for the CCL Fall Symposium in San Francisco. It is written as an oral presentation, and I provide it to you without further comment.  

"Leisure As Culture"

The serendipitous nature of Andrew’s ordering of topics is evident because if David Bahnsen and I were ever business partners it would strongly resemble the relationship of Texas Rangers Woodrow F. Call and Augustus McCrae in Larry McMurtry’s Pulizer Prize winning novel Lonesome Dove. When Woodrow grumbles about Gus’s slacking, Gus replies: “Balance, Woodrow. You do more work than you got to, so it’s my obligation to do less.”

David’s expertise is in hard work, which was no doubt instilled by his father. I can probably be accused of majoring in leisure, but I’m hesitant to blame my dad for my sins because he happens to be here listening to these remarks. My purpose today is to all-too-briefly help us think theologically about leisure as a cultural activity. Knee-jerk responses to our slovenly, lazy, trivial, entertainment saturated culture—that is, our abuses of leisure—are easy to find, but I want to avoid hasty and simplistic screeds. I think we can all agree that our culture idolizes leisure. “Amusing ourselves to death,” Neil Postman famously called it, and it seems accurate enough. As is usually the case, however, negative critique is easier than positive construction. What is the place and purpose of leisure, and how are we as Christians to cultivate a counterculture of healthy, God-honoring leisure in an age of self-destructive narcissism?

How Not To Do It

So I begin with a paradigmatic case, a book whose popularity is stratospheric:  John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life. I could now spend a bunch of time I don’t have saying all of the nice things I have to say about John Piper, but I will not. Trust me: they are deep, heartfelt, and manifold.

That Dr. Piper is not one given to copious amounts of leisure and entertainment is no secret, and I think we can all appreciate the fruits of his relentless devotion to his pastoral calling. But I happen to have discovered on Twitter that up until a year ago Dr. Piper had no earthly idea what the word “SportsCenter” meant. He would no doubt count his ignorance of something as lowly as sports a badge of honor; I might suggest that not knowing the name of one of the most critically-acclaimed television shows of the past twenty years, and a program that has probably done more to shape an entire generation of young men than any other is tantamount to being culturally deaf and blind.

But I digress. In the early pages of Dr. Piper’s book he recounts with horror a news profile of a retired couple who spent their days collecting seashells, and this becomes Exhibit A of what he means by “wasting your life.” The details are fairly sketchy, and the story has so little context it is difficult for anyone to evaluate. This does not deter Dr. Piper from drawing his conclusion: these people are “wasting” their lives in this particular leisurely pursuit. To put the most charitable spin on this as I can, it is possible that he simply intended to take aim at misplaced priorities. But I cannot help but notice this:

John Piper is a Baptist.

Wait a minute. How could that possibly be relevant? Oh, but it is: Baptist theology is built on a dualism between nature and grace. In its very essence, it eschews the natural order in exchange for supernatural, “spiritual” realities. There is a reason Baptist theology denies that something as natural as the biological family can be God’s ordained instrument and means of special grace (i.e., no infant baptism), and that reason is not, I submit, a theological or exegetical one. It is pre-commitment to a basic philosophical disjunction between the lowly “natural” realm and higher “spiritual” realities.

When this kind of thinking really takes hold, looking askance at somebody collecting beautiful seashells doesn’t just make sense, it is very nearly required. In the dualist’s mind, gospel ministry (always narrowly conceived) is the highest calling, and anything less, like profound interest in seafood or SportsCenter, is at best a trivial, if sometimes allowable, evil. Leisure is what we do in the short, occasional moments in between doing our real work of gospel ministry; it is not seen as itself an instrument of gospel ministry.

The upshot of this dualistic, sacred/secular approach (sadly endemic to Baptist theology, among other varieties) is that leisure always slides into the natural or “secular” slot. And that means anything more than a passing interest in it entails, well, “wasting your life.” You’ve all heard it a million times, how you need to throw your television sets in the garbage and get “serious” about life. Never mind that some of the most serious and sober art is produced on television nowadays; for a great many people, if it involves “leisure” it is simply suspect.

You see, the dualist’s ambivalence toward nature at the beginning always leads him to demonize nature in the end. The problem becomes the “stuff” instead of the abuse of the stuff. Sooner or later, as surely as the tide, the dualist will confuse ethics with ontology, our abuse of the thing and the thing itself. If you doubt me I give you one word: Prohibition. Put in arcane theological terms, views built on a foundation of nature/grace dualism have a “concupiscence,” a natural “drag” toward denigrating the natural world. But we all need some reminding: God loves seashells. Delights in them, even. And he is well-pleased when his image bearers love and delight in them, too. We can certainly question ethical issues like priorities, callings, responsibilities, and idolatries, but we must resist the temptation to question the thing itself, in this case leisure.

This mindset is rampant. David Platt’s book Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream deserves a (dis)honorable mention here, as does David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms. Characteristic of these books is an emphasis on the meaninglessness (and sometimes even sinfulness!) of leisure, as opposed the real meaningfulness of “spiritual” things like gospel ministry.

A Better Way – Grace Restores Our Leisure

Misdiagnosing a problem leads to exacerbating rather than resolving a problem, like, say, thinking that fixing the healthcare.gov website will fix the health care system in America. The problem as I see it is not leisure; it is a widespread cultural abuse of leisure, a failure to understand its essence and purpose.

Allow me to make one quick theological point (even though I have many more) and then do some cultural diagnosing of my own.

There is continuity between this age and the age to come. What we do here matters. Redemption does not cancel out the natural order, but restores the natural order. Whatever is sick is healed, whatever is broken is mended, and whatever is abused will be cleansed and purified. Eternity does not make anything God made irrelevant; it makes it profoundly relevant.

It seems to me the Christian life can be summed up in this: in “these last days,” the present age of slogging it out and suffering, we are to act as though eternity is already true in the here-and-now. Setting our minds “on things above” does not mean that the world around us doesn’t matter and that we shouldn’t watch SportsCenter. It means laying hold of what is already true because of Jesus, “fixing our eyes” on him (Heb. 12:2). Paul calls it walking “by faith, not by sight.” We count ourselves “dead to sin” because we belong already to the age where there is no sin. We count ourselves already “raised with Christ” and “seated with him” in glory even as we await a resurrection. Our lives are to be, in other words, living enactments of what eternity will be, living enactments of the truth instead of the lie.

Herman Bavinck makes a brief comment about the new heavens and the new earth that rings particularly profound in this respect: reflecting on the biblical language that there will be no Sun (and thus no intervals of day and night) and that the whole of the cosmos will be God’s Temple, he says that there “Time is charged with the eternity of God. Space is full of his presence.” Can you conceive of any greater reality that we might enact right here and now? If we lived as though that were true right now, it would radically shape everything we do, including our leisure time. The truth is that waving away collecting seashells or watching television or playing sports as trivial is not nearly rigorous enough. We should rather ask what do hobbies and leisure look like when “charged with eternity” and “full of God’s presence”? That’s a much different and far more interesting challenge, isn’t it? This is a pointed way of expressing what the Reformers were after with their dictum of living “Coram Deo,” or “Before the face of God.”

Our culture is in the death grip of narcissism. Leisure is entirely about self-gratification. There is even a term for it: “Me time.” With which, of course, you “deserve” to “pamper yourself.” Our leisure and entertainment is becoming an ever-more Unitarian affair rather than reflecting the awesome power and fruitfulness of Cask Strength Trinitarian presence and glory. Fully grown men will spend inordinate solitary hours staring at a screen as they play the latest X-Box game. The problem is not the X-Box, it is the pure individualism and narcissism; they would rather live in the fantasy world of pixels and code than the truly magical world of earth, air, water, and fire. In the sickest of ironies, the greatest leisure pursuit ever invented, sex, is becoming the world’s most popular solitary affair. Doctors note the alarming rate of Twentysomethings suffering from erectile dysfunction. In P.D. James’s dystopian novel The Children of Men the reason humanity loses its ability to reproduce was a great mystery. She obviously wrote before the age of Internet pornography; because if it were to happen today, we’d know exactly why. People prefer solo sex.

For a culture of leisure to be Christian, it must share the basic Christian premise: it is not just about us. It is about God first, and then loving and serving our neighbors. It must cultivate relationships and foster community. And that means Christian leisure, particularly in our Unitarian age, should be closely tied to Christian hospitality. Our Sabbath “rest” must be something we can welcome people into and something so different, so delightful, and so attractive people want to be welcomed into. “Charged with eternity” and “full of God’s presence,” if we could figure out what that looks like, might do the trick. I think it will differ for different people with different gifts and interests, but the core principle should be evident.

Fifteen years ago when my wife called me and invited me out for coffee (our first, disastrous date) I told her I’d call her back because I was in the middle of reading a book out loud to my Mom, Dad, and Sister. She wondered: what kind of a family sits around reading books out loud? Leisure time as a self-conscious, communal affair was a total revelation and, happily for me, an attractive one to her.

I have friends who have something of an “open house.” In the wintertime, you can drop by any day of the week at any hour and I’ll tell you what you’re likely to find: lighted candles, a roaring fire, hot tea and coffee, and music playing or a BBC drama on the TV. These are immensely productive people who have built a home of rest and leisure. And it is fully charged, I daresay, with eternity and God’s presence.

Am I saying that we should all become Martha Stewart? Well, in a way, yes. I am. Martha Stewart is an image-bearer of God who excels at cultivating and displaying a beautiful life. And you should figure out what “becoming Martha Stewart” looks like with your interests and talents. Excel at your leisure; make ordinary things glorious and beautiful; enjoy beautiful art and delicious food, all for the glory of God and the love of your neighbor.

And here’s a final thought: self-destructive and narcissistic as our culture’s view of leisure is, it is at the same time ripe for exploitation in a God-honoring, Christian direction. Do you realize that we are living, for example, in a veritable golden age of entertainment? Is it full of self-absorption and abuse? Of course. But the democratization of technology and know-how has led to a renaissance of the visual arts. Visual drama, particularly television drama, has never been as profound a vehicle as it is right now. Music can now be professionally produced and made available to the palm of your hand with a mere click of a button by an obscure person recording in their bedroom.

And think of another thing associated with leisure: food. We are living in a time unlike any other in human history. Take a look sometime at a cookbook from thirty or forty years ago: you will find recipes for casseroles made from canned goods. People used to make, God forbid, hot tuna casserole. Yet today anyone almost anywhere on the socioeconomic ladder can eat beautifully. You can find affordable, fresh produce anywhere in the Western world no matter the time of year. This is, frankly, a miracle that we don’t reflect on much. It is a gift of God for our leisure, a gift for us to use to imitate God in his diversity, creativity, and fellowship. So start eating and feeding others well.

Perform your leisure like heaven is already yours, because it is. You’ve got the down-payment of the Holy Spirit. So perform your leisure in true Spiritual fashion: charge it with eternity and fill it with God’s presence. 

Brian Mattson