When most people hear the word “idol,” they either think of the reality television show searching for the next musical sensation, or perhaps they think of a well-known celebrity or athlete. Depending on your age and taste in music, or lack there of, you might even think of “White Wedding” punk rocker Billy Idol.
However, if you break open a dictionary (or do a quick Google search), you’ll find an idol is defined as one of four things: an image used as an object of worship; a false god; one that is adored, often blindly or excessively; something visible but without substance.
With those definitions in mind, what do the following numbers say about our culture?
Last Sunday, the midseason premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead—a show about the zombie apocalypse—brought in it’s largest audience in series history: 12.3 million viewers. The same night, the 55th Annual Grammy Awards delivered 28.37 million viewers, making it this season’s most-watched awards program to date.
This season’s premiere of American Idol brought in a record low of 17.9 million viewers.
The 2013 Super Bowl brought in a whopping 108.4 million viewers.
Entertainment is the new American idol. And I’d go as far as to argue that our cultural obsession with entertainment is essentially a surrogate religion.
For example, a few years ago, my youngest daughter wanted nothing more than to go to a Colts football game in Indianapolis. The truth is, I’m a huge sports fan and she came by her NFL devotion honestly.
It was a Sunday afternoon game, but we drove down on Saturday evening to make sure we would be at the stadium in plenty of time. We woke up early on Sunday and went to a local church.
A few hours later, I was sitting among 80,000 fans in Lucas Oil Stadium, and yes, I had my own face painted. We both cheered until we lost our voices. On the drive home, as my exhausted daughter slept, I couldn’t help but think about the fact that I had really attended two worship services that day.
The question I was asking myself was, “Which one was I most passionate about?”
If football isn’t your thing, think about the many, varied forms of entertainment that infiltrate and sometimes dictate our daily lives. Do you arrange your schedule so you catch the new Modern Family? Is a smart phone data plan a non-negotiable in the budget, so you’re constantly connected to your “friends” on Facebook?
What does your family spend the most time doing together? Watching television? Playing video games? Are you that family that doesn’t mutter a word at the dinner table because you’re texting, playing Angry Birds or tweeting pictures of your food?
How is this surrogate religion of entertainment affecting Americans as a whole?
For starters, nearly one in 10 kids between the ages of eight and 18 could be classified as clinically addicted to video games. A 15-year-old video game addict is described as displaying “all the characteristics of a heroin addict. You haven’t got someone putting a needle in their arm and having a high, but you’ve got all the telltale collateral damage of a heroin addict: withdrawal from his family, withdrawal from his friends, lies to cover his addiction.”
When it comes to Facebook, we spend an average of eight hours per month on the site. According to a recently released study, 36.9 percent of Facebook users feel worse after visiting the site. Some of the emotions felt included boredom, anger, frustration, guilt, sadness and loneliness and envy. Why are we spending so much time on a site that produces negative results?
The average American watches more than four and a half hours of television every day. In the average U.S. home, the set is on for more than eight hours and it offers more than 100 channels. For that amount of time, with that many channels, one is bound to find something to keep themselves amused.
The word amusement actually comes from the world of worship. Amusement has as its root the word muse. The Muses were the female Greek gods who were said to inspire great writing, science and artistic achievement. They were gods of reflection. When we add the a as a prefix, it brings in the idea of “lacking.” So amusement is the lack of inspiration, the lack of reflection.
Often, we seek amusement because we don’t want to think. Instead of inspiring our bored and apathetic existence, the idol of entertainment makes us even more that way. Instead of being entertained, we increasingly become the opposite—bored.
With the granddaddy of all awards shows coming up at the end of this month, The Walking Dead video game releasing in March, and our smart phones ever connected to our hips, I think it’s time we all evaluate our relationships with the idol of entertainment.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-entertainment. I’m just wondering if we’ve gone from watching it to worshiping it.
Kyle Idleman is the teaching pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., and the author of “Gods at War: Defeating the Idols that Battle for Your Heart (Zondervan, Feb. 2013).”