February 7 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

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Praying for a break from bread and circuses

On super Bowl Sunday Brandon McGiney finds sport is no substitute for time with God as he sends his monthly letter from America

I remember as a boy learning about the Roman concept of ‘panem et circenses’: bread and circuses. I was impressed by the cynicism of the authorities, buying off the people with free food and entertainment.

But more than that I was appalled at how easily the people let themselves be bought off; it appeared to me that the citizens of 2,000 years ago were a lot more easily duped than we are today.

You might already be chuckling.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to see our own bread and circuses in the amusements that keep us distracted—in fact it takes a lot of imagination not to see it. Maybe we could call it ‘smartphones and sports’ or ‘Fortnite and football.’

I’ve done some extra travelling this winter, including during the evening of the American national football league final, the Super Bowl. On planes and in airports it’s always the same: everyone has their faces in their phones. Stealing a glance now and again, I was surprised by how often it wasn’t even social media or email—some kind of communication with other human beings, even if banal—holding people’s attention, but mindless games.

 

Everyone’s problem

But this isn’t an ‘everybody else’ problem. Inspired by friends’ efforts to make better use of their time, I’ve been trying to get a handle on my own screen time. The data was alarming: I activate my phone several dozen times a day, and the screen is on for several hours a day.

The fact that the actual number of hours is so surprising is testament to how mindless our usage is. Sure, some of this screen time is passive—things such as maps and directions, or just the downtime before it shuts off—but much of it is very much my own glazed-over eyes looking at dozens and dozens of tweets, deriving little more than momentary amusement from the process.

That word, amusement, is very important to understanding what’s going on here.

Today, to be amused is to be entertained, and it’s considered either a neutral or a genuinely positive part of life. But the word’s roots are in Latin and French, where its original meaning is startlingly descriptive: the base verb referred to ‘staring stupidly’ and the prefix implied causation.

 

Reason and reality

In other words, that which amused was that which caused someone to fixate mindlessly, to abandon reason and reality. Over time the word took on meanings closely related to bread and circuses: deception, delusion, distraction. Amusements weren’t morally neutral fun, but corrupt preoccupations, even means of control.

The 17th century French polymath Blaise Pascal developed an entire theory of amusements, which he called ‘divertissements.’ For Pascal, amusements served an important purpose by distracting the people from the dreary meaninglessness of their lives, keeping them from despair or worse. But Pascal was also (intermittently) a Catholic theologian, and so he also argued there was a higher way of overcoming that creeping despair: contemplation of and communion with the living God.

Mindless amusements, whether in the ancient Rome of the poet Juvenal, who is said to have coined the phrase ‘bread and circuses,’ or in 17th-century France, or even in modern US airports, are both symptoms and causes of spiritual emptiness.

 

Peacefulness

We use them to fill our time and our minds when we can’t imagine doing anything more worthy, like prayer or spiritual reading. And in turn they crowd out God and the more elevated, more peaceful way of being to which He calls us.

A friend once told me a story about riding a bus in rural Syria, long before the current civil war there. On the television was an exemplar of American culture, Britney Spears ‘dancing in her underwear’—not unlike the half-time show at America’s Super Bowl this year.

In the seats were devout Muslim men and women, one reading the Koran, another rocking in prayer, and so on. They didn’t allow themselves to be amused by entertainment that was, well, not amusing.

 

Distraction

We can learn from their devotion; I know I can. How much of our Candy Crush time could be prayer time? How much of our Twitter time could be Scripture time—maybe even right on our phones, if all the other apps aren’t too distracting? How much of our football time could be time with friends talking about the spiritual life—maybe, perhaps, at the same time?

There is a place for diversions, and for thoughtful participation in our popular culture. But that place should be limited; it should not become the default.

Turning instead to the Lord in moments of boredom is one of the most radical spiritual practices we can all adopt.

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