The show American Idol has reached a fevered pitch. It’s following is phenomenal. It is riding a wave of massive popularity in American popular culture. Indeed, it has international influence. This year’s season premiere had 82 million viewers!
America is feeding a voracious appetite for such a TV show in American culture. What entertains a culture is often an indicator of the moral condition of its people. For instance, think back to ancient Rome. Leisure and entertainment played a significant role in its culture. Among its entertainment were theater, the arts, and the killing of Christians. Tacitus, a non-Christian Roman historian recounts the status of Christians in Rome during Nero’s reign. In particular, he documents how Christians were used as scapegoats for the great fire in Rome in 64 AD:
Yet no human effort, no princely largess nor offerings to the gods could make that infamous rumor disappear that Nero had somehow ordered the fire. Therefore, in order to abolish that rumor, Nero falsely accused and executed with the most exquisite punishments those people called Christians, who were infamous for their abominations. The originator of the name, Christ, was executed as a criminal by the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius; and though repressed, this destructive superstition erupted again, not only through Judea, which was the origin of this evil, but also through the city of Rome, to which all that is horrible and shameful floods together and is celebrated. Therefore, first those were seized who admitted their faith, and then, using the information they provided, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much for the crime of burning the city, but for hatred of the human race. And perishing they were additionally made into sports: they were killed by dogs by having the hides of beasts attached to them, or they were nailed to crosses or set aflame, and, when the daylight passed away, they were used as nighttime lamps. Nero gave his own gardens for this spectacle and performed a Circus game, in the habit of a charioteer mixing with the plebs or driving about the race-course. Even though they were clearly guilty and merited being made the most recent example of the consequences of crime, people began to pity these sufferers, because they were consumed not for the public good but on account of the fierceness of one man.
Now, let me clearly say that I’m not likening America to Rome nor am I asserting that watching American Idol as the moral equivalent of killing Christians. However, what I am saying is that just as powerful and mighty as the Roman Empire was, it was also mighty in its depravity and its entertainment was indicative of this. So what does our entertainment say about 21st century America? I think our entertainment provides at least three insights into the status of American morality.
First, we are infatuated with death. If you think I’m off base with this observation, just walk into your local Best Buy and see what the hottest selling video games are.
Second, those who are held up highest often are the basest among us. One’s response to this one may be that this is a “holier-than-thou” statement. In one sense, I certainly hope this is true. Think of the recent death of Anna Nicole Smith. Her death was the cover story last Friday after her sudden death. The facts about her life is that she began as an exotic dancer in her early 20’s, she married a man 63 years her elder, gained prominence as a playmate, and finally died at age 39. Even posthumously, a paternity battle continues with three men in the mix. Virtue is not an adjective that can be used of Anna Nicole and yet her death made news in American culture. This should alarm us. These people are worshipped. This is popularity in American culture, it is idolatry in Christianity.
Third, the values that are set forth in the movies and TV shows we watch and therefore that are inculcated into the up and coming generation lead to a dismal view of the future of American morality. Adultery, deceit, fowl language. murder, rape, homosexuality, and many other vices that cannot be named are regularly present in our entertainment. Certainly we are discerning enough to discern between reality and a movie, aren’t we? One wonders why these vices become increasingly more prominent in society if this is indeed the case.
To many, these thoughts are simply the rantings of a Puritanical pastor. I should note that there are many who have over the last few decades observed the rapid decay of morality in American Culture who are not Pastors. From Robert Bork (Slouching Towards Gomorrah) to Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death) to Michael Medved (Hollywood Vs. America), these and others have expressed a similar concern over the last couple of decades. C.S. Lewis succinctly summarized the American appetite for entertainment: “Our passions are not too strong, they are too weak. We are far too easily pleased.” America has allowed itself to become morally desensitized skillfully by Hollywood, like a frog in a kettle. How easily pleased we truly have become.