Book Review: ‘Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age’ by Tony Reinke

Review by John Thomas. John Thomas is a cross-cultural Christian worker living and serving in ministry in Central Asia with his wife and their two children. He writes regularly at medium.com/soli-deo-gloria. You can follow him on Twitter @John_Thomas518.

According to research released last summer by The Nielsen Company, American adults spend an average of 11 hours, or almost half of each day, consuming some form of media. From the moment we wake up (and instinctively check our phones), through our daily commutes (with radios or podcasts humming in the background), to the end of the day (when we binge on Netflix), we live those statistics day in and day out. According to Nielsen’s numbers, we spend more time consuming media than eating, sleeping, or any other activity.

With so much of our lives revolving around media consumption, it behooves us to develop what Tony Reinke, in his new book Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age, calls “a theology of visual culture.” Reinke, a senior writer for Desiring God and author of another tech-focused book (12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You), has emerged as a prophetic voice, one crying out in our digital wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” In Competing Spectacles, he asks an urgent question: “In this age of spectacles … how do we spiritually thrive?”

Aching to Be Awed

Reinke’s answer forms the basis of his book, which works anecdotally through various forms of spectacle that are common today. He proves a skillful cultural exegete, making observations about everyday spectacles and spectacle-makers that few of us have the eye to catch.

For Reinke, a spectacle is “a moment of time, of varying length, in which collective gaze is fixed on some specific image, event, or moment. A spectacle is something that captures human attention.” He gives particular attention to the spectacles generated by social media, politics, television, and pornography, among others. Along the way, he opens fascinating windows onto our culture’s addiction to spectacle, such as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’s claim that his company’s biggest competitor is sleep. From Scripture, too, Reinke draws thought-provoking examples, including the story of David on the rooftop watching Bathsheba. This, Reinke states, “is a prototype for all digital pornography: a woman before the eyes of an unseen man.”

None of this means, however, that spectacle is inherently bad. As Reinke observes, human beings are “hardwired with an unquenchable appetite to see glory.” The problem with spectacles, then, is not that we crave them but that we look for glory in all the wrong places. Reinke cites a tweet from John Piper that expresses this reality well: “The world aches to be awed. That ache was made for God. The world seeks it mainly through movies.”

The week I read Competing Spectacles coincided with the release of Avengers: Endgame, the movie spectacle of the decade. Endgame shattered box office records, hauling in $357 million during its opening weekend in the US and capturing another $500 million in its first week and a half in China. It inspired more tweets than any movie before, surpassing Black Panther. In an odd but telling story, a South Korean soldier reportedly went AWOL in order to catch a screening. These metrics seem to confirm Reinke’s hypothesis, that in our quest to quench our thirst for glory, we are quicker to turn to the empty cistern of Hollywood than to the fountain of living water found in Christ.

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Source: Christianity Today