R.J. Snell: Boredom and the Cultural Mandates


Best known as a novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa has recently offered in English translation his sobering Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society. In his understanding, genuine culture is disappearing, replaced by an “entertainment culture,” while the “intellectual, artistic and literary activities that were once at the heart of culture” are “now dead … without any influence on the mainstream.”

Entertainment culture, the “civilization of the spectacle” places enormous value on “escaping boredom,” although it does so by transposing the usual desire for enjoyment into an “anti-culture” with widespread frivolity, banality, and vulgarity. “Not being bored,” while “avoiding anything that might be disturbing, worrying or distressing” has become “a generational mandate”—that is, the easy diversions of mass culture are now considered obligatory, required for the good life.

A similar impulse was apparent in the student protests at American universities this past fall. Recall, for instance, one Yale student’s claim that a professor’s task was not intellectual engagement, or free inquiry, but has a “job to create a place of comfort and home.” Or, again, the infantilizing of students given so-called safe spaces “equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies.”

Of course, it’s easy to find anecdotes such as these, and they may be unfair or selective; yet, it remains the case that an easy decadence of comfort, ease, and entertainment has inserted itself into virtually every aspect of our society.

Including, unfortunately, religion.

In my book, Acedia and Its Discontents (Angelico Press), I explore the early chapters of Genesis, along with John Paul II’s encyclical, Laborem Exercens, to argue that all humans are given four cultural mandates by God—to work, keep, fill, and govern the world as God’s stewards on earth. Or, to put it another way, God, as a wise king, gives his servants (us) the task of filling his temple with good cultural work, which will adorn his temple forever. As such, we should approach even the smallest cultural task as if the fruit of our labor will be used by God for eternity. Each of us, whatever form our work takes, labor to make God’s good creation even more beautiful, elegant, and well-furnished than it was when he rested on the seventh day. God does not ask us to maintain the earth in the same condition in which he gave it to us, but to improve it—to work, keep, fill, and govern it.

But too many Christians approach religion like pietists, as if religion does not go beyond their inner subjective life. Of course, sound Christianity certainly does involve our thoughts and emotions and interior dispositions, but it is not to end there, and such should never be thought of Catholicism, which is a fleshly, worldly, encultured faith of song and dance, painting and sculpture, monastery and convent, parish and neighborhood, food and drink, family and children, sacramental and sacraments.

Still, all too often contemporary Catholic life resembles pietistic Protestant life, concerned with my salvation, my soul, my virtues—and, alas, so often the virtues of private inner dispositions. This is a safe, bourgeois, religion of inner comfort, well-being, and subjective consolation.

Or, in the words of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, it is not Catholicism so much as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Such a “faith,” however, is really about our own comfort. Perhaps explaining why it seeks so often to entertain rather than challenge, stupefy rather than awaken, ease rather than prod, and why its cultural manifestations are so often frivolous, banal, and vulgar.

So many of us bemoan the lack of vitality surrounding so much of contemporary Christian life. But until we wish to be saints, and until we understand that sainthood always involves a concern beyond our own comfort, turning instead to our priestly call to labor for the sake of the entire cosmos, we will have more of the same. Once we turn, however, we can anticipate welcoming a renewal of Christian arts and letters, poetry and music, architecture, missions, schooling, and good work.

But not without such a turn; until then, we’ll simply seek to avoid boredom. Which is not remotely enough to satisfy our heart’s deepest longing.

Copyright 2016 R. J. Snell

“Iphones” by Jessica Gale (2014) via Morguefile

R.J. Snell is author of Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire.

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