Competing Spectacles Book Review
Does it surprise you that more than 24,000 minutes of new user video is uploaded to YouTube every minute of every day? To view all the new video content uploaded in the next 58 hours, it would require an unbroken lifespan of 80 years to watch. These dizzying statistics testify to the avalanche of media content and electronic information that engulfs us in the digital age. In the book Competing Spectacles, author Tony Reinke poses the question, “In this ‘age of the spectacle’ (as it has been called)—in this ecosystem of digital pictures and fabricated sights and viral moments competing for our attention—how do we spiritually thrive?”1 Reinke, senior writer for Desiring God and author of five books, including the seminal work 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, intends this book to be a guide and helpful resource for Christians in need of a digital detox—those seeking to unplug from the digital world in order to reorder their priorities.
While undoubtedly a useful work for Christians wrestling with binge watching or digital time mismanagement, this book is equally valuable for its assessment of our present-day media-driven culture. Reinke writes from a well-articulated Christian worldview and explores important questions such as: How does our digital consumption, meaning what we watch, the online news we read, the social media we follow, impact us as followers of Christ? What are the consequences of our accumulated screen time on our attention, our volition, our empathy, and our identity?
Make no mistake, Competing Spectacles is not a rehash of his investigation into how smartphone usage changes us; rather, he devotes this work to presenting a broader analysis of how our culture lives and thinks according to a media-based epistemology, and how as Christians seeking to treasure Christ in an age filled with digital distractions, we need to cultivate clear biblical thinking about the culture surrounding us. To accomplish this, Reinke structures the content of this book into two sections: Part I introduces the reader to the age of the spectacle and the reigning spectacles of our world today; Part II focuses on the grandest spectacle of all history and time—the cross of Christ.
What Is A Spectacle?
The book opens by defining what 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, an instant when our eyes and brains focus and fixate on something projected at us.”2 In our present-day outrage culture, spectacles include scandals in sports, entertainment, or politics; can range from events as significant as a historic presidential election to an occurrence as insignificant as the latest viral video from a self-made YouTube millionaire; and finally, the Super Bowl is the supreme example of a multi-layered spectacle with its appeal to not only football fans but celebrities, musicians, advertisers, merchandizers, entertainers, and yes, the general public. Reinke asserts that spectacles are not neutral; they want something from us—our attention, our time, our affection, our money, and our capacity for awe.
Why do we seek spectacles? To answer this question, Reinke turns to why we exist in the first place. In Genesis, we learn that man was made in the image of God with a soul that will never die. As humans, we are designed to worship, we are hard-wired with a capacity for awe. Consequently, we will either worship the true and living God of the Bible or idols. So, in a culture filled with never-ending spectacles, how do we preserve our hearts and eyes from being distracted from that which matters most?
Interestingly enough, Reinke explores the subject of human attention to address this question. He quotes William Jones in The Principles of Psychology: human attention is “a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction.”3 We are creatures molded by what we give our attention to; hence, Reinke proposes, “We become what we watch.”4
Another proposition Reinke puts forth for consideration is in the digital age, “image is everything.” To trace the origin of this tagline, we have to jump in our time machine to travel back to the 80’s, when Las Vegas tennis player Andre Agassi splashed onto the scene in acid-washed jean shorts and heavy-metal, blonde-tinted hair. At 19 years of age, Agassi starred in a tv commercial promoting the Canon Rebel camera. In the ad, he steps out of a white Lamborghini, lowers his sunglasses, and delivers just three words, “Image—is everything.” The commercial became an overnight sensation going viral, but in his autobiography years later, Agassi shared his regret: “the slogan becomes synonymous with me. Sportswriters liken this slogan to my inner nature, my essential being. They say it’s my philosophy, my religion, and they predict it’s going to be my epitaph.”5
What was just a mere advertising jingle, became a cultural mantra that sportscasters, fans, and the general public associated with Agassi. The trite ad followed him like a shadow, diminishing his athletic goals and career accomplishments, and reduced him to something without substance, a shallow image. Reinke argues, “in the age of the spectacle, image is our identity, and our identity is unavoidably molded by our media.” With the ubiquity of social media, peoples’ realities become increasingly shaped by how they portray themselves online in images. Therefore, image becomes identity and reality.
But Reinke concedes that spectacles and all the distractions accompanying them aren’t anything new. The ancient Greeks loved their Olympic competitions, and the Romans diverted themselves with their gruesome gladiatorial fights. In fact, Roman politicians used these savage Colosseum match-ups to entertain and control the masses. Reinke highlights that through the ages Christians have written about the tensions and temptations which spectacles present. Early Church Father Tertullian devoted the work De Spectaculis to defining the idol of entertainment. Augustine addressed the same concerns in Confessions, chronicling the struggles of his noble-minded friend Alypius, who nearly destroyed his life with an addiction to the blood-sport of the gladiatorial games. And in the 1600’s, Puritans wrote profusely about the danger of unchecked viewership of the London stage plays.
Although ancient spectacles were just as alluring and enticing as the ones we have today, Reinke brings our attention to a significant difference between the macro-spectacles of the ancient Romans to our current spectacles—the ancient spectacles were geographically bound to a stationary location, the Colosseum. In contrast, the Christian today must navigate micro-spectacles which intrude into life moment-by-moment through the notifications, videos, images, and tweets of our mobile devices. The rise of media saturation into every conceivable nook and cranny of life has introduced a new form of competition with the Gospel for the human gaze. Reinke makes an important observation when he asserts that the discipline of prayer is assaulted when every rare and empty moment of silence is given to digital media rather than turning attention to God. Insights, such as this one, make this book a valuable read for Christians seeking to live to God’s glory in the media age.
The Grandest Spectacle
In Part II of Competing Spectacles, Reinke asserts the grandest spectacle ever devised by the mind of God and ever taken place in history is the death of Christ on the cross. To make this argument, Reinke explains that Rome designed crucifixion to be the most humiliating form of punishment, contrived to intimidate and subjugate the slave class. In crucifixion, the theatrics of public humiliation and the degradation/destruction of the human body was a spectacle that held people’s attention. The death of Christ on the cross was the ultimate of all crucifixions, and Reinke presents many compelling reasons for us to dwell on—Christ’s divinity, his innocence to every charge leveled against him, his submission to his Father’s will to became a curse for his people’s redemption, and the victory of his death over death itself. It is only by the Holy Spirit working faith in man’s heart that one can see the death of Christ as the pre-eminent and unparalleled spectacle in life.
Next, Reinke directs the Christian reader to combat the world’s allurements by studying how Paul preached Christ crucified in Colossians. From the five truths he identifies, I appreciated his summary of Colossians 3:12 - 4:6, which teaches that focusing on Christ equips us to embrace our daily responsibilities. To resist the world’s enticements, we do not need to withdraw from society or throw away our digital devices; rather, we must constantly renew our minds to Christ and his ways. Seeking him daily in the Word and private prayer enables us to fulfill our callings and to seek God’s glory and his Kingdom in all our earthly commitments to work, family, and neighbor.
In knowing Christ, the Christian finds the Bread of Life and the Living Water. The antithesis of pursuing Christ is worshipping idols. In “Chapter 26: The Spectator Before His Carving,” Reinke contends that the most worthless and most forbidden thing in Old Testament history is the idol. How many times did God subject his Old Testament people to war, pestilence, and famine because they erected altars for the Baals, made Asherim, and worshiped the host of heaven in carved images? Images have always been a common temptation for man to substitute God. Reinke notes that by our natural design, “the human heart bends toward what the eye sees,”6 and images illicit a response from us, just as idols do. Since God is rightfully jealous for his people’s exclusive worship, Reinke cautions that in a digital age, which offers endless image spectacles of wealth, sex, power, and popularity, Christians must discern what is worthless versus what is valuable.
A final thought I valued from Reinke is his challenge that “overconsuming on amusement drains our soul’s vigor.”7 Competing Spectacles is not a call to shut down movie theaters or to abolish the Internet; rather, it is an essential reminder to the follower of Christ to recognize what is worthless and to develop spiritual disciplines to live for Christ and not for vain spectacles. Chapters are short, averaging 2-6 pages in length, and the book, at 154 pages, is almost as pocket-sized as a smartphone. This was intentional, I believe, as the work is targeted to help Christians in need of digital detox. Reinke writes in the style of an investigative journalist, and this latest book of his is a welcome discourse, and hopefully, a catalyst for continued discussion in the Christian community for how we can treasure Christ in the digital age. It is available on Amazon.
1Tony Reinke, Competing Spectacles (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 13.
2Reinke, Competing Spectacles, 14.
3Reinke, Competing Spectacles, 18.
4Reinke, Competing Spectacles, 19.
5Andre Agassi, Open: An Autobiography (New York: Vintage, 2010), 131-132.
6Reinke, Competing Spectacles, 118.
7Reinke, Competing Spectacles, 123.