This past week I came across an article highlighting a recent interview with Reed Hastings, the founder and CEO of the chill company known as Netflix. For those who have been taking a cultural nap with Rip Van Winkle, Netflix was founded with the goal to bring entertainment on demand to users with a subscription model. What began as shipping a specified number of DVDs to your home each month in iconic red envelopes is now becoming a streaming media giant. On phones, smart TVs, set top boxes, tablets, laptops and even old-school desktop PCs, Netflix is currently streaming a deep catalog of random television shows and movies to people in 190 countries. Its own in-house developed premium content has won numerous Emmy awards and the creative flow and talent that Netflix hires seems to be dropping one hit after another. Seriously, Stranger Things.
What struck me about the interview with Hastings was the closing quote which highlighted the focused mission of the company.
"Fundamentally we’re about eliminating loneliness and boredom" Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix. Source: Tech Radar
Here we have the stated, fundamental focus of a technologically forward, creative company that somewhat lays bare the soul of our civilization. What hills are the leaders and legions of Netflix employees charging up? Loneliness and boredom. To be quite honest we could not pick two better words to describe the state of our civilization. We are a people where love has grown cold and we have nothing to do. We are lonely and we are indeed bored and one of the major solutions to our existential crisis is to simply fire up Netflix and chill.
Our loneliness and boredom have been tackled by scholars over the years. Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and Putnam's Bowling Alone come to mind. These scholars acutely recognized our cultural dilemmas decades ago. Their prescience related to our fragmentation as a people and our lack of passion and purpose as a society continue to be relevant as various aspects of modern life continue to ebb away at our humanity. Perhaps watching more TV, perhaps better TV, will reconnect our communities and give us freedom from the onslaught of the mundane and the boring. Somehow that sentence itself leaves me feeling a bit empty.
As I begin, let me be up front for moment. I deeply enjoy some of the excellent story telling that is happening today. In his book Difficult Men, journalist Brett Martin has rightly highlighted our day as a new golden age for television. Netflix is a part of this recent TV revolution with their original programming drawing its fare share of critical acclaim. Even in this age of excellent, long-form story telling, we still need far more for our lives than great fiction and excellent TV productions. In other words, television, even better television, isn't enough to tackle these twin towers of our cultural condition. We need much more to address our loneliness and our boredom.
To address what Ravi Zacharias has called "the inner ache of loneliness" we will find great help along three lines: family, faith and friendship. It is no secret that the very idea of family has been fractured, redefined and discarded in our society. What is family? Whatever you want it to be even if that doesn't mean very much at all. The Scriptures give a different picture. We are formed in families and these are based upon covenanted love and union. Promises made and lived together before God and people in the marriage union forms homes where people may travel in intimate connection. Family is a gift of grace where people can find a place of belonging, a place of love and a place of human interconnection. Secondly, faith connects us deeply with a shared sense of worship, focus and mission. Our faith in the Lord, our common held values, beliefs, practices and identity connects us to a broader community where God is father and Christ is king. Third, loneliness cries out for friendship. To accept one another, to enjoy fellowship, similar interests and to appreciate one another as we tackle this life of difficulty is a gift. This trinity of family, faith and friendship actually have flowering and fulfillment for the follower of Jesus. In Jesus we are brought into a larger covenant family called the church. In Jesus we have this wonderful person who is the recipient of our worship and love. We have faith in him, we trust him and this gives us confidence in the storms of life under the sun. Finally, Jesus, the God-man, desires to call us his friends! Shocking and wonderful.
No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. John 15:15
Loneliness is a struggle for us all. Sin separates us from God and one another and leaves us feeling and thinking we are abandoned and alone. Into that loneliness comes someone greater than the Mad Men, the Games of Thrones and even the Stranger Things. Into our loneliness comes Jesus the God-man, exalted on the universal throne, who has promised to graciously give us all things! In relationship with Jesus and his family we are never alone and his promise is to never leave nor forsake his people (Hebrews 13:5). The poet and hymn writer Issac Watts powerfully expresses the truths of God forever with us:
Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.
Loneliness meet Jesus. Friend of sinners and hope of the world.
What of Boredom?
If anyone can quickly summarize and describe what it means to be bored they actually have a very creative mind. I've told all three of my children countless times that boredom is the product of a lack of creativity and a disengaged mind. Yet to define boredom is a bit of a creative task in itself. We all know what boredom is as we experience it. But to talk about it can become a bit more difficult. After thinking about this for a few days I tend to think of boredom as a soul paralyzed without purpose, mission and direction in the midst of many options as to what one could do. It is a passivity of life that leaves one unsatisfied. The dilemma of our culture is not that we have nothing to do, but that we have so many things which we could do. Should we watch this or that? Should we go here or there? Should we be with him, her? Zhe or zhem?
We seem to have more and more questions in our day and less and less answers. We all just know we should be "happy" (whatever that means) but we all know that we just seem bored. Who wants a life of contentment with having food, shelter and clothing? We need more in our culture. We always need more, but we don't know what we need or what we need it for.
If we might describe the western soul's conversation with its parents it might sound something like this:
- Soul: I'm bored!
- Parent: Well go do something.
- Soul: Do what?
- Parent: Whatever will make you happy.
- Soul: I don't know what that is.
- Parent: You have to figure it out but don't offend anyone or do anything wrong. Wrong as defined by "us" and that's always changing so figure it out, but not too much and don't share what you find with others if they find it offensive. Go to it! You are on your own!
- Soul: I'm bored.
Boredom is here to stay and we know it. So how do we face this constant banging of boredom? Netflix! Yes, it will help for a little while but then what? More Netflix! Netflix til we die! The problem here is that we die long before our bodies depart this earth. We die living a thousand stories with none of them being our own.
There is, however, something that knocks out boredom and infuses life with something far greater than just turning up the entertainment dials. There is nothing that addresses boredom like a sense of purpose and mission taking root in our lives. If we think for a moment what we have to live for, you might be surprised at how infused each day can be with a sense of wonder. Even now, I look at the things which are before me.
- A mission to love my wife as Christ loved the church.
- A mission to father my children with grace, love, truth and purpose to bring them up to know God and make him known.
- A mission to follow Jesus in his work; to love and serve and seek and save people through the gospel.
- A mission to see all of life as important and purposeful and the hand of the One who made all things.
- A mission to see our vocations, jobs and duties as part of God's plan to shape my life and transform me to be more like Jesus and a means by which he blesses others. Yes, even the jobs we don't really like!
A belief in God is not just wishful thinking or simply a work of the imagination. Belief in God tells us that everything has a purpose under the sun and that there is a season for everything under heaven. There is even a purpose for boredom as it gives us a push to examine our lives, our loves and our motivations. And beyond mere theism, a Christian understands that Jesus is leading all of life to be lived in light of who God is and what his purposes are for humanity. Even knowing this allows us to participate in things like great narrative storytelling with new eyes and fresh affections. We can see that the friendships, mission, fears, hopes, heroes and demons in TV shows like Stranger Things are but mere pointers and shadows to even greater and more meaningful realities. Netflix can then be watched to the glory of God and not simply as a mind numbing diversion to take us out of our lonely stories and bored lives.