Posted by: Philip Rushton | September 7, 2010

Cheating at Trivial Pursuit Helped My Spiritual Life

“Feed him on minor poets and fifth rate novelists.”
– Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood in, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

I grew up in a Scrabble family but married into a Trivial Pursuit family. As such, there are three or four times a year when I am forced to expose my ignorance at Trivial Pursuit in front of my in-laws. Julie tries to put a positive spin on it. She’ll tell me that my lack of skill simply proves that my mind is not trivial. But I know she’s just saying that!

So in order to remedy my regular embarrassment with the in-laws, I’ve come up with two solutions. First, I suggest that we play boys against girls. This allows me to team up with the great trivia patriarch Dale, and simply pretend to contemplate his wise suggestions and give my approval. Second, when we are visiting Julie’s family I secretly read through the game cards when nobody is around, in hopes of memorizing as many answers as possible.

Anyway, as I was browsing through the trivial pursuit cards recently, I came across the following question: “In 1961, who famously said, ‘Television is a vast wasteland?”‘ Answer: FCC Chairman Newton M. Minnow.

At first, I was focused on trying to figure out a way to store this piece of information in my head. I was probably making some obscure connection between newts and minnows living in a wasteland. But it soon dawned on me that this quote was extremely enlightening for those of us reading it 50 years later. If the chairman of the communications counsel was calling television a ‘vast wasteland’ in the 60’s, then what would he say of it now? If his idea of a wasteland included shows like “I Love Lucy,” and “Sing Along With Mitch,” then what would he have thought of shows like “Jersey Shore,” or the other MTV ‘reality’ trash that celebrates and models human depravity?

I know that most of us recognize the problems with modern television. I do not simply want to reiterate the well established cliche that T.V. is bad for us. What I do want to consider is the way that our media-saturated lifestyles impede our spiritual formation. One of my professors told me once that as educators we can not simply offer people good content, we also have to help people absorb and contain the content. We could come up with the best sermon, or the best Sunday School curriculum, but if the people in attendance are unable to think critically, or pay attention for more than five minutes, then it is useless. The problem with being addicted to mindless entertainment is that it shapes us into people who cannot receive deeper truths. We become shallow containers that are trying to receive a ‘spring of living water.’

In many ways this ought to be read as more of a confession than a sermon. I am not immune from the negative influence of T.V. I look forward to “House” on Monday nights and “The Office” on Thursdays. So what do we do about this? How ought we navigate through this “vast wasteland” that inhabits the center of our living rooms? Should we simply get rid of it altogether?


  1. We have Jersey Shore but they had Dobie Gillis. 🙂 (confession: I’ve seen every episode of Season 1 of Jersey Shore)

    Do you think people are unable to receive deeper truths because of shorter attention spans or we are just doing it in a different method than in the past? A picture is worth a thousand words. Can’t five minutes of video be worth 30 minutes of sermonizing?

    I feel like I get more out of Rob Bell’s 10 minute Nooma videos than I do out of 30 minutes of Gary Smalley sermons.

    BTW – If it comes up in Trivial Pursuit I Love Lucy was in the 50s not the 60s. 🙂

  2. I’m not letting you off the hook that easily! Let the Fischer – Rushton Socratic dialogue commence!

    I appreciate the Jersey Shore confession, now repent and turn away 🙂 (Not that I have a bias against reality tv or anything!)

    Attention spans are just one of the issues. And yes, I will say that our shorter attention spans do get in the way of many of the historic spiritual disciplines, because these require us to delay gratification and devote focused time toward God. We should not be speeding through prayer, meditation, study, and fasting in short 10 minute intervals. Sure we need to adapt our communication techniques and incorporate media, but that’s not the whole solution.

    But along with the attention span issue, there are also a number of other ways that modern television implicates our spiritual life negatively. I mentioned above that modern television can dull our ability to think critically and discern. Part of the problem with our immersion in some of these contemporary shows is that they do not teach us how to discern what is good and right. If our water cooler conversations are about who slept with who on the latest reality show, how are we learning to love like Christ loved?

    I think Paul says it best in Romans 12:2 “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

  3. Gasp!
    I’m shocked:

    1. That you cheat at T.P. That’s like allowing Proper Nouns in Scrabble; it just isn’t done.

    2. That you think Dad has the only good mind for trivia. I’ll have you know I beat him recently. By myself!

    Anyway, hope you can come down sometime soon! Maybe we’ll even get some Trivial Pursuit time in!

  4. Not ready to repent of Jersey Shore just yet. I take my role with youth ministry very seriously and feel it is important to keep up with pop culture to best reach teens. But you have a point and perhaps I’ll wear some electrodes when I watch it and when I start to actually care what Snookie and the Situation are doing I’ll give myself an electric shock as punishment!

    Love what you say about fasting and mediation. You’re right, those are things that need to be done slowly and not rushed through. Arrow prayers are okay occasionally but an arrow fast? Not a good idea (I did an arrow fast between lunch and afternoon snack!)

    Though at the same time the historic spiritual disciplines led to the Crusades, witch trials, church supported slavery, and indulgences. So are we really sure spirituality was better then?

    Your water cooler comment brings up a thought though. I think you agree community is an important part of Christian life. If so, can you really build community through constantly talking about deep subjects? Does every water cooler conversation have to be about the legitimacy of dispensationalism? Do you think Jesus didn’t talk with people at the wells about trivial things? I don’t know, it’s seems like He would have.

    To turn your question around, “If our water cooler conversations are about biblical hermeneutics then how are we reaching out to the unsaved or shallow?”

    I don’t know, something for me to ponder. Thx

  5. Hey Tonya,

    I should have added, “my only chance against the great trivia queen Tonya, is to align myself with Dale.”

    And in response to your shock – i know you read through the cards too! Don’t worry I put the ones I’ve read at the back (or do I, wah ha ha ha). Like I could even make a dent in the 100s of thousands of questions!

    Bruce, I’ll respond later – i’m at work 🙂

  6. So Bruce,

    You mean to say that you don’t find it helpful to have deep theological conversations around the water-cooler? Why just the other day i had a great conversation about the distinctions between Supralapsarianism and Infralapsarianism when I was at work! (ya right)

    No, of course there is a time and a place to remain at a surface level in our conversations. But does it have to be about really bad t.v. shows? Why does our everyday talk have to be about this fake ‘reality’ created on tv. Why not talk about what’s going on in our real reality. I sustained a 45 minute conversation with a drug addict at Lake Sacajawea a while back and it didn’t require me to affirm and enter into all the things his life was immersed with. At a fundamental level the guy was lonely and he wanted to talk to somebody about what was going on in life.

    Now to your argument about staying in touch with popular culture to reach teens. Being aware of what they are engaged with is important but does it mean we have to be fully engaged with it? Question: Do your conversations with teenagers about “Jersey Shore” potentially reinforce that it is fine for them to be watching it?

    I’ve found that I can connect really well with teenagers without having to talk about t.v. I actually make a point to make fun of some of the junk they watch and heckle them about it and it goes over fine. There is plenty of other non-deep things to talk about in the world besides “Jersey Shore.”

  7. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’ve ever had a discussion with kids (or anyone but you) about Jersey Shore. I only watched all the episodes because I kept waiting for the interesting part to happen, I mean there must be some reason it’s so popular, right? I don’t get it.

    But I don’t keep up on pop culture to discuss it with kids but to understand what they are saying. 🙂 And to give them advice on how appropriate or inappropriate something is. How would I know whether Jersey Shore is appropriate or not if I never watched it. Kids can tell fake and know if I’m telling them not to watch it because I heard it was bad or because I know it was bad.

    But to be honest, after seeing it I would much rather my kids watch Jersey Shore than most scripted TV. Though I’d never argue that it makes anyone more spiritual.

    But my question wasn’t about really bad TV shows specifically but more the pop culture in general. As Christians should we stay involved in “higher quality” pop culture or disdain it all as non-spiritually helpful? It’s a tough question for me.

  8. Thanks Bruce,

    Your question about engagement in pop culture is a good one. I think we can agree that there is some stuff we should avoid altogether. On the other hand, there are good movies out there and some decent television shows. Discernment is the key, and I think we need more of it.

    One thing that I’ve found helpful is to not watch tv but to watch a tv show. What I mean is that I am trying to be more intentional with television. I’m not just sitting down and flipping channels but I am choosing a program and watching it. (Plus we only have 4 fuzzy channels so channel surfing doesn’t really work anyway.)

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