This article first appeared in the in the Postmodern Realities column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 3/4 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Being an older Millennial, I clearly remember life before the internet, life during the rise of the internet, and now life that has become not only accustomed to the internet, but so intricately woven with it that younger generations can’t possibly imagine living without it. The Internet Age has given us many good gifts, but it has also raised many unique challenges and raised them so rapidly that we more often feel as a culture as if we’re playing catch-up, rather than heading off potential pitfalls before they appear. One thing that has come about with the rise of the internet is the easy availability of instant gratification. We now can have virtually anything immediately that before we would have had to work or wait for: food, sex, information, entertainment. Although perhaps not often thought of as the most important thing on that list, the immediacy with which we now take in entertainment has led to a reworking of our expectations and a reordering of our desires. Our consumption of stories in the Internet Age says a lot about our virtue as individuals and as a culture.
Waiting has almost disappeared from the storytelling experience. Since the advent of streaming television, scriptwriters have begun crafting shows differently. No longer do commercial breaks have to be incorporated into a script for a show that will never pause. And when scriptwriters know that an entire series will drop to Netflix all at once, they will write episodes to reflect that — intending to draw viewers into binges where episodes don’t feel episodic, but rather like beats in a song, driving us onward like each pulse in “Eye of the Tiger.” But just as white space is important in a work of art and moments of silence are important in musical compositions, so breaks in storytelling also serve a purpose. For as much artistic license and creative expression streaming services have opened up for television studios and creators in recent years, I can’t help but wonder at the changes that have been wrought in us, the viewers, and wondering, too, at what we have lost as a result.
Have we lost the ability to embrace the joyful anticipation that waiting for the continuation of a good story builds in us? Have we so relegated storytelling to a lesser area of our lives that we’ve tricked ourselves into believing the sin of gluttony, and the virtue of self-control, don’t apply here?
Intentional Engagement in Serialized Stories
These days, there is very little that our pleasures demand of us that we have to wait to have fulfilled. In fact, people often scoff at the idea of delayed gratification — in entertainment as much as in other areas of life. Now that streaming television has given us the opportunity to consume whole stories beginning-to-end in a binge, having to wait on the next chapter, episode, or installment in a series has become more the exception than the norm.
Although immediate gratification in entertainment consumption is a product of our modern age, even today, we have great opportunities still to participate in serialized storytelling, in which waiting is part of the experience. A serialized story is any story broken up into parts for the purpose of being told as a whole. Most television shows, of course, end up being series, and many books are parts of series, but with the expansion in recent decades of some of the big cinematic universes into mega franchises and the emergence of storytelling via podcasting, we now have many more opportunities to participate in and experience serialized stories. With so many options, though, comes a choice of how to consume the stories: all at once — or in pieces and chapters so that waiting is part of the experience.
Intentional engagement in serialized stories — particularly those that are in process, or those that we do truly have to wait for — is good for our very souls. In a time and culture that grooms us to give in to our passions in every aspect, even to the point of defining our identities by them, serialized storytelling forces us to re-incorporate waiting as part of the story consumption experience. And waiting cultivates temperance — which is self-control — and self-control patience. Self-control and patience are most often quiet virtues, exercised in private for personal integrity. This is when they matter most to God. Our personal habits — no matter how small or insignificant they may seem — not only say much about our inner selves, but they direct the formation of our spiritual lives, as well. As the demon Screwtape tells Wormwood in The Screwtape Letters, “It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing.”1 How we engage with our stories does matter.
If we can have it all now, why would we wait? At heart, we are like children without parents telling us we can’t eat our entire basket of Halloween candy in one night. We know, intrinsically, that binging other things is bad for us; maybe we should pause and think about how binging entertainment might be bad for our character, as well. Bad for our moral development. For our culture as a whole. It might be time to take a step back and examine where, in our lives, we still cultivate the virtues of self-control and patience — and not just because it’s being forced on us. In serialized storytelling where episodes, seasons, movies, or books are not available to us right away, we have an opportunity to engage in stories that are not finished — but will be…someday — stories where waiting is built into the consumption experience, and the creators intend our experience to be richer for the wait. Creators of stories mean for them to be transformative. But they also mean for the way in which we consume art to be part of the experience. Although many stories have now been crafted for the “binge” effect, some others are still intended for us to take pause, reflect, let the stories breathe like good wine, and see how much the stories themselves grow the richer for the “white spaces” while we also grow richer in patience.
Gluttony and Temperance in a Binge-Culture World
Gluttony is an overconsumption of what are often things that are good, or even necessary, for us — an overindulgence in our passions. Temperance, by contrast, is an intentional control of our passions. As Christians, we must recognize that freedom in Christ means practicing the fruit of the Spirit. We are not feckless creatures, loosed like Huxleyan Brave New Worlders to indulge without control in soma and sex;2 but we are to practice restraint that — even if it should paint us as “savages” in the eyes of the world — will help us draw nearer to God, even if it is just in the seemingly small areas of what entertainment we consume and how we do so. As Paul writes, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24 ESV).
Binging is almost always a practice of gluttony, and when applied as our only means of consuming entertainment, it may turn us into fevered people impoverished for art that satisfies as only the good, the true, and the beautiful can. It disorders our desires, reverting us to childish impatience when instead we should be people who can enjoy our good passions without drowning in them. As participants in entertainment and culture, we do creators a service when we take the time to deeply appreciate their art. And in this waiting, there is a richness in anticipating what is coming, especially if we are hoping and trusting that what is coming is something good. In these aspects, we find an imitation of life itself, and the life eternal. As we take in each part of a serialized story, we can’t help but look ahead with hope and anticipation for later joy, resolution, catharsis, continuity, and, usually, an eventual good ending. In entering into a serial story, the audience surrenders control, submitting to a storyteller (or team of storytellers, depending on the medium) with trusting faith that the long journey will be worth it.
We do not need to be artistically fevered or impoverished people, since stories are a good thing given to us by a good God, but we should be aware of how our entertainment consumption impacts us. Binge culture runs deeper than how we watch our shows on Netflix. Likewise, we must start thinking deeper about how our entertainment consumption impacts our spiritual lives. Having rightly directed passions is a matter of the heart, and as Christians, we are often focused so much on what entertainment we consume that we don’t pause to think about how we consume it. Waiting for what we consume is, more and more, becoming a matter of choice now that so much is available to us instantaneously. Like the choice of what to watch, how to watch is not a morally neutral decision.
Remember that cultivating the fruit of the Spirit is not about following rules, but about being free from the law that binds and condemns. Building spaces of intentional pause into our choices of media consumption can help us practice temperance. Self-control, like patience, is not trivial — it is a resistance to the sin of gluttony that seeks to come upon us in the areas of our lives that seem the most private. Areas like our entertainment consumption. God created in us good passions, and He created time for our benefit, with all the pauses and seasons of waiting that come along with it, often for the cultivation of many virtues. Rather than always choosing stories that fill up every quiet space, why not choose to, at least every now and then, consume stories in a serialized way that imitate life as we live it? —K. B. Hoyle
K. B. Hoyle is a former classical educator, a columnist for Christ and Pop Culture, and an award-winning novelist. She lives in Alabama with her husband and four sons.
- C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast (New York: Macmillan, 1969) 56.
- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: HarperPerennial, 2006).