An antidote to mental laziness

I mentioned earlier that I really enjoyed Leland Ryken’s Culture in Christian Perspective. I could easily post a quotation from each page or outline each chapter, but I’m restraining myself. Instead of overloading with posts, I’ll share one of the most challenging passages of the book: Christians and the pursuit of leisure. I’ll outline his thoughts while offering some of my own reflection.

Leisure is a good thing, and is a worthy pursuit. It is good because it follows God’s example of resting after the work of creation. In this regard, leisure isn’t just “vegging out,” as it is commonly thought of, but it involves the mind and soul along with the body. God contemplated the work that He did, and declared it good. Thus, “leisure is a mental and spiritual attitude, not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend, or a vacation.” Instead, it is primarily “an attitude of the mind, a condition of the soul. Leisure is an attitude of contemplative celebration.” (J.Pieper, quoted on p. 91, emphasis mine). That is, leisure isn’t free time, but it’s done in free time, and is not a passive activity.

Ryken laments that one of the great problems of our day is that we don’t know how to enrich ourselves during leisure time. The arts is one way that people can do so. He is not an elitist advocating for museum or performance hall trips every spare minute, but he does challenge the reader to examine where their free time goes. If most of it is spent doing mindless, non-enriching things, something is very wrong. This cultural malaise is evident in people’s “boredom, endless search for distraction, fear of loneliness, sensuality, escape into comedy, violence, and the appeal of horror.” I identified especially by the beginning of that list, while others may struggle with the latter ones.

It is here where Ryken resonated with the media ecologist in me. He cites some statistics about television viewing and the dearth of reading while explaining that television is one of the most passive forms of leisure, rivaled only by sleeping. He backs up these assertions with psychological studies. It’s literally a mindless activity. I would love to see updated statistics on television viewing, as well as computer use. I know that surfing the Internet is up there on the mindless chart as well. Ryken’s point is simple but challenging: because leisure is a state of body, mind, and soul, people spend their free time on what matters most to them. His quotation of Robert Lee is insightful (if slightly overstated):

Leisure is part of man’s ultimate concern. It is a crucial part of the very search for meaning in life, inasmuch as the social malaise of our time has been diagnosed as anxiety and boredom, alienation and meaninglessness. It is in the realm of free time that these conditions will be brought into bold relief, bringing man to the depths of despair or to the heights of ecstasy and creativity. Increasingly it is in our leisure time that either the meaningfulness or the pointlessness of life will be revealed.

A Christian view of leisure, then, should be one of necessity, enjoyment, and practice. Leisure should refresh and enrich us. It’s not something that we should fritter away, but we should strive to improve upon our leisure time, educating ourselves and learning from it. Ryken relates this point to our call as Christians to stewardship, which includes being stewards of our time. Being stewards isn’t always easy, and expanding our horizons in the arts and other leisure pursuits is a matter of education and, at times, hard work. I’ll close with Ryken reflecting on the law of atrophy as a challenge to us (me) to redeem our free time better: “Left to ourselves, the law of mental laziness takes its course and our horizons remain rather narrow. The reclamation of our leisure pursuits, therefore, will have to begin with our willingness to learn about new areas, including artistic ones.”

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