Article

Three ways the Church is a spectacle in the Media Age

May 20, 2019

A brilliant photograph on Instagram, an eye-catching billboard along the interstate, an ambitious landscape inside a new adventure video game, a magazine centerfold, a witty commercial, a music video, an ever expanding television series, a hot blockbuster movie, a sports clip of an athlete’s glory (or injury), a viral GIF on social media—we live in the age of the spectacle. Multiple spectacles. Millions of digital spectacles vying for our time, our attention, our love, our wallets, our outrage, and our votes.

But as she follows Christ, the church is unveiled, changed, and progressively made more beautiful. And she herself becomes a spectacle to the world.

Exploited Spectacles

Christians in the earliest Roman churches were branded as scum. Society hated them for the simple reason that Christians resisted the massive industry of pagan idolatry. Idolatry was the power plant of the entire spectacle-spawning industry, spectacles that became “the very things Romans saw as essential for integration into society.”[1] To resist the idols of ancient Rome was an open rebuke to the whole culture.[2]

This explains the hate projected at Christians by Nero, “the most flamboyantly theatrical of all Rome’s emperors,”[3] who exploited his notorious spectacles for political capital. Christians will never forget one tyrannical example after a nine-day fire that ravaged Rome in the summer of 64. The emperor was so mentally unstable that swirling rumors in Rome suggested that Nero himself instigated the fires. To rebuff the accusation, Nero pinned the blame on Christians, made them his scapegoat, and unleashed his vengeance on them throughout the empire. His retribution was spectacular.

Under Roman rule, crimes against the state were met with like punishments, and the condemned were cast into a theatrical role before a gawking audience. For example, a fake king was given a crown of thorns and crucified naked, mocked and derided by his fake subjects.[4] In this case, Nero called for the Christian “arsonists” to be sacrificed to the gods through fire (crematio) and burned at a privately hosted spectacle (a spectaculum, as it was called), to light Nero’s garden at night.[5]

Even today Christians are made a spectacle in three ways.

A Spectacle of Scorn

First, the church is a spectacle of scorn to this world. Reminiscent of Nero, John Bunyan’s famous pilgrims were beaten, covered in mud, thrown into a cage in Vanity Fair, and “made the objects of any man’s sport, or malice, or revenge.”[6] They were made a spectacle of trash to entertain the city: rejected, mistreated, and slandered. Our otherworldly focus confuses the world. Our focus on the Spectacle of Christ rebukes the worldly. As a result, the church is “sometimes . . . publicly exposed to reproach and affliction” (Heb. 10:33). Being exposed to public ridicule of onlookers, we are “made a spectacle” by the Neros of the world. To preach Christ is to evoke spiritual and human opposition in this world, something like having the Colosseum's wild animals unleashed on you (1 Cor. 15:32).

Or in the testimony of the apostle Paul: “For it seems to me God has made us apostles the last act in the show, like men condemned to death in the arena, a spectacle to the whole universe—to angels as well as men” (1 Cor. 4:9).[7]

The apostles were like a capstone spectacle in the arena, the supreme sacrifice to satisfy the bloodlust of the world. In their weakness, pain, and suffering, they become to this world just another form of public theater” (θέατρον).

In reality, martyrs embraced their deaths with less drama. Historians believe that early Christian martyrs slaughtered before throngs in the Colosseum welcomed death to the degree that it made their killings rather boring in comparison to the deplorables who begged for mercy and were shown none, or, more spectacularly, who fought with zest and zeal to defend their lives, in vain.[8] Christian composure in the face of death meant that the martyrs publicly rejected both the role of victor and the role of defeated foe—fearless in the face of death, they stood before the mobs and subverted the whole spectacle-making industry of Rome.[9] Nevertheless, Christians were killed to satisfy bloodthirsty spectators. Historians believe that Nero had the apostle Paul beheaded in Rome during this post-fire rage against Christianity, doubtlessly staging Paul’s death as a bloody spectacle of its own.

A Spectacle of Victory

Second, the church is a divine spectacle of God’s victory over evil. Matched to the multi-million dollar CGI spectacles of Hollywood, the church’s interior spectacles seem dull. But they are beautiful and profound. Each week the local church reenacts the same things—Bible preaching, the Lord’s Table, water baptism—all of them faith-based, repeated, microspectacles (unlike the sight-based and unrepeated, expiring spectacles of the world). These church ordinances are weighted with cosmic influence.

In Colossians and Ephesians, Paul is careful to show how the gospel-driven love and unity of local churches is a spectacle of the victory of Christ to the powers and principalities who seek to destroy God’s created order. The church is the perpetual resistance movement. And from generation to generation, she displays a spectacle of God’s victory to his cosmic foes, repeatedly striking those enemies with déjà vu of their defeat at the cross.

A Spectacle for Heaven

Third, the church is a divine spectacle for heaven. Paul often used the metaphor of the athlete to depict Christian diligence and gospel ministry (1 Cor. 9:24–27; Col. 1:28–29.) Indeed, the church is a spiritual athletic association, competing before the audience of angels and faithful saints (Heb. 12:1–2). All those past saints, who made it through this world with their faith intact, are watching and cheering us home. In spite of the relentless bombardment of spectacles that seek to dominate our attention and define our identity, we gather on the Lord’s Day, a diverse cast brought together by divine grace, actors of the true drama of the ages.

Despite the loud theatrical trailers of the world’s spectacle-making machines, the church is the true dramaturgy of the ages. God has authored the weakness of his people on purpose, to highlight the power of his gospel. And in this weakness, the world thinks that they see something quite different from what is really being enacted. When the final curtain drops on world history, the world will have missed the whole point. The world watches the slandered church as something of a vain curiosity, but in reality the church is a spectacle of her own—a large cast collectively playing the starring role as bride in the human drama for which all of creation was made as a theater to display.

Content taken from Competing Spectacles by Tony Reinke, ©2019. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.

Notes

  1. ^ Donald G. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (Abingdon-on-Thames, UK: Routledge, 1998), 245.
  2. ^ Donald G. Kyle, Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2015), 332.
  3. ^ Richard C. Beacham, Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 200.
  4. ^ Matt. 26:66–68; 27:26–44; Mark 15:15–32; Luke 22:63–65; 23:6–11; John 19:1–5.
  5. ^ Beacham, Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome, 222–23.
  6. ^ John Bunyan, The Works of John Bunyan (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1854), 3:128.
  7. ^ Revised English Bible (Oxford, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  8. ^ The martyrs’ compliance in their own deaths and their defiance of authority infuriated spectators. After some initial novelty value, and even with costumes and spectacular forms of death, Christians provided a rather poor show. They were not skillful performers like gladiators, so they received no hope or privileges. Their use is best explained by Roman hatred or religious anxiety, as punitive executions or propitiatory sacrifices, not by their entertainment value.” Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome, 248. See also Kyle, Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, 334.
  9. ^ Peter J. Leithart, “Witness unto Death,” firstthings.com, January 2013.

Tony Reinke

Tony Reinke is an author and senior writer for DesiringGod.org and the host of the popular "Ask Pastor John" podcast with John Piper. Read More