With a history spanning several hundred years, the Roman Empire was one of the most powerful empires in the history of humankind. In the First Century, Augustus became its first emperor and ruled from 31 BC to 14 AD. He is credited with helping achieve 40 years of internal peace and prosperity in the Empire. To keep the working class appeased, he offered free grain and controlled food prices. He also offered free entertainment in form of chariot races and gladiators in the amphitheaters. To his credit, Augustus was smart. He knew one thing. If he could just keep the people fed and entertained, he could remain in power. In offering these two benefits to his citizens, he’d keep them at bay. No complaint. No insurrections. Roman satirist, Juvenal, called it the panem et circensas, Latin for “bread and circus”. Of the phenomenon he writes, “everything now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”
The people were content. Their bellies were full and their minds were occupied. Forget the social ills going on around them. Forget the spiritual depravity at every turn. Keep them full. Keep them occupied.
If Christians aren’t careful, we can find ourselves caught in the same cycle. Our bread takes on a different form these days. Culture offers us so many enticing things for our consumption. We salivate over the next release from the land of Apple. Our RSS “feed” replaces our morning devotional—making sure we check out Concrete Jungle and Necole Ricthie (with a “B”) so we remain culturally relevant. After all, it was theologian Karl Barth who said he kept his Bible in one hand and newspaper in the other, right?
Our culture is reflective of the bread aisle at our local grocery store. There are so many options that it’s not a matter of if you’ll consume, but what you’ll consume. Trust me, I’m not here to be a killjoy. I’m typing this post on one of those Apple products I just attempted to trivialize. When it comes to cultural bread, we have to make sure we don’t mistake snacks for the main course. We need to ask ourselves the tough questions: Will this bring God glory? If so, how? Am I finding my joy in this thing? If so, what does that say about God?
Need I even talk about the circus? Is it just me or is it open season for “Christian” reality television shows? Media producers must sit in their boardrooms and say, Let’s get the most outrageous, ridiculous, non-Gospel centered folks to tell the world what Christianity is all about. Then they pitch the concept to the masses. We might complain initially. But we watch the train wrecks. We tweet about them. We hashtag them. And we do nothing. We show up at today’s amphitheaters—better known as Facebook and Twitter—and become spectators with everyone else.
And if we aren’t careful, we’ll find ourselves being pulled in the wrong direction. Anticipating a reality show more than we anticipate spending time with Jesus. Our Bibles collect dust while we’re away—attending the circus. The unfortunate thing is that many of the shows get pretty good ratings to start. They are the newest attraction. The next best thing. And we flock to them. And many people continue to ride that train, seeing it through to the end. I’d be afraid to inquire about the Bible reading plan those same people started at the beginning of this year. The reason this circus phenomenon continues to trend in Christendom: The circus is free, following Christ costs our lives. It’s not enough to watch and complain. Do we weep over the thousands of souls being misled by a false Gospel? Do we engage others with the truth of the Gospel to help recalibrate their thinking? Trust me. Sitting in the nosebleeds isn’t any better than sitting front row when it comes to the circus. The truth is: You’re still in the house.
True Fulfillment and Joy
The Gospel writers record two instances where Jesus feeds numerous thousands with a few loaves of bread and a some fish. Immediately after one of the accounts in John’s Gospel, Jesus utters one of his famous I AM statements: I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me shall not hunger (see John 6:35). He’s right in the middle of the Roman Empire declaring loudly, Let go of the bread and circus! It doesn’t bring you life. I’m the true bread. But I didn’t come to enslave you like Augustus. I’ve come to set you free. Sounds like a sweet deal, right? Until they realized that coming to Him means dying (see Mark 8:35). Until Jesus started talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. After that, many turned back and no longer followed him (see John 6:66). They want a Jesus will just serve as a replacement Caesar, giving them what they want. A Jesus who can—dare I say—give them their best life now. But that’s not the purpose of the Bread of Life. Encountering Jesus brings God glory. It’s not about us. He’s not interested in our best life now, but He is interested in His glory. The First Westminster Cathecism sums it up beautifully: What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
Living in a culture that thrives on entertainment is difficult for believers who want to live that out every day. I offer some wise words from Trevin Wax (taken from his work, Holy Subversion):
There are three main ways that we as Christians can subvert leisure and entertainment. First, we must think seriously about the choices we make regarding our free time. Next, we must purposefully structure our free time in a way that glorifies God. Finally, we must turn our focus away from the things that entertain us to the people that God has entrusted to us.
I’m taking those words to heart and continuing to find ways to structure my free time in ways that glorify God. I pray that we all do the same.