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Competing Spectacles, A Review

Over the last few weeks the country has been transfixed on the amazing run of the England football team in Euro 2020. I was initially put off watching the football after I saw the team shamefully bowing to BLM at the start of each game. But as the excitement has grown in the country, I have found myself irresistibly pulled to watch a few games in the tournament. The collective national gaze over England’s Euro 2020 is an example of what Tony  Reinke, the author of Competing Spectacles, calls a spectacle.  

A spectacle is something visible that captures our collective attention. It is that moment when society’s eyes and brains focus on something projected at us. This may be a big political story, a sports event, a new film or a badly behaved influencer. We primarily experience spectacles through technologies we use. I have been experiencing the spectacle of Euro 2020 through our television, but others have consumed it on the mobile or in person.  Most spectacles are consumed through handheld devices.

In Competing Spectacles, Tony Reinke argues that spectacles are irresistible because they provoke some desire within us to be part of something greater than ourselves. TV and handheld devices bring far-off things to our immediate vision. Through video, spatial separation dissolves, and far-off events and stories are brought for our participation. At the same time, the camera on our handheld devices enables us to sculpt and self-project ourselves to the world through social media. We become stars in our own spectacles.  

The problem is that our increasing and unrestricted consumption of spectacles impacts on our identity, community and relationship with God. As human beings we attend to what interests us and become what grabs our attention. Unfortunately, the images that we experience as spectacles are not substance. An image by definition is an object that makes space between appearance and substance. This means that the more we consume spectacles, the more we are shaped by appearance rather than substance, under the false pretence of experiencing reality. The result is that we increasingly find ourselves living inside our illusions. Our image driven spectacles become a landscape around us that reduces our experienced reality “to the parameters of the mass gaze, visual hopes and collective appetites”

This lost sense of who we are because of the lost sense of what it means to be inside the body God has assigned us, affects how we relate to the world around us. As we immerse ourselves in spectacles generated by images, we increasingly leave behind the hard edges of our embodied communal existence. The result is that our shape and definition in life is now increasingly image driven. We now live as if all the images driven spectacles broadcast into our eyes is life itself. And because we can live entirely inside the world of our images, we lose our place in the community. 

Our use of spectacles also affects how we relate to God. Our hearts are attracted to spectacles because we long to be part of something larger. The problem is that as we consume these spectacles, they in turn demand something in return from us e.g. time, attention, affection, votes, money. The result is that is that we may find ourselves offering our bodies as a living sacrifice to these idols of spectacles rather than God. In addition, the more we use spectacles the harder it becomes for us to disconnect from ungodly elements of our national culture in order to flourish in our intimacy with God. As Reinke notes, “the worst of our compulsive social media habits are filling our days and corroding our prayer lives”. Spectacles compete with God for our attention. 

This raises the urgent question: how do we, as followers of Jesus, thrive in this ecosystem of digital pictures and viral moments which compete for our attention? Should we resist spectacles or not? Are we even able to resist? 
According to Competing Spectacles, the Christian response starts with recognizing that the primary danger of spectacles is not the sparkling world out there but the sin within us. The challenge of images is that they always become substitutes for God. Images promise to make us complete. To break free from their idolatrous power, we need God to grab our head and turn our eyes from looking at empty things and fix our eyes on His eternal glory. Living for God in an age of spectacles is more than just avoiding corrupting things but embrace eternal things that truly bring meaning, purpose and joy into our lives. We are only able to live like this through by God giving us a new heart and enabling us to live through the power of God the Holy Spirit. 

Our responsibility is to resolve to surrender to God by dying to self. This means, on the negative side, guarding our hearts from spectacle driven sins means by denying ourselves the allure of worthless spectacles. A key part of guarding ourselves is to ensure that when we consume spectacles it is in the context of relationships. When we watch a spectacle with others, we help one another discern worthless spectacles. On the positive side, we need to discipline ourselves to focus on Christ the Supreme Spectacle. Reinke believes the biggest problem in the church today is boredom with Christ. Our battle in this media age can be won only by the “expulsive power of a superior Spectacle”. Christ is our safety and our guide in the age of competing spectacles. He is our only hope in life and death, in the age to come, and in this media age. 

I found Competing Spectacles, thought provoking in many places. In particular, it’s discussion of government policy (“the Spectacle of Terror) is quite interesting. Reinke righty notes that governments use images to shape public opinion. Visual images are essential to government policy because without such footage, alleged threat to public, physical or economic, remains invisible to the public. In that sense politicians and civil servants are prone to use public images to evoke fear and codify our most “imminent threats”. This has been powerfully demonstrated in the current Covid-19 pandemic. There is no doubt that governments around the world would have struggled to coerce the public in losing their freedoms if they were not shown those images of allegedly collapsing people in China and Italy. Indeed, in countries like the UK, where the news media is dominated by a public broadcaster, the State has been more effective in using the spectacle of Covid-19 to control the population than in nations where there is a more competitive media landscape (e.g. USA, Australia). 

Given the helpful discussion on government policy, it is puzzling that there is no discussion in Competing Spectacles on how forces opposed to Christianity are deploying spectacles in a militant way and how we as followers of Jesus should respond to that. Reinke singularly focuses on the church as a cultural consumer, ignoring the elephant in the room, that the biggest threat to the church now in the west is the weaponization of spectacles by enemies of Christ to undermine the church from within and without. For example, the current woke social justice movement exploitation of the horrific death of George Floyd.  Similarly, we have seen governments around the world use Covid-19 as pretext to shut down churches and restrict the spread of the Gospel, most prominently in Canada. 

It is unclear whether Reinke’s failure to discuss these issues is related to his political leanings. The chapter on politics was unbalanced, weak on sourcing, decidedly anti-Trump and careless in the use of language and in drawing conclusions. Another equally disappointing chapter is the discussion of the church and spectacles. Reinke rightly notes that the church is a producer of spectacles and that its use of such spectacles is valid only to the degree that it understands and celebrates the substance of the invisible Spectacle of Christ. If Christ’s splendour is not at the centre, “then the spectacles of attraction, however intended, reduce the church down to just another sideshow for the cheap gaze of entertainment seekers”. Sadly, given that one of the reasons we are drawn to spectacles is because the church engages in generating its own spectacles, the chapter needed to flesh out more clearly the case, if any, of using additional spectacles beyond those already set out in scripture (e.g. the ordinances). Are we not in danger of diverting from Bible-based spectacles by chasing our own spectacles in the name of reaching the lost? 

In terms of style, the book is readable. This is helped by short chapters though it does make the points repetitive in place. Indeed, it is unfortunate that one or two chapters are nothing more than book filling (e.g. A Day inside the Spectacle). The main stylistic problem is that the Reinke struggles to maintain a consistent envisioning of spectacles. The central issue of spectacles is not about images per se, but the story embedded in such an. Sadly, the discussion focuses a lot on the images themselves. The fact is that there many things can command a collective gaze of the public without a strong accompanying image e.g. a song, or political corruption story. 

All of that is to say, in general I found Competing Spectacles thought provoking, and it gave me a new language to think, talk and pray about what is going on in the world. However, it sadly lacks clarity, depth and objectivity in number of places. It is still worth reading, though it’s unlikely to be a book many will read more than once. 

Copyright © Chola Mukanga 2021


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