As a new calendar year rolls around, so does a new liturgical year—certain seasons and days which will automatically be set apart as “sacred times” for the Christian. While less liturgical traditions may not recognize every item on the church calendar (such as the season of Lent or the day of Pentecost), nearly all churches recognize and celebrate Advent, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and Good Friday and Easter. While it can be tempting to take these times for granted (after all, they do happen every year), they actually serve a deep purpose by allowing (and, to some extent, forcing) us to realign our minds and hearts and focus on matters of true importance. These sacred periods set rhythms for the entire Church and become a part of our pattern of life. It’s vastly important to recognize sacred time in our lives, to value it, and to use the time purposefully.Strange as it may sound, instant-access, binge-watching Netflix culture can, in fact, enrich our lives.
Some traditions balk at the concept of any sort of sacred time, fearing that it elevates something as mundane as a season or day to a sort of idol. After all, churches have their highest rates of attendance on Christmas and Easter, when even people who don’t normally attend services feel compelled to go merely because of what day it is. If we allow the rituals of the liturgical year to take the place of real spiritual growth and focus on our faith only in those times that seem specially set apart for it, then we’re missing the whole point of what it means to live a Christian life in the day-to-day.
After all, we’re called to seek holiness and focus on God every day of our lives, not just the special days. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also consecrate those sacred times. For instance, we are called to remember Christ’s sacrifice every day (2 Tim. 2:8), but Jesus also gave us the concrete and physical sacrament of communion, which only occurs occasionally, as a special time of remembering His sacrifice (1 Corin. 11:24). God created us and knows us intimately, and helps us to grow by giving us sacred times—because of our human penchant towards distraction, we need repetitive patterns and reminders at times in order to stay focused.
Thus, we lose something when we lose the ritual of the liturgical calendar. Far from taking the place of truly living out our faith, the proper exercise of ritual can actually help us to live out our faith by giving us specific beats throughout the year at which to purposefully renew our minds.
How on earth, you might be wondering (having read the title of this piece) does sacred church tradition relate to Netflix? For most of us, Netflix (and any sort of television-watching, really) takes up a huge chunk of our day-to-day lives, and—like all things in life, even the smallest and most seemingly inconsequential—can either help us or hinder us in our quest for holiness. Television and church tradition are similar when it comes to their ability to create sacred time, odd as the concept may sound. Think of the early days of television, when shows would air at specific, set times, and people would rearrange their schedules in order to watch. These set times provided a way to rest and relax, giving people something to look forward to during the workweek. TV became a way of marking time and a part of the rhythm of life.
Like the seasons of the liturgical year when the entire Church focuses on specific biblical events or passages, these sacred periods of TV time drew entire families and nations together to experience the same story. Think of the series finale of MASH in 1983, which almost 106 million people watched, setting a record for most-watched television program (a record held for 27 years). People had been watching the show regularly for eleven seasons at that point, and its conclusion was a big deal. Everyone was watching the same story that night. Everyone was hosting parties and feeling nostalgic. And it all happened at the same time—because that was the only time people could watch.
Of course, this all changed when DVRs came into the picture in 1999 and people could record shows and watch them whenever they wanted. No longer did they have to make their schedules around the TV guide, but they could fit TV into their own schedules whenever it was convenient. And this changed even more drastically with the advent of Netflix streaming, which changed the very nature of television-watching itself. Now, whole seasons of virtually any show can be watched at any time—even shows that have been off the air for decades. Netflix creates its own shows, which it releases by the season rather than by the episode. This gave rise to the popular concept of binge-watching, when a viewer will pick a show and watch through as many seasons as possible in a short period of time, whether that means a single month, weekend, or even day (for the most determined viewers).
A lot of people find the now-omnipresent concept of binge-watching disturbing. After all, doesn’t it cheapen an entire show (something that writers, actors, producers, and the like, put years of work and thought into) to watch it in one sitting? And now that we can access these shows unthinkingly and effortlessly, won’t we fail to appreciate them as much as someone who waited to watch them as they were released, whether during the actual time slot when the show first aired or even from week-to-week on DVR? And further, doesn’t this type of watching seem to contribute to a sedentary lifestyle, filled with wasted time, perpetuating the caricature of the lazy American, watching TV all day?
These are all valid concerns. But while these are all potential negative side effects, they are not problems with the medium of binge-watching itself, but rather the way in which we approach the medium. Strange as it may sound, instant-access, binge-watching Netflix culture doesn’t necessarily need to cheapen our viewing experience and can, in fact, enrich our lives.You can absolutely use Netflix binge-watching as a way to realign and re-focus on what’s important in life.
As we enter the new year, most of us are filled with resolutions and excitement, giddy with the thought of all the things will accomplish in 2016, as New Year’s brings us a clean slate, full of potential. However, it’s pretty likely that—not too far into the new year—we’ll break those resolutions and fall behind on everything we intended to do, unless we’re blessed to be among the lucky 8% of Americans who are rumored keep their New Year’s resolutions. We’ll think about going to the gym and, instead, reach out and press the “continue playing” button on Netflix. Depressing as this may seem—and as determined as we may be to not let it happen—the truth is, it will probably happen to most of us. And while it’s okay to, on occasion, take a break from previously made plans and “real life” in order to relax, it can’t be the norm. However, if we determine to approach something as seemingly unimportant and mundane as our Netflix viewing habits mindfully, we can once again restore sacred time to our lives.
Christians are supposed to “number our days” (Ps. 90:12) and “take every thought captive” (2 Corin. 10:5) and “do everything for the glory of God,” (1 Corin. 10:31). But a lot of the time, without our intending it, TV-watching serves as a placeholder for those. It sounds like (and is) a lot of work to live this kind of lifestyle, and we think, “I’ll do all of that in a minute . . . right after this episode.” We don’t think about how our television-watching might in fact be part of that. Or if we do think about our viewing habits in relation to God, we only think about them in terms of what we watch, not how we watch. We mindlessly stream episode after episode of reality TV that’s free of cursing and sex scenes and call it a day. But in a Netflix world where binge-watching is a huge part of everyday life, of course it matters how we handle this entire new method of viewing—not just what we’re watching with it.
For instance, television can be a way of purposefully marking times in your life. This can mean creating rituals for your watching habits. In the pre-Netflix-streaming era, my family would record the NBC comedies (The Office, 30 Rock, eventually Parks and Recreation and Community) on Thursdays, and then, on Friday nights, we would cook up a big batch of shrimp pasta and watch them all at once. It became something we all looked forward to throughout the week, a simple way of kicking off the weekend, experiencing good food and each other’s company, and of course, enjoying some of our favorite TV shows. TV can also commemorate whole seasons of life; my first summer back from college, my family and I binge-watched all of Friday Night Lights—but with the recognition that this was an unusual circumstance, a celebration of my being home for a short amount of time, rather than the normal precedent for how to watch a show.
My college roommate and I would celebrate weekends or finishing finals with Gilmore Girls nights, rationing the show to make it last as long as possible. One of my favorite shows currently is Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and, although I didn’t start watching it until I discovered it on Netflix long after it had gone off the air, it took me almost five years to finish the entire series (which, granted, is still longer than the eight years it would have taken to watch it as it was airing). In part, this was because it took me so long to watch the finale; I waited and watched it just before graduating from college, because finishing it felt like the end of an era, like something that should commemorate an important time of my life.
You can absolutely use Netflix binge-watching as a way to realign and re-focus on what’s important in life. By using television to appreciate art and narrative, to reward ourselves for a long day at work, to commemorate a long weekend, or to offer ourselves rest and relaxation (while avoiding mindless sloth), we can reclaim sacred time in our lives. God is the one who gave us stories and a love for stories, and He’s also the one who created us to rest (after all, we are made in God’s image, and God rested, so resting is of tremendous spiritual importance). Watching TV, and certainly, binge-watching TV, cannot be the only way in which we relax and refocus. But it can be a way, and a perfectly valid and important one.
These rituals may seem silly, but they’re actually deeply important. My point isn’t that any of these are the “right” ways to watch TV shows, just that they are some ways to watch TV shows without just thoughtlessly pressing play on the next episode, while still binge-watching. It shouldn’t be the norm—just as “ordinary time” comprises the largest part of the liturgical calendar rather than the holy seasons and feast days, which are special and set-apart times.
We need to re-create that sacred space in our life that’s been lost. One way to reclaim sacred time is with something we often approach unthinkingly or take for granted—just as we do with the church year. With this in mind, your 2016 TV-watching could be a new way to mark time in a meaningful, lasting way.