We Are the Perpetual Resistance Movement: A Review of COMPETING SPECTACLES by Tony Reinke
As we discussed purity and parenting during a seminary class, Rob raised his hand from the back of the room. Our professor called on him. Rob said, “More than I want my daughter to not wear clothing that draws attention to her body, I want my daughter to want to not wear clothing that draws attention to her body. I want her to want the right things, not just do them.”
It was a formative moment in not only my seminary education but in my Christian maturation. Rob was on to something, and I wanted to be on to it too.
Tony Reinke’s new book Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in a Media Age is a book to help us not only look at our smartphones less, but a book to help us want to look at them less by giving us something better to behold.
Competing Spectacles is a solid sequel to his book 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You (2017). In a culture of “viral moments competing for our attention,” Reinke explores how we can not only survive spiritually but even thrive (p. 13). “Few of us,” he writes, “have reckoned with the consequences of this tele-visual culture on our attention, our volition, our empathy, and our self-identity” (p. 33). But Reinke has reckoned with the consequences, and he relays them well—not in an alarmist, fear-mongering way but as a concerned friend and father.
Competing Spectacles has an uncommon structure. It’s one long essay broken into 33 mini-sections, which are separated into two parts, “The Age of the Spectacle” and “The Spectacle.” This structure might catch a few readers off guard, but he’s such a gifted writer that a 34,000-word essay isn’t as imposing as it might sound. Reinke is senior writer for Desiring God and author of several other books, The Joy Project (2018), John Newton on the Christian Life (2015), and Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (2011). I’ve only done this for a few authors, but I make it a point to read (and in Reinke’s case, write reviews of) all his books.
“Spectacle” can mean different things. Spectacles are something we wear to help us see. But spectacles can also be what we see. This is the way Reinke uses spectacles throughout the book, spectacles as events. So, for example, each year the Super Bowl is a spectacle. The recent box-office hit Avengers: Endgame is a spectacle. The 2016 presidential election is a spectacle—actually the 2016 election had lots and lots of spectacles to it, something Reinke explores extensively in several sections of the book (especially “§9. Politics as Spectacle,” pp. 39–44).
But a local church worship service is also, by this definition, a spectacle. It’s a different spectacle, a smaller, less sexy spectacle than the latest Hollywood blockbuster or Adam Levine half-naked at half-time, but the gathering of the people of God is a spectacle nonetheless.
Competing Spectacles has tons of crispy writing, the kind of writing prevalent in Reinke’s other books. Just to give you a taste, he writes of the way “we never stop hungering for the Turkish delight-sized bites of digital scandal” (p. 56) and how the spectacle industry is a “gatling gun firing at us new media modules nonstop” (p. 150). That’s good writing! My favorite quote comes during his discussion of the spectacle of the local church. It’s a long quote, but read it slowly, perhaps even out loud.
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. (p. 101)
A few weeks ago, with as much passion as I could muster, I read this quote to our church. I might as well have been William Wallace on horseback with blue warpaint. “They may take our lives, but we are the perpetual resistance movement!”
For the first time in our 20-year church’s history, we enjoyed preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper in the same worship service. We preach each week and have regular communion services, but we’ve always done our baptisms offsite in special services. We did this, in part, to mark baptisms off as special—they got their own service. But performing baptisms at another time than Sunday morning and in another location than our church building also meant we disconnected baptisms from the spectacle of a regular Sunday. Yet there is nothing, Reinke implies, regular about it at all. “From generation to generation, [local churches display] the spectacle of God’s victory to his cosmic foes.”
I want Christians to not only come to church each week but to want to come to church. And a big part of wanting to come to church regularly involves coming alive to the extraordinary reality of what happens on every ordinary Sunday in every ordinary local church.
If the local church is to become precious to us, another spectacle—the greatest spectacle—must first become precious to us: the spectacle of the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross is the heartbeat of Reinke’s book; it’s the central spectacle, both the theological center of the book and the geographic center of the book (e.g., the special attention the cross receives in section 17). He writes,
Into the spectacle-loving world, with all of its spectacle makers and spectacle-making industries, came the grandest Spectacle ever devised in the mind of God and brought about in world history—the cross of Christ. It is the hinge of history, the point of contact between BC and AD, where all time collides, where all human spectacles meet one unsurpassed, cosmic, divine spectacle. (p. 79)
Reinke’s book is not a book to get you to simply look at your phone less or watch media with a more critical eye. Competing Spectacles is a book to stoke your desire to want to behold something more than your screens; it’s a book, as the subtitle says, to help us treasure Christ in our media age. Channeling the famous quote by puritan Thomas Chalmers, Reinke writes, “The Christian’s battle in this media age can be won only by the expulsive power of a superior Spectacle” (p. 145).