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It has always been difficult to treasure Jesus above everything else, but it seems close to impossible in this media-saturated age. There's so much noise vying for our attention. Christians tend to fall into two radical views when it comes to the ubiquitous screen. Either we declare entertainment to be evil and avoid it all, or we dive in headfirst with no restraints in the interests of “engaging the culture”.
In contrast to these extreme perspectives, Competing Spectacles approaches the digital age with refreshing nuance. The subtitle present a compelling possibility: treasuring Christ in the media age. Tony Reinke wrote this book to answer one main question: “In this ‘age of the spectacle’ (as it has been called)—in this ecosystem of digital pictures and fabricated sights and viral moments competing for our attention—how do we spiritually thrive?” (p. 13).
To answer this question, Reinke structured his book in two parts.
Firstly he considers the spectacles of this world we live in. Lest you dismiss him as a cantankerous technophobe, Reinke is talking about more than just digital marvels. Throughout all human history, we have sought to satisfy ourselves with spectacles—from gladiators in the arena, to political rallies, to pornography. Why do we seek spectacles? “Because we're human—hard-wired with an unquenchable appetite to see glory" (p. 18). The problem is that by continually feasting upon new and brighter spectacles, we lose our taste for the unseen realities of heaven.
While he considers historical examples of spectacles, Reinke also highlights what is unique about the modern era. Social media stands out: "In a deeply addictive way, we exist as both star and spectator." (p. 25). The era of streaming services also gives us new levels of control, and enough options to last us several lifetimes.
By this point in the book, I was starting to feel pretty hopeless. I could see the damaging effect that spectacles have on my life, as I’m so captured by the constant allure of the screen. I started noticing how often I’d mindlessly pick up my phone to check social media or email. My spectacle-saturated world seemed inescapable.
So it was a relief when Reinke switched gears and drew our eyes to the greatest spectacle: the cross of Christ. It’s the only sight that will actually satisfy us—everything else overpromises and underdelivers, leaving us thirsty for more.
He explains how the cross remains a spectacle for us even though it isn’t visible to our eyes: "Even today, the bold and clear preaching of the cross materializes the spectacle of the cross before a congregation, for those with the faith to see it...Yet this great spectacle remains invisible.” (p. 84)
In the second half of the book, Reinke also presses further into practical application. How can we pull our gaze away from these glittering spectacles to focus solely on Christ? "Throughout the week—in the morning when we wake up, at mealtimes, in the evening, every day—our minds should reset to Christ. But human resolve alone cannot pull off such a task." (p. 89)
Reinke doesn’t impose any rigid rules for how to do train our brains this way. It depends on our personal weaknesses and temptations. But he helpfully lays out ten applications which will help you to resist the endless spectacles of the world and feast instead on Christ. Based on this chapter, you can develop your own plan for making changes in your life.
One of the strengths of this book is that Reinke manages to be both nuanced and concise. He explains that our desire spectacles is inherent in human nature (as demonstrated throughout history), but also has a uniquely modern flavour.
Reinke’s journalistic background shows in his careful research. He seamlessly weaves together church and world history with current psychological insight and biblical proof. The result is practical but not overly prescriptive.
I recommend this book to anyone who feels trapped and overwhelmed by the weight of the digital world—which I imagine is most people! As “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7), Christians would do well to carefully consider whether their days are spent gazing at the wrong spectacles.
The final words in Competing Spectacles put the spectacles of our age into sharp perspective: "Like a smartphone screen made blank by the rays of direct sunshine, one day we shall see Christ's face. On that day, all the vain spectacles in this world of illusions and all the pixelated idols of our age will finally and forever dissolve away in the radiance of his splendor." (p. 154)