"My kingdom is not of this world," Jesus said, which might suggest he was talking about a world somewhere else. But we should not forget the circumstances under which he was speaking. He had been hauled before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and was presumably surrounded by all the trappings of imperial Rome. Pilate demanded to know whether Jesus had proclaimed himself king of the Jews, as charged. When Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world, he just might have wanted to make it clear that his kingship had nothing to do with the world Pilate operated in.
Rome ruled much of the world for centuries with a deft combination of intimidation and distraction. Favorite forms of intimidation included nailing people to a cross and throwing them to the lions, which the early Christians knew only too well. As for distraction, the Romans found that some forms of intimidation, such as throwing Christians to the lions, could also serve as entertainment for the masses. As a young man, Julius Caesar borrowed heavily to finance lavish public games that cemented his rise to power. The Emperor Trajan celebrated a victory over the Dacians with staged battles involving 10,000 gladiators and 11,000 wild animals. Under the Emperor Claudius, games were held at public expense on 93 festival days each year. In addition to bloody gladiatorial contests, there were chariot races, sporting events and theatrical performances. The satiric poet Juvenal complained that "the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things — bread and circuses."
In some ways, the ruling ethos hasn't changed all that much since the heyday of the Roman Empire, although modern totalitarian regimes tend to focus on intimidation, while democratic governments favor distraction. Unlike the Romans, the Western democracies have not had to stage lavish spectacles at public expense, since the private sector is only too willing to pitch in. Entertainment is no longer regarded simply as a diversion but as an industry in its own right that now accounts for more U.S. export income than automobiles, airplanes or agriculture. Much of the entertainment is paid for by advertisers who use it as a vehicle to sell people products they don't need for money they don't have. Advertising now reaches into almost every nook and cranny of daily life -- not only saturating the airwaves and print media but also appearing in schools, in doctor's offices, on video screens, in elevators and at gas pumps, on sidewalks and the sides of buildings, even stamped on eggs in the supermarket.
"The world is too much with us," Wordsworth lamented, at a time when the world's encroachments would have been hardly more than subliminal by current standards. The trivial preoccupations of Wordsworth's time were largely inadvertent, whereas now marketers are engaged in relentless competition for "share of mind," an advertising term describing what people pay attention to -- or are distracted by, as the case may be. Sophisticated media techniques are employed to grab the attention of a public that is showing more and more signs of sensory overload. To be noticed at all, you have to be faster, flashier and louder than the rest, which only adds to the din. In the process, calm reflection, critical thinking and rational discourse are all but crowded out of public life.
From the beginning, church fathers fretted about the snares of this world. "The whole world lieth in wickedness," warned the Apostle John in one of his epistles. The Desert Fathers fled into the wilderness to escape Rome's corrupt influence. But the monastic orders that succeeded them eventually grew rich and powerful, discovering in time that even they were not immune from the world's blandishments. St. Theophan, a Russian Orthodox monk, knew better than most that the chief problem with sin was not in the nature of any particular offense but in its power to distract. He wrote that "the sinner is continually troubled about learnedness, the possession of many things, and the desire for many pleasures. He amuses himself, he possesses, he questions. He goes around in circles his entire life."
There are dangers in viewing the world as a kind of spiritual obstacle course. The principal one is that the world's distractions will merely become a different sort of preoccupation -- in this case, as hazards to be avoided at all costs. But is there some alternative to this subtle play of attraction and avoidance that threatens to draw us in from either end? There is only that exquisite balancing act that is sometimes described as being in the world but not of it. "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind," St. Paul advised. In other words, do not allow yourself to be shaped by the world one way or another; reshape your mind instead.
1 John 5:19
"The World Is Too Much With Us" by William Wordsworth
St. Theophan, The Path to Salvation