Neil Postman, Death by Amusement, and the Church in 2018

Neil Postman

If you’ve never met Neil Postman, allow me the honor of introducing you.

Neil Postman was born in 1931 and died in 2003. During his 72 years on earth he worked as a teacher, an author, and a cultural commentator. In 1985 Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. A 20th anniversary edition of the book was released in 2005.

I was just 3 years old when Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death. Regrettably I managed to live another 32 years without reading Postman’s classic work. After working through Postman’s 163 pages of cultural commentary, I wish I had been forced to read Amusing Ourselves to Death sooner.

In the forward, Postman explains how two men offered grave warnings about how oppression could be forced on modern people. These two men are Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, and their warnings came in the form of novels. Huxley wrote, Brave New World, and Orwell wrote 1984. Postman offers the following distinction between the warnings offered by these two great novelists:

Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be over some by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxely’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture … In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”

Postman builds on Huxely’s vision of the future, arguing that Americans have indeed become an oppressed people through the domination of “the Age of Television.” In Part I of Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman explains how the rise of photography and telegraphy had a negative impact on American culture. He argues that the medium is always part of the message. He suggests that not all messages are valuable and worth communicating. And he insists that not all mediums are suitable for communicating all messages. In Part II of Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman explains how “the Age of Television” has impacted celebrity culture, news, religion, politics, and education.

Postman’s argument is fascinating, and many of his insights have direct application to pastoral ministry in the 21st century. The following quotations prove particularly relevant for those in positions of spiritual leadership in 2018:

  • “Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore – and this is the critical point – how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged.” This is an issue of epistemology for all Americans. Paul had to reckon with idolatry and philosophy in Athens, and we have to reckon with the pervasive influence of television.
  • “My point is that we are by now so thoroughly adjusted to the “Now … this” world of news – a world of fragments, where events stand alone, stripped of any connection to the past, or to the future, or to other events – that all assumptions of coherence have vanished.” This has application to the use of social media by religious leaders. Yes we need a presence and a voice on social media, but our sound bite arguments are merely drops in an ocean of information.
  • “On television, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment.” This is related to what Americans expect to experience at church. Regardless of style (traditional or contemporary), many Americans expect to be entertained at church.
  • “The Founding Fathers did not foresee that tyranny by government might be superseded by another sort of problem altogether, namely, the corporate state, which through television now controls the flow of public discourse in America.” This reveals the basis of the predominant American worldview. Again, preachers must be prepared to combat the subtle and ubiquitous influence of television.
  • “Televisions principal contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable. This entirely original conception is to be found nowhere in educational discourses, from Confucius to Plato to Cicero to Lock to John Dewey.” This is an issue for religious education and training. Will preachers and teachers fall in line with the spirit of our age and seek to educate via entertainment, or will we go back to an older approach to pedagogy?
  • “To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple.” This is important for those who want to use technology at church. Online campuses, video preaching, and social media platforms are not neutral mediums that can be used without consequence.

Those who bear the responsibility of leading congregations in the 21st century must think through the implications of Postman’s arguments. Postman’s warnings are even more critical with the rise of the internet and the smart phone, as most Americans are now carrying “television” in their pocket. Yes, we ought to use technology for the spread of the gospel and the good of our churches. However, we must think through the inherent dangers that come with any attempt to leverage technology for the sake of religion.

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