Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman Amusing Ourselves to Deat

Neil Postman Amusing Ourselves to DeatAnd it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ. — Philippians 1:9–10

How Postman Saw It

Neal Postman (1931–2003) was an educator and cultural critic who saw things more clearly than most. In the introduction of his highly acclaimed and criticized book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Postman demonstrated that he had his finger on the pulse of our culture in a way most others did not. This comparison between the pessimistic visions of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley is worth quoting at length:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy [in George Orwell’s book, 1984] didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves . . . Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the 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, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. 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, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right. 1

The Distraction Factor

While the church has been pre-occupied with either counting sex scenes and cuss words in music and movies or attempting incessantly to be “relevant,” we have missed a more important influence of entertainment: it’s capacity to distract us. Ours is a culture whose main expression of sinfulness is silliness. We fail to actually live and engage in the real, and often messy, business of human relationships, institutions, and predicament. As Postman suggested, we are amused to death.

Let’s be clear: the problem isn’t movies or music. The problem is the death of art and creativity on the altar of perpetual amusement. Rather than art serving its God-ordained purpose of clarifying life, it is reduced to being a narcotic-like replacement for life whose purpose for existence is only to serve our passions. When this sort of entertainment becomes a defining component of a culture, then depth is replaced with sensation, excellence with popularity, dialogue with embodied axe-grinding, and reflection with distraction. In other words, we become silly.

One need only look at current political dialogue and our fascination with celebrity to see Postman’s analysis in action.

Shall We Be Distracted, too?

If Postman is correct then certain of the dominant “Christian” strategies will not do. The most common strategy is that of substitution, which consists of offering “Christian” versions of popular entertainment as replacements. If pop divas are popular, we’ll discover a Christian one. If hip-hop is popular, we’ll offer “Christian” hip-hop. Because our version won’t cuss and will mention Jesus several times, we’ll call it Christian. No thought will be given as to artistic quality, lyrical accuracy, or potential impact on the culture.

There are several problems with this strategy. First, there is no such thing as “sanctified” distraction. We are to have hearts and minds that are active and engaged about life and the world. Christian entertainment can be as distracting as what we are trying to replace, especially for those addicted to the feeling of being “entertained.”

Second, if entertainment makes us silly, then Christian entertainment makes us silly Christians. If the pastor doesn’t entertain us, we conclude he has nothing worthy of our attention no matter his content. The “praise” songs need not be theologically sound or musically excellent, as long as they make us feel like we are worshipping (whatever that means). Speakers with nothing of depth to say and writers with nothing of depth to write are made megastar leaders despite the drivel they offer. Our addiction to entertainment has neutered our minds and trivialized our hearts.

Finally, sanitized entertainment isn’t Christian. One of the greatest strengths of the Christian worldview is its capacity to accurately reflect the real world of human predicament. Crucial to the Christian portrayal of life and the world is the fracture created by the fall. Sometimes, the Christian story suggests, the well-intentioned word is misinterpreted, the well-intended action is harmful, and the well-intentioned person is not well-intentioned. We fumble. We fail. We wound. And, we receive the blunt trauma from the fumbles, failings, and wounding of others.

If art is to communicate reality, then naked, chubby angels won’t do. In this world of post-fall actors and actresses, artists who wish to communicate redemption cannot avoid evil. They will need to portray darkness as well as light, brokenness as well as wholeness, and death as well as life. We’ll need to offer the world more than naïve optimism. We’ll need to offer hope. The Christian story is neither “the positive alternative,” nor is it “safe for the whole family.” Have you ever read Judges or 1 Corinthians?

A Way Forward

What does a distracted world need? In short, it needs “ears to hear” and “eyes to see.” This is the unique potential of truly Christian art. In the tradition of Handel’s summary of redemption in the Messiah or Tolkein’s portrayal of the dangers of power in The Lord of the Rings, or O’Connor’s disrobing of the human heart in A Good Man is Hard to Find, the Christian artist when operating from a Biblical worldview has the unique capacity to paraphrase reality for a distracted world.

However, the responsibility lies not only on the shoulders of the producers of art, but also on the consumers. Far too often, those of us who receive the artistic talents of others are, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, “far too easily pleased.” We will need to become better at watching, listening, reading, and perhaps avoiding what passes as art. Mindless reception has no place in Christian life and worship.

Christians talk often of revival. We wish for revived witnessing, praying, devotion, and piety. We ought also wish for revived imagination that we may love God and others better, approving what is excellent.