If you didn’t read my last post (it is brief) take a look: Do you have an active mind? because this continues thoughts from it. Since originally writing that post I finally read Neil Postman’s classic book: Amusing Ourselves to Death, Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. It was on my to-read list far too long!
Postman historically traces the change in American culture from being a print/reading based culture to an image/TV based one. The history alone was fascinating. Postman’s concern is:
“not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience…The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject is presented as entertaining.” (page 87, bold added)
For example, in relation to my blog’s focus on Christianity, Postman has a chapter on religion as it is presented on television. Postman watched 42 hours of religious TV programing, which in the 1980’s was people like Robert Schuller, Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker, and Pat Robertson. Some of the names have changed but Postman’s observations remain relevant. After watching this he states that:
“On television, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion a historic, profound, and sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. On these shows, the preacher is tops. God comes out as second banana.” (page 116-117)
Postman further observes that attracting an audience is the main goal of these programs. “To achieve this goal, the most modern methods of marketing and promotion are abundantly used.” And states “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion all together.” (page 121, bold added)
Postman’s concern is that through the influence of television, visual stimulation became a substitute for thought and short-circuits introspection. Notice the subtitle of the book is: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Not everything in life is amusing. Our world deals with many serious issues, and when we consider these issues primarily through the sound bytes of television, it impairs our ability to truly think, grasp, and contemplate these things. The very nature of television discourages certain uses of the intellect, and it has spilled into everything.
When our society was a print-based culture this influenced public discourse differently. Reading a book about an issue is different than watching a television show about it. A book requires more of you: longer attention, concentrated effort, and discernment to judge the merit of the content. This in turn affects how people discuss the issues. In a culture that was dominated by print, public discourse was characterized by more depth and coherent presentation of ideas. Postman shares the history of how speeches and sermons used to be delivered – and today we would be bored silly! Our attention span would be gone after the opening few minutes, and speeches and debates could then go on for as long as 7 (yes, seven) hours!
Postman wrote before the internet, and I would have appreciated his analysis of the internet and its combination of visual and print media. I fear the internet has not helped. We read differently online. Studies show this. We skim read, have shorter attention spans, and read more superficially on-line, in comparison to the printed page. This affects our ability to read offline, and we are loosing our ability to concentrate and read longer or more challenging works of substance.
And that last sentence is what I want to narrow in on.
Do you have an active mind?
The influence of television and the internet makes it more challenging for us to read books of substance and to have an active mind. We really must see the need to do so, and make an effort to stretch our minds.
This does not mean…we should never watch television or use the internet. Obviously this is a blog, and I am utilizing this medium! There are good things about television and the internet, but we need to be aware of the downfalls.
Neither does this challenge to read books of substance mean that you must read academic books! I encounter this misunderstanding sometimes. “Not everyone is academic.” A book of substance does not mean a book published by the academic arm of a publisher. Got that? There are plenty of books written for a lay audience that are simply more thoughtful in nature and require some contemplation. Books that are written not to entertain but to impart knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.
The alternative to entertaining is not boring! But the sad influence of television has made us think so.
We think something thoughtful is academic, when it is not academic. As Postman observed about television, when everything is presented as entertaining, this has in turn affected our books. If a book isn’t light or entertaining in some way, we have a hard time getting through it.
It is disheartening to look at the best selling Christian books because far too many are superficial, and we don’t even realize it because this type of book has become commonplace. I’m certain this has hindered Bible reading as well.
I also think it has hindered our ability to read a book discerningly: To be able to read and discern whether a book is biblically accurate or not. To properly perceive whether a book is feeding us spiritually or feeding our ego.
We have become thoughtless consumers, rather than thoughtful consumers.
To bring this to a close, I’ll quote Postman again: “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion all together.”
Ouch. That’s an indictment. But one we need to hear Christians. There is nothing wrong with being entertained, but there is a problem when we are being entertained to death.