Postman on preaching?

Neil Postman points out how the tv commercial is “about how one ought to live one’s life” (Amusing Ourselves to Death, 131). Although this observation comes in the middle of a chapter devoted to politics and tv (9. Reach Out and Elect Someone), it struck me that at this part of the chapter there is an interesting comparison with Christian preaching.

Let me say, before someone else says it for me, that true Christian preaching is not about telling people how to live, but about declaring what God has said. Nonetheless, there is a popular perception that when men are preaching that is precisely what they are doing: telling people how to live their lives. And furthermore, they don’t like being told how to live. The truth is, of course, that when God’s word is declared, men and women are convicted that how they are living is not the way God wants them to live. But somehow they feel that it is the preacher who is telling them how to live, when all the time God is speaking to them about their lifestyle.

Postman’s point is that commercials are pseudo-parables. And like the biblical parables from which they are derived, they are “unambiguously didactic”. And the amazing thing is that people will accept the teaching of the commercials without question. Postman identifies their power in the short, simple messages, portrayed dramatically. They always address themselves, he says, “to the psychological needs of the viewer. Thus it is not merely therapy. It is instant therapy.” (130) Now, where have I heard that kind of preaching? Short sermons? Felt needs?

While preaching that is faithful exposition of God’s word will not be the kind of preaching that tells anyone how to live their life, there is a kind of preaching, pseudo-preaching if you like, that addresses the psychological needs of the listener. It is couched in Oprah-speak. It gives a simple, indeed simplistic, solution to the listener’s problems. It comes as part of a spectacle, a lavish entertainment-styled event. It is no accident that its practitioners use tv to promote themselves, never mind their message. I’m sure you can identify suspects.

As we live in a media age, it can be desperately appealing to engage in this kind of preaching. And many there are who are content to listen to it. This kind of media-friendly presentation will always bring results, though whether they are what God intends is intensely questionable. A major challenge for the faithful preacher is to avoid such means, so that the Word of God may be proclaimed in the power of God. Here is the difference between the politician and the preacher: the politician must rely on his image consultant to be elected; the preacher must rely on the Holy Spirit if men and women are to be convicted of sin and truly converted.

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