Category Archives: Biography – Neil Postman

Neil Postman on Technology and Society

Tony Reinke has posted a lecture given by the late Neil Postman on Technology and Society. As far as I can make out, this is Postman’s lecture entitled “Questioning the Media” from Calvin College’s January Series lectures, delivered on 12 January 1998, though the video has a different datestamp.

I’ve only ever read Postman’s books before, so it was interesting to see and hear him lecture, and well worthwhile. I’ve always enjoyed his books, and learned a good deal from them. It turns out he was as good at lecturing as writing. His attempt at buying a Honda Accord towards the end of chunk 2 is very amusing (but not to death!). I found his analysis of the effect of technology on education and teachers that straddles chunks 3 and 4 particularly insightful, and still pertinent in the twenty-first century.

Here’s the whole thing as a playlist from the 7 chunks of the video.

Avoiding exposition like the plague

Neil Postman’s third commandment of the philosophy of teleducation is “thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt” (Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 148).

Oh, the uphill struggle of the true expository preacher!  It is not only teleducation that has been reduced to story-telling. The massive reorientation that has refashioned the classroom “into a place where both teaching and learning are intended to be vastly amusing activities” (p. 148) has impacted many more places besides. Postman believed children immersed in such teleducation would come to expect it “and thus be well prepared to receive their politics, their religion, their news and their commerce in the same delightful way” (p. 154). Twenty years on we are reaping the consequences in the Church of Christ.

And yet, there is hope, with the increasing interest in and practice of expository preaching. It’s Corinth all over again: spin doctors, sound bites, and stories versus preaching nothing but Christ and him crucified.

Thou shalt induce no perplexity

Neil Postman’s second commandment of teleducation (yes, I know it’s horrible, so that’s why I thought a horrible word was required) is “thou shalt induce no perplexity,” since, he says, “the contentment, not the growth of the learner is paramount.” (Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 148)

Of course, a good many things in formal education are perplexing. Some ethical and philosophical concepts may never be less than perplexing. And when it comes to the Christian faith, we had better be prepared for perplexing. Not that there is much that is not clear in biblical teaching. But any serious study of Holy Scripture will deal with perplexity head on when we meet it. Only exegesis in the style of the Bible for dummies will studiously avoid it, or gloss over it.

For Christians and converts who have been pseudo-educated by television this will surely be a shock to the system.

Physical growth and development of children requires effort from the very first gulp of air in the lungs. The child that does not learn to deal with difficulty and disease as it grows turns out to be a very weak individual — sickly and unprepared for the cut and thrust of life.

Spiritual growth in the Christian life requires effort, as Peter reminds us. We need to “make every effort to supplement [our] faith with …” (2 Peter 1:5-7). The list he gives in the way he gives it surely implies the interconnectedness of virtue, knowledge, self-control, etc. Not one of these things will come without perplexity. To be effective and fruitful Christians (1:8) we will need to remember, study, apply, and endure — these very things which Neil Postman tells us teleducation would have us eschew.

One cannot help but think of the frequent preplexity Peter and the other disciples faced during three years of intensive teaching from Christ. The evidence of their growth is attested to by the perplexity of the Jewish religious leaders when faced with what seemed to them ignorant and unlearned men who knew more of God and his ways than they did.

We shall have an added struggle in our effort to grow as Christians when we consider that the entire weight of Western popular culture is against us, with television in its vanguard. We, and our children, are being taught that perplexity and struggle are not necessary to learn or to grow.

No wonder so many who once ran well turn aside when perplexity strikes. “A perplexed learner is a learner who will turn to another station,” says Postman (p. 147). A perplexed Christian may often go to another church where perplexity has been eliminated from the teaching. Their comfort zone has been penetrated and their paramount contentment is in serious danger of collapse. So best move on.

But if God should be perplexing us that we should grow, then switching channels/churches will be no better than Jonah taking the ship to Tarshish. We may experience shipwreck, or similar trouble. May we not learn God’s lessons from perplexity with such bad grace as Jonah! May we embrace sanctified affliction as a divinely appointed means of growth.


I have recently become acutely aware of the lack of historical context in which most people live their lives, particularly Christians. Neil Postman makes this point in Amusing Ourselves to Death, ch 9, showing how television militates against a life informed by the past.

Taking Thomas Carlyle’s comment “the past is a world, and not a void of grey haze,” he concludes that the past “is not only a world but a living world. It is the present that is shadowy.” (p. 136)

The immediacy of television has its addicts living in an ever present present, trapping us for, as Postman says, it “permits no access to the past” (p. 136). What a difference true Christian faith makes in the life of a believer. We constantly read from a book which is unashamedly about the past. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Heb 11,12). And week by week we are called to remember our Saviour who though ever-living, achieved our salvation within the confines of history past.

Postman takes issues with Czeslaw Milosz’s conclusion that we are an age characterized by a “refusal to remember”. Rather, he says, “we are being rendered unfit to remember” (p. 137).

The spirit of such an age and culture strikes at the very heart of Christian faith, for without historical context we have nothing to believe. Christianity is tied to history, and the ability to remember. If we become infected by our culture’s inability to remember we may regard ourselves as people of faith, but we will no longer be confessors of The Faith.

Whenever we affirm the Creed (in whatever form out Christian tradition couches it), we confess to believing in specific historical events. Strip them from the Creed and we believe in … we can’t remember what.

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.

Out of step with secular media

Can [preaching] really be simply a passing phenomenon destined to become outdated as we enter a more technologically oriented age of electronic communication media?
(Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, p.29)

The Reformation and Evangelical Awakening may have been highlights in recent church history for preaching, but the fathers and apostles practised it, as did the OT prophets. The Bible and church history show it to be more than a passing phase.

Is it outdated? The message is obviously not because the Gospel is timeless. When held against electronic communication media the vast difference in method is apparent. But we must beware of this comparison because we are comparing chalk with cheese.

Electronic media are not communication oriented, at least not in the same way as other media. Neil Postman’s insightful analysis (which is shared by others) has shown us how they do not tend towards information but rather entertainment. Preaching is not entertainment (at least not if engaged in as God intended), and thus does not work in such media, unless great care is taken to ensure that the message is not overwhelmed or lost within the media itself.

Electronic communication media cannot, therefore, be used to outdate preaching. What is clear is that electronic communication media and preaching are out of step with each other, and not only in terms of technique, but ultimately in terms of content, which looks like the main thrust of Goldsworthy’s chapter (which I’ve only just started). This out of stepness is a necessary consequence of being in the world, but not of it.

An entertaining service?

Commenting on the inherent entertainment bias of television in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman asserts

The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether. (p. 87)

He supports his assertion by examining the ABC program broadcast on 20 November 1983 following the controversial movie The Day After. It was billed as a serious discussion of the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, but Postman explains that it was merely entertainment dressed up as serious discussion. He concludes,

At the end, one could only applaud those performances, which is what a good television program always aims to achieve; that is to say, applause, not reflection. (p.91)

Living lives immersed in the modern television culture we cannot escape the effects of this pervasive entertainment bias. If we expect the same of a Christian worship service, God help us. And God help the pastor who seeks to conduct it in television style.

Tellingly, Postman later gives two examples of Roman Catholic priests who have sought to connect with their audiences, for so it seemed to Postman they were, rather than congregations. Greg Sakowicz summed up his approach by saying, “You don’t have to be boring in order to be holy.” (p. 93). Pointedly, Postman concluded of John J O’Connor that he “apparently believes you don’t have to be holy at all.” (p. 93)

Protestant pastors are not immune from the urge to compete with the televisual. But, given the nature of the beast, there is grave danger, for the pastor preaches not for applause but for application. Christian worship is far from a performance, and reflection is an important component in it.

And yet, the medium can be used sensitively if used carefully, as Postman himself mentions, though such programmes will make “bad television”. It strikes me that the difference is illustrated by comparing something like the BBC programme Songs of Praise on British television, and a webcast of a full traditional church service where the predominant shot is of the pulpit, with perhaps shots of the choir when they sing introits and anthems. Watching at least one such webcast each week (as well as attending my local church, I hasten to add) I have noticed how as a family we feel very much part of the congregation as we sing, recite the creed and participate in the responsive reading. However, on the rare occasions I watch Songs of Praise it always seems more entertainment as various people are interviewed, and we are subjected to gratuitous scenery or roving shots of the congregation during the singing of hymns, and have the inevitable performance of celebrity solo/group songs, many completely sub-Christian in content. Very entertaining, but hardly praise or worship.

Heartened as I am by the realisation that the technology may be used in a beneficial way, there is also a very real danger that we may attempt to make our worship services too much like television, making enjoyment the principal goal and measure of success. Perhaps many services have already become enjoyable entertainment–happy hours, rather than holy ones.

Postman concludes his chapter with a series of short descriptions illustrating of the impact of Show Business on the wider culture. He concludes,

What all of this means is that our culture has moved toward a new way of conducting its business, especially its important business. (pp. 97-98)

His insights and conclusions are surely applicable to the Church of the Living God. May we be vigilant as we conduct our important business with a holy God, that it may not be Show Business. May we not be concerned with showmanship but stewardship, “the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1Tim 1:4).

Wesley’s concern was

‘Tis all my business here below
To cry: ‘Behold the Lamb!”

That is a long way from Show Business. It is most certainly a challenge to conduct The King’s Business in the Age of Show Business.

Imago Christi

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman writes,

Think of Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter or Billy Graham, or even Albert Einstein, and what will come to your mind is an image, a picture of a face, most likely a face on a television screen (in Einstein’s case, a photograph of a face). Of words, almost nothing will come to mind. This is the difference between thinking in a word-centered culture and thinking in an image-centered culture.
Ch 4. The Typographic Mind, p 61

Postman is right, and twenty years on it is increasingly more so.

It occurred to me that Jesus Christ could be added to the list. For most people he is now a Hollywood figure along with Moses/Charlton Heston. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has done nothing to change that perception, for, as I understand it, Christ’s teaching played little or no part in the movie, which was largely image-centred, and graphically so.

Worshippers of the living God are forbidden to make images for worship. This is the second Word of God, for what are commonly known as the Ten Commandments are in fact the Ten Words in Hebrew. Our modern experience as outlined by the Apostle Paul shows the problem with image-centred culture. God’s command took Israel out of a worship structure which was image-centred. Nor was Egypt alone in having a well-developed image-centred worship culture, Canaan, too, had such a culture. Ancient pagan worship in general had a great element of spectacle as images were carried and mythological events reenacted in elaborate ritual drama. Such image-centred worship was specifically forbidden by God, and we would be wise if we still adhered to the prohibition.

Word-centred worship will make demands on our lifestyle, ethics and morality. Worship where the central focus is on the Word of God will have a content that may be articulated, and that must be applied to the whole of life.

If our worship becomes image-centred then it will tend toward experience. Content will become unimportant and application non-existent. Postman et al. may have uncovered this aspect of culture, but I suspect God knew the human tendency, since he had created men and women and knew how they ticked.

We deviate from word-centred worship at our peril. Image-centred worship tends to exclude the engagement of the mind as the spiritual/emotional experience becomes dominant. Word-centred worship, on the other hand, engages mind and spirit. Paul’s advice on speaking in tongue, perhaps, has some relevance here. He wished to pray with both spirit and mind (1 Cor 14:15). Word-centred worship does not exclude emotional experience, but subjects emotion to the mind, and God’s objective teaching about how worship ought to be conducted.

Postman’s observations have much wider ramifications than he could ever have imagined.