Category Archives: Reading – Postman – Amusing Ourselves

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death

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.

No entry requirements

Neil Postman proposed three commandments that described the philosophy of education by television, the first of which was “Thou shalt have no prerequisites” (Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 147). Each programme is a self-contained unit which does away with “the idea of sequence and continuity in education” thus undermining “the idea that sequence and continuity have anything to do with thought itself” (p. 147).

Sadly this philosophy now has invaded the academy. An increasing number of students I reach (at a university which shall remain unnamed) are permitted to take courses, even at an elementary level, for which they are wholly unprepared. They have little idea of hos to write connected English, particularly those whose natural language it supposedly is. They have less of an idea of how to think; unsubstantiated assertions apparently clinch any argument. Little wonder if their diet for the past 20 plus years has been largely the compartmentalised, disconnected, uncontextualised pseudo-education of television.

Dangerous and worrying as such a situation is, for the Christian church the dangers are alarming. This idea has permeated virtually the whole of society, including the minds of many professing Christians. Have Sunday worship experiences become little more than self-contained happenings with little or no relevance to the rest of the week, or the rest of life? Do we expect to understand instantly what we read in Scripture? Do we despise theology because it requires sequence, and sheer hard graft? Is this why 60-second this, instant that, and secrets of the other are the staple diet of those Christians who still read (apart from the obvious endless revenue-generating possibilities for publishing houses)?


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.