In 1985 Neil Postman, a professor of communications arts and sciences at New York University wrote a fascinating book called, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. It’s marvelously insightful and prophetic book about TV’s profound influence on the way we live and think. Postman points out that during the print era when we just had books, newspapers and pamphlets and such, there was a certain distance between the writer and the reader that caused reflection, evaluation and thinking to occur. But in the television era or the age of show business everything is entertainment. There’s no reflection or thinking, only sensual absorption and reaction to disconnected images passing before us. [As an aside, 60% of the high school graduates in this country will never again read a book.]
The problem, Postman stresses, is not that TV has too much entertaining subject matter, but that under its influence all subject matter is now presented as entertainment. “In court rooms, classrooms, operating rooms, board rooms, churches and even airplanes, Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities, and commercials.” Postman says that TV gives us, “news without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment.” In other words, what Postman puts his finger on, is that TV is not only mindless but it is teaching us to be mindless. On the other hand Scripture, as we read, says “do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”; TV says be like the rest of the world and be transformed by chasing your feelings. Big difference!
Not so surprisingly this carries over into politics, where image over substance is so pervasive, but it has also profoundly penetrated religion. With more and more emphasis on emotional experience over the Bible and Biblical doctrines, we’re seeing churches mimicking the TV entertainment format. The new orthodoxy in many American churches seems to be everything must be turned into entertainment in order to get people to pay attention to us. Feeling good in church has become such an overriding concern in some places one wonders if they learn anything about God or even lose the presence of God in their worship.
Postman doesn’t write as a professing Christian, but he nevertheless scores this bull’s-eye about televangelists, “Everything that makes religion an 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 a second banana. . . .”
This unremitting dose of entertainment throws reality out of kilter and fundamentally undermines traditional values. In a moral and spiritual sense, we are amusing ourselves to death. John Leith writing in The Princeton Seminary Bulletin had these observations:” It induces people to find meaning of life in being entertained. . . .
Celebrityism is the new belief system born out of the show business era. It is the illusion that things don’t happen unless famous people make them happen. A few years back the farm bill was bogged down in Congress and couldn’t get it through; so the chairman of the Agriculture Committee asked three Hollywood actresses to come to a hearing and testify in support of his bill; they were Jane Fonda, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek. When they testified the media came and the legislation went through. What is curious is that none of these women grew up on a farm or worked on a farm or knew anything about farm policy but each had played farmer’s wives in the movies. . . .
I agree with Chuck Colson who has frequently pointed out that the problem with celebrityism – preached and celebrated in popular culture – is that we’re creating moral role models. We’re exulting immorality, degeneracy and the ‘what’s in it for me’ ethic; no wonder we have a crisis on our hands: teenage pregnancy, child abuse, kids killing kids, the disintegration of virtue, honor, responsibility and authority. . . .
How’d we get in this mess? Alexander Solzynitzin, the Russian Nobel prize winning novelist and great Christian prophet who stood against Soviet communism and told the world about its gulags, perhaps the greatest writer and mind of this century, put his finger on the reason. He said that after the 1917 Russian revolution when things began to disintegrate, there was an old folk saying that went, “Men have forgotten God and that’s why these things have happened.” Solzynitzin said that – “You can sum up the 20th century with the same old Russian proverb “Men have forgotten God, that’s why these things have happened”.
What do we do about the mess? Can we do something?
First, we in the church need to grasp a deeper sense of God’s holiness and a profound sense of our sinfulness and just how much we need desperately need God’s grace; we need to understand the basic human dilemma is that God is holy and we are not; and the only way out – the only reconciliation – is the Cross of Christ.
Second, we need to think Christianly, that is beyond ourselves, knowing there is transcendent meaning and purpose for life and that there is objective truth and moral absolutes, and that we all, everyone one of is accountable to God for our thoughts, words and deeds.
Third, we need to understand that we are called to challenge the wisdom of this age. As we read in 2Corinthians 10:5, “we are destroying every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God”. Whether we like or not, we are soldiers engaged in spiritual warfare. We’re battling for the souls and eternal destinies of our children, our grandchildren, our families, our friends and our neighbors.