Amusing Ourselves… is Dated

James H. Gilmore
Wednesday, May 1st 2013
May/Jun 2013

Nearly three decades after its publication, you still hear people refer to Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. Especially among theological conservatives, the book is cited as the definitive critique of today's media- and entertainment-saturated culture. Mind you, not much of the book's content actually gets referenced, just the book's title. The all-too-clever catchphrase has become the metaphor of choice for those wishing to describe what ails our society.

I've heard the phrase "amusing ourselves to death" so often in conservative Christian circles that I now instinctively roll my eyes whenever I hear it. What's my gripe? It begins with recognizing a certain irony: Postman builds his argument upon Northrop Frye's theory of resonance. According to this theory, "a particular statement in a particular context acquires a universal significance." Postman points out that metaphor lies as the generative force beneath this resonance, with "the power of a phrase…to unify and invest with meaning a variety of attitudes or experiences." Today, Postman's announcement that "we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death" resonates. In fact, it imposes itself on the attitudes and behaviors of all too many well-meaning Christians and dominates the very way they have come to relate to culture. The universally significant sentiment has become: I am not a man of unclean amusements, but I dwell among a people of unclean amusements. "Amusing ourselves to death" is a resonating metaphor through which we've come to see our culture, not ourselves, as depraved.

Thus parents often show more concern about not exposing their innocent children to certain evil aspects of culture than having them fully acknowledge their sinful nature. Pastors point to the culture "out there" as our problem more than they identify our condition in Adam. (I've listened to some sermons, mentally substituting the word sin for every mention of culture, and only by doing so obtained a fairly cogent proclamation of the gospel.) Instead of seeking to richly understand culture in order to better speak truth into it, Christians mount efforts to change culture-focusing on outward purity, or retreating in despair-rather than focusing on inward piety. I'm afraid it is this dim view of culture, and the puritanical and/or pietistic responses to it, that fuels the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that Modern Reformation so often laments as the dominant spiritual condition of our age. Such a view of culture denies the very words of Jesus: "There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him" (Mark 7:15 ESV).


For those who go beyond the title-cum-metaphor and actually read Amusing Ourselves to Death, there is much to like. Postman defends the written word against the moving image of the screen. He does not shy away from citing biblical texts or using religious examples, and he devotes an entire chapter to exposing the distorted context from which all TV preaching flows. Here Postman keenly points out that "spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate." Several of his observations strike a chord: Postman sees Las Vegas as "a metaphor of our national character and aspirations"; I position Vegas as "the epicenter of the Experience Economy." And Postman rejects the notion of the plasticity of the human mind, something overemphasized in my view by contemporary technology critics such as Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (W. W. Norton, 2011).


Postman's prose is itself rather entertaining, but his argument that television is the technological culprit ruining culture cannot be considered an accurate portrayal of the present-day scene. Postman claims "we would all be better off if television got worse, not better." Surely, TV has gotten much worse in the last thirty years since Postman penned these words’and we are better for it. The dominant TV-show format of today, so-called reality TV, provides a much truer glimpse into the human heart and much richer fodder for analyzing our behavior than Dynasty or Dallas, the top two shows in the year Postman wrote, although Dallas has been revived just recently for a new generation.

To illustrate this point, allow me to recap the brilliant cultural exegesis done by Andrea Seigel in the December 2, 2012, issue of The New York Times Magazine, in an article lengthily entitled: "Say Yes to the Intrafamilial Psychological Entanglements: The most successful reality TV shows are never about what they claim to be about. Once you realize this, you can learn some very valuable life lessons." Seigel's analysis of three reality TV programs comes down to this: Survivor is really about "how hard it is to force yourself to be someone different" and "being unable to escape who you really are when you are dropped into uncomfortable conditions." Conversely, The Bachelor is about "forgetting who you really are when everyone around you gets lost in the same overpowering fiction." Finally, Say Yes to the Dress concerns "the trouble with family" and the "psychological entanglement [that] can keep loved ones from being able to separate their desires from your own." Any of this would prove more useful in starting a meaningful conversation with your neighbor, or as fodder for kick-starting a sermon, than admonitions to avoid the evils of television.

Postman would have found a better villain in movies. Unlike television programs, movies are today watched over and over again ("reruns" are a dead TV paradigm). Movies provide the common language from which most people draw analogies and frame their daily experience. Interestingly, television is increasingly watched like movies’via complete seasons on DVD, sequential episodes recorded on DVRs, or accessing the likes of Hulu. In this regard, Neal Gabler's Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (Vintage, 2000) paints a richer, truer picture of our times. Gabler's contention: People live their lives today as if producing their own life-movie.

More significantly, while Postman addressed the computer’naively calling it an "overrated technology"’he did not anticipate the rise of the networked computer (via the Internet and "the Cloud"). Here I wish more folks would revisit George Gilder's Life after Television: The Coming Transformation of Media and American Life (W. W. Norton, 1985) in lieu of Postman. Gilder accurately anticipated the end of an era; Postman missed the demarcation. But that's of little consequence, as television only served as the dramatic foil for Postman's real target as public enemy #1: entertainment. He lamented that "all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment." However, it is not entertainment that would threaten to amuse us to death. If anything, it's a diet of escapist fare that consumes so much time today, displacing finer entertainments. We're mobile-phoning and texting one another over trivial matters, instead of talking to the person next to us in line, or even just people-watching. We're busy blogging, Facebooking, Pinteresting, and YouTubing ourselves to a better life now ("Do this and you shall live!"). Oh, to be once again just passively entertained! (Just this morning, before sitting down to write this paragraph, my wife and I enjoyed watching chickadees partake from our new feeder against the background of freshly fallen snow. It was wonderfully entertaining, and we made no e-posts about it.)

Postman, echoing Marshall McLuhan, at least had this right: "The clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation." Postman can be recast in more favorable light by recognizing that it is not television per se, but the ubiquitous screen that now permeates the surface of our culture. Go to a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant and try counting the countless screens. Observe people waiting for flights in airports. I've seen some travelers three screens deep with laptop, tablet, and smartphone, all on their laps. And I've been to church sanctuaries in which a projection screen has been installed right in front of the old mounted cross.

Ours is a world in which our tools for conversation are being displaced by tools of presentation. Our once-private thoughts and preparations for public life are increasingly conducted in the open with little or no editing, filtering, or self-censoring. Constant tending to our "social media" is actually antisocial when performed in the physical presence of others. We're drowning in e-mail from the office, updates from friends, and pings from the family. Instead of complaining and just adding to all this non-entertaining noise, those rightfully concerned about the state of affairs can begin by modeling better behavior. Let's offer in the marketplace alternative ways of being engaged in the world with one another. Let's offer a better way.

Wednesday, May 1st 2013

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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