Neil Postman wrote his classic, prophetic work, Amusing Ourselves to Death, a jeremiad on the consequences of television on American society, over 35 years ago. He details how TV has permanently altered not only how we are entertained or informed, but altered the nature of politics, religion, education, and even the way we form knowledge as a whole. But this isn’t merely a curmudgeonly lament, but a substantial argument about American society.
We have transitioned from being a culture that is motivated primarily through rational argument or evidence to ultimately being a culture persuaded by spectacle, by emotion, by the image. If it weren’t for the 1980’s pop-culture references, one would think this was a newly released book about the negative effects of smartphones, Netflix, and TikTok. It is Postman’s near uncanny ability to see into the future, to see how the dawn of the “entertainment age” would continue to bear rotten fruit that makes this book still necessary reading today. However, it is his chapter about religion that Postman seems to possess near soothsayer abilities, seeming to read the tea leaves of how popular church services beamed directly into our homes (or devices) would become.
I understand that covid has forced many churches and Christians to move to a “live-stream” option for those incapable of gathering for worship. My own church has done this. However we have explained that this is a temporary stop-gap measure we are using in this extraordinary time, like a crutch. The point of crutches is to give time for something to heal so that you can one day get rid of the crutches and walk like normal. However, there are some churches today who believe that we should embrace live-streaming as a permanent installment, that it is simply another means by which we can get the message out–church members can join us at church or just “do church” at home. Despite writing back in 1985 (before the internet even existed!), Postman offers substantial warnings to this perspective.
Religion On A Screen
In his chapter titled “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem” Postman analyzes popular TV preachers of his day and shows how they have transformed a church service into a “made-for-TV” spectacle aimed at entertainment. However, he concedes that not all television preachers are as crude as a Jim Bakker or Jimmy Swaggart.
What makes these television preachers the enemy of religious experience is not so much their weaknesses but the weaknesses of the medium in which they work. Most Americans, including preachers, have difficulty accepting the truth, if they think about it at all, that not all forms of discourse can be converted from one medium to another. It is naive to suppose that something that has been expressed in one form can be expressed in another without significantly changing its meaning, texture or value...They have assumed that what had formerly been done in a church or a tent, and face-to-face, can be done on television without loss of meaning, without changing the quality of the religious experience.
So, Postman explains, that the issue isn’t simply that all televangelists are smarmy salesmen, but that even the best of preachers attempting to use the medium of the television will find that the medium necessarily alters the message. It is unavoidable. Many preachers of Postman’s day, nonetheless, relied on TV because the opportunity to reach more people is so appealing:
To this, Pat Robertson adds: "To say that the church shouldn't be involved with television is utter folly. The needs are the same, the message is the same, but the delivery can change...It would be folly for the church not to get involved with the most formative force in America." This is gross technological naïveté. If the delivery is not the same, then the message, quite likely, is not the same. ...To come to the point, there are several characteristics of television and its surround that converge to make authentic religious experience impossible. The first has to do with the fact that there is no way to consecrate the space in which a television show is experienced. It is an essential condition of any traditional religious service that the space in which it is conducted must be invested with some measure of sacrality. Of course, a church or synagogue is designed as a place of ritual enactment...But a religious service need not occur only in a church or synagogue. Almost any place will do, provided it is first decontaminated; that is, divested of its profane uses. This can be done by placing a cross on a wall, or candles on a table, or a sacred document in public view. Through such acts, a gymnasium or dining hall or hotel room can be transformed into a place of worship; a slice of space-time can be removed from the world of profane events, and be recreated into a reality that does not belong to our world. But for this transformation to be made, it is essential that certain rules of conduct be observed...Our conduct must be congruent with the otherworldliness of the space. But this condition is not usually met when we are watching a religious television program. The activities in one's living room or bedroom or...one's kitchen are usually the same whether a religious program is being presented or "The A-Team" or "Dallas' is being presented. People will eat, talk, go to the bathroom, do push-ups or any of the things they are accustomed to doing in the presence of an animated television screen. If an audience is not immersed in an aura of mystery and symbolic otherworldliness, then it is unlikely that it can call forth the state of mind required for a nontrivial religious experience. Moreover, the television screen itself has a strong bias toward a psychology of secularism. The screen is so saturated with our memories of profane events, so deeply associated with the commercial and entertainment worlds that it is difficult for it to be recreated as a frame for sacred events. Among other things, the viewer is at all times aware that a flick of the switch will produce a different and secular event on the screen--a hockey game, a commercial, a cartoon. Not only that, but both prior to and immediately following most religious programs, there are commercials, promos for popular shows, and a variety of other secular images and discourses, so that the main message of the screen itself is a continual promise of entertainment. Both the history and the ever-present possibilities of the television screen work against the idea that introspection or spiritual transcendence is desirable in its presence. The television screen wants you to remember that its imagery is always available for your amusement and pleasure.
Live-Streaming Isn’t the Same as Physical Presence
I’ve written elsewhere about why a live-stream service isn’t the same thing as gathering for church and that physical presence is necessary. But I believe that Postman warnings here need to be taken seriously, especially concerning the aspect of physical, sacred space, and the association of screens with entertainment–especially with the advent of smart phones, little televisions we can put in our pocket and carry everywhere with us.
Evangelicals may be skeptical of Postman’s arguments about “sacred space,” but it is undeniable that there is something qualitatively different in coming to the church building compared to staying in your living room for worship. Further, with the ever present and near infinite content on screens always ready for us to consume, to be entertained, it is hard for us not to unconsciously assume that whatever I am watching on this device must therefore also be entertaining. If it isn’t, my brain has been trained to flick over to something else.
And this poses perhaps one of the scarier consequences of “leaning in” to the live-stream option. You can get specific metrics of who is watching, you can count up the “likes” or comments. You can track how long into the message people listened to and when they closed out of it. One may begin to tailor their preaching and message in order to hook more engagements online. For instance, sermons will become shorter, rely on humor more, avoid unpopular doctrines, and abound in lots of practical, topical teaching. Postman concludes:
...The unwritten law of all television preachers: "You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want." You will note, I am sure, that this is an unusual religious credo. There is no religious leader--from the Buddha to Moses to Jesus to Mohammed to Luther--who offered people what they want. Only what they need. But television is not well suited to offering people what they need. It is "user friendly." It is too easy to turn off. I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether. - Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. 117-121