Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death”

This is the first version of a book review for my “Theology of Culture” class at Regent. (Yes, I know there are typos and such, as I said this was the first draft.) Unfortunately I had to cut it from over 1600 words down to 1250, that was really difficult.

This is a great book that I recommend to anyone, I also recommend Postman’s other works such as Technopoly, The End of Education, and Conscientious Objections. Postman is great at making critical remarks, although often doesn’t offer too much in the way of suggestions for change (and I don’t that is necessarily a bad thing as I think he sees himself as a social commentator, not necessarily a corrector).

Matt Jones

Regent College

October 22nd, 2004
INDS/THEO 515: The Theology of Culture
John Stackhouse
Word Count: 1659

Book Review #1
Amusing Ourselves to Death:
Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
Neil Postman

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Neil Postman aims to show how the “Age of Show Business” has changed how public discourse has changed for the worse. In Amusing Ourselves to Death he asserts that we are living in a Huxleyan society and not an Orwellian. “Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us” (viii). The title suggests that, as Huxley did, we will be caught up in the act of watching television and not see its significance and that will kill culture. To be more specific, the subtitle brings it down to public discourse. Discourse in our society has changed throughout the years and Postman suggests that the “age of show business” through the use and prevalence of television will kill culture in the way Huxley suggests.

Postman structures his book in two main parts: Firstly he addresses the setup, historical background of how discourse has been carried out in society and how it has changed. And secondly, he delves into the topics of how television will cause us to “amuse ourselves to death.”

The just of the first part aims to show that there has been a decline in the “Age of Typography” caused by a rise in the “Age of Television” (8). Postman states, “I must, first, demonstrate how, under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now – generally coherent, serious and rational; and then how, under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd” (16). The five chapters of this part center on that task.

He shows that culture is connected to its conversations and its conversations are formed by the medium in which they take place. Our culture set in the frame of typography was able to use language as a means of complex argument that was pleasurable and common to many areas of the public sphere (47). Through many inventions and events culminating with the introduction of the television, the typography mindset was pushed to the periphery and “as typography moves to the periphery of our culture and television takes its place at the center, the seriousness, clarity and, above all, value of public discourse dangerously declines” (29).

The first five chapters that make up part one move logically from one to the next, setting up the framework. Chapter one shows that, as the title suggests, “The medium is the metaphor.” The medium in which we learn plays an important role because “what important ideas are convenient to express inevitable become the important content of a culture” (6). This leads to chapter two discussing the media as an epistemology. Postman asserts that “the concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression” (22).

He is then concerned that the epistemology of television is inferior to that of print-based epistemology and is, in fact, damaging (27). Because he feels this way, he then launches into chapter three that discusses what our culture was like in the print-based, typographic focus and then shows that mode of discourse leads to a “typographic mind” discussed in chapter four. He then, in chapter five, contrasts those two chapters to prove his assertion of chapter two that television’s epistemology is damaging. Chapter five is the lead in chapter to the larger discussion of how discourse has been damaged by television.

The second part of Postman’s book takes on the challenge of proving his premise. Chapter six discusses “not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience” (87). The nature of television does not allow complex thought to be achieved or encouraged. It is “bad” television to have a camera on someone who is thinking. This leads into how education is attempted on television but before Postman delves deeper into the discussion of education in chapter ten, he first goes into a discussion of the fragmentation of reality depicted on television and how that leads to trivialities.

“Now… This” has been used widely in television and brings with it the thought that “what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see” (99). Drama is what has become important on television, not content, thus bringing fragmentation to culture. The abundance of information that is presented means nothing because it has no context and has no bearing on our lives; we don’t actually do anything with the information. The shift of discourse from content to entertainment seemed natural and was unchallenged. Chapter eight goes to further his point that television is about entertainment and not content by looking at the specific case of televangelism. While criticizing how televangelizers work, Postman does say “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” (117).

Another case example of how television has failed to be a content filled discourse is tackled in chapter nine dealing with politics and how elections use television. “If politics is like show business [which Postman says it is], then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether” (126). Postman draws similarities between politics and the commercial.

After these two case examples, Postman turns back to education and how it is negatively changed by television. That is the main problem: education is changed by television instead of education controlling television. In the “Age of Television” the classroom is starting to mimic, to become entertainment. Television is also used in the classroom, but because of the nature of the medium, very little context, nor content, is transferred. This section concludes his argument and leads to the final chapter of a “Huxleyan warning” and some suggestions. Postman warns that if it is not recognized what television does and how it should be used, culture will die. This embodies his main suggestion: ask questions. Such examples, but not limited to, are: “How do different forms of information persuade?  How do different information forms dictate the type of content that is expressed?”(160). If these questions can be discussed, it is the first step to taking back television.

Postman argued very well for his stance against television. He did say that “the problem, in any case, does not reside in what people watch. The problem is in that we watch. The solution must be found in how we watch” (160). His argument is well thought out and concise. His argument relied on the premise that in the typography type discourse, culture was well nurtured and cultivated an analytical mind. His first section proved that quite well. One example of how he proved that was the Lincoln-Douglas debates (44ff). The extensive timeframe in which the debates occurred is unthought-of in today’s culture. The only way for such in-depth events to occur would be for people to have the capacity to comprehend what was going on.

Postman also proves his point by comparing the discourse of theologians such as Edwards to that of Falwell implying that Falwell relies more on the television mindset of culture rather than the content filled discourse of the print-based. Through the foundation of what he proves about the print-based discourse, he goes on to prove that the television-based discourse does not work. Using the examples of evangelism, elections, and the more involved topic of education, Postman shows that, indeed, the use of television has negatively affected those areas. The nature of the corruption is not that people view it as being bad, but that it is seen as being good. No one seems to mind that there is very little content provided through television. What is worse is that it is changing education, if content leaves education, then there is no point. Postman sets up each of these examples and uses them to prove his point very effectively.

One thing that impressed my positively about this book was that he laid out his foundations very well. He didn’t just start showing how television is bad, he showed that what it had to say was bad because of the lack of content and fragmentation and was is direct opposition to the print-based discourse. Another than that also impressed my positively was Postman wasn’t complaining about content as a reason for the failure of television. He went much deeper in saying that it is the nature of television and that the horrible thing is that no one sees it. It is easy to complain about the content of television but until the nature and heard of what television can say (as Postman has done) the other complaints are as trivial as the information presented by television.

One thing that impressed me negatively was that Postman did not offer too many suggestions to correct the problem. His main suggestion to ask questions about what television can do and to do that through our educational system is good, but I don’t think it goes deep enough. He did recognize that telling people to get rid of their televisions would not work, but he doesn’t offer much alternative. A second thing that impressed me negatively was his assertion that in the print-based discourse “people had a sense they could control some of the contingencies in their lives” (69) more so than those of the television discourse age. While I agree that people could comprehend the cohesive information being presented to them (for example in the Lincoln-Douglas debates) I don’t think that necessarily leads to people taking action any more than people of today. If they did take action, they were more informed to do so, but I don’t feel that just because people don’t have the content because of the television medium, they act on that information any less (it will just be less informed).

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“Theology, Music and Time” by Jeremy Begbie

Here is my first book review at Regent. The parenthetical references refer to the page number in the book. This was really difficult in that my first draft was 1800 words and that was already somewhat slim. I had to then get it down to 1500! The guidelines were as follows: Explain title and how it relates to subject, thesis, and purpose. Set out the basic structure of the book. Evaluate the book. Two things that impressed positively and negatively. All in 1500 words! Here it is!

Matt Jones
Regent CollegeOctober 4th, 2004
INDS 500: The Christian Life (Section B)
John Stackhouse
Word Count: 1497

Book Review #1
Theology, Music and Time
Jeremy S. Begbie

Begbie, Jeremy S. Theology, Music and Time. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Jeremy Begbie, in his book, Theology, Music and Time, strives to show the connection between the three nouns in his title. He aims to show that theological understanding can come through music and its relation to time. “Here we try to show how the experience of music can serve to open up features of a distinctively theological account of created temporarily, redeemed by God in Jesus Christ, and what it means to live and with time as created creatures” (7). Begbie’s title is a straightforward assertion of his subjects with theology and music being the most important and time being the medium in which a relation is formed between the other two. His motive for this task is his “guiding conviction” that music can serve to enrich and advance theology, extending our wisdom about God, God’s relation to us and to the world at large” (3).

He structures his book under three main categories: ‘Introduction’, ‘In God’s good time’, and ‘Time to improvise’. Each of these main categories includes subcategories relating to the main theme. The introduction outlines what Begbie hopes to achieve as well as give a jumping off point into the two other main themes. The first subcategory deals with the actual capabilities of music to “say” anything. He talks about the relationship between music-making, music-hearing, and our emotions. This discussion leads into the next subcategory pertaining to the nature of time and the temporal relationship to music as “the production and reception of music deeply implicates physical realities and these realities are themselves time-laden” (31). This subcategory goes into a discussion about the past, present and future which deals with time existing and how we perceive it. Music should not be looked at as moving through time, but that time is its medium (67). The main goal of the introductory chapters is to define relationships and characteristics associated with time and briefly relate those to theology. After time is introduced, the next category naturally arises: its relation to God.

“In God’s good time” combines the nature of time with what we can learn theologically through music. The first question that arises is whether time is a good gift from God or if it is merely a threat to us. Music demonstrates that change through time does not necessarily imply chaos or a negative view of time. There has arisen a view that suggests “that because something takes time to be what it is, it is thereby of deficient value or goodness compared to that which is not subject to created time” (86). Music is in direct opposition to that and therefore cannot, in this sense, be rushed and therefore cultivates patience (87). Time is divinely created and should be looked upon as such. This talk of time as a medium takes us to the first subcategory that deals with tensions and resolutions that are created in music. “Through its layered patterns of tension and resolution, music relies for much of its effect on generating a sense of the incompleteness of the present, that not all is now given” (99). Begbie then delves into a discussion on metrical waves. Metrical waves are used to show how tensions and resolutions are patterns that occur at multiple levels (from single bars to entire pieces). “The more levels resolution involves, the greater sense of an immanent final closure” (107). Music can show that the end of something is actually a beginning of something else. The next subcategory follows from the discussion of finality and the eternity of God. Begbie goes into the next subcategory and deals with the relationship between repetition and the sacrament of the Eucharist. In music, repetition is used heavily and does not get boring because repetition is natural to music. The complexities in metrical waves through their tensions and resolutions reveal that nothing is ever exactly the same, even in repetition. This is important in the ritual of the Eucharist because we are called into something holy that should never become stagnant. The liturgical nature of repetition leads to the next main category that offers a different view of how music relates to theology.

“Time to Improvise” moves away from a highly structured view of music to that of improvisation. The three sub-sections show that the practice of musical improvisation correlate to the “theology of freedom, election and ecclesiology” (269). Areas such as giving, constraints within freedom, creativity and tradition are all crucial points in this category and subcategories.

Begbie did a very thorough job of relating time to music and theology and then using that foundation showed that there were many principles in music that can offer insight to us about the theological understanding of God. Our understanding of Jesus’ saving grace is heightened by Begbie’s discussion of tension and resolve; our understanding of the Eucharist would benefit from the musical standpoint of repetition; and our desire to give might be lacking without the arguments put forth by his discussion of improvisation. Those three theological examples are merely samples of what Begbie has been able to in this book. He was able to argue quite extensively for his position and didn’t seem to leave anything out. This is a difficult subject to make any very definite claims about as music is not something tangible. It is not possible to say “this equals that” because music is not descriptive in that manner. Begbie was aware of that and addressed it. What he did was show that there are some very direct relations that can be applied to music and theology. Begbie never asserts that music can be used as a primary authority when learning theology, what he does do very well is to show, through music, that you can learn subtle nuances, reaffirm certain theological beliefs that are held as well as gain new insight. “Examining the temporarily of music has elicited conceptual tools -ways of thinking, models, frameworks, metaphors – for exploring, clarifying and re-conceiving the dynamics of God’s world and his ways with the world” (271).

One thing that impressed me negatively was his somewhat over extensive discussion of time. As time was one of the major themes of the book it makes sense to have a formal discussion of its nature. I felt that, at times, Begbie went too far, especially in his discussion of the nature of the past, present and future. I believe his arguments would still be valid without going into details about how some people think the past and future don’t really exist in certain ways. I feel that what was most important was relating time to its divine creation and how temporality affects music. The other discussions seemed to be superfluous.

Another thing that impressed upon me negatively was that he didn’t use as many examples as I would have liked. There were many places, especially in the discussion of metrical waves that Begbie could have brought in examples from the Bible to show how they are used. He did bring up the main examples to show tension and resolve and how that relates to promise and fulfillment, but I feel he could have pulled some examples in especially to show how metrical waves have many different layers.

That being said about examples, his discussion about promise and fulfillment did impress me in quite a positive way. The nature of Biblical promises has always interested me in that they were always fulfilled but not necessarily in the way we (including the original people) thought it would. “Fulfillments, far from lessening hope for resolution, serve to heighten it” (106). Fulfilled promises in the Bible are not a final word, they are pointing to something more and that is a great thing that music alludes to. The “very conclusion in Christ, climactic and utterly decisive as it may be, also brings with it an intensification and an enrichment of the promise originally made to Abraham” (109). The tensions and resolutions throughout the Bible are very artistic and all come to the final conclusion when Jesus returns and the Kingdom of God is fully realized.

“It is because the universe is so finely tuned to produce life, but only through the process of death, that death receives from life the highest possible tribute and value – it is not possible to have life on any other terms than those of death; but where you do have death, there immediately you have the possibility of life” (92). This concept put forth by Begbie also impressed me positively. Christians live in this world where we are in the “now” but “not yet” and are continually dealing with death. Music greatly points out that through death there is new life. This is a great comfort in our daily lives when we see death around us but also eternally where we can find that promise of everlasting life through Jesus Christ. I was very glad that Begbie pointed this out as I have never related musical themes to the nature of death and new life.

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Discussion of “Christ and Culture” by Niebuhr

Here is my first brief paper discussion on Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture”. There were also a lot of good things that I didn’t think of that were brought up in discussion. I would definitely recommend this book to others, but it will take a while to get through. This is not an essay and therefore is not written in essay for and not always in complete sentences, deal with it :)

Matt Jones
Regent College
Theology of Culture
John Stackhouse
Word Count: 1077

Christ and Culture Discussion Paper

1. What is “the enduring problem,” and why does it “endure”?

The enduring problem with discussion of Christ and Culture is that there are many ways to view how Christ relates to culture. The Bible can support multiple theories of how we should relate to culture. It is not explicit about one particular way we are supposed to interact with culture. Jesus makes many statements that can give credible support to the five types of interaction that Niebuhr outlines. Also, many strong and influential Christians throughout the ages have been “members” of each of these types suggesting that belief of one type or the other does not make a person a better or worse Christian.

2. Briefly define each of Niebuhr’s five types

Christ against culture: Christ is here to claim authority over the earth and therefore throws out all ideas of culture. Culture is bad and sin is transmitted through it. This type “affirms the sole authority of Christ over the Christian and resolutely rejects culture’s claims to loyalty.” Typically seen as “either-or”. This group is essentially separatist in belief that culture should be rejected. All forms of activity in culture (military, political, etc…) should not occur. The monastic tradition is one representative of this type.

Christ of culture: Christ defines what culture is. He is a “guide of men in all their labor.” Problem that arises with this is that what that culture is is looked at through a particular culture and is often ascribe those values. “Christianity itself needed to be regarded as an ellipse with two foci, rather than as a circle with one center. One focus was justification or the forgiveness of sins; the other, ethical striving for the attainment of the perfect society.” This Christ also give man power over nature. Often looked at as being two-minded: having a loyalty to both Christ and civilization. Wants society to be peaceful and co-operative which will achieve these things by moral training. Jesus as a great enlightener is a common them. Gnostic tradition takes the enlightener theme especially. Kant and Leibnitz are two of the main proponents of this type. Jesus as hero.

Christ above culture: This group is similar to the second group in that it sees Christ as “the fulfillment of cultural aspirations and the restorer of the institutions of true society.” The difference is that their view of Christ incorporates aspects of Christ that are not part of, nor belong to, culture. Christ uses culture to point to himself as savior but the other characteristics are what actually save man. He gives capabilities that humans could not conceive of. Thomas Aquinas is seen as a major representative.

Christ and culture in paradox: This group is similar to the Christ against culture type in that the see Christ at opposition to culture but differ in that they do not feel removal from society should happen. “Obedience to God requires obedience to the institutions of society and loyalty to its members as well as obedience to a Christ who sits in judgment on that society.” Luther is seen as the greatest representative of this type.

Christ the transformer of culture: Also called the “conversionist” type. Similar to first and fourth group in that they see that culture has been perverted and is fallen but differ in that this group see Christ as a person who is the “converter of man in his culture and society, not apart from these, for there is no nature without culture and not turning of men from self and idols to God save in society.” This means that, while culture is the transmitter of sin, Christ still uses culture to save and redeem man. John Calvin and Augustine are two of the key figures of this type.

3. Is there a difference (for Niebuhr? For you?) between “Christ and Culture” and “Church and Culture”?

I do believe that Niebuhr sees a difference between Christ/Culture and Church/Culture. The Church must evaluate the culture that it is in and respond to it in an appropriate manner. Christ did the same thing except that Christ was only responsible to God. The Church is responsible not only to God but also its members. The Church’s members are also part of culture and will relate the Christ differently and therefore the church will have to take that into consideration.

I would say that there, at the heart, is not a difference between how Christ relates to culture and how the church SHOULD relate to culture. Christ looked at the culture He was in a told stories, talked to people, challenged people, in a way that would make sense in that culture. If He had come today, in our culture, he would have done things differently. He still would have looked at the culture and told stories, talked to people, and challenged people, but he would have done in it a way that was relevant to our culture. Some things would look the same, some things would look drastically different.

4. What is one thing that impressed you positively, and one thing that impressed you negatively, about this book?

One thing that impressed me positively about this book is that Niebuhr did a wonderful job of outlining five ways of thinking about the relationship between Christ and culture. He goes on to say that there are many ways of dealing with this topic but I would imagine that it would be a very strenuous task to delve into the many possibilities on our own. Niebuhr did us a great service of bringing out the most important types of relation and giving us a deep understanding of what those types are as well as why they have been thought.

One thing that impressed me negatively about this book was its style or tone. To me it was somewhat difficult to read. I found it similar, in my mind, to reading the King James version of the Bible: the content is there and wonderful but because of how it was written it made it somewhat of a slow read. I felt that at some places passages were overly difficult but only so because of his style of writing. It is definitely an academic book and should be read as such and part of it is me needed to change, or at least prepare, for different ways to get across information.

A good point that was brought up in discussion was that Niebuhr says that we should not pass judgement on the different types of relation, but I would disagree with that. Some views of relation are supported only when viewing particular Bible passages out of context and that should definitely be judged. Otherwise you get the idea that you can make the Bible what you want of it and truth becomes relative.

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