Amusing Ourselves to Death
"And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ..." Philippians 1:9-10
How Postman Saw It
Neal Postman (1931- 2003) was an educator and cultural critic who saw things more clearly than most. In the introduction of his highly acclaimed and criticised book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Postman demonstrated that he had his finger on the pulse of our culture in a way most others did not. This comparison between the pessimistic visions of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley is worth quoting at length:
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy [in George Orwell's book, " 1984"] didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves . . . Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no-one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the 'feelies', the 'orgy porgy', and the centrifugal 'bumblepuppy'. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions". In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right. 
The Distraction Factor
While the church has been pre-occupied with either counting sex scenes and swear words in music and movies or attempting incessantly to be "relevant", we have missed a more important influence of entertainment: it's capacity to distract us. Ours is a culture whose main expression of sinfulness is silliness. We fail to actually live and engage in the real, and often messy, business of human relationships, institutions, and predicament. As Postman suggested, we are amused to death.
Let's be clear: the problem isn't movies or music. The problem is the death of art and creativity on the altar of perpetual amusement. Rather than art serving its God-ordained purpose of clarifying life, it is reduced to being a narcotic-like replacement for life whose purpose for existence is only to serve our passions. When this sort of entertainment becomes a defining component of a culture, then depth is replaced with sensation, excellence with popularity, dialogue with embodied axe-grinding, and reflection with distraction. In other words, we become silly.
One need only look at current political dialogue and our fascination with celebrities to see Postman's analysis in action.
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From Truth and Consequences E-Newsletter. By Summit Ministries USA.
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- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Viking, 1985).