Neil Postman vs. Joel Osteen

I just finished Neil Postman’s classic Amusing Ourselves to Death. This important work, from a communications professor and cultural theorist, is more relevant now than when it was written in 1985.  I will be digesting it for a while, but the chapter on religion was especially interesting.  Postman’s basic thesis is that Western culture has shifted from a typographic culture to a television culture.  Challenging a common misconception that a medium is neutral to the content it transmits, Postman looks intently at the sea change that television has wrought across Western society and predicts dire consequences.

Reading him 30 years after the fact, where the Internet has taken over from television, Postman is even more prescient.

The last half of the book is mostly spent looking at these consequences as they have played out in particular slices of culture including education, politics, news, and religion.  In the chapter on faith, Postman quotes a former Executive Director of the National Religious Broadcasters Association:

“You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want.”

This serves as a kind of summary statement for how television has shaped the expression of faith that comes over the airwaves.  The medium (television) is thus anything but neutral to the shape and telos of the content:

“You will note, I am sure, that this is an unusual religious credo. There is no great 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. It is at its most alluring when it speaks the language of dynamic visual imagery. It does not accommodate complex language or stringent demands. As a consequence, what is preached on television is not anything like the Sermon on the Mount. Religious programs are filled with good cheer. They celebrate affluence. Their featured players become celebrities. Though their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings, or rather, because their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings.”

I literally wrote the word “Joel” in the margins the book beside this paragraph. (Yes, it’s a paper book, because they are better than those electronic monstrosities, as recent sales figures show.) We don’t need to rehash all the issues with the prosperity gospel in general or Joel Osteen in particular; we’ve covered the basics before here.  But, whether you like what Joel does or not, I think it’s easy to see the connection between the marketing/consumerist goal of “offering people what they want” and Joel’s platform as a combination of “good cheer,” celebrated affluence, and celebrity.

Postman’s chapter-long take on religion and television will put not only Joel but many of those popular televangelists in a stark light.  While he wrote in the era of Oral Roberts and Jimmy Swaggart, others – include Joel – have taken up these gilded mantles.  I’m not sure even Postman at his most cynical could imagine preachers asking for $60 million luxury jets, for instance.

Amusing Ourselves to Death is a must-read that will make you rethink the way you engage all forms of media, not just television. I would also recommend Deep Work, in which Cal Newport draws on Postman and others to recommend a new approach to work based on the temptations of social media and other features of electronic culture.  I’ll give Postman the final word, as he concludes that the effect of television’s influence on preachers can result not just in a difference of quality, but of kind:

“I believe I am not mistaken in saying Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.”

 

 

Source: Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books), 121.

 

Comments ( 10 )

  1. Neil Postman vs. Joel Osteen — Drew McIntyre | Plowshares Into Swords @drewbmcintyre | Talmidimblogging
    […] via Neil Postman vs. Joel Osteen — Drew McIntyre | Plowshares Into Swords […]
  2. ReplyBrian
    This is why I prefer locally broadcast services from local churches whose TV ministry is exactly that -- ministry to the community and their homebound members. TV ministries that are entirely funded by the church's regular tithes and offerings, and not by on-air pleas for donations, have the freedom to speak directly and truthfully, because it's not all about how much viewer base they have to keep the show on the air.
    • ReplyDrew
      That's a good point, Brian. There is a serious difference in locally broadcast churches and these nationwide megachurches. Thanks.
  3. ReplyLaura
    I recently read Postman too, and have unsuccessfully been trying to get everyone I know to read it! It was prophetic, and remains relevant. I'll link to my review.
    • ReplyDrew
      Thanks, Laura! It really is an amazing book. If you like Postman, check out Deep Work by Cal Newport as well.
  4. ReplyDeb
    What this author may not or doesn't recognize is Joel is second generation Osteen to follow in the Word and scripture teachings. Where were all his critics when his precious dad, John Osteen, was passing to heaven from kidney issues? Critics exalt themselves as all knowing and judging instead of looking at the fruit. When you've won as many people to the Lord as he has, or funded orphanage support, or given people Hope when they felt despair and depression, then cast the first stone. This whole Osteen family has been a shining example of Christian love and service since the 1970's. I've driven 90 miles with my grandparents and mom on a Sunday morning as an elementary school aged child to attend services in Pasadena, Texas, because the message in this church was truth and life. I am now a middle-aged woman and I still believe God is a good God. I try to be positive and full of faith every time I teach the Bible, not to be popular or entertaining, but because it's a joy to serve the Lord . God bless the Osteen family for their shepherd leadership. I'm thrilled that they are able to be televised and in Sirius XM because the good news of the gospel triumphs over naysayers and negativity. We have enough of that in the world. Let's major on what unites us...the love of Christ. Let's realize there are different flavors of foods to sppeal to all tastes and there are differences in administratiins, but the same Spirit and Lord and Father of us all. If you don't like the message, just change the channel or read the Bible and study on your own. Please don't give to the ministry because God loves a cheerful giver. Give wherever you can be cheerful as you give.
    • ReplyDrew
      I find little of the Bible in his messages.
    • ReplyForeverBlessed
      Very well said Deb -- and I agree with you wholeheartedly. I wonder if there will be a time when punitive, finger wagging 'Christians' will get the picture of an abundant, soul-loving, spirit-inspiring Father and life-giving, miracle-working Son Jesus Christ, who is indeed the same yesterday, today and forevermore; wanting and interceding on our behalf that our very soul prospers. Serious religion? No thanks, I'll go for the in-depth abundant RELATIONSHIP with Christ Jesus. There is no greater experience than receiving the love of God and then getting on with our mission and life purpose in Him and all the joyful sanctification that goes along with it. As penned by another, 'a man with an experience is NEVER at the mercy of a man with an argument.' I am so thankful I have a loving relationship, and not a religion.
      • ReplyDrew
        Hi, "Foreverblessed." As a pastor I know people who have been damaged by Osteen's teachings. That's not the focus of this piece - in fact, I'm not sure you read beyond the headline and came on here to do defend him - but the truth is that preachers who live on the mountain top and never get real about the valley damage people's walk - because unlike the happy guy on TV with the expensive suits and the perpetual smile, life does happen to us all eventually.
  5. ReplyLee
    I live in South Africa and recently finished Neil Postman's book. Its amazing how preachers like Osteen have taken a strong grip on the middle class (and lower class) market. The TBN channel has been customized to TBN Africa to ensure those with the highest ratings remain on air - poor people in Africa controbuting the little income they have to international ministries for "miracles" that never come. I used to read JO too and thought he was amazing, but my eyes were opened a few years ago and I can only pray for those who follow him..

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