Steps to Recovery: Be Still, and know that … (Neil Postman)

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman makes the case for the form of communication deeply governing the content of communication.  “A Major new medium changes the structure of discourse,” Postman notes, but with a pessimistic tone, continuing “the epistemology created by television (is) not only inferior to a  print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist.[1] Sophistication of language, and hence of conceptual reasoning, have evidenced a progressive decline from the era of oral cultures and particularly colonial America’s print culture, to culture as it saw increasing uses of the telegraph, photography and television. The attendant loss of depth in reasoning and public discourse has as one of its casualties the understanding and appreciation of history.

 

“We are being rendered unfit to remember. For if remembering is to be something more than  nostalgia, it requires a contextual basis – a theory, a vision, a metaphor -something within which facts can be organized and patterns discerned.  The politics of image and instantaneous news  provides no such context … With television, we vault ourselves into a continuous, incoherent present.” [2]

Postman also notes how historian Carl Schorske states “the modern mind has grown indifferent to history because history has become useless to it,” while Terence Moran indicts the structure of media for depriving us of a historical perspective.[3]  Not only do we lose a sense of our own national and spiritual history, but those of other cultures and religions as well; Nancy Pearcey refers to this as part of the process of secularization particularly evident in large, cosmopolitan cities. [4]

postman bridge2

Consequently, in typical postmodern, multi-narrative fashion, cultures and religions get flattened when they all assume their seats around the table of discourse.  This is healthy in some senses, giving respect to many cultures which otherwise can get marginalized – but it is often done at the cost of viewing the entirety of history and hashing out ultimate truth claims.  This is important in presenting the historical case for the Gospel, the good news solution to the demands of a holy God who worked throughout all of mankind’s recorded history through the nation of Israel. It is important to be able to distinguish this meta-narrative when one addresses competing religious traditions.

There is single perspective or plan to history, which can easily get lost when we toss out the historical perspective.  It may be useful to include both comparative (synchronic) and historical (diachronic) perspectives in comparing worldviews,[5] but the Christian contention that history is in fact His-story, the God’s drawing of mankind to Himself, provides an over-arching ‘meta-narrative’ to which all others must ultimately bow their knee. When this message gets lost, we are instead left with an egalitarian but powerless multi-culturalism, and a superficial view of history, as Postman summarizes:

All that is required to make it stick is a population that devoutly believes in the inevitability of progress. And in this sense, all Americans are Marxists, for we believe in nothing if not that  history is moving us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the force behind that movement.” [6]

 

 

  1. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), 27.
  2. , 137.
  3. , 137.
  4. Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2010), 20.

5. Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Trans. Roy Harris. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court. 1983.

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