“Shuffle Off to Bethlehem” in the Age of Television

In 1985, Professor Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business  was published. Upfront, I think it is a “must read”.

In a word, the book is about television.

It is not merely about the content of television but what the very medium of television has done to revolutionize the way we think and feel and it is not exactly to the betterment of public discourse.  I have always found it telling in this regard the line from Jethro Tull’s song “Thick as a Brick”:  “I may make you feel, but I can’t make you think”.  Television can make us feel, but not necessarily think.  For instance:  This was first found in a political ad in the 1964 election. This one TV commercial might have elected Lyndon Baines Johnson as president, “The Daisy Ad“.

Its appeal was primarily emotive, that is fear:  if you vote for my opponent, Barry Goldwater, there will be nuclear Armageddon without any kind of documentation from Senator Goldwater’s speeches, writings, sponsorship of legislation and the like in that TV commercial.    This demonstrated the medium of television itself is the message (McLuhan).  Reflect on the fact nowadays that in serious discussions, ones in which we are present or ones we watch on television, the way a person usually begins is, “I feel…”, not “I think…”, “I opine…”, nor “My conjecture is…” and forbid it: “I know…”.

What changed?  Postman goes through the historical seismic change from a typographic or print culture to an image culture.  From the 16th century until the 19th century all public discourse, political, religious, educational, scientific was through the printed and spoken word. Sermons were at least an hour long.  I remember in a college lecture that C. F. W. Walther would endeavor to preach not one sermon on a Sunday, but 7 sermons so that his congregation would have the Word everyday of the week.  Schools and education were encouraged from the get go of our country.  For instance, Postman points out that Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sold approximately 400,000 copies to a population of 3,000,000, and a book to do that well today would have to sell 24,000,000 copies (pages 34-35).  The American colonies were literate.  All discourse was through the written word.

The change began with the inventions of the telegraph and the photograph in the 19th century and for the first time we could have news and photos not associated with our town or city.   We could peer into the lives of others, across our continent and the oceans, that is, ‘The Peek-a-boo World’ (chapter 5’s title).  Couple these inventions with the newspaper and results were immediate and then newspapers became essentially television in a static form.  “The telegraph may have made the country in “one neighborhood,” but it was peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other” (page 79).  I must note that Postman has only two or three references to computers.  In the ‘80s, just some thirty years ago, there was no internet or Facebook and now we sort of ‘live’ in on-line ‘communities’, knowing nothing but  superficial facts about each other.

Jumping ahead into the 20th century  and  the age of television.  I think that all the sociological babble about “baby boomers’, “millennials” etc. misses the real cultural point.  At the age of 60, I am part of the first generation of television watchers in world history.   The Age of Television began in post-World War II United States, particularly in the 50s and again particularly in America as in no other nation.  I cannot remember a time not watching TV.  More people watched the 1953 “I Love Lucy” episode in which she gave birth to “little Ricky” than they watched Eisenhower’s Inaugural Address that year. Television has had more influence that anything else in all aspects of culture: politics, science, religion, and education.  I can understand the internet because of television whereas my parent’s pre-television generation has a harder time with it.  However, at any age television can form the mind.  How?

“…what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience. Our television set keeps us in constant communion with the world, but it does so with a face whose smiling countenance is unalterable. The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.

To say it still another way: Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to “join them tomorrow.” What for? One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights. We accept the newscasters’ invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say. Everything about a news show tells us this—the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials—all these and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping. (Page 87; emphasis my own)

Repeat the above for some 6-8 hours a day of TV watching, or now on internet clicking from a funny meme about eating cucumbers to Syrians being gassed to death and we have a problem.  “Now for something completely different” as John Cleese would say, perfectly satirizing the tele’s content, yet the ease of transition points us to a danger.

All subject matter is now presented as entertainment: politics, religion, news, science etc. Postman has separate chapters about politics, news, education…and religion, the title of this article is his chapter on religion on which we now focus.

The ’80s were the advent of the Televangelist:  Swaggart, Falwell, Robertson, the Bakers and Schuller. Religion became entertainment.  In the ’90s for instance, ELCA Pastor, Walter Kallestad had a mega congregation, Community of Joy in Tempe, Arizona and he promoted “entertainment evangelism”.  At least he was forthright.  The Christian faith is sold as amusingly as possible, complete with upbeat music, like selling  “Sprite”.

Prof. Postman points out that not everything is “televisible”, for instance religion. Religion does not translate into television without severe loss of meaning (pages 118ff).  Christian religion cannot be taught in sound bites, it takes time to be taught, and so to worship. Postman points out at least four ways television is not conducive to actual religion of any sort:

1. “Sacrality of space”: not that a space, such as a room, is sacred itself, but it becomes sacred, that is, set apart for the purpose of the divine Word, with the introduction of say a cross or crucifix, praying in silence, wearing vestments and  kneeling, reading Scripture.   Even, “…a gymnasium or dining hall or hotel room can be transformed into a place of worship”.  In our little mission here in Lexington, Virginia, we, and many other missions, have done so in funeral homes and other odd spaces and here in the main library’s community room.  One visitor from a neighboring congregation e-mailed me following worshiping with us on Holy Trinity Sunday:

“That was a wonderful worship service yesterday, truly the Church gathered around the Word. Meaningful in every sense, studying the Word together, Law and Gospel properly divided and preached in their purity, the sacrament rightly administered. The wonderful hymns were uplifting; for a moment you could imagine the Church in heaven and on earth worshiping together the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. What a wonderful day.” (emphasis my own)

Again, this is in a library’s community room with a dozen worshipers. This simply cannot happen on TV. As the Holy Spirit works through the Word alone, it must be remembered that the Word is not disincarnate.  The Holy Spirit can work wherever the Lord wants to so work but we know from the Bible it is only in the real time and real space of His people that the Lord, the Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth” in the Word made flesh.   I have discovered that watching liturgy on TV is not good TV.  The Church and liturgy is not two dimensional like a flat screen. The Church and her head, Jesus Christ is multi-dimensional:   “…may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth.” (Ephesians 3: 18).  Even when TV will probably become a kind of 3-D “holodeck”, it can never be the same as actual body of Christ in Liturgy.

2.  “Psychology of secularism”:  What we watch on a TV screen is not neutral and so the screen is not neutral:  “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 be recreated as a frame for sacred events” (page  119).  We can switch from someone talking about Jesus to a commercial whose hook is lust  then to a report on a suicide bombing, and nothing registers.

3.  Marketing of religion: Television is for selling and religion can sell itself and only by doing so can religion have an audience.  One time watching the Hour of Power from the Crystal Cathedral, Robert Schuller was hawking that day, “The Positive Thinker’s Bible”  in which all the positive passages were highlighted in blue, kind of like an enthusiast’s version of the Jefferson Bible.  Most of those offers are ‘free’…for a donation, but the real danger is selling the faith, actually, selling out the faith.  Postman:

“The executive director of the National Religious Broadcasters Association sums up what he calls 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 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.” (page 121)

Joel Osteen is not unusual among televangelists.  He and his team have simply fine-tuned his program and it’s message on television to a greater degree.

4. The Danger of Idolatry:

“…I think it is both fair and obvious to say that on television, God is a vague and subordinate character.  Though His name is invoked repeatedly, the concretenenss and persistent of the image of the preacher carries the clear that is he, not He, who must be worshiped.  I do not mean to imply that the preacher wishes it be so;  only that the power of a close-up televised face, in color, makes idolatry a continual hazard.  Television is, after all, a form of graven imagery far more alluring than a gold calf.” (pages 122-123)

What has changed for the Church since Postman’s book?  Simply:  the television/computer screen has now been brought  into the sanctuary and in order to sell faith,  the Christian message has been dumbed  down into entertaining sound-bites, preaching to “real life” and  desacralized sanctuaries and the congregations therein turned into studio audiences.  Pastors want to be personalities.  As Prof. Postman cites when Father O’Connor when became Archbishop (later cardinal) of the New York Diocese hammed it up.  Prior to this  quote he cites a television Roman priest at the time, Fr. Sacowicz, “”You don’t have to be boring in order to be holy”:

“Meanwhile in New York City at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Father John J. O’Connor put on a New York Yankee baseball cap as he mugged his way through his installation as Archbishop of the New York Archdiocese. He got off some excellent gags, at least one of which was specifically directed at Mayor Edward Koch, who was a member of his audience; that is to say, he was a congregant. At his next public performance, the new archbishop donned a New York Mets baseball cap. These events were, of course, televised, and were vastly entertaining, largely because Archbishop (now Cardinal) O’Connor has gone Father Sakowicz one better: Whereas the latter believes that you don’t have to be boring to be holy, the former apparently believes you don’t have to be holy at all.” (page 93)

We have grown familiar and even accustomed to pastors, bishops, district presidents and popes mugging it up during a liturgy. It works because it is like TV.


Dear reader in Christ, please understand I like TV and television per se has been one of my major interests over the years.  Television showed us in the ‘60s, the civil rights movement, the assassination of a president, and the Vietnam War.  We watched live on TV as man stepped foot on the moon.  It is a source of entertainment but Prof. Postman’s critique demonstrates the danger regarding television:  all the major aspects of life are now to be  entertainment and this has had consequences for the Church.  The church is also amusing itself to death. I think that the “worship wars” is really between TV style worship and actual worship.

My conclusion has been over the years we need education about television and the internet itself.

Prof. Postman:

“Twenty years ago, the question, Does television shape culture or merely reflect it? held considerable interest for many scholars and social critics. The question has largely disappeared as television has gradually become our culture. This means, among other things, that we rarely talk about television, only about what is on television—that is, about its content. Its ecology, which includes not only its physical characteristics and symbolic code but the conditions in which we normally attend to it, is taken for granted, accepted as natural.” (page 79;  bold-face emphasis my own)

Prof. Postman wrote about the idolatry of television.  In confirmation classes, when I teach the 9th and 10th Commandments, I have taught about TV commercials whose hook is original sin shown in covetousness.

The television commercial is the most peculiar and pervasive form of communication to issue forth from the electric plug. An American who has reached the age of forty will have seen well over one million television commercials in his or her lifetime, and has close to another million to go before the first Social Security check arrives. We may safely assume, therefore, that the television commercial has profoundly influenced American habits of thought. (page 126)

We all have an ache for something: I WANT it!  We have been educated, catechized again and again, by commercials alone. Remember:  Covetousness is idolatry (Colossians 3: 5).  Once I want something so bad I can taste it then I have an idol and I am back to the 1st commandment. 2 million commercials work to draw out covetousness.   Prof. Postman also demonstrates that the message of TV commercials forms the notion that our problems  can be solved in 30 seconds, or should be.

With all three of our children, we restricted TV watching for their first 18 years.  As babies we did not have the TV on when they were in that room.  One day, when our first born was learning to crawl and I turned on the TV, and it was a commercial grabbing his total attention. He stopped playing and crawling.  I turned it off as if it were an emergency. Think of how many families we know in which the television has become a third parent, a very powerful parent. In the latest Imprimis from Hillsdale College, the article is by Dr. Anthony Daniels about his work as a physician among the poor in London:

I should mention a rather startling fact: By the time they are 15 or 16, twice as many children in Britain have a television as have a biological father living at home. The child may be father to the man, but the television is father to the child. Few homes were without televisions with screens as large as a cinema—sometimes more than one—and they were never turned off, so that I often felt I was examining someone in a cinema rather than in a house. But what was curious was that these homes often had no means of cooking a meal, or any evidence of a meal ever having been cooked beyond the use of a microwave, and no place at which a meal could have been eaten in a family fashion. The pattern of eating in such households was a kind of foraging in the refrigerator, as and when the mood took, with the food to be consumed sitting in front of one of the giant television screens. Not surprisingly, the members of such households were often enormously fat.

“Honor your father and  mother. Television and  computer deserve no honor whatsoever.  We must learn about television and about the internet, to use it and not abuse it  There is whole body of literature on the effects of television on culture and society,  as Prof. Postman’s book. Here your input towards a catechesis of television  and internet is needed.

When I was an ELCA pastor, I encouraged one congregation not to watch broadcast TV for Lent.  I encouraged them to post a psalm verse near their TVs that I printed on cards.  The verse is the Lutheran Book of Worship translation of Psalm 119:  37:

 “Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in Your ways.”






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