In Praise of Secular Prophets
We must not overlook the important works by Neil Postman:
God never leaves himself without a witness. As I have said often before, if he does not get his own people to speak out on the things that matter, he will find other means. He once even used an ass for example (see Numbers 22). And Jesus said that the very stones would speak out if his own disciples would not (Luke 19:40).
So I for one am always thankful for secular voices who in so many ways speak much-needed truth. They can do this because they are made in God’s image and because they are subjects of God’s common grace. Although fallen – as we all are – they can still speak true truth at times. Writers such as Huxley and Orwell come to mind here.
Another such individual was the American author and cultural critic Neil Postman (1931-2003). While he penned some twenty books, here I just want to mention three of the more famous ones, and offer a few choice quotes from each. Numerous readers and reviewers have repeatedly used the word “prophetic” to describe all three of these volumes.
My hope here is that you will either read Postman for the first time, or read again some of these quite important works. The page numbering is taken from the editions that I mention after each title.
Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (Vintage Books, 1992, 1993)
“All of this has called into being a new world. I have referred to it elsewhere as a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is an improbable world. It is a world in which the idea of human progress, as Bacon expressed it, has been replaced by the idea of technological progress. The aim is not to reduce ignorance, superstition, and suffering but to accommodate ourselves to the requirements of new technologies. We tell ourselves, of course, that such accommodations will lead to a better life, but that is only the rhetorical residue of a vanishing technocracy. We are a culture consuming itself with information, and many of us do not even wonder how to control the process. We proceed under the assumption that information is our friend, believing that cultures may suffer grievously from a lack of information, which, of course, they do. It is only now beginning to be understood that cultures may also suffer grievously from information glut, information without meaning, information without control mechanisms.” 70
In his chapter on Scientism he writes;
“By Scientism, I mean three interrelated ideas that, taken together, stand as one of the pillars of Technopoly. . . . The first and indispensable idea is, as noted, that the methods of the natural sciences can be applied to the study of human behavior. This idea is the backbone of much of psychology and sociology as practiced at least in America, and largely accounts for the fact that social science, to quote F. A. Hayek, ‘has contributed scarcely anything to our understanding of social phenomena.’
“The second idea is, as also noted, that social science generates specific principles which can be used to organize society on a rational and humane basis. This implies that technical means— mostly ‘invisible technologies’ supervised by experts—can be designed to control human behavior and set it on the proper course.
The third idea is that faith in science can serve as a comprehensive belief system that gives meaning to life, as well as a sense of well-being, morality, and even immortality.” 147
And this from his chapter on being a “Resistance Fighter”:
“You may find it helpful to remember that, when the Chinese students in Tianamen Square gave expression to their impulse to democracy, they fashioned a papier-mache model, for the whole world to see, of the Statue of Liberty. Not a statue of Karl Marx, not the Eiffel Tower, not Buckingham Palace. The Statue of Liberty. It is impossible to say how moved Americans were by this event. But one is compelled to ask, Is there an American soul so dead that it could not generate a murmur (if not a cheer) of satisfaction for this use of a once-resonant symbol? Is there an American soul so shrouded in cynicism and malaise created by Technopoly’s emptiness that it failed to be stirred by the students reading aloud from the works of Thomas Jefferson in the streets of Prague in 1989?” 182
Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Penguin, 1985, 2006)
In his Foreword he famously says this:
“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, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.
“This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.” xix-xx
He even has a chapter on religious programming. He writes:
“[O]n television, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. On these shows, the preacher is tops. God comes out as second banana.” 116-117
“The preachers are forthright about how they control the content of their preaching to maximize their ratings. You shall wait a very long time indeed if you wish to hear an electronic preacher refer to the difficulties a rich man will have in gaining access to heaven. 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 programmes 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.” 121
“What I suggest here as a solution is what Aldous Huxley suggested, as well. And I can do no better than he. He believed with H. G. Wells that we are in a race between education and disaster, and he wrote continuously about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media. For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.” 163
The Disappearance of Childhood (Vintage Books, 1982, 1994)
In his Introduction, Postman states this:
“[T]he origin of this book is in my observation that the idea of childhood is disappearing, and at dazzling speed. Part of my task in the pages to come is to display the evidence that this is so, although I suspect most readers will not require much convincing. Wherever I have gone to speak, or whenever I have written, on the subject of the disappearance of childhood, audiences and readers have not only refrained from disputing the point but have eagerly provided me with evidence of it from their own experience. The observation that the dividing line between childhood and adulthood is rapidly eroding is common enough among those who are paying attention, and is even suspected by those who are not.” xii
Writing before the age of the internet and smartphones, he said this:
“We may conclude, then, that television erodes the dividing line between childhood and adulthood in three ways, all having to do with its undifferentiated accessibility: first, because it requires no instruction to grasp its form; second, because it does not make complex demands on either mind or behavior; and third, because it does not segregate its audience. With the assistance of other electric, nonprint media, television recreates the conditions of communication that existed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Biologically we are all equipped to see and interpret images and to hear such language as may be necessary to provide a context for most of these images. The new media environment that is emerging provides everyone, simultaneously, with the same information. Given the conditions I have described, electric media find it impossible to withhold any secrets. Without secrets, of course, there can be no such thing as childhood.” 80
And a final quote:
“As clothing, food, games, and entertainment move toward a homogeneity of style, so does language. It is extremely difficult to document this change except by repairing to anecdotes or by asking readers to refer to their own experience. We do know, of course, that the capacity of the young to achieve ‘grade level’ competence in reading and writing is declining. And we also know that their ability to reason and to make valid inferences is declining as well. Such evidence is usually offered to document the general decline of literacy in the young. But it may also be brought forward to imply a decline of interest in language among adults; that is to say, after one has discussed the role of the media in producing a lowered state of language competence in the young, there is still room to discuss the indifference of parents, teachers, and other influential adults to the importance of language.” 132
2 Replies to “In Praise of Secular Prophets”
Oddly in the Huxley vs Orwell debate regarding who was right I think both were. I think Huxley is the preferred method but we all know not everyone marches to the beat of the same drum Orwell becomes necessary to take care of those who refuse to be broken the Huxley way. It’s kind of like a carrot and stick approach some are enticed by the carrot but others require the stick.
I don’t think TV, radio, even arcade games (inside an actual arcade) are bad per se but must be kept in their place and to a minimum. (I think the WWW could go away without a big problem and in a godly world we wouldn’t need it.) Most technologies we have if kept in place have value. Increasingly though 21st century technologies have little value and few would be a problematic loss. Perhaps we should see why kids even as late as the 80’s, but 50’s and 60’s, could be kids and what has changed. Maybe go BACK to how we raised kids up then to have something better now.
Yes they both had some real insights here Paul.