Entertainment and the Death of a Culture

The iron grip of endless entertainment impacts everything, even the churches:

As we all should know by now, the best way a tyrant can keep the masses in control and prevent them from challenging their overlords is to keep them distracted – usually with endless, brainless entertainment. It is the old ‘bread and circuses’ routine to keep people enslaved without them really even knowing it.

Such is the all-powerful impact of entertainment that most Western churches have also fell under its spell. So many seem to think the only way to compete with the world is to become just like the world. Just consider the recent “strip show-like” entertainment offered at a men’s conference and all the bruhaha which followed from that with Mark Driscoll and John Lindell.

Thankfully some Christian leaders have been calling out this obsession with entertainment. One voice in the wilderness in this regard was A. W. Tozer. He often spoke out against this. For example, he said that the church

appears to have decided that if she cannot conquer the great god Entertainment she may as well join forces with him and make what use she can of his powers. So today we have the astonishing spectacle of millions of dollars being poured into the unholy job of providing earthly entertainment for the so-called sons of heaven. Religious entertainment is in many places rapidly crowding out the serious things of God. Many churches these days have become little more than poor theatres where fifth-rate “producers” peddle their shoddy wares with the full approval of evangelical leaders who can even quote a holy text in defense of their delinquency. And hardly a man dares raise his voice against it.

And again:

It is now common practice in most evangelical churches to offer the people, especially the young people, a maximum of entertainment and a minimum of serious instruction. It is scarcely possible in most places to get anyone to attend a meeting where the only attraction is God. One can only conclude that God’s professed children are bored with Him, for they must be wooed to attend a meeting with a stick of striped candy in the form of religious movies, games and refreshments.

One last remark by Tozer: “Jesus Christ never offered amusement or entertainment for His disciples, but in our day we have to offer both if we are going to get the people – because they are common Christians.”

But here I want to present one important secular voice who speaks to these matters. I refer to Neil Postman (1931-2003) and his very important 1985 volume, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I have quoted from this book often, but it pays to share even more of it here. By offering some choice quotes I might convince some of you to go out and get a copy and read it for yourself.

Image of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Postman, Neil (Author), Postman, Andrew (Introduction) Amazon logo

His opening thoughts as found in the Foreword of the book I have quoted before, but they are germane to his whole argument and thus worth sharing again:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. 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, 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)

Having made this contrast between the two authors, Postman looks at this further in Ch. 11: “The Huxleyan Warning.” He starts with these words: “There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled. In the first — the Orwellian — culture becomes a prison. In the second — the Huxleyan — culture becomes a burlesque.” (p. 155)

He goes on to say this:

What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility. In America, Orwell’s prophecies are of small relevance, but Huxley’s are well under way toward being realised… (pp. 155-156)

And again: “To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple” (157).

He speaks of some responses that are not plausible: “We must, as a start, not delude ourselves with preposterous notions such as the straight Luddite position as outlined, for example, in Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Americans will not shut down any part of their technological apparatus, and to suggest that they do so is to make no suggestion at all.” (p. 158)

He instead urges us to think carefully about how television and the other new forms of mass media impact us:

The problem, in any case, does not reside in what people watch. The problem is in that we watch. The solution must be found in how we watch. For I believe it may fairly be said that we have yet to learn what television is. And the reason is that there has been no worthwhile discussion, let alone widespread public understanding, of what information is and how it gives direction to a culture. There is a certain poignancy in this, since there are no people who more frequently and enthusiastically use such phrases as “the information age,” “the information explosion,” and “the information society.” We have apparently advanced to the point where we have grasped the idea that a change in the forms, volume, speed and context of information means something, but we have not got any further. (p. 160)

He continues, “The point I am trying to make is that only through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium.” (p. 161)

He says this in the final paragraph of this chapter (and book):

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 all laughing instead of thinking, but that they didn’t know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking. (p. 163)

But some believers at least might think that all this really is irrelevant to them, or does not really impact them. Sadly, this could not be further from the truth, and Postman actually devotes an entire chapter to how the television culture has impacted the church. He had spent quite a bit of time watching all the televangelists of the day, and came away with two conclusions:

The first is that on 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.


The second conclusion is that this fact has more to do with the bias of television than with the deficiencies of these electronic preachers, as they are called. It is true enough that some of these men are uneducated, provincial and even bigoted. They certainly do not compare favorably with well-known evangelicals of an earlier period, such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and Charles Finney, who were men of great learning, theological subtlety and powerful expositional skills. Nonetheless, today’s television preachers are probably not greatly different in their limitations from most earlier evangelicals or from many ministers today whose activities are confined to churches and synagogues. What makes these television preachers the enemy of religious experience is not so much their weaknesses but the weaknesses of the medium in which they work. (pp. 116-117)

More quotes from that chapter – and the rest of the book – would be well worth sharing here. But you might by now see his point. And remember: he wrote this book back in 1985, well before the internet, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and so much more. His prophetic warnings largely went unheeded, and what he feared would happen certainly has come about, and with a vengeance.

We really do seem to be amusing ourselves to death – Christians included.

For more on Postman, this book, and his other important works, see this piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2023/05/27/in-praise-of-secular-prophets/

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