Amusing Ourselves To Death





Recently I visited an old friend of mine who is now a pastor. He has three children and a successful ministry. But within a few minutes of being in his home, I realized that something wasn’t right. One of the children was in her room playing a computer game, while another was in the den playing another computer game. The third child, sitting next to me, was texting away, without even acknowledging my presence. My friend was totally oblivious to this apparent breakdown in social skills and common courtesy. It seems to me that these children are growing up in a virtual unreality that is crippling their ability to think and carry on a meaningful conversation.

In the must-read book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, author Neil Postman warns parents that media keeps families in a trance-like state, literally brainwashing our children. It is interesting that the word "amuse" comes from a root word meaning "to muse." To muse means "to think." When you put the negative prefix "a-" on a word, it negates the original meaning. Thus, to "amuse" means "not to think." Our technology and media have become amusements that sedate us into a hypnotic state, crippling our ability to think.

But there’s hope and help. One of the most powerful books I have ever read that will inspire and motivate any reader to overcome the amusement trap of our day is Sir Knight of the Splendid Way. When I first read this book, I couldn’t put it down and found it even more powerful than Pilgrim’s Progress. Sir Knight is on a quest to see the king, but in order to do so he must travel the treacherous road and keep his armor on at all costs. His comrades, reveling in their amusements, try to lure him to remove his armor, claiming that there’s no longer a battle to be fought. Seeing the enemy looming over the city he tries to awaken them out of their drunken stupor, but only those who wear the armor can see the enemy…and only those with a pure in heart, can wear the armor. –Mark Hamby



Another interesting article along similar lines:


In Amusing Ourselves to Death Neil Postman offers similar thoughts about the effects of television on American society. He suggests that, “our bottomless appetite for TV will make content so abundantly available… that we’ll be overwhelmed by ‘information glut’ until what is truly meaningful is lost and we no longer care what we’ve lost as long as we’re being amused.” Incrementally increase the sugar in your coffee enough and you’ll be drinking syrup before you know it.

Postman begins by contrasting two books written in the first half of the twentieth century which paint dystopian pictures of the future but in very different ways: In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell imagines a world in which the individual is completely subject to a totalitarian state; a world in which the government is able to suppress and manipulate the people through a complex system of surveillance and mind control. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley imagines a world far worse – where that mind control and suppression comes from within. It is a world that Christopher Hitchens describes as characterized by hedonistic nihilism – “painless, amusement-sodden, and stress-free.” Postman draws this conclusion:

“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.”

It is Postman’s argument that Huxley was right, not Orwell.

He goes on to imply that at both a governmental and societal level, North America has historically maintained an unhealthy obsession with totalitarianism. Perhaps their World War II experience fuelled their paranoia that a totalitarian state in which no one was allowed to think for themselves was frighteningly immanent. Whatever the source, Postman’s suggestion is that while they were maintaining that paranoid preoccupation, television had the same effect of dumbing the population down, but from the inside out. “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.’”

Postman argues that most people think what we hate will ruin us. His fear is much worse – that our almost infinite appetite for distractions means that what we love will ruin us.


So what does all this have to do with church? Well, without wanting to sound hysterical, I believe the Christian church has followed a similar path to that which Postman predicted for society. We too have had an unhealthy obsession with the potential impact and influence that secular culture may have on our sacred way of life. To mix some Scriptural metaphors, we have been on the lookout for the evil of principalities and powers, readying ourselves to defend against the roaring lion – convinced, to the point of paranoia, that the government and media is constantly seeking to diminish and demean everything that we hold dear. And all the while we have completely missed the fact that the changes we so fear, are already taking place – and they are also happening from the inside out. No-one has had to ban us from doing those things which are most profitable for our souls such as prayer, meditation on Scripture, and discipleship. We have willingly surrendered them. Just like Neil Postman predicted society would, so I think the church has “failed to take into account our almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

And I am not alone. Listen to opening lines of the introduction to Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, by David Watson:

“It is commonplace today to speak of the battle … between Islam, Marxism and Third World Christianity. Western Christianity is on the whole too flabby to do anything about it. … We have neglected our prayer life; we have stopped listening to God; we have been caught by the covetous spirit of our affluent society, and worshipped the false god of materialism. We have exchanged our knowledge of God for heady disputes about theological words, or for religious or social activism. We have forgotten how to be still before God, how to meditate, trapped as we are in the vortex of modern life.

Now, admittedly, he is speaking primarily about some of the more traditional denominations and movements in the UK, and writing in 1978. But when I read Watson’s comments, I do find myself wondering how far they, or we, have come.

In 2007 Willow Creek Community Church – whose founder Bill Hybels has been instrumental in shaping how many evangelicals ‘do’ church – released the results of a multi-year qualitative study. They had set out to assess the effectiveness of their ministry – in particular, which of their programmes and activities were actually helping their congregation to mature. The surprising results were published in a book, Reveal: Where Are You?

Executive Pastor Greg Hawkins outlines the belief that they, and many other churches, held prior to carrying out the research: “Participation is a big deal. We believe the more people participating in these sets of activities, with higher levels of frequency, it will produce disciples of Christ.” This philosophy is what fuelled Willow Creek’s approach to ministry. Create programmes, get people to participate in them, then watch them grow into spiritual maturity. In the book, Hawkins is candid about their historical use of this approach: “I know it might sound crazy but that’s how we do it in churches. We measure levels of participation.”

So you can imagine their unpleasant surprise when the results revealed that there was almost no correlation between a congregant’s participation in church programmes and activities and their spiritual growth. “Increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities does NOT predict whether someone’s becoming more of a disciple of Christ. It does NOT predict whether they love God more or they love people more.”Speaking at the Leadership Summit that year, Hybels summarized the findings this way: “Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back, it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for.”

That is a stunningly honest admission after thirty years of ministry. Especially when most of those years have been spent growing an enormous church organization and network founded on the very programmes that have just been proven ineffective. It is little wonder that Hybels referred to Reveal as ‘the wake-up call of his adult life.’ “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become “self feeders.” We should have gotten people, and taught people, how to read their bible between services; how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”

“In other words, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age-old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.”

There are many dynamics that contribute to a situation like that which Willow Creek was prompted to address. But not least among them is our tendency towards distractibility. We are conditioned to seek out amusement and entertainment. We prefer most of our information and interactions served up that way. And the temptation to do so is just as strong in church as it is anywhere else. If they are not alert to that temptation with real discernment, congregations and church leaders can rush around for many years before they pause for breath and realize, as Willow Creek did, that they have been majoring on some minors whilst neglecting the basic ingredients of discipleship. I admire them for having the courage and the humility to conduct the research and publish it.

Whether it is church programmes or television programmes, it seems like Neil Postman’s warning has something to teach all of us. My only hope is that we’re not too distracted to hear it. If you have read to the bottom of this, may I suggest you take one moment, just one to reflect without clicking onto the next task.


2 thoughts on “Amusing Ourselves To Death

  1. Wow, a feast here! I must find Sir Knight. I hope this link may be of interest to you and readers, Your Child and Your TV, originally published under the sign of the pine tree in Estes Park, was widely distributed through the late Raymond Moore’s homeschool offices and Elisabeth Elliot used it for one of her radio programs.. It may be freely copied or printed and re-distributed.


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