Amusing Ourselves to Death, Part 8: The Impact on Religious Discourse
Postman now turns his attention to analyzing the consequences of the use of television on religious discourse (or lack thereof) in Chapter Eight, “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem.” Every serious Christian should read this chapter closely. Two conclusions from his watching television’s version of religion (Robert Schuller, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson):
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….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.
Most Americans, including preachers, have difficulty accepting the truth, if they think about it at all, that not all forms of discourse can be converted from one medium to another. It is naive to suppose that something that has been expressed in one form can be expressed in another without significantly changing its meaning, texture or value. (page 116-117 [emphasis added])
The last paragraph above is an especially important assertion/observation. It ties in to his previous comments on the second commandment and shows the problem of trying to be relevant to the world by using worldly techniques. Any attempt at dramatization of the written biblical record will suffer from this alteration of content due to the change in the medium of communication. He goes on to assert:
Though it may be un-American to say it, not everything is televisible. Or to put it more precisely, what is televised is transformed from what it was to something else, which may or may not preserve its former essence. (page 118)
Postman now turns to the reasons for his bold assertions above.
To come to the point, there are several characteristics of television and its surround that converge to make authentic religious experience impossible. The first has to do with the fact that there is no way to consecrate the space in which a television show is experienced. It is an essential condition of any traditional religious service that the space in which it is conducted must be invested with some measure of sacrality. (page 118-119)
Moreover, the television screen itself has a strong bias toward a psychology of secularism. 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 to be recreated as a frame for sacred events. Among other things, the viewer is at all times aware that a flick of the switch will produce a different and secular event on the screen – a hockey game, a commercial, a cartoon. (page 119-120)
I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether. (page 121 [emphasis added])
I believe Postman has hit the nail on the head in the above quote!
The spectacle we find in true religions has as its purpose enchantment, not entertainment. The distinction is critical. By endowing things with magic, enchantment is the means through which we may gain access to sacredness. Entertainment is the means through which we distance ourselves from it. (page 122)
While the assertion that the rituals/spectacles of true religions are magical in nature is equivocal, his point that they are not done for entertainment purposes is still a valid one and an important one.
Television is, after all, a form of graven imagery far more alluring than a golden calf. I suspect (though I have no external evidence of it) that Catholic objections to Bishop Fulton Sheen’s theatrical performances on television (of several years back) sprang from the impression that viewers were misdirecting their devotions, away from God and toward Bishop Sheen, whose piercing eyes, awesome cape and stately tones were as close a resemblance to a deity as charisma allows. (page 123 [emphasis added])
Next, Postman looks at the effect on the political realm.