Talking Hairdos and the Ten Commandments

A few weeks ago, one of the most astute media critics of our age, Neil Postman, died at the age of 72. In remembering the long-time New York University professor, the press described Postman's warnings about the dangers of mass communication. In his devastating critique of television, titled Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman declared that television turns even the most tragic news into mere entertainment, delivered by "talking hairdos." Postman's book was reviewed in all the right places, and it has been around for some time -- but not once did we learn where Postman got his ideas. It turns out he got them from the Bible. Postman's thesis is that different media encourage different ways of thinking. The printed word requires sustained attention, logical analysis, and an active imagination. But television, with its fast-moving images, encourages a short attention span, disjointed thinking, and purely emotional responses. Postman says he first discovered the connection between media and thinking in the Bible when, as a young man, he was struck by the Old Testament words: "You shall not make for yourself a graven image." Postman says he realized that the idea of a universal deity cannot be expressed in images, but only in words. As he put it, "The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking." This is the God Christians worship today -- a God known principally through His Word and incarnate. Many religions have a scripture, of course. Yet most teach that the way to contact the divine is through mystical visions, emotional experiences, or Eastern-style meditation. Judaic Christianity insists on the primacy of language. Gene Edward Veith, in his book Reading between the Lines, explains why: The heart of our religion is a relationship with God -- and relationships thrive on communication. We can't know people intimately by merely being in their presence, according to Veith. It takes conversation to share thoughts and personalities. Christians are meant to have an ongoing conversation with God. He addresses us in the language of Scripture, and we address Him through the language of prayer. This emphasis on the Word has had a deep impact on Western culture. Reading was once confined to the elite. But it was the Reformation that first aimed at universal literacy, so that the Bible could be read by every person. Today's missionaries are similarly concerned with literacy. In nonliterate societies, they develop a written form of the native language and teach people to read the Bible. They can then go on, of course, to read about anything -- sanitation, health care, democracy -- things that often transform their culture, much as the Reformation transformed Western culture. Here in the West we are in danger of coming full circle: The visual media may ultimately undermine literacy. If that happens, can biblical faith still flourish? Neil Postman's writings remind Christians of the dangers of television. We need to learn when to turn it off lest we lose our historical reputation as the "people of the book." For further reading: "Neil Postman, University Professor of Media Ecology, dies at 72," New York University, 10 October 2003. Jonathan Zimmerman, "Postman as Prophet," New York Post, 12 October 2003. Peter Kavanagh, "An echoing silence in his wake," Globe and Mail (Toronto), 11 October 2003, R9. Gene Edward Veith, "Flex the brain," World, 1 November 2003. Jay Rosen, "Neil Postman: A civilized man in a century of barbarism," Salon, 10 October 2003. (Subscription required, or watch an advertisement to obtain a one-day pass.) Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (Viking Press, 1986). Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (Vintage, 1994). Gene Edward Veith, Reading between the Lines (Crossway, 1990). Neil Postman, "Informing Ourselves to Death," speech given at a meeting of the German Informatics Society on October 11, 1990. Read more writings by Postman. BreakPoint Commentary No. 030804, "Our Shrinking Culture."
  1. John Sommerville, How the News Makes Us Dumb(InterVarsity, 1999).
Thomas Hibbs, Shows about Nothing (Spence, 1999).


Chuck Colson


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