Drowned in a sea of irrelevance
Several years ago, a friend and ministry colleague in Sydney was invited to be a guest on Australia’s highest-rated morning TV show. His church’s building is located on a major road, and they’d been posting a series of thought-provoking signs that drew enough public attention to earn him his ‘15 minutes’. He used it shrewdly, speaking to the nation of God’s love for the world and the hope that Jesus offers. But he also tried to highlight the fact that, these days, few people take time to ponder life’s big questions: Why am I here? Is there a God? What’s it all about? They posted those signs, he explained, because they longed to make people stop and think.
It was a terrific segment, but it came with a deliciously ironic sting in the tail. My friend’s brief moment was immediately followed by an appearance from K-pop star Psy, who performed his viral mega-hit ‘Gangnam style’ in a nearby plaza. One guest passionately urges viewers to focus on the things that really matter, then—after a commercial break, of course—we witness thousands of people gathered to watch someone do a horsey dance.
It was a perfect illustration of something that poisons the collective mind of 21st century Western culture: a growing inability and, dare I say, unwillingness to think deeply. Our urge for constant entertainment is met with countless options that are literally at our fingertips. Everything—from the important to the unimportant, from the life-changing to the twee—blends together in one big pool of mind-numbing distraction.
Thoughtful Christians will have noticed these dynamics playing out in our culture and started to consider how they shape life and ministry. It’s something I’ve pondered at length over the last few months, largely as part of taking a group of university students away for a ‘digital detox’ weekend. The preparation for that weekend was genuinely scary. The more you examine the all-encompassing presence of digital technology, the more you become concerned over what this might be doing to our evangelism, our discipleship, our minds, and our hearts.
We are a very long way down the road of Amusing Ourselves to Death. That’s the title of Neil Postman’s seminal 1985 book, subtitled ‘Public discourse in the age of show business’. You might be forgiven for wondering what a 34-year-old book could have to offer in the age of the smartphone, but most of Postman’s insights are frighteningly prescient and gloriously relevant as we prepare for life in the 2020s. It will do more than any other book I know of (apart from the Bible, of course) to help you see the dangers and feel the urgency of addressing them. You’ll need to do some updating for the internet age, but the key principles are all here.
And these issues absolutely demand careful attention. For one thing, Christians—those whom God commands to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2)— should care more than anyone about our culture’s collective ability to think, ask big questions, listen to more than a soundbite, and engage in serious but respectful disagreement. What’s more, digital technology is so pervasive that there’s really no way we’ll drift into seeing all the issues with clarity. If we just let ourselves go with the flow, the negative effects of technology are likely to overwhelm us before we’ve even noticed.
That’s why a companion like Postman can be so useful. And many of his points continue to hit the mark, like his critique of the way that electronic media fragments information, disconnecting everything: “There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly—for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening—that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, ‘Now… this’”. And what is the internet, what is social media, if not the ultimate form of ‘Now… this’ information delivery?
Perhaps the insight that packs the greatest punch comes in the foreword, where he contrasts two competing dystopian visions of the ‘future’ (i.e. our present): George Orwell’s fear that ‘Big Brother’ would watch and control our every move, as depicted in 1984; and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which a future ‘World State’ is insidiously controlled by psychological manipulation. Postman presents his entire book as being about “the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right”:
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 that we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared that we would become a trivial culture… In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
As Huxley himself observed, 1984 depicted a future in which the masses are controlled by pain; Brave New World depicted a future in which the masses are controlled by pleasure. Which version most resembles our reality? It’s not even close.
Postman’s book isn’t perfect: he comes across as a bit of a curmudgeon, and some have questioned whether he goes too far in his disdain for visual media and not far enough in his willingness to offer solutions. It would be a shame, but not impossible, for some personality types to read Postman and be turned into angry cranks on the margins of society. He also shows that he’s a little out of his depth when he starts pontificating about the relationship between TV and religion (“there are several characteristics of television and its surround that converge to make authentic religious experience impossible”). But taken for what it is—a searing indictment of our society’s relentless pursuit of entertainment and the way this corrupts almost everything—Amusing Ourselves to Death is as good as it gets.
The book raises vital questions and issues that need to be thrashed out—prayerfully, in gospel-centred ways—over the dinner table, at elders’ gatherings or staff meetings, on long car rides, at device-free retreats, over morning tea at church, at a major conference that I hope someone organizes, and wherever else God’s people meet together.
Here are just a few of the questions that Postman has prompted me to ask: How do we communicate the gospel to those whose minds are shaped by media that discourage sustained thought and critical argument? Since God speaks through the written word, how can we help a visual culture to hear him? How do we break people out of the ravages of the ‘attention economy’, where their eyeballs are the commodity, and help them to see that there is so much more about Jesus that demands their attention? How do we get digital natives to read books? We know that the truth will set people free, but how do we help them to hear it in a world that drowns truth “in a sea of irrelevance”?
But we’ll want to do more than ask questions; we’ll also want to take action. And maybe the best place to begin is small and personal. For example, consider your own digital detox: 30 days with no non-essential digital technology. Ask someone to join you, then debrief together as you work out what technology to reintroduce, what to abandon, and who else to bring with you. Postman would make an excellent reading companion for such a detox—as would Tony Reinke’s Competing Spectacles, a more up-to-date take on these issues by a gifted Christian writer.
Wherever we choose to start, and whatever questions we ask, faithfulness to Christ and to his mission demands that we wrestle with these issues. This is no longer a special interest topic for the media-savvy culture vultures among us; this is essential, part and parcel of gospel ministry in the 2020s. Triviality—the power of constant distraction—seeps into every crack of our society. Love demands that we pay attention and push back. The unsurpassed power of our message demands that we toil and sweat to effectively communicate it to a lost, confused and distracted world.
This article was first published in Latimer Focus and has been edited and re-published with permission.