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Be Thou My Television

Neil Postman, despite the fact that I have never read his books and (as far as I know) that he made no Christian profession, has had a profound affect on my beliefs. He is best-known for his book Amusing Ourselves To Death where he discusses our culture’s obsession with amusement, and especially, the medium of television. He claims that television is inextricably linked with entertainment and is dangerous outside of that context. He argues that television has such resonance that our ability to take the world seriously has diminished. Postman believes a new ‘worldview’; a new ethos or approach to life has been brought about by the assimilation of television into the culture of the masses. Because of the extent of television’s infiltration into our culture he is unable to precisely measure or even prove this, but it seems equally difficult to disprove.

Several books I have read that have formed my thinking have relied on Postman’s research and analysis. I think in particular of Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur and Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace by James Boice. In both of these books the authors argue that amusement has pervaded our culture. Amuse is a word drawn from Greek that literally means not (a-) thinking (muse). MacArthur and Boice, in the spirit of Postman, argue that we, as a society, no longer care to think. Instead, we prefer entertainment which allows us to turn off our minds and just be. Of course this attitude has extended to all areas of life, including religion, and Christianity in particular. They would argue that Christians have eschewed a religion that stimulates the intellect, and instead made it a religion based around entertainment and experience.

And this is the case in many churches, isn’t it? People go to church on Sunday expecting and demanding to be entertained. I think of some of those preachers I have seen on television, and most notably Joel Osteen who begins every sermon with a joke, presumably just to grab the listener’s attention. But does it not at the same time set the attitude of the people to the speaker? How can a man who begins each service with a joke then solemnly and boldly proclaim a “thus saith the Lord?” How can people maintain the solemnity that should be part of sitting under the opening and expositing of the Word of God? How does the listener know when the entertainment ends and the exposition begins? What biblical warrant is there for our desire to have our worship be entertainment, or for the sermon to be entertainment?

Believers need to be thinkers. God tells us in Proverbs that it is a fool who despises understanding. Christians are to love knowledge and the wisdom it brings. We are to seek it and to desire it. Amusement and Christianity make strange and dangerous bedfellows. There is nothing wrong with fun and entertainment, but when we become so addicted to them that we extend them to even our worship of God, so that the way we relate to God is nearly indistinguishable from the way we are entertained, we have made an idol of ourselves – an idol of our desire for entertainment.