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SBTS: Panel ponders ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Published in 1985, Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” bemoaned the effects of television on the American mind, particularly with respect to what the invention did to popular culture’s esteem of the printed word.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary held a panel discussion in recognition of Postman’s book and the influence it has maintained within academia and the wider culture 25 years after its release.

On the panel were R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Seminary; Mark Coppenger, professor of Christian apologetics; Timothy Paul Jones, associate professor of leadership and church ministry and editor of The Journal of Family Ministry; Bruce Keisling, seminary librarian and associate vice president for academic resources; and Owen Strachan, instructor of Christian theology and church history at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of SBTS.

“As a Christian and as one concerned for preaching, there’s actually a lot in [Postman’s book] that demands our attention,” Mohler said, noting how entertainment culture has shaped the presentation of news media, “because a lot of his indictment or diagnosis of the mind — the cluttered amusement, entertainment-satiated mind — was, I thought, very, very interesting.”

Though he was not yet of age to read when Postman published “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Strachan said if he had been old enough to appreciate the book’s content upon its release during the 1980s, he would have felt it accurately depicted the inherent weakness of communicating information in a televised format.

“Postman, I think, exposes that television can perhaps be an aid to traditional education, but we do ourselves a major disservice if we allow it to usurp traditional education that is much more suited to long-form communication, deep thinking [and the] cultivation of ideas,” Strachan said.

Coppenger said evangelicalism’s failure to produce credible media pundits compared to the number of Roman Catholic and Jewish pundits perhaps demonstrates a lacking ability within the evangelical subculture to reason and articulate well.

“I think we should bear some of the blame. We are not a discursive subculture in a way. We are not very good at argument,” Coppenger said during the November discussion. “We haven’t had the Jesuits or the Jewish rabbi pounding us enough and so we become, I think, kind of weak and insipid, where we can pontificate and then take notes or then just lash back and then not be discursive. I think that we are not only victims or products of the age, but we’re the contributors.”

Although the panel showed general agreement that entertainment culture has accelerated people’s disinterest in the printed word to some extent, Keisling offered criticism of Postman’s diagnosis.

“I think [Postman] made some valid points,” Keisling said, “but I think he overstated. Where was this golden age of literacy? As a librarian, when I was in library school, I read articles written by librarians in 1930 who were complaining about the fact that people weren’t reading. … They were out playing baseball. They were going to movies. They were amusing themselves to death pre-television.”
Josh Hayes is director of news and information at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky. The SBTS Resources page provides video of the panel discussion, “25 Years of ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death,'” at http://www.sbts.edu/resources/.

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  • Josh Hayes