The media scholar Neil Postman uses exaggeration as a rhetorical technique in nearly all of his writings, and one thing he tends to do repeatedly with this is distort the history and beliefs of religion. And yet, in spite of this, Postman has become a favorite writer on media and education for many Christians. And this is right because of what he helps us see around us, what is usually invisible or is background noise we no longer hear. In other words, Postman is the frenemy of Christians.
Postman was always willing to admit the importance of religion in the development of the most fundamental human issues. As a critic of modern media and technology, he frequently pointed out--correctly--that no form of technology, no matter how advanced, would solve the basic problems that people have always faced and always will face. Hatred, loneliness, joy, despair, love--none of these things require the most up to date laptops integrated into the classroom.
How does one be a more loving father? How does one learn to live next to obnoxious neighbours? Why does one get anxious about the future and what do we do about it when we can’t sleep at night because of our anxieties? Modern technology and the ideology of constant progress cannot help us with any of these. But Plato, Isaiah, Confucius, Marcus Arelius, and Shakespeare, among others, can still speak to us in ways that provide help for what ails us emotionally and spiritually. Faster laptops with more memory cannot help you understand your self. But an ancient Roman writer, or a Renaissance Italian poet, or an Eighteenth Century theologian can.
One of Postman’s constant theses was that education in particular is not improved by better and better technology. Larger storage capacities and faster processing speeds have nothing to do with being an educated person, and yet the modern secular cult of progress tries to trick us into ignoring this obvious insight. Newest is best--the latest ipad in the classroom will help our kids learn better, right?
Postman apparently believed in some kind of ultimate religious truth, but he was also a non-practicing Jew who didn’t believe in supernatural intervention or in the veracity of biblical witness to the one true God of creation. In some of his books, this leads him to distort what Medieval and Reformation Christians actually believed in order to make a point about how technological change affects society. Nevertheless, Postman also claimed that religious writers, like Isaiah and Micah, or Spinoza and Goethe, were more helpful sources for learning how to be human than the latest technocrat promoting the most efficient information delivery system.
So, curiously, Postman ends up being a frenemy of Christians. Much of what he says has been born out by actual experience, and in spite of his willing to overstate, distort, and exaggerate--something which he admits he does--, he also helps Christians become aware of the mediated environment they dwell in, usually without knowing the full nature of the ideology that modern technology enforces (such as, newer is always better).
Postman’s style of rhetoric has its place. To draw attention to a dangerous situation that most don’t see, one might have to shout. His analyses of the cultural perturbations that new technologies cause should be adopted by Christians (and have) who can go on to correct his simplifications of traditional theology.
One recent application of “Postmanian” insights is Why Johnny Can’t Preach, by T. David Gordon. Another Christian scholar employing “Postmanian” insights is Quentin Schultz.