What I’m Reading: Amusing Ourselves to Death

Last week I made a third attempt at reading Neil Postman’s well-respected book Amusing Ourselves to Death. The first two attempts were aborted, in part because I had more pressing things to do, but in part because the book just didn’t resonate with me. Perhaps that indicates that I’ve amused myself to death, especially because many people whom I respect think the book is just amazing. I think it’s helpful. I also think it’s a bit flawed, especially when it addresses Christianity.

I don’t disagree with Postman’s essential idea—that America’s turn from “books” to “programs” has had tragic affects. I doubt that anyone can deny that, though some surely try. He argues, for example, that in the age of television we elect leaders based on images and sound bytes rather than serious thought about policy. Again, that’s self-evident and disturbing. For example, Americans just elected a man with almost no experience and dubious policies to our nation’s highest office in a landslide. Now, while our nation’s economy and morality (not to mention security) are “burning,” we yuck it up as he “fiddles” about basketball and bowling on late night television. The President’s policies may be disastrous, but hey, at least he can dance. So yes, we’ve lost the ability to think, and television has been a major contributor to the problem.

Still, there are times when Postman’s complaints about how the advent of the photograph and telegraph marked the end of serious dialogue is quirky and irrelevant. What shall I do with the fact that modern means of communication are defective? Watch less TV? Sure. Read more—and read books, not blogs? Absolutely. But shall I stop paying attention to news that doesn’t immediately affect me? Shall I stop emailing friends across the country or across the world? Shall I stop blogging? Or, ironically enough, has Postman himself contributed to the problem against which he warns by doing television interviews like the (fairly creepy, perhaps profound) one that follows?

Postman insists that television cannot possibly serve as a sufficient means for serious communication. Yet, I (and you, I presume, since you’re reading this) use the computer, television, and recording devices all the time for instant access to important information—information that is helpful for my own spiritual benefit and that of those under my pastoral care. I profit from recorded classes (both for me and my children), audio and video sermons, important communication, etc. Mercy, my physical health is often dependent on googling foods to see if they contain gluten. So while I appreciate Postman’s warnings about modern media, I think he underestimates its potential value.

Regarding Christians and media, I don’t doubt that the church has tragically slipped (or leaped) into entertainment mode. Duh. The book is filled with sad examples of this, especially in the chapter entitled “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem.” But Postman misses the mark when addressing biblical themes more than once, and does so in serious ways.

First, I’ve read a number of respected theologians who quote a particular statement from Postman about the second commandment (including Lig Duncan in Give Praise to God, p. 32). Postman wrongly assumes that the second commandment is proof that visible “media” is forbidden by God as inherently unworthy of Him. Here’s the quote:

“In studying the Bible as a young man, I found intimations of the idea that forms of media favor particular kinds of content and therefore are capable of taking command of a culture. I refer specifically to the Decalogue, the Second Commandment of which prohibits the Israelites from making concrete images of anything. ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth.’ I wondered, then, as so many others have, as to why the God of these people would have included instructions on how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize their experience. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. We may hazard a guess that a people who are being asked to embrace an abstract, universal deity would be rendered unfit to do so by the habit of drawing pictures or making statues or depicting their ideas in any concrete, iconographic forms. 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. Iconography thus became blasphemy so that a new kind of God could enter a culture.” (p. 9, emphasis his)

I don’t think Postman’s statement is profound, or even accurate. The point of the second commandment was not to address “the quality of a culture.” Indeed, it didn’t teach that physical forms aren’t a worthy means of communicating truth—even divine truth. Not at all. In fact, God would require physical forms to communicate truth even after this command was given. Think of the ark of the covenant, the ornately decorated tabernacle with all of its furniture, rings, buckles, and pomegranates, the brass serpent, the dramatic pictures conveyed by the prophets, even the visible depiction of sin’s fatal consequences communicated through the sacrifices. Even in the New Testament, consider how the forms of bread and wine are used to remind us of our Savior and His work. The point isn’t that physical forms can’t communicate truth, but that they can’t represent God Himself—not because they are an unworthy means of communication, but because God is spirit! The point of the second commandment is not the prohibition of making “concrete images of anything,” but of making images as objects of worship. Postman addresses Exodus 20:4 but ignores Exodus 20:5. The point of the text is not that visible means of communicating can’t do important topics justice, but that visible representations of God can’t do Him justice—not because He “was to exist in Word” or because He was “a new kind of God,” but because He was and is the eternal God who refuses to share His glory with a worshiped image.

Second, I disagree with Postman’s assertion that one of the perils of religious broadcasting is its normalizing of worship. That’s not to say that I’m a fan of BBN, to be sure. But his argumentation rests at least in part on the importance of place for acceptable worship.

“It is an essential condition of any traditional religious service that the space in which it is conducted must be invested with some measure of sacrality. Of course, a church or synagogue is designed as a place of ritual enactment so that almost anything that occurs there, even a bingo game, has a religious aura. But a religious service need not occur only in a church or synagogue. Almost any place will do, provided it is first decontaminated; that is, divested of its profane uses. This can be done by placing a cross on a wall, or candles on a table, or a sacred document in public view. Through such acts, a gymnasium or dining hall or hotel room can be transformed into a place of worship; a slice of space-time can be removed from the world of profane events, and be recreated into a reality that does not belong to our world.” (pp. 118-119)

Of course, the Christian meets God in Christ, not in a church, synagogue or “decontaminated” room. We need no forms, for we worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24) on the basis of the access to God gained to us by the Lord Jesus’ perfect sacrifice (Mat 27:51; Eph 2:18; Heb 10:19-22). I don’t expect Mr. Postman to understand this, but I do find it ironic that one in favor of print and verbal communication would place such a premium on such things as a cross or candles.

The implications of this are significant, both spiritually and practically. Spiritually, he ends up pointing people to a sanctuary rather than a Savior. Practically, he ends up compartmentalizing religion to a particular time and place rather than a constant part of real life. He writes,

“[To worship properly] our conduct must be congruent with the otherworldliness of the space. But this condition is not usually met when we are watching a religious television program. The activities in one’s living room or bedroom or—God help us—one’s kitchen are usually the same whether a religious program is being presented or ‘The A-Team’ or ‘Dallas’ is being presented. People will eat, talk, go to the bathroom, do push-ups or any of the things they are accustomed to doing in the presence of an animated television screen. If an audience is not immersed in an aura of mystery and symbolic otherworldliness, then it is unlikely that it can call forth the state of mind required for a nontrivial religious experience.” (p. 119)

What he misses—and what most religious people miss—is not only that worship has been released from “an aura of mystery and symbolic otherworldliness” through Christ, but that biblical religion has always been welcomed in the living room, bedroom, and (“God help us”) kitchen. It is absolutely appropriate for me to worship by hearing or watching sermons on the go, not just because of Jesus Christ’s work, but because of the pervasive, real life nature of biblical religion. If it was appropriate for OT Israelites to speak of scriptural things “on the run” under the old covenant, even making them part of their “home décor,” if you will (Deut 6:6-9), how much more so is it for NT Christians to worship in every phase of life? I will indeed engage in worship and benefit from spiritual instruction as I cook, shower, or “do push-ups” (hypothetically).

Postman sounds a necessary warning, though I think the danger lies more in our silliness than in our means of communication. Granted, much of our silliness has to do with the boxes in our living rooms and notebooks in our briefcases. We are more interested in style than substance, in flash than facts, and this love for amusement has flooded into the church as well. But the answer, I think, isn’t to eschew modern media. Rather, it’s to think—soberly, propositionally, and biblically—despite our world’s insistence that images, entertainment, and feelings reign supreme.

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61 Responses

  1. Chris,

    Regarding your third point… are you saying you see no distinction in quality of experience between watching a service on a screen (whether live or recorded) and participating in one in person? Though the OT Jews were to speak of such things “on the run,” they were also to set aside specific days (and accompanying activities) as holy.

  2. Hey, Greg. It’s been a while. :)

    I’m certainly not saying that. If a believer were rejecting corporate worship for “on the run” worship, I’d certainly object, as would various Scriptures in both Testaments. I’m just disagreeing with his horror at the thought of biblical instruction and worship taking place in various places (kitchen, etc.).

  3. Well, obviously, he isn’t lining up with “us” at every point- including his understanding of worship. Still, i can see that there is a difference in how our affections toward God are built up when we have a Communion service vs. enjoying some Welchs and Goldfish crackers with the kids in the van…

    And that being said, I don’t think he eschews modern media so much as he is raising the fact that society loses something when new technologies are embraced. Ideas have consequences.

  4. So, I guess a question for you would be, is anything sacred or holy? If everything is holy or sacred, then, by definition, nothing is.

    One of the central points of Amusing is that mediums communicate. Perhaps you reject this? It seems you do in the first sentence of the last paragraph. I’d appreciate a bit of clarification on this, and how you would defend it from Scripture, or even philosophically.

    I wonder, in all seriousness, how do you think “biblically” about modern media? The Bible says nothing about it? Please try to answer without using the “principle.” :)

  5. Chris,

    There’s certainly no doubt as to the values of digital media, but that’s not Postman’s point. His point is that there are limits to the kind of discourse that can take place with such media.

    Surely you, as prolific a blogger as you are, recognize that no substantial conversation can take place with this medium. We can throw around opinions, share information, and greatly benefit from a blog. But we cannot advance a serious discussion simply because of the nature the medium.

  6. Yikes. I guess I touched a nerve. Mercy, guys, I didn’t criticize Edwards or Moses. I said that (a) I agree with much of what Postman says, but (b) he doesn’t understand the nature of Christian worship. I’m surprised that what I’ve said is controversial. Have you never taken a correspondence class, or benefited from a recorded message?

    Greg, I’m not arguing against corporate worship with appropriate reverence. Nor am I equating your two (fairly extreme) examples. I’m simply arguing against his point that watching a sermon while at home or hearing one while driving or exercising is somehow ridiculous or irreverent. That is, I’m not arguing that modern media is superior to corporate worship or a worthy replacement of it—just that it’s not hopelessly inappropriate.

    Ryan, I’m not sure how you’re getting the idea that nothing is sacred from what I said. Now, I would affirm that a particular building isn’t sacred or holy, as Postman argues, or that it somehow becomes so via candles and such. The church I pastor meets in a public school auditorium, complete with graffiti, gum on the seats, etc. What makes our gatherings “holy” is the assembly of the Lord’s body and His unique presence with and among us, not a place or a cross on the wall. Again, I’m not arguing against corporate worship or reverence. I’m disagreeing with Postman’s argument that modern media is incapable of relating serious communication such as biblical instruction. As for your last question, I’m not following you. jAre you being ironic, or should I be answering?

    Scott, Postman’s “limits” regarding what can be accomplished via the television medium preclude, per his own example, watching a recorded worship service or sermon in your home. I think he’s wrong about that. As for “serious discussion,” sure blogs are limited. But Postman’s preference is the printed word. But what do we do with printed articles available online? And frankly, if what we’re looking for is “discussion,” the printed word in all forms—including ink on paper—has limitations.

    Be real, guys. We know that modern media has its limitations. We also know that it has some unprecedented benefits. So we all have blogs. So Scott promotes his book on—“God help us”—YouTube. So we all listen to and watch recorded sermons or classes.

    Why not just say “Postman’s a genius, but he overstates his case.” That’s all I’m saying, and by your engagement in modern media, you seem to agree.

  7. I’m sorry, I meant my questions seriously. How do you work in a difference between sacred and secular in your view? It seemed to me that you were saying that everything is, or can be, sacred. Perhaps it can. I wanted to know how you distinguish the two. I was making no accusations, certainly not along the lines you were reading me (i.e., “You deny corporate worship!” or “You deny reverence!”)

    Do you really think that Postman is saying it is “incapable”? Is Postman addressing all “modern” media? And is he saying it is all “incapable” of “relating serious communication”? I never took him that way. In fact, if you looked hard enough, you might even find videos of him being interviewed on television. This seems to go against your theory.

    I did mean that as a serious question, in response to your last sentence. I did accidentally throw in an extra question mark. I meant to say: “. . . how do you think “biblically” about modern media? The Bible says nothing about it? Please try to answer without using the “principle.”

    And you missed my second paragraph/question. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this matter as well.

    I’m real (re: “Be real” :) ).Postman doesn’t overstate his case. Perhaps you are misreading his case. If anything, I think we under-appreciate his case. We are not thoughtful. We do not appreciate (at least I don’t) how or to what extent modern media changes us and the way we do things.

  8. I’m saying in the last sentence that we need to think, in general, and in opposition to our unthinking culture. I’m not suggesting that Scripture specifically addresses modern media.

    I’m not sure I’m prepared to answer your second question, Ryan. I’m probably not, in fact. I’m comfortable saying that various genres can communicate their own message—say drama, musical styles, etc.—but I’m not certain that forms of media do. For example, does watching a recorded sermon or lecture on a television or computer alter it significantly? I tend to think not.

    If I’m comically missing what you’re looking for, please either give up or clarify.

    I’m still uncertain as to how you read what I said in the initial post and wondered if I think anything is sacred. I don’t think a building is sacred or can be made so by lighting candles or hanging a cross. Beyond that, I’m not sure what you’re looking for. Perhaps you can clarify by telling me what you consider to be sacred, especially in the sense of the discussion in the initial post (a building, the appropriateness of using of religious media in the home, etc.).

  9. So, I guess a question for you would be, is anything sacred or holy? If everything is holy or sacred, then, by definition, nothing is.

    I have heard this argument many times, but I have not seen it sustained by argumentation. It raises some question in my mind, perhaps due to my own misunderstanding.

    How would this apply to the Garden of Eden, prior to sin? Or to heaven, when sin is eradicated? Was there/will there be nothing holy there because it is all holy? Do we really need the antithesis to have the thesis (so to speak)?

    I read Postman years ago and in fact, just yesterday saw it on my dad’s bookshelf as I was looking for books to sneak out of the house and into my car. I am generally sympathetic to his argument, though there are some things I am curious about.

    Perhaps my biggest curiosity is this: We live in the world that Postman describes. Is the biblical mandate to change the world back and then minister? Or can we biblically accept that the world is not ideal, but let us “serve the present age” (as Wesley said). I am not convinced that a return to the past is necessary any more than a capitulation to the present. Is there not some middle ground where the gospel can be faithfully proclaimed and disciples made?

  10. Ryan, as for his overstating his case, do you agree with the gist of what he says in the three quotations I cited?

  11. ————-
    Perhaps my biggest curiosity is this: We live in the world that Postman describes. Is the biblical mandate to change the world back and then minister? Or can we biblically accept that the world is not ideal, but let us “serve the present age” (as Wesley said).
    ————-

    Larry,

    It depends. Some would take “serving the present age” to mean that we have sprawling, multi-campus “churches” while simultaneously streaming the services online to gather in even more of the “faithful,” for example. Some people think the concept of local churches themselves is “retro” and dated.

  12. ——–
    That is, I’m not arguing that modern media is superior to corporate worship or a worthy replacement of it—just that it’s not hopelessly inappropriate.
    ——–

    Chris,

    Postman, at least in the quote you provided, doesn’t use terms like “ridiculous” or “irrelevant.” He says “…it is unlikely that it can call forth the state of mind required for a nontrivial religious experience.” He doesn’t say it isn’t profitable in any way possible.

    To draw on your example- I doubt very much you would bring your lawnmower and grubbies to Inter-City on a Sunday AM. That isn’t to say listening to Doran while mowing the lawn is without profit- but surely you can distinguish the quality of one experience over the other.

    Or can you?

  13. Chris,

    First, I would commend you give more consideration to the answer you gave to my second question. Begin thinking of all the differences (even ones perceived to be minor), from the way that 1) the event is recorded, 2) the fact that you know how much time is left, 3) the thing that introduces (or does not) the recorded event, 4) the way people behave when they know they are being recorded, 5) the time constraints people sometimes place upon themselves when they are being recorded, 6) the presence or absence of “dead time”, 7) the little “show-biz” things people do when they are being recorded (whether impromptu or not), 8) the stage space (for video), 9) the difference between watching on an mp3 player, a computer monitor, a television, and live, 10) the way you pay attention to a sermon while mowing the lawn or driving versus sitting in the pew, etc etc etc

    I could list many others. My point is in that all these things, the medium is changing (I would say significantly) the message. Perhaps it is death by a thousand paper cuts. It is still “death” (that’s intended hyperbole). This is not to say that videos of sermons are illegitimate. This is to say that videos of sermons significantly alter the message. And I would add (and this is important) that the more they cater to the demands of the “video age” (the typical cultural moorings that go along with video production), the more the medium is altering the message. I like watching classical music DVDs. But classical music DVDs are usually really really bad television. If a given classical music DVD is “good television,” odds are I’m not going to be as interested in it.

    The reason I asked for your articulation of the sacred/secular distinction was that I perceived you were headed in the direction of “all of life is worship.” For me, the “all of life is worship” has this as a problem (this is not my rejection of it, but my recognition that there is a problem with this truth), that if all of life is worship, then there is nothing sacred. All is sacred. This does not necessarily mean that nothing is sacred, but it seems to me that Paul says to pray and sing and gather for worship for a reason–because not all of life is worship. Here’s something by Kevin Bauder I remember thinking was helpful on this matter.

    As to your final and most recent question, I would say that he does not overstate his case in the first paragraph. I do not even remember that being central to his point. I do not find great relish in his exegetical skills, but I think that is likely an implication of the second commandment. As to his second paragraph, again, do not force him into saying more than what he is trying to say. All he is trying to do is to illustrate that media communicate. I take his point, and appreciate it. Again, with the third paragraph, I see little on which to take Postman to task. It would be good for us to approach God with a sense of “mystery and otherworldliness.” I realize that “mystery” is like a four-letter word for fundamentalists, but I, again, take Postman’s point. If we watch a little ESPN.com video and in the next click go over to watch a John Piper video sermon without any change (something internet usage lends itself to), I think (again) the medium has changed the message. I understand that most of contemporary evangelicalism normally does not give these things even the hint of a thought, but that does not dissuade me one bit from the truth of what he says. The world is full of meaning, despite what the NeoReformed are saying.

    But here’s what I really want to stress. Those three paragraphs are not central to his point. It’s appears as if you’ve chosen three places where he misinterprets the Bible, and then dismiss him on that basis. His point is very much separate from those three citations. Postman is not arguing that you cannot have family worship at the dinner table (though family worship is different in many ways from public worship). And, with respect (for I do respect you), what is worse, instead of dealing with his main point and his arguments, you have merely dismissed them, because “it doesn’t seem to you.” I would like to see you interacting with his argument. You don’t think the message changes significantly. I would like to see you argue that point (though I recognize that proving a negative is very difficult to do :) ), countering some of the examples he gives, demonstrating his error in reasoning.

  14. “Or can you?”

    We’re getting nowhere, Greg. That question is insulting.

  15. It’s not meant to be. I am trying to set up your response, because I assume from what I know of you that you understand the practical differences between experiencing corporate worship vs. listening to a sermon while jogging or mowing your lawn. I’m essentially wanting you to say, “Sure I can”- and then elaborate.

  16. I’ve not dismissed his entire argument, Ryan. I stated basic agreement, and I’ve disagreed with him particularly in areas where his lack of understanding of Christian theology causes him to make weak arguments. I gave (admittedly brief) biblical reasons why I disagreed with him regarding his statements about Scripture or religious worship, not merely statements of “it doesn’t seem to me.”

    I’ve also not indicated that listening or watching sermons in my home is the equivalent of doing so in person. I’ve said I don’t think the media of video alters the message as drastically as Postman does. On the other hand, it may be that I’m more able to listen to a recording with profit if the recording is well done—because there’s no child wiggling in my lap, because the original room had a distracting odor, whatever. Many of the arguments you cited regarding how the message is hurt could actually work in reverse.

    Again, I’m not arguing in any way against the priority of corporate worship. I don’t think most would take me to be doing so. I’m saying that the prospect of listening to instruction or worship via recording in the home doesn’t make me say “God help us” as it does Postman, primarily for theological reasons.

    If modern media results in serious dialogue’s death by a thousand paper cuts—even as hyperbole—why record sermons at all? Why listen to them? Why recommend them?

  17. Well, for one, because not all dialogue is created equal. You can have a conversation with your wife at the dinner table with your children, but it’s not usually the same as having a conversation with her after the kids have gone to bed. It’s another level yet again if you have a conversation with her over a more intimate dinner with no children present. The setting does enter into the equation. That isn’t to say that the dinner table conversations have no value- but a healthy marriage should generally include more than just that kind of interaction.

  18. Agreed.

  19. Some would take “serving the present age” to mean that we have sprawling, multi-campus “churches” while simultaneously streaming the services online to gather in even more of the “faithful,” for example. Some people think the concept of local churches themselves is “retro” and dated.

    I guess my point is that just because some do this doesn’t mean that we have to avoid the opposite, though. Can we not legitimately partake of some without partake of all? As I understand it (which may be wrong), you are presenting and either/or type of dichotomy that I am not convinced of. The fact that some misuse something doesn’t mean that all must misuse it.

    Secondly, giving more thought to the medium changing the message, and equating it to MP3s, switching over from ESPN, etc, does that really change the message? I need more interaction and thought on this obviously, but that seems headed towards an interpreter centered hermeneutic. If John Piper’s message was filled with appropriate meaning at BBC on Sunday morning, the meaning itself didn’t change because some one tuned into it after watching hockey fights on ESPN.com. The hearer’s response may be different (or it may not). But in that instance, are we really talking about meaning itself?

    To me, claiming that a musical style changes the meaning (or contradicts the meaning of a lyric) is not the same thing as claiming that an mp3 listened to after ESPN changes the meaning of the message in the mp3.

  20. Hey, Chris or Larry, or whomever,

    I’m just curious, for my own understanding of your presuppositions:

    Do you see any difference between having a Scripture passage in a service projected on a screen, or having the people read it from their Bibles?

  21. Just in response to your last statement, Larry. I agree with you to a certain extent; that there is a difference.

    But, I can’t remember if it’s Postman or Wilson who makes the point that a news story about a plane crash has a whole different meaning when on either side of that story are tidbits about Angelina Jolie and American Idol.

    The context of the whole thing does, maybe not change the meaning, but it does ADD something to the meaning that perhaps trivializes or harms what would otherwise be something very serious.

  22. Do you see any difference between having a Scripture passage in a service projected on a screen, or having the people read it from their Bibles?

    Yes and no. About the only time I project it on the screen is for corporate reading of Scripture, or if there is an isolated verse that I want to give particular attention to. For instance, during a series of messages, I closed every message with Romans 8:32, and projected it on the screen every week just at the close, and by the end we all had it memorized. But as a general rule, I want people carrying their Bibles, marking them up, being able to find their way around in them, etc. I don’t think the meaning itself changes. If the verse is projected against a picture background, that could change the meaning. The meaning is rooted in the text, whether in leatherbound volumes, computer screens, video screens, or our minds.

    As for plane crashes and American Idol (an entirely different kind of crash), yes, context changes some things, but meaning? Again, perhaps my understanding meaning is too narrow, but placing a crash alongside Idol may change “meaning to me” (whoever me is), but it doesn’t change meaning, IMO. To me, that sounds like it is approaching a post-modern hermeneutic (which I am quite sure you reject). The plane crash means the same thing no matter what. The relative value of it may be contextualized down to something trivial by its placement in relation to other stories.

    Again, perhaps I am missing the point.

  23. I do think you’re definition of meaning is too narrow. There is more to meaning that propositional truth.

    Context in itself is meaning.

    Or, as Wells rightly says, Medium is the message.

  24. Scott, the way you’re addressing the issue seems like you’re saying the message of your musical recording would differ based on whether I purchase it via iTunes, CD, or tape. I think you’re pushing the “medium and meaning” issue too far.

    The statement “medium is the message” has frightening implications. It could sound like a denial of the objectivity of truth, especially when we’re talking about things like recorded sermons. Medium affects message, I can see, but “medium is the message”? Not so much.

    And speaking of messages, this fascinating discussion is doing nothing to prepare me for Sunday. As I don’t intend to play an mp3 of my preaching during our worship service, I’ve got to move along.

  25. Of course there is more to meaning than propositional truth. I would not suggest otherwise. But again, if we root meaning in the text, there are some limits to it.

    I think Wells (and that wasn’t original with him was it?) is only partially correct. Medium is “a” message or a part of the message, but it isn’t necessarily “the” message. It is only part of a larger complex of issues and contributing factors. The meaning of Scripture doesn’t change because we change from a Roman font to a cartoon font. It has an effect, but it doesn’t change the meaning.

    You can hear about a plane crash on the radio, but when you see it on TV, the meaning hasn’t changed, but the impact of it has. But when you see it in person, as it happens, the impact changes yet again. Yet the meaning has always been the same.

    I am curious as to what argument might be offered against projecting verses on a screen, and how that would affect meaning.

    I think that conservatives have by and large rejected exchanging meaning for impact or “meaning to me.” I think some are enlarging meaning too far, and as I understand it, it runs into a lot of serious problems.

    So while I am generally sympathetic with these concerns, I wonder if we have not thought seriously enough about them from this end.

    And Chris, I am planning on playing one of your MP3s at church this week since I am on vacation this week and don’t feel like studying. I went to the zoo to take some pictures and am putting together a nice background slide slow to go with the message.

  26. I, too, have to move along to other things, and since the medium of blogging has its limitations ;), here is just a quick final comment:

    Larry, I think the meaning would indeed change dramatically whether you printed Scripture in Times Roman or a cartoon font. Therein perhaps lies our greatest disagreement.

  27. […] issue of communication, and especially communication in a technologically-driven world. There is an interesting discussion going on here about Postman’s philosophy. Tagged with: […]

  28. .

    Scott, the way you’re addressing the issue seems like you’re saying the message of your musical recording would differ based on whether I purchase it via iTunes, CD, or tape.

    Those aren’t the same comparison. Your counter would be appropriate if Scott had asked about Scripture in large print, hardcover, or loose-leaf wide margin. But there is a difference between say, hearing Scott minister live vs. listening to him on a recording.

    The medium affecting the message can change the direction and actually alter the message. Think any example of practicing eisegesis with Scripture. Removing something from the proper context doesn’t make the words less inspired, per se, but can cause someone to miss the point God revealed through those words.

  29. Scott says, Larry, I think the meaning would indeed change dramatically whether you printed Scripture in Times Roman or a cartoon font. Therein perhaps lies our greatest disagreement.

    So meaning is not rooted solely in authorial intent as communicated through the words in context but rather in design of ink on the page?

    I don’t see how you are not exchanging authorial intent for reader response. It seems like you are confusing “meaning to me” for meaning. The impact of the words may be different so that the meaning is clouded, but I don’t think the meaning has changed.

    “God is light” means “God is light” not matter what font is used. A font may be used as a part of the meaning, but not necessarily so. A font may impact the communication of the meaning, either enhancing it or clouding it. But it does not necessarily change the meaning.

    There are a lot of complexities, particularly when you are dealing with the citation of other author’s words, but isn’t there more to this than you are acknowledging, at least in this forum?

    Greg says, But there is a difference between say, hearing Scott minister live vs. listening to him on a recording.

    And what is that difference?

  30. We could have a breakthrough here in the bibliology battles:

    Times New Roman Onlyism

    I’m a Gill Sans MT man, myself. :)

  31. Larry,

    Well, for one, do you judge an interruption the same way listening to a CD vs. listening to a live performance? Do others?

  32. Well, for one, do you judge an interruption the same way listening to a CD vs. listening to a live performance?

    In what respect? I guess I would answer Typically no, but why? Listening to a CD is a more informal atmosphere where I can go back and listen to it again. I might only listen to a part of it at a time. I might have it on as background music. I might skip parts I don’t like. The expectations are different. A live performance is simply a different kind of animal.

    But does the music mean something different because of this? I would like to see an argument in favor of that.

    Does Mark Dever mean something different when he preaches to me while I play golf than he does when he preaches on Sunday morning at CHBC? I wouldn’t think so because meaning is not that tied to location and atmosphere. It is tied to content.

    Do others?

    I have no idea. I don’t even know what I believe half the time. That’s why I read Chris’s blog. He’s funny and it distracts me from having to think about what I believe and why I don’t know it.

  33. “God is light” means “God is light” not matter what font is used. A font may be used as a part of the meaning, but not necessarily so. A font may impact the communication of the meaning, either enhancing it or clouding it. But it does not necessarily change the meaning.

    But it is capable of changing the meaning.

    “God is light” is not the best way to illustrate this, though I think that phrase could be trivialized with a font- Is God light in regards to weight? shade of color? etc.

    It strike me better to take a phrase like “How awesome is this place!” lifted from Genesis 28:17. Publishing it in a subdued font (Times, Garamond, or even something like an Arial or Century Gothic) suggests one thing, while putting the same phrase in Comic Sans or even all caps can alter what is communicated.

  34. In what respect? I guess I would answer Typically no, but why? Listening to a CD is a more informal atmosphere where I can go back and listen to it again.

    A=ha!

    So, you do take it in differently. You would not see Scott’s performance live as “background music,” now, would you? The weight of the content is impacted. Meaning changes- how we reverence it, how it immediately impacts us (or not), or at least has better opportunity to. The form(ality) affects the function.

  35. But it is capable of changing the meaning.

    Not if meaning is grounded in authorial intent. “How awesome is this place” as used in Gen 28:17 means what it means, no matter what font it is. The font may cloud the meaning, or as you say “trivialize it” but it doesn’t change it. Only lifting it out of its context can change it, and then only because it is being invested with new authorial intent.

    Someone may misunderstand the meaning because of the font, but that doesn’t mean the meaning has changed. The whole idea that we can “trivialize” or “misunderstand” meaning implies that there is a set meaning there to begin with that cannot be changed. If we change it, then it means what it means now, not what it meant before.

    Again, I think what you are talking about is reader response, and most conservatives would probably reject reader response as legitimate.

    If you see “How awesome is this place” in comic sans bold and understand it wrongly, that’s on you, and it may be on the one who chose the font. But it is not on Moses (or J or whoever … [just throwing a bone to try to keep everybody happy]).

    If the author of the phrase choose a font, he may do it to communicate something particular. If I am quoting someone and choose a font, I may contradict or confuse their meaning. I may cloud it and distract from it. But I haven’t changed it because meaning belongs to the author.

    BTW, the phrase “God is light” was lifted out of 1 John 1, where it has nothing to do with weight or color. Only by lifting from its context and divorcing it from authorial intent can it be misunderstood. In that case, the meaning has been changed by theft … The author has been robbed of his message.

  36. You would not see Scott’s performance live as “background music,” now, would you?

    It would depend on the occasion. If Scott were an outdoor symphonic band playing in the city park, probably, at least to some degree.

    The weight of the content is impacted. Meaning changes- how we reverence it, how it immediately impacts us (or not), or at least has better opportunity to. The form(ality) affects the function.

    I think you are getting loose again, both making my point and contradicting it.

    The weight of it may change, but the meaning hasn’t. I am sure Scott means the same thing whether or not I am paying attention. As the author or performer (which makes it interesting interpreting someone else’s work), he determines what he means, not me.

    The impact of it (meaning to me) may in fact be different based on various issues (other families around me, how close I am to the band stand, how interested I am, etc.).

    So again, I think we have to root meaning in the author, not in the interpreter.

  37. I think we have to root meaning in the author, not in the interpreter.

    Larry,

    Meaning works both ways. To go to the extreme, God’s name does not change its significance based on how we use it, in one sense. Yet, God’s name can be profaned or glorified based on our actions and usage- hence, the command not to take it in vain.

    It would depend on the occasion. If Scott were an outdoor symphonic band playing in the city park, probably, at least to some degree.

    Exactly. The location conveys some meaning. The form helps you and others to know that getting up and walking around at an outdoor concert before the fireworks is not the same as leaving your seats before intermission in a concert hall.

    Only by lifting from its context and divorcing it from authorial intent can it be misunderstood.

    And some mediums enhance “authorial intent,” while others corrupt or pervert that same intent.

  38. Scott,

    Just a thought. I appreciate your concern that medium affects message, especially as it pertains to music. However, I’d be very careful about transferring that idea to meaning in general, as though the Scripture’s meaning is somehow changed depending on whether its written, recorded, projected, etc. It could result in a relativism that approaches a postmodern denial of objective truth. I’m not accusing you of that or being melodramatic. It’s a genuine, friendly concern.

    No need to reply, though you’re free to, of course.

    BTW, I just profited much from a Sam Harbin sermon while jogging. :)

  39. What about a verse on a tee shirt in a grunge, hip font?

  40. Life is full of meaning.

    Nobody’s denying that there is a truth outside of us, or the importance of authorial intent.

    In fact, the original intent is not in our view. This is a confusion over what we mean by meaning.

    For lack of standardized terminology, perhaps we could introduce a distinction between authorial meaning and communicated meaning. The former, authorial meaning, is in the original intent of the author. The latter, communicated meaning, adds a layer of “meaning” or “significance” in the way the matter is communicated.

    If I yell while preaching, the sermon takes on a different meaning or significance. If I whisper, same thing. None of this changes the original meaning of the text being preached, but it communicates something additional, about, among other things, how I regard the subject matter. If I am able to proclaim the word in such a way that I am able to affect the hearers, the original meaning of the text has not changed, but another level of meaning has come in to inform the original intent.

    Please, don’t accuse anyone of discounting the importance of authorial intent or tendencies toward a “postmodern denial of objective truth.”

    All we need is the proper categories for what we are discussing.

  41. Ryan, Scott’s immediate response to my concern about whether the meaning of Scripture changes depending on the media used to communicate it was to say “what about a grunge t-shirt?” That’s what I’m saying to be careful of—tying the meaning of Scripture to something like that. The smart aleck in me wants to say, “Well, it depends. What color shirt?” I think he needs to be careful in how he presents his arguments.

    I agree that one can pervert the how the Scripture is understood, say by bombastic Fred Phelps-type street preaching, double entendre, etc. But you’re right: the meaning of Scripture itself hasn’t been changed.

    How we arrived at this from my post saying that listening to recorded sermons in your kitchen is okay is beyond me.

  42. But that’s the whole point, Chris. We’re not saying that the meaning of Scripture has changed, and that’s where you misread Postman, too. You’re reading all this too much like a fundamentalist, like we’re all here to destroy the authority and inspiration of Scripture! :)

    We’re not (and Postman’s not). We’re not saying that the meaning of Scripture has changed. But we are saying that the medium can change what is communicated.

  43. Perhaps I am being too technical here, but I think the meaning issue is important. Even on a tee shirt in a grunge, hip font, meaning is still governed by the author.

    As I have said, the meaning may be confused, clouded, or contradicted (that’ll preach) by it’s appearance, but that doesn’t change the meaning.

    I understand Ryan’s comments about authorial meaning and communicated meaning and I completely agree with such a distinction, though I don’t like using “meaning” for that. But I think in that we have to realize that the interpreter does play a role in communicated meaning, and therefore communicated meaning is not always universal.

    I don’t think anyone would deny that the medium can change what is communicated. Of course, I am sure there is someone out there to prove me wrong. But must it change what is communicated? Not always, IMO.

  44. Hi, Chris,

    I’m fairly new to the blog thing, so bear with me.

    Do you really mean to equate iconography, as Postman described it, with the ark, the tabernacle, the bronze serpent, and the sacrifices of the OT? Were these items given by God to provide a tangible representation of Himself in the same way that icons are thus used?

    Do you recall what a certain king did with the brass serpent when folks started burning incense to it? Which action was praiseworthy?

    You may want to revisit that first quote and your reaction to it: I don’t think you captured Postman’s point in your reaction. Remember, Postman is not attempting to be a theologian here, he’s making a point based on cultural literacy.

  45. Hi, Chris. I appreciate the question.

    No, I’m not equating the two. Postman’s reasoning for why forms were inadequate was based not in a rejection of idolatry but in a rejection of visible communication—“how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience.” He says it’s due to “a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture” (emphasis his). I’m saying that God’s interest was a rejection of idolatry because of His nature, not a commentary on communication or culture, and I believe that God’ s use of physical forms elsewhere indicates this.

    Of course, I could be wrong, but I believe I’ve exegeted both Postman and the Scriptures correctly on this.

  46. Scott/Ryan/Greg,

    Guys, I really want to be on your side here, and I think we all agree in principle on the vast majority of these matters. You might disagree. And Ryan, I think your recent clarification that you’re talking about the message communicated is helpful.

    But I have a question. If you want to hold on to “medium = message” as much as possible, why would you carry a bound Bible rather than a parchment scroll? I’ll even grant you English language scrolls because I suspect we’d both agree that the translation has implications for meaning, but it’s a sacrifice worth making in order to open access to Scripture to more people. The trade-off is minimal enough that broader access is worthwhile. But aren’t you making another, similar trade-off when you use your calfskin Cambridge KJV instead of some parchments?

  47. But aren’t you making another, similar trade-off when you use your calfskin Cambridge KJV instead of some parchments?

    I’m not sure anyone is saying that “medium = message.” I would agree that the medium affects the message, but not that the medium is the message in a strict sense. Sometimes the medium subsumes the message, but not always. Media do communicate in a way that either complements or detracts from the original message. This is incontrovertible from a Christian perspective.

    The question at hand is whether or not the medium of a calfskin Cambridge KJV (don’t I wish!) alters the message of Scriptures to such an extent that we should use parchments instead. Again, I would agree that medium affects message (which is why I have nothing but contempt for some of the editions of printed Bibles available today). And there may be certain advantages to using a parchment (for example, if my Bible was copied by hand, I may value it more). I think these kinds of things should be kept in mind by thoughtful believers, but I do not believe that renders the use of printed and factory-bound Bibles immoral or unhelpful. This is a prudential decision, like most of these are. (I am happy, by the way, to concede that in many cases these decisions are matters of prudence, but that does not remove from us the responsibility to think carefully concerning them and to make “principled” stands from our prudence.)

  48. No, the medium is the same. The printed word in my hands.

  49. Scott, maybe I missed something, but weren’t you arguing above that fonts affect the message, or at least how it is perceived? I’d agree with that, which is why I’m suggesting that there’s correspondence to the difference between scrolls and calfskin wide margin bound Bibles. There may be a quantitative difference, but not a qualitative one.

    Ryan, I totally agree. And it seems as though you’re implicitly making the calculation about which I inquired–that there is substantial positive benefit in altering the medium in such a way as to make it more accessible. That would make the alteration of the medium prudential. Or am I missing your point somehow?

  50. I am allowing for there to be benefits to the newer editions, but I am also insisting that there are detriments.

  51. Ok, not to be dismissive, but this is fine and dandy in the hypothetical. But you’re a pastor (or going to be . . . not sure on the specifics). What are you going to model and encourage your congregation to carry? A bound Bible or scrolls?

  52. But you’re a pastor (or going to be . . . not sure on the specifics). What are you going to model and encourage your congregation to carry? A bound Bible or scrolls?

    Neither- we provide the Scripture on powerpoint, remember…?

    I don’t think Ryan is saying that we must go back to the way it was there. But then again, I have wondered at times what benefit it provides my 2 year old son to bring a printed copy of Scripture to church he can’t even read. Ryan’s point seems to be that hand copies afforded a greater value to the Scripture than the plethora mass-production has provided us with. I have heard similar points from friends who are involved in Bible translation who tell stories of people who get the Bible in their own tongue for the first time- and why they have generally required that people purchase the Bibles instead of mass-distributing them at no cost to the recipients.

  53. Greg,

    I don’t think he’s saying that either, but I’m trying to establish what he thinks is most prudent. IOW, I’m trying to figure out if he believes the exchange of (some) meaning for broader accessibility is prudential for his congregation. I’m not in any way debating whether something is lost in meaning.

  54. Each case must be weighed and deliberated over by its own merits. Answers in this life are rarely simple. As long as we all concede that the various media used affect and even alter meaning, I think we have a good starting point. But, all the same, I would insist that the vast majority of American evangelicals (including myself) do not give these matters anywhere close to adequate thought.

    In other words, if we comfort ourselves that the decisions we have made concerning the prudence of certain media over others in the communication of God’s word are justified because they are largely in line with mainstream American evangelicalism, we are deceiving ourselves.

  55. Ryan,

    I love you, but you’re makin’ me crazy here. I agree with everything you’re saying. Quite enthusiastically. But your comments aren’t interacting with my question. So is there a reason why you want to avoid a clear statement on whether you want your sheep to carry a bound Bible or a bag full of scrolls?

    Ok, maybe you want to allow for the possibility that in some context you might want your congregation to carry the bag of scrolls. Could you give me a realistic, 21st century, English-speaking hypothetical context when you’d prefer that option? Or, take the church you’re ministering in right now. Would you consider that congregation to go with scrolls or bound Bibles?

    Wow, while I was typing, I just heard Mohler argue for the value of carrying printed Bibles rather than using digital media in churches. (But of course the meaning was affected because I was listening while I was typing.) ;-)

  56. Oh, sorry. I thought we were all agreed there (when you said, “I don’t think he’s saying that either.”)

    I prefer bound Bibles myself, and I would encourage my congregation to make full use of them. If the matter ever came up (which I somewhat doubt), I might remind them of the disadvantages of printed Bibles over hand-copied scrolls.

    Mohler is such a Luddite. ;)

  57. Great, I apologize for not perceiving that you already agreed with me.

    So, given the fact that we all seem to agree principially that it is legitimate to make a prudential decision that will affect the message for the purpose of expanding accessibility, we probably don’t have anything left to argue about.

    I mean, we just totally opened Pandora’s box to an infinite number of questions as to what’s prudential–i.e. at what point the message is affected so much that the exchange for broader accessibility is imprudent. And that’s going to mean that people are going to make choices that they believe are prudent but we think are horrific. But we’re hopefully making the case that fundagelicalism isn’t weighing these issues but should be . . . quite rigorously.

    Ultimately, I’m more concerned that we establish a trajectory towards that process than that we all reach the same conclusions on prudence. Not sure if you guys would agree on that point though.

  58. Ben, I would disagree with that last paragraph in that it makes very little sense to affirm a process over the importance of making the right decisions, which seems to be an implication of it.

  59. Ryan,

    I’m not minimizing making right decisions. I’m agreeing with your post above that prudence decisions are never simple. I’m also suggesting that reestablishing a rigorous process of thought and evaluation is more important to me than telling people what their conclusions should be.

    So I’m not going to tell Chris he shouldn’t project a verse on a screen every now and then. I am going to encourage him to weigh the benefits against the consequences. He may reach a different conclusion from me, for prudential reasons. I think that’s a pastoral judgment call, not a black-white moral issue.

  60. Friends,

    I’m just thinking a bit more about Ryan’s comment that making the right decisions is more important than engaging seriously in the process.

    On this question of scrolls and bound Bibles, we’ve established that Ryan does prefer bound Bibles and would encourage his congregation to use them instead of scrolls. Well, let’s just suppose that shift in the medium simply sacrifices too much of the meaning for me to tolerate, so I use scrolls and encourage my congregation to do likewise. So Ryan, from your perspective, would that be 1) the right decision for me and my congregation, 2) the wrong decision, or 3) you don’t have enough data to know?

    And regardless of the rightness/wrongness, would you expect me to come to the conclusion that you’re making a morally wrong decision and sacrificing too much meaning in favor of accessibility, or would you want me to understand your decision to be a pastoral judgment call within the proper parameters of liberty and prudence?

  61. Reblogged this on Charlie Kay Home Repair of Cheyenne, Wy and commented:
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