the New Pantagruel

Hymns in the Whorehouse

A Tribute to Neil Postman, page 2

by Read Mercer Schuchardt


Despite once telling me his feeling that God was perhaps nothing more than a word, Neil was published in First Things magazine (“Science and the Story That We Need”) and said that he received more invitations for guest lectures at Christian universities and institutions than anywhere else. He also said that he enjoyed speaking at these places more, not because they believed, but because their belief gave them a ground upon which to stand, which led them to ask better questions than their secular counterparts. For Neil, having a good audience was always as important as having something good to say, because he far preferred a good question to a correct answer. This humble and profound insight was one of the most deeply ingrained lessons that he taught his students—by example, by his writing, speaking, and teaching style. His most famous question, which became the litmus test aphorism for any new technology or medium, was that we always ask of it, “To what problem is this particular media or technology a solution?” In most, if not all cases, Postman believed that technology was a Faustian bargain, in which you do gain something, but only at the expense of losing something else. In the story of Faust, however, the thing you lose is of infinitely more value than the thing you gain. And Faust’s story was, of course, a dramatization of Jesus Christ’s most-famous question: “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world, but lose his own soul?”

Postman was never actually a Luddite, as many accused him of being, but he was deeply suspicious of the definition of progress that science and technology had wrought in human affairs. He didn’t get an office computer until late in the 1990’s, and he only used it as a glorified secretary, dictating his messages to his assistant who would then key them in and send them. He only sent one e-mail in his life, which is worth reading.

Perhaps the most quoted piece of Postmania from American pulpits is this insight from his 1985 work, Amusing Ourselves To Death:

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 any 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. People like ourselves who are in the process of converting their culture from word-centered to image-centered might profit by reflecting on this Mosaic injunction. But even if I am wrong in these conjectures, it is, I believe, a wise and particularly relevant supposition that the media of communication available to a culture are a dominant influence on the formation of the culture’s intellectual and social preoccupations.

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Copyright 2004 The New Pantagruel.