Friday, February 29, 2008

Are film and television the new literature?

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman considers the age prior to ours the Age of Exposition, defined as "that period of time during which the American mind submitted itself to the sovereignty of the printed press ..." (p. 63). It is during this time that typography, that is, writing and literature, were the primary means of communicating ideas.

But that is no longer the case. Writing in 1985, Postman believed that by the late 19th century we had left the Age of Exposition behind to some extent and had entered the Age of Show Business. And that, in fact, is where we are now: the Age of Entertainment.

Given this premise, is it a stretch to theorize that film and television are the new literature? I don't think it is. Certainly people still read books, but if the statistics are to be believed, this number continues to dwindle.

I would argue that film and television are the new "literature" not, of course, in that they are literature or even literary in the truest sense of the word, but that they have to a significant extent eclipsed printed exposition and discourse in our culture.

What do people do instead of reading and discussing great literature and its myriad concepts? They watch movies and television. They no longer build anything resembling a library of books in their home, but they do build a library of recorded films and television programs, whether the library be digital or copies of DVDs and such.

Furthermore, in most circles people discuss the latest television shows and films much more than they would the latest work, in print, of epistemology.

If film and television are the new literature, what are we to do? One option is to fully embrace this trend, but all too often this happens without much discernment. Another option is to bury our heads in the sand, and some do. Neither a complete embracing or isolation will do.

The tertium quid, or third alternative, that I propose as a Christian apologist and thinker, is to engage the new literature intelligently. We must learn to exegete--to interpret--the new literature in ways that are meaningful and will reach this new kind of person, who is a product of a media-driven culture.

There have been some efforts to do this, many of them in print (i.e., books), which seems in some ways contrary to reaching this audience. It may, however, equip us for engaging the new literature, but in the end, despite my misgivings, I think it will be necessary to counter the new literature by using the new literature wisely.

Books are fine. They are more than fine; they are splendid. I read them and I write them. But to reach the audience of the Age of Show Business, we must begin to develop better and more creative ways of reaching these consumers of entertainment. The new literature--film and television--is a juggernaut. But it is not an unstoppable one. Indeed, there are even times when some of its elements may be redeemed.

Where does the online world fit into my theory that film and television are the new literature? That's probably a topic for another post.


Douglas Beaumont said...

I would like to affirm your encouragement to learn film and TV media interpretation and integrate them into our public discourse. It would be nice if Christians didn't fall too far behind on this cultural shift like they do most others! You pointed out the irony of writing books on film, and as one who is doing that very thing I had some thoughts on it.

I think while books have certainly lost some of their popularity now that additional media have developed, I don't think they have been replaced just yet. This might just be wishful thinking on my part, but I believe the market is still huge for books. When I think about how many Barnes and Nobles were there ten years ago compared to today, or consider the success of, I am actually encouraged. Especially since both franchises took off about the same time as the internet (a "book killer" technology if there ever was one!).

Books-as-entertainment have surely lost some market share due to competition from TV and movies (and video games, and the web, and text messaging, and paintball . . . ), but they are still the best media for some categories of learning / entertainment. This might explain why publishers are showing no signs of letting up.

As both a 'bibliophile' and 'cinephile' I hope both media continue to prosper!

Anonymous said...

Robert - Are you not assuming that the mode of communication, film and TV, is neutral and therefore fair game? While I probably don't go quite as far as Doug Groothuis, in his exposition of TV, I think he is not far off.

Robert Velarde said...


Thanks for the comments. Yes, I agree that books are still of great value and certainly will be for the foreseeable future. Particularly in a didactic sense, books will continue to be of inestimable value.

Books like yours will definitely help in educating Christendom when it comes to exegeting and apologetically interacting with media. At some point, however, I believe thoughtful Christian interaction with popular media such as films and television will need to take place in the format of the media being critiqued.

Robert Velarde said...


I did not intend to go so far as broaching the issue of whether or not television as a medium is neutral. My main point had to do with pointing out that television and film are the new literature.

However, I disagree with McLuhan's catchphrase that "the medium is the message." The medium is not the message; the medium is what we make it.

Some TV is bad (probably most of it). But simply because some television is bad does not mean that the medium cannot be redeemed. I tend to agree with T.M. Moore's six points in his book Redeeming the Culture in this regard (see my article "The Gospel According to LOST" in Christian Research Journal for a summary of these points).

I believe our cultural temperament has moved from "Have you read ...?" to "Have you seen ...?" If so, how do we respond?

As a student of the works of C.S. Lewis, I'm especially interested in applying his insights in An Experiment in Criticism, directed towards books, to the mediums of film and television. How do the many and the few use or receive film and television? What can we learn from such an assessment and what can we do about it as Christian thinkers?

I don't pretend to have the definitive answers to these questions, but I would like to explore the topic further.