Tag Archives: Neil Postman

Saint Benedict in Technopoly

Perhaps it was because I had just finished reading Neil Postman’s 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology when I started in on Rod Dreher’s latest, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, but I was detecting a subtle yet strong Postmanian vibe throughout the book. Then, when Dreher actually quoted Technopoly, I realized that wasn’t a coincidence.

First, a disclaimer: I am (briefly) in The Benedict Option. When Dreher put out a call on his blog for examples of Christian-run businesses, I emailed him about Reba Place Fellowship, the intentional Christian community that over the years has spun off church ministries into actual businesses, like a bicycle repair shop and an Amish furniture store. Months later, in a reply to my comment on one of his unrelated blog posts, he told me I was in the book, much to my surprise. And sure enough, on page 189 there was my name and a short paragraph adapted from my email about Reba.

I felt compelled to alert Dreher about RPF not only because I think they are a living, functional example of the Benedict Option in action, but also because I’ve followed Rod Dreher’s blog for a while, really enjoyed his books Crunchy Cons and The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and hoped his new one would contribute to the conversation about religious engagement in civic life.

The Benedict Option really does feel like the secular successor to Technopoly. The two books share a pessimism about the Way Things Are Now and a dire outlook of what’s to come. Dreher’s thesis is that Christians have lost the culture wars and need to reconsider their embedded relationship with the wider (Western) culture, in order to strengthen what’s left of the Church before a new anti-religion dark age descends. This seems like a natural response to the trajectory of Postman’s theory of the Technopoly, which he defines as “totalitarian technocracy” and “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.

Written 25 years ago, several passages in Technopoly would be right at home in The Benedict Option, like the one about the erosion of cultural symbols:

In Technopoly, the trivialization of significant cultural symbols is largely conducted by commercial enterprise. This occurs not because corporate America is greedy but because the adoration of technology preempts the adoration of anything else. … Tradition is, in fact, nothing but the acknowledgment of the authority of symbols and the relevance of the narratives that gave birth to them. With the erosion of symbols there follows a loss of narrative, which is one of the most debilitating consequences of Technopoly’s power.

And Technopoly’s hollow solipsism:

The Technopoly story is without a moral center. It puts in its place efficiency, interest, and economic advantage. It promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress. It casts aside all traditional narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells, instead, of a life of skills, technical expertise, and the ecstasy of consumption. Its purpose is to produce functionaries for an ongoing Technopoly.

Technopoly offers so much more to unpack, much of it specifically related to technology and education, but another nugget I thought aligned very well with Dreher’s Benedict Option is Postman’s call for “those who wish to defend themselves against the worst effects of the American Technopoly” to become “loving resistance fighters.” He defines a technological resistance fighter as someone who “maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.”

Religious resistance fighters don’t “run for the hills” as critics of the Benedict Option would have it say. (Though Dreher does end the book with Benedictine monks in Italy literally running for the hills after an earthquake destroys their monastery—a reasonable action, but ironic given his frustration for the “run for the hills” criticism.) In fact, the work of resistance requires direct engagement within the larger cultural life. But it also requires deliberate and distinctive separation—if not physically, then spiritually, ethically, and intellectually.

Dreher bemoans the submission of churchgoers to the pressures of secular culture (i.e. the Technopoly), whether it’s the now widespread acceptance of gay marriage, the rootless and self-interested browsing of different churches, or the unfettered access to technology parents allow their children. The principles in the Rule of St. Benedict, originally established for sixth-century monks cloistered away from the chaotic post-Rome Europe, offer a way for modern Christians to shore up their spiritual discipline while reconnecting with ancient traditions.

Most of his proposals (neatly summarized here) should not be terribly controversial among committed believers, though some, like pulling your kids out of public school, seem unduly influenced by his alarmism and are much easier said than done.

But that seems to be his point: Christianity isn’t supposed to be easy. Monks don’t join a monastery to sit around and avoid the world; they work hard! They take the claims and commandments of their Savior and Scripture seriously and endeavor to follow them.

Postman has been proven right. He didn’t live to see today’s wholesale surrender to smartphones and Silicon Valley’s tech-utopianism, but he’d have a serious case of the “I told you so”s if he did. Whether Dreher’s predictions for the demise of Christianity also come to pass remains to be seen, but you don’t have to be a doomsday prepping zealot to realize that it is good to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.

Ten Books

In the Filmspotting tradition of naming lists after what you know will be on everyone’s list so should be removed from consideration, I’m going to name this the To Kill A Mockingbird Memorial List of Ten Books That Have Stuck With Me For Some Reason. Acknowledging the usual disclaimers of making lists (it’s not binding, it could change tomorrow, etc.), here are ten titles I’d think of right away if someone asked for a great book recommendation.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X
 by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Essential reading, for American citizens especially.

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
Ostensibly a compact history of the Titanic disaster, it reads like a thrilling and expertly written novel. Though dated, the prose is solid yet so smooth, steadily pressing the narrative on like the doomed steamer it documents. 

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
Like Fellowship of the Ring, this book is really a stand-in for the sublime trilogy it begins, yet is also the best book in the saga. Most of what we know and love about TR comes from his presidential and post-POTUS years — the Bull Moose, the assassination survival, the Amazon pioneering — but the man who would do these things was forged in the 42 years before becoming president, which are chronicled in this book. He seized his days with unadulterated vim, relentlessly stacking his resume and making the rest of us look bad. I hope “Bully!” makes a comeback.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
Haven’t read this since high school so perhaps my feelings will change with a reread, but this was my first exposure to media criticism and it hit me like a bag of bricks. It was shocking to read about how Sesame Street was ruining education and that our dependence on distracting technologies would doom us to a Huxleyan dystopia of dumbness. These were his (admittedly cranky) opinions, but they rang true to me. And their prescience was and continues to be sadly undeniable. 

Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey
Hard to decide between this and Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace?, but I went with the more recent read. Yancey profiles thirteen prominent figures who helped restore his crumbling faith, among them Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Leo Tolstoy, G.K. Chesterton, and Annie Dillard. As faith falls out of fashion, books like this remind me that religion can be richer and more reasonable than our culture of unbelief realizes.

The Singing Wilderness by Sigurd Olson
“Should you be lucky enough to be moving across a calm surface with mirrored clouds, you may have the sensation of suspension between heaven and earth, of paddling not on the water but through the skies themselves.” And: “Standing there alone, I felt alive, more aware and receptive than ever before. A shout or a movement would have destroyed the spell. This was a time for silence, for being in pace with ancient rhythms and timelessness, the breathing of the lake, the slow growth of living things. Here the cosmos could be felt and the true meaning of attunement.” And so on.

The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck
I probably wouldn’t have liked it when it came out in 1978, given that it was a mega-bestseller and cultural phenomenon. But its plainspoken style and challenging yet attainable standards on discipline and spiritual development were a revelation to me. Peck’s four pillars of discipline — dedication to truth, delaying gratification, acceptance of responsibility, balancing — are all noble and necessary goals for self-improvement I think about, and fail to achieve, often. And when they are paired with his perspectives on love and grace, it makes for a great roadmap for life. (Hat-tip to my sister for the initial recommendation.)

Crazy Horse and Custer by Stephen Ambrose
I love a broad history as much as anybody, but I also enjoy when a writer takes an angle on something. In this case, it’s Ambrose profiling the oddly parallel lives of Crazy Horse and George Custer, which converge tragically and infamously at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Like most other Ambrose books it’s a smooth read with an emphasis on good storytelling and capturing his subjects’ humanity. People who struggle with reading history would do well to start with anything by Ambrose.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
Here’s where I admit that I have a strong bent toward irreverence in life generally, but in the arts specifically. Pious readers may frown upon this fantastical take on Jesus’s youth and adolescence, but I found it funny, humane, and ultimately honoring of the spirit of Jesus. Like an Anne Lamott book, Lamb walks the line between reverence and irreverence like Philippe Petit on a high-wire: effortlessly and therefore beautifully.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
First read in high school, then again in college. It was even better the second time around (which begat a critical essay for a U.S. history class). “On the Rainy River” remains of my all-time favorite pieces of writing.