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Are Books Better Than YouTube?

February 28th, 2024 | 6 min. read

By Patrick Miller


This post is part of a series exploring Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death chapter by chapter. You need not read the book or previous posts to appreciate this one, but you can find part 1 here, and part 2 here. In this essay, I will explore Chapter 2: Media as Epistemology.

Can you be intelligent but rarely read books? Are books a better way to learn than YouTube?

Let’s start with the first question.

Before you answer, remember that for most of history, most humans couldn’t afford to have books or scrolls easily accessible. If you’ve ever imagined Jesus reading his Bible by himself every morning, then you’ve imagined fiction. To read, he needed to go to the local synagogue or scriptorium, unlock the scroll cabinet, unroll the scroll, and then work his way through the text—a text meticulously copied by a scribe before him.

For the most part, people heard texts more than they read texts, if they could read at all. This is why Paul commanded his pastoral protege, Timothy, to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.” Otherwise, how would people encounter the living word of God?

This is why, even in modern oral cultures, there’s a high premium placed on memory and aphorisms. In the ancient world, if someone had a legal dispute, they were expected to come before the elders at the gate, who would adjudicate it not by carefully examining statutes and regulations—the sort of law that can only develop in typographical culture where texts are cheaply and easily disseminated—but by consulting the word-hoard in their mind.

(Sorry, I recently reread Beowulf and any “___-hoard” now seems cool to me.)

They mentally rifled through mosaic case laws and Solomonic wise sayings and thus collectively discerned a just outcome. Solomon, who is the apotheosis of both wisdom and intelligence in the Old Testament, was a world-famous jurist, but he did not write briefs.

He wrote aphorisms and songs. He memorized thousands of them, which in his day was a sign of high intelligence. More importantly, it was of grave importance that such words were memorized. Without them, the community would be endangered.

But memory has fallen on hard times since the advent of print. Neil Postman writes, “In a print culture, the memorization of a poem, a menu, a law or most anything else is merely charming. It is almost always functionally irrelevant and certainly not considered a sign of high intelligence.”

We may be impressed by someone who is good at trivia night and be charmed by someone who can quote Shakespeare, but such feats are party tricks at best.

Moving forward in time, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Solomonic type, giving us countless word pictures and aphorisms that have today become idiomatic. Those who use them likely do not know their source.

“The blind leading the blind.”

“Go the extra mile.”

“At the eleventh hour.”

Yet, as Neil Postman points out, someone like Jesus or Solomon, who spoke in sayings and riddles and dispensed pithy bits of wisdom, would “be quaint at best, more likely pompous bores.” I somewhat disagree. I’ve met such people, and while others rarely consider them “smart” in the modern sense of the word, most do consider them charming and some even see them as wise.

This brief discourse on the differences in how print cultures and oral cultures define intelligence does more than answer our initial question: Can you be smart and rarely read books? Yes, you can. To say otherwise would be to question the intelligence of the very individuals who created or inspired the very documents intelligent readers have read throughout the centuries.

It highlights the fact that mediums impact more than the manner in which we express fundamental ideas about truth and justice. (Consider: “It is better to give than to receive” may work well in an ancient dispute over a property line, but one has trouble believing a modern judge would accept such a verdict from a jury.) It also impacts what we value intruth-tellers (Postman writes, “Lawyers do not have to be wise; they need to be well briefed”), as well as the sort of truth we consider valuable.

An example from Amusing Ourselves to Death illustrates the point:

Can you imagine . . . a modern economist articulating truths about our standard of living by reciting a poem? Or by telling what happened to him during a late-night walk through East St. Louis? Or by offering a series of proverbs and parables, beginning with the saying about a rich man, a camel, and the eye of a needle? The first would be regarded as irrelevant, the second merely anecdotal, the last childish. Yet these forms of language are certainly capable of expressing truths about economic relationships, as well as any other relationships, and indeed have been employed by various peoples. But to the modern mind, resonating with different media-metaphors, the truth in economics is believed to be best discovered and expressed in numbers.

What Postman is circling around is the notion that the primary mediums of communication in a culture shape our epistemology—in other words, how we know truth, what sorts of truths we find valuable, and what sorts of people we can trust to deliver such truths. If you do not think these things change over time, I’m tempted to tell you to read a book. But you can start with Postman:

“Seeing is believing” has always had a preeminent status as an epistemological axiom, but “saying is believing,” “reading is believing,” “counting is believing,” “deducing is believing,” and “feeling is believing” are others that have risen or fallen in importance as cultures have undergone media change. As a culture moves from orality to writing to printing to televising, its ideas of truth move with it. Every philosophy is the philosophy of a stage of life, Nietzsche remarked. To which we might add that every epistemology is the epistemology of a stage of media development. Truth, like time itself, is a product of a conversation man has with himself about and through the techniques of communication he has invented.

Now, it must be said that Postman is not a subjectivist. He believes in objective truth, as do I. But we knowers are, by any objective measure, highly subjective and impressionable. We have found many true ways to talk about truth (see the economics example above) and explore important concepts like justice.

But as Christians, we must ever wrestle with the fact that God’s self-revelation is principally the word made flesh, Jesus, and, penultimately, the scriptural words that point to him. As I explored in an earlier essay, he rejects images in favor of the word, and those words do create a unique kind of epistemology. It creates a form of intelligence that—whether it’s developed in an oral or textual culture—requires several things:

  • Long attention spans
  • Navigation of abstract concepts and metaphors
  • Ability to evaluate tone, connect textual repetitions, detect underlying meaning, evaluate opposing ideas, and delay verdicts until an argument is finished

Abstraction is perhaps the most important thing to note. Archaeologists will tell you that Israel’s ceramic and statuary art was rather undeveloped compared to that of other nations. The one thing that stands out was their words. They excelled in the abstract and poetic more than the concrete.

All of this finally brings me to my second question: Are books better than YouTube?

I ask that with no snobbery. I love YouTube. I have a YouTube channel. I have a number of favorite channels that I enjoy watching. But I must confess that I don’t go to YouTube for anything terribly serious. Mostly, I like learning about cooking, butchering, and video games.

The problem with YouTube, as Postman once said of TV, isn’t all of the trivial content. The problem is when YouTube becomes serious. Because the minute we begin to view YouTube as a serious medium for serious discourse, it begins to reshape what we think of as intelligence, what sort of truth we prefer to convey, and what sort of truth we deem valuable.

Of course, this goes for TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and every other media platform out there.

And I’m not asking this hypothetically. I recently met an intelligent, precocious YouTuber who produces quality content on theological issues. I asked her what books she was reading, because I assumed that books were precisely the sort of place one might go for theological knowledge. She confessed to me that she barely reads and developed her theology mostly on YouTube.

As time passed, it became increasingly clear to me that while she was able to make 15- to 20-minute videos about theology, she would never be going far beyond that. Her knowledge was simply too shallow. Much of her content simply parroted what she heard online without depth or nuance. She could tell you all about Karl Barth, but she’d never read a word by him. She could wax eloquent on Augustine, but never cracked open The City of God.

This is, after all, what intelligence looks like on the social internet. It is short. (Yes, I know longform video interviews are coming back, but these still require less attention than abstract, discursive writing.) It is broad. It is shallow. It is entertaining. It is visually stimulating. It is fast-paced. It is confident. It is not nuanced. It is, in some cases, bro-ish and boorish. In others, it’s self-obsessed.

The sort of people we trust are, for the most part, at least of normal attractiveness or higher. They exude a sense of authenticity and sincerity. They make us feel like intimate partners by drawing the camera close to their face and capturing scenes from their posh lives (I’m looking at you, Instagram). They capitalize on trends and follow the algorithm, and it’s all just so much fun, right, girlies?

I could keep going. I could explain why close-up shots of faces are perfect for standpoint epistemology. I could discourse on how the modern trans movement only went mainstream because of the sorts of truth early blogging sites and later algorithms prioritized. I could wax eloquent about one man’s need to start his own social media platform because he perhaps intuited that controlling the medium was a pathway to controlling minds.

But here’s the bottom line: no one escapes. As Postman writes, the water is polluted. The environment is sullied. Yes, book readers may sail across the surface of a once clean textual river. But now it is muddy and all the fish are dead. We can sail, but it’s not the same.

The missional question—which is arguably the axis on which everything we do at Endeavor turns—is whether we can enter into this new epistemological environment with our tin hats and emerge unscathed. I suspect the answer is no, and that this is simply the sacrifice we all (or at least some of us) must make for the gospel.

Patrick Miller

Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.

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