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Could Podcasts Save the Church from Stupidity?

March 27th, 2024 | 4 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 points to appreciate this one. You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, and part 4 here. In this essay, I will respond to Chapter 4: The Typographic Mind.

In October 1854, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas met to debate, in front of an audience, matters of public import. Douglas spoke for three hours, until 5 p.m. Then Lincoln arose and explained to the audience that he could hardly respond without having as much time himself. So he sent them off to dinner, and once their bellies were sated, he spoke for an additional three hours, followed by an hour-long rebuttal by Douglas.

Perhaps this sounds like a terrible bore to you, but these events were well-attended in their day. Not just by the educated and the elite, but by just about everyone. It helped that bands were playing, socializing took place, and liquor flowed. The crowds could get as feisty as football fans, applauding their favorite debater and jeering at their contenders.

While the speakers would occasionally speak extemporaneously, they mostly read pre-written manuscripts. As such, the speeches were shaped more by the written word than the spoken word. If that distinction means nothing to you, go listen to the best preacher you know and then read a transcript of what he spoke. When speaking, we tend to use shorter sentences and repetition. Illustrations and word pictures predominate over logical constructions and complex sentences. Put differently: if you read a great speaker’s words as writing, you’d think him a poor author.

But in the 1800s, the average American’s mind was so shaped by the world of print that he found it easy to comprehend spoken language that mimicked print. In Chapter 4 of his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, author Neil Postman supplies a sentence from Lincoln’s speech that illustrates the point. Here is how he suggested the crowd take a break, and please note that this suggestion was given extemporaneously. He was not reading.

It will readily occur to you that I cannot, in half an hour, notice all the things that so able a man as Judge Douglas can say in an hour and a half; and I hope, therefore, if there be anything that he has said upon which you would like to hear something from me, but which I omit to comment upon, you will bear in mind that it would be expecting an impossibility for me to cover his whole ground.

Postman wryly observes that “present occupant of the White House [would not be] capable of constructing such clauses in similar circumstances.” The president he is referring to is Ronald Reagan, widely upheld by both parties as one of the greatest presidential orators of the last century. 

Postman was right.

But Postman was also wrong. He continues, “Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? or five? or three? Especially without pictures of any kind?”

As it turns out, the answer is that there are many. The most popular podcast in the world is released every weekday, and runs between 2.5 and 3.5 hours. That podcast’s guests range from intellectuals to athletes to doctors to actors to technologists to philosophers to sex neurologists. Which is to say, the topics it discusses are vast and often non-trivial. While there is, of course, a video version, most people listen without images, and they listen enough to make the podcaster an exorbitantly wealthy man. That man is Joe Rogan.

Joe’s not alone. More podcasts are following suit. So I find myself wondering: In the era of addictive, algorithmically sorted, short-form visual media, are podcasts a return to the past? Could podcasts in the church make us all a bit less stupid? Maybe.

The Problem With (Some) Podcasts

“I could tell you were reading that during that part of the podcast,” a friend told me recently. “In the future, I’d try to say it in your own voice. Just like you did in section before that.”

His well-meant comment struck me as strange for at least two reasons. First, I was not reading in the section to which he referred. Second, I was reading during the section where he said I spoke “in my own voice.” This begged a question: Why did he think one portion was read and the other wasn’t? I have a theory based on my observation of those two sections: one was shaped by the world of typography (and thus he registered it as “being read”), and the other was shaped by the world of social media (and thus he registered it as “authentic”). 

While all podcasts probably include dimensions of both worlds, I think you can divide all podcasts into two categories just by paying attention to the language each use.


Social Media-Inflected Podcasts

Textually Inflected-Podcasts

Sentence Length



Sentence construction

Simple subject-verb construction

Use asides, like parentheticals and appositives


Use simple conjunctions (and, but, since)

Use conjunctive adverbs (therefore, however, namely)

Mode of Expression

Concrete, story-based, emotionally expressive

Abstract, disinterested


Subjective, experiential

Logical, sequential

The nearer my speech moved to the norms of social media influencers, who “authentically” share about their lives in close-up shots, the more my listener enjoyed my podcast and thought it was “real.” The closer my speech moved to the world of text, the less my listener enjoyed it and the more he concluded it was fake.

When I explained to him that he had it exactly wrong, he was shocked. When I informed him that our podcasts are guided by a carefully designed outline, often based on one or more books, he was horrified. There was nothing authentic about what we were doing. We were pretending to be smarter than we really were. We were tricking people into thinking we simply knew everything we said, and that the conversation naturally flowed in a coherent direction.

Of course, this is naive. The idea that his beloved Christian influencers do not shoot every “intimate,” “honest,” “real” close-up video multiple times before sharing is naive. What most people perceive as authenticity is simply someone performing authenticity. 

Moreover, we never pretended that our podcast was off-the-cuff. He assumed it was because his environment (social media) taught him to value it. In my reality, careful preparation before a podcast is precisely what we should want from our podcasters if the goal is not simply to entertain but to inform, educate, shape, and disciple.

These differences matter tremendously. Some podcasts can be the means by which Christians are trained to embrace the norms of the typographic world. But others simply reinforce the social media milieu around us. They are shallow, entertaining, trivial fluff. There may be nothing wrong with that, but it certainly does not approximate the Lincoln-Douglas debates. These sorts of podcasts are incredibly popular, especially amongst Christians. We love our marriage, family, and lifestyle podcasts littered with anecdotes and stories and applications. 

Yes, there is value to these podcasts. But no, they will not make you less stupid. The only way we will see more textually inflected podcasts in the Christian world is if Christians are encouraged to consume them. What if ministry leaders didn’t settle for “any podcast is better than no podcast” but instead said, “Make sure you’re consuming podcasts that unmoor you from the faux-authentic world of social media and challenge you to be the sort of person who can deeply engage the text God gave us”?

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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