Archives For Communication

brand jesus

There was a while when I was tempted to buy into the idea that you should think about yourself as a brand. Who am I kidding – I bought into the idea. Once upon a time I would have read this suggestion to spend a magic nine minutes a day developing my own brand and thought it was dynamite advice for getting ahead in this world. Because it probably is.

I like branding. I like marketing. I like growing a brand. I like people to like me. So it made sense to think about building a tribe of devoted followers who want to hang off my every word, or like my every status, or whatever it is that people who are brands crave. But that’s a dangerous path to making yourself the centre of the universe. And I don’t want to be the centre of my universe – let alone anybody else’s.

You’re not a brand, you’re a human. You don’t have a brand. Cattle have brands. You’re not a cow. I know this because cows can’t read.

Brand Jesus

If you’re a Christian – you’re not out to make your own name, or craft your own image.

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” – Romans 8:29

And you know you’re not the centre of the universe. Jesus is.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy” – Colossians 1

Paul, who spent a significant part of his life promoting brand Jesus (and not brand Paul) was also branded by Jesus – the scars he bore for his efforts were scars pointing people to his king.

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world… From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. – Galatians 6

So here’s a challenge. If we want to live out our new reality – pointing people to the centre of reality as we become more like him – why not figure out how you can spend nine minutes a day promoting Jesus online.

Nine minutes doesn’t sound like a lot – and it’s not (promoting Jesus is a whole of life thing). But as the people behind the 9 minute personal brand challenge point out – it adds up, and it’s better than nothing.

9 Minutes a day translates into three hours a month. Can you imagine the impact on your career if you focused on the brand called you for three full hours every month?”

So. Nine minutes a day. Can you do it? Will people notice? Who knows. But it will, at the very least, change you – because the way we use the mediums we use changes us as we use them. perhaps it will be part of the process of conforming you into the image of Jesus.

Some ideas

These are like the low hanging fruit. I’m just sort of riffing off (or ripping off) the tips from the Lifehacker post where I saw the 9 minute idea.

1. Write something about following Jesus. Engage with the world you live in. Share it. A blog post, a Facebook status, an email, a message to a friend. Create content that shows you don’t live for your own glory, but to glorify Jesus.

2. Read the Bible. Share it. Not in the weird contextless way that so many people seem to do. Even my eyes glaze over at those posts – and I love the Bible. But show how it hits your heart, not just your head.

3. Pray for people. Your friends. People who need to know Jesus. It’s God who changes people’s hearts, by his Spirit, not your pithy Facebook status. That’s part of realising that your own brand has nothing to do with it…

4. Read some things by other Christians. Curate them. Share them with your friends. Discuss them with others. Be an editor for your friends. Social media, like traditional media, needs deliberate editors. People are increasingly discovering content via social media, so why not supply it?

5. Encourage your friends. Post stuff on Facebook walls. PM people with a note of encouragement – ask how you can pray for them (and do it). Send encouraging emails. Invite people to catch up in real life.

6. Comment on discussions with your friends in a way that points people to Jesus (both in your content and manner), and that adds value to whatever the conversation is (too often Christians run into these forays spouting jargon that just confuses people, mind the gap a bit, explain why you think differently while being humble and loving those you disagree with).

7. Enter the fray in one of the countless discussions about Christianity (or anything) on other media platforms – like the one about the amazing woman who forgave her husband’s killers. Stand up for Jesus.

8. Be, visibly, a Christian online – in all your profiles. Write them so they’re about how amazing Jesus is, not how amazing you are. It’s a bit like sticking a Jesus fish on your car, it keeps you accountable when it comes to what you share, what you say, and how you say it.

9. Show that you appreciate the goodness of God’s creation. Share good stuff. Fun stuff. Not just overtly Christian stuff. Be grateful. Acknowledge the source of the good stuff you’re enjoying and sharing. Not in a super spiritual way, just in a way that cultivates thankfulness in your own mind and demonstrates it to others.

10. Try not to self-promote. We have a massive tendency to try to put ourselves at the centre of the universe, and social media seems designed to facilitate and amplify that tendency.

Will you join me in trying to do this? Nine minutes a day. What are some other ideas?

new media virtuesIt might seem like a fudge to call being interesting a virtue – and this second virtue was originally an authentic and interesting voice with an interesting message. But, in this brave new media world, it is. I changed the title because  this virtue is something like the ancient oratorical Holy Grail. Eloquence.

Attention spans are short.

Time spent reading is an increasingly popular web metric (see also, Upworthy making this switch, and note: there’s now something of an estimate, based on length, of reading time at the top of each post on this site). Being boring kills.

And this is a series about what it is that defines the writers I admire. And those writers are, without fail, interesting. Or eloquent.

Who else would I turn to to prove my point on this front if not Cicero.

“He, then, is truly eloquent… who in the Forum, and in public debates, can so speak, as to prove, delight, and force the passions. To prove, is a matter of necessity:—to delight, is indispensably requisite to engage the attention:—and to force the passions, is the surest means of victory; for this contributes more effectually than both the others to get a cause decided to our wishes.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero went as close as anybody to declaring eloquence a virtue in De Oratore he says:

“Eloquence is so potent a force that it embraces the origin and operation and developments of all things, all the virtues and duties, all the natural principles governing the morals and minds and life of mankind, and also determines their customs and laws and rights, and controls the government of the state, and expresses everything that concerns whatever topic in a graceful and flowing style.”

What I think is interesting about this quote is that the new media world is ‘governed’ by something like eloquence. The agenda in this world isn’t set by big budget, multi-national, media conglomerates, but by individuals whose content is dispersed through social networks. Individuals curate content, functioning as editors. Sure, new media platforms like Facebook influence what spreads and what doesn’t through its opaque newsfeed algorithm, but how long the online community will stand idly by and let that happen is an interesting question (on opaque algorithms and their dangers, read this), and even with the all-powerful algorithm serving up stories to maximise eyeball time on the platform, the content is still largely generated (or curated) by the little guy (Facebook’s Director of Product says its algorithm ensures it’s the content users like that users see - rather than quality content, or biased/agenda-driven content like you might expect from the mass media). Content in this new media world is democratised.  For more on this check out Tom Standage’s conclusion in the superb Writing on the Wall (review here), or his TEDx talk.

Eloquence sits beside virtue for Cicero as must have elements of the ideal person/statesman (his ideal person was pretty much himself – so he probably doesn’t embody my cardinal virtue for writers in a new media world. Humility). If it excites you, you can read most of a chapter on how Cicero’s views of the ideal orator, and the relationship between virtue and eloquence, were developed by Augustine on Google Books. In Brutus he calls eloquence the “marrow and quintessence of persuasion.” For Cicero, the ideal person was an orator-philosopher-statesman, and the only speaking or writing worth bothering with was persuasive.

Persuasive writing or speaking transforms. It moves. It excites. It stirs the emotions. It does what good writing should. Persuasive writing must be interesting – or it won’t persuade, and, as a reader, I want to read stuff that challenges, changes, or deepens my thinking – so persuasive writing is, I think, the mark of good writing. For Cicero, good oratory (and for us, good writing) is judged on its fruits. Its impact. While the good orator or writer is judged on their eloquence and virtuous character.

“When a Citizen hears an able Orator, he readily credits what is said;—he imagines every thing to be true, he believes and relishes the force of it; and, in short, the persuasive language of the Speaker wins his absolute, his hearty assent. You, who are possessed of a critical knowledge of the art, what more will you require? The listening multitude is charmed and captivated by the force of his Eloquence, and feels a pleasure which is not to be resisted. What here can you find to censure? The whole audience is either flushed with joy, or overwhelmed with grief;—it smiles, or weeps,—it loves, or hates,—it scorns or envies,—and, in short, is alternately seized with the various emotions of pity, shame, remorse, resentment, wonder, hope, and fear, according as it is influenced by the language, the sentiments, and the action of the speaker.” - Cicero, Brutus

Good writing does this. Good writers seek to do this for stuff they truly believe in and care about. They don’t create these emotions if they don’t first feel them, they don’t persuade people to think things they don’t think themselves. Perhaps to demonstrate Cicero’s ongoing relevance, but also to engage with new media realities, I’ll also feature a heavy smattering of insights from Jonah Peretti, one of the founders of the Huffington Post, and the founder of Buzzfeed. If anyone understands how to write for the new media world it’s Peretti. He gave this great (and incredibly long) interview on Medium that I’ll be quoting. You can read the whole thing – but according to Medium’s time calculator, it’ll take you 91 minutes.

I’ll break down my own vision of this virtue as it pertains to the new media world into three key (overlapping) elements authenticity, presentation. All of these qualities are important – but excellent, or virtuous, writing in this new media world requires all three, or at least two out of three (and I’d argue that for writing to be virtuous the content always needs to be excellent – it can either be packaged well without an authentic/credible author, or have an authentic/credible author and be packaged in an incredibly boring way).

An authentic voice

“I have been so much transported, not by the force of my genius, but by the real fervor of my heart, that I was unable to restrain myself: —and, indeed, no language will inflame the mind of the hearer, unless the Speaker himself first catches the ardor, and glows with the importance of his subject.” - Cicero, The Orator

Orators weren’t famed for authenticity – in fact, there was a whole stream of oratory – Sophistry – that was all about the triumph of style over substance, that lauded one’s ability to speak passionately about anything, even while not caring about that thing. I like Cicero because (outside some of his speeches as a defence lawyer) he was big on authenticity. Cicero literally embodied the values of the Republic in the face of the Empire, even to the point of martyrdom. These were something like his parting words - they come from the Philippics, a series of speeches that saw him executed.

“I defended the republic as a young man; I will not desert it as an old one. I despised the swords of Catiline; I will not fear yours. Indeed I would gladly offer my body, if by my death the liberty of the state can be immediately recovered, so that finally the suffering of the Roman People may bring to birth what it has long since labored to produce.” Cicero, Orationes Philippicae

These weren’t empty words. He died for his convictions. After he was executed his tongue and hands (that spoke, and penned) these words were nailed to the forum for all to see. He knew it was coming when he published the Philippics. Part of eloquence is embodying your message, beyond your words, and speaking from the heart. One of my other favourite orators, the apostle Paul, also embodied his message with authenticity, as demonstrated by the scars he carried with his message about the crucified Jesus.

“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation… From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” – Paul, Galatians 6:14-17 “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. ” – Paul, 2 Corinthians 4:10

Authenticity is so important in this new media world, and is one of the determining factors in what gets read and shared online (cat videos not withstanding). And it’s certainly the determining factor in what, or who, I choose to read. BuzzFeed might have a reputation for promoting the trite and the trivial, but for Jonah Peretti, and for BuzzFeed, the need for authenticity is part of the editorial process – and this feeds into the site’s voice.

We also have our no-haters orientation. We tend to be enthusiastic and we tend to avoid snarky articles about mediocre things. It’s not like there’s some hard rule. In general, we tend to avoid a post that is designed to make the author feel smart and superior and the reader to vicariously feel smart and superior because a Hollywood film is mediocre or because something in culture is mediocre.

Interviewer: Honest enthusiasm is a sort of default stance at BuzzFeed.

Peretti: If there’s something that is worth someone’s time that is interesting and is worthy of being excited about, we should cover that. If there’s an egregious miscarriage of justice or corruption or fraud or something that needs to be investigated, those are both strong things. In the middle, there’s a lot of things that are kind of a waste of time. Mediocre things that you can write cynical comments about. – Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed.

Writers in the democratised new media world don’t have the credibility that comes built in to writing for a mass-media platform, they build credibility on the basis of who they are – their expertise, what and how they think, and how they express themselves. I want to read people who say interesting stuff about interesting things, but I especially want them to be interested in those things (preferably with skin in the game), not professionally detached (like a journalist). It’s almost like in this new media world subjectivity is more interesting than objectivity, and we build our own objective view of ‘the facts’ (whatever they are) by choosing to hear from multiple perspectives.

An interesting voice (with an interesting message)

“It is of little consequence to discover what is proper to be said, unless you are able to express it in a free and agreeable manner: and even that will be insufficient, if not recommended by the voice, the look, and the gesture. ” – Cicero, Brutus

“Our style must be pure, and correct;—we must speak with clearness and perspicuity.” – Cicero, The Orator

Other beauties of composition which he will not fail to pursue;—such as brevity where the subject requires it;—a lively and pathetic description of important occurrences;—a passionate exaggeration of remarkable circumstances;—an earnestness of expression which implies more than is said;—a well-timed variety of humour;—and a happy imitation of different characters and dispositions. Assisted and adorned by such figures as these, which are very numerous, the force of Eloquence will appear in its brightest lustre. – Cicero, The Orator

It’s possible to be interesting when you’re talking about boring stuff – provided you talk about that stuff in an interesting way, or from an interesting angle. Some of the best stuff in the new media world, I think, involves putting the spotlight on stuff we take for granted. One of my favourite books is a biography of salt. I’m currently reading a biography of paper. I love all those videos on craftsmen making bespoke stuff like scissors and shoes.

The way to achieve this is to present that stuff with eloquence, such that the presentation makes the content sing.

Cicero basically defined eloquence in terms of knowing what to say, where to say it, and saying it well. In Brutus, Cicero speaks of Caesar. His frienemy (who ends up being exclusively his enemy). Cicero was trying to win Caesar over by painting his oratory in such glowing terms (a little bit of an authenticity fail on Cicero’s part), but his depiction of praiseworthy oratory is worth pondering.

“He [Caesar] is absolutely master of his trade, and, neglecting every other profession, has applied himself solely to this; and, for that purpose, has persevered in the rigorous task of composing a daily Essay in writing. His words are well chosen; his language is full and copious; and every thing he says receives an additional ornament from the graceful tone of his voice, and the dignity of his action. In short, he is so compleat an Orator, that there is no quality I know of, in which I can think him deficient.” – Cicero, Brutus

Cicero is pretty big on the idea that practice makes perfect when it comes to speaking and writing. He mentions Cicero’s essay writing to this end, but he also says stuff like:

A good voice, indeed, though a desirable accomplishment, is not in our power to acquire:—but to exercise, and improve it, is certainly in the power of every person. – Cicero, The Orator

He thinks the ability to speak (and he’s talking about the vocalisation of words) comes from nature (or the gods), but there are ways to improve (this is where a ‘voice’ analogy between writing and speaking fails because he’d also suggest anybody can become a writer, if not a speaker). Cicero has a second character in Brutus note that Caesar dedicated his own writing on oratory to Cicero, with this axiomatic definition of eloquence: “an accurate choice of words is the foundation of Eloquence.” Cicero compares eloquence to carefully displaying art in a gallery – where the framing matters, the lighting matters, the height you place the painting on the wall matters… eloquence is about featuring your content like a gallery curator features the star work in an exhibition.

“Accordingly, to the purest elegance of expression, he [Caesar] has added all the various ornaments of Elocution; so that he seems to exhibit the finest painting in the most advantageous point of view… Besides, his manner of speaking, both as to his voice and gesture, is splendid and noble, without the least appearance of artifice or affectation: and there is a dignity in his very presence, which bespeaks a great and elevated mind.” – Cicero, Brutus

This eloquence includes the choice of words, the structure of sentences, the flow and structure of the piece – and in this set of virtues the impact of humility on these matters discussed in the previous post (charity and clarity) come first. You can always make choices in these areas to look or sound impressive. But there are always choices to make on behalf of your audience, rather than for yourself. For Cicero the audience was king when it came to deciding if something was eloquent.

“The taste of the Audience, then, has always governed and directed the Eloquence of the Speaker: for all who wish to be applauded, consult the character, and the inclinations of those who hear them, and carefully form and accommodate themselves to their particular humours and dispositions.” – Cicero, The Orator

Different people like different stuff – and that’s fine. Different forums require different styles – and that’s fine. But the eloquent person writes to the audience they have selected.

“Different men have different opinions;”—nor is it easy to determine which is best. Thus also in painting, some are pleased with a rough, a wild, and a dark and cloudy style; while others prefer that which is clear, and lively, and well covered with light. How then shall we strike out a general rule or model, when there are several manners, and each of them has a certain perfection of its own?” – Cicero, The Orator

“We are not to speak upon every occasion, or before every audience, or against every opponent, or in defence of every client, and to every Judge, in the same invariable manner. He, therefore, is the man of genuine Eloquence, who can adapt his language to what is most suitable to each. By doing this, he will be sure to say every thing as it ought to be said. He will neither speak drily upon copious subjects, nor without dignity and spirit upon things of importance; but his language will always be proportioned, and equal to his subject.” – Cicero, Brutus

He, then, is an Orator indeed! who can speak upon trivial subjects with simplicity and art, upon weighty ones with energy and pathos, and upon those of middling import with calmness and moderation. – Cicero, The Orator

Cicero calls the ability to select a style that is apt to your audience and purpose ‘decorum’ – and this is basically one of his virtues for the orator. The key to good writing is to tailor how you present your content to the audience you write to. This means making sure your ‘voice’ matches your platform (or medium), and your content. Conversations about writing for the online world invariably end up talking about length (in my experience, though perhaps this is because I like to write such unwieldly posts). There’s no real ‘golden rule’ for packaging when it comes to length, or even style – except that it should achieve what the writer sets out to achieve. Length can work for, or against, eloquence. This is true according to both Cicero and Peretti…

“For as language is ever soft and yielding, and so amazingly pliable that you may bend and form it at your pleasure; so different natures and dispositions have given rise to different kinds of Elocution. Some, for instance, who place the chief merit of it in it’s rapidity, are mightily pleased with a torrent of words, and a volubility of expression. Others again are better pleased with regular, and measured intervals, and frequent stops, and pauses. What can be more opposite? and yet both have their proper excellence.” – Cicero, The Orator

“We see with our longform stories that, in some cases, the sheer length and rigor of a piece will make the piece have a bigger impact. Just the fact that it’s 6,000 words or 12,000 words.”  - Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti

Peretti does suggest that it’s possible for things to be too long. Even if they’re well written. The key is delivering value to the reader in proportion to the length and the time spent reading.

Saying things in an interesting way isn’t just about packaging or length. Cicero is also big on two features of eloquent writing – the use of metaphors and the use of humour – and these, too, must be appropriate to the context.

We have slightly touched upon the ornaments of language, both in single words, and in words as they stand connected with each other;—in which our Orator will so indulge himself, that not a single expression may escape him, but what is either elegant or weighty. But he will most abound in the metaphor; which, by an aptness of similitude, conveys and transports the mind from object to object, and hurries it backwards and forwards through a pleasing variety of images;—a motion which, in its own nature, (as being full of life and action) can never fail to be highly delightful. – Cicero, The Orator

When it comes to getting laughs, Cicero makes a distinction between witty repartee and ‘humour.’ Humour is used to make narratives “lively and entertaining,” witty repartee is used to ridicule, or to respond to ridicule. He has some rules which are timeless tips for using humour, so I think apply to the new media world, and especially to the written word, where humour is so hard to pull off.

“The powers of ridicule are not to be employed too often, lest we sink into scurrility;—nor in loose and indecent language, lest we degenerate into wantonness and buffoonery; —nor with the least degree of petulance and abuse, lest we appear audacious and ill-bred;—nor levelled against the unfortunate, lest we incur the censure of inhumanity;—nor against atrocious crimes, lest we raise a laugh where we ought to excite abhorrence;—nor, in the last place, should they be used unseasonably, or when the characters either of the Speaker, or the Hearer, and the circumstances of time and place forbid it;—otherwise we should grossly fail in that decorum of which we have already said so much. We should likewise avoid all affected witticisms, which appear not to be thrown out occasionally, but to be dragged from the closet; for such are generally cold and insipid. It is also improper to jest upon our friends, or upon persons of quality, or to give any strokes of wit which may appear ill-natured, or malicious.” Cicero, The Orator

If a virtuous modern writer is defined by humility, I think it’s reasonable to expect most humour from this sort of writer should be victimless or self-deprecating. The democratisation of this new media world is a throw back to the time of Cicero. Everyone who creates or shares content online is an orator. Everyone has a platform. And it’s the audience that determines if something is eloquent or not. Cicero suggests eloquence takes the taste of the audience into account. One of the downsides of this democratisation is that every voice is, in some sense, given equal weight (note: this isn’t quite true, big platforms still exist, mass media outlets have a presence online, but it’s true when bits of writing are exported from their original context into other platforms – except when algorithms give greater weight to bigger platforms, which some do). This means that there’s a lot of noise to wade through. Cicero has some advice for the kind of voice that will cut through that chatter…

“A crowded audience, and a clamorous Forum, require an Orator who is lively, animated, full of action, and able to exert his voice to the highest pitch.” – Cicero, Brutus

Figuring out how to do that in writing is, I think, the key to packaging stuff for world we live in. It’s what thrusts sites like Upworthy and BuzzFeed into Facebook newsfeeds and the twittersphere. But packaging alone is not enough. If I’ve presented Cicero’s views on eloquence accurately – that it’s about using the right words in the right place in the right way, as defined by your audience, then it’s interesting to see how closely Peretti’s modern views mesh with his ancient advice.

“We want the stuff we do to reach the maximum audience it should reach, no less and no more. If we make a wonky political scoop, we want every political wonk to read it. If we make “Which state should you actually live in,” we want everyone who lives in a city to read it. ” “When we have something that’s a hit, usually our response is not, “Let’s do more of those.” Our response is, “Let’s figure why this is a hit and make variations of this.” This was successful because it was tied to someone’s identity, it was successful because it had cats in it, or it was successful because it had humor, or it was successful because it tapped into nostalgia. If you’re making entertainment content, which is a big part of what we do, you look at that hit and you say, “Why was that successful? Can I do it again? Can I make something else that people really love and want to share?” And you try to vary it, even though you know doing something derivative would work. Long term, you want to have a deeper understanding of how to make great things.” - BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti

When you think about the media industry, it’s also, “How do you reach people and how do you get people to understand?” If you write something and nobody understands it, it’s easy to be, like, “Oh those are all the dumb people.” Sometimes writing something that’s very sophisticated and difficult and technical for a particular audience is totally fine, but you should be able to communicate in simple language… The thing is, there are dangers in this, because you can also explain something in a way that makes people feel like they understand it when they actually don’t… You can figure out a way to frame something and explain it so that it feels like it confirms what people already believe, including incorrect things they believe. – BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti

Peretti notes that to be eloquent (according to our definition) in the new media world requires thinking about what’s new in our media platforms and how that has to shape our approach (and our content).

“Early-stage digital publishers have stayed too close to print. They look like print. Their basic unit is the same kind of article structure. Some of them might be shorter or longer, but the front page is programmed almost like a newspaper. The formats of the articles are more like a newspaper. And it’s like, “Oh, let’s add a little video,” but when they add video it’s like they are trying to be TV, but it’s not quite as good as regular TV. The way to break through and to make something that can actually scale into something big is just to say, “What would this be if the readers and the publishers were not focused on making something similar to print?” If they said, instead, “What should this be if mobile is the most important thing; if things can be more visual; if things can be more shareable; if length can be anywhere from 140 characters to 12,000 words? In that kind of world, where things can be interactive, like quizzes—in that kind of a world, what should a media company be?… In a grand sense it needs to move away from mimicking print to doing what is natural for the web.”

The new media world has to shift our understanding of eloquent writing. Because the audience is shifting.

It’s not paranoid to think that the audience watching broadcast television is old. And it’s not paranoid to think people, particularly young people, are spending a lot of time on their phones and a lot of time on the Internet. It’s accurate to say that media consumption is changing in a pretty dramatic way and that if your marketing stays the same you essentially will be marketing to people who are consuming media the way people consumed media ten years ago instead of the way they’re consuming today. - BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti

(An interesting voice) with an interesting message

It’s hard to split the voice from the message when it comes to eloquence. What I think is virtuous when it comes to the “interestingness” of the content is delivering on what is promised in the packaging, and delivering value to the reader. Part of this is in the realm of a ‘content strategy’ or editorial policy, that’s a decision the modern writer makes based on who their audience is, and, because authenticity is important – who they are and what they’re passionate about. Content is king. Really. Content is where the value of a piece of writing lies. A reader may perceive writing as more valuable based on who it comes from, or how it’s served up, but good writing is inherently valuable to the reader (even if that value only lies in the reaction it prompts, and even if that reaction is only to entertain or excite the emotions), and good content is what should hold a reader’s attention. The virtuous and eloquent writer only holds the reader’s attention for as long as they want it to be held, they don’t employ ruses to entrap the reader. The virtuous writer makes it clear what is being offered, and delivers. It’s interesting how much debate about the relationship between content and packaging revolves around the headline. You can dress up your content with all the BuzzFeed or Upworthy tips and tricks, sensationalist headlines and listicles (here’s a neat article from Anil Dash, one of the prophets of the new media world about clickbait headlines that I quite like, and here’s an article about how headlines don’t actually matter because people who share stuff with their networks typically make up their own headline/description of the article). Peretti says BuzzFeed has made a conscious effort to have headlines that match up with, and describe, the content.

“You could show a picture of like an older guy at the beach and be like, “Guess whose body this is?” Then you click and it’s like, “Oh it’s Giorgio Armani” or whatever, and you could get a tremendous clickthrough rate on headlines that didn’t tell you what the story is about. The problem with that is that if you’re just getting clicks that would have gone to another headline on your front page, it’s sending people the content that might not be as good, because they’re clicking because they want to know what’s there. They’re not clicking because they’re interested in what’s there… You end up with lots of people who don’t actually want to see Giorgio Armani in a Speedo on the beach clicking that and then feeling like, “Oh god, why did I do that?” Like, “That was a waste of time.” The main problem for us is that when you think from the perspective of the reader, if headlines are all devoid of information and you have to click them to find out what they are about, all the social streams out there would become much less useful and much less valuable. When you think from that perspective it’s like, “Whoa, let’s just make headlines that describe what’s in the article and that’s better for the consumer and it’s better for the ecosystem as a whole. Then let’s make articles that people really want to click because they’re interested in them, not because they’re wondering what it’s about.”

Peretti talks a fair bit about appropriate metrics for this new media world, he doesn’t think time is the best measure, because people can do stuff to keep people’s attention for longer than they need to.

“The challenge there is that, like you said, if you create a long, meandering, boring story that’s just good enough to keep people reading, they might spend more time on that story than the short, condensed one that just tells you what you need to know. If you use time on that one, it will tell you to do the wrong thing… One of the reasons reality TV became so dominant was because people looked at time as being the metric. And the reason that reality TV works well for time is that the classic reality TV formula, in the beginning, was the tribal council and somebody getting eliminated. So you could have 50 percent of the show being boring filler and you’re kind of wanting to change the channel but you’re like, “Oh, but I wonder if my favorite person’s going to get eliminated.” So you have to watch to the end to see the elimination. In a way, that was a way of gaming time. You could look at that and say, “Oh, they spent an hour watching this show, including the commercials. That means it must be a really high quality show.” But it also might just mean that they figured out a hook that incentivizes you to watch to the end and then did a lot of mediocre content in the middle.”

It’s clear from the length of this piece that it’s in danger of being far from eloquent (but I haven’t claimed to be virtuous), so I’ll stop now.

new media virtues

I’ve spent a little bit of time lately reflecting on words lately. Particularly on reading and writing. Writing is one of the distinct technological advances that separates humans from the animal kingdom. Our capacity to write is arguably part of what makes us bearers of God’s image. God is a God who speaks, who writes, who wrote himself into our world in Jesus.

So I’ve been thinking about writing.

My writing. The writing of other people. What I like. What I don’t.

The appreciation of writing is always going to be a fairly subjective affair. Certain styles appeal to some but not to others.

I’m in no way close to being the writer I aspire to be – I’m not even sure that I’m the writer I’d personally like to read yet.

I’ve particularly been thinking about what it means to write in the post-print world where everybody is connected, where words (or unfortunate photos) never disappear, where content is often exhumed from its context and where non-verbal communication is non-existent. Nothing significant has changed in this post-printing press world – except the cost of publication has dropped dramatically, and content is no longer seen as valuable simply by virtue of having been printed/published, but is given value democratically as it is shared and discussed through different networks. One interesting associated phenomena is that the discussion around publications is now almost a bigger deal than the publication itself. This is demonstrable through all sorts of examples – watch the post-game coverage of a World Cup match and note how much attention is paid to the discussion on social media, read mainstream media outlets discussing the virality of a current news event (like, at the time of writing, the disgraceful demise of a Rugby League star). The conversation about a thing is now as big a deal as the thing itself (as previously noted).

Often old school writers about rhetoric and oratory would, in their treaties on such matters, spend a bit of time talking about the virtues of a rhetor or an orator. Cicero did it, others did it before him. These virtues were meant to help a writer approach the generation of their content. You had to work on the speaker before you worked on the voice, or the content – unless you wanted to be an insubstantial sophist. All sizzle, no sausage. But there’s also a pretty tight relationship, even for these old school guys, between medium and message. So I’ve found it hard to split virtue from style and content – partly because I think if the capacity for creating and expressing words is part of what defines us as humans, it’s really hard to split capacity from manner and content when deciding what makes an expression of that capacity ‘good.’

I have tried to boil down these virtues into list (because that’s how the Internet works – and how those old dudes worked too), which I’ll then expand in a series of individual posts. I was going to do it all together in one post, but then the first point blew out into something massive.

Here’s the list.

  1. Humility. 
  2. An interesting and authentic voice with an interesting message.
  3. Sublime consistency. 
  4. Commitment and conviction. 
  5. Empathy (subjectivity is self-centred, objectivity is overrated).

 

The flipside of writing is reading. I’ve been contemplating what I like in a reader – will be a subsequent list, and probably a subsequent miniseries. It’s also aspirational. I often find myself reading things poorly, through no fault of the writer, but because of my own heart. I’ll share that list too – not because I am that reader, or want the ideal reader of things I write to be that reader, but because I want to be that reader (as I want to be this writer).

The third bit of my reflection, which I think will just be one post – but who knows – will be some thoughts I’ve come up with about the sort of writing I want to do here, and elsewhere, based on these aspirations. In the interest of full disclosure – these posts will probably then become a significant part of my disclaimer and comment policy.

Ironically, this list will probably break many of the aspirational qualities it describes… It may also read (occasionally) like an exercise in justifying how I do stuff. Sorry. I did mention that this is all going to be subjective – so you’re absolutely free to disagree with what I think these virtues look like in application (and even in the selection of these five as the top five virtures). It’s possible that in describing what I aspire to be, I’ll also explain why I am like I am, and that may help you to read me charitably.

Let me also mention, in case there are any doubts, that I’m often self-seeking and self-indulgent, and that will necessarily come across in my writing even if I fail to acknowledge it – and the writer I aspire to be like is not self-seeking, or self-indulgent. Quite the reverse. I want to be like the writer who wrote himself into his own story (John 1), not as the conquering hero (though he is that), but as a humiliated and crucified wretch, because he considered others better than himself (Philippians 2), and in order to save a wretch like me (Amazing Grace).

1. Humility.

I like a writer who considers their reader more valuable than themselves. It’s possible that to actually write – to incarnate oneself in written form, to express oneself externally, and to present this expression to others, to put forward one’s thoughts and views as though they have inherent value, could always be considered an act of something other than humility, but I don’t think that’s a particularly useful picture of humility. Writing is part of an expression of our humanity. It’s how knowledge is shared. How ideas are formed (and held with any degree of permanence). Humility, in its essence, I think, is this posture. Considering the needs of the reader above your own needs. This is more important for me as a writer than it is for me as I read the writing of others. I suspect, at times, I’m only frustrated by a perceived lack of humility in other writers as a result of my own pride.

This presents an interesting conundrum for those of us who write primarily for ourselves, but are happy to share our writing with any audience that chooses to engage. I suspect part of the humility I cherish is in allowing people to choose to read something, rather than force feeding it to them via a firehose at every turn. There’s a fine line, again, between believing you’ve produced something that people should read and the danger of being a self-promoting mercenary hack. The line probably isn’t that fine – but mediums like blogs, and channels like social networks, reward people who walk near that line.

I think one of the key aspects of humble writing in a self-promoting world rests in the difference between permission based, or opt-in, writing and ambush writing. Sensationalist, link baity, headlines that draw clicks on the basis of a promise that is never delivered are the hallmark of the latter. Forcing argumentative hobby-horse riding rants on unsuspecting Facebook friends who genuinely like you and want to “stay connected” with you via the platform are another example of a lack of humility, or consideration of others, in this brazen new world. I don’t mind ‘wasting’ someone’s time with a long winded description of my ideal writer if it’s something they have to voluntarily sign up for reading, without me overpromising, and something they can click away from at any time.

This virtue of humility, for the writer, plays out in other virtues – charity and clarity. 

Charity involves a deliberate generosity, a willing wearing of cost by the writer in order to benefit the reader (or in order to not waste their time), or a purposeful gift of something valuable. Value in writing comes from the time, effort, and expertise put into writing and the quality produced. It’s not that longer is necessarily better – length often comes at the expense of the virtue of clarity. But length does occasionally come as a result of an investment from the writer. Value isn’t about length, it’s not just about quality, or utility (how useful a piece of writing is – we all benefit from how to stuff when it’s particularly good – there’s a reason my most popular post of all time is a guide to making Sizzler’s cheesy toast). Value can also come from aesthetics, from novelty, from creativity, from the joy expressed and shared, or the emotions produced for the reader as a result of the writer’s care, intent, or effort.

Clarity is another expression of consideration to the reader. While I love oddly punctuated stream of consciousness stuff peppered with rambling footnotes (both reading and writing such text), punctuation can be helpful. Convention can be helpful. Rules a useful guide. Understanding stuff like genre, and speculating about who one’s audience might be, and providing some framework by which newcomers to a medium might interpret what they’re seeing, these are all ways one might pursue clarity. I think great writers pursue clarity at a meta level, and at the micro level.

Clarity at the meta level is about helping the reader see how a particular paragraph, chapter, or post, fits in with a bigger whole. In books and essays this comes from tables of contents, headings and a nice, intuitive, index. In most writing it means having a clear structure and a coherently unified narrative (a big idea or clear understanding about what something is going to be about) that cascades upwards and downwards. Whether you take an educated guess at a book’s argument from the Table of Contents, the Index, or a sentence on a page, you should still feel like it all fits together. A sentence should fit a paragraph, which should fit a chapter, which should fit a book – or in new media terms, a post should fit in a category that fits in the site. This cascading relationship, in the internet world, works in a similar manner to the table of contents/headings/index relationship in a book. Clear writing, for the benefit of the reader, needs clear information architecture (like menus, categories, tags, headings, and links to other stuff).

This pursuit of clarity plays itself out at the micro level too. Right down to the selection of individual words, sentence structure, idioms, or metaphors. It means not using jargon or technical language (or explaining it when it’s used). At a micro level the pursuit of clarity means always helping the reader see the meta-structure (rather than making it obscure) – devoting time and words to helping a reader understand why you’re telling them stuff and where it fits in what the piece of writing is doing. I quite like writing that breaks the fourth wall – that addresses the reader directly with some instructions, or some sort of interaction.

Tangentially… perhaps it’s truer to suggest that good writing doesn’t really have a fourth wall. Good writing, I think, involves the writer becoming deliberately vulnerable and ‘incarnate’ in the text, but also invites the reader to do the same. To put oneself in the picture, in the story, to feel the emotional weight of an argument, rather than observe it. Good writing tickles the senses. It evokes empathy, not just sympathy. It makes us feel as well as think. Humility is part of that. This is why I love the so-called gonzo genre so much, where the author becomes part of the story, for the sake of the story (and the reader).

Anyway. Back on track. This pursuit of integrated clarity between the meta level and the micro level takes some words. Clarity and brevity aren’t synonyms. But you can’t have clarity and overwrite stuff with fluff that nobody needs to read. Fluff kills clarity. Clarity and simplicity are also not synonyms. Most government weasel-word filled media releases are technically quite simple. But they’re not clear. It’s also possible to be clear and complex at the same time.

It’s not necessarily possible to be clear, complex and brief at the same time.

Other ways some of the writers I love and aspire to be like demonstrate humility is by providing sources/evidence (especially to stuff written by other people), by arguing well (avoiding fallacies, histrionics etc – but also being clear about what is being argued for), by being prepared to discuss the topic further, and by being able to be corrected… there are all sorts of ways good writers demonstrate humility.

Good writing puts the reader first, but this doesn’t mean it asks for the reader to not put in any effort at all. That isn’t loving.

It doesn’t encourage the reader to grow. Spoon feeding stuff to your reader is actually considering your reader as lesser than yourself, not greater.

Sometimes getting someone to ponder something requires presenting it in a ponderous package.

Frictionless, pithy, writing – boiled down to a ‘what’s in it for me’ marketing pitch or a neat listicle doesn’t present any particularly valuable challenge for the reader. That’s one of the reasons I’m unapologetic (mostly) about the length of the stuff I write here (even if it’s awful). I truly believe that short form, shallow, unnuanced, buzzfeedy articles made for sensationalist sharing and arguments are tremendously damaging to society and to the individual. They mess with our brains. They are addictive. People truly do become what they behold – we’re shaped by the tools we use to make and understand things as much as we are by what we make, and the content we consume. Peter Tong’s excellent chapter on Doing theology in a Digital World in a recent Matthias Media publication is worth reading (it’s available as a free sample from this page), there are heaps of links to other things worth reading in the (really) long series I wrote about Facebook and your brain earlier this year.

My intention isn’t that this series be something massively Christian, or theological, but some of the convictions I’ve come to about writing are drawn from my thinking for my thesis last year (I’ll be mining those depths for content on this corner of the interwebs for many years to come). The virtues I’ve picked as my top five – and it’s by no means an exhaustive list – are virtues I think God demonstrates in his communication to us, both in the written words of the Bible, and in the way he wrote himself into creation as Jesus.

What would top your list? Are there any good things to read about reading and writing in the new media world?

Here’s a thing I wrote about SportsBet’s inflatable Jesus ad.

I’m no fan of the insidious relationship between betting agencies and sports coverage, and I know this stunt was designed to get people talking about the company, but I think there’s an opportunity here for Christians to take part in a conversation without our feathers getting all puffed up and ruffled. Amongst other things I say:

“If there’s one thing that is beautiful about SportsBet’s campaign – it’s that our confidence in Jesus, our king, is based on his ascension through the clouds. Christians believe Jesus died, that he was raised, and he ascended into heaven as King. And he’s coming back – bringing eternal life to those who keep the faith. That’s why we think he’s worth betting our lives on. Here’s how Luke puts it in Acts 1.

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

There’s been plenty of hot air about this campaign floating around (boom boom tish). Our knee jerk reaction, as Christians, to this sort of insult is often to be defensive or to lash out indignantly as though we’re entitled to some sort of privileged position (or even respect). I think in all our contributions to public discussions (like the #keepthefaith chatter) we should be reflecting on both Jesus’ example – he voluntarily went to the Cross deliberately being insulted and humiliated along the way, and his words, particularly these ones from Luke 6…

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

For another nice non hand-wringing post see CafeDave’s piece.

This little ad for an app (State) is titled “you are what you share” – in the world of social media this is true. To an extent. Read some gear on Tom Standage’s Writing On The Wall (or this one) to see how this has been sort of true historically too.

This, I think, has massive implications for how we approach Facebook as Christians. It’s important that people see that Jesus defines who we are, but it’s also important for us to be authentic and share stuff beyond the same boring thing over and over again. Sometimes, for Christians, Jesusbooking makes us seem like one dimensional people. And one dimensional people fall off people’s newsfeeds as fast as toilet selfies.

#GoEverywhere

I’ve been banging on about finding ways to use social media to give a reason for the hope that we have (ala 1 Peter 3) for some time. Here’s a way you can do that. #GoEverywhere is an initiative from yesheis.com to see a coordinated blast of Gospel on Facebook and Twitter. I’m joining in. It’s pointing people to this video which is a nice account of the Gospel. I’m hoping it’ll start some discussion with my friends.

Here’s a nice little spoken word encouragement to get on board.

Ok. Long title. I know.

megaphone on facebook

I hate to get on anything like a high horse when it comes to how people use social media. I’m far from perfect when it comes to what I post on Facebook, and I’d love to be more authentic about my life and about the part my living hope in Jesus plays in my life so that people find the Gospel attractive because of how I approach this platform.

I hate to be negative – it’s much easier to point out what people are doing wrong, rather than pointing out what they’re doing right. But seriously.

Christian.

Shut up.

Stop using Facebook as a sounding board or a location for a debate about whatever argument is the hot button issue of the day. Start a blog. Start a forum. Start a private group on Facebook. Meet up in person. Go to theological college.

Just stop using Facebook to air your theological differences. Differences that arise about 20 years after you figure out who Jesus is. Not everybody is as enlightened as you, or as ready to hear about the obscure nuances surrounding a Greek word. I think you’ve picked the wrong Greek word anyway – preaching is preaching. Not teaching.

Preaching is about pointing people to Jesus. The king. It’d be great if you started using Facebook to do that more, combining your Facebook clout to push positive Gospel stuff into people’s newsfeeds (and I know many of you already do – just stop doing the distracting stuff).

Facebook will serve up what its algorithms decide is popular. If you’re a Christian on Facebook – help your non-Christian friends meet Jesus. Not your theological hobby horse. Help them meet Jesus by sharing stuff about him. Authentically. Stuff you read that excites you. Comment on threads of other Christians to encourage them. People will know Jesus is for real when they see he changes the way we relate to each other – online and offline. People will know Jesus is for real when they see the love we have for each other when we use communication mediums differently to others. Facebook is full of narky arguments about politics and economics and other dross. Why are we adding to the noise.

Let me leave you with a visual. An image of what you are doing when you dive in, boots and all, into the latest controversy. Whatever your contribution.

Christians. Picture two people with megaphones standing in a crowded public square. Yelling at each other about obscure theological differences. Picture those two people being joined by other people. Yelling essentially the same thing. With megaphones. The noise amplifies. This is how Facebook works – it decides what to put in a newsfeed based on how much noise it is making. Every time you comment on one of these controversial threads it throws your post into newsfeeds of all sorts of people who have no idea what you’re talking about.

Now.

Picture the crowd, looking around. Puzzled at why the obnoxious noise is interrupting their lives. Picture how seriously they’ll take you when you turn around to tell them about Jesus.

Jesus is great, and I’d love people to be hearing about him through how we use Facebook, not getting an update on the latest example of Christians bashing each other over the head over our minute disagreements (important though they may be).

This is how some of you are using Facebook. Please stop. Find somewhere else to yell at each other. Facebook is a public square. It is not a BBQ with friends, you aren’t at the pub, you are in front of thousands of people – potentially tens or hundreds of thousands.

Nicholson Baker is one of my favourite writers, in part, because of the way he sees intricacies in the mundane that are so easily glossed over. This speech about what it means to write about product design is pretty fun. I think.

I promised six parts to this mammoth series way back at the start. In January.

And here is the last one.

I was going to make part six a list of suggested reading in this area – but you should just read TheoMedia (my review), and From the Garden to the City, you can also check out my thesis and the companion piece I wrote applying it to social media specifically (PDF).

This video has been doing the rounds.

It’s compelling.

The basic thesis of the first post in this series was that social media isn’t ‘neutral’ - it’s not simply a tool. It effects us. It changes us. That’s basically what this video is saying – only it’s also taking a position. The changes are bad. Mostly. I think I agree. A bit.

But am I less committed to being present on Facebook as a result – or figuring out how to use it as a platform for presenting the Gospel? No.

I think the Gospel offers us a significant toolkit not for redeeming Facebook (or social media) but for subverting it in a way that helps people connect with Jesus.

I think the story at the heart of the Gospel provides us with a communication model. A communication model based on getting messed up through the mediums we use to communicate, in order to be heard by messed up people.

I think deliberately getting messed up by a medium as an act of love for the people using the medium – aware of the cost – is a way for us to imitate Christ. Who became a communication medium – human – in a way that cost him everything.

Jesus stepped out of his infinite, immortal, divinity, out of his perfectly loving eternal relationship with the Trinity – and into the flesh and blood and muck of human existence, and the humiliation of the Cross, and that moment of separation from the Father and Holy Spirit. Huge cost. To communicate and relate to us. His enemies.

That is costly.

Interactions on Facebook appear low cost. Facebook is free (because you’re the product, not the customer). There is the hidden cost this video speaks of – the cost to our relationships and quality of life.

One thing I think we need to figure out, as Christians, is how to make our interactions on Facebook – and platforms like it – more costly for us, and more beneficial for others.

Fleeing social media and the people you have limited contact with because you realise it is costing you quality of life might be attractive when a British sounding guy says we should do it in a compelling spoken word – but if being on social media allows me to pray for someone in a more informed way, or allows me to offer some words of comfort to a hurting friend, to give a reason for the hope that I have, to present the Gospel, to be a token Christian friend, or to supplement and facilitate real world relationships – then I think that is worth it.

Absolutely.

My challenge is to use Facebook to do those things – as long as there are people there. Though my natural inclination is to use Facebook to make myself a bigger deal. (NOTE: When people move on to something new, it’ll be our job as Christians to find ways to use whatever that new thing is to introduce people to Jesus at cost to ourselves).

My challenge is not to flee Facebook to avoid getting messed up and to have a more fulfilling life. Though that’s my natural response when I watch a video like the one above.

The message at the heart of that video is kind of selfish. Compelling. But selfish. Maybe I was in a bad mood when I watched it. Maybe I misunderstood. But I won’t choose what communication mediums to use on the basis of their impact on my life, but rather on the potential impact that choice might have for others who don’t know Jesus.

I have eternity to have a fulfilling life. In this life I want to get messy and messed up on purpose. For the sake of others. Because that’s what Jesus did for me.

I know. I know. Not much happening in these parts at present. But this isn’t just a token effort. I’ve been reading a bit around that Facebook series I still have to finish (with, incidentally, a list of recommended reading). Anyway. I love long form writing – the sort of thing that is shorter than a book, but longer than your typical magazine feature, and I’ve found these essays particularly useful for thinking about media, and thus, thinking about the world explained by the media people produce. None of these are new. But they are good.

David Foster Wallace, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, 1993

This is a fun essay from one of my favourite writers that looks at what an addiction to irony in pop culture does to public discourse. It was written way back in 1993. David Foster Wallace, like Kurt Vonnegut and Nicholson Baker (who essentially ‘reviewed’ wikipedia, and who also reviewed a book about a guy who wrote a book about reading the dictionary), can make a book review of a dictionary something entirely readable and enjoyable (PDF).

E Unibus Pluram is part celebration of post-modern pop culture conventions, part navel gazing, but it is chock full of insights about our relationship with the screens in our lives.

After providing a brief survey of the nature of sit-com humour (back in the 90s), DFW makes this interesting point that gels with all the media ecology stuff you might have paid attention to in that mega-long Facebook series (the premise – the media we consume shapes us in ways we don’t always notice).

“If television can invite Joe Briefcase into itself via in-gags and irony, it can ease that painful tension between Joe’s need to transcend the crowd and his status as Audience member. For to the extent that TV can flatter Joe about “seeing through” the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of outdated values, it can induce in him precisely the feeling of canny superiority it’s taught him to crave, and can keep him dependent on the cynical TV-watching that alone affords this feeling.”

He puts on his prophetic hat a little – remember this is pre-smart phone, pre-flat screen, pre-internet TV…

“The appeal of watching television has always involved fantasy. Contemporary TV, I’ve claimed, has gotten vastly better at enabling the viewer’s fantasy that he can transcend the limitations of individual human experience, that he can be inside the set, imago’d, “anyone, anywhere.” Since the limitations of being one human being involve certain restrictions on the number of different experiences possible to us in a given period of time, it’s arguable that the biggest TV-tech “advances” of recent years have done little but abet this fantasy of escape from the defining limits of being human.”

Neil Postman, Five things we need to know about technology, 1998

Neil Postman wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death which is something of an extended treatment of these aforementioned ideas from David Foster Wallace, combined with a connection to the work of Marshall McLuhan (who coined the term “the medium is the message” – amongst other things).

Postman wrote this nice warning against whole-heartedly embracing technological developments without paying heed to the cost. His ideas, in sum:

“First, that we always pay a price for technology; the greater the technology, the greater the price. Second, that there are always winners and losers, and that the winners always try to persuade the losers that they are really winners. Third, that there is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice. Sometimes that bias is greatly to our advantage. Sometimes it is not. The printing press annihilated the oral tradition; telegraphy annihilated space; television has humiliated the word; the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life. And so on. Fourth, technological change is not additive; it is ecological, which means, it changes everything and is, therefore, too important to be left entirely in the hands of Bill Gates. And fifth, technology tends to become mythic; that is, perceived as part of the natural order of things, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.”

The fifth point is the most interesting.

“Our enthusiasm for technology can turn into a form of idolatry and our belief in its beneficence can be a false absolute. The best way to view technology is as a strange intruder, to remember that technology is not part of God’s plan but a product of human creativity and hubris, and that its capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does for us and to us.”

J.R.R Tolkein, On Fairy Stories, 1947

This one is a slight change of pace. I hadn’t heard of it until I read a footnote in TheoMedia, but it has come up a couple of times since. It’s worth a read, partly our of curiosity, but partly because if you want to be a story teller it pays to learn from master story tellers… What I really like about this essay (and about the others above) is the link they make between media-making, and media-consumption, and what it means to be human. DFW was an Atheist, Neil Postman was Jewish, and Tolkein a Catholic – but each has something profoundly true to say about our humanity and how it is shaped by what we consume and create.

“Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind. It would be more near the truth to say that languages, especially modern European languages, are a disease of mythology. But Language cannot, all the same, be dismissed. The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.”

 

“The human mind is capable of forming mental images of things not actually present. The faculty of conceiving the images is (or was) naturally called Imagination. But in recent times, in technical not normal language, Imagination has often been held to be something higher than the mere image-making, ascribed to the operations of Fancy (a reduced and depreciatory form of the older word Fantasy); an attempt is thus made to restrict, I should say misapply, Imagination to “the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.”

Ridiculous though it may be for one so ill-instructed to have an opinion on this critical matter, I venture to think the verbal distinction philologically inappropriate, and the analysis inaccurate. The mental power of image-making is one thing, or aspect; and it should appropriately be called Imagination. The perception of the image, the grasp of its implications, and the control, which are necessary to a successful expression, may vary in vividness and strength: but this is a difference of degree in Imagination, not a difference in kind. The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality,” is indeed another thing, or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result.”

Those bits are good. These bits are absolute gold.

To many, Fantasy, this sub-creative art which plays strange tricks with the world and all that is in it, combining nouns and redistributing adjectives, has seemed suspect, if not illegitimate. To some it has seemed at least a childish folly, a thing only for peoples or for persons in their youth. As for its legitimacy I will say no more than to quote a brief passage from a letter I once wrote to a man who described myth and fairy-story as “lies”; though to do him justice he was kind enough and confused enough to call fairy-story-making “Breathing a lie through Silver.”

“Dear Sir,” I said—Although now long estranged,

Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons—’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.”

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion…

 

Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.

His epilogue is insanely good. I’ve already quoted heaps of him. I know. But this is eminently quotable, and I am guessing you’re not going to click the link and read the whole thing, so here is an only ever-so-slightly abridged version of his concluding remarks.


Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it…

The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.” That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. The use of this word gives a hint of my epilogue. It is a serious and dangerous matter. It is presumptuous of me to touch upon such a theme; but if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, selfcontained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

This little exercise of turning longform radio story-telling ala the internet intelligentsia’s favourite This American Life and others into a scribbles on napkins is nice. Because thinking about how to structure stories is an interesting exercise – for those who like telling stories, reading stories, or, I would argue, preaching. If a significant part of the material we preach from is narrative – and if we have a view of the Bible that sees it as one overarching and intricate narrative telling the story of Jesus from creation to new creation, where we’re invited to pick a side as we read – then why isn’t more of our preaching “narrative” flavoured? I’m not actually sure what that looks like – but I’m pretty sure it’s not a list of three propositions presented propositionally.

Anyway. The napkins. I haven’t listened to any of these (other than This American Life). But they are helpfully described in the post…

“Napkin #1″ is Bradley’s drawing for This American Life, a structure Ira Glass has talked about ad infinitum: This happened. Then this happened. Then this happened. (Those are the dashes.) And then a moment of reflection, thoughts on what the events mean (the exclamation point).”

 

“It starts with a straight line. That’s the opening scene where the reporter introduces listeners to a character often in action. Bradley gives the example of a story about ticks he produced for ATC. In the opening minute or so of the piece, we meet a biologist plucking ticks from shrubs in Rhode Island.

The dip down and up is what Bradley calls ‘the trough.’ “Throw whatever reporting you have into this middle section,” he says. In the “trough” of the tick story, Bradley included info on tick biology, lyme disease, and lyme disease research.

Then, the final line is a return to the original scene. Perhaps time has passed and  the character is doing something new. But, it’s like book-ending a story — end close to where you started. Bradley’s tick story ended back out in the woods with the biologist.”

“The e” is what the Village Voice reporter drew for Bradley many years ago. The beginning of the line is the present or somewhere near the present. (Frankly, you can start wherever you want in terms of time, but the present or recent past is fairly common.) And, typically, there’s a character doing something — a sequence of events.

Then, at the point where the e loops up, the story leaves the present and, perhaps, goes back in time for history and or it widens for context.

When the loop comes back around, you pick up the narrative where you left off and develop the story further to the end. Somewhere in that second straight line the story may reach it’s climax then the denoument or resolution of the story.”

“The first line is the opening scene. Then, it’s followed by history, context…. a widening of the story. Then, a return to the opening scene only further along in time. Then, that’s followed by several characters each of whom have a connection to the story. That’s what the horizontal lines on the right represent.

When I spoke to Bradley about how a story might play out using this structure, he suggested considering a story about Lutheran ministers advocating for same-sex marriage in the church. In the first line, we meet a minister who is in favor same-sex marriage and he’s in church preaching. In the “V” we learn about the history of the issue in the church and the proposed changes. We return to the minister, perhaps at a meeting where he’s advocating his position and that’s where we meet several people linked to the issue and their perspectives.”

 

I also love this Kurt Vonnegut lecture about the shape of stories, which became a nifty infographic.

And then, of course, there is the classicly overthought Dan Harmon – creator of Community – who in order for his show to be so very meta, needs to have a firm grasp not only of how he wants to repackage stories and tropes, but needs to know how the stories he is dissecting work. He reckons there’s one universal story structure. His best tip from this series of posts about his story circle (part 1part 2part 3part 4) is this one, about finding a relatable hook for your audience so they can take part in the story and be moved by it:

sooner or later, we need to be someone, because if we are not inside a character, then we are not inside the story.”

The Circle

Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we’d naturally do.

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. But they want something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. Adapt to it,
  5. Get what they wanted,
  6. Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. Having changed.

Simplified, his 8 steps look like:

  1. When you
  2. have a need,
  3. you go somewhere,
  4. search for it,
  5. find it,
  6. take it,
  7. then return
  8. and change things.

Harmon reckons almost all good stories follow this pattern – and, in fact, that it is innate.

“Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern of descent and return, diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it’s hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern.”

Descent and Return

Why this ritual of descent and return? Why does a story have to contain certain elements, in a certain order, before the audience will even recognize it as a story? Because our society, each human mind within it and all of life itself has a rhythm, and when you play in that rhythm, it resonates.

Now you understand that all life, including the human mind and the communities we create, marches to the same, very specific beat. If your story also marches to this beat- whether your story is the great American novel or a fart joke- it will resonate. It will send your audience’s ego on a brief trip to the unconscious and back. Your audience has an instinctive taste for that, and they’re going to say “yum.”

The return bit is the most important…

“We need RETURN and we need CHANGE, because we are a community, and if our heroes just climbed beanstalks and never came down, we wouldn’t have survived our first ice age.”

 

Some story telling tips

Step 1 – Establish a (relatable) Protaganist:

“How do you put the audience into a character? Easy. Show one. You’d have to go out of your way to keep the audience from imprinting on them. It could be a raccoon, a homeless man or the President. Just fade in on them and we are them until we have a better choice… If there are choices, the audience picks someone to whom they relate. When in doubt, they follow their pity. Fade in on a raccoon being chased by a bear, we are the raccoon… The easiest thing to do is fade in on a character that always does what the audience would do.”

“He can be an assassin, he can be a raccoon, he can be a parasite living in the racoon’s liver, but have him do what the audience might do if they were in the same situation.”

Step 2 – Demonstrate a need: We’re being presented with the idea that things aren’t perfect.”  

“This is where a character might wonder out loud, or with facial expressions, why he can’t be cooler, or richer, or faster… This wish will be granted in ways that character couldn’t have expected.”

Step 3 – Crossing the threshold: “What’s your story about?”

“The key is, figure out what your “movie poster” is. What would you advertise to people if you wanted them to come listen to your story? A killer shark? Outer space? The Mafia? True love? Everything in grey on that circle, the bottom half, is a “special world” where that movie poster starts being delivered, and everything above this line is the “ordinary world.” Step 1, you are the sheriff of a small town. Step 2, strange bites on a murder victim’s body. Step 3… it’s a werewolf.” 

Step 4 – The Road of Trials: preparing for the task at hand…

“Hack producers call it the “training phase.” I prefer to stick with Joseph Campbell’s title, “The Road of Trials,” because it’s less specific. I’ve seen too many movies where our time is wasted watching a hero literally “train” in a forest clearing because someone got the idea it was a necessary ingredient. The point of this part of the circle is, our protagonist has been thrown into the water and now it’s sink or swim.

Step 5 – The opposite of comfort: The climax at the bottom of the circle

“Imagine your protagonist began at the top and has tumbled all the way down here. This is where the universe’s natural tendency to pull your protagonist downward has done its job, and for X amount of time, we experience weightlessness. Anything goes down here. This is a time for major revelations, and total vulnerability. If you’re writing a plot-twisty thriller, twist here and twist hard.

Twist or no, this is also another threshold, in that everything past this point will take a different direction (namely UPWARD), but note that one is not dragged kicking and screaming through these curtains. One hovers here. One will make a choice, then ascend…

Step 6 – heading back up: symmetrical redemption.

“When you realize that something is important, really important, to the point where it’s more important than YOU, you gain full control over your destiny. In the first half of the circle, you were reacting to the forces of the universe, adapting, changing, seeking. Now you have BECOME the universe. You have become that which makes things happen. You have become a living God.”

Step 7: Bringing it back home: This is how the character ends up back where they started, having experienced the rollercoaster (and having been changed by it).

“For some characters, this is as easy as hugging the scarecrow goodbye and waking up. For others, this is where the extraction team finally shows up and pulls them out- what Campbell calls “Rescue from Without.” In an anecdote about having to change a flat tire in the rain, this could be the character getting back into his car.

For others, not so easy, which is why Campbell also talks about “The Magic Flight.””

Step 8: Showing the Change: This is where the protaganist is confronted with an opportunity to show that the ‘journey’ they have been on is worth it.

In an action film, you’re guaranteed a showdown here. In a courtroom drama, here comes the disruptive, sky-punching cross examination that leaves the murderer in a tearful confession…the protagonist, on whatever scale, is now a world-altering ninja. They have been to the strange place, they have adapted to it, they have discovered true power and now they are back where they started, forever changed and forever capable of creating change. In a love story, they are able to love. In a Kung Fu story, they’re able to Kung all of the Fu. In a slasher film, they can now slash the slasher.

One really neat trick is to remind the audience that the reason the protagonist is capable of such behavior is because of what happened down below. When in doubt, look at the opposite side of the circle. Surprise, surprise, the opposite of (8) is (4), the road of trials, where the hero was getting his s*** together. Remember that zippo the bum gave him? It blocked the bullet! It’s hack, but it’s hack because it’s worked a thousand times. Grab it, deconstruct it, create your own version. You didn’t seem to have a problem with that formula when the stuttering guy (4) recited a perfect monologue (8) in Shakespeare in Love. It’s all the same. Remember that tribe of crazy, comic relief Indians that we befriended at (4) by kicking their biggest wrestler in the nuts? It is now, at (8), as we are nearly beaten by the bad guy, that those crazy sons of bitches ride over the hill and save us. Why is this not Deus Ex Machina? Because we earned it (4).”

 What’s cool about this model is that it actually works for telling the story of Jesus. I think. And for telling our own stories. Like I said at the top – I have no idea what this does for preaching – I do believe we’re culturally hard wired for receiving stories, and I think that part of being God’s image bearers means being story tellers, if God is the master story teller who arranged the whole of creation and human history to tell his story, and then arranged for it to be masterfully told in a text that has lasted thousands of years, then something of that is essential to us. We all process our lives and new information through something like a master story too, events are incorporated into this narrative and interpreted through it (that’s why Biggest Loser contestants keep banging on about their journey).

 

I like this video. Maybe you will too?

This is a link to the script.

Don’t be generic.

More power to the Oxford Comma

I like punctuation, commas, and especially the Oxford comma. I can’t remember where my love for the Oxford comma came from.

This video is dumb because it thinks the Oxford comma doesn’t really matter, and that you’ll only like, or dislike it based on whether you were taught to like it by some grammar authority.

This is part 4 in a 5 part series on what social media does to our brains. It uses Facebook as a case study – but it’s not just about Facebook. In fact, it’s just as likely to apply to people who use smartphones… A study from the University of Winnipeg found:

“The values and traits most closely associated with texting frequency are surprisingly consistent with Carr’s conjecture that new information and social media technologies may be displacing and discouraging reflective thought.”

Part 1 established that there is good reason to believe that the communication mediums we use change the way we communicate and relate (media ecology), and thus change the way we think, in turn rewiring our brains (neuroscience and neuroplasticity), and that there is good evidence that this is consistent with a Christian view of the world. Part 2 considered how we might approach this emerging consensus about the impact of social media from the perspectives of media ecology and neuroscience. Part 3 considered how this fits in with a Christian view of the world – in these posts the conclusion was the same – mediums aren’t neutral, they contain powerful “myths” that conform their users to a particular way of operating and thus thinking – but forewarned is forearmed. If we bring our own deliberate framework to the party we’ll probably be able to avoid the power of these myths…

Christians have extra motivation to do this – we have a social network that is conforming us into a different image. We are participants in the body of believers, the church. United with Christ, by the Spirit, as God’s children. Being conformed into the image of Jesus – while avoiding competing patterns.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this worldbut be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2

The insights from media ecology and modern neuroscience aren’t teaching us anything that Christian theology didn’t already know – we are shaped by what we think about, and by how we receive and process information. If we’re going to avoid being manipulated by the media we use, and the myths they carry, we need to think hard and deliberately about how to avoid the patterns they try to imprint on our thinking – and the changes they make to our brains. There’s nothing wrong with your brain changing – that’s natural. But being in control and having your mind “renewed” is the goal.

This post, with some practical steps, will be particularly focused on a Christian approach, but hopefully the principles will be able to be extrapolated (because they’ll also draw from media ecology and neuroscience).

 

facebook brain

As I was reading stuff for this post, and as I was writing it,  I read a stunning book on approaching communication mediums as a Christian. I’ve read a bunch of these – and this is absolutely the best out there. This post took so long to write that the book got its own separate review – if you want to read a whole book, rather than an 8,000 word blog post, please check out Andy Byers’ TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital AgeYou won’t be disappointed.

1. Bring your own ‘myth-busting’ narrative (and deliberately be multi-medium)

To recap previous posts – the reason mediums aren’t neutral tools, the reason they can subtly change how we think and act as we use them, is that communication mediums come pre-loaded with myths that shape how we use them, and this shapes our thinking, which rewires our heads.

Media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

“When we go online, we, too, are following scripts written by others—algorithmic instructions that few of us would be able to understand even if the hidden codes were revealed to us. When we search for information through Google or other search engines, we’re following a script. When we look at a product recommended to us by Amazon or Netflix, we’re following a script. When we choose from a list of categories to describe ourselves or our relationships on Facebook, we’re following a script. These scripts can be ingenious and extraordinarily useful, as they were in the Taylorist factories, but they also mechanize the messy processes of intellectual exploration and even social attachment. As the computer programmer Thomas Lord has argued, software can end up turning the most intimate and personal of human activities into mindless “rituals” whose steps are “encoded in the logic of web pages.”  - Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

“First, like the telephone, the function of social media is to connect physically distant people. But any time people are connected through a medium, that connection happens within the rules of the medium. Our question then should not be “Is it real?” because connecting online is just as “real” as talking on the phone or sending a letter. The better question is, what are the rules of the medium and what are the underlying messages and patterns that emerge from those rules? - John Dyer, From the Garden To The City

Dyer has this to say about Facebook’s mythic messages and their impact on our thinking…

“Blogger and web developer Leisa Reichelt uses the term “ambient intimacy” to describe this background connection. She writes, “Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. In order to achieve ambient intimacy, friends need to continually post things about themselves—what they are thinking, feeling, and doing—for their friends to read about. To maintain this pattern, we have to regularly think about what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing and then decide which of those things to communicate. In other words, when we do community online we have to think about ourselves much more than when we do community offline… This feedback loop of thinking about oneself is why many people conclude that the Internet makes us narcissistic… As far back as Cain’s city, we’ve said that our flesh will do whatever it can to make technology an idol of distraction. In the online world, the great danger is that we are constructing an idol of ourselves and becoming distracted with our own beauty… We are continually tempted to construct a Tower of Babel unto ourselves rather than work together on being the people of God, conformed into the image of his Son… Those born into Internet culture and those who feel comfortable in it will need to spend more time challenging it in order to avoid subtly giving in to its negative tendencies.”

These tendencies come in the embedded values, myths, or narratives surrounding and promulgating a platform, so, for example, Facebook’s is that by using Facebook you are more connected to your friends and the world.

As Christians, we already have a paradigm shaping narrative, the Gospel, a story that not only transforms our minds – but transforms our approach to media. What does this mean when it comes to Facebook? It means, firstly, that we’ll be suspicious of the narrative Facebook brings, but our use of Facebook will also be governed by priorities about our thinking, relationships and use of time that come from our understanding of who we are in Christ, where we’re heading, how we’re meant to live, and who it is that shapes our lives. Peter may as well have been writing about Facebook when he wrote these words…

Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.  As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do;  for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:13-16

And this actually works. Having a controlling narrative robs little narratives of their power. Here’s how Andy Byers sums up some pretty similar advice in his most excellent TheoMedia, he also appreciates the opportunity social media presents for Christians to live like Jesus – to be “incarnate,” to carry our message to mediums that lower the barrier between medium and messenger (which is one of the features of profile-driven social media platforms, we naturally become part of the medium), but more on that later…

“Social media companies are providing us with a platform. It is not their job to police poor grammar or correct bad theology promulgated through their channels. As media platforms, Twitter, Tumblr, Blogger, and WordPress offer remarkable opportunities for conducting God’s mediated voice into the cybersphere. I just think it is important for us to recognize that behind the graphics on the screen are corporations with budget goals, profit plans, marketing strategies, and other business-oriented agendas. These are not necessarily corrupting influences. But they are there, barely perceptible in those imperatives (“just write”) and questions (“what’s happening, Andy?”). Responsible use of media technology means we that rely on more authoritative voices to govern our online activity than those coming from executives poised in their corporate suites. As Christians, we take our theological and technological cues from elsewhere… ”

… as media and religion specialist Heidi Campbell points out, there is the assumption in the extreme, distilled version of this more cautious perspective that media technology use will always shroud and distort human culture, so that we are left only with the ability to respond to its power or educate ourselves against its control. This approach often allows only for acceptance or rejection of technology in light of religious values. It does not leave room for considering how religious values may lead to more nuanced responses to technology or the creative innovation of aspects of technology so they are more congruent with core beliefs…

Heidi Campbell has proposed a more nuanced approach for understanding religion and media: “the religious-social shaping of technology.” She has found in her extensive observations that although communication technologies have the capacity to influence their users, religious groups often resist those influences and bring their theological traditions to bear on how they use them. In other words, although religious folks may indeed be shaped by the technologies they employ, at the same time they exert their own influences on media, incorporating communications technology within their existing conceptual grids and forcing some degree of theological compliance. As John Dyer succinctly puts it, “Technology should not dictate our values or our methods. Rather, we must use technology out of our convictions and values.” - Andy Byers, TheoMedia

I’m going to go a step further than simply suggesting that we use each technology, separately, within our existing value system, and suggest that using multiple platforms, deliberately (ie with thought and thinking about how to use them differently), dilutes the pull of particular narratives and the power of different platforms to completely shape your thinking. This deliberate mastery over multiple platforms will stop single platforms mastering you, and hijacking your head. It’ll help you notice the distinctives of different platforms, which is a shortcut to spotting a “myth”…

Choosing your narrative, and using tools and mediums according to your existing values, is the best way to control the “shaping” that is happening.

Dyer, who wrote From the Garden to the City has a useful five-pronged approach to ‘mythbusting’:

1. Valuation: “We must begin by continually returning to the Scriptures to find our Christian values and identity. From that perspective we can evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of technology and determine what values will emerge from the tendencies of use built into its design.”

2. Experimentation: “Thinking about technology is helpful, but it’s difficult to discover the tendencies and value systems built into a technology without actually using it”

3. Limitation: “Once we understand the patterns of usage of a technology, the next step is to see what happens when we put boundaries on it. If we become convinced that spending too much time on social media sites invites narcissism and that reading online limits deep thinking, then a disciplined set of limits is necessary.”

4. Togetherness: “The previous three steps—valuation, experimentation, and limitation—will be rendered mostly useless if we practice them in isolation apart from the context of Christian fellowship.”

5. Cultivation: “we must be careful not to enter into a kind of inactive stasis where we talk about technology but fail to support those who are actually doing technology in service of what God has asked of his image bearers: to cultivate and keep his creation and to make disciples of all nations. In recent years, Christian communities have been rediscovering the importance of cultivating and nurturing artists, and I think the time has come for us to begin doing the same with those working in technology. We already spend time and resources developing and encouraging business people and politicians, yet it is the technologists—the men and women creating the next generation of tools—who are often implicitly making important decisions about health care, energy, Internet regulation, privacy, weapons availability, biomedical advances, and so on.” 

2. Keep your head and hands ‘active’ inside and outside of social media

Most of the people who are worried about what the internet is doing to our head – those like Nicholas Carr – are quite fond of the effect books have on the head, Christians, who are people of the book (or at least people of words, people shaped by a story, if we don’t want to get to medium bound) should also probably into books – or at the very least reading long, coherent, literature presented in a logically linear form. Here’s a little ode to the book (and its effect on the brain) from Carr’s The Shallows. 

“Readers didn’t just become more efficient. They also became more attentive. To read a long book silently required an ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time, to “lose oneself” in the pages of a book, as we now say. Developing such mental discipline was not easy. The natural state of the human brain, like that of the brains of most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, is one of distractedness… Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind. It involved a filling, or replenishing, of the mind. Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions.”

“In one fascinating study, conducted Washington University’s Dynamic Cognition Laboratory and published in the journal Psychological Science in 2009, researchers used brain scans to examine what happens inside people’s heads as they read fiction. They found that “readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences.” The brain regions that are activated often “mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.” Deep reading, says the study’s lead researcher, Nicole Speer, “is by no means a passive exercise.” The reader becomes the book. The bond between book reader and book writer has always been a tightly symbiotic one, a means of intellectual and artistic cross-fertilization. - Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

This ‘incarnate’ relationship between book and reader – at least in the mind – is pretty interesting territory to explore, theologically, but for the purpose of the current exercise we’ll simply note that books seem to do desirable things to our head, and If it’s true that the “reader becomes the book” then books are arguably every bit as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than social media in terms of warping your mind… Reading books from one author, or on one topic, will skew your head and your thinking, potentially to a greater extent, than simply relying on one social media platform. The same advice “forwarned is forearmed” applies here as it does for social media – we should be aware of what is going on for our brains, and trying to exercise and stimulate them in multiple ways, not getting them addicted to a particular fix. So reading widely is probably important for a well rounded mind.

By the by, I love this advice and concept…

“Read at Whim. I learned this principle from the essayist and poet Randall Jarrell, who once met a scholar, a learned man and a critic, who commented that he read Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim every year. Jarrell’s response: The critic said that once a year he read Kim; and he read Kim, it was plain, at whim: not to teach, not to criticize, just for love—he read it, as Kipling wrote it, just because he liked to, wanted to, couldn’t help himself. To him it wasn’t a means to a lecture or article, it was an end; he read it not for anything he could get out of it, but for itself. And isn’t this what the work of art demands of us? The work of art, Rilke said, says to us always: You must change your life. It demands of us that we too see things as ends, not as means—that we too know them and love them for their own sake. This change is beyond us, perhaps, during the active, greedy, and powerful hours of our lives; but during the contemplative and sympathetic hours of our reading, our listening, our looking, it is surely within our power, if we choose to make it so, if we choose to let one part of our nature follow its natural desires. So I say to you, for a closing sentence, Read at whim! read at whim!” - Alan Jacobs, The Pleasure of Reading in an Age of Distraction

For every person who loves a good book – there are those, like Plato (see previous post), and Schopenhauer, who were worried about what books do to free thought and one’s ability to think outside the box, or books…

“The difference between the effect produced on the mind by thinking for yourself and that produced by Facebook is incredibly great… For social media forcibly imposes on the mind thoughts that are as foreign to its mood as the signet is to the wax upon which it impresses its seal. The mind is totally subjected to an external compulsion to think this or that for which it has no inclination and is not in the mood… The result is that much web browsing robs the mind of all elasticity, as the continual pressure of a weight does a spring, and that the surest way of never having any thoughts of your own is to log on to Facebook every time you have a free moment.”  (NOTE: The Facebooks, social media, and web browsing in this quote originally referring to the reading of books), - Freney, citing A Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

Be it Facebook, or books, there is something to be said, given our developing knowledge of neuroplasticity, for the concern that too much of a thing will shape your head into the image of the thing. But Carr actually thinks (and I’m with him on this bit), that reading well might spur us on to think better.

The words of the writer act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiring new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies. And the very existence of the attentive, critical reader provides the spur for the writer’s work… After Gutenberg’s invention, the bounds of language expanded rapidly as writers, competing for the eyes of ever more sophisticated and demanding readers, strived to express ideas and emotions with superior clarity, elegance, and originality. The vocabulary of the English language, once limited to just a few thousand words, expanded to upwards of a million words as books proliferated. - Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

I’d suggest – and I think Carr agrees, though he sort of beats around the bush a little – that taking various streams of data from multiple mediums and platforms – and integrating them, produces a more balanced brain and better thinking too.

Book readers have a lot of activity in regions associated with language, memory, and visual processing, but they don’t display much activity in the prefrontal regions associated with decision making and problem solving. Experienced Net users, by contrast, display extensive activity across all those brain regions when they scan and search Web pages. The good news here is that Web surfing, because it engages so many brain functions, may help keep older people’s minds sharp. Searching and browsing seem to “exercise” the brain in a way similar to solving crossword puzzles… – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

There is an odd tendency (well, not really, it’s completely understandably given the vested interests) for writers of books to romanticise the reading of books as some sort of panacea for the changing brain. I don’t want to do that. Books, journal articles, long form essays… they’re all part of a healthy and varied diet of media. But I think the real key to having your brain is in charge isn’t so much in consuming the thoughts of others, without thought, it’s in thinking for yourself. In that sense I reckon the slightly paranoid (and reworked) Schopenhauer quote above is onto something. When we read something that someone else has written – that they have put a piece of themselves into, and when we make that connection where we put a piece of ourselves into their thoughts and let them occupy our heads, a sort of overlapping incarnation, we begin to think other people’s thoughts and have our heads shaped by their view of the world – now that’s fine if you want to think like your favourite author, but it’s a little bit scary. Just a little. And it’s enough to encourage me to make sure I read widely, but also to try to proactively think independently, and, perhaps, write my own thoughts down. Or type them. Creating your own words, deliberately, and putting them in mediums you choose, mindful of the myths involved in the platforms themselves, is probably the best way to stay in the driver’s seat when it comes to your brain that I can think of. It’s active rather than passive. And, in a post I wrote about TED a while back I discussed how I think it actually sort of works to help you integrate and process stuff. This effect is no doubt amplified if you do have an organising myth, or paradigm shaping narrative that helps you understand the world.

There’s a real circularity here where the media we consume is pretty important in terms of how we choose and identify a paradigmatic narrative that shapes our approach to life and helps us systematise and understand information, but the story also shapes that communication mediums we use and the information we encounter. This is particularly true for Christians, and I think it’s part of the reason the Bible simultaneously offers such effective advice (content) and is so effective at shaping our thinking (form/medium), by encouraging Christians to set their minds on a particular path via a regular dose of ‘TheoMedia’ the Biblical authors are deliberately shaping their readers’ thinking, and providing the thoughts.

It’s interesting how in both these passages – from Colossians and Philippians – which seem so apt to this sort of neuroscience meets media ecology exercise – link a healthy Christian mind to the concept of ‘peace’ in our hearts and minds…

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory…

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him – Colossians 3:1-4, 15-17

It’s also interesting how many hot-button neuroplasticity related activities Paul nails in this passage in Philippians 4. Prayer, thankfulness, mindfulness, focused thinking, and acting out one’s beliefs, are all incredibly powerful tools for shaping the mind. It’s possible that the “do not be anxious about anything” is followed by a neuroplastically sound approach to not being anxious. That actually works…

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

3. Be actively “Incarnate” on social media in order to lovingly accommodate - but don’t be a passive part of the machine

The last two points serve as something of a defence against letting Facebook take control of your head – but what if you want to take control of Facebook, using your head? I think there’s something to be said for modelling how we communicate to the world around us on how God chose to communicate and reveal himself to us, and I think there are two nice theological words that help.

Because God is infinite and completely without limit it would blow our little, tiny, finite minds to even begin to comprehend just a tiny bit of that vast gap between us without his help. There is now way we can really understand God as he really is without him revealing himself to us. We’d make up pictures of God (and people have, for as long as people have been around), but these pictures would all look kind of stupid compared to the real thing. God has to reveal himself in order to be made known – and in order to bridge the finite/infinite divide he has to accommodate himself to us. He’s the one in the position of dominance. He’s the one who needs to make the first move. And it’s like that with us – Paul says first, we only know stuff we know about God because God has revealed himself to us by the Holy Spirit, and second, people without the Spirit think we’re talking a load of rubbish…

“What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” – 1 Cor 2:12-14

Then in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 he talks about people who don’t know God having veils that stop them seeing God – they can’t see God without an act of accommodation. And we are the accommodaters. It is our job to try to take steps towards other people in our communication, to help them see things from our perspective by first understanding theirs. To speak the language of the people we love so that they’ll understand us, in the mediums they use.

The second part of God’s communication methodology is the incarnation – where his word, Jesus, became flesh. He didn’t become flesh and speak a crazy language that nobody around him could understand. He became flesh and spoke Aramaic, which was much more appropriate in first century Judea than it is in 21st century Australia. But that was God’s communication method from the very beginning – the Bible is a collection of literature produced in genres that were appropriate to carry particular truths about God to particular people, but also serve to communicate about God in a timeless way. The Bible is an incarnate text, produced by real people, for a God who uses incarnation as a communication methodology and expects us to do likewise…

Facebook is an opportunity for us to accommodate our message about Jesus in an incarnate way – especially if mediums change our head so that we become like the medium, this is the very essence of what incarnation is. It’s what I think Paul is thinking about when he writes:

“I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” – 1 Cor 9:22

This point isn’t necessarily going to protect our heads from outside influences like the first two points – in fact, it may involve you deliberately being reshaped by the medium (in this case, Facebook) in order to reach others. This becoming an “incarnate” representative of Jesus should guide our use of mediums and keep us connected to the master narrative of our lives, and to the ultimate social network – our union with Christ, and our participation in his body, the church. I wrote some stuff about using Facebook as a Christian a long time ago (in Internet years), and there’s not a lot I’d change – except that I’m much more cautious about wholeheartedly (or wholeheadedly) recommending jumping in without the caveats laid out above.

I do like this quote from TheoMedia on the way the Gospel story pushes us, as participants, to engage with the people of our generation using the communication and cognitive tools they’re engaging with…

Discerning what characterizes the socially constructed worlds people around us inhabit places us in a better position to address the generation God calls us to serve. Doing so, however, necessitates that we conceptualize and articulate Christian beliefs—the gospel—in a manner that contemporary people can understand. That is, we must express the gospel through the “language” of the culture—through the cognitive tools, concepts, images, symbols, and thought forms—by means of which people today discover meaning, construct the world they inhabit, and form personal identity. — Grenz & Franke, quoted in TheoMedia

The first sentence is a little difficult to parse – but what he’s saying is we have to think a little bit, and basically understand the myths – the stories that shape people’s lives – in order to speak to them. And this, increasingly, means doing some basic myth-busting media studies. So the exercise in the first point above isn’t completely self-indulgent and pointless after all.

Being incarnate always comes at a cost. It always involves becoming something that you weren’t before. Sometimes the cost might be a cost you pay because you want to embrace a change whole-heartedly (or whole-headedly), other times it might be a sacrifice. Sometimes you become incarnate in something without realising – and Facebook is particularly insidious when it comes to a passive form of being incarnate, it gets its energy from your narcissism. A bit like the robots in the matrix. If you’re not paying attention, Facebook consumes your time and resources, it keeps your eyeballs fixed to a screen, by getting you addicted to the chemicals that are released when other people pay attention to you. It turns you into a more self-seeking person. If you become incarnate on Facebook without thinking, it comes at a substantial cost. To become incarnate without paying that particular cost, where you are simply viewed as a human brain and set of relationship connections to be harvested by a giant advertising corporation, you need to be aware of what Facebook is trying to do, and you need to subvert it (which we’ll get to below). It may be that subverting this is to become thoughtfully incarnate and know that you’re paying a price in your interactions by deliberately looking for ways to pay the price.

It may be that being incarnate in this medium isn’t for you – perhaps the temptation to conform to Facebook’s world of narcissism and the endless siren call encouraging you to smash your time and energy against the pointless rocks of Farmville (or whatever the kids and empty-nest mothers are playing these days) is irresistible and you’re going to wreck your life – or at least your head. At this point it’s worth keeping those words from Romans 12 bouncing around in your head like a mantra.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this worldbut be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2

There’s a very close relationship between incarnation and idolatry – between being a person who is made in the image of the God who made them (and Jesus who remakes them), and being a person who carries the image of whatever idol they are consumed by. It’s human to reflect and promote the image of something – even if, and often, that something is you and your own glory. It’s all about the heart – and the mind. Whatever you are fixated on when you’re participating in a medium is shaping how you use it, and shaping you through your use of it.

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts... And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. - 2 Corinthians 3:2-3, 18

 

By the by, this is why I get so excited about the implications of the image of God for communicating in our modern multimedia world - a world where images are everywhere and trying to sell something, trying to display what it is that makes our hearts sing, is a world not too far removed from the world where Genesis landed on the scene as a text, a world full of images-as-persuasion. A world where the image you projected told everybody who you were.

If you can’t log off a medium, if you’ve become so caught up in it that you can’t walk away without believing that you are doing significant damage to yourself as a person – then it has become an idol, and you’ve become a slave. Mediums with strong myths can do that. Marshall McLuhan, the Media Ecologist, loved to quote Psalm 115 when talking about the potential for mediums to unhelpfully become extensions of our humanity…

But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
noses, but cannot smell.

They have hands, but cannot feel,
feet, but cannot walk,
nor can they utter a sound with their throats.

Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.

4. Be the “Cruciform” Medium – communicate sacrificially, and through sacrifice

The Net commands our attention with far greater insistency than our television or radio or morning newspaper ever did. Watch a kid texting his friends or a college student looking over the roll of new messages and requests on her Facebook page or a businessman scrolling through his e-mails on his BlackBerry—or consider yourself as you enter keywords into Google’s search box and begin following a trail of links. What you see is a mind consumed with a medium. When we’re online, we’re often oblivious to everything else going on around us… The interactivity of the Net amplifies this effect as well. Because we’re often using our computers in a social context, to converse with friends or colleagues, to create “profiles” of ourselves, to broadcast our thoughts through blog posts or Facebook updates, our social standing is, in one way or another, always in play, always at risk. The resulting self-consciousness—even, at times, fear—magnifies the intensity of our involvement with the medium. - Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

I think the key to subverting the power of the medium of Facebook – but this is true for every other platform I can think of – is having a narrative that shapes your life that is built around an incredible act of subversion. A narrative that is built not on building yourself up, but on dying to self out of love for others. When it comes to using the incarnation as a model for thinking about participation in a social network like Facebook, what can be a better control of how we ‘incarnate’ ourselves than the climax of God’s own incarnation in our world, in Jesus. The cross.

Most properly Christian engagement with the world is an act of subversion. Because it will be shaped by the ultimate act of subversion. Shaped by the cross (paradoxically, if these acts are consistent with the character of God, as it was revealed at the cross, it’s not subversion at all, but consistent with the approach to life humans should have had from the very beginning).

Just as Jesus subverted the most powerful propaganda medium, and the most powerful myths, of the Roman empire – by turning the crucifix from a symbol of humiliating domination into a symbol of liberating hope, rather than imperial power – we are, as we take up our crosses to follow Jesus, called to subvert the values of systems and platforms that want to glorify ourselves or our idols.

But the subversion thing probably needs some fleshing out. When it comes to the me-soaked world of social media which is about your profile. Your status. Your likes… the challenge is to make Facebook simultaneously authentically you (which is a little subversive), and not about you at all… channeling John the Baptist…

“He must become greater; I must become less.” – John The Baptist, John 3:30

This is hard on Facebook, it is hard beyond Facebook - it’s, as David Ould and I discussed recently, equally challenging for bloggers - one way I tackle this one, personally, is almost never ever checking my stats – and feeling dirty and craven when I do, I want so much for blogging to not be about me, while realising, paradoxically, that the very nature of a blog is that it is.

This means, when it comes to Facebook, for the Christian, it’s not about us. We can’t play Facebook’s me game. It’s not just about making it about Jesus so that you drive your non-Christian friends nuts – I’ve had to pull myself up on this front a little lately. We have to make Facebook about actively and sacrificially loving others, in a way that is real and unexpected – not just by hitting like on their status or telling someone they look nice in a photo. Being sacrificial and incarnate on Facebook might actually mean doing something loving in the real world. The medium you use to communicate says something about the level of sacrifice you’re willing to make in the act of communication. Part of both accommodation and incarnation involves taking costly steps to close a gap between communicator and recipient – be it on God’s part, or ours as we communicate about God. Being subversive communicators, more broadly, might mean adopting a more sacrificial medium than expected. Or approaching a medium in a more sacrificial way than intended. As a little bit of proof that mediums matter, check out this quote from one of John’s letters, and then these thoughts on it from John Dyer.

“I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” – 2 John 1:12

 

“The great temptation of the digital generation is to inadvertently disagree with John and assume that online presence offers the same kind of “complete joy” as offline presence. Our problem is not that technologically mediated relationships are unreal, nor is the problem that all online communication is self-focused and narcissistic. Rather, the danger is that just like the abundance of food causes us to mistake sweet food for nourishing food, and just like the abundance of information can drown out deep thinking, the abundance of virtual connection can drown out the kind of life-giving, table-oriented life that Jesus cultivated among his disciples. Social media follows the device paradigm in that it masks the long, sometimes arduous process of friendship and makes it available at the press of a button - John Dyer, From the Garden to The City

Relying on Facebook to sustain your friendships cheapens your friendships, just as relying on Facebook for communication cheapens your communication. If you communicate using other mediums, there’s the added bonus that Facebook isn’t rewiring your brain all on its lonesome.  

Being incarnate, and being properly subversive, means knowing something about the system you are infiltrating. Jesus didn’t come to first century Israel speaking English. That would’ve been stupid. And he wasn’t crucified by accident. Becoming incarnate requires some deliberate attention to detail, an understanding of the world or platform you are operating in. You’ve got to know the language of the people in order to converse – and you probably need to have some idea about how the systems and algorithms and business imperatives underlying these platforms shape what they present to the average user. So, for example, Being incarnate on social media doesn’t mean being a Super-Christian who nobody wants to hear from (like John Piper on Twitter or Mark Driscoll on Facebook) – in fact, as someone who knows a little bit of how Facebook works – that’s a shortcut to only having your posts seen by other super-Christians who already think exactly like you do. Facebook thrives on giving people exactly the information they want. And people aren’t necessarily on Facebook jonesing to be smacked in the face with a bit of Jesus. Facebook will, by the magic of its algorithm, filter your posts out for those who aren’t already into Jesus, and show your posts to the choir. Which might well be edifying… but it’s not effective.

This all sounds completely irrelevant to the task at hand – protecting your mind from the clutches of Facebook – but being subversive is a surefire way to not have your mind controlled by the system. Just watch the Matrix. Think of yourself as Neo, Morpheus, Trinity and the gang – and Facebook as the brain sucking machine driven empire and you won’t be far wrong… But those guys wouldn’t have got far, certainly not past the first movie, without knowing how the machines they were fighting against worked, or without actively fighting against them…

I really like this stuff Paul says in 2 Corinthians about his approach to sacrificial communication – the methodology we choose says something about the message we speak.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 2 Corinthians 4:7-11

And I like Paul’s reflections on how the incarnation of Jesus – and the cross – shape the way we treat one another in our social networks, and the way we think. This is the purple passage, I think, for approaching Facebook through the lens of the cross. How much better would relationships on Facebook be – and our heads be as a result – if this was our approach…

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! – Philippians 2:1-8

I was going to write a fifth point – about making sure you’re participating in the ultimate social network – a relationship with God, and with his people, through prayer, real world relationships in church communities, and by consuming TheoMedia – but this ultimately would just be a rehash of the first four points – it’s only as someone decides they want to participate in that social network that they become suspicious of the myths peddled by all the other social networks, it’s only by consuming TheoMedia that the narrative of the Gospel starts to not only shape our thinking (points 1 and 2), but also how we use other mediums (points 3 and 4) (note – by TheoMedia I’m referring to the concept described in the book of that name, but this includes reading the Bible, appreciating how God speaks through his world, spending time reflecting on who God is by singing, reading, mediating on the Bible, praying, reading theological books, reading blogs, following interesting Christians on Facebook or Twitter, and generally being stimulated to think about God).

This is the book I would write about how we think about media as Christians if I was going to write a book about how we think about and use media as Christians.

It is exceptional, and if you have any respect for how I’ve approached this sort of topic on this blog over the past however many years I’ve been banging on about this stuff – you should stop reading this review and buy the book, its title, in full, is: TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age.

I’m glad Andy Byers has written it for me, and for others. I will be effusive in my praise of this book (though I think there are definitely stones left unturned should I ever actually want to write a book). I will praise it to the hills because I believe it is essential reading for Christians who want to take the Gospel into new mediums using new technologies with a strong theological foundation.

It is methodologically sensible, theologically invigorating, and practically stimulating. It is the best book on thinking about the intersection of theology and media studies that I have read, and I have read all the others. Well. Maybe not all the others. But lots.

Like any book – this one should be assessed on its own terms. So Byers says:

“The conviction underlying this book is that Christian scripture is not only the best source for understanding Jesus but also the best source for understanding Google.”

And later…

“This book is a hermeneutical project in the church’s wider efforts of trying to understand the technological mediascape of the twenty-first century. The purpose is not to offer a how-to guidebook to help churches incorporate communications technology into their worship and witness. I am hoping to provide something more foundational. The point is to make some headway in constructing a theological frame of reference for understanding and appropriating media in the digital age and in the ages to come.”

His argument is:

“First: if God himself creates and employs media, then there must be a theological logic that can guide how we produce and use media and communications technology today. Here is the second claim: Christians are called to media saturation, but the primary media that are to shape, form, and saturate our lives are the media of God—TheoMedia, the communicative and revelatory means God employs to share himself and to influence humankind as his image bearers.”

His treatment of the unfolding Biblical saga is exceptional, and the touch points he selects and unpacks in this story are spectacular. His definition of media is broad – anything that is a “means to communicate” – and that is how I think it should be. Just about every ‘thing’ can function as media. His definition of TheoMedia is equally broad.

“… although there is such a thing as “new media,” the actual concept of media is as old as the hills. This is true literally, because the hills themselves are a form of media. God’s media. Or, we could say, “TheoMedia.” Media production began with God. The aesthetic media of God’s creation was produced by another form of divine media. The slope of the valleys and the rise of hills beneath glorious sky blue all came about through the medium of holy speech. Divine words addressed the primordial cosmic blankness, and ever since “let there be…” sounded in the dark, creation has served as a means of divine revelation and divine self-communication.”

I’m increasingly convinced that something akin to media studies is vital for good exegesis – knowing how a type of text functioned in its context is as important for interpretation as figuring out how the content of the text would have been understood in its context – indeed, you can’t do one without the other. I love how Byer’s approach to the question of media is driven by Biblical Theology – by unpacking how the media of God develops over the trajectories of the Biblical story.

“So to retrain what we think about “media,” we are going to make a pilgrimage of sorts throughout the entire biblical saga, tracing the narrative plotlines of the epic story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Re-Creation to show that the idea of media is a central theme of the church’s most sacred text.”

His understanding of this story is Christ centred, so his conclusions are also Christological, which, again, I think makes this book a must read.

The Good

I’m especially thrilled at his anthropology – his understanding of the role communication plays in what it means to be human. It’s all about humans being made in the image of God. More than any other work in this area, Byers gets that bearing an image involves communication (I’m pretty passionate about this).

“The most fundamental vocation of humanity is a media vocation, that of divine image bearing. Though the rest of creation reflects divine glory and beauty, Adam and Eve were endowed with an even more intrinsic capacity for conveying God’s character and intentions in the world.”

Byer’s description of how sin smashed this function, and how it is ultimately dealt with, and restored for us, in and through Jesus, is great. It is the theological basis for our participation in media use.

“Originally destined as the bearers of God’s image in the world, humanity—both Gentile and Jewish—had become shaped by the world’s unwholesome images and untruthful words. The once uninterrupted interaction with God was now clouded; the transmission was lost in the distracting white noise of worldly media. Such a disastrous media situation required a media “eucatastrophe,” to borrow a term coined by J. R. R. Tolkien. That media “eucatastrophe” (an event of catastrophically good proportions) finally took place. It was the Incarnation. The TheoMedium of God’s Word became flesh. The public announcement of what Jesus has done on our behalf as the God who took on flesh is called “gospel.” It is a media term. In the genre of a eucatastrophic newsflash, the TheoMedium of the gospel is the breaking news that our King has arrived and conquered, that the mediated distance between humanity and God is to be bridged through the work of the Incarnate Christ, a new Mediator who has come from offstage as abruptly as that serpent of old. And this Mediator is hailed as the untainted “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15)… In the wake of bloodied cross and vacated tomb, a new TheoMedium was formed. Indwelled by the Spirit, that society we call “church” was created as a new TheoMedium in the world in the sense that we as the church are now being restored as bearers of God’s image.”

Byer’s is sensitive to the function of images in the Ancient Near East – a big part of my Masters Thesis, so very exciting for me. In the Ancient Near East kings held on to political power by building images of themselves as gods, fusing the royal with the divine – such imagery (which was later applied to coins and all sorts of multi-media) functioned as a powerful communication tool. Images of God-Kings communicated just by being. So did idols in a temple – which were ‘activated’ by a mouth washing ceremony by a river in a temple so that they would ‘speak for’ the god (just like Adam in Eden in Genesis 2 if you buy the theory that Eden is a proto-temple).

These images communicated something – by being representatives of the god-king. Byers shares this quote:

“Social space—the areas in which life was lived—for pagans was thus in a sense alive with images, mythologized. The statues in the temples and around the cities, the reliefs on the altars, the busts and statuettes of the home, etc. all, with varying degrees of intensity to be sure, figured the divine or, better for ancient polytheism, the divinities. The notion of a secular, separate realm devoid of religious penetration is of course a modern invention (if not itself a fiction). For ancient pagans, space was religious.” — KAVIN ROWE

But these images of god-kings and gods didn’t speak – nor did the gods behind the purely religious images. Image bearers of the God who does speak also speak, but we also communicate by being representatives of God, scattered around his world. Byers notes – from Israel’s history – that the media we soak ourselves in will end up shaping us.

“Choosing God’s words crafts us into a certain type of person. Choosing idolatry turns us into a vastly different sort of person. Media preferences alter who we are. Moses finds this painful story of the stone words and the metal calf to be gravely instructive for the Israelites who are about to make their fateful river crossing. They are a people shaped by certain media that cannot abide certain other types of media. The program of Canaan’s media displacement must therefore begin immediately. Hence the charge to physically mark their entry into Canaan with those plastered rocks. Think of the contrast in media form and content that will instantly take place once God’s people set foot onto their new land. Rather than images carefully crafted through metallurgy and woodworking, Israel will pile up twelve rocks and cover them with script. Stone words.”

We communicate by doing – but as people made in the image of the God who speaks, we represent him best when we bear his image (in what we do) and we use words. We need words to truly bear God’s image. Because God speaks. That’s what gives words priority. But words can never be separated from how they are delivered. This slight distinction plays out in Byer’s application – which seeks to resolve what I think should be a dichotomous tension – suggesting that TheoMedia makes words a priority. This is probably the only weakness I see in TheoMedia, and one of the coolest things about the Christian bookosphere overlapping with the Christian blogosphere is that we’ve been able to chat about my questions over email. I love that. It makes reading books so much more relationally connected.

Byer urges Christians to learn from the way God dealt with an increasingly complex media landscape for Israel – who were confronted by images (idols and temples) wherever they looked as they left Egypt and fought their way to the Promised Land. So he sees the shema as profoundly important. The idea that in a media saturated world we should spend our time soaking ourselves in God’s media, in order to approach other media from a more healthy perspective.

Here’s what he says about the shema…

“The words of God were to saturate the daily grind of the Israelite family. They were to feature orally in conversations in the fields and in the home. Bound to the hand, stuck between the eyes, and emblazoned on the entranceways of the home, the TheoMedia of God’s words were also to occupy the visual space of God’s people. In a world rife with unauthorized media sources, the Israelites were commanded to esteem their God as their primary media source, holding fast to the TheoMedia of divine words, embracing a life saturated by holy speech.”

And later…

“The greatest commandment in scripture—the highest demand on our lives—encourages a set of media practices by which our lives are saturated with verbal TheoMedia. The Shema should be recognized as a central text as the church negotiates twenty-first-century media. It is a passage that reminds Christians in the digital age and every age that we are called to media saturation, but the media that are to so thoroughly permeate every dimension of our lives are the media of God.”

Byers argues that we should prioritise ‘word’ media over all other forms – in part on the basis of the Shema, but because he’s serious about Biblical Theology this is a thread he carries through into the New Testament (more below).

“If oral and textual TheoMedia are indeed prioritized, then it is incumbent on us to retain and strengthen the skills of hearing and reading. If the burden of the previous chapters on the sights and sounds of God was to argue that TheoMedia are various and multisensory, the burden of this chapter and the next is to show that they are subordinate to logocentric media, that is, the word-oriented media of prophetic discourse and holy text.”

But first – my slight critique.

Words never occur in a vacuum – they always come with the context provided by the speaker – even in creation itself, when God spoke into the void (arguably, literally, a vacuum) – it was who was speaking that made stuff happen.

Byers is well aware of the trouble with dichotomies – he spends significant time showing that there’s often a false dichotomy presented between the idea that Scripture functions propositionally vis a vis narratively, when it should be both, held in tension.

When it comes to the verbal v visual dichotomy he acknowledges the multimedia nature of God, so he’s already pretty nuanced in his approach to the dichotomy, I just don’t think he should resolve it.

“We have seen that God is a multimedia God and that his words are also multimedia in nature. Like fire in the prophet’s bones, they are hard to contain, bursting the limits of our dichotomies and bursting the limits of every media format that would communicate them. Verbal TheoMedia cannot be safely locked within ink or confined within chiseled inscriptions. They are living words, words that can be seen as well as heard, tasted as well as touched.”

The big problem I have with his treatment of the Old Testament – and it’s only minor – is that I don’t think you can actually separate the words of the Shema from the visual communication effect that the Shema being carried out was intended to have on both people in Israel, and the nations. You can’t split cause and effect in this way by placing the emphasis on cause – because the effect is necessary, and part of the intended function of the law.

I like what Wenham says about the performance aspect of the entirety of Torah:

But not only is the Old Testament ritual law central to theological understanding of scripture; I also want to suggest it is a model of modern communication technique. For a long time Christians have imagined that communication between God and man is essentially verbal, merely a matter of words. God speaks to man through the prophets or through the Bible: man replies in prayer. We view communication with God as a sort of two-way radio. But God does not restrict himself to words, he uses ritual such as sacraments: ritual is more like colour TV than radio. Ideas are made visible… Educational psychologists tell us that we remember 10% of what we hear, 30% of what we see but 70% of what we do. Modern preachers put most of their effort into teaching by hearing, though 90% of what they say will be forgotten. Moses put his main effort into teaching through ritual, a wise move if he wanted the people to remember such fundamental truths, for ritual is a kind of doing and therefore sticks in the mind much better than words…But I believe we should go further: not simply act out the ceremonies of the Old Covenant, but in our post-literate age devise dramatic rites that teach the fundamental truths of the new covenant as effectively as the Pentateuch teaches those of the old. This will require imagination and sensitivity, but I think would be worth the effort.”

If Wenham’s correct – part of the power of the Shema was in the doing, and part was in the watching – more than in the hearing (even if doing involved speaking the words). My argument is these things are so interconnected it is silly to try to prioritise one aspect of the communicative act above another aspect of the same part, and in this case, the communicative act is “image bearing for the God who speaks”… Anyway. This is a minor criticism and has only relatively small real world applications (except that it doesn’t undermine the humanity or worth of people who can’t use words as well as others).

The Gold

Byers presents his argument in a theologically rich and thoroughly engaged way… I love the way he speaks about the Incarnation. God entering the stage, tearing the sky apart…

“And now we come to the point in the Bible’s salvation-history when the sky gets ripped apart. The Bible opens with what appears to be a calm, peaceful scene: “The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). The Gospel of Mark opens in similar fashion. The Spirit is portrayed as a dove hovering above the waters of the River Jordan. This violent puncturing of the sky is a decisive moment in the biblical plot of redemption for Mark. It is the moment when it becomes clear that our God will tolerate no longer the divine-human alienation, when he will content himself no more with the mediation of prior centuries: “In Mark, then, God has ripped the heavens irrevocably apart at Jesus’ baptism, never to shut them again. Through this gracious gash in the universe, he has poured forth his Spirit into the earthly realm.” It is not just the sky that gets torn in Mark. The verb schizō reappears at the end of the Gospel, forming what biblical scholars call an inclusio, the dual use of a word or theme that encloses or bookends a larger body of text to serve as an interpretive frame. Mark is to be read within the frame of divine-human boundaries being torn and ripped apart: “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:37–38).”

So good.

I love his use of John the Baptist as a model for using mediums that are wired to try to turn you into the centre of attention.

…Jesus called him the greatest man born of a woman (Luke 7:28; Matt 11:11). It makes good sense to give a little attention to the man Jesus himself called the greatest. But what we find when we look to John is that the all-consuming vocation of the greatest man born of woman was to point to someone greater, and then fade away: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). There was absolutely no self-orientation to John’s celebrity status in the fourth Gospel (or in the other Gospels, for that matter): “In order that he may not be in any sense the object of his own preaching and action, he disowns every kind of movement towards himself.”

What a guide to participating in the online world. But Byer’s conviction (and mine) is that it’s Jesus who is the best model for participating in media.

“In all his flesh and blood reality, we could say that Jesus is the “Multimedium of God.” We could also understand Jesus—speaking, touching, imaging, embodying—as the most significant and the most multisensory TheoMedium of all… Just as the medium and message of the gospel informs our media practices, so also does the Incarnation of Christ.”

He suggests one of the implications of the incarnation is that we value presence over mediated absence, which is a handy tip, but he also suggests we should be seeking to take that presence wherever we can, wherever it’s needed…

“We should honour Christ’s Incarnation by infiltrating multiple communications realms but with a high valuation of embodied presence, refusing to treat social media as a fitting replacement for face-to-face interaction, but enjoying its capabilities for enabling interaction with those who are not across the table or in our living room.”

The climax of the incarnation – the cross – is equally important in framing how we participate in media.

“The cross of Christ opposes self-orientation in any and every setting, online or offline. The motivations behind my status updates are often suspect. My heart vainly flutters a bit when there is a sudden spike in the traffic on my blog. At times I resonate a bit too happily with that exclamation mark when Twitter informs me, “You were mentioned in a Tweet!” The point here is that Christ’s call to selflessness, visually depicted in the cross, extends to any and all realms, even the new realm of the Internet. We need to carry the determinative force of the optical medium of the cross symbol into that realm and comport our media practices accordingly”

This is another point where I feel like TheoMedia may have been strengthened slightly, if the emphasis wasn’t placed on word ministry quite so much, but included the possibility that visual image bearing was a factor in the acting out of the written word (beyond the sacraments). It’s a quibble, but here’s a worked example…

“I am suggesting that the church understand media through the person of Jesus and through the ancient media practices his saving work encourages. Our verbal interactions are to be informed by the verbal proclamation of the gospel. And if we are going to inhabit a visual culture, then we should draw on the visual media legacies of the cross. Some sort of cross-visuality is affirmed when Paul writes to the Galatians that “it was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified” (Gal 3:1 ESV). Now, the Galatians were not present at Golgotha on that fateful day. But Paul’s prior preaching ministry had presented such a “vivid, verbal portrait of the event of Jesus’ crucifixion” that the scene could be understood as having occurred “before your eyes.””

I don’t think Paul just uses vivid spoken words for this – but his scars and suffering too… I think there’s a link between 2 Corinthians 4, (and Paul’s list of suffering for others in 11), and Galatians 6.

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.” – 2 Corinthians 4:10-11

“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God. From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. – Galatians 6:14-17

This potentially expands his conclusion – but only slightly, because his conclusion is tops (I’m running out of superlatives and trying not to sound like an Apple product launch).

“We ourselves are TheoMedia. The church comprises fractured image bearers who are being restored to the image of Jesus, the perfect image of God. By the indwelling presence of Christ’s Spirit, every Christian is now a communicative means by whom God communicates within the church and reveals himself to the world.”

The control he suggests, for not being overwhelmed by the communication mediums of the world, and competing messages, is to soak yourself in TheoMedia… which, usefully, combats the “myths” packaged up in the mediums we use (as we’ll see when I finally write part four of my unfinished series on Facebook/social media and your brain).

“When it comes to spiritual gifts, the source of communication is God himself. When it comes to spiritual disciplines, we are giving God our attention and asking how he wants to influence our thoughts and alter our actions. There is this simple little policy I try to abide by after I wake up to face a new day. Before opening a screen, my plan is to open my Bible; and before listening to any voice online or on TV, I want to listen out for God’s voice through prayer… As the page has turned to this concluding chapter, my hope is that we are now dripping wet with biblical ink. In order to understand media in the digital age, we have plunged into the sacred texts of the church with the hope of having our perspectives reoriented around biblical wisdom. Reading scripture trains us for certain “habits of thought—habitual ways of viewing or making sense of the world.” This immersing of ourselves in the Bible’s theological vision cultivates “cognitive skills and sensibilities, and hence the ability to see, feel, and taste the world as disclosed in the diverse biblical texts.”

I don’t want to turn you off buying the book by giving away the ending – because 90% of the joy is in the journey to get there… but Byer’s conclusion is so sensible and theologically coherent that it seems obvious.

“We need to be drawing on cultural studies, research data, personal experiences, and practical wisdom for faithful living in the digital age; but not without our sacred “script” as a foundational resource. Here is the second overarching thesis: Christians are called to media saturation, but the primary media that are to shape, form, and saturate our lives are the media of God…we need an external media source to crack the soundscape and penetrate our field of vision. We need TheoMedia, the revelatory and communicative means of the One who is the wisest and best.”

He provides a summary of the argument of the book in eight thesis, and this is where the spoilers stop. Buy it. Read it. Give it to anybody who wants to use new mediums thoughtfully to communicate the Gospel. Get this book out there.

Tweet, oh people of God. Blog, text, and type status updates. But linger in the TheoMedia domain of the church and cling to the media legacies of Christ’s Incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, Ascension, and return. Hear the gospel. Look to the cross. Feel the embrace of brothers and sisters. Smell the aroma of bread broken and taste the sweet wetness of wine outpoured. Preach and baptize. Exercise spiritual gifts and practice spiritual disciplines that poise our senses before the media of God. – Andy Byers, TheoMedia