Archives For Communication

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

 

I like TED. But…

I think TED talks are to ideas what blog posts are to books. And I clearly don’t have a problem with blog posts… but I would hate to imagine a world without books.

TED is probably a little guilty of taking itself slightly too seriously. So I’m a fan of this video, where a performance comedian snuck into the schedule for a TEDx event.

Here, as something a little meta, is a TED talk about the problem with TED talks.

If you can’t handle that level of metaness – you can read the transcript as an article on The Guardian, which includes this nice little quote…

TED of course stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and I’ll talk a bit about all three. I Think TED actually stands for: middlebrow megachurch infotainment.

The key rhetorical device for TED talks is a combination of epiphany and personal testimony (an “epiphimony” if you like ) through which the speaker shares a personal journey of insight and realisation, its triumphs and tribulations.

What is it that the TED audience hopes to get from this? A vicarious insight, a fleeting moment of wonder, an inkling that maybe it’s all going to work out after all? A spiritual buzz?

I’m sorry but this fails to meet the challenges that we are supposedly here to confront. These are complicated and difficult and are not given to tidy just-so solutions. They don’t care about anyone’s experience of optimism. Given the stakes, making our best and brightest waste their time – and the audience’s time – dancing like infomercial hosts is too high a price. It is cynical.

Also, it just doesn’t work.

This article Against TED is also worth a read, it makes many of the same points.

Culturally, we have an incredible tendency to switch deep thinking for pre-packaged intellectual junk food. And TED feeds that addiction.

People doing the communicating have a responsibility to package their information in a way that makes the content clear and engaging – TED is a great reminder that presentation matters… But people receiving the communication have to fit that information together in a coherent framework from a wide range of sources, TED talks only give a very small part of the picture and the medium works against depth and complexity.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the format – a short oral presentation about an interesting, potentially life changing, idea is incredibly compelling. I am embarking on a life doing that. I think TED is essentially secular preaching. But I think the intellectual life of the church would be incredibly anemic if all we did was preaching (which is part of the problem I have with the typical megachurch).

It’s weird. When I think about how I go about preaching in the light of this quote – I feel my training in communication stuff pushes me towards serving up sermons that are something like an epiphimony – because stories grounded in the life of the speaker and audience are absolutely one of the most compelling ways to persuade people of something – while my personal preference is for deep and lengthy content filled with conceptual rabbit holes and stuff to nut out. It’s a paradox. It’s a paradox that only becomes crippling if we do all our communication in one communicative event, with one style.

Here’s a worked example of how TED can work well though, in a multimedia, multi-channel approach to communicating an idea. In 2011, I read an Economist article by an author/journalist, Tom Standage, called How Luther Went Viral. This essay became part of my thinking for my own essay on Luther for my Reformation subject, which in turn partly inspired my Masters projectThen I watched a Tom Standage TED talk about ancient social media. The TED talk wasn’t deep. But it was exciting. Finally, I read Standage’s excellent book - Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years, while conversing with him on Twitter, before writing my own review, and using some of his insights in my thinking in the current series I’m writing about Facebook messing with your brain.

I’m not claiming this example involves the production of high quality material on my part (the TED material, frankly, is gold in this case) – but the process is an example of how TED can work well when it causes people to interact with and develop ideas, producing new stuff in response.  An idea was shared, discussed, and new ideas were cultivated. This is TED achieving the goal implied in its own motto – “ideas worth spreading”… but it’s only working well because it’s part of a much bigger picture involving a fair bit of depth, and wider reading. Could you get the gist just by watching the TED video? Sure. Maybe. But that’s a fairly limited way to participate in the spread of ideas, arguably being featured on just one platform, with just one audience – no matter how big that audience is – isn’t really “spreading” – not, ironically, like Luther’s Reformation – which if you think about it kind of started with Luther nailing up a proposal for a 16th century TED talk. Luther didn’t stop there. He used every medium he could to spread his ideas.

Another interesting thing about the popularity of TED, by the by, is that it (along with the rise of YouTube tutorial videos and vlogs) represents a movement back from a predominantly written culture to an oral/visual culture – if you’ve ever checked out the comments on YouTube you could say a pre-literate oral/visual culture. This has interesting implications for people whose job it is to communicate something to such a culture, and its possible this means being a bit more creative in how we present stuff, preferably without wiping out depth and complexity.

Anyway – I really just wanted to post that video. So. Over and out. 

 

This is part 3 in a 5 part series on what social media does to our brains – it uses Facebook as a case study, but sustained use of any communication medium will have a similar effect (though Facebook is extra specially designed to addict you).

The first post showed that the mediums we use do shape our thinking and rewire our brains. The second post was about how one might process this fact drawing on insights from media ecology and neuroscience.

In this post we’ll consider what insights might be gained here for Christians who want to use mediums like Facebook to communicate about Jesus and share their lives authentically with their friends while steering clear of the down side of having your brain changed in ways you don’t want.

This post is less about why a Christian should use Facebook (though it deals with that briefly), and isn’t so much about what steps to take to use Facebook well (which will be dealt with a little in post four) – it is more about what to think about the power our communication mediums have over us.

facebook brain

The Theological Framework

I’m speculating a little here – and it’s possible that you can’t simply equate the Biblical concept of “mind” with the neuroscientific understanding of what the mind is. But I think there are some important Biblical and theological touch points to consider when it comes to social media and our brains. Some of these are also covered in John Dyer’s excellent From the Garden to the City - Dyer approaches the question of communication technology as a Christian theologian and media ecologist. His journey through the Biblical narrative hits similar points - as does this old post.

Briefly – according to the guy who kickstarted a lot of the neuroplasticity stuff, Daniel Siegel, people’s well-being involves a combination of brain, mind, and relationships - the “mind” is the process that regulates the flow of energy and information through the brain, which is the physical “neurocircuitry,” relationships are how energy and information is shared between people via communication. When it comes to the Bible – the mind and heart are closely linked with how people think and act. I’m working on the assumption that these are roughly equivalent and related.

The God who speaks (from the ultimate hive mind)

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” – Hebrews 1:1-2

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. - John 1:1-3, 14, 18

Theological projects – like this – are best served by starting with who God is. God is the ultimate ‘hive mind’ – one God, in three persons, acting with one mind. There’s a word bandied about in theological tomes – perichoresis (wikipedia) – which describes the interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity. There is no act of God the Father that doesn’t  involve unity of purpose and action from God the Son and God the Holy Spirit because each person of the Trinity is so thoroughly ‘networked’ to the other. The Trinity is the ultimate social network – or perhaps, in a less theologically dangerous way – social networks are what we get when humans made in the image of God, for relationship, use our meagre, broken, selves to try to act out that relational aspect of our humanity.

It shouldn’t really surprise us, in this sense, if our attempts at forging communication networks end up with something like a hive mind. Relationships are about connection.

Here are a few paragraphs from my project – you can read the whole thing if you want to see the footnotes.

As ethos, pathos, and logos, are necessary elements of persuasive act, so the “perichoretic” contribution of Father, Word, and Spirit is necessary in divine communicative acts. There is no act of God that is not produced by the three divine persons, acting in concert, so it should be impossible to speak of any work of Father, Son, or Spirit separately, just as it is impossible to produce a spoken communicative act that doesn’t inherently contain the three persuasive proofs: ethos, logos, and pathos.

Moon (2010) suggests the Triune God is a Divine “communicative system” that employs the perfect media – the Word and Spirit, to produce communicative acts both internally (ad intra), and externally (ad extra) through “coupling with creaturely media.” Moon suggests the primary part of “the distinct form of divine operation is communication,” because divine action is consistently depicted as speech, or alongside divine speech, and God is described as “word.” The divine communication system is the “ground of communicative/meaning systems” so that human communication is “grounded in divine communication,” or, as O’Donovan describes it “from God’s true speech flows all possibility of true human speech.”…

…I suggest that divine communicative acts are persuasive acts, containing the three proofs, analogously aligned to the persons of the Trinity. Each divine communicative act involves the inextricably perichoretic contributions of each divine person, yet one might describe those acts in terms of the ethos of the father, being demonstrated in the incarnate logos, with the Spirit moving the hearts and minds of the audience as divine pathos. So, as a communicative act of God, consistent with his character, the incarnation of the logos, and his death on a cross express the ethos of God, who also works in the hearts of the recipients of his communicative act to produce appropriate emotional responses (either hardness or softness of hearts) as divine pathos. In communicating through Scripture, to and through people in particular times and places, using appropriate and common mediums and genres, and through the incarnation itself, God “aptly” accommodates himself to his audience and situation.

Basically, all our communication, true or otherwise, is a reflection or refraction of the way God communicates and uses mediums. This is especially true when one considers the incarnation of Jesus – and what that does with humanity as a medium. Which we’ll get to below. First we’ve got to look a little bit at what humanity, especially the ‘mind,’ is and to do that we’ll do a little run through the Biblical story…

A Biblical Theology of Personhood: Heart, Mind and Image

The best way to develop a theological framework for something like what it means to be a person with a changing brain, is to start with Biblical Theology – and see how the idea of personhood develops – I think there are three interesting ‘human’ threads – the heart, mind, and image – that we can pull together to help us understand what the Bible thinks about your mind being rewired into an externalised social hive like thing (I don’t want to use brain and mind completely interchangeably – a lot of the neuroplasticity stuff out there makes a slight distinction between them).

The Bible talks of personhood in a whole heap of ways – but the ones that are particularly pertinent for this little exercise are to do with the state of our hearts and minds (a sort of overlapping mishmash of desires, objects of worship, and the thinking that frames our actions), and the image we present to the world as we live out those desires.

The first thing we learn about humans is that we’re created ‘male and female, in God’s image’ – made in the image of the God who is a plural (he says “let us”), but a singular entity as people who are designed to relate to each other (Genesis 1). Humans were then given a job to do. Adam and Eve were to be God’s images – his representatives (and probably something like his ‘idols’) in his Garden Temple. There’s a really nice thread in the Bible that starts at Eden, weaves through the Temple, and ends in the New Creation – that involves a Garden, flowing water, precious stones, and God’s people. Adam is also meant to “work and take care of” the Garden – and the Hebrew words used in Genesis 1:15 are later used of the priests in the Temple. Part of his job – presumably where he is showing that he’s a chip off the old block – is speaking to name the animals, just like God spoke to make the world and create the animals. Communication is part of what it means to be made in the image of God – and being made in the image of God means we have a function that communicates something about God as people look at us. Images are mediums. People are mediums. We all carry messages about the things we live for – the image that is imprinted on our hearts as we live and relate to other people.

The things we think about and the way we think shape our lives. Contemporary neuroscience is catching up with thousands of years of Christian (and Jewish) theology. We shouldn’t be shocked – as Christians – to learn that we can alter our brains by the way we live, and alter the way we live by altering our brains. We should expect it. It’s foundational – we’ll see in the next post that many of the ways we might go about deliberately changing our brains for the better are also part and parcel of a Christian way of life.

At the heart of humanity’s rejection of God’s rule, in the events of the Fall, is the desire to be like God ourselves – not to bear God’s image, but to bear our own image, to shape our own lives. The serpent’s deception cunningly attacks the very heart of our created being.

“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God…” – Genesis 3:5

Adam and Eve were already created to be like God, the desire the serpent awakens is the desire to set the communication agenda for one’s self.  The result is a breaking of the ability to carry God’s image – Adam’s son is made in Adam’s image (Genesis 5:3), and a darkening of the human heart so that it’s “only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5).

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. – Romans 1:28

I think Paul, in Romans 7, is talking about the frustration of being someone made in the image of God who lives with this darkened heart brought about by sin.

“So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;  but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” – Romans 7:21-25

Our minds – as created – long to break free of the shackles of our broken human nature. When a bunch of people whose humanity is broken like this, get together as broken humans, with darkened hearts, in social networks, using the language they were created to use as people made in God’s image – they no longer work to point people to God, like they were created to, but to their own images and interests. So we get Babel.

“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” – Genesis 11:1-7

The people who went to build this tower – using new technology they had created (bricks and mortar), and the language that united them – tried to turn themselves into gods and use their created technologies that were new and mythically permanent to try to make a name for themselves, but their plans were shattered and they were scattered.

“Rather than using their creative powers to honor God as Noah did, the people of Babel wanted to bring glory to themselves. Rather than live in dependence upon God (as Abraham will in the coming chapters), they tried to achieve complete autonomy from him… At Babel, we find humans creating a city as their anti-garden and a tower as an image to themselves.” - John Dyer, From the Garden to the City

We shouldn’t be surprised that as we interact with created things that have the potential to either serve our idols, or become idols themselves, those things rub off on us a bit.

“We are molded and formed into the image of whatever shapes us. Here wisdom warns us that not all technologies are created equal in this regard.”

“The things we create can—and will—try to become idols in our hearts. Though they enable us to survive and thrive in a fallen world, the very aid they provide can deceive us with a false sense of comfort and security, hiding our need for God and his grace.” - Tim Challies, The Next Story

The problem with being conformed into the image of something hollow and empty is that it leaves you hollow and empty, and it never quite lives up to the promise. David Foster Wallace gave a famous speech This Is Water to a bunch of college graduates. In it, though he wasn’t a Christian, Foster Wallace said:

“Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.” - David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

The connectivity that Facebook offers – the boost to your ego that keeps you coming back – it’s the same hollow and empty shadow of Christian relationships, or the eternal self-giving relationships in the Trinity. The effect it has on your brain is a shadow of the effect that participating in those social networks has. And participating in those social networks – the church, and being connected to Jesus via the Holy Spirit – is possible because of how the Triune God employed communication mediums. It’s this social network that should reshape our brains, and help us to avoid having them reshaped by other stuff as we manage to be in the world but not of it.

Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is pretty useful for thinking about how we share in a deeper social network if we follow Jesus.

“My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory,the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” – John 17:15-24

That’s a nice bookend to John’s prologue, quoted above. Jesus – God’s word made flesh – became a human. Truly human. Sharing all of humanity’s potential pitfalls and foibles. Entering a broken world, and yet he managed not to be broken by sin, while choosing to be broken for us.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. - Hebrews 4:15

Jesus became a communication medium, he used communication mediums, and rather than being conformed into the messy “myth” or narrative of the human condition – he transformed the narrative and rewrote the myth – so that if you want to be human like Jesus was human – through the cross and sharing in his death – you too can be transformed. This has to change the way we use communication mediums – and I’ll suggest that it does. In the next post.

The story of the Old Testament, and the promise anticipated that is fulfilled in the New, revolves around broken humanity’s inability to focus mind and heart on God, as they should.

Israel was called to be a nation of priests – a nation that represented God to their neighbours – and the tool they had for doing that was the Law. God’s word.

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” – Exodus 19:5-6

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” – Deuteronomy 4:5-6

Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. – Deuteronomy 11:18

That didn’t work so well. So God had to intervene… first with a promise…

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people. – Jeremiah 31:31-33

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. – Ezekiel 36:26

And then he intervened again with the Holy Spirit – which does something profound to the hearts and minds of those who follow Jesus – and works to conform them into his image.

“After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had - Acts 4:31-32

Paul shows how the renewing work of the Spirit as a result of Jesus’ work on the Cross, and our union with him – which brings us our justification and sanctification (makes us ok by God, and works to make us like Jesus), brings about a new humanity – a new link between heart, mind and image.

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you… the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God… 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.

We become part of the ultimate mind-rewiring social network . Our hearts and minds are rewired to match up with the heart and mind of God. Suddenly we’re able to communicate with God again.  This is the ultimate socially networked ‘hive mind.’ The Holy Spirit has incredible power to connect us with other people to make us more like Jesus.

Romans 12 is, I think (along with Philippians 2), an incredibly prescient passage for this whole idea that your brain is altered by the company you keep and the mediums you use to keep it. It, along with the incarnation of Jesus, provides an important framework for responding to competing influences on your head, but it also spells out what the ideal Christian social network looks like… people acting as one. Sacrificially giving of themselves for the sake of others. Just like Jesus does as, a person of the Trinity, at the cross.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but 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 12:1-2

Here’s why Christians should be a little wary of the impact Facebook can have – the world we live in isn’t neutral. It has a pattern that we are naturally conformed into – a pattern of behaving and communicating – culture – created by people whose lives are consumed by things that aren’t God. Who bear the image of things that aren’t God. People who are broken. Facebook is part of the “pattern of this world” – it promotes and rewards self-seeking behaviour. Facebook isn’t neutral because the world isn’t neutral. But that doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t use it – in fact, in the next post I’ll argue that we should, using Jesus becoming human as the framework.

As Christians – we shouldn’t be surprised that groups of people work together to rewire our brains, and that communication mediums play a part in that – but we should be careful about what the communication air we breath in our hyper-connected world is doing to us.

We should be careful about what happens when a bunch of people gather with a common language to share a platform that is designed to bring glory to people, not God. Forewarned is forearmed.

We should be excited about being part of an incredible network of relationships – joined with God, by his Spirit, as his children, being transformed into the image of Jesus, and joined with other Christians, by the Spirit, as brothers and sisters united around the ultimate act of self-sacrifice – and that excitement should be something we seek to spread to others.

Here’s Paul’s solution to avoiding being conformed to the patterns of the world – living sacrificially and chasing humility has always been counter cultural…

“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” – Romans 12:3-5

Or, restated in Philippians 2…

“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 - Philippians 2:1-5

Paul’s hope for the Roman church was that they’d be a social network with a hive mind… changed by God to do what people were created to do – not what the broken world made them do…

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Romans 15:5-6

Interestingly – this sort of integration between mind and relationships is a pretty highly sought after type of neuroscientific “well-being” – we’re much more likely to be able to make deliberate changes to our brains if we’re part of such a network where people are committed to each other and to a set of values – in this case being sacrificially loving like Jesus. The Spirit has a big role to play in changing our thinking – because naturally we’d never focus on God – but Christianity, as described in the New Testament, works from a neuroscientific framework.

Paul was basically a neuroscientist before neuroscience existed. Probably because neuroscience is simply describing the way God created us to function, and the way we function as image bearers of whatever it is that we focus on bringing glory to with our minds, hearts and lives.

 

 

This is part 2 of a 5 part series on how the media you consume – in this case, Facebook – changes and rewires your brain, and what the implications are for people using Facebook, especially Christians. In the first post I looked at how your brain is rewired by the Internet in general, social media in particular, and Facebook specifically.

In this post I’ll consider what we should think about the idea that we’ve essentially rewired our heads to incorporate social media into the way we think and operate. I’ll continue to explore these questions in terms of media ecology, neuroscience, and Christian theology.

This post will look at how one might approach the truth that Facebook changes your brain from a media ecology and neuroscientific standpoint – should we be scared? Or is this just the circle of life? A description of the inevitable implications of the intricacies of life within our tech-fuelled environment? How much should we listen to the pessimists and their doomsaying?

facebook brain

The Media Ecology Framework

Every new technology brings change – and it brings the same cultural doomsday prophets with the same cultural doomsday predictions. Change happens (also XKCD). It happens through the tools we create, and as a result of the tools we create. Some of the change is good. New communication mediums make communicating more efficient, they broaden our reach, they provide new platforms for relationships with other people.

Nicholas Carr, whose book The Shallows featured pretty heavily in post one, is pretty pessimistic about the impact of technology – he also famously asked “Is Google making us stupid?” - and he tends to look back, somewhat romantically, at the way things were.

“Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged. - Nicholas Carr, Is Google making us stupid?

Carr isn’t saying anything new here. In fact, he’s (with Wolf) essentially saying exactly what Plato said/wrote when writing was invented, he was “quoting” Socrates in Phaedrus

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”

Carr is right to sound the warning about the power of the internet – because most of us want to be in control of how our brains are being changed – otherwise we’re being coerced, manipulated, and captivated by the tools we use. But his pessimism is the same pessimism that has been expressed at every point in history. There’s nothing really to worry about in terms of the changes media theory wise – technology develops. It just does. These developments bring social and societal change. Some of these changes are good, some are bad.

The founder of Media Ecology, Marshall McLuhan has some pretty nifty stuff to say about technological changes in his Tetrad of Media Effects, it’s famous enough to have its own wikipedia entry, and you can read about it there – but his basic thesis is that new mediums, when introduced to the communication landscape – or ecology – effect the ecology, the balance of things. So the printing press changed the world by making the written word more accessible, cheaper to produce, and very linear in appearance (lines on the page) and logic. This changed the way people thought, and made communication more accurate and precise. McLuhan also wanted to make sure we didn’t just see communication mediums and technologies as neutrals – he wasn’t a big fan of Augustine’s wrong use/right use dichotomy that believed created things are simply inert – he recognised that things we create are created as part of cultures, with myths and uses – while they could potentially be extracted from those myths and used for something else, McLuhan said:

“Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.”

A Short Excursus on Augustine

People who’ve been reading for a while will know I’m a fan of the Augustinian maxims “Wrong use does not negate right use,” and that all gold is created by God and should be “plundered from Egypt and used for presenting the Gospel.” Augustine was talking specifically about a communication medium – oratory – when he wrote this.

I don’t think McLuhan’s position contradicts this. McLuhan isn’t talking about “gold” – neutral created stuff. He’s talking about the stuff we’ve made out of gold – so, for example, Israel should have known that taking the gold of Egypt, and building idols just like Egypt had, out of that gold, was a bad idea. They could possibly have used a golden calf, carefully, by putting it in a golden zoo in the palace or something.

This is a pretty outlandish hypothetical – Israel had real trouble distinguishing between right and wrong use, there’s an example with their use of  the bronze snake they make in the desert in Numbers 21. They’re being bitten by snakes as a judgment against their stupidity, when:

“The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.”

By 2 Kings 18 the snake has become an object of worship… that Hezekiah has to smash.

“He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)”

Anyway. Excursus over. Back to the media ecology thing… there are two ways to think of the changes brought about by technology – instrumentalism, and determinism.

Determinists believe this change is inevitable, that the changes wrought by new technologies are unavoidable, and people are destined to become part of “the machine,” while instrumentalists believe mediums are simply instruments that are employed by people for their own ends. Then there are optimistic determinists and pessimistic determinists.

McLuhan is a determinist – but he, on good days, was pretty optimistic about where things were heading because he had an interesting view of the end of the world informed by an interesting Catholic theological framework. I’m more at the instrumentalist end of the spectrum – but I think you can only be an instrumentalist if you are aware of the changes wrought by new mediums. And most people aren’t.

Technology changes the environment it is introduced to, and changes the people who use it. Some people will like the change, others won’t. Some people will find a medium. Some people will be passive passengers in the process of change – some people will be agents of the change, fully aware of what they are doing. You don’t want to be the passive passenger, or you end up like this.

Image: The Matrix, a battery farm of humans. Basically. You need to decide between the red pill and the blue pill. Freedom to rage against the machine – or slavery. It’s not actually that extreme. Unless you want to be Amish. New tools usually replace old tools for a reason – they do jobs better, or jobs we couldn’t previously imagine doing. You’d be an idiot to insist on using a handsaw to cut down a massive tree once the chainsaw has been invented – but you’d also be an idiot to test how sharp a chainsaw is, with your hand, while it’s running. What we need to remember about the Internet is that it presents an incredible opportunity for people with something to communicate.

“The Internet is proving to be one of the most powerful amplifiers of speech ever invented. It offers a global megaphone for voices that might otherwise be heard only feebly, if at all. It invites and facilitates multiple points of view and dialogue in ways unimplementable by the traditional, one-way, mass media… “ “After a one-hundred-and- fifty-year hiatus during which the person-to-person aspect of media was overshadowed by centralized mass media operating on a broadcast model, the pendulum has swung back. Social forms of media based on sharing, copying, and personal recommendation, which prevailed for centuries, have been dramatically reborn, supercharged by the Internet.” - Tom Standage, Writing on the Wall, 2,000 Years of Social Media

From a media ecology sense – change is inevitable. What effect the change has on you is up to you. Forewarned is forearmed.

The Neuroscience Framework

This conclusion is, in part, supported by neuroscience. One of the big ‘tools’ in neuroscience, in terms of shaping your brain, is a thing called “mindfulness” – it basically boils down to being intentional in how you think as much as in terms of what you think about. Just knowing, and adopting or resisting the changes a medium brings is enough to avoid being trapped into mind-altering conformity.

This sort of thinking isn’t new – and while I’m not anywhere near qualified to speak about neuroscience and the efficacy of neuroplasticity in terms of actual medical care for mental health issues – and I’m not trying to do that at all – this quote from Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations (Book 3) is interestingly prescient.

“But surely we must admit that the mind is capable of healing itself. After all, it was the mind that invented the science of medicine for the body. And while bodily healings are largely dependent on the nature of the bodies themselves, so that not all those who submit to treatment show any immediate improvement, of the mind there can be no doubt: once it is willing to be healed, and heeds the precepts of the wise, it does indeed find healing. A medical science for the mind does exist: it is philosophy. And unlike medicine for the body, the help of philosophy is something we need not look to others to gain. Instead, we should make every possible effort to become capable physicians for ourselves.”

There are actually some neuroscientifically derived practical steps that we’ll look at in a future post – but most neuroscientists see the way our brains adapt according to the use of our technology as part of the ongoing process of evolution. Carr, for example, says:

“When a carpenter picks up a hammer, the hammer becomes, so far as his brain is concerned, part of his hand. When a soldier raises a pair of binoculars to his face, his brain sees through a new set of eyes, adapting instantaneously to a very different field of view… Our brains can imagine the mechanics and the benefits of using a new device before that device even exists… The evolution of our extraordinary mental capacity to blur the boundary between the internal and the external, the body and the instrument, was, says University of Oregon neuroscientist Scott Frey,“no doubt a fundamental step in the development of technology.”… The tight bonds we form with our tools go both ways. Even as our technologies become extensions of ourselves, we become extensions of our technologies.” 

The mental functions that are losing the “survival of the busiest” brain cell battle are those that support calm, linear thought—the ones we use in traversing a lengthy narrative or an involved argument, the ones we draw on when we reflect on our experiences or contemplate an outward or inward phenomenon. The winners are those functions that help us speedily locate, categorize, and assess disparate bits of information in a variety of forms.”…The brain of a person raised in the age of print, a person who learned from books and who read books in time of leisure or study, has a brain that is markedly different from a person who has learned primarily from images or who has watched videos in times of leisure or study… technology changes our biology, reshaping our brains, we become the product of our technologies in some deep and profound ways.” - Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

This isn’t really neuroscience – but the concept of “synchronicity” or “spontaneous order” – which relates to the “hive mind” (see the first post in this series), is pretty interesting.

“Steven Strogatz, an expert in applied mathematics, uses to illustrate his theory of spontaneous order. In spontaneous order, Strogatz explained to an elite audience of entrepreneurs in 2004, live organisms and even inanimate objects fall into sync with one another in ways that seem unnatural and inexplicable… Steven Strogatz summarized his case for the prevalence of synchronicity at every level of nature, with examples from the subatomic to the farthest reaches of the universe. He pointed out more obvious examples like fish that move in schools and birds that travel in flocks. He tied in our human experience, as well. “We [humans] actually take pleasure in synchronicity,” said Strogatz. “We sing together. We dance together.” In fact, while he conceded the law of entropy that proves objects both animate and inanimate typically move toward disorder, he also claimed that the tendency toward the harmonization of objects might be an even more certain reality. “Sync,” Strogatz says, “might be the most pervasive force in nature.” - Jesse Rice, The Church of Facebook

Throw the research that shows our heart beats sync when we sing together into the mix and there’s a pretty interesting picture of what happens when humans gather together with the same mind. Neuroscientists, like media ecologists, will either be positive about these changes seeing them as the next step in our evolution (towards becoming Wolverine), or be against them because they think that process should be ‘natural.’

In biomedicalized societies, the concept of brain plasticity has generated much excitement giving rise to a new style of thought, connected to a booming industry of brain-based self-improvement or “neuroascesis,” particularly since the late 1990s. The idea that the brain has the capacity to modify itself through experience-dependent processes has pushed neuroscience towards a less deterministic and more interactional discourse. Aside from genetic programming, neuroplasticity is after all dependent on environmental inputs, and, as popularized accounts emphasize, the enrichment of a given environment can bring about reorganization and genesis of neurons. In adulthood, plasticity has been celebrated as the means through which recovery can occur after trauma and injury, and the mechanism through which new skills can continue to be learned throughout life. In contrast to the notion of the brain as a fixed organ, which determines certain behaviours or dispositions of a person, the plastic self is alterable, continually evolving and able to steer its own course into an open future by working on its material substrate, the metamorphosing brain. This plastic reason has radically recast visions of the brain giving it a sense of historicity, individuality, and situatedness, and assigning it the ability to respond to psychological experience as well as to generate it. In fact, it has become an ethical imperative to deploy one’s brain in ways that preserve its openness in order to maintain psychological health. In this imperative, adult neuroplasticity articulates with individualizing formations of risk and responsibility. Plasticity in the adult brain is thus seen for the most part as a positive thing—a process that should be harnessed in order to learn, change or recover, and sustained in order to prevent mental illness and the negative effects of ageing… 
“Plasticity in the case of adolescence is often framed differently—certainly in the debate about the effects of digital media. The adolescent brain, programmed to be in a much more pronounced state of synaptic plasticity compared to the adult brain, is rendered vulnerable and risky by virtue of its plasticity… Further, the stakes and consequences of neuroplasticity for adolescents are interpreted differently than for adults, for whom opportunities for neural change entail responsibility and provide hope primarily as individualizing practices. However, while the actual locus of change rests within the brain of the individual adolescent, the risks or consequences of these changes are imagined to occur at a much broader level. The stakes are indeed quite high as changes in individual brains are seen to have the potential to collectively shape the future of society.” Choudhury & McKinney, Digital media, the developing brain and the interpretive plasticity of neuroplasticity 

Because the changes wrought in your brain by these technologies are dependent on you using them actively, rather than passively – you are in control. The changes are what they are – some of them are positive, some are negative, some are only negative if you want to live in the world of yesteryear. I’d say the inability to think reflectively or deeply and the rewiring that turns people into bigger narcissists (which can only be the result of people seeking likes for their selfies) are mostly negative changes. Carr is worried about the effect the emerging shared digital consciousness is having on our brains – which are wired to seek that sort of connection, but maybe not in this way…

There’s another, even deeper reason why our nervous systems are so quick to “merge” with our computers. Evolution has imbued our brains with a powerful social instinct, which, as Jason Mitchell, the head of Harvard’s Social Cognition and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, says, entails “a set of processes for inferring what those around us are thinking and feeling.” Recent neuroimaging studies indicate that three highly active brain regions—one in the prefrontal cortex, one in the parietal cortex, and one at the intersection of the parietal and temporal cortices—are “specifically dedicated to the task of understanding the goings-on of other people’s minds.” While this cybernetic blurring of mind and machine may allow us to carry out certain cognitive tasks far more efficiently, it poses a threat to our integrity as human beings. Even as the larger system into which our minds so readily meld is lending us its powers, it is also imposing on us its limitations - Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

But our brain being wired to be more social, or more connected to others – that’s probably a good thing. There are obvious caveats here based on how much you’re in control of the rewiring – and how much it’s on your terms, not the medium’s – but that’s a media ecology issue, not a neuroscience issue.

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 Face-book, 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

It’s this conversion of our personalities and activities into binary bits and bytes that has Tim Challies worried about the effect of the Digital world.

“Time may well show that one of the digital world’s greatest effects on human beings has been to depersonalize us, to tear away our humanity in favor of 1’s and 0’s—to make us little more than their data. And increasingly we relate to one another as if we are not real people, not people with thoughts and feelings and emotions but people who are barely people at all. We relate to one another as if we are all computers, as if we are merely digital.” - Tim Challies, The Next Story

Once again, forewarned is forearmed. If you know the change is possible you can either prevent it – by avoiding technologies, or steer it, by using them deliberately and as part of a bigger mix of brain stimuli. In the next post we’ll tackle the question of our changing brain theologically.

In the next few days I’ll be unpacking an essay I wrote for my Licensing (you can cheat by reading the whole thing now) – the application of my Masters thesis on communicating as Christians using worldly mediums to social media.

facebook brain

This series could be more generically titled – all social media is messing with your head. Because all communication mediums mess with your head. And by mess with your head, I mean “rewire your brain.” And by rewire your brain – well, I mean that literally.

Have you noticed that you habitually return to certain things – even without thinking? I have. While I was procrastinating during my last little bit of college work I even found myself typing “facebook.com” into my browser, when I was already on Facebook. Then I posted a Facebook status about my mistake.

Do you think slow internet is just about the worst thing in the world? I’d hazard a guess that a significant number of “first world problems” shared online have something to do with phones, internet access, or happenings on social media.

It’s not just Facebook. But whatever your poison – social media is changing the way we live.

The systems are designed to keep you engaged. They are constantly adapting to maximise your eyeball time. Remember Farmville? None of my friends play Farmville anymore. I don’t play Farmville anymore – and yet, I’m still on Facebook just as much.

Mediums carry powerful myths, or are associated with powerful myths. These myths aren’t lies or fiction. In fact the truer they are, the more they resonate with our reality, the more compelling they are. These myths are the big narratives that get us to sign up to new platforms in the first place, the values that systems lock us in to, and celebrate. Facebook is no different. It has myths. It has values. It has a system that is designed to get you to participate, and to keep you coming back.

Facebook’s myths revolve around its “mission to make the world more open and connected, (PDF) because “the internet not only connects us to our friends, families and communities, but it is also the foundation of the global knowledge economy.”

Image Credit: Facebook.com, ‘Is Connectivity a Human Right?’

It is the most powerful teller of its own myth. And as the myth maker, and platform creator, it is in the driving seat. The changes it makes – to its design, or what you see in the news feed – are changes made in line with its values and “myth” – changes designed to keep you engaged for longer, building a more detailed profile, to keep you clicking and interacting – so that companies have more compelling reasons to spend money getting their product in front of consumers.

Facebook changes the way you think.

The more you use it – the more your thinking is shaped by it. It’s scary stuff. Especially because as you use them, and think the way they get you to think, your brain is actually rewiring itself. You are being conformed to the image of its world, participating according to its rules. And when it comes to Facebook – as we’ll see below – the results aren’t pretty.

Interestingly – this sort of conclusion is something of a venn diagram of multiple academic disciplines. Theologians, media theorists (especially media ecologists), and neuroscientists are all on the same page on this one. They all take the same data, and reach the same conclusions, down different roads.

The way we consume and transmit information changes us and our audience, potentially as much as the content we communicate.

In Christian theology – we are warned about worshipping idols (anything other than God) – not only because idols are poor substitutes for the very real God, not only because idols are hollow projections of our broken desires, but because idols work in an insidious way – the consequences of idolatry aren’t pretty. Idols shape those who worship them. We become what we behold. We were made to behold God – to be his image bearers, and once we tried to be “like God,” autonomously – that void became empty, and our hearts lead us where they will.

Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them. – Psalm 115 (about idols)

“The things we create can—and will—try to become idols in our hearts. Though they enable us to survive and thrive in a fallen world, the very aid they provide can deceive us with a false sense of comfort and security, hiding our need for God and his grace.” Tim Challies, The Next Story

What becomes mythic is only one step removed from becoming idolatrous. Tim Challies, The Next Story

Media ecologists are those who study the effects different communication mediums have on the world they operate in, and the people who use the mediums. Social media platforms like Facebook are communication mediums. Communication mediums don’t just carry data – they provide a context for the interpretation of data, and this influences the meaning of the data, and how it is understood. That’s a little technical – but think about it this way – I can tell my wife that I love her. Face to face. With flowers. Or I can post her a message on Facebook with a flower emoticon. The message is the same, the meaning is vastly different – it’s not just about physical presence (though that’s important) – Facebook brings with it a whole heap of assumptions about the value of messages – if I post the message on my wife’s wall, for all to see, that is different to if I send the message to her as a private message. Media ecology goes beyond understanding the impact of mediums on meanings – and looks at the impact of new mediums on the world.

“We shape our tools, thereafter they shape us.” - John Culkin

“Neil Postman, the late cultural critic and media theorist, pointed out that over time certain technologies come to be considered mythic, not in the sense of being fictional or legendary, but in the sense that they seem to have always existed in their current form. They have become part of the natural order of life. They become assumed, and we forget that they have not always been a part of our lives… In fact, mythic technologies seem impossible to change. It seems easier to change ourselves and adapt to the new technology than to change it. Often, we assume that we must or should change to accommodate the new technology… What becomes mythic is only one step removed from becoming idolatrous.” - Tim Challies, The Next Story

There is a growing consensus amongst neuroscientists – people who look at brains for a living – that our brains continue to change as we use them. Like any other muscle. That they are “plastic” – that what we do has the ability to form patterns in our thinking and processing. That we change our heads as we use our heads. That we change our heads as we use technology.

“Neurons that fire together, wire together.” – Daniel Siegel, The Developing Mind

 

We become, neurologically, what we think… But the news is not all good. Although neuroplasticity provides an escape from genetic determinism, a loophole for free thought and free will, it also imposes its own form of determinism on our behavior. As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit. - Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

 

“But scientists are only now beginning to understand a further truth: technology is biological. Our brains actually change in response to new technologies. The brain of a person raised in the age of print, a person who learned from books and who read books in time of leisure or study, has a brain that is markedly different from a person who has learned primarily from images or who has watched videos in times of leisure or study.”

A person who is raised digitally becomes a digital person, with a brain shaped by the computer, the Internet, and the mobile phone. Though this may sound alarming, it seems clear that this is consistent with the way God created us. We are molded and formed into the image of whatever shapes us. - Tim Challies, The Next Story

Several writers have noticed the overlap between media ecology and theology,  the overlap between theology and neuroplasticity, and the overlap between neuroplasticity and media ecology – but there aren’t a whole lot of people out there putting all these insights together. There are a few good books to read at the end of this series. What is relatively clear – if you couple the insights of all of these disciplines – is that social media, as a created “thing” that we use to communicate, with increasing regularity – is messing with our heads.

The head-changing power of Facebook

Research shows that Facebook likes cause your brain to get excited, causing neurons to fire and wire, giving us little chemical rewards and causing addiction. The study scanned people’s brains while they were using Facebook

“We found that we could predict the intensity of people’s Facebook use outside the scanner by looking at their brain’s response to positive social feedback inside the scanner/ Specifically, a region called the nucleus accumbens, which processes rewarding feelings about food, sex, money and social acceptance became more active in response to praise for oneself compared to praise of others. And that activation was associated with more time on the social media site - Time Magazine, This is Your Brain on Facebook

The longer you spend on Facebook – participating in Facebook the way it is set up to reward you, hook you, and keep you coming back, the more Facebook rewires your brain in its image.

It makes you a more self interested person. We don’t need much help being more self interested.

It also makes you more distracted – especially coupled with the ubiquitous access that comes with a smart phone. You can get this fix any minute of the day (or night). It’s like giving a junkie a limitless, effortless, supply of their drug of choice. In their pocket. Always on tap. And the effect is a change in the default functions of your brain.

“Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.” - Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

Carr’s book The Shallows is fascinating. When he talks about “The Net” in the below paragraphs he’s particularly talking about social networks. Social media platforms are designed to be addictive. They are wired not just in a way that reflects the human brain – but to appeal to the human brain – and because of how we use them, they end up changing, and in some cases, replacing, the brain’s functions.

“The Net also provides a high-speed system for delivering responses and rewards—“positive reinforcements,” in psychological terms—which encourage the repetition of both physical and mental actions. When we click a link, we get something new to look at and evaluate. When we Google a keyword, we receive, in the blink of an eye, a list of interesting information to appraise. When we send a text or an instant message or an e-mail, we often get a reply in a matter of seconds or minutes. When we use Facebook, we attract new friends or form closer bonds with old ones. When we send a tweet through Twitter, we gain new followers. When we write a blog post, we get comments from readers or links from other bloggers.

The Net’s interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.

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.

“The Net grants us instant access to a library of information unprecedented in its size and scope, and it makes it easy for us to sort through that library—to find, if not exactly what we were looking for, at least something sufficient for our immediate purposes. What the Net diminishes is Johnson’s primary kind of knowledge: the ability to know, in depth, a subject for ourselves, to construct within our own minds the rich and idiosyncratic set of connections that give rise to a singular intelligence.” Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

Carr’s argument – supported by other neuroscientists (see for example, Choudhury & McKinney, ‘Digital Media, the Developing Brain, and the Interpretive Plasticity of Neuroplasticity’, Transcultural Psychiatry) – is that we are externalising our brain. The internet is becoming part of how we think and store information.

Marshall McLuhan – the father of Media Ecology – believed the end goal of technology was that we would become indistinguishable from the machines we use. That seemed a little crazy at the time. He was writing before the internet – but now not so much. Choudhury and McKinney are excited about that.

The cellphone then is not ‘‘other’’ but exists as an extension of the mind’s capacity to store information or to communicate. Through feedback and feedforward loops that move across the boundaries of brain, body, and world, the distinction of brain and environment is collapsed…

…Taken a step further, the view of the socially extended mind pushes us to consider how the mind is also constituted in and is distributed across social processes and environments, and would thus include institutions, social structures, and discourses. - Choudhury & McKinney

Basically, these guys are saying when your mind is externalised into a social network you really do get a “hive mind” where we function like a swarm of bees (not simply within your own head, or through a sci-fi technological “telepathic noosphere”), but because our thinking is happening in shared spaces, influenced by all the participants in our network.

Carr thinks that’s bad. Others like McLuhan, Choudhury, and McKinney that it’s good, or neutral. But what are Christians to think?

Well. That’s the next post. But what do you think? Can you see how the social networks you participate in – or your smart phone – is changing the way you think?

This is what happens when a bunch of old white guys talk about something they don’t understand.

Media theory.

Well, that, and hip hop.

Every man and his blog has already responded to this video – which has prompted not one, but two apologies from NCFIC – one of which is genuine and gracious, the other is an apology that people were offended at being called cowards. There’s a transcript of the video here.

Most of what needs to be said about how bad this video is has been said.

People like Owen Strachan, Thabiti Anyabwile, Tim Challies, Doug Wilson, Ligon Duncan, Al Mohler, Joe Carter, and Justin Taylor have all chimed and said things I think are important. But what they don’t have…

They don’t have the video from the panel set to a beat. But I do. The beats come from the instrumental tracks on my (Reformed hip-hopping) friend Nat’s new albumSeven Scrolls of Suffering (get it here).

Most things are more persuasive when they take the Hip Hop form of a “spoken word” – so I put a beat behind that video above, and cut it down a bit. Into a video that shows what these guys actually think about hip hop, and another that shows what I think they should have said…

Two things the panel got right

I think it’s fair to say these guys actually do understand Hip Hop – they just don’t like it. What they don’t understand is the intersection between theology and a discipline called “media ecology” – it’s the field of studies developed around the work of Marshall McLuhan, the guy who said “the medium is the message”… This lack of understanding leads them to dismiss Hip Hop. But they get two things right.

1. As Christians – how we say things is important. Medium matters. The Bible uses and describes the use of many communication mediums that support the message. 

2. Mediums are not neutral – mediums influence the message, the recipients, and the messengers. 

The first one shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody, the second one is slightly more controversial and is one of the central tenets of media ecology.

One of Marshall McLuhan’s big insights was that when it comes to communication mediums we become what we behold – he was riffing off the Psalmist who wrote Psalm 115. Particularly when it came to the power of idols – which were first century communication tools.

4 But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
5 They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see.
6 They have ears, but cannot hear,
    noses, but cannot smell.
7 They have hands, but cannot feel,
    feet, but cannot walk,
    nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
8 Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them. 

A guy named John Culkin, one of Marshall McLuhan’s academic disciples said it this way:

“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Think about what happens to the arms of a worker who switches from using a shovel to using a jackhammer.

That’s what happens to us when we communicate using different mediums. The mediums begin to shape us – so, for example, having the Internet in our pockets has probably rewired our brains to make us think differently, speak differently, and it has certainly changed the way we act. It is quite possible that Hip Hop, as a medium (a subset of music), equally has the ability to affect the communicator. But it’s probably not about the combination of beats and rhymes.

What they got wrong

And the guys on the panel are right to point out that when Christians use mediums, we need to “redeem” and “transform” them. One of the panelists, Scott Aniol, has expanded on what he meant here (I disagree with some of his conclusions, especially about whether or not Paul rejected oratory, or subverted it, but most of the working is sound). But they’re wrong to think that happens at the superficial level, by changing or removing a beat – or whatever the panelists think is what needs to happen when we play music or with film.

 

The transforming power of mediums isn’t really at the superficial level.

Mediums transform us because mediums have their own narratives, or value systems, that are used to differentiate them from other mediums, they are part of strong “myths” that create meaning for people.

We don’t “redeem mediums” at the superficial level, we do it by changing the narrative. We do it by not participating in these myths – but subverting them. By replacing them. With our own narrative.

It’s what the writers of the wisdom literature did with wisdom literature – wisdom wasn’t about what man observed as the fundamental ordering of the world, instead it was about the fear of God.

It’s what Paul did with oratory – which was all about the speaker. He made it all about the glory of Jesus instead. Jesus increased, while he decreased.

It’s what Reformed Hip Hop people are doing with Hip Hop. They’re not leaving the tools unchanged – because they are reshaping the narrative that comes with the tools. Every time they talk about why they rap. Every time they rap about Jesus and giving their lives and gifts to him, not about themselves, their winning of life, defined as sex, money, or power.

The medium is the message, the messenger is the medium, the messenger is the message

There are two big problems with the panel’s “media ecology” – one, is they appear to drastically downplay the content of a message, the other is they don’t see the messenger as the medium. Which is profoundly ordinary theology.

In the incarnation, Jesus was both medium and message – the word made flesh. Interestingly – he spoke in the communication mediums of his day – language is a medium. The alphabet is a communication medium – using a written alphabet profoundly transformed the cultures that became literate, and the cultures that didn’t. Jesus spoke the language of his time – using the forms of his time – like pithy wisdom statements, chiasmus, and parables. He lived a life that communicated, both through his actions and his relationships. The messenger is the medium. The medium is the message.

As we carry his message as image bearers we are both medium and messenger – and, in some sense, we’re also the message – as our lives give testimony to who Jesus is. That’s the “medium” at play in the Reformed Hip Hop scene – a bunch of people living as God’s people, as his instruments, in a culture that is full of people living for themselves. Paul calls those who follow Jesus God’s letter, the image of Jesus, and God’s instruments. We are mediums. The messenger is the medium. The medium is the message.

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. – 2 Corinthians 3:2-3

 

18 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.

 

In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special purposes and some for common use. Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work. - 2 Timothy 2:20-21

We overturn the myths that come with the mediums we embrace by replacing them with our own powerful narrative. The narrative of the cross.

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 Cor 4:10-11

To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man. So said WWE icon Rick Flair (who could probably teach a little bit about rhetoric). That’s kind of the logic underpinning Joseph Romm’s Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady GagaRomm runs the website Rhetoric.com and applies his rhetorical skills on the Climate Progress blog.

While Romm doesn’t pay much attention to Cicero, he does offer a guide to eloquence based on looking at some of the most persuasive story tellers from the past and present. He reverse engineers the rules of persuasion from the world’s great orators – Jesus and Shakespeare, with a pretty cutting assessment of the communication techniques of modern politicians, and quite a sympathetic reading of Lady Gaga.

“If the Bible is the word of God, then rhetoric is God’s way of speaking. The Elizabethans certainly viewed rhetoric that way. One best-selling sixteenth-century handbook asserted that rhetoric makes the orator “the emperour of men’s minds & affections, and next to the omnipotent God in the power of persuasion.”

He suggests rhetoric isn’t much more than helping people to speak naturally in a way that understands what makes people tick.

“…from the very beginning, rhetoric teachers aimed to help orators speak more naturally, in a manner that as closely as possible matched the way people actually speak. Here is Aristotle discussing the importance of matching natural speaking: Your language will be appropriate if it expresses emotion and character…. To express emotion, you’ll employ the language of anger in speaking of outrage; the language of disgust and discreet reluctance to utter a word when speaking of impiety or foulness; the language of exultation for a tale of glory…. This aptness of language is one thing that makes people believe in the truth of your story.

Ultimately it’s a book about how to tell a story that persuades – particularly an extended story. And this is where I reckon it’s incredibly powerful for preachers. If you’re not thinking about how your sermons relate to each other, and to your church’s vision, and to the way you do things – and you’re not tying those together with some sort of extended, coherent metaphor or narrative, you’re being less than effective as a persuasive communicator. And that, ultimately, is what we’re on about as Christians.

“Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others.” – 2 Cor 5:11

Romm gives some tips drawn from his pool of experts, summed up in this list:

1. Use short, simple words.

2. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition is the essential element of all persuasion.

3. Master irony and foreshadowing. They are central elements of popular culture, modern politics, and mass media for a reason—they help us make sense of the stories of our lives and other people’s lives.

4. Use metaphors to paint a picture, to connect what your listeners already know to what you want them to know. Metaphors may be the most important figure as well as the most underused and misused.

5. Create an extended metaphor when you have a big task at hand, like framing a picture-perfect speech or launching a major campaign.

6. If you want to avoid being seduced, learn the figures of seduction. If you want to debunk a myth, do not repeat that myth.

I think most preachers have been taught 1 and 2, but it’s 4 and 5 that are key. I’d say you can even get away with not following 1 if your metaphor is powerful enough and infuses everything you say with a bit of life and verve.

Here. So you don’t have to buy the book (you should anyway). Is a bit of an expansion on some of these points.

Repetition and clarity

“Eloquence requires the repetition of words and phrases. Persuasion requires the repetition of slogans, sentences, and ideas.”

For Romm the key to repetition is something like sloganeering. You figure out the simplest and most punchy way to make a point. And you make it. Again. And again. And again. But you’ve got to aim not to bore your audience with the repetition – which means you’ve got to work hard at getting your weight behind the punch. He suggests the noble (and vastly underrated) chiasmus is a nice way to hammer home a blow. I quite like the idea of structuring speeches and sermons as something like a chiasmus.

“Perhaps the most elegant—and certainly one of the most popular—figures of repetition is chiasmus: words repeated in inverse order. Chiasmus is a great source of aphorisms. Mae West famously said, “It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men.” Ray Bradbury advised writers, “You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance. Chiasmus makes for a memorable tweet, since it is pithy and profound.”

Clarity isn’t just about short words. It’s about removing impediments to your message. It’s ground clearing so that your storytelling can stand out – so that your metaphor is given the context it needs in order to shine. But it isn’t even just about vocab. It’s about clarity of emotion and tone as well. Making sure the mood and thus, in a speech, the medium, is apt to the message.

“Clarity is rightly seen as one of the most important virtues of a speech. If our goal is to persuade people honestly, then we should be as clear as possible about what we are trying to say. Clarity is most important when we are trying to convince people with the facts, with logic. As we’ve seen, however, truly persuasive speech requires a simultaneous appeal to mind and heart, logic and emotion, especially if you are trying to penetrate and change someone’s worldview.”

Stories as metaphors

“Memorable storytelling, whether in life or politics, is built around the same figures of speech used by the master storytellers, the ancient bards—metaphor, foreshadowing, irony, and especially extended metaphor, which is what some, like the linguist George Lakoff, call a frame.”

Romm argues that metaphors speak to us because they speak to our brains. They give us something that appeals to how we’re wired – words that evoke pictures. Speeches that are just words might fire up one part of the brain, but when you get people to visualise something, and give them a memory hook – it’s like injecting steroids into their head. Strengthening your message.

“Metaphors are not just a pleasing figure of speech we use by chance. They reflect the very structure of our thinking and of our brain itself. Edward O. Wilson argued in his book Biophilia, “The brain depends upon elegance to compensate for its own small size and short lifetime.” As we evolved, the brain “was forced to rely on tricks to enlarge memory and speed computation.” Hence, the human mind “specializes on analogy and metaphor, on a sweeping together of chaotic sensory experience into workable categories labeled by words and stacked into hierarchies for quick recovery. Metaphors enhance our memories in at least two ways. First, they create another place in the brain for a word or phrase to reside. People remember words better when they have multiple ways to remember them, such as combining repetition and a rhyme (“Double your pleasure, double your fun with Doublemint Doublemint Doublemint gum!”). In particular, metaphors create a visual aid to memory. Metaphor is “used for the sake of creating a vivid mental picture,” wrote the author of one of the rhetoric textbooks used to teach Elizabethan children.”

“Metaphors aid in memory a second way: They require the hearer or reader to think more, to light up more brain circuits, to figure out the connections and what they mean. As one study of “Figures of Rhetoric in Advertising Language” put it (in muddy jargon that no ad writer would use), “Effortfully processed information is more readily retrieved from memory than less effortfully processed information.”

It’s not just that metaphors are more memorable. Metaphors are also more compelling. Especially if they work at the level of providing a framework for people to think. Extended metaphors shape worldviews. They let us carry our stories across time and space. They help us link our stories together (a bit like Coca Cola’s “Liquid and Linked” approach to telling stories on social media)

“Extended metaphor is, for me, the most important rhetorical device. This figure is at the heart of some of Lincoln’s greatest speeches. It pumps the life blood into Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Political candidates with a strong extended metaphor have a long political life while those without one don’t have much of a pulse. Like the best figures, extended metaphors make ideas and phrases more memorable, expanding the vivid visual imagery painted by a single metaphor to create an entire mental mural for the audience. And like the best tropes, which “turn” the meaning of words, extended metaphors force you to think—and in a deeper way than most figures.”

This again, works because we think not just in metaphors, but in extended metaphors. Here’s how it works in politics. There’s not a huge jump to figuring out how we can make this work in preaching.

“Extended metaphors are essential to politics for several reasons. First, as we’ve seen, they are a key to great speechmaking. Second, we humans think with extended metaphors. So the best politicians naturally present themselves to fit our metaphors, linking those metaphors to their personal story, feeding the modern media’s growing interest in personalities and dramatic stories. Third, the best way to attack your opponent’s positive extended metaphor is to hit back with a negative extended metaphor. Put another way, rhetoric is the art of creating a persuasive story, the art of making—and unmaking—an emotional connection with voters.”

For preaching the issue isn’t so much conforming to the audience’s metaphor – it’s conforming the audience to a new worldview by the Gospel. Which comes packed with its own metaphors. So, for example, at Creek Road we link the Gospel, with our vision, with the way we do things using the metaphor of heart transformation. Being able to alter worldviews is vital for preaching – it’s a vital work of the Holy Spirit, who works through our preaching. But it’s an incredible challenge for us now – because we are both bombarded by tens of thousands of competing metaphors and advertising images every day (well, on the days you walk the aisles of a supermarket), and we are getting better and better at filtering out messages that we aren’t interested in.

“If you cannot change the public’s worldview, microcosm, paradigm, extended metaphor, or frame, then you cannot change how they perceive the facts. This is especially problematic in our time, a time when people can easily choose to watch only those media outlets that share their political views and thus pre-filter facts for them.”

One of the really nice things about Romm’s book, and one of the reasons it’s so readily applicable in a Christian context is that he values, rather than dismissing, the Christian tradition and its contribution to rhetoric. This isn’t a Christian book, but Romm uses Jesus as an example to back up many of these points, and acknowledges that Christianity brings its own inherent extended metaphor in the pages of Scripture.

“The systematic application of rhetoric is one of the few ways to create a worldview—what more profound paradigm is there in America than the Judeo-Christian ethic as created and sustained in the supreme rhetoric text, the Bible? In the beginning was the Word.”

 

The power of stories

This should have a profound impact on how we share Jesus with people. Less propositions. More stories.

I’m aware of the irony in that sentence. It would have a profound impact on how I blogged if I was able to figure out how to tell a story about telling stories – and just how powerful they are.

 

Have you seen Russell Brand articulate what his socialist egalitarian revolution will not be like?

It’s compelling and uncomfortable television. Brand is a smart guy. Interviewing him would terrify me. He has form in this area. Making interviewers uncomfortable is part of his schtick.

This video is spreading like wildfire – because he’s captured the essence of a particular zeitgeist, and articulated an ideal, without getting bogged down by details.

Imagine if he spelled out, moment by moment, detail by detail, how this revolution was going to happen. It’d kill the communication moment. It would kill the story. It would stop this viral video in its tracks.

Idealism gets bogged down in details. But there’s still a place for idealism – without it, the status quo – unhelpful or otherwise – will simply be maintained.

And there’s something in that. Brand is a storyteller. A humourist. A satirist. A raconteur. A provocateur. A preacher. It isn’t his job to work out the details simply because he’s identified a problem. That would be ridiculous. As smart and articulate as he is – he’d be a horrible dictator.

I’m not signing up to Brand’s revolution – though it is potentially more palatable to me than the status quo where our politicians are selected for us by special interests and party machines that churn out apparatchiks with sausage like regularity, in a process you don’t really want to see. Replacing matter with anti-matter isn’t particularly compelling to me.

But.

There’s something to his method that is worth learning from – as Christians.

Because as Christians – unless you’re committed to installing Christian governments in the here and now – our job in the political process is to speak as idealists.

Idealists who care for the weak and the vulnerable.

Idealists who want to see change made to protect the voiceless and the marginalised.

But ultimately idealists who are hanging out for something better.

Our citizenship in the new creation – with our creator – where king Jesus reigns with his father. King Jesus who started his reign – who was enthroned – on a cross. A cross where he gave up his life in an act of sacrificial love. We live in the world of the cross – while we wait for this future.

We’re storytellers too. We’re telling a story of self-denial. We’re talking about a revolution. We’re sharing a message that is foolish and unpalatable to the political mainstream. And it’s the nature of this foolishness – the counter cultural nature of our message that shapes our approach, and our expectation in this sphere.

People speaking as Christians, as participants in God’s people, the church, aren’t legislators (unless you’ve been elected as a legislator, in which case you probably should think about legislation and practical stuff).

It’s not our job to make things work. To turn the cogs of government.

It’s our job to influence the thinking of the people who are governed so that the government they elect makes things work for people. It’s our job to get people thinking about virtues, about values – and our virtues and values are shaped by Jesus, and found in the person and life of Jesus.

This means that for Christians our job isn’t to address nut and bolt concerns when it comes to implementing the stuff we’re calling for. That would make the politicians’ job easier, and there’s some merit in that if we want a box ticked here and now.

We do need to be prepared to equip people who are living as followers of Jesus to live the life we’re calling others to live – but that’s different. The Occupy Movement that Brand cites in the video had to work out some house rules so that they could all live together in various public spaces. But when it comes to us doing our job as ambassadors for Jesus in spheres – the areas that in the past were called the estates of the realm – it’s not our job to offer hard and fast solutions beyond Jesus. When it comes to being story tellers – being people who are trying to shape values – being people who are calling for a revolution – it’s not our job to sweat the details. They’ll be sorted out when there’s a will for the changes.

Here’s a concrete example. I’ve written a fair bit here, and on Facebook, about Australia’s refugee situation. More people are trying to get here than we are currently prepared to handle. Some people are trying to get here via a dangerous, non-authorised, boat journey. Our government has shut the door in their faces, and insists on dehumanising these folk by calling them “Illegal maritime arrivals” – turning the victims into criminals (victims of both whatever forced these people out of their home countries, and of people smugglers who charge them too much for a dangerous journey). In my writings on these matters I have toyed with offering better solutions. But these solutions are inadequate. I am not a policy maker. It would be silly for me to continue pretending that I am. I can, however, call people to remember the human faces behind this tragedy – the tragedy that so many people need to seek asylum. The tragedy that we are unprepared, as a nation, to open our doors and welcome as many people as possible – occasionally for explicitly selfish reasons, sometimes simply because we haven’t thought through our selfishness. I can tell this story, over and over again, using whatever means possible – in the hope that pressure will mount on policy makers.

But this isn’t my story. How we treat those seeking asylum – the weak and vulnerable – isn’t my story. It is only part of my story. That it is part of my story means that it isn’t opportunistic or manipulative to use asylum seekers to tell a bigger story. And this should function as something like an editorial policy for Christians engaging in politics – if the issue doesn’t relate to the Gospel story, then it’s an issue for someone else. It’s possibly also a way to figure out what issues are our priorities.

Asylum seekers are not my story. They are part of it. As I am a character in God’s story, my story is about the value these people have to God. We can see they have value to God because they bear his image – distorted as it is, by sin and death – and we can see the value he places on them because we see he would send his son into the world to live their stories, to potentially change the end of their stories. God writes himself into their story. He sent Jesus as a vulnerable person, who became stateless and statusless before a powerful empire (first rejected by his own people), to die. For them. For us. So that when we seek asylum with God there is a home for us. The story of asylum seekers is part of the story of humanity – and speaking into this story, idealistically, is part of speaking of the idealistic story. The greatest story. My story. God’s story.

Brand is on to something. If we want to achieve politically driven change in a broken system, if we’ve seen a problem that we can’t figure out how to fix, it isn’t our job to provide all the solutions. It is our job to point out the brokenness. To tell the story. There is a place for idealism. Idealism is a necessary point on the road towards change.

When it comes to issues like refugees – I think there’s a place for us, as Christians, to participate in political discussions as idealists. Agitating for change, articulating different priorities and concerns, without solutions. Both because the change we advocate is loving – and because it provides an opportunity for us to communicate about a greater ideal. A greater story. A greater problem.

If we want to achieve spiritually driven change in a broken world we’ve first got to help others see the problem. But we’re not the solution to the problem. God is. It’s never our job to solve the problem. It’s God’s. Our job, as it always is, is to be agitators. Story tellers. Provocateurs. Preachers.

Sometimes pragmatism is held up as the desirable alternative to idealism. As though they’re in binary opposition. But here’s the thing – when it comes to imitating Jesus, pragmatism and idealism get mixed up in the crucible of the cross. The cross makes the impractical practical. Imitating Jesus makes the idealistic the pragmatic. This is also where we differ from Brand – because, in a sense the mode of our storytelling, and the content of our story, is so compelling that it becomes part of the solution.

We’re called to imitate Jesus. Jesus, who renounced status and made himself nothing… Jesus, who proclaimed a better kingdom, Jesus, who was humiliated and crucified and humiliated some more by the ruling authorities. Cross shaped idealism from people whose hearts and minds are captivated and transformed by Jesus and the priorities of the gospel that points people to Jesus is the best form of pragmatism. It’s the only thing that’s going to achieve eternal results. It’s the only thing that really works. It’s the only thing that really changes anything.

That’s revolutionary. A world full of people renouncing their own status and wealth, taking up their crosses and following Jesus is how to achieve real revolution. It’s also how to achieve the kind of revolution Brand gets so passionate about in the video.

I started reading this book last night. Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense

I’m only two chapters in – but one of those chapters is just about the best chapter on the human condition I’ve ever read.

It is sensational. It’s brash. It’s frenetic. It’s honest. It’s compelling.

The writing moves like a bullet train, but hits like a freight train. It’s a dizzying stream of consciousness treatment of what it means to be human.

Here’s a little video Francis Spufford put together about why he wrote the book.

Atheist mega-brain Alain De Botton called it his book of 2012

“As a non-Christian, indeed a committed atheist, I was worried about how I’d feel about this book but it pulled off a rare feat: making Christianity seem appealing to those who have no interest in ever being Christians. A number of Christian writers have over the past decade tried to write books defending their faith against the onslaughts of the new atheists – but they’ve generally failed. Spufford understands that the trick isn’t to try to convince the reader that Christianity is true but rather to show why it’s interesting, wise and sometimes consoling.”

Here’s a couple of quotes – they’re potentially offensive – which sin should be.

“If I say the word ‘sin’ to you, I’m basically buggered (as we like to say in the Church of England). It’s going to sound as if I’m bizarrely opposed to pleasure, and because of the continuing link between ‘sin’ and sex, it will seem likely that at the root of my problem with pleasure is a problem with sex. For us, it refers to something much more like the human tendency, the human propensity, to f*** up. Or let’s add one more word: the human propensity to f*** things up, because what we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch.”

 

The HPtFtU is bad news, and like all bad news is not very welcome, especially if you let yourself take seriously the implication that we actually want the destructive things we do, that they are not just an accident that keeps happening to poor little us, but part of our nature; that we are truly cruel as well as truly tender, truly loving and at the same time truly likely to take a quick nasty little pleasure in wasting or breaking love, scorching it knowingly up as the fuel for some hotter or more exciting feeling.

 

But HPtFtU is in here, not out there. The bad news is bad news about us, not just about other people. And when the conviction of it settles in, when we reach one of those stages of our lives where the sorrow of our failure hangs in our chests like a weight, and waking up in the morning is painful because every time the memory of what’s wrong has to ooze back over the lovely blankness of the night – you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever been there – then, the idea that it would help to cling to a cosy sense of victimhood seems as silly as it would be to try and fight off the flu by waving a toy lightsaber. I’ve found that admitting there’s some black in the colour-chart of my psyche doesn’t invite the blot of dark to swell, or give a partial truth more gloomy power over me than it should have, but the opposite. Admitting there’s some black in the mixture makes it matter less. It makes it easier to pay attention to the mixedness of the rest. It helps you stop wasting your time on denial, and therefore helps you stop ricocheting between unrealistic self-praise and unrealistic self-blame. It helps you be kind to yourself.

 

First you have to go through; and while you do, while you’re struggling with the first raw realisation of the degree to which you’ve f***ed (things) up, in one of the louder or quieter crises of adult life, there is no resolution to be had, no comfy scheme of order to hold on to. The essence of the experience I’m trying to talk about in this chapter is that it’s chaotic. You stop making sense to yourself. You find that you aren’t what you thought you were, but something much more multiple and mysterious and self-subverting, and this discovery doesn’t propel you to a new understanding of things, it propels you into a state where you don’t understand anything at all. Unable to believe the comfortable things you used to believe about yourself, you entertain a sequence of changing caricatures as your self-image. By turns your reflection in the mirror of your imagination nonsensically grins, scowls, howls, yawns, gazes back inert as a lump of putty: decomposes into pixels that have forgotten the reason for their mutual attachment. Here is a description of the state from a Hebrew poem 2,600 years old: ‘I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.’

 

For what do we do with the knowledge that we’ve f***ed up, that we no longer make sense to ourselves? Turn to face each other, for a start. A community of acknowledged f***-ups ought at least in theory to be kinder to one another. And there are things we can use our imperfection for, once we admit it: structures that can be built from unreliable parts and yet be reliable themselves, like the constitutional order of the American republic, or the scientific method, or the internet. But there’s a limit to what we can do for each other, a limit to how much of each other’s HPtFtU we can ever manage to bear – even just to bear to hear about – while it often feels as if there’s no limit to how far or how long the ripples of our multitudinous f***-ups can keep travelling, or how intricately they can go on colliding and encroaching and causing collateral damage in other lives. Think of the consequences of John Newton’s HPtFtU, still fresh and vigorous after two hundred years. In this case, and in plenty of others where the harm is ongoing, it wouldn’t even be right to ask for help with the aftermath of doing the harm. Should John Newton’s victims have been asked to make him feel better about what he’d done to them? I think not. We have to attend to justice as well as mercy, and we’re finite creatures, with limited powers to make good what’s been broken. With the best will in the world, we can’t always take the weight of other people’s bad stuff, we can’t often lean in and lift it off them. The crack in everything is here to stay. So one thing we do instead, when we’ve f***ed up, when we no longer make sense to ourselves, is to turn towards the space where the possibility exists that there might be someone to hear us who is not one of the parties to our endless, million-sided, multigenerational suit against each other. To turn towards a space in which there is quite possibly no one – in which, we think as we find ourselves doing it, that there probably is no one. And we say: Hello? Hello? I don’t think I can stand this any more. I don’t think I can bear it. Not another night like last night. Not another morning like this morning. Hello? A little help in here, please?

This sort of anthropology – this understanding of the human condition – this experience – is not uncommon, nor is it beyond the reach of the modern atheist – this reminded me of a David Foster Wallace essay on movie director David Lynch, David Lynch Keeps His Head, which is one of the essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments.

“I’m going to claim that evil is what David Lynch’s movies are essentially about, and that Lynch’s explorations of human beings’ various relationships to evil are, if idiosyncratic and Expressionistic, nevertheless sensitive and insightful and true. I’m going to submit that the real “moral problem” a lot of us cinéastes have with Lynch is that we find his truths morally uncomfortable, and that we do not like, when watching movies, to be made uncomfortable.

The fact is that David Lynch treats the subject of evil better than just about anybody else making movies today—better and also differently. His movies aren’t anti-moral, but they are definitely anti-formulaic. Evil-ridden though his filmic world is, please notice that responsibility for evil never in his films devolves easily onto greedy corporations or corrupt politicians or faceless serial kooks. Lynch is not interested in the devolution of responsibility, and he’s not interested in moral judgments of characters. Rather, he’s interested in the psychic spaces in which people are capable of evil. He is interested in Darkness. And Darkness, in David Lynch’s movies, always wears more than one face. Darkness is in everything, all the time—not “lurking below” or “lying in wait” or “hovering on the horizon”: evil is here, right now. And so are Light, love, redemption (since these phenomena are also, in Lynch’s work, forces and spirits), etc. In fact, in a Lynchian moral scheme it doesn’t make much sense to talk about either Darkness or about Light in isolation from its opposite. It’s not just that evil is “implied by” good or Darkness by Light or whatever, but that the evil stuff is contained within the good stuff, encoded in it.

DFW says Lynch movies work to make the viewer uncomfortable because they force the viewer to identify with people who turn out to be a mixture of light and dark. But they’re very dark. Which reveals something about us – something like the realisation Francis Spufford describes above.

“And I emphatically do not like to be made uncomfortable when I go to see a movie. I like my heroes virtuous and my victims pathetic and my villains’ villainy clearly established and primly disapproved by both plot and camera. When I go to movies that have various kinds of hideousness in them, I like to have my own fundamental difference from sadists and fascists and voyeurs and psychos and Bad People unambiguously confirmed and assured by those movies. I like to judge. I like to be allowed to root for Justice To Be Done without the slight squirmy suspicion (so prevalent and depressing in real moral life) that Justice probably wouldn’t be all that keen on certain parts of my character, either.”

I submit that we also, as an audience, really like the idea of secret and scandalous immoralities unearthed and dragged into the light and exposed. We like this stuff because secrets’ exposure in a movie creates in us impressions of epistemological privilege of “penetrating the civilised surface of everyday life to discover the strange, perverse passions beneath.” This isn’t surprising: knowledge is power, and we (I, anyway) like to feel powerful. But we also like the idea of “secrets,” “of malevolent forces at work beneath…” so much because we like to see confirmed our fervent hope that most bad and seamy stuff really is secret, “locked away” or “under the surface.” We hope fervently that this is so because we need to be able to believe that our own hideousnesses and Darknesses are secret. Otherwise we get uncomfortable. And, as part of an audience, if a movie is structured in such a way that the distinction between surface/Light/good and secret/Dark/evil is messed with—in other words, not a structure whereby Dark Secrets are winched ex machina up to the Lit Surface to be purified by my judgment, but rather a structure in which Respectable Surfaces and Seamy Undersides are mingled, integrated, literally mixed up—I am going to be made acutely uncomfortable. And in response to my discomfort I’m going to do one of two things: I’m either going to find some way to punish the movie for making me uncomfortable, or I’m going to find a way to interpret the movie that eliminates as much of the discomfort as possible.”

Or, Spufford might offer a third way – one might confront that darkness head on. Which is why that chapter is one of the most compelling things I’ve read on the human condition.

 

Bad arguments. Illustrated.

This is a handy resource for the visual types. An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments. Available in its entirety in an online format – but hopefully coming soon to print. Because bad arguments are bad.

It contains illustrations like the “No True Scotsman” fallacy…

And the Slippery Slope.