14 (not easy) ‘new years resolutions’ for Christians who want to live more radically in 2017

I’ve been reading lots about how our habits are a sort of liturgy (repetitive practice/ritual) that shapes us as people as they shape what we desire. I’m terrible at habits but the times ‘habit starting’ has worked for me have involved ‘new financial year resolutions’ like giving up soft drink for a year and diets like the Michelle Bridges 12 Week Body Transformation and more recently the Commando’s equivalent. Changing at the level of the ‘habitual’ is important for any ‘big’ change in who you are or how you live; and while we’re inclined to think we ‘educate’ ourselves towards change starting with the head; it’s quite possible that we actually ‘worship’ our way to change; and that this involves our desires, our imaginations, and the sort of ‘ritual’ or habitual actions we adopt as we pursue the desired and imagined image of the ideal us. As Christians our starting point should be the image of us that God desires; and for many of us that ‘image’ might feel ‘radically’ different to the images of the ‘good life’ we see in advertising, ‘fitness program’ material, and on the screens of our TVs and phones.

We have this particular sort of ‘image’ our worship shapes us into…

Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. — Colossians 3:9-10

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 3:18

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

Getting there, making the shift from old creation to new; taking off vice and putting on virtue, is fundamentally a work of God recreating us; but inasmuch as we’re involved it’s a process that might start small, at the level of new habits kicking in so that we’re taking part in our new story, rather than being a thing where we flick a switch having learned some new idea and have that change overnight.

Habits matter. It’s a good thing to make resolutions to change small things.

Because change starts with the relationship between our desires and our actions (and in our ‘sacrifice’ of our selves as an act of ‘worship’ where we bear the image of the object of those desires) each and every unit of time we divvy up; whether its the ‘year’, the month, the week, the day, the hour, the minute, or the second, is an opportunity to worship, and thus to be transformed. Whether we’re being formed, or malformed; transformed or conformed…

Radical revolutions can start small if they’re applied for a lifetime — it can be a bit like a pilot at the start of a long haul flight, where one degree of difference in the direction you fly in makes a huge amount of difference on where you end up… but changing your habits can also involve big structural change; so here are some resolutions I’d love to see more Christians taking up (that I’d like to take up for myself too). A radical revolution might involve small changes, but it might also have a very different end point that you’re shooting for, and I fear some of our resolve, as Christians, as expressed in our resolutions and the ‘steps’ we’re prepared to take, is too small.

These are the things I’m aiming to do in 2017.  Some of these suggestions are ‘small’ habits; some are abstract; some are ‘measurable and concrete’; but they’re all attempts to think about what ‘offering your bodies as a living sacrifice’ might look like in the year 2017, and it’s worth noting that the ‘your’ in Romans 12:1 is plural; this worshipping is something we’re called to do together. Some of them are drawing together stuff I’ve been pondering, preaching, or writing about in 2016. Some of them are ‘heady’; like ‘read’, some are aimed at shaping the way we love, and some are more concrete ‘repeated actions’… but these are my ‘resolutions’; coupled with some that you might do to join me in this ‘worship’…

Work at seeing the world differently through ‘media’, especially stories, and find ways to discuss what you’re reading and watching with others

Real virtue starts with seeing the world as it really is, and people as they really are; which requires getting out of the confines of your own head and its imaginings and desires, and our tendency to see other people as objects for us to do things to, or with, rather than subjects. For the Christian, real virtue comes from seeing the world the way God sees it.

1. Find ways for the Bible’s story, centred on Jesus, to ‘seep into your bones,not just be a technical book of rules and propositions about God you break into arbitrary chunks. I’ve found that I read the Bible lots for work, and for writing stuff, and that this dampens my enthusiasm for the ‘story’ the Bible tells. I’ve found reading the kids their Jesus Storybook Bible is helpful, but this year I’m planning to try something a bit different. We’re actually doing this in our first series at church this year. I’m going to get a good audio Bible and practice listening to God’s word as a ‘story’ rather than trying to pull it apart via a chapter and verse approach, or doing word studies and stuff.

2. Read good Christian books; including one that is more than 200 years old for every two or three modern ones. You can find some ideas for new stuff to read here. I’ve flogged the ‘read old books’ from C.S Lewis’ intro to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation.

3. Read a book (or essays, or subscribe to some podcasts) from outside your tradition (even non-Christian ones) that’ll challenge you, maybe as often as you read an old Christian book; this will  also help you to understand, be sympathetic to, and challenge the ‘worship’ of those around you). Read some old ones of these too so you know where good and bad ideas come from… This is how we start being dangerous to the world, rather than having the world be dangerous to us. I gave a talk along these lines to a bunch of first year uni students at the University of Queensland this year.

4. Read, watch, or play some fiction that will help you understand other people more empathetically and to pay attention to why people live the way they do; but that might also help you understand the formative power of story (as you experience it). I was struck this year by how powerful video games can be for cultivating empathy; as I played games as varied as Fallout 4 and That Dragon, Cancer, The Last Of Us, and more recently a game called This War Of Mine; but novels will do this for you, so will TV shows, any good ‘story’ really…

5. Because people are ‘image bearers’ of whatever they worship; people are media, find some ways to hear the stories of people in your life; in your workplace, in your street, in your family… especially people who are different to you. I’m aiming to spend more time hearing the stories of the asylum seekers in our church community (stories like my friend Masoud’s), the stories of people I connect with through volunteering with the Micah Project, and hopefully the story of more indigenous Australians through hanging out with a local indigenous missionary. I’ve spent time doing all sorts of things with these groups already, I just haven’t been great at having my perspective pushed beyond my own reasons for wanting to love and help these local communities.

6. I also want to make good stories for my kids. While I’ve been thinking about how powerful stories are for cultivating virtue by helping us see the world, I’ve been thinking about how terrible Christian kids books are. Whether they’re little character studies of Old Testament characters, or just moral fables, they are bad; until you hit Narnia age. I love reading to my kids because it’s an important way to be present for them, but also to shape their imaginations, and I’m quite happy to read them great stories that aren’t ‘Christian’… but it’d be nice if there were more good stories out there that helped us shape our kids, stories that ‘catechise’. I’ve been thinking about what it would look like to write good stories that teach some of the concepts at the heart of the old catechisms to go alongside our Bible stories that teach Biblical Theology (I’ve enjoyed Kevin DeYoung’s The Biggest Story: How The Snake Crusher Brings Us Back To The Garden). So one of my resolutions is to try to make and tell good stories for my kiddoes, that may or may not be beneficial to other people’s kiddoes. I turned the photos from a recent holiday to Rainbow Beach into a picture book for my kids that aimed to show how rest, fun, ‘holy days’ and the beauty of God’s world tell us something about God, it’s not well written, but it is on high rotation, so I aim to do a couple more of these this year. If you’re the creative type maybe you could find ways to solve the problem of the world’s lack of good stories being told that shape our desires and imaginations in good ways (there could always be more of these), whether it’s for kids or adults.

Be mindful that your media practices (including the tools and platforms you use) are shaping you, whether you know it or not; so take control.

There’s a video that has gone viral this week featuring technologist Simon Sinek explaining why it’s not the fault of the poor ‘millenial’ that we’re so entitled and relationally bereft; it’s parenting and social media that are to blame. It’s an annoying video, but that doesn’t mean what he says isn’t true or worth heeding; there are three disciplines a sort of theology of worship/idolatry/who we are as people from Christian thinking, neuroplasticity, and a thing called ‘media ecology’ that all operate on the premise that you ‘become what you behold’… it’s true. And it’s not just the stories that shape us; Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message’; which is actually the theory that our tools and platforms are just as likely to form us as the information they relay; only we’re less likely to notice. This means I’m re-thinking some of my ‘media practices’.

One of McLuhan’s major things is that our tools aren’t neutral; they’re forming us; but this doesn’t mean we should not use them, simply that we should be aware of this power and try to make sure we’re being transformed for good, not deformed. You can read plenty of stuff I’ve written on this stuff in the past, including a long series on how Facebook messes with your brain, but also some stuff on how we might harness this truth for good, including how to think about social media as Christians drawing on the insights of theology, neuroscience, and media ecology, some practical tips that apply this ‘approach’, and if you’re super keen you can check out the slides from a couple of talks I’ve given on this stuff (that mostly have good quotes from books and research).

7. Make space for silence. I was challenged by a New York Mag article ‘Technology Almost Killed Me‘ by Andrew Sullivan, one of the world’s biggest and most famous bloggers, who in many ways sounds a bit like me; his piece is worth reading, it has me convinced that silence and non-stimulation needs to be part of my regular rhythms. I like to convince myself that I wouldn’t go crazy if I was left in a room by myself with no wifi and no phone for two hours (I’d probably just fall asleep); but I’m not so sure, though I’d like to find out, so I’m aiming to not use my phone to pass time.

To ‘kickstart’ my new approach to my phone, I’ve deleted most of the apps that aren’t useful for particular tasks, or things I use for my job (so Facebook made the cut). My phone is for communication (including social media), for creativity (photos and making things like the picture book I made for my kids, and documenting events like Christmas carols and chicken wing cook offs), and for ‘utility’ stuff like managing my finances (and automating my house just a little bit). It’s not for gaming, for reading, or for killing time. I am one of those cliched types who look at my phone just before I go to sleep, and first thing in the morning… I’d like to change that, and part of what I’m resolving to do here is to start charging my phone outside our bedroom, and to not check it until I’ve ticked off a few important ‘to do’ items in the morning.

8. Make space for presence. This is a second ‘phone’ related resolution; and again, it’s pretty cliched. One of the things I did like about the Sinek video was what he said about phone use in meetings, at the table, and just generally when there’s another person in front of you. I find parenting quite difficult, but a lot of the time that’s because my kids are distracting me from my ‘distractions’… If you see me pull out my phone when I’m around you (unless it’s to find something online specifically related to improving the experience for both of us), call me out on it (don’t call me on it).

9. Move from ‘black glass’ to tactile ‘old media’ (or technology that has the ‘feel’ of old media) where that’s feasible. I was pretty convinced by Enchanted Objects, a book where the writer, David Rose, makes the case that our technology promises to do something about our lack of enchantment, but argues that glass screens are terrible substitutes for other types of ‘magic’… I think real re-enchantment lies elsewhere (and that technology over promises) but his critique of screens is powerful. I also want my kids to love books and reading; not being screen dependent, so I want them to see daddy reading books, not daddy staring at the iPad. I think this means I’m going to buy a kindle with e-ink, and use paper books as much as I can.

10. Use technology more intentionally to ‘offer myself as a living sacrifice’ — not some curated more appealing version of me, but perhaps the version of me that is inclined to love others not just serve myself. Technology can be harmful. Porn drives innovation in the tech space, and is also incredibly destructive, perhaps your resolution could be tackling that habit (which is a defective and damaging form of false worship). Social media does do odd stuff to our brains that leaves people more anxious and less deeply connected than previous generations. But technology isn’t all bad; making it, innovating, and creating with it is part of us fulfilling God’s design for us; where we are ‘creators’ who spread order throughout the world using the stuff he put in it. I love what technology can do for us; I’ve been blogging for more than 10 years, and that’s an integral part of how I process my thinking (and it turns out it has been good for other people too, or so they say). I love that I can skype my missionary friends in Tanzania, and we can keep tabs with our missionary family in Asia (though I’m slack at both of these). I love that my phone can be an asset for forming habits — via reminders (so long as I don’t just ignore them). I love that social media confronts me with the faces and stories of my friends and acquaintances from around the globe (and connects me with more people) and that this provides opportunities for me to communicate with more people, and to share in their stories, and to pray for and encourage others. For most of this year I’ve had a reminder in my phone to pray for and text encouragement to my Growth Group. Every day. At 7:30am. I’ve dropped the ball a bit on that, but need to pick it up, and perhaps cast it wider.

Technology isn’t neutral; but that doesn’t mean it can’t be good. It is powerful. In my series on the impact of social media on the brain my conclusion was that an ‘incarnate’ model of mission involves deliberate change, cost, and sacrifice in order to be with other people, suggesting this also works virtually. I still think this is true. So I’m resolving to pray more for things I read on social media, to be more deliberately encouraging (and to build that into how I spend my time online), to continue being #thankful and sharing stories via Instagram, and to move thankfulness beyond just what is going on in my life to celebrating what is going on in the life of others. There’s also tools I’m hoping to use to ‘give’ more effectively; I’m going to more deliberately track my spending using this app called PocketBook, and this one called Tithe.ly to track my giving to church, and give small amounts as I make small sacrifices (like not getting a second coffee at a cafe). I’m hoping this makes giving (and saying no) a habit.

Pick some sort of change you’d like to see in the world and work towards it (with small or big steps).

Sometimes we’re pretty small when it comes to our sense of what can be achieved through making these seemingly small habitual changes. Sometimes our focus is just on what we can change about ourselves. And that’s boring and inward looking; and perhaps it’s also ineffective if, perhaps, the best way to change ourselves is actually to look outwards and ‘offer ourselves as a living sacrifice’… What was on your list? Eating healthy (yeah, that’s on mine too). Exercising more. Sleeping more. Doing bits and pieces from the lists above when it comes to how you fill your head… that’s all good stuff. But it’s a bit lame, and probably much the same as everyone else. What should our list look like if we’re becoming a ‘new self’? What does it look like not to focus on ‘self-improvement’ but ‘self sacrifice’ that’s both ‘in view of God’s mercy’ and in some sense a ‘view of God’s mercy’; a demonstration of what it looks like to be transformed into the image of Christ. The new you, as a Christian, is a pretty big deal…  but it’s not a thing you build by yourself, it’s an act of God that happens in us as our ‘worship’ changes. The way we see and live in the world changes…

 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

What would it look like for us to take these words from Paul, and these ones from C.S Lewis in ‘The Weight of Glory‘, and apply them to our resolutions.

“…If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

In this most excellent sermon, Lewis wanted us to wrap our heads around who we are, and where we’re going, and to have that shape the way we live here and now. Where better to have that shaping take place than in our resolutions. Maybe read it before coming up with your ‘ambitions’ for the year. It’s bracing.

“A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. The following Him is, of course, the essential point. That being so, it may be asked what practical use there is in the speculations which I have been indulging. I can think of at least one such use. It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.”

I’d love to be more adventurous in both my resolutions and what I think Christians can achieve (hey, maybe I’m a typical millennial with far too great a desire to make an impact). I’m convinced by James Davison Hunter’s stuff on how Christians are too bought into the idea that social change comes via politics in a way that might prevent us creating a presence in our community that brings real change; I’m also convinced that this sort of change is primarily driven by having an imagination for what things might look like if there was a little bit more of the kingdom of God in the world, and pursuing it. This shaped the way I wrote about voting last year, and about how to write to a politician about an issue.

I’ve spent the last few years volunteering with this group in my area called The Micah Project, who started as a social justice ministry of our local Catholic Church, and employ hundreds of people, who do stuff like getting a $40 million housing development off the ground to provide permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless people, or, more recently kicking off a social enterprise cafe in two locations in our part of Brisbane to provide training and a workplace for their clients. This all started pretty small; now it is big. Micah Project’s CEO Karyn Walsh gave a pretty cool TEDx Talk on this this year.

Taking big steps can seem daunting, but when I think back to the last few years, we’ve made some pretty big ones as a family (from double income no kids, to both being students, to having kids, to ministry) and none of these seemed all that big in the moment.

These are some bigger steps I think it would be cool for people to take in order to be ‘radical’… I don’t know why resolutions always seem so small…

11. Consider how you’re investing your time, energy, talents and money into the mission of Jesus; and the growth of God’s eternal kingdom. Ask if you’re investing more into the lives of those you love via Gospel ministry or into other counterfeit ‘gospels’. Consider what you are an ‘ambassador’ for… Audit your bank statement, your calendar, and the stuff you’ve posted about on social media and ask not just what you’re seen to be living for in these bits of data, but what each purchase, appointment, and post, reveals you’re doing with these things you are able to ‘offer’ in sacrifice as your worship.

Your time, energy, talents, and money are the bits of you that get ‘offered in sacrifice’ to something, potentially to your ‘object of worship.’ The giving of these bits of yourself, and what you receive in return — whether it’s time at the gym exchanged for health and fitness, the luxurious holiday exchanged for experience, or the decadent meal exchanged for pleasure (and calories) — will form you into some ‘image’ of yourself and allow you to present that image. Being a Christian isn’t about not having nice things; it’s about not sacrificing yourself for them in a way that stops you sacrificing for God and loving others. Imagine ways you could give those things that would deliver satisfaction and joy to you (and others), and try doing that.

12. Pick a ‘social’ issue to own; some people to love, the sort of issue where you might previously have thought about writing to a politician asking for a law change, or maybe just a way you can love the people around you, your church, your family, your community) better… and dream big about how the world might be made better in this area.

13. Find some people who are already pursuing that dream and join them as a volunteer, or, start something new. Start talking to your friends who care about the same stuff. I’ve been inspired in the last few years by the people who care about asylum seekers, like those behind First Home Project, or Enough Room, or the geniuses behind the Thankyou range of products, or, locally, the people who decided the best way to do something about abortion was to start the Priceless Life Centre, which cares for women with unexpected pregnancies. All these endeavours, like Micah Projects, started with a few people with an idea.

It’s not just boring to limit your activism to writing letters or changing your Facebook profile picture or signing a petition, it’s ineffective and props up the assumption that politicians can and should solve all our problems; they may well be part of the solution, but why not resolve to transform something a bit beyond yourself.

14. Quit your job, or drop a day or two a week, and pursue that thing, or just do it to free up time to love the people around you. This sort of big change cascades down to all sorts of habits; it totally, by definition, changes the rhythm of your day, week, month, or year. I guess this is a thing we already did when we enrolled to go to Bible college; though I’m still far too ‘busy’… The first two sets of resolutions were geared around how to use ‘spare time’ and energy, and what to do to free some more spare time and energy, but perhaps big structural change is actually what’s needed to shift your habits in ways that’ll get you somewhere more helpful in the long run (or eternally).

Some of our society’s biggest idols are caught up with career success; money, identity, all that stuff… and this often goes hand in hand with ‘busyness’… worship of anything requires sacrifice. If you’re too ‘busy’ to pursue the stuff that excites you, and especially to pursue the kingdom of God via both the proclamation and living of the Gospel, then maybe you’re doing life wrong, and maybe the best way to get rid of those ‘idols’ is to kick them to the kerb by working at loving and serving Jesus instead, not just conforming to the default patterns of the world.

Just how much are you prepared to resolve to change this year? And where are you hoping your resolutions will get you? Stuck in the mud, or to the seaside?

 

The Worship Wars (4): How to fight the battles, and the win the war in a world full of worship warriors

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” — Paul, as recorded in Acts 17:22-23
worship-wars

Like first century Athens, we live in a world that is very religious. Only the worshipper next door probably doesn’t think of themselves as a worshipper; we’re taught more to think of ourselves as ‘thinkers’ by our education system, as ‘doers’ by the market, as ‘lovers’ by our popular culture, as ‘meaning makers’ by the self-help industry and as ‘consumers’ by advertisers. But at the heart of all these concepts is the engine of our humanity that gives them their power; we are worshippers. We like to tell ourselves that these pictures of who we are, or some combination of them, is what we need to tap into to become better versions of ourselves. We believe we need more education, better jobs, more fulfilling relationships, we need to create something more meaningful of our world, or we just need to buy better toys, and everything will turn out better. These ideas of what it means to be human don’t just create themselves; they have champions. Worship warriors. Carrying the can for their particular vision of the good life and embodying it. Like the personal trainer who very clearly worships at the gym in pursuit of their idealised body, or the university professor who has a pretty clear view of the ideal educational sausage who should be produced by their institution… where Athens had the gatekeepers to the Parthenon and the temple priests on every corner, we have all sorts of people presenting and promoting all sorts of religious visions of who we are; whether they know we’re worshippers or not.

People of the 21st century, I see that in every way, we are very religious.

We use our heads, our hearts, and our hands, our money, our time, and our energy, to worship. Just like the Athenians; only we don’t tend to make statues or altars. We are as some put it ‘liturgical animals’ — we are shaped into the image of whatever it is we pursue with all these parts of us, and all that we have.

This is the fourth, and perhaps penultimate, post in this series which began by arguing that the ‘traditional’ way the worship wars have been conceived; as a battle for the style of music or service in the Sunday gathering, misses the much bigger enemy because the fundamental truth about us humans is we become what we worshipThe second post suggested that how we worship also shapes us, not simply when it comes to church gatherings but our habits or liturgies that we adopt day-to-day; the implications here were that Sunday isn’t enough when it comes to the worship wars. The third post used pornography as an example of an idolatrous counter-liturgy to test the framework and to show what is at stake. In this post I’m hoping to start to flesh out what the implications are for how we fight in the worship wars.

If you think fighting the worship wars; or being equipped to fight the worship wars; is just about the style of service you put on for an hour and a half on a Sunday, or how often you do the Sacraments, or whether the music you play is contemporary or traditional, you’re actually engaging in a civil war; and the real enemy is winning. If you think worship is just a thing you do on a Sunday, and that’s meant to somehow sustain you for a week of running around in a world saturated with other gods begging for your attention and seducing you; if church is a ‘worship’ event for you, and not a community of worshippers; if you think the answer to our problems as Christians, or the answer for your neighbour, is that we should first know more, think more, work more, love more, earn more, experience more, or buy more then you will lose. And you’ll die. And so often these are the answers we turn to when trying to shore up our faith; they’re all part of what it means to be human, and all at the table when it comes to how we change and grow, but they’re all sub-sets of worship; they’re all part of how we organise our living and our loving around some central idea about what real humanity should look like, and where we should be directed so that we flourish.

1. Fighting the war means knowing who we are and knowing our enemies.

‘Cause we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl
You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl — Madonna, Material Girl

It’s an old song now; but Madonna’s Material Girl expresses a perceptive take on reality; on the relationship between us and the world we live in. We’re not consumers so much as conformers.

Our world is not neutral; it shapes us, and it mostly does this subconsciously as we live in it following the script of whatever story we’ve bought into or designed for ourselves about what the good life looks like; which whether we’re religious or not, is ultimately a reflection of the thing we worship, or centre our lives on, as our ‘god’ or ‘gods’… What we do, how we live, how we participate in this world shapes us. You believe the world is material; and it’s matter that matters, then you’ll be a materialistic person; pursuing as much of that matter as you can, probably the sort of matter that delivers you the most pleasure or power. You’ll assess your relationships on the things that ‘matter’ — and that, is it not, is what Madonna’s song is all about?

We live in a world full of scripts; whether it’s the technology we use (where our experience is guided by algorithms on platforms that are guided by commercial imperatives but tell us ‘mythic’ stories about what they might deliver), or the stories we live (religious or just our picture of our own flourishing that guides us), or the media we consume, we’re always taking a next step according to some design (even an attempt at randomness and spontaneity reveals a script of some sort). These scripts shapes us; our world — the stage on which we play — shapes us too. We evolve in a manner shaped by our environment — not just as a species, but as individuals living in our world. This happens as we introduce new tools; a pattern observed in the discipline of media ecology, the founder of this movement, Marshall McLuhan, developed most of his insights from a framework informed by the promise of Psalm 115 that those who worship idols — created things — become like them. McLuhan noticed that our media, in fact, any new technology introduced into an ecosystem, shapes both us and the system (it was McLuhan who coined the term “the media is the message” too). For McLuhan this spiritual and material reality meant no space is neutral; no medium is neutral; everything has the capacity to shape us if we allow it to become our script. Our liturgy (to borrow James K.A. Smith’s insights).

Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. — Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

One of McLuhan’s followers in the media ecology discipline was Father John Culkin, a Jesuit priest and media academic. He said:

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”

That’s an axiom that holds when we consider idolatry and neuroscience, and one I quoted earlier in this series. This explains how and why social media changes our brain (the subject of another lengthy series from a few years back).

This is where the key battleground is for the worship wars. Everything in this world has the potential to shape you; because every thing we interact with has its own script; it’s own sense of what the good human life looks like; from Facebook, to pornography, to James K.A Smith’s shopping centre example, to how we do church together; the traditional worship wars weren’t misguided in arguing that how we do church matters; they were just focusing on one battle and missing the war. Fighting the worship wars means first knowing this about ourselves; knowing that we have the potential to be our own worst enemy, that our desires and actions might shape us in ways that take us away from God. You can’t win the war running around blind…

But we’re not the only enemy — the world isn’t neutral, and it’s not just our communication technology or tools that shape us, but our idols, and idols are the tools of the ultimate enemy; Satan. In thinking of ourselves wrongly — as thinking beings or consumers — we’ve thought of the world wrongly; we’ve ignored what’s truly at stake in our interactions with things around us, and in doing so have ignored the reality we can’t see or sense. We’ve so flattened our experience of the world and what we look for — by not thinking of ourselves as worshippers — that we don’t, and can’t, see it. Our ‘disenchanted’ view of the world — and by ‘our’ I don’t just mean humanity collectively, but us Christians too — means we run around looking for flesh and blood enemies or fighting about the very tactile stuff we do, without understanding the Spiritual significance of every moment of our lives. We need to stop fighting amongst ourselves, and start fighting the real war, on two fronts.

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. — 1 Peter 5:8

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” — Ephesians 6:12

This is one field that the real worship war is fought on, because this is the field where the real enemy — the enemy of God, and humanity, from the very beginning, is prowling around seeking to devour, captivate, and conscript worship warriors. People who’ll take the fight up to God because they want to worship something else. The Garden of Eden was the first battle ground in this war; Adam and Eve — God’s image bearers — his worshippers — were meant to take the fight up to Satan, only they sided with him; they became false worshippers, and so tasted defeat. Every human life is a battle ground where this war is waged, because the effects of this first loss was to create a second front for the war; it’s now an internal fight, not just an external one… So when Paul writes about choosing between ‘life in Adam’ and ‘life in Jesus’ he talks about our new default; a default where a war rages within us…

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! — Romans 7:21-25

This is us. All of us. Not just post-conversion Paul (in fact not even post-conversion Paul until the last line, and the bit that follows in Romans 8). Not just Jewish Paul under the law. Human Paul. Paul who is just like the Gentiles he’s writing to, as well as being like the Jews. Paul who has been banging on about what it means to follow in the footsteps of Adam and Eve; failed worshippers. He’s talking about the human condition; and about the internal war we’re fighting. It’s the same thing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed when he said:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

My neighbours know what good is, sometimes they even do it. But we all sin, in fact, even when we do ‘good’ things its a product of these divided hearts; hearts at war with themselves. And we’re all lured into sin by being lured into worshipping something other than God, so that sometimes we just choose evil. We all know what goodness is because God’s imprint is still left on us; but we also fight a battle that keeps leading us to the sort of deadly idolatry described in Romans 1. There are plenty of other interpretations of Romans 7 floating around, but I think Paul is talking about what it looks like to be made in the image of God (good), and image of Adam (fallen) awaiting the re-creation he describes the Spirit bringing in Romans 8, the delivery that comes through Jesus Christ and by the Spirit, which allows us to worship God again and will ultimately make us fully good again, better even (and, spoiler, that’s how we win the war).

2. We win by real worship.

Fighting the worship wars — and taking down the real enemies; our sinful idolatrous nature and the serpent — requires us to be proper worshippers. Thomas Chalmers was right when he said real change requires the expulsive power of a new affection. The way to beat idols is to love something more. Winning the war means changing the script (our story); our desires and imagination, and how we operate in the world (our habits). When Paul describes the impact of idolatry in Romans 1 he shows it totally corrupts our imaginations, and our habits; the way back is a renewal of both via a re-connection with God (that he initiates by the Spirit).

“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

He comes back to this theme in 8…

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. — Romans 8:5

Where Paul goes in Romans 8 (and what he argues before Romans 7) is that we become true worshippers again; true children of God again; conformed into true images of God; images of Jesus; by the Spirit (Romans 8:27-29).

This is a thread he ties off more deliberately (after dealing with the relationship between Israel and the gentiles) in Romans 12, where he also explores the implications for how we should worship in Romans 12, where he describes real worship as ‘offering your bodies as a living sacrifice’ — the habitual, incremental, reflection of the life and death of Jesus while ‘not being conformed to the pattern of this world’ but ‘being transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Romans 12:1-2). This is how to fight the worship wars; fix your eyes upon the story of Jesus by participating in it as you let it shape your habits in community (the yous are plural in 12:1-2, and then the stuff about the body and how we sacrificially use our gifts for each other is pretty clearly ‘corporate worship’). Here’s his guide to ‘true worship’ from Romans 12, and then from Colossians 3; the sort of things that might shape our liturgies in our Sunday gatherings and through the week (I’ll get to some really practical ideas in the last post in this series). This sure sounds like worship… 

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. — Romans 12:9-18

In Colossians 3, Paul opens by calling us to reset our minds, perhaps even our imaginations, and our hearts, or our desires, on things above, not on earthly things (Colossians 3:1-2). Then he tells us to avoid the habits that come from the pursuit of earthly things via our earthly nature (which he calls idolatry), and the list here sounds a lot like Donald Trump, but also a lot like Romans 1… There’s a bunch of stuff Paul tells us to take off — old habits — and some things we’re to put on… and this ‘putting on the new self’ is how we take part in the worship wars against the enemy within, and the enemy without… the practices he calls us to aren’t particularly new (nor should they be) and singing and focusing on the Gospel story are at their heart (because ‘worship’ as we understand it matters), but our habits should flow from and cyclically create-in-us these virtues that seem to reflect our story and the Gospel becoming our story as we set our hearts and minds on things above, and participate in the re-telling of the Gospel together.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

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 3:12-17

This doesn’t sound like a thing Paul just thinks we should be doing on a Sunday though… the whatever you do would seem to push worship beyond the boundaries of a 90 minute church service and into the shared practices of our church community every day.

3. Attack is the best form of defence

One of the most profound that has crystalised for me in my understanding of the Gospel in the last few years came from NT Greek Scholar Peter Bolt when he was talking to our team about Mark’s Gospel. He made the point that we often think of ‘repent’ as a call to turn away from sin, when it probably most correctly (and especially in the way Jesus uses it) is a turning towards Jesus and his kingdom (which produces a turning from sin). If we spend all our time worried about stopping wrong worship and don’t spend our time actively replacing it with true worship, we’re in danger of not turning to the right things. This is why Chalmers’ expulsive power idea is so powerful and so important. It’s no good simply switching idols. From sex to ascetic sexual purity, or from gluttony to the idolatry of fitness so prevalent in our age… we need to replace the worship of created stuff with the worship of the creator — and we meet the creator in the face of Jesus, through the Gospel of Jesus, and the story of the Bible (and the worshipping community it creates).

There’s another passage (well there are lots) that talks specifically about fighting against the devil’s schemes — preparing us to fight against that prowling lion who is out to devour us — the Ephesians 6 description of the armour of God. The tools we need to fight, or worship, our way through the worship wars against our real enemies are these ones… This set of armour is what will help you see God, the world, yourself, and your enemies (the things you are tempted to worship by the Devil and your desires) as they really are, and help you put things in their right place… this is what real worship looks like; whether you sing modern songs or old ones, with acoustic or electric, organs or synth, in sandstone and stain glass or a theatre, with the sacraments every week or quarterly will shape you (and you might pick some stuff according to what you find helpful to fix your heart on Jesus in community with people you love), but this is where the action is (and so is much more important when it comes to the question of how we do church).

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist,with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. — Ephesians 6:10-18

3 essays you should read that will help you understand media and the world better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fifth point is the most interesting.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Those bits are good. These bits are absolute gold.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Facebook is messing with your head: Four ways to fight back

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).

Facebook is messing with your head: What to think about that

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.

Facebook is messing with your head: literally

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.

Social media platforms — whether it’s Tumblr, Twitter, or Facebook — 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.

Communication mediums carry powerful myths, or are associated with powerful myths. Every time a new piece of technology is introduced it is sold with, or emerges from, a myth — myths like ‘efficiency’ or ‘connectivity’ or the promise of a revolutionary opportunity to express yourself to as few (mobile phones + video chat), or as many (Twitter/Facebook/Instagram etc), people as the technology allows.

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.”

connectivity

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?

Writing about talking about reading Writing On The Wall: a meta-review

If you’d asked me two months ago who I’d have around for dinner in one of those fantasy dinner guest arrangements, I’d have said, listed chronologically:

  • Solomon
  • Cicero
  • Jesus
  • Paul
  • Augustine
  • Luther
  • Marshall McLuhan

While I reckon that’d be a pretty interesting group of guests, I realise it isn’t the sort of group that appeals to everybody. They appeal to me because they are people, communicators in fact, who loomed large in my Masters project. Which was a look at how communication mediums and technology have been harnessed by Christians (and their Jewish predecessors) to communicate to people about God. You can read my project here to see where I went – it informs my excitement about this new book.

After this week, I think I’d squeeze in an extra dinner guest. Tom Standage. Eight is a better number for dinner anyway.

I’d invite him as much for his sake as for mine – because having read his new book Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years, I suspect his list of dinner guests would be pretty similar to mine. But I also reckon he’s a pretty fascinating thinker – his other books include telling the story of world history through food and drink, and he’s an editor at The Economist. And we all know journalists make the best dinner guests…

A little preamble to explain my excitement about this book

You might have caught this post last week, featuring a presentation Tom Standage made at a TEDx about Cicero and social media, where I talked about how Paul was a pretty efficient user of social media too.

Cicero is a pretty fascinating guy – and, for what it’s worth, in my project I argue that he was pretty influential, directly, on how Paul approached communication, especially oratory, as a Christian. I think his letters to the Corinthian church – a city enamoured with sophistic oratory (all flash, no substance) draw from Cicero’s writings about oratory to critique the Corinthian’s buying into Sophistic standards by suggesting that Jesus was the ideal orator who should be imitated. There’s another link between Paul and Cicero – the city of Tarsus. The capital of Cilicia.

Very few people have bothered to make any connection between Paul and Cicero – because most modern Biblical scholars assume that Paul was an idiot. Because he calls himself one (quite literally – it’s the Greek word he uses in 2 Corinthians 11:6). But there are incredible overlaps in the terminology they use, in their critique of other forms of oratory, their emphasis and use of ethos and character in persuasion, and in the position they implicitly or explicitly adopt towards the Roman Empire. There’s a huge similarity in their communication praxis. And one thing modern Biblical scholars fail to explain is how Paul, if he’s an idiot, managed to be one of the most effective communicators of all time…

So it was exciting to me that Writing on the Wall opened with…

In July 51 B.C. the Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero arrived in Cilicia, in what is now southeast Turkey, to take up the post of proconsul, or regional governor.

He gets to Paul, he talks about Luther (in fact, it was an article he wrote about Luther’s use of pamphlets in the Reformation, that forms part of this book, that inspired a significant part of my project). The book offers a fascinating approach to the use of media through history by different groups or in support of different causes – it is massively useful for people who want to think about how they might participate in spreading any sort of message (ie Christianity), and it’s an interesting look at how the world works. I’m not just saying this because it meshes, pretty substantially, with what I already thought… Standage is a pretty compelling storyteller, and has weaved some incredible threads through history together into a rich picture of the way media works – and the way people work with media. There’s lots to learn, and a fair bit to digest. I like to highlight interesting passages as I read on my kindle, and I refer back to my highlighted passages more than the book itself – this book was more highlight than text when I finished.

I mentioned Marshall McLuhan as one of my dinner guests – he’s a guy a lot of media studies people now hold up as some sort of oracle, because he, somewhat like a horoscope (in that he was so general he couldn’t fail) – predicted the Internet and social media (the “Global Village”) before its time. I like McLuhan mostly because he makes some nice quasi-theological (or actually theological at times) observations about the impact of media on its users, and the importance of harnessing new, complementary, mediums for advancing a message.

He said, at one point:

“Any change in the forms or channels of communication, be it writing, roads, carts, ships, stone, papyrus, clay, or parchment, any change whatever has revolutionary social and political consequences.”

The empires that survive or thrive, through history – are those that figure out how to use these mediums. This is powerfully demonstrated in Writing On The Wall – not just at the “empire” level, but at the level of communicating ideas. McLuhan drew largely on a book called Communication and Empire by Harold Innis, which is a profoundly interesting companion to Writing on the Wall (and is available in full from Project Gutenberg).

Standage’s treatment of social media throughout the ages features Cicero, Paul and early Christianity, seditious and salacious poetry in the British court, the independence movement in the United States, the importance of coffee houses in the developing, fermenting, and sharing of ideas, and the rise of pamphlets, journals and newspapers, then the Internet – it tracks the fascinating movement from media being the voice of the people, to people being the commodity sold by centralised media, to advertisers. It’s profoundly useful, and very interesting.

You should read it.

Reading as conversation: what really excited me about reading this book

But what really excited me about reading this book – was the way social media augmented the reading process. There’s quite a bit of stuff written out there about how social media is changing the way we read and experience texts. An example would be Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Which spends a significant amount of time quoting McLuhan.

And it’s true. Often these are quite pessimistic – they tend to lament the halcyon days of long attention spans, and being cloistered somewhere with a hard copy book. Interestingly – Standage shows in Writing On The Wall that the introduction of every new medium sees the same old criticisms rehashed (and this idea isn’t all that new – there’s even an XKCD comic about this, and I wrote about it somewhere)…

Enthusiasm for coffee houses was not universal, however, and some observers regarded them as a worrying development. They grumbled that Christians had taken to a Muslim drink instead of traditional English beer, and fretted that the livelihoods of tavern-keepers might be threatened. But most of all they lamented, like critics of social media today, that coffee houses were distracting people and encouraging them to waste time sharing trivia with their friends when they ought to be doing useful. – Writing On The Wall

I think most of us are a little bit inconsistent in our thinking here – and we’re happy to be inconsistent. Even early adopters. A nice example of this can be found in two essays by Nicholson Baker, published in the same book of essays – The Way the World Works: Essays – a significant number of essays in this book (also a great read) are devoted to Baker’s attempts to conserve physical media – particularly Newspapers, but also old library books, one essay is about how to read a book. A tactile book. And yet, he also writes and essay celebrating Wikipedia, talking about his addiction to editing and contributing to the online encyclopedia. He’s probably the champion of preserving physical media – he may be the closest thing to a literary luddite – and yet, he writes a celebration of the site that killed the printed Encyclopedia. He also writes a celebration of reading on the iPhone (while writing off the original Kindle).

Anyway. McLuhan, and Carr are right. New mediums change the way we experience texts, and life. And I think this is exciting (which puts me firmly in the optimist camp when it comes to this debate). Baker is right – new mediums owe a profound debt, that we shouldn’t forget, to old mediums. But Standage has something more to add – the more things change, the more they stay the same – experiencing texts has almost always been a social activity. When the social element is removed from the communication equation – namely, when participants become the product, not the audience – something is missing in how media is being produced. This missing “social” aspect is something essential to communication. Why write something down if it’s not to be transmitted to, and experienced by somebody else? An audience. Communication is inherently social. Social media is, at this point, simply helping a text reaching its natural end. Faster. With great efficiency.

So texts should be being produced to be shared and discussed. And social media – as we currently know it – survives and thrives when this happens.

So, because I was already excited about the book’s material, and had already put a fair amount of thought into the subject matter, I thought why not read this book as though it’s a conversation with Tom Standage. And why not make it one. He’s on Twitter. I’m on Twitter.

He’d even already responded to a couple of things I’d tweeted him while anticipating Writing On The Wall’s release.

I read Writing On The Wall as an ebook, on my iPad, in the Kindle app. And as I read, when I found things that excited me, or had questions, I tweeted @tomstandage. He seems like the kind of guy you’d want at a dinner party. So he tweeted back.

And this is what excited me most about reading Writing On The Wall. It’s what excites me about social media being a tool that breaks down distance, and allows people who share interests to discuss things from opposite points on the globe. Sure – you’ve always been able, in a round about way, to write to an author. To send fan mail. To ask questions. To publish in response – but never like we’ve been able to now.

This exercise, where I’m publishing a review of a book on my blog, this is the continuation of a book promotion strategy that began in ancient Rome – but the ease with which this will be shared by people who are interested, and the link this contains to a place where you can buy the ebook, and start reading it right now. That’s amazing. Time and space have truly collapsed.

The distance between author and reader has collapsed. I started tweeting Tom about this book the day it was released. The day I started reading it. I tweeted him as I read it. Day after day. We chased tangents. Shared our passion for Cicero. And the content of the book – while excellent when contained in the book – came alive a little more as I asked questions, and received answers. I was even able to share a quote from Luther, one of his letters, that given the response, seemed new to Tom. I’ve even just started calling him “Tom” in this paragraph – such is the added familiarity or breakdown in formality this experience created. I’m not reviewing this book as someone with an academic interest in the book – though I have that (and the extensive bibliography at the end of the book was pretty exciting to me). I’m reviewing it as a guy who feels like he spent the week talking to another person. The author. And that is something. Something different. Something exciting. For me it demonstrated the substantial premise of the book better than the content itself – we people are wired to be social, and the networks we create or in which we function as nodes, and the ‘media’ that brings such nodes together work best when medium, message, and participants come together in harmony (where medium and message are in sync) and without impediment.

Talking about reading Writing On The Wall

I’ll understand if you’re already over this post – but before you check out, I do want to thank Tom for talking to me (via Twitter). He seems like a really nice guy. And Tom – if you’re reading – feel free to take me up on the dinner offer. The other guys are dead though (except for Jesus, but he’s elsewhere). So I think it’ll just be you and me.

So here are some highlights from our conversation. Starting when I read a post on his blog about Cicero… Before I started reading the book – because social media, in this case, actually extended the experiencing of the book beyond the actual reading of the book. Which again, serves to demonstrate the principle in question – and is another nice parallel to Cicero’s approach to promoting books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is when I wrote the post about Paul as a social media pioneer – ignorant of what was in Writing On The Wall about Paul…

 

 

And here’s where I actually started reading the book.

 

 

 

 

Here’s where I asked Tom a question about something not in the book, which I reckon is a nice piece of support for his argument (and where my project had gone a little more – the use of imagery to complement text/spoken stuff by providing visual representations of “ethos”)…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We talked a little bit about Machiavelli, Cicero’s brother’s guide to winning elections, and Marhsall McLuhan (he’s less of a fan than I am) – but I’m trying not to post everything. As you can see, he was quite generous with his time, and patient with a young punk from Australia lobbing him just about everything that sprang to mind while reading his book…

 

 

 

 

And this is where it gets more meta. Because I was tweeting him as I wrote this review…

The commonplace book features in Writing On The Wall…

 

 

There’s lots to love about Writing On The Wall, and every criticism I had, or that I anticipated making, as I read was tied up as a loose end or answered by the bibliography. There were times that I wanted to dig deeper or find out a source – these times are more than adequately addressed by the end of the book. And if you’ve got more questions, you can always do what I did – and ask the author. Because that’s a social reading experience – and medium and message wouldn’t add up like they do in this case if @tomstandage was an anti-social type.